Santa Elena Canyon is one of the more spectacular vistas in the park, and it requires only a short walk on flat terrain to get to the canyon. If the water flow is low enough, you can cross the small tributary, climb up the canyon wall on steps, and walk down the canyon for about 1/2 mile.

When you reach the top of the climb on the canyon wall, you can see back into Texas and also some distance downstream.

Here you can see the Chisos Mountains in the distance.

This is looking downstream. The high cliffs on the right are in Mexico.

 

 

These images are all looking up the canyon from various places on the canyon trail.


As you might imagine, the vegetation in the canyon itself is not very diverse. The walls are very dry and hot and some areas receive little sun. The lower sections of the canyon are subject to flood, so this is a rather inhospitable place for plants. However, the canyon does contain some interesting species.

Phragmites australis and Arundo donax

If you look at the middle right of this portion of the canyon shown below, you can see clumps of large grasses. The large grasses (Poaceae or grass family) commonly encountered along the Rio Grande in Big Bend are Phragmites australis and Arundo donax. Phragmites is a cosmopolitan species. Native Americans used the stems for arrow shafts and they ate the roots, young shoots, leaves and seeds. Arundo is a larger and coarser plant that was introduced from the Old World. The stems of Arundo are used to make reeds for wind instruments.

This is Phragmites with inflorescences that droop....and this is Arundo, with inflorescences that are erect.....

Hechtia scariosa

Hechtia scariosa (False Agave) is a member of the Bromeliaceae (Pineapple family). As the common name indicates, it superficially resembles several of the many members of the Agave family that are found in Big Bend, but it is really more closely related to pineapples and Tillandsia (Spanish Moss) than it is to Agave, Yucca, Sotol, or Lechuguilla. Most members of the Bromeliaceae are epiphytic (growing upon other plants) and are found in wet areas like tropical rain forests, but Hechtia grows in the desert in the soil.

Jatropha dioica

Jatropha dioica (Leather Stem) is a member of the Euphorbiaceae (Spurge Family) and can be found throughout Big Bend.  Its stems are so flexible that they can be tied in an overhand knot without breaking.  It occurs, along with Hechtia, on the canyon walls and you can get a good look at it while climbing the steps that mount the canyon wall. As the name indicates, this species of Jatropha is dioecious (plants have either all female or male flowers). The Euphorbiaceae is a very large and diverse family. Many members resemble cacti, particularly those from desert regions of Africa. The plant on the left is growing in a crevice in the canyon; the others are growing in different regions of Big Bend.

Nicotiana glauca

Nicotiana glauca (Tree Tobacco) is a member of the Solanaceae (Nightshade, Potato, or Tomato Family). This plant is a South American native that has established itself in parts of the Southwest. It is a small tree and is in the same genus as tobacco--hence the common name. The last image shows it in fruit.

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