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Touching a Toe in the Rio Grande

I want to touch a toe in the Rio Grande, the river that serves as the dividing line between the United States and Mexico.

That was my plan as I headed toward Texas’ Big Bend National Park.

I don’t really know why. Probably, as George Leigh Mallory said when he prepared to scale Mount Everest, “Because it is there.” But then, ultimately, that didn’t work out so well for him.

Obviously, putting a toe in the Rio Grande comes with far less danger than attempting to traverse Mount Everest. What I didn’t know was that I would be ultimately be putting much more than a toe in the river.

Photo of stream of sunlight reflecting off Rio Grande River, between walls of Santa Elena Canyon.
Sometimes, if you're willing to put more than a toe in the water, the view can be great.**

Big Bend’s Santa Elena Canyon is one of those “don’t miss” sites showing up on any list of things to do in the park.

The massive 1,500-feet-tall limestone walls of the canyon have been carved out by the Rio Grande River over the millennia. I read when the water is high you can still kayak or raft through the area, though that would have required a good deal of portaging when I was there.

To hike the canyon trail you have no choice but to wade into the Rio Grande. It’s a short walk from the parking area to the river, but once there, the only way to get to the trail on the other side is to find a low point in the river and start walking across.

You cross the river twice to get to the trail, kind of cutting a 90-degree turn, crossing at one point to the opposite bank, and then making a right turn to cross again to the trail. The first crossing was pretty tame. The riverbed was relatively firm and the water wasn’t more than ankle deep.

The second section tested my balance. The water was closer to a foot deep and the bed below was muddy and slippery, with my boots occasionally sinking into the muck.

None-the-less I persevered and, technically, I had accomplished my goal. I had put not one, but all ten of my toes, into the Rio Grande River.

But, our story does not end there.

Photo from high in canyon, looking down toward Rio Grande River, and across the desert to mountains in the distance.
Once you get to the top of the opening climb, the view back is great. Those little dots down in the river are people just starting their hike. **

The trail winding through the canyon is well established and easy to walk. There is a considerable incline near the front with a winding path climbing up through the canyon side. I noticed more than one hiker stopping to catch their breath along the way.

The view back out of the canyon from the top of that climb, looking back down at where you crossed the river to start the trail, makes it all worthwhile.

The out-and-bike hike is just 1.4 miles long so it’s doable for most people.

At just under three-quarters of a mile the trail comes to a sudden end at the banks of the river. At first I wasn’t even sure if that was the end, but the river is much more deep here than at the beginning so I quickly determined that it was, indeed, the end.

But, but, but, the canyon walls were formed in such a way they jutted out in front of you, blocking your view down the river. This bothered me. I wanted to see what was around the bend but was not at all sure wading out into the river was the best idea.

Photo of Santa Elena Canyon opening.
Shot of Santa Elena Canyon from a distance, giving you an idea of just how tall those walls are. **

As I stood there, contemplating things, it just happened that two young people, probably in their early 20s, came into view, wading in the middle of the river, walking back toward me from around the bend.

Well, if they can do it, then so can I. Curiosity got the best of me. I just had to see what was around that corner.

My only real concern was for the two cameras I carried, along with my phone. I’ve not always been the most graceful on these hikes and I was picturing myself falling into the river, soaking that equipment and rendering it useless to me.

In the famous words of somebody, I’m sure it wasn’t Mallory, but someone, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

I waded forth into the river. As expected, the river bottom was muddy and uneven, pulling my boots down.

At this point, I was too far in to turn around. I kept close to the wall for balance as the water rose higher, to my knees, above my knees and upward.

As I turned the corner and cleared the bend, instantly, I knew I’d made the correct decision to wade forth. In front of me the canyon walls had opened and the sunlight shining through cast a perfect image on the water right in front of me.

It’s a view I would have never seen, and I’m sure few of the hikers on the trail ever do, if I hadn’t taken the chance.

Sometimes in life you just put your toe in the water, and you receive so much more in return.


**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address,, or a link back to this page.


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