Hello to a River
Pick your pleasure: Whether it’s the remote canyons of the Rio Grande, the peaceful currents of the Sabinal, or the rip-roaring rapids of the Guadalupe, our team of thrill seekers has found the best places along our favorite Texas rivers to go tubing, kayaking, fishing, camping, birding, picnicking, and more.
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Slither Through the Swamps
SABINE RIVER BELOW TOLEDO BEND Many miles from the modern-day hurly-burly and rich in primeval border mystique, the Sabine slips down the Louisiana line past forests and swamps like a giant water snake slithering through an ancestral dream. On a recent canoe trip my guide and I put in at the spillway below Toledo Bend Reservoir, the largest man-made lake in the South, and took out on the Louisiana side 21 miles and a day and a half later. Our traveling companions were bald eagles and herons. We passed fishing shacks and second homes lining the eastern bank of the river, but the Texas side, where we camped on a sand berm, was empty. Despite its lack of white-water challenges, the adventurous among us will relish the Sabine’s isolation and natural beauty.
Toledo Bend access: From Jasper, go north on U.S. 96 for about 12 miles, turn right onto FM 255, drive 31 miles to FM 692, turn left, and the spillway is on your right. The Sabine River Authority Web site (sra.dst.tx.us) lists other put-in and take-out points. Outfitter: Adventure Canoeing and Outfitters, in LeBlanc, Louisiana, provides canoes ($16 per person per day, includes shuttle) and a take-out point with camping; 337-207-6936, justcanoeit.net. Charlie Llewellin
Canoe Colorado Canyon
RIO GRANDE IN BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK If you’ve had only one floating experience in the Big Bend area, chances are it was down the famed Santa Elena Canyon. But if you’re willing to go slightly farther afield, a 35-mile drive west from Lajitas will take you out of the national park and into the equally rugged and far less traveled Big Bend Ranch State Park, where canoeists and kayakers can take another spectacular ride. Home to the steepest gradient of any stretch of the Rio Grande in the region—meaning less paddling and more whooping—the 9-mile Colorado Canyon can be run in one morning. If river levels are up, you’ll race through a jagged canyon carved from volcanic rock and over several class II and III rapids.
Desert Sports (888-989-6900, desertsportstx.com) and Far Flung Outdoor Center (800-839-7238, farflungoutdoorcenter.com), both in Terlingua, offer guided trips (from around $175 per person) and take care of permits, equipment, and other logistics. To do it yourself, call Big Bend Ranch State Park (432-229-3416) or go to tpwd.state.tx.us/park/bigbend. Christopher Keyes
Catch a Crappie
BIG CYPRESS BAYOU In the nineteenth century, you could take a steamboat all the way to New Orleans from Jefferson, which lies on Big Cypress Bayou halfway between Lake O’ the Pines and Caddo Lake. These days, its lifeline cut a century ago by the railroad and the Caddo Dam, the city survives on its air of bygone Southern gentility, and the bayou slides quietly past downtown and disappears into a thick tangle of hardwoods. Beneath its surface, bass, crappie, and catfish await your jig or spinner. Creek mouths are good places to look, though in any season you’ll find fish in the tailrace below Lake O’ the Pines; optimal water flow is between 500 and 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs). But you might want to practice catch and release: Because of mercury contamination, you shouldn’t eat more than one fish per month from these waters.
Lake O’ the Pines access: From Jefferson, head west on Texas Highway 49 for about 4 miles, turn left onto FM 729 and go 3.4 miles, then turn left onto FM 726 and go 3 miles to the dam. Jefferson access: at the Polk Street bridge downtown. For information on fishing guides and boat rentals, call 888-GO-RELAX or go to jefferson-texas.com. Charlie Llewellin
Spy a Flycatcher
LOWER RIO GRANDE The Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, which protects some of the most biodiverse habitat in the lower 48 states, consists of 115 parcels of land totaling some 85,000 acres along the last 275 miles of the Rio Grande before it spills into the Gulf of Mexico. Home—or at least winter getaway—to 484 species of birds, the whole refuge is a mecca for international wildlife viewers, but no single tract is more prized than Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, outside Mission. Headquarters of the World Birding Center, the park offers a two-hour early-morning birding tour two days a week—get your caffeine fix at the WBC’s coffee bar—guided by a naturalist who will help you spot everything from Acadian flycatchers and blue-winged teals to yellow-crowned night-herons and zone-tailed hawks as you stroll the ash- and elm-shaded trails beside the broad Rio Grande.
From Mission, head west on U.S. 83 for about 4 miles to Bentsen Palm Drive, turn south, and continue for 4 miles to the park entrance; tours Friday and Sunday; for information and reservations, call 956-585-1107 or go to worldbirdingcenter.org; $5 entrance fee. Christopher Keyes
Shake, Paddle, and Roll
GUADALUPE RIVER ABOVE GRUENE You have probably heard that the Guadalupe is a sort of paradise for rafters and tubers, drunken and otherwise. But it also has some of the best white-water kayaking in Texas, and most of the time its rapids can be negotiated by beginners. This is way, way more exciting than tubing. The ideal run starts a few miles upstream of Gruene at a place known as the First Crossing. Over the next four and a half miles, you will paddle through five rapids. In between are pretty, open expanses of river. Its flow is determined by how much water is being released from nearby Canyon Lake; 500 to 1,000 cfs is ideal. You can do the trip in less than two hours.
Outfitter: Rockin’ R River Rides—from Interstate 35 in New Braunfels, take exit 189 and head west on Loop 337 for 2.3 miles. Just after you cross the Guadalupe, take the Gruene Historical District exit, turn right onto Gruene Road at the stop sign, and continue for three quarters of a mile; 800-55-FLOAT, rockinr.com; kayaks $35, includes shuttle. S.C. Gwynne
Pack a Picnic
MEDINA RIVER AT CASTROVILLE As we followed the green waters of the Medina from tip to tail in search of the perfect picnic spot, it was charming, pastoral Castroville that had us putting on the brakes. After rambling down one creek road after another looking for an idyllic (and public) setting, we called the chamber of commerce and were told to try the regional park. It was the perfect suggestion. If we’d had more time, we could have pitched a tent and angled for perch, catfish, and smallmouth bass. Instead, we nabbed picnic table number 26, complete with a grill and our very own path down to the cypress-lined riverbank. Turkey sandwiches never tasted so good—although when we learned later that Castroville was settled by the “French gentleman” Henri Castro and a group of transplants from Alsace, we wished we had packed some pâté.
Castroville Regional Park, 816 Alsace Avenue, Castroville; 830-931-0033; picnic tables $5, campsites $10 per tent per night. Stacy Hollister
Float and Fish
SAN MARCOS RIVER BELOW CUMMINGS DAM Fed with an average of 150 million gallons of springwater a day, the San Marcos’s deep channel—beautifully clear, meandering through several short rapids, and bordered with near-tropical vegetation—can be fished only by boat. Although the river offers anglers a chance to hook large Guadalupe and smallmouth bass (as well as a good shot at Texas’s only native cichlid, the wildly colored Rio Grande perch), the fishing can be touch and go. But even if you’re not pulling them in all day, it’s impossible not to enjoy the ride. Recommended flies include dark-colored deer-hair popping bugs and black or olive woolly buggers #8 to #10. Inexperienced paddlers should consult with a local outfitter for river flow and rapid conditions.
Outfitter for canoes and kayaks: T G Canoe Livery—from I-35 in San Marcos, take exit 205 and head east on Texas Highway 80 for 1.5 miles; turn right onto County Road 101, and after one block, turn left onto CR 102 (Old Martindale Road). Drive half a mile and turn right at the blue “Pecan Park” sign. T G Canoe Livery is a quarter mile down on the right; 512-353-3946, tgcanoe.com; kayaks from $20, canoes from $35, includes shuttle. Stayton Bonner
Climb a Crag
LOWER PECOS RIVER Go through the gate that guards the Continental Ranch’s unassuming entrance and down a nearly fifteen-mile-long rutted road that slices the hardscrabble land between Lewis Canyon and Dead Man’s Canyons, and you’ll finally reach them: a series of gorgeous limestone cliffs looming over the last few miles of the Pecos. The ranch, a decidedly low-key and undermarketed spread, contains some of the state’s best and most remote rock-climbing crags. Pitch your tent at the modest campsite (plenty of flat earth and a single portable toilet), perched a hundred feet above the roaring river. By day, you can spend hours climbing the ranch’s 150 routes (which range from the beginner 5.7 to the expert-only 5.13; you’ll need to take all your own equipment), fishing for bass in the gin-clear waters below Weir Dam, or just cooling off in the thirty-foot-deep Emerald Pool.
From Comstock, drive northwest on U.S. 90 for 1 mile and turn right onto FM 1024; the ranch entrance is 10.8 miles from the turnoff on the left-hand side. For climbing reservations ($10 per person per day, two-day minimum) and the combination for the gate’s lock, call Howard Hunt (830-775-6957) or go to pecosriverclimbing.com. Christopher Keyes
Paddle Your Own Canoe
BRAZOS RIVER BELOW POSSUM KINGDOM DAM Rising from the confluence of two small Panhandle rivers, the Brazos—first christened Brazos de Dios, or Arms of God, by thirsty Spanish explorers—rolls more than eight hundred miles to the Gulf Coast. In Palo Pinto County, west of Fort Worth, the river runs clear and cool through steep wooded banks and dramatic limestone bluffs. In the fifties, John Graves celebrated this part of the Brazos in Goodbye to a River, and there is still little to blight the view of some of the most beautiful country in Texas. The twenty-mile section below the dam can be paddled in one day, though most people take two, just right for a family adventure. The water flow is best in the spring and fall.
Outfitter: Rochelle’s Canoe Rental and Shuttle Service, on FM 4 about 7 miles north of Palo Pinto; 940-659-3341, rochellescanoerental.com; canoes and kayaks $25 to $35 a day, shuttle $20 to $25. Charlie Llewellin
SAN MARCOS RIVER AT CITY PARK IN SAN MARCOS A short one-mile run from put-in at City Park to take-out at the Rio Vista Dam, this tranquil stretch of water is great for families with small children. With no rapids at all, you and the kids will lazily float through San Marcos in clear, spring-fed water that’s 72 degrees year-round. Beautiful wild rice flowers growing from the riverbed and lush vegetation along the banks make for pleasant viewing.
Outfitter: San Marcos Lions Club Tube Rental—from I-35, take exit 206 (Aquarena Springs Drive), head west for 1 mile, turn left onto Charles Austin Drive, continue for one eighth of a mile, and turn right at the “Lions Club Tube Rental” sign (the road dead-ends into City Park behind Strahan Coliseum); 512-396-5466, centuryinter.net/smlc/tuberental.html; tubes $6, includes shuttle (proceeds go to charity). No glass containers allowed on the river. Stayton Bonner
Wade in the Shade
LLANO RIVER NEAR LLANO Thanks to its easy access points, spring-fed shallow waters, and sweeping ranch-land views, the Llano River is an excellent destination for a day of wade fishing. Cedar, live oak, and mesquite trees line the riverbanks, offering the angler shade. Red-tailed hawks and the occasional bald eagle fly overhead as Guadalupe bass, sunfish, and catfish cast shadows on the fluted limestone riverbed. Even though the bass and sunfish tend to be smaller here than in most lakes, you’ll catch them all day long. Recommended flies include black woolly buggers #8 to #10, chartreuse clauser minnows #8, imitation grasshoppers in the summer, and popping bugs.
Wading access points: Scott’s Crossing (CR 102), Snyder’s Crossing (CR 103), and the Castell Bridge Crossing (RM 2768)—from Texas Highway 16 in Llano, turn west onto CR 152, drive 8.5 miles, and turn right onto CR 102 (Scott’s Crossing); subsequent crossings will be about 5 miles apart off CR 152. Stayton Bonner
Do It All
COLORADO RIVER IN COLORADO BEND STATE PARK This park feels as familiar and unpretentious as a George Strait song. Although there are more than five thousand acres of wilderness with hiking and biking trails, most of the action takes place in the campgrounds along the river, where the Colorado has carved a deep gorge through the limestone on its way across the rolling hills of Central Texas. It’s a beautiful setting for swimmers, kayakers, and anglers. On a recent visit, I saw a young girl catch her first-ever fish and pestered two old-timers as they deftly cleaned about twenty white bass, whose spring migration attracts fishermen from near and far. As night fell, the smell of grilling and the sound of country music filled the air: pure Texas heaven.
From Lampasas, head west on FM 580 for about 24 miles to Bend, turn left at the stop sign, and follow CR 442 for 10 miles to the park office; 325-628-3240, tpwd.state.tx.us/park/colorado; camping sites $7 to $14 per night. Charlie Llewellin
Reel in a Rainbow
GUADALUPE RIVER BELOW CANYON LAKE DAM With its water drawn from Canyon Lake’s bottom depths, this section of the Guadalupe—lined with rugged limestone cliffs, giant cypresses, and oaks—is cold enough to sustain a year-round population of rainbow and brown trout. South of the FM 306 bridge, the river is a state-designated trophy-trout zone, where bait fishing is outlawed and anglers may keep only one fish per day that measures eighteen inches or more. The best time to hit this stretch of the Guadalupe is from January through May or early on summer mornings, before beer-toting tubers reclaim it. Recommended flies include Adams #14 to #22, bead-head pheasant-tail prince nymph #14 to #16, and a black or olive woolly bugger #8 to #12.
Outfitter for canoes and kayaks: Rio Raft Company—from I-35 just north of New Braunfels, take exit 191 (Canyon Lake exit) and head west on FM 306 for 12 miles to FM 2673 in Sattler; turn left onto 2673, drive 1.5 miles to River Road, and turn left; Rio Raft Company is located within River Valley Resort, half a mile down on your left; 877-746-7238, rivervalleyresort.net; canoes and kayaks $22, includes shuttle. RRC can also give you information on wading access points. Stayton Bonner
SABINAL RIVER IN LOST MAPLES STATE NATURAL AREA Best known for its small pocket of Uvalde bigtooth maples, the 2,208-acre Lost Maples State Natural Area attracts hordes of visitors every October and November, when the foliage turns bright and the trails resemble supermarket condiment aisles the day before the Fourth of July. But during the rest of the year, the park is a quieter place where hikers can enjoy an eleven-mile network of trails that lace the upper reaches of the tiny Sabinal and its tributaries. Those who really want solitude can reserve one of the forty primitive campsites (read: hike in; the only facility is a composting toilet) that line the waterways. Try a site in area A, which hugs a bend in the Sabinal less than two miles from the trailhead: As sunset approaches and the last strollers disappear, you’ll have to share the swimming holes with only the occasional white-tailed deer or green kingfisher.
Five miles north of Vanderpool on Ranch Road 187; $2 ($3 in October and November). For camping reservations ($8 per site per night), call 512-389-8900. For park information, call 830-966-3413 or go to tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lostmap. Christopher Keyes
Go With the Flow
PEDERNALES RIVER IN PEDERNALES FALLS STATE PARK One of the few stretches of water in Central Texas where you’re guaranteed to have no man-made obstructions blocking the view (and, usually, nobody else on the river), the Pedernales is for hard-core floaters: You’re going to have to take your own tube and do some hiking, and you won’t be allowed to drink any beer. Although the falls themselves are off- limits due to dangerous undertows, the stretch immediately below them is great for tubing. A good plan is to leave a brightly colored towel or piece of clothing near the bank of the swimming area (just north of Trammel Crossing) before hiking about three quarters of a mile back up along the river until you reach its bend. Put your tube in here for a 45-minute float through the park’s beautiful, unspoiled scenery. Once you arrive back at the swimming area, look for the object you left behind so you’ll know exactly where to take out.
From Johnson City: Head east on RM 2766 for about 9 miles; the park entrance will be on your left. From Dripping Springs: Head west on U.S. 290 for about 9 miles and, after the tiny town of Henly, turn right onto RM 3232; after 7 miles, the road will dead-end into Pedernales Falls State Park; 830-868-7304, tpwd.state.tx.us/park/pedernal/pedernal.html; call ahead to check river conditions. Stayton Bonner
LLANO RIVER AT KINGSLAND Your inner leapfrog will love the Slab, an unmarked spot where granite “lily pads” dot the Llano. Sometimes swift and sometimes still, the water works its way over and around these smooth boulders, creating mini-rapids for tubers, wading pools for small fry, calm stretches for stone skippers, shallow patches for minnow catchers, and plenty of perches for anyone with a good book to spend a summer afternoon. While my friends and I skipped some stones and attempted to snag a few minnows, we had the most fun hopping from rock to rock with a giddiness we hadn’t felt since childhood.
In Kingsland, where the river crosses FM 3404. Stacy Hollister
Drift Back in Time
RIO GRANDE BELOW BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK There are no roads leading to the lower canyons of the Rio Grande below Big Bend National Park. There’s no reliable cell phone service, either. No strip malls, telephone wires, or any other trappings of modern civilization. What you’ll discover instead is one of the last true wilderness experiences in North America. During a seventy-plus-mile float trip, you’ll travel back not only in historical time—you’ll pass old cowboy encampments along the route—but also in geologic time: The deeper you go into the canyons, the more magnificent and ancient are the layers of limestone. In between rides down class II and III rapids, you’ll take day hikes up spectacular side canyons, soak in hot springs, and camp along sandbars where the silence is so astonishing it can feel like the loudest thing you’ve ever heard.
A guided trip down the lower canyons takes seven to twelve days, depending on water levels and your desired travel pace; $1,100 to $1,500 per person. For more information, contact Desert Sports (888-989-6900, desertsportstx.com) or Far Flung Outdoor Center (800-839-7238, farflungoutdoorcenter.com), both in Terlingua. Christopher Keyes
Catch Cabin Fever
FRIO RIVER IN CONCAN It must have been temporary insanity when I decided to celebrate the first day of spring with a dip in the Frio at Neal’s Lodges, family-owned and -operated since 1926. I headed down the private stairs that led from my cabin to the riverbank, climbed down the makeshift steps of a cypress’s intertwined roots, and plunged into the jade-colored waters. Mere seconds later I fled back to my cabin, having discovered the hard way how the river got its name. Maybe I had it right the day before, when I’d watched good-timers float by on neon-green tubes, beer in hand; dined in the cafe on grilled chicken, corn on the cob, green beans, and a bottomless glass of iced tea while a couple of guitar players strummed and sang on the patio; taken a kid-friendly sunset hayride, which culminated in a riverside marshmallow roast; and just relaxed on the sofa in my homey, no-frills cabin under a framed black and white photo of Neal’s and the river back in the day. Appropriately, it was inscribed “Wish you were here.”
Neal’s Lodges, along Texas Highway 127 in Concan; 830-232-6118, nealslodges.com. The 61 cabins range from $88 to $300 per night (for up to four people; each additional guest is $6 per night); summer hayrides nightly (minimum 20 people), $6, children under 5 free; tubes $5 per day, shuttle $3 per ride. No glass containers allowed on the river. Stacy Hollister
Cast For Catfish
COLORADO RIVER FROM WEBBERVILLE TO BASTROP East of Austin, the Colorado loops through a scruffy hinterland of gravel pits and construction sites before finally shaking the city loose somewhere near Webberville. From here to Bastrop the river lies in curls on the wide valley floor. This stretch of the Colorado is an uncrowded paradise for fishermen and kayakers; at roughly the halfway point, there’s even an island where you can camp out. Surrounded by a patchwork of fields and ranch land and floating between wooded banks, you’ll find catfish, freshwater drum, and both largemouth and Guadalupe bass. Water flow can vary significantly depending on the release from the Highland Lakes, with somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 cfs considered ideal.
Put in: Little Webberville Park—from downtown Austin, head east on Martin Luther King Boulevard/FM 969 for about 20 miles to Webberville, turn right onto Water Street, and continue to the park entrance. Take out: Bob Bryant City Park, Bastrop—approaching Bastrop from the west on Texas Highway 71, turn left onto Old Bastrop Highway, left again onto Schaefer Boulevard, then right onto Charles Boulevard. The park entrance is on the left. Outfitter for canoes and kayaks: Cook’s Canoes, Webberville; 512-276-7767, cookscanoes.com; kayaks $20 a day, canoes $30, shuttle $30 (shorter trips $8). Charlie Llewellin
Before You Go…
A few things to know.
>> WATER FLOW ON MOST TEXAS RIVERS is regulated by the release from the dam upstream, and trip time and fishing conditions can vary greatly. Consult your outfitter, or, if you are paddling solo, check with Texas Parks and Wildlife at tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/rivers.
RIVERBANKS ARE PRIVATE PROPERTY. Know where you are going to spend the night and where your take-out point is. Don’t camp on somebody’s land without asking.
FLOAT TRIP SUPPLIES AND ADVICE: Austin—Austin Outdoor Gear and Guidance, 512-473-2644, kayaktexas.com. Dallas area—High Trails, 972-272-3353, hightrailscanoe.com. Houston—Canoesport, 866-665-2925, 713-660-7000, canoesport.com.
GUIDE SERVICES: Float trips—Marc W. McCord (Dallas) will guide you down any Texas river; 972-404-1556, canoeman.com. Fishing—Alvin Dedeaux (Austin) has some twelve years of guiding experience in Central Texas; 512-663-7945, alvindedeaux.com. Also try Expedition Outfitters (Canyon Lake), 210-602-9284, expedition-outfitters.net; Scott Graham (Sattler), 512-947-7145, flyfishingtexas.com; and In the Hills Fishing Excursions (Canyon Lake), 830-964-5565, inthehillsfishing.com.