Section Texas Highway 16 (below the dam at Possum Kingdom Reservoir) to FM 4, near Mineral Wells
Length and duration 20 miles, 2–3 days
Resources Shuttle service and boat rental from Rochelle’s Canoe Rental, 940-659-3341
Guidebook Goodbye to a River, by John Graves
Reward yourself Rest and relax at the Double J Hacienda & Art Ranch, near Mineral Wells.
Canoeing/Kayaking, Rapids, Overnight Camping
Palo Pinto County, the location for this trip down our longest and most storied river, is sparsely populated ranchland at the northern edge of the Edwards Plateau, so the boosters’ designation of this area as “Scenic North Texas Hill Country” is accurate. Especially along the river, which has cut deep valleys into the rolling topography. Grass tussocks cover the frequent sandbanks, and behind them steep, thickly-wooded slopes complete the air of rustic isolation. No wonder John Graves felt the need to eulogize this stretch of the Brazos in his 1960 classic, Goodbye to a River. Graves set out to document the history and geography of a section of the river that was about to be lost to a series of dams. But due in part to the book’s success, only one of the proposed dams was built. (In 2005 this section of the river was designated the John Graves Scenic Riverway.)
Between Highway 16 and FM 4 the river etches a sprawling, voluptuous W around Fortune Bend and Chick Bend. Floating along these long curves, you don’t have to close your eyes and imagine what it would have looked like to Graves, as little has changed over the past half century. These are the same cedar-and mesquite-covered hills that he glided through and the same wide, slow river that he ran. Although there are a couple minor rapids in this section, overall it’s an easy stretch of river to paddle if it’s not too windy. If you can’t make the trip soon, give it a miss until fall, when the valley turns red and orange. In the summer, low water and a lack of shade can seriously dampen the fun.
To cap off your trip, immerse yourself in a different aspect of local history by staying at the Double J Hacienda & Art Ranch, near the former health resort town of Mineral Wells. This eccentric-looking building, which stands high on the cliffs above Bath Bend, was designed in the late thirties by the Dallas architect Charles Dilbeck for sharpshooting oil scion Elmer Seybold. In the forties and fifties it was a dude ranch where movie stars—John Wayne, Bette Davis, and Ronald Reagan among them—came to play. By the sixties the area had gone into decline, and the ranch languished until 2004, when an advertising executive and country singer named Jimmy Baldwin and his wife, Jane, began to restore it. The main room, running the length of the western end of the building, features Seybold’s original fittings and furniture and does triple duty as a concert venue, kitchen, and cozy lounge. Outside, overlooking the river, is a veranda that manager Jack Kinslow calls “the front porch of the West.” Even in the height of summer, this place is cool.