AH, THE CHALLENGE OF RUNNING WHITE-WATER RAPIDS, of dipping a fly in swift streams rife with rainbow and brown trout, the exhilaration of being in a wild place when there’s a chill in the air: These are a few of my favorite things. Every summer, I pine for the Rockies or somewhere else in the great American West. But over the past couple of years, I’ve discovered that I don’t have to wait until June or travel a thousand miles to be on a great Western river. Instead, I just wait till Labor Day has passed and head for the Lower Guadalupe.
You heard me right. The same stretch of river that is notorious for drawing hundreds of thousands of tubers and floaters, especially on summer holiday weekends, becomes a wilderness experience from September to March. Gone is the horde that has given the stretch of river between Canyon Lake and New Braunfels the unsavory reputation as a floating party of drunks and litterbugs. By the autumnal equinox, everything has changed. The beer cans have been cleaned up. The few people still hanging around the river are a friendlier bunch. Wildlife comes out of hiding. And the 23 miles or so of river below Canyon Dam, ending in Gruene a couple of miles from Interstate 35, become some of the most accessible wilderness in Texas.
The recreational stretch begins just below the dam at the Horseshoe Falls fishing area. Five miles downstream is the put-in point at FM 306 for all-day paddle trips. The next nine and a half miles are prime fishing territory known as the Trophy Zone, which is stocked by a nonprofit group called Trout Unlimited and Texas Parks and Wildlife. The Trophy Zone ends at a bridge known as Second Crossing, and the river runs pretty flat for the next three miles down to First Crossing. Here begins my favorite part of the river.
My thing is kayaking, and there’s no more reliable white water in the state than the five-mile run from First Crossing down to Gruene. Five major rapids will test any paddler’s skills—whether with a canoe, a raft, or a kayak. Huaco Falls and Slumber Falls have nasty hydraulics guaranteed to tump inexperienced boaters. Slant is ideal for practicing wave surfing. Clutter requires the most technical skill; miss your slot and have a close encounter with Mr. Tree. Gruene Rapids, with a standing wave waiting to launch your boat and grab some air, offers enough tossing and turning to end a trip on an upbeat note.
The ride can be mild to wild. It all depends on how much water is being released from Canyon Dam, measured by the cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) reading at the Sattler measuring station, which is maintained by the United States Geological Survey; this number can be found on the USGS Web site, tx.water.usgs.gov. In winter the CFS tends to stay higher, meaning faster, whiter water. If the CFS is at 300, decent paddling is assured. A reading of anywhere between 500 and 800 CFS promises close to ideal conditions, with enough force and waves to make a paddle challenging. When the CFS cranks above 1,000, bigger rafts become the norm as the Guad turns into wicked big water, helmet required. The hole at Huaco swallows boats. Numerous standing waves appear in unexpected places. The take-out at Gruene becomes a very tricky proposition. The reward is a river run as wild as just about any in the beloved Rockies.
Of course, there is the chill factor to contend with, but it’s not really all that bad. Coming off the bottom of Canyon Lake, the water checks out at a bracing 54 to 60 degrees, which makes wearing a wet suit a good idea. But considering that the average high air temperature in January and February on the Guadalupe ranges from the low to mid sixties, the weather is similar to that of Idaho or Alberta around Memorial Day.
To do the run from First Crossing to Gruene, I usually park at Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, a river concession at Gruene that remains open year-round, and pay for a shuttle ride up to First Crossing ($10 per person, including your boat). Or I arrange shuttles with my paddling pals, paying $5 to park at Rockin ‘R’s Camp Huaco Springs upstream. For a full day’s paddle, camp or park and put in at Whitewater Sports, at the FM 306 bridge, the area known as Fifth Crossing—the larger the crossing number, the farther upstream you are. The trip is scenic but lacks the action of the stretch below First Crossing and requires portaging around a couple of small dams.
For fishing, head upstream to the Trophy Zone, a stretch of river that marks the best trout fishing in Texas. The Lower Guadalupe is the only river in the state that supports a year-round trout population—a man-made happenstance that is the result of the release of cold bottom water. After years of stocking, the Guadalupe now has the potential to mature into a world-class fishery. The state-record rainbow trout (8.24 pounds) and brown trout (7.12 pounds) came from the Lower Guad. The miracle miles are around River Road Camp, Cedar Bluff Campground, and Camp Beans, at Third Crossing. At some of these sites you have to pay to get access to the water for fishing. Most fishing is done on a catch-and-release basis, though some visitors take home their daily limit: one fish at least eighteen inches long and caught on an artificial lure. Outside the Trophy Zone, fishermen may keep five trout per day with no restrictions on size or bait.
Parks and Wildlife will stock trout in the river on December 13 and 28, January 10 and 24, and April 4 and will arrange for free access for fishing at Camp Beans, Camp Huaco Springs, and the area directly below the dam through April 2002. Trout Unlimited stocks from November to February. The organization also leases land in the Trophy Zone; to gain access to the riverbank, you must acquire a $40 Trout Unlimited membership and pay an $85 access-orientation fee. TU is the big dog on the river, politically speaking, with the legal clout and the financial muscle to get the attention of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which wants to draw more water from Canyon Lake to sell to San Antonio, a proposal that also incurred heated opposition from paddlers, recreation-oriented businesses, and Canyon Lake residents.
The Lower Guad in winter is not the exclusive off-season domain of paddlers and anglers. The winding River Road, no longer choked with traffic, actually becomes pleasant as a biking route. Campgrounds can be parklike in their solitude. The wildlife viewing is splendid. It’s a bad day on the river when I don’t see a great blue heron emerging from the brush along the riverbank to lumber through the sky. Kingfishers are almost as ubiquitous as the turtles that return to sunbathe on the rocks. Winter residents include large contingents of hawks and eagles that ride the updrafts and soar along the cliffs with the turkey buzzards. Ospreys were prevalent a couple of months ago. The Lower Guad is on a major migratory route, and I’ve had the good luck to witness massive flyovers of hummingbirds and monarch butterflies this autumn. Even if the trees have dropped their leaves, the steep canyons and sheer limestone cliffs are some of the most scenic vistas found in the Hill Country this side of Enchanted Rock. A pretty fair tradeoff, I’d say, for the occasional shiver.
Camping: At Fifth Crossing, Whitewater Sports (830-964-3800); at Third Crossing, Cedar Bluff Campground (830-964-3639), River Road Camp (830-625-5004), and Camp Beans (830-964-2484); at First Crossing, Camp Huaco Springs (call Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, 830-629-9999 or 1-800-55-FLOAT).
Outfitters and guides: Whitewater Sports and Rockin ‘R’ River Rides (see Camping, above) for parking, shuttles, guide services, and rentals of canoes, kayaks, and inflatable rafts; Gruene Outfitters (1629 Hunter Road, New Braunfels, 830-625-4440 or 888-477-3474) for fly-fishing gear and guide recommendations.
Fishing: Valid Texas fishing license ($19) required along with a Texas Parks and Wildlife trout stamp ($7); Trout Unlimited national and local membership required ($40), plus $85 access fee and completion of the lease orientation class; Captain Scott Graham, a past president of the Guadalupe chapter of Trout Unlimited, offers guided trips through Guadalupe and Beyond Fly Fishing Adventures (877-898-7688).