Best Texas rivers: San Bernard River

This old report comes with a novel structure. To see other posted and reposted Texas River Tracings, go to this point along the way.

Travel: Highlights of our latest River Tracing, this time along the San Bernard, the middle sibling between the Brazos and Colorado rivers, which rises near hilly New Ulm and empties — or doesn’t, depending on your story — directly into the Gulf of Mexico near the oceanside village of Sargent Beach:

House of Guys: Like good little Hobbits, Joe and I began our journey from Houston with a hearty breakfast. We hiked across Montrose and River Oaks to the House of Pies, which, in the 1970s, was the hottest after-club spot for the gay community. Some of those guys are still there.

Photo courtesy of the Ranches at Cat Springs. (We are still trying to retrieve Joe’s records.)

Map stores: Hoping for some topographical maps of the San Bernard, we stopped by the Key Maps Inc. store (1411 W. Alabama St.), only to be directed to a Hodges Mason Maps (5704 Val Verde St.), tucked away on a dead end near the Galleria. Gold mine! We purchased USGS maps of the San Bernard at 1:100 scale, which practically shows the dust spots on parked cars.

Wallis: For the first time in our lives, Joe and I took Westheimer Road all the way to its end, which eventually leads to this Czech farming town, where we gawked at the pristinely restored Guardian Angel Church.

Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge: Larry Sebesta and the whole staff of this lesser-known refuge treated us like visiting royalty (Larry’s daughter, Courtney, works alongside us at the Statesman). We spent hours on the back roads of this restored coastal prairie. Saw armies of sandhill cranes, a bobbing burrowing owl, every kind of field sparrow, duck and lark, but no prairie chickens — which number fewer than 500 wild and captive-bred.

New Ulm headwaters: After nosing around Eagle Lake, we checked into the Columbus Inn, then zipped up to this tiny burg on a hill, which, at dusk, revealed a tree line (no actual water) where the San Barnard rises.

Schoebel’s: Like many small-town, family-style restaurants, this one comes with an oversized buffet, but we tried more contained dishes, like my sausage-and-kraut German plate. Excellent service, filling eats and reasonable prices in Columbus.

More Bernards: We zig-zagged across the San Bernard watershed today, which begins to pool not too far north of Interstate 10.

We saw the Middle Bernard River, the Little Bernard River, the town of Bernardo and the community of El Bernardo (near Sweeney), the Bernard Grocery and East Bernard.

The river grew stronger as we headed downstream through hardwood breaks to blackland cotton fields.

East Columbia: Since seventh grade, I had wanted to visit the original site of Columbia, one of the first capitals of Texas. We go through West Columbia several times a year on the way to the beach, but its eastern sibling was flooded in the 19th century and now perches on a bank above the Brazos River in well-kept remnants — a log cabin, some lovely mansions, several historical markers — and a vision of early Texas.

Sweeney: Ate at the Dairy Mart, listening to the locals drawl on about the gossip in this town, which has avoided the Greater Houston sprawl so far. Why can’t chains get the lettuce and onions right on hamburgers, like these mom-and-pop joints?

River’s End: After crossing the San Bernard for the last time — and at its widest — we journeyed down a spit of land, past some back-river communities, to a spot where the river meets the Intracoastal Canal. We could not see the actual mouth, but heard the ocean and could have sent a bottle rocket over it. Newspapers had reported that the mouth was silted up, but the fishermen at the canal said that was not so.

San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge: An even smaller operation than APC-NRW, this marshy preserve is home to thousands of migrating waterfowl, which one can see during auto tours or on foot. Hearing of alligators, we stayed in the car.

Sargent Beach: I had no idea this community was so extensive. We had doubled back around south to walk to the San Barnard mouth, but hit some rutted roads, so we hiked about four miles along the beach — encountering a small herd of cattle along the way — till we met some surf-fishers who had caught some enormous redfish. They said the San Bernard mouth was way, way off and, anyway, a recent storm had carved a cut in the island, which, at high tide, would keep us from the actual site. Ah well.

Cruising El Campo: We ended the second day of our trip in this curiously bustling town. We were actually looking for a bar, but didn’t know the address, so we drove around with my laptop open until we found a wi-fi signal — we gotta do this more often — located the address, then discovered it’s now a Mexican food restaurant. Which turned out fine: Family place with melt-on-your-lips enchiladas. Then back to Houston along U.S. 59.

Another river traced.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to

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