Best Texas rivers: Pedernales River

Saturday, Joe Starr and I traced the relatively short Pedernales River, only 100 miles or so long. It rises in spring-fed pools and dry hollows in southeast Kimble County.

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Between Harper and Fredericksburg, it begins to take regular shape. (“It’s not a river until you can hear it,” Joe says.) The country here is hilly, but not spectacularly so. Pastures sometimes drop right down to the riverbed. Eventually one can find green scoops deep enough for a cooling dip.

Man has tamed the Pedernales — at least somewhat — at Stonewall and Johnson City. Below, a couple enjoys the peace of a weir at the foot of the LBJ Ranch.

The river turns more rugged at Pedernales Falls State Park, downstream from Johnson City. Here, flash floods put vacationers in constant danger, and playing on the huge boulders by the falls, even when almost dry like this week, is carefully policed.

Perhaps the loveliest section of the Pedernales, or at least the easily accessible part, can be found near Hamilton Pool Road, where people hike, kayak or fish in summer splendor.

The Pedernales empties into the Colorado River. During the recent drought, one could see the rivers connect, but now the Pedernales branch of Lake Travis is full — and full of lake enthusiasts, including a little knot of boaters, bathers and jetskiiers at Camp Pedernales, an old tourist camp that must date back to the earliest days of the Highland Lakes.

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

Best Texas rivers: Bastrop Bayou

Even during the Reading Week, one may trace a Texas river (our ninth during the past year).

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The modest watercourse followed by car and on foot from its source to its mouth yesterday was Bastrop Bayou, which rises from soft, slack, cafe au lait pools in Richwood, between Clute and Angleton. It inches through a Spanish-moss-draped neighborhood, clearly flood-prone, then pours out onto the Gulf coastal prairie, foregrounding pastoral scenes out of De Cuyp.

Furry, half-abandoned hamlets of vacation homes, decorated double-wides and a few permanent homesteads fringe the banks of the broadening Bastrop. As it eases into the Brazoria National Wildlife Preserve, the fishing, crabbing and boating amenities improve.

At last, from a vaulting bridge on County Road 227 near Mims, one can just spy Austin Bayou as it joins the Bastrop upstream, and, the other direction, the lacy delta of the main stream as it filters into a series of lagoons — Bastrop Bay, Christmas Bay, West Bay and, ultimately, Galveston Bay.

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

Best Texas books: Neches River

Friday and Saturday, Joe and I traced the spring-perfumed Neches River, which rises in Van Zandt county northwest of Tyler, flows into recreational Lake Palestine, through the pruned Davy Crockett and Angelina national forests, into the (nearly dry) Lake B.A. Steinhagen before pouring into the big and thick Big Thicket above Port Arthur and Lake Sabine.

 

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Photo courtesy of TheHistoryCenterOnline.Org.

We supped on high-end eats at Rick’s on the Square in Tyler and Cajun delicacies at Esther’s Sea Food in (or near) Port A (the industrial one, not the booming Port Aransas down the coast). We visited the well-interpreted Caddo Mounds and the hidden, solomn Battle of Neches site (Republic of Texas Pres. Lamar broke treaties with the Cherokees and other Indians, chasing them into Oklahoma).

We understand that part of the Neches basin is endangered by a proposed dam and reservoir to water Dallas. We hope the peaceful hardwood bottom lands and rising pine hillocks won’t be endangered by this proposal.

Oh, and Homeland Security is working: We were questioned and tagged for taking pictures at the port/mouth of the Neches.

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

Best Texas rivers: Guadalupe River

College buddy Joe Starr and I spent the weekend tracing our seventh Texas river, the prettiest yet. The Guadalupe River, best known to Austinites for tubes and floods, rises in Kerr County near Sisterdale, flows swiftly through Guadalupe River State Park and rugged Hill Country before folding into Canyon Lake. It picks up speed again below the dam, caressing Gruene, New Braunfels, Seguin, Gonzales, outer Cuero and Victoria before joining the San Antonio River near Tivoli, just above San Antonio Bay.

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Photo courtesy of GuadalupeRiver.org.

We did the 250-mile course by car and on foot, overnighting in New Braunfels and Victoria. We ate smoked meat on the road to Seguin, German pastries in New Braunels, seafood in Victoria and Mexican breakfast in Cuero. We also lingered at the small, tidy Texas Zoo in Victoria, where a good portion of the species are indigenous to the state. We wandered through historical districts and parks, noting the effects of the 1998 and 2002 floods and soaking up two days of resort-like calm. And no speeding tickets this time.

The Guadalupe rises among rolling pastures in Kerr County.

Yet almost immediately, the Guadalupe becomes a strong, swift river of exceptional clarity.

Campsites cling to ledges above the river as it heads through rugged country.

Entering Guadalupe River State Park, the stream slows sweetly.

Then ribbons into swift rapids.

Several parks around Canyon Lake are closed for repair after the latest floods, endemic on the river.

From the dam, the Canyon Lake looks like the lower pouch of Lake Travis, though only one boat skimmed its surface on a brilliant Saturday.

The last big flood, in 2002, cut a gouge around the dam, then tore through valley below, a truly terrifying sight, even now and seen from a distance.

At quaint Gruene, the river is playful, inviting.

Work continues apace on raising the low-water crossing that regularly snagged tubers at Gruene.

Graceful Cypress Bend Park in New Braunfels fools one into thinking the Guadalupe has been civilized, but two big floods have wiped out homes along its banks in the past decade.

Max Starke Park in Seguin is a gorgeous remnant of Depression-era public works. This mill dam predates that period and was first impounded in the 19th century.

At Independence Park in Gonzales, the Guadalupe betrays its cuts through prairie and oak forest, turning a bottle green, broadened by the addition of the San Marcos River’s flow.

Victoria’s Riverside Park is enormous, perhaps larger than Zilker, and borders the now sandbar-clogged Guadalupe. One can see the devastation from previous floods among the huge trees smashed ashore.

The Guadalupe’s end looks a lot like its beginning. Just beyond this exact tree line — we were stopped in our tracks by a big bull fence, and bulls to go with — it joins the San Antonio River, outside the farming community of Tivoli.

Another river traced.

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

Best Texas rivers: Lower Sabine River

The Lower Sabine River, which divides the states of Texas and Louisiana, takes on three characters. The southern third around Lake Sabine is industrialized on a scale found in few other places in the world. The northern third consists of the broad, breezy, pine-flanked Toledo Bend Reservoir. In between, one finds a clear, swift river lined with calm, sandy beaches. Watch out, though, because along with the beaches comes quicksand, which explains local place names like Quicksand (the town) and Quicksand Creek.

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Our most recent previous river tracing — more than a year ago — took us from the source of the Sabine northwest of Greenville to the upper reaches of Toledo Bend at Logansville, La. The Upper Sabine passes through open prairie, hardwood bottomlands and rolling piney woods. Longview is the biggest city along its banks, but we visited many a small town and some small lakes spun out from the Sabine’s tributaries.

This time, college buddy Joe Starr and I started at the very end of the river, along a marshy spit of land just south of the village of Sabine Pass. Here, the river has been dredged to created a channel for ocean-going vessels and canal barges that visit the ports of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.

Heading down a broken-up, ditch-lined road, the visitor can get quite close to the true mouth of the river — the Sabine is joined by the Neches River to form the oval Sabine Lake above this pass — and fishermen wade out into steady current of the Gulf of Mexico.

We spent time at the historical park dedicated to Dick Dowling (imagined in statuary above) and the Battle of Sabine Pass. Dowling was an Irish American bartender from Houston who, with a band of 50 or so men turned back some 5,000 Union troops on Sept. 8, 1863 during the Civil War.

Dowling and his men cleverly set up their fort and cannons where an oyster bed splits the narrow channel, then staked the two watery passages with white gunner targets. As with Civil War river battles to the east, the defensive position was almost unassailable and Dowling was considered a great hero (though one must add that the victory may have contributed to a longer war and extended the institution of slavery).

The strategic fort remained in play well into World War II and the current park is built around latter-day concrete bunkers, with the requisite explanatory signage and slab monuments. One fresh marker is dedicated to the Union dead, with a footnote about the unrecorded African Americans who died with that naval force.

“This is the ugliest spot in Texas,” Joe said about the refineries and chemical plants that hugged the road north into Port Arthur, a city that has looks sadder and more abandoned each time we visit it. The thrilling bridge over the Neches and into Bridge City didn’t promise anything more tantalizing, nor did the entry into Orange, lined with a dozen or so industrial plants.

Downtown Orange is hard to describe. It has clearly been scrubbed to welcome tourists: Open square, modern art museum, large modern theater, carefully tended Victorian home and grounds that belonged lumber magnates, the Stark family. Yet we saw not one tourist during our explorations there. Instead, we startled a tour guide and a security guard at the Stark mansion with our request to walk around the grounds.

(H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas benefited from this family’s beneficence. Named for the late UT regent, it contains, among other things, a vast library of muscle magazines.)

Just above Orange, the terrain turns intensely rural and wooded. Tiny towns pop out of the trees. We touched base with the Sabine here — it was bordered by rusty warehouses in Orange — and discovered holiday tribes boating or sunning on the riverside beaches. Along the way, we spotted a white ibis, a red-headed woodpecker and flocks of rusty blackbirds. Magnolias, sweet gum, water oaks and willows join the pines of various sizes and species.

Arriving past midday at the Toledo Bend Dam, we ascended a high point to view hundreds of families frolicking on the lake’s sandy shore. A lookout point at the Texas headquarters of the Lower Sabine River Authority allowed us to guess at the lake’s expanse and to see the stream below the impoundment.

We crossed into Louisiana. This rather remote area is lightly developed and the winding roads through woods turn hypnotic. We exited the forest long enough to survey Toledo Bend at its mid-point, then headed inland to Many (man-ee), La. Here we stayed at the tidy Starlite Motel and ate hillocks of fried food at the Country Boy counter cafe across the highway.

Here, ancient social customs are observed. The older white patrons, dressed as if for religious services, sat in a semi-circle around us, while the black customers ordered take-out only. From the look of both sets, they like their spicy, hot, fried seafood and hushpuppies. A lot.

While the trend in big cities and suburbs may be the mega-church, in rural East Texas and Louisiana, the smaller, the better. Every variety of American splinter faith is represented here, including tiny non-demoninational Bible churches. On the Louisiana side, however, those places of intense worship share the roads with pop-up casinos and drive-through daiquiri joints.

On Sunday, we visited 4,700-acre Hodges Garden. Devised by Shreveport oil-and-gas man A.J. Hodges inside an old quarry, these gardens rival the palaces of the acien régime in scale, the Romantic period in atmosphere and the works of Frank Lloyd Wright for Asian-inspired modernism.

Lightning had disabled the hilltop gardens’ artificial waterfalls temporarily and the primary blooming season was long over. Yet we spent a good two hours exploring this little paradise which I had not visited in at least 50 years (when my family lived in Shreveport). There are not many reasons to travel on Louisiana Highway 171, but if you do at the right time of year, stop.

Even this shrine to refined tastes, however, exists within a local cultural context. The thin, prim caretaker of the gift shop waved us away, since we arrived 10 minutes before opening. (For almost our entire time in the park, we were the only guests in sight.) When we returned, loud gospel music jangled through the shop and the clerk refused to greet us beyond a chilly stare. There were no maps or related printed material to be found. Exactly one book was for sale: It dealt with the state agricultural extension service.

All other items could have purchased at a roadside shop offering kitsch objects stamped with uplifting phrases. As we wound our way out of the gorgeous park, we chuckled about how travel sometimes reinforces, rather than erases our prejudices, no matter how hard we try to suppress them.

Best Texas rivers: Upper Sabine River

Time got away from us. Road trip buddy Joe Starr and I planned to trace the entire Sabine River — 550+ miles of it — Easter weekend. We managed half of it. Friday was spent driving to Houston to pick up Joe, then up U.S. highways 59 and 69 to reach Greenville in Hunt County, where three branches meet to form the Sabine.

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Greenville, a former cotton center on blackland prairie 45 miles east of Dallas, is experiencing something of a rebirth. That may be so. Still, if I follow the dictum that, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it, then my posting on our time in Greenville proper ends here.

The next morning we rose to seek the source of the Sabine, just north of Celeste, home of World War II hero Audie Murphy (we passed the bunting-draped memorial). A helpful state historical marker points to the Sabine’s headwaters — a gentle hill amid pastures topped by a water tower. Interestingly, rainfall on this hill drains into three separate watersheds, the Sabine’s being one. (Sort of like Glacier National Park, on a much less dramatic scale.)

At the appropriate location, we found ruts with standing water, choked with cane. Above, a female dicksissel clung to a wire. This is a bird common to the prairie, but the first one identified by Joe and I. We headed south. Before reaching Greenville, the Cowleech Branch of the Sabine (named after an Indian chief) is already a significant stream. Below Greenville, it’s a river.

Here, underneath the oaks and other hardwoods, circled by barn and bank swallows, we encountered the first of many holiday fishers. Next we dropped by Wind Point Park on Lake Tawakoni, a private recreational area offering an array of family activities. Then we contacted my sister, Valerie Koehler, who was spending the Easter weekend with in-laws on Club Lake, a small, exquisite body of water surrounded by a gated community. (Sorry Luke Wilson, AT&T’s spotty coverage made the detour problematic.) Our visit there was far too short.

Following this respite, we crisscrossed the Sabine near towns with names like Grand Saline (Morton’s still mines there), Mineola, Fruitvale and New Sandy, some these once-thriving commercial centers. Here, the river, already at spring flood stage, engulfed small trees and it was easy to imagine the Sabine disgorging the highest volume of water to the Gulf of Mexico of any Texas river.

Longview, with 200,000 people spread out over its metropolitan area, is the largest city on the Sabine. Just south — not far from Kilgore, where I was born — the river is broad and the current swift. The river is marred by industrial sprawl, but doesn’t seem to suffer directly from it. From there, we angled toward the Louisiana border, as hardwoods gave way to pine forests. Redbuds, dogwoods and, especially, wisteria splashed the countryside with welcome color.

This is true backwoods Texas. For miles, we encountered trashed-out encampments, interrupted by breathtakingly beautiful valleys carved into green pasturelands, or employed for large-scale plant nurseries. Pilgrim’s Pride factories hid behind tree screens. Communities shrank in size and austere churches dominated the roadsides (frequently seen sign: “Prayer: America’s only hope.”).

We followed the Sabine only as far as Logansport, La., just above Toledo Bend Reservoir. Here, steamboats chugged up the Sabine in the 19th century. Now, boaters returned from a full day of sporting. Our Saturday was coming to an end. And, given Easter family commitments in Houston, we ran out of time for the nearby national forest or the Big Thicket swamplands below that, much less Orange, Port Arthur and the Battle of Sabine Pass monument at the mouth of Sabine Lake. (We’d come that way when we traced the Neches, which enters Sabine Lake from the west.)

So we left the lower Sabine for a later tracing, perhaps in conjunction with the Angelina and the Atoyak, or the Cypress and the Sulpher. We do know the last stretch of this historically crucial border river will take at least a full day.

Despite its prominence as an international boundary, going back to French and Spanish rivalries, the Sabine was — and, in some ways, is — more mysterious than most Texas rivers to us. It rises among Midwestern scenery, low, rolling prairie hedged with hardwoods. It dips into deep forests and passes, but does not dissect fair-sized cities (Longview and Orange, with Tyler not far off).

The presence of Toledo Bend is a mystery in itself. Was it really necessary to flood all that land? Did the Sabine threaten Orange? Who is using all that water? Meanwhile, Dallas is damming the upper Neches to slake its limitless thirst, wiping out more hardwood bottomlands. More research is necessary. And the casual destruction of the Big Thicket, condemned by no less a figure than J. Frank Dobie, the most popular Texas author of his day, is another scar on the land.

Like MacArthur, we will return.

Best Texas rivers: Pecos River

“Can we get to the Pecos River on this road?”

“Yep.”

“How far is it?”

“A few miles.”

“Is there a bridge?”

“Yep.”

“Oh, we’ll turn around and get the car.”

“You broke down?”

“No, we’re just river tracing.”

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What the crusty, old man in the battered pickup didn’t warn us: Several miles down the caliche road was a steel gate that barred our way. After we turned around, a younger, grimmer man, also in a pickup, grilled us on why we took this isolated road and how we found out about it anyway.

Our weak response: “It’s on the map.”

Flash to “No Country for Old Men.”

The final 60 miles of the Pecos River, the 29th in our series of Texas river tracings, runs through steep canyons that crease the otherwise thrillingly desolate landscape. If there’s a bridge between Texas 290 at Fort Lancaster and the Pecos High Bridge at Lake Amistad, we didn’t find it.

As we track 50 Texas rivers by car, on foot and occasionally by water, we like to follow the course from the source to the mouth. In this case, the Pecos rises in the mountains near Santa Fe, so we settled for the closest point near the Texas border, beneath the Guadalupe Mountains in Carlsbad, N.M. (We tend to explore just the in-state portions of the multi-state Texas rivers.)

There, amid the rampant oil-and-gas fracking boom, we found overpriced fauxtel rooms ($250 with tax!) and hearty food (green chili cheeseburgers at YellowBrix, $12) along with affordable attractions of global rank (Carlsbad Caverns, $10), regional wonder (exquisitely landscaped Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, $5) and local value (Pecos River Park, free).

Here, the river is dammed and used for rural and urban needs. The evolving city park, explored on an icy morning, includes a quaint shopping village, power-

plant-turned-recreation-

center, a light pontoon bridge and plenty of fishing. (Signs request the return of working grass carp to the system.)

On the Texas side of the border, we picked up the Pecos near Mentone, the seat of sparsely settled Loving County (population: 82). So little has happened here, the centennial stone historical marker in front of the courthouse ends in an incomplete sentence.

Here, the shallow river winds among the sandy hills playing peek-a-boo with the traveler, sometimes disappearing altogether. We frequently dodged lumbering tanker trucks and other vehicles dedicated to oil field operations.

The Pecos reappears when it spills down onto limestone ledges amid the austere mesas to the south, near the thriving towns of McCamey and Iraan, high school football centers that could double for Dillon in “Friday Night Lights.”

The Texas namesake city of Pecos is a dusty yet fast-growing crossroads in transition, formerly known for cantaloupes, now as a fracking supply center. The West of the Pecos Museum, built into a former saloon and hotel, was not open during our visit.

Our second night was spent where all roads in this region lead: Fort Stockton. We dined on thickly sauced asado at Alfredo’s, an old Mexican restaurant with family appeal. (At all our stops, the beef, not surprisingly, was excellent.)

Along the way, we encountered multiple historical markers telling the story of the Butterfield Overland Mail route, which snaked through this region.

Fort Lancaster, however, protected not that route, but the old San Antonio-San Diego road. Once on a main trail west, the carefully maintained stone and adobe military ruins sit above Texas 290, a road so untraveled, we stood for as long as we wanted on the old trestle bridge over the Pecos, documenting flora and fauna alongside the wide, clear stream.

Our “No Country” adventure took place off lonely Texas 349, which crosses many dry, steep draws and leads to even lonelier FM 3166. Here, we passed right through a mysteriously unmarked chemical plant then headed down a steep road to the narrow, greener Pecos valley.

As everywhere in the Chihuahuan Desert, the presence of water promises a rush of wildlife. Earlier, we had startled small flocks of teals, buffleheads and shovelers, along with solitary great blue herons and great white egrets.

We might have had better luck on this stretch, however, tracing the eastern side of the canyon, but many of these Trans-Pecos back roads require four-wheel drive at some point, a option we did not have this trip.

Instead, we wheeled through Comstock and touristy Langtry (regular gas, $4.50 a gallon) along U.S. 90 till we reached the famed High Bridge.

Draped in history, the various bridges over this breathtaking canyon provided a crucial link from east to west along the U.S. border. Now, multiple lookouts and river access make it a photographic prize at the point where the Pecos joins the Rio Grande as part of Lake Amistad.

As the sun drooped for a long desert setting, we headed to Del Rio, for we were set to investigate the pristine and even more isolated Devils River the next morning.

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

 

Best Texas rivers: Devils River

On the Pecos River, it was a gate. On the Devils River, it was a sign.

A steel barrier kept us from exploring a key stretch of the larger Rio Grande tributary. The next day, a roughly made sign discouraged us from reaching a much-praised portion of the smaller river.

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Dolan Falls on the Devils River. Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman

We started the day in Del Rio, a border city whose main highway is littered with modern retail clutter. A few miles up the road on U.S. 277, however, the West Texas land and sky open up again.

Down State Recreational Road 2, we tested the Devils River as part of many-armed Lake Amistad, which also encompasses the Pecos and Rio Grande. With no sign of human activity – despite the presence of condos and recreational vehicles – we were left to the serene blue and white of the long, winding lagoon.

Ducks, gulls and what looked like towhees broke the stillness.

After drinking in the peace, we headed up U.S. 277 in the direction of Sonora. Over the past few years, we’d heard countless hymns to the Devils, one of the state’s most isolated and pristine waterways and the 30th in our series of 50 Texas river tracings, accomplished mostly by car and on foot.

Yet when we turned off 277 west on Dolan Creek Road – about 40 miles up the river‘s main canyon – we almost immediately encountered a sign that announced the state natural area was closed Mondays through Wednesdays.

It was Tuesday. Gravel roads: 2. Joe and Michael: 0. (On the Pecos the previous day, we entered “No Country for Old Men” territory on what turned into an unposted private road.)

The closure meant missing not only this revered preserve but also the tightly restricted one owned by the Texas Nature Conservancy, which is reached through the state lands. No Dolan Falls for us this time.

We are, however, accustomed to adversity on these river tracings. We’d find another way.

We chugged back up 277 past FM 189 to look in on a dry upper branch of the Devils. Sometimes, these rocky crossings are as fascinating as the wet ones, since one sees what flora and fauna thrive even without a constant flow above ground. This time of year, huge cottonwoods were rouged with autumnal colors.

FM 189, otherwise known as the Juno Highway, follows the bed of the Devils River Canyon for quite a few miles downstream. The low road crisscrosses the dry channel, then joins Texas 160, which does the same.

Eventually, it dawned on us that, during flood season, this, the only paved road across the Devils, would be impassable. No wonder this 100-mile-long river is so untouched.

We were, nevertheless, impatient for the sight of water.

Just as the road rises higher along the canyon wall, a sparkle caught the corners of our eyes. We stopped and hiked back a bit. Well worth the wait, there was the full stream, fed by generous springs, rushing through a suddenly lush valley floor.

Ebullient, we stopped again and again to document the shallow but strong flow of the Devils River. By the time the river parted with the road, we were satisfied.

Like the other rivers that fall from the south wall of the Edwards Plateau – Nueces, Frio, Medina, Sabinal – the Devils carves a rocky, gorgeous, mostly unpopulated groove down to an arcing recharge zone that runs from San Antonio through Uvalde to Del Rio.

These constitute some of the most beautiful and rugged parts of Texas, which, beyond Garner State Park and Lost Maples State Natural Area, most tourists don’t see.

As for the rivers that flow north from the plateau, the Llano is still in good shape. Those headed east, however, hit urban congestion and the festering eyesore that is Interstate 35. Even the glorious Guadalupe River – mile for mile the loveliest we’ve traced so far – is stressed almost to the breaking point between Canyon Lake and Seguin.

Anyway, we learned that we must plan our next trip to the Devils River more carefully and perhaps bring along kayaks. The water route is complicated, however, on these West Texas rivers by landowners who fiercely contest any encroachment, no matter how innocent.

After the short, sweet time on the Devils River, we zoomed up to Ozona, then followed surely the smoothest, most relaxing drive in Texas along Interstate 10 – out west, it’s our autobahn – to Junction. Following that, old U.S. 290 west of Fredericksburg has been widened, so what has always been a pleasant connection between Central and West Texas is now also safer.

Can’t say that for all the construction zones along the winery trail from Fredericksburg to Johnson City. Will be glad when that work is completed. Nothing can improve the ugly sprawl headed into Austin. The Y at Oak Hill, too, is still madness in both directions.

Didn’t matter. We were still comforted by memories of the healing Devils River.

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

 

Best Texas rivers: Nueces River

On a lonely stretch of FM 624 southeast of Cotulla, the Nueces River doesn’t merit a sign. It doesn’t even merit a dry bed. One of the state’s major rivers – once the disputed border between Texas and Mexico – is completely invisible here.

It takes a lot of imagination to visualize this low stretch of thorn brush country filling up with any amount of water. It, however, must. GPS markings and satellite imagery don’t lie. The Nueces passes through here – at some time or another.

As did we on our 26th official Texas river tracing.

Nueces_River_between_La_Pryor_and_Uvalde,_TX_IMG_4256During this drive-and-hike trip in late 2012, my buddy Joe Starr and I first followed the pristine Sabinal River from its source in Los Maples Natural Preserve to the place where it sinks underground at a “Black Hole” on a ranch near the town named after the river.

After the Nueces, we traced the gushing San Antonio River backward from its mouth not far from Victoria, past missions in Goliad and San Antonio, past the River Walk, until we reached a limestone channel behind the Witte Museum near where the stream begins.

Despite their beauties, the Sabinal and San Antonio didn’t produce the surprises of the Nueces, long associated in my mind with an unlovely, underpopulated stretch of South Texas brushland. At its source and near its mouth, however, the Nueces turns quite lovely.

We started our Nueces day early in Uvalde, heading up Texas 55 through flat fields toward Camp Wood. We stopped by the sites of two Spanish missions, abandoned despite the promise of the valley lush with pecan trees that give the river its name (“nuts” in Spanish).

Camp Wood is a former U.S. fort, now a droopy, isolated town of 822 souls, the type that young people leave as soon as they are able.

Higher and higher we climbed up a crease in the lower Edwards Plateau. At one point, I spotted a flat, white upright expanse on a canyon wall. Turned out to be a wall protecting a rather large white stuccoed house on a ledge. In the otherwise vacant valley below, we encountered an even more impressive wall – topped with broken glass and guarded by thick wooden gates – that looked like something out of the wilds of Colombia or at least Mexico.

No signs indicated who owned such a high-security compound, but we didn’t linger to find out.

We were almost to Kerrville when we came to the source of the eastern prong of the Upper Nueces. As often is the case when a clear stream spills through rugged, semi-arid land, the air was full of birdsong and butterflies.

The day was clear and crisp as we headed back down the river, intending, as we did, to follow it to the mouth. One particularly pleasant discovery along the way: Lake Nueces, a small reservoir that provides year-round recreation just below Camp Wood. Fisherman dotted the dam as we explored the low-water crossing below it.

“Stay out of the pipes” read the signs. It was not until I watched the clear water rushing through plastic tubes beneath the road that I realized the improbable danger.

Below Uvalde, the river dries up. We knew this would happen.

First, because all our maps showed the thin blue line disappearing as it curled to the south and east, then a little north before joining the Frio River near Three Rivers. We had already watched the Sabinal and, on an earlier trip, the Frio disappear into the same arcing recharge zone.

As its riverbed crosses dry under U.S. 83 above La Pryor, there’s evidence of regular flooding among the spectacular piles of whitened stone.

On the other side of Crystal City – a tattered agricultural town somewhat uplifted by the nearby oil and gas fracking boom – we found the wet version of the Nueces briefly and with great difficulty. A short channel waited dark and oily behind a low dam at Presidio Park. Rarely has a Texas river looked more abused.

Then we set out across the great thorny brush of South Texas.

Nothing. No sign of the Nueces. Lots of crested caracaras, the national bird of Mexico, but very few people.

Every few miles, we passed another fracking camp. Oil workers clear a square of land and bank it with red earth. Tanks hold fracking water and the resultant oil or gas. Flares burn off excess gas. Always, a decorated camper stands guard at the entrance to the site, checking in giant trucks, but also smoking barbecue or otherwise entertaining visitors out back.

The roads here are in terrible condition. Potholes easily could wreck a normal sedan. Ours seems to be the only one, though, on the road. It’s all trucks otherwise.

Due to the boom, tiny villages are packed with RVs, trailers and portable cottages. City and county buildings, including schools, look freshly tended, but boom economies come with winners and losers, and the infrastructure won’t support all this activity.

The Nueces magically becomes a river again after the Frio spills down from Choke Canyon Reservoir and into the bigger course. We cross it irregularly before encountering the informal lake communities along Lake Corpus Christi, just a few miles from the city itself.

Like the bigger Highland Lakes, this one has shrunken to a ghost of its glories in the drought. Truth be told, this water source for Corpus Christi often ends this way. South Texas is drier than the rest of the Gulf Coast.

As we navigate the port city’s western suburbs, we find that the river is nicely lined with recreational options. We follow it alongside the newer channels that form the port of Corpus Christi. Wading birds flock here, as do fishing humans of all ages.

The Nueces flows into Nueces Bay, a fat arm of Corpus Christi Bay. We can easily see the juncture and rejoice at the luck. It’s one of the few spots where a Texas river reaches its destination within sight of accessible land.

We soak that in, then head to our inevitable “fauxtel” – one of those ubiquitous three-or-four-story hotel-motel hybrids – before scouting some local foodstuff. We end up at the Texas A-1 Steaks and Seafood in Calallan. Not bad. Pert staff. Odd decor. Could have done much worse.

We really didn’t expect to trace three significant rivers – of our intended Texas 50 – in just four days. But we have gotten more efficient at this odd game and it helps for our purposes when the rivers just disappear for miles and miles, as does the Nueces.

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

Best Texas rivers: Lower Brazos River

Dense fog – and a palpable sense of foreboding – hung over our search for the true mouth of the Brazos River. You’d think such a large river, which stretches from the border with New Mexico almost 1,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, would produce an obvious intersection with the sea.

Not so.

There’s an old mouth and a new mouth. And neither was particularly visible at this early hour, which greeted our 25th Texas river tracing last year. (My college buddy Joe Starr and I reach the state’s rivers by automobile, mostly along back roads, and then we hike a bit, noting the changing texture of the water, banks, flora, fauna and surrounding landscape from mouth to source or vice versa. We plan to trace fully 50 Texas waterways.)

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We started with the old Brazos mouth, flanked by the villages of Quintana and Velasco (now called Surfside Beach).

Occupied at least since Spanish colonial times, these outposts on slender barrier islands have been washed away by periodic hurricanes. Yet brave souls return after each storm to take advantage of river, sea and shore, as well as proximity to the giant shipping and refining centers of Freeport and Brazosport just inland.

Local historical markers inexplicably place the Quintana’s founding in 1532, but we can find no reference supporting this claim, unless it refers to a Karankawa campsite encountered by the shipwrecked Cabeza de Vaca. Its few lonely, stilted homes are now overshadowed by a Martian-outpost-looking liquid natural gas storage facility.

The fog bound the shore birds and the sea birds to the beach near the jetty. We headed out the pink-granite-banked jetty, past unsmiling Vietnamese fishermen into mist. Cold waves crashed over the aggregate walkway, soaking our jeans and sneakers, but we persisted to the unlighted channel marker at the end. I clung to its rigging for security as the waves continued to boom around us.

The presence of the birds – and nutrients washed downstream with the trash and enormous logs – suggests that the old Brazos mouth is still somehow active, even though, in the 1920s, the main stream was diverted three miles to the south.

This diversion saved Freeport from predictable river flooding – an enormous gate protects the town and its fishing boats from storm-driven surge – and enabled a steady channel for the clustered, deep-water ports. An enormous bankhead in Freeport – topped by a high-school football stadium – marks the spot where the Brazos formerly entered Freeport upstream. Perhaps there’s a controlled flow from pipes there.

We left the mystery of the jetty for an even more intriguing one at the newer mouth. So we headed from Quintana down Bryan Beach, which, since Hurricane Ike, has shrunk to a thread of wet sand barely a few yards wide.

A mile down the beach, we abandoned the rented SUV and walked the remaining two miles through the vaguely threatening fog. The high tide had clearly covered the entire island at points. The dunes and marshes on the inland side were, instead, a vast lagoon, weirdly almost devoid of bird life.

Why? We discovered when we passed the new mouth on foot.

Yes, you read right. Passed it. It was gone. Silted up. Or perhaps, Ike drove sand up its channel, forcing the fresh water into the estuary and the Intracoastal Canal. There we stood on the dry bed of a mighty river, with only a low bluff to indicate its former southwest banks.

Wow. Wow. As we already knew, autumnal rains had raised the Brazos almost to flood stages upstream. Yet here, at its new mouth, it disappeared. “Goodbye to a River, ” indeed, Mr. Graves.

After lunch in Freeport, we set out to criss-cross the Columbia Bottomlands. These are the lush lowlands dotted with oxbow lakes that reach from just above Freeport on the Brazos River almost to Richmond near Houston.

We checked in with these lands at Brazoria, East Columbia and the Brazos Bend State Park. Here, the Brazos is broad, red-brown and swollen with rain, therefore dangerous.

Vine-covered bluffs impound the muscular river. Above the bluffs spread the tangled forests, and higher, the Gulf Coastal plains, meadows studded mostly with low-spreading live oaks.

This is the Texas the Anglo-Americans chose to settle in the 1820s. Perhaps it resembled the overgrowth of the coastal Deep South, but Stephen F. Austin and company planted their first colonies along this stretch of the Brazos.

The river then was reliable enough to support some boat traffic and thereby the shipping of cotton, which still shares the upper prairies with sorghum and other cash crops.

East Columbia serves as a example of the precarious state of those colonies along the bottomlands. An early capital of Republic of Texas – and home to the region’s first English-language theater, according to one newspaper source – it was swept away by a Brazos flood. It was replaced by West Columbia, perched up on that comparatively protected prairie.

Some buildings remain. We love visiting this valentine to early colonial and republican Texas. East Columbia is now home to a dozen or so exquisitely restored 19th-century structures, but I’m afraid most Texans don’t even know it exists.

Brazos Bend is, by comparison, a popular gathering point. The state park’s primary attractions are its American alligators, more easy to view in the summer, when they sun on the banks of several bottomland lakes and ponds. We were there for the river, however, and, instead, hiked down to the closest point of contact.

The variety of plant life here is astonishing: Sycamores, buckeyes, yaupons, wild grape, various oaks, palmettos, just to name the most obvious inhabitants. Crows cawed overhead. A tricolored heron dipped onto the opposite banks.

Stephen F. Austin’s headquarters, San Felipe de Austin, located at a shallow bend, became the colony’s capital. Today, San Felipe State Park blends history (including a dog-trot cabin), recreation (a golf course) and hiking along the sandy banks of the river.

Our main destination this, our second morning, however, was Washington-on-the-Brazos. Quite a name, I know, especially for a veritable ghost village. Located at a former ferry spot just below the junction between the Brazos and Navasota rivers, Washington was where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed.

Geographically, Washington is not much different from the bottomlands downriver. Yet it is arranged more like a Civil War battlefield, with acres of smooth lawns, healthy trees, memorial stones and interpretive spaces. The gift shop is prodigious, including historical maps I’ve never seen for sale anywhere else.

The Star of the Republic Museum houses a full complement of artifacts from the republican period. There’s a working farm and conference center nearby as well.

In other words, this place is chock full of potential.

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