Best Texas rivers: Red River, Part 2

This report on the Lower Red River — we should probably call it the “Middle” — was originally posted on May 25, 2012. It is the last of the rescued Texas River Tracing posts.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

DSCF1234

Of Texas’ big streams, I probably knew the Red River the least. I crossed it a lot. And I even lived not far from it in Shreveport, La. as a child. Until recently, however, I’d spent no more than a few seconds in its immediate vicinity.

DSCF1236

That changed this week when Joe Starr and I traced it from Amarillo to Texarkana. (See previous entries about the North and Prairie Dog Town forks of the Red.) We began our serious look at the Red proper near Vernon, where it already carves out a wide, soft, sandy floodplain.

DSCF1238

That would not change much during the journey from Wichita Falls to Texarkana, using US 82 as our base line. We’d jump up to the river on the Oklahoma border, nose around, then head back into a series of micropolises and metropolises, all along an unexpectedly gorgeous post oak belt. The only time the beauty abated was on the ragged edges of populated areas, where insidious freeway culture — ugly old and new junk — ruled.

DSCF1240Tuesday was filled with surprises, however. It began with a German Catholic church in Lindsay, Texas, which poked its tower over the horizon as if a reminder of European landscapes. We discovered it occupied an elaborate and well-tended enclave that included two shrines, a rectory and a school. Inside, the plain brick church burst with visual activity. The colors were rococo, but the lines and forms were heavier. Every mural, stained glass and gilded surface glowed in prisitine condition.

DSCF1241

Another jolt came in Gainesville, a largish micropolis on the border. Located directly on Interstate 35, it and its Oklahoma sibling compete to attract tourists. We noticed a large, colorful and brightly signed outlet mall on the Texas side and decided to pick up a few things. Seeing only a few cars in the lot, we chalked up the emptiness to the early time of day.

DSCF1244

Oh my no. Row after row of shops were completely empty. In a back corner we found a Van Huesen outlet where men’s clothing was discounted 60, 70, 80, 90 percent. I purchased a V-neck sweater that would go for $90 retail for $4.99. We went a little crazy there and at the Reebok store, among the few others open in this mall that is either dying or awaiting a comeback.

DSCF1256

Meanwhile, along the river, the Red grew wider and stronger. Cliff swallows were our constant companions. Joe witnessed a crow chasing down a young swallow and scooping it up in its fearsome beak. Below the dam at Lake Texoma, we encountered all sorts of wildlife. In the shallows lingered huge catfish and carp. Joe counted 9 great blue herons, along with other wading birds.

DSCF1254

In a hackberry tree nearby, I spent some time trying to identify a very small, slender bird two shades of olive gray. After listening to recorded songs and looking at photos on AllBirds.com, I’m almost certain it was an Eastern Wood-Peewee. Not at all rare, but just rarely seen by me. (I am not a birder, but rather a bird lover.)

DSCF1258

We didn’t swim in Lake Texoma. We had heard reports of flesh-eating bacteria there. We didn’t need a fresh warning and noticed almost no boats on this sizable lake. I was more tempted to dip into a little, clear lake we discovered in the Caddo National Grasslands, which we had all to ourselves.

DSCF1262

I love Paris (Texas) in the springtime! Of the old railroad towns in this region, Paris showed the most character. A fountain rather than a courthouse occupies its main square. There, we ate at the excellent Jaxx Gourmet Burgers, which would have a been welcome a sight anywhere in the world with its enormous, inventive sandwiches and hearty ales.

DSCF1268

Our last glimpses of the river were caught at dusk from a mown hayfield north of Texarkana. Here, the Red is split by islands and rimmed by tall banks. It’s still red from soils that tumble down from as a far as the Panhandle. Thanks to this trip, I know it a little better now.

DSCF1270

We spent the night in piney Atlanta, Texas. We had tried one of Texarkana’s many faux-tels, only to find it full on a weeknight. Of course, it sat near a medical center. Any place in Texas that can support an oncology clinic, a radiology complex and more than one hospital is going to attract regular visitors.

DSCF1271

Our trip from West to East took us across the midrift of the Bible Belt. Every city, town, village or hamlet hosted multiple churches, mostly from the more conservative sects. I imagined visiting services at all these houses of God to find out how the congregants viewed the world and if we could establish common ground.

DSCF1281

While almost everyone we encountered on this trip was unfailingly friendly, I also sensed an undercurrent of boredom, desperation and resentment. Every once in a while, amid the glories of the Texas plains, hills, forests and valleys, I’d glimpse some of the darker sides of rural life: Shambling poverty, meth culture, and more evidence of our country’s obesity epidemic. But we were fleeting tourists. I did not dig deeply.

As mentioned in the previous post, rural Texas looks good these days, in part because of the oil and gas boom, which has helped owners to become better stewards of the land. This gladdened my heart and gave me hope.

DSCF1285

Three things — a Holy Trinity of sorts — can be found in any Texas town with a population of three digits or more: A doughnut shop, a Mexican food restaurant and, increasingly, a faux-tel. What formula convinces hotel chain executives to plant these comparatively tall structures in such small towns? I’d love to know the business model. They seem to do well.

Anyway, it was a rewarding trip. After tracing 25 Texas rivers, we’ve slowed down, spacing out the journeys over years rather than months. To do the rest before retirement, we are considering combining three or four remaining rivers per trip, not rushing but taking more time each outing.

Best Texas rivers: Red River, Part 1

This record of our adventures on the Upper Red River was first posted in 2012.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

It starts out as a small green depression in a flat Panhandle field. It leaves Texas a mighty river — broad, swift, reddish brown and lined with sandy bluffs, fertile fields and thick trees.

DSCF1216

The upper forks of the Red River, the wriggling border between Texas and Oklahoma, rise in the Llano Estacado, as do those of the Colorado and Brazos rivers. In a previous tracing, Joe Starr Kip Keller and I followed the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River from above the town of Canyon though Palo Duro Canyon and across the Osage Prairies to the Oklahoma border.

DSCF1217

The North Fork is a lesser tributary but no less impressive for variety of character. First we headed from Austin to Amarillo, crossing fields of wheat and marveling at the spring-wet greenery. We stopped in railroad towns along US 183, including the slowly reviving Rising Star, where Joe posed with a poster that recalls the days of tent circuits and rail-transported vaudeville, when those towns were full of energy and promise.

DSCF1180

We noticed right away that many of the towns were trim and thriving, just as the farms and ranches were tidy and prospering. Credit the first to the oil and gas boom, which has flushed rural Texas with cash. These areas are also bouncing back from the worst of the drought. Not that anyone cares, but I predict that hay has been over-planted and livestock populations will not return to normal levels quickly, despite the ready feed and full stock ponds.

DSCF1187

During the nine-hour drive, Joe perfected his method for photographing and identifying wildflowers. Some of his scientific methods are based on which plants came with the most flamboyant names. It’s still spring in North Texas, and Amarillo even turned chilly. We didn’t complain.

DSCF1188

After passing through the religiously ambitious Panhandle burg of Clarendon, we snuck a peek at the Salt Fork of the Red River. A small reservoir waits near its source, southeast of Amarillo. We explored an area of sandy hills, little oxbow lakes and bird-filled grasslands below the dam. I found the landscape, haunted by aimless recreation seekers, a bit creepy. Not quite “No Country for Old Men,” but it gave me the creeps.

DSCF1190

Our first order of business once in downtown Amarillo was to check into the amazingly cheap ($45) and convenient Civic Center Motor Inn. The grounds came with the usual odd characters that might have made less experienced Texas road-trippers uneasy. Undeterred, Joe surveyed places to photograph the annular eclipse, settling on a bank building’s parking garage with some shutterbugging locals.

DSCF1206

I tell you what: Downtown Amarillo, despite its broad and pristine streets, is deader than dead on a Sunday night. Not a soul on the streets. Not a single restaurant open. So much for the convenient motor inn. We wandered by car through the suburbs and along the freeway — cursing inaccurate Internet reports — for something, anything that was open at 7 p.m. and stumbled on Kushi Yama, a high-end Asian fusion spot on the interstate. Its decor, including a long, pebbled waterfull, was lavish and the food was well spiced. But only one other table was in service.

DSCF1213

The next morning, we broke our fast at an institution: the Nu-Castle Diner on the edge of downtown. Crammed with Coca-Cola mementos, the resolutely old-fashioned spot comes with bright service, hearty food and tables of old-timers catching up on dedades of gossip. The procession out of town, however, was marred by detritus on US 60, formerly on Route 66, where tourist traps from many decades ago now compete to see which can rust away completely. On the upside, the buildings were occupied by reps of every culture imaginable in Amarillo.

DSCF1218

The precise geographic source of the North Fork is about a mile southeast of White Deer (high school teams: Bucks and Does). Amid the stubble of winter wheat and aside workers erecting power lines to transmit energy from nearby wind farms, we found the damp circle credited with originating the fork. Of course, the river’s watershed extends as far as New Mexico, but that’s evident only during major floods.

DSCF1189

A mile directly east, the flat plains fall off into Caprock cliffs. Below, we found the first bridge over the dry riverbed, amidst the clutter of oilfield equipment. We swiftly moved on to the village of Lefors, where the North Fork is suddenly very wet, and marshy sandbanks lead to giant trees, including thirsty cottonwoods and willows. Here we encountered our first contingent of cliff swallows, who nest under Texas bridges. Not pleased, they swarmed around our heads. Thank goodness they don’t actually attack.

DSCF1220

Further stops on the rolling prairies — where mesquite seems under control — introduced all sorts of birds — great white herons, night herons, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, spotted sandpipers, red-winged blackbirds, horned larks, western kingbirds, phoebes, various hawks, buzzards and falcons, some unidentifiable ducks, along with the usual crowds of mockingbirds, grackles, starlings, sparrows and such near the towns.

DSCF1223

The North Fork is red by the time it reaches the Oklahoma border, near Interstate 40. We jumped up to the town of Sayre, where the floodplain broadens impressively. But the real treat in southwestern Oklahoma — a complete surprise — was Quartz Mountain State Park. On a Comanche-Apache-Kiowa reservation, a granite uplift has created a tiny chain of rugged mountains, graced by a man-made lake as striking as any in Central Texas. It’s beautiful.

Swollen by storms, the North Fork becomes insistent below the park’s dam. For the first time, I felt the river’s power and danger. For all our time on Texas rivers, I’m respectful unto reverent about the destructive potential of flowing water, not to mention snakes, quicksand and unstable banks.

DSCF1227

From here, the river heads due south to the Texas border, where it joins the Prairie Dog Town Fork to become the Red. One fact I had missed previously: The Oklahoma border starts not in the middle of the river, but on the south bank. Two Supreme Court cases confirmed that our neighbor owns the riverbed and, thus, its mineral riches.

DSCF1215

We ate crispy catfish in Vernon, Texas, a classic micropolis. This was a new word for us, taken from a historical atlas of Texas. Apprarently, the government classifies towns and surrounding areas with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 as micropolitan areas. Our other new word: “distributary,” referring to a river that siphons off water from the main stem.

DSCF1232

Now following the Red River proper, we headed to Wichita Falls, which was our destination when we traced the Wichita River. This perplexing metropolitan area — rating more than 100,000 souls — snared us again in its confusing freeway system. We found snacks, however, at Aldi’s, a steeply discounted British grocery chain that sells moslty European brands. Our entire evening meal cost us $14.

DSCF1229

We pressed on to Henrietta, where we stayed in a palatial, three-story faux-tel with a curving lobby staircase and a room the size of our house, still a bargain at less than $90. Some clever writer someday will explain the spread of these two-, three- and four-story hybrids between a roadside motel and an urban hotel. Some are amazingly comfortable and classy. But why in towns like Henrietta, population little more than 3,000?

Best Texas rivers: Onion Creek

There’s a reason why they call the town Dripping Springs.

As we recently discovered, Barton Creek rises from springs just northwest of this Hill Country town. Onion Creek emerges from the limestone strata not far southwest.

 

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=12012_1118OnionCreek0021While Barton remains a Hill Country stream — bright, fast and narrow within the dramatic confines of its canyon — for most of its journey, Onion feeds a wider valley almost immediately. By the time it reaches Interstate 35, after passing by Driftwood and Buda, its canyon is wide enough to cause major damage during heavy rains.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

2012_1118OnionCreek0035The Onion makes it all the way past volcanic Pilot Knob to carve its last miles into the Blackland Prairie.

Reputedly the longest creek in Texas, the 60-mile-long Onion, whose true origins lie in Blanco County, is perhaps best known for flooding communities built in the 1960s and ’70s after it emerges from the Hill Country.

We caught up with it on RM 12, not far south of U.S. 290. For a good ways, we followed in along RM 150. The fields, some of them vineyards, are lush and green from all the rain. Here, the stream is clear and rushing. We turned left at FM 1826 to catch the Onion and its cypress-guarded banks again where wine and barbecue rule.

13226732_10156893419080316_4193266699937644854_nThere in Driftwood, we pulled over into Camp Ben McCullough, a Confederate reunion grounds that continues as private campsite. Here, the slower water turns turquoise at inviting swimming holes beneath titanic cypresses.

2012_1118OnionCreek0023.JPGRight after Fall Creek Vineyards, we switched over to FM 967, which tracks the creek from a distance until it boldly crosses the stream near Garlic Creek in western Buda.

2012_1118OnionCreek0025That’s where we found one of the most secure pedestrian walkways to span a Texas waterway. Two high, concrete balustrades enclose the walker in utter safety from whizzing cars on one side and a watery fall on the other.

2012_1118OnionCreek0026Nearby, we climbed a hillside that once was home to the Antioch Colony, a freedmen’s community founded in the 1880s that remained a farm center well into the 1940s. We often run into references to it and its communications upstream with Manchaca (originally Menchaca), another home to freed slaves.

We stopped at a tributary of the Onion in Buda’s Stagecoach Park, where the visitors’ center welcomes one in an 1887 stagecoach inn. Next, we encountered the Onion at a familiar low-water crossing along the Old San Antonio Road, a narrow stretch of former highway that feels lost to time. Hard to believe it is still served by a one-lane bridge.

2012_1118OnionCreek0027We picked up Onion again on Slaughter Lane amid a jumble of new apartment complexes, mobile home parks and older golf-course subdivisions. We headed up Bluff Springs Road to another freedmen’s community, but not before documenting the creek’s growth at a high bridge near Brandt Road.

13240757_10156893797400316_2824028856207350879_nWe couldn’t resist zooming up past William Cannon Drive to see what’s happened to the Sneed Plantation House, another Confederate remnant which continues to deteriorate behind a bent fence. Choosing among the many parks and greenbelts that now take the place of less appropriate uses for bottomlands (don’t build homes here), we steered into McKinney Falls State Park.

2012_1118OnionCreek0028Now this park is best known as a grand swimming and picnicking spot, but not today, with the creek still at flood stage and quite dangerous.

2012_1118OnionCreek0030That and park warnings didn’t keep everyone out of the water, but you can’t stop the human comedy.

2012_1118OnionCreek0032We instead examined wagon wheel tracks from El Camino Real and later crossings, then took snaps of the upper and lower falls.

It’s not far from here to Richard Moya Park in old Moore’s Crossing. Alas, this lovely park, which hosts the former Congress Avenue Bridge, is closed and in complete disarray.

13241160_10156894086940316_7036938343422864467_nNot so the next one downstream, Barkley Meadows Park, a very modern but underpopulated addition with a big picnic area and a greenbelt trail that embraces both sides of Texas 130.

How did this come to be? We followed a concrete trail to a point that turned very muddy and jungle-like to observe the Onion, post-flood, but still quite powerful. There’s one last possible point of entry that we skipped near Fallwell Lane, quite near the Onion’s confluence with the Colorado River, but, hey, we’ll will seek that out another day.

Best Texas rivers: The Blanco River

At times, it seemed as if the Blanco River — ravaged a year ago in the Memorial Day and All Saints Day floods — didn’t want to be traced.

2012_1117Blanco0029

On the first day’s attempt at a tracing, we easily reached the trim town of Blanco via U.S. Highways 291 and 281. At the city limits, we sensed trouble. As we headed south, a straggly but intrepid stream of bike riders headed north. We would not lose sight of them for the next 25 miles. The Real Ale Ride took up much of the narrow river and hillside roads between Blanco and Luckenbach. The idea of trailing them for the 25-mile return trip was ludicrous. So we bopped up to Fredericksburg and circled back to Johnson City and Marble Falls before tracing the San Gabriel River.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

On the second day’s try, we found ourselves stuck behind both sides of a transported doublewide on U.S. 290, which threatened to slow our early pursuit of the Blanco to a crawl. The eventual appearance of wide shoulders on the highway saved the day.

2012_1117Blanco0021.JPG

Once we prevailed — and after documenting the Old Blanco County Courthouse — we luxuriated along one of the most easily accessed rivers in the state (the ultra-short Comal probably ranks No. 1).

2012_1117Blanco0024.JPG

Accessible, at least, along its upper strands. Along the River Road and its cross-river offshoots, we caught the already strong, clear, white Blanco repeatedly at low-water crossings, weirs and green spaces.

2012_1117Blanco0025

There were few signs of the big flood here, except for high limbs of tall cypress trees askew. No wonder this stretch of the river, with its rock houses, striated limestone cliffs and crystalline pools near Blanco State Park, is so popular with tourists.

2012_1117Blanco0030.JPG2012_1117Blanco0035.JPG

Below the town of Blanco, however, the river falls into a steep canyon below the Devil’s Backbone, one of the most jagged uplands in Central Texas. Access to the river here is limited.

2012_1117Blanco0038

Along FM 32, however, we chanced upon the exquisite Little Blanco River, where cypress boughs hung over a fairyland of tumbling rills and dappled banks.

2012_1117Blanco0039.JPG

We headed back to the river at Fischer and the sadly storied Fischer Store Road. Here, last year’s flood had taken out an old bridge, while wiping out houses along the wide canyon.

2012_1117Blanco0041

We walked in silence out to the middle of the new bridge, amid the wreckage of former holiday homes and giant trees.

From here, we headed to Wimberley, flocked, as one would expect on a Sunday, by day trippers, who meandered around the town square. Cypress Creek looked lovely, in contrast to the washed-out Blanco.

Then on to San Marcos, we played hide and seek with our river as we descended into suburbs and then historic districts in town. After a break in the Hays County Courthouse Square, we found our iPhone footing and finally made solid contact with the river again on the Post Road.

2012_1117Blanco0045

This is an ancient crossing that goes back at least to the Camino Real. Amazingly, it is served by only a one-lane bridge. This, in one of the fastest-growing communities in the country.

2012_1117Blanco0046

In the lazy canyon — unlovely after the floods — families went happily about their riverine pursuits in the shallows. Just downstream, across a strip of the fertile Blackland Prairie, the Blanco meets up with the San Marcos River. The Blanco, thus, is among the only Texas rivers to start and — almost — end in the Hill Country, which might help explain its Spanish name.

Best Texas rivers: San Gabriel River

We approached the sources–North and South Forks–of the San Gabriel River from the west.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

2012_1116SanGabriel0001
The South Fork of the San Gabriel north of Oatmeal.

The terrain of the Balcones Canyonlands Nature Wildlife Preserve is unbelievably rugged. And remote — for a place less than 30 miles from Central Austin. We passed almost no buildings or vehicles on FM 1174. For that, we had to wait for the hamlet of Oatmeal, a spot that looks like it hasn’t changed in forever.

2012_1116SanGabriel0002
Downstream on the South Fork of the San Gabriel.

We found the South Fork of the San Gabriel in a gentle glade next to a Spanish-language Baptist church. The little valley teemed with life — flowers, insects, birds. And the narrow, fast-moving river fork could have doubled as a mountain stream.

Then up FM 243, we encountered something out of “The Legend of Sleep Hollow.” The old railroad town of Bertram — on the Burnet-Austin line — is a collection of late 19th-century buildings with almost no connection to the metro of 2 million nearby. There’s Bertram Hall, but otherwise, there was nothing here I could recognize. Ollie’s Pizza is hiring, though.

2012_1116SanGabriel0003
The North Fork of the San Gabriel north of Bertram.

So then onto FM 1174, where we found the North Fork of the San Gabriel in infant form. (We never ran across the Middle Fork.) Here, we nosed around the vanished town of Strickland, once a rival to Bertram before the railroads.

2012_1116SanGabriel0004
Downstream on the North Fork of the San Gabriel.

Again, a beautiful Hill Country stream spilling into ranchland served by step-ladder county roads.

On our way to the next contact at Joppa, we turned a bend in the road to find a small church surrounded by a lot of cars. There, over the North Fork, on an old metal bridge, were young people in formal clothes lined up for photographs. A wedding? So we thought.

2012_1116SanGabriel0006
A metal bridge over the North Fork of the San Gabriel near Joppa.

But first, we hopped east and upland — and by a ranch named Toppa Joppa — to another crossing of the North Fork, also with a metal bridge, where the waterway had grown in strength and width.

2012_1116SanGabriel0007
Downstream on the North Fork of the San Gabriel near Joppa.

After poking around there, we headed back to the first bridge, where it became clear that those were not wedding clothes, but rather beauty pageant drag.

Miss Texas River Tracing?

We now traveled across solid ranch land — no longer Hill Country really — to U.S. 83, where cars zoomed at incredible speeds. When we found the North Branch again, the passing vehicles made our parked car shudder. Here, the banks are clotted with hackberries, oaks, willows and other thirsty trees.

2012_1116SanGabriel0012
Lake Georgetown from Russell Park.

We backtracked to North Lake Road, where begin the suburbs of Georgetown. Of the parks on Lake Georgetown, we chose Russell Park, another production of the Army Corps of Engineers with standard-order chatty gate guard. We steered down to the boat launch area, not far from a beach teeming with lake-lovin’ kids.

Although the far shore revealed stacked limestone shelves, we were too far away to be overly impressed. We fought our way through the Sun City side of the suburbs to downtown Georgetown, where we crossed a tall, new bridge over San Gabriel Park. In its shadow, we took advantage of a low-water crossing for pictures. It turns out, it dates to the WPA 1935-1937, according to a plaque.

2012_1116SanGabriel0014
San Gabriel Park in Georgetown.

After swerving by Southwestern University, we pressed east on Texas 29 past a giant mall-like complex we learned was East View High School. Almost immediately, we dipped into the Blackland Prairie and its vast fields of corn and wheat. Almost every landscape now was bottomland of the richest variety.

2012_1116SanGabriel0016
Granger Lake.

Our next stop was Granger Lake, another Army Corps outfit with another talkative gatekeeper, this one a bit of a scold. Take pictures of the lake? Well, OK. We found a lake full up to the low shore trees, a few boaters and dozens of deserted picnic pavilions. Still, almost no waterfowl. What’s up with that?

2012_1116SanGabriel0018
A pretty full Granger Lake.

On FM 486, we found one of those perfect new bridges with wide shoulders and clear views of the now-free San Gabriel. The trees here neared jungle scale and density; the bird community was crowded and loud: the calls of woodpeckers, thrushes, cardinals, blackbirds all vied for our attention.

The town of San Gabriel is hardly worthy of bearing the name of this beautiful river. All that remains is a grocery-hardware store and a defunct gas station. If we were in a more Romantic mood, we’d call it Faulkner Country. Were it on a straightaway, it would go unnoticed.

2012_1116SanGabriel0020
The San Gabriel River near the hamlet of San Gabriel.

OK, one last crossing before the San Gabriel joins the Little River, this one between Tracy and Minerva in precincts that the Spanish called “El Grande Rancheria” because of the numerous villages of Tonkawas, Apaches and Comanches. We were surprised to see it at flood stage, since the rest of the river had receded after the recent heavy rains.

Back to town through RockdaleThorndaleThrallTaylorCouplandElgin and Manor. For what was supposed to have been a day trip, with sidetracking it ended up a nine-hour journey.

 

Best Texas rivers: Lampasas River

The recent heavy rains put the Lampasas River at flood stage, and this led to less than ideal viewing. When the water is up to the tree branches, just about every stretch looks the same.

2012_1115Lampasas0001
Looking upstream on the Lavaca River at FM 1690.

The odd sandbar, the tumbled tree trunks, the piles of boulders are all submerged, making most views indistinguishable from one another.

2012_1115Lampasas0002
The Lampasas River looking downstream from FM 1690.

On the other hand, it was a great day for late wildflowers!

(Also, for a more complete account of our statewide adventures, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

2012_1115Lampasas0003
Texas thistle.

We started today’s trace between the burgs of Lampasas and Hamilton on FM 1690, hilly pastureland dotted with oaks, pecans and hackberries. Since this was so close to the sources of the Lampasas, we expected a delicate stream. Instead, we found a full, muddy river up to its smothered banks. As elsewhere this week, wildflowers flocked up and down the valley.

2012_1115Lampasas0004
Looking downstream on the Lampasas at Kempner.

Next, we headed back to the tidy town of Lampasas to take U.S. 190 east. Very close to Kempner, we stopped on a busy bridge to find the river, once again, rampant and colored cafe au lait.

2012_1115Lampasas0005
Upstream at Kempner. Joe could have gotten killed taking this shot.

Meadow birdsong trained our binoculars on far points. By the end of the day, we had tallied scissor-tailed flycatchers with breeding plumage, barn swallows, cliff swallows, red-winged blackbirds, brilliant cardinals, way too many buzzards, domesticated ducks, annoying grackles, killdeer, and the ubiquitous mockingbird.

2012_1115Lampasas0006
Greenthread, Indian blanket and mealy sage.

At Copperas Cove, we headed south on FM 2657, a broad highway that led us to a high bridge, where the main attraction was again … flowers, including a prickly pear cactus with two flowers of different colors.

2012_1115Lampasas0009
Lampasas River south of Copperas Cove with cliff swallows.

More flowers: Greenthread, Indian blanket, mealy sage, Texas thistle, brown-eyed susan, silver-leafed nightshade.

2012_1115Lampasas0007
Prickly pear cactus.

Near Maxdale, we zoomed along a lonely stretch of road to find a more clear tributary of the Lampasas, later identified as Mill Creek.

2012_1115Lampasas0010
Mill Creek, upstream.

It was closer to what we expected of the main stem.

2012_1115Lampasas0011
Mill Creek, downstream.

The next incident disappointed one of us mightily. We had so looked forward to the town of Ding Dong. We pictured ourselves posing with the hamlet’s welcoming sign. The jokes wrote themselves. Sadly, this exurb of Killeen displayed no adverts of its existence.

2012_1115Lampasas0012
Bridge over the Lampasas as it becomes Stillhouse Hollow Lake.

Basically, the Lampasas continued to look its big, full self until we reached Stillhouse Hollow Lake, where the water level had risen into Cedar Gap Park. Flood debris covered the shore.

2012_1115Lampasas0013
Plenty of flood debris on a high Stillhouse Hollow Lake.

A local stopped to talk. He had rarely seen the lake this high. He also admitted to having a friend in Ding Dong, which tickles us even to record.

2012_1115Lampasas0014
Sailing will take me away … to Stillhouse Hollow Lake near the dam.

We plowed through Harker Heights to another Army Corps of Engineers park near what was once known in the 1960s as the Lampasas Dam. It’s pretty impressive for something that’s not reinforced concrete. At a marina, we observed the social lives of ducks and one solitary sailboat.

2012_1115Lampasas0015
Lampasas River below the dam as it heads to join Salado Creek to form the Little River.

What remained was one last glimpse of  the Lampasas — a shrouded shadow of its former self below the dam — before it joined Salado Creek to form the Little River. On to Holland, Bartlett, Granger, Taylor and Elgin on the way back to our Austin base camp.

Note: All images today by Joe Starr.

Best Texas rivers: Barton Creek

One day, we traced Barton Creek from Dripping Springs to the greenbelt at Camp Craft Road. The stream was high, swift, emerald and translucent.

IMG_2725The next day, we followed the final mile of the creek, from the start of the greenbelt to the mouth on Lady Bird Lake at Lou Neff Point. It was even higher, more turbulent, louder and now opaque.

IMG_2749.JPGWhat a difference six hours of rain makes.

To a certain extent, the designation “river,” “creek,” or “stream” just depends on who gets there first to name it. Forty-mile-long Barton Creek is as long and robust as many a Texas river!

IMG_2721We started, naturally, in Hays County. North of Dripping Springs on Bell Springs Road, in a steep valley flush with late wildflowers, we passed wineries, distilleries and breweries. No, we didn’t tarry. Instead, we found the creek at a low water crossing, spilling into a fairly calm pool. There sat placidly a domesticated water fowl completely unperturbed by our presence.

IMG_2727We turned around — don’t drown! — and headed back to U.S. 290 and the next road, Texas 12, with its small ranches laid out like a gorgeous pastoral patchwork. We headed to Trautwein Road, where the water was even higher. Upstream, it looked more tranquil and clotted with water plants.

IMG_2726Almost immediately the canyon begins to narrow and deepen along Fitzhugh Road, where grander ranches perched on hilltops. Back to U.S. 290, then Circle Road to Rawhide Trail, past the Austin Zoo to — a dead end. As we examined the signs, including one the marked an active archeological site, we noticed a small, rectangular sign adorned with the image of a roadrunner. It included the word: “Paisano.”

IMG_2730.JPGWe had found the entrance of Paisano Ranch, the storied home to author and folklorist J. Frank Dobie, now a writers’ retreat. We thought of our friend, Sarah Bird, who described the experience in detail, and long-dead Roy Bedichek, one of our heroes and author of “Adventures of a Texas Naturalist.”

A point of poetic grace, here we discovered delicate little flowers of a light violet hue that we could not identify.

IMG_2733.JPGNext we headed to the “Y” at Oak Hill, took a left on Texas 71, and surfed the traffic uphill and down to the little gated subdivision of Spanish Oaks Club. The creek is draped with overgrowth here, and the bridge has no shoulder. We stopped on the roadside to photograph the 1850s Bohls’ cabins, which have been eerily preserved but are restricted in a private park.

IMG_2744We doubled back to Bee Caves Road and headed to the Lost Creek community. Here in Lost Creek Park, below high cliffs, we tramped out onto an old low water crossing to record the rushing water in the wider riverbed. (We skipped the Barton Creek community because access to the water there is not welcoming.)

IMG_2736Two belted kingfishers fought an airborne battle over a recently snagged fish.

IMG_2745.JPGThen for a hike. On a orphaned stretch of Camp Craft Road, we found the westernmost entrance to the Barton Creek Greenbelt. The trail here is very steep and very popular on a pretty, cool day. At its base is a cascade that made our day. It seemed the essence of the creek.

It was, however, late. The next morning, it rained from 6 a.m. to noon.

IMG_2750.JPGAs soon as the trees had stopped dripping, we headed to Barton Springs Pool. When we opened the car doors, we knew something had changed. A roar came from the creek. Even as we considered heading back up the greenbelt, we realized the action was right here, as the flood tumbled noisily over the upper and lower dams of the pool.

IMG_2752.JPGLower approaches looked wet and unappealing. No canoeing today. So we passed under the lovely, possibly doomed Art Deco Barton Springs Boulevard bridge, dodged a Girl Scout troop at the arcing trail bridge, and ended at Lou Neff, where the muddy water of Barton Creek seemed nearly as wide as the Colorado River itself.

IMG_2754

Best Texas rivers: Leon River

This will be a short one. Not because the Leon — 185 miles long — is particularly abbreviated. But because our river tracing along the Leon was some 10 years ago. And we hadn’t established a system of recording our experiences yet.

Stuck inside because of the rain today, we’ll probably dip into more memories of rivers about which we have no surviving notes.

(Also, for a more complete account of our statewide adventures, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

The Leon was actually our second Texas river to trace. We started with the muddy Little, which drains the Leon, Lampasas and San Gabriel rivers — along with Salado Creek — into the Brazos.

078_carousel
Courtesy Leon River Watershed Protection Program.

The Leon comes with two lakes, one pretty impressive, the other shriveled when we visited it. The first, Belton Lake, looks like a New Deal project, although it was started in 1947 and completed in 1954. We remember heading out over the lip of the dam that impounds the water supply for the Temple area, also stopping in quaint downtown Belton where the river is crossed by a old truss bridge above a calm park.

We skirted the arms of Proctor Lake further upstream. We honestly don’t remember seeing any water in those reaches.

Named by Alonso de León, this lesser-known river has also been identified as the San Antonio elsewhere, according to the almost infallible Handbook of Texas. Much of its history, including a chapter in the Chisholm Trail story, were about floods on what is often a pretty tame waterway.

After making first contact where Leon joins the Lampasas and Salado, we overnighted in the almost deserted husk of downtown Temple, once a great railroad center. We steered around Fort Hood to peek at the Leon’s wriggling course in Coryell, Hamilton, Comanche and Eastland counties.

Our biggest surprise: A flock of wild turkeys gathered in a creekside glade. They stared at us in stony silence until we emerged from the car to take their pictures.

The second night, we stayed in the town of Comanche, which, 10 years ago, seemed frozen in time. That was back when we chose motels because of their “character.” Glad that phase of discomfort is over.

Also memorable was our breakfast in a Comanche diner, where the hearty fare was insanely inexpensive and the nonsmoking area was a tiny square of the dining room surrounded by partitioning walls, apparently to keep us in rather than the smoke out.

Our recollections of towns such as DeLeon, Gustine, Lamkin and Gatesville are dim. Gatesville, with its incarceration complex, seemed particularly grim.

Back then, we really pressed to find the sources of rivers and the Leon takes in three narrow forks before it qualifies as a river. We spent a lot of time looking at dry fields and unpromising dips in the road. Still, we were learning to spot tree lines and to be aware whenever the topography, flora or fauna changed, and what that told us about the rivers. While we zigged and zagged along these backroads, we listened to a UT basketball playoff game intermittently as we drove in and out of the AM station’s broadcast range.

The Leon is something of a Hill Country-type river until it reaches the Cross Timbers region with its banks crowded with pecans, elms, willows and sycamores. Otherwise, it’s a classic, thick prairie stream.

Well, this memory wasn’t as short as predicted.

Best rivers in Texas: Rio Grande, Part 2

Today, we attempted to trace the 40 miles of Barton Creek, by car and on foot, starting above Dripping Springs and ending at the greenbelt below Camp Craft Road. Every mile more gorgeous than the previous. More tomorrow morning, if the rains allow.

This week, we’re also recounting some past trips to Texas rivers, notes for which we have lost. That would include the Upper Rio Grande. Although not part a river tracing proper, it was a destination for more than a dozen life trips. Read here about our more systematic look at the Lower Rio Grande.

(Also, for a more complete account of our statewide adventures, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

04.Santa-Elena-Canyon-SarahWilson
Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. Sarah Wilson.

Neither of us has made the pilgrimage to the great river’s source in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. We have, however, followed roads down its canyon in Northern New Mexico. And we’ve spent time straddling the river in Santa Fe and Los Alamos.

Farther down river, we’ve dipped into its course at Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Elephant Butte Reservoir. In New Mexico, the Rio Grande alternates between its mountain character and a desert one. By the time it reaches Texas above El Paso, those roles have melded.

Here, the river is briefly imprisoned in a concrete channel, easily crossed when low, probably terrifying when at flood stage. We’ve glimpsed it crossing over into Juarez, the twin within this huge and hugely conflicted metro. We’ve also hiked the Franklin Mountains, forgetting as always to take into account the effect of change in elevation on stamina. Yet we recall with pleasure the electric blue stripes on the skinks there.

After El Paso, the Rio Grande spills into sandy lowlands where Spanish explorer Miguel de Oñate gave thanks during his Entrada into New Mexico. We’ve searched there for evidence of that spot but nobody seems to know or care. Anyway, the land is always changing, as is the river.

Our next frequent contact with the river has been in and around Big Bend National Park. We’ve camped on a ledge in Santa Elena Canyon (forbidden, dangerous), during a thunderstorm in the Chisos Mountains (cold, wet) and in several more civilized campsites (tame). We’ve attempted to traverse the River Road (not wise) and we’ve pitched tents out in the great washes below the mountain (at least we never strayed far from the roads).

On each trip, we crossed into Mexico. Only once legally, at Boquillos. But that’s another story. Above and below Big Bend, roads are few and far between. Yet when we could get there, we did. Particularly memorable was visit to Seminole Canyon State Park, where ancient rock painting tempt one down into the canyon.

Amistad Reservoir is vast. We’ve checked in on highways 90 and 277. We’ve gained a sense of the region from Keith Bowden‘s “Tecate Journals,” which documents his canoe and kayak trip from El Paso to Boca Chica. Bowden’s writing can be irritating and infuriating, but he did make the trip alone and recorded it. Nobody else has, as far as we know.

Several times, we met up with the river again in Del Rio. Oddly, one of the most memorable episodes here came in a motel room, when we heard future President Barack Obama speak during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “That’s our next president,” we foretold over Stoli shots.

Don’t remember any specific anecdotes about Eagle Pass, but we have spent time in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, where one relative counts family on both sides of the river. Nothing much to report about the river there, or about Falcon Lake. Below there, we picked up the river at Roma, recorded in a previous blog post.

Despite more than a dozen points of contact, we don’t really know the Rio Grande as we do other Texas rivers. It’s almost too much to absorb. And too much of it is remote, and even dangerous.

Two books to check out: “Rio Grande,” edited by Jan Reid, and “Great River: The Rio Grande” by Paul Horgan.