Best rivers in Texas: 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.

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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.