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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 Rockdale, Thorndale, Thrall, Taylor, Coupland, Elgin and Manor. For what was supposed to have been a day trip, with sidetracking it ended up a nine-hour journey.