Best Texas rivers: Llano River

LLANO RIVER VALLEY – Checking into our Junction motel, we asked the desk clerk about fun things to do in town. She quipped, “When you find out, let me know.”True, for a student at Texas Tech University-Junction like her, this old Edwards Plateau ranching town offers little social life. Yet for buddy Joe Starr of Houston and me, it served as an ideal base camp for our 13th river tracing. (Our goal: Trace 50 Texas rivers from source to mouth.)

South Llano River. Contributed by Texas Parks & Wildlife

Of all the constant-flow Hill Country rivers, the Llano remains the least altered. As John Graves observes in “Texas Rivers, ” it is dammed only intermittently between its headwaters in Edwards and Sutton counties and its happy meeting with the Colorado River at Lake LBJ. The Llano has yet to inspire a single fancy resort, and city folk have built only a fistful of second homes.

At the juncture of the South and North Llano rivers, Junction attracts mostly hunters and the occasional road-tripper netted off Interstate 10. As for other towns, Mason has been discovered by outdoor types, as well as history buffs; Llano by those two tribes, plus weekend ranchers who pack the coffee shops and courthouse-square eateries. Kingsland, long a vacation camp on the “Llanorado” peninsula, leads to Leviathan lake-side homes and quaint railroad-era inns but is marred by an eye-melting stretch of highway commercial culture. (Lady Bird Johnson would shudder.)

The lack of development upstream – cherished by river lovers – is rooted in historical isolation. The Llano River Valley has supported only traces of permanent civilization. Local Indians were prey for raiding Comanches and Apaches; the Spanish explored the area, but never planted a presidio or mission here.

Germans and Americans filtered into the valley by the mid-19th century, but the trans-Atlantic rails and highways generally passed it by. Even Interstate 10 has not dramatically changed the upper valley, where we spied unfamiliar birds at South Llano River State Park, surveyed limestone, sandstone and granite bluffs and clambered around courthouses, forts and parks.

Why the blessed development lag on the Llano? Catastrophic floods. The evidence is everywhere, from the strewn-by-giants boulders to the Inks Bridge plaque that records a 42-foot wall of water that roared down the canyon in 1935.

Why build when water will reclaim the land?

 

Best Texas rivers: Angelina River

The Angelina was the last of the larger Texas rivers traced during our 10-year program to follow 50 of them from their sources to their mouths, or vice versa. Actually, it was also the last river altogether.

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We had to stop in Looneyville. Had to. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

RELATED: How to Trace the Medina River.

It rises in an area with a lot of history in Rusk County not far from Nacogdoches, winds down into the giant Sam Rayburn Reservoir before wriggling down to join the Neches River at B.A. Steinhagen Lake.

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Angelina River near Douglass, Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

RELATED: Repost: Texas River Tracing: Neches.

We left civilized Nacogdoches early and found the river at Douglass, a not very wide spot in the road that was the location for several Spanish missions. A little collection of historical markers with their backs to the road gave a detailed history of the Spanish presence in this area.

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Lots of history on the Angelina River. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman.

We picked up the Angelina through some gentle bottomlands that glowed with late fall colors.

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Angelina River not far from Lufkin. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

But pretty soon we hit the Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a vast lake that we had spied the day before at the mouth of the Attoyac. Once again, we found the perfect spot to view its expanses, an Army Corps of Engineers park laced with pines and brightly colored hardwoods high atop a bluff.

Related: Tracking down good reads on Texas rivers.

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Sam Rayburn Reservoir on the Angelina River. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

It’s easy to see why this stretch of lake would be a recreational magnet, especially during the summer. But why not in the winter? At every park during this December trip, we were typically the only guests. Couldn’t be a better time for camping, picnicking or boating, as far as we were concerned. The air was comfortably cool and dry, and — more to the point — there were no mosquitos.

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Love the Army Corps of Engineers parks all over Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Right below the dam, we found a river community that rightly hugs the shores of what must be an ideal stretch for fishing and exploring. The Angelina at this point is broad and slow-moving as it approaches the Neches.

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Angelina River below Lake Sam Rayburn Dam. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Finally we ended up at B.A. Steinhagen Lake. We’d been here before on our Neches tracing, when a drought left it a meager patch of water. Now it’s full and clear and ready for visitors.

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Angelina River as it drains into B.A. Steinhagen Lake. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

That’s it. We traced 50 Texas rivers in 10 years. We saw a lot of the state that very few people have seen. We took a lot of backroads and saw a lot of back country. The sense of accomplishment is, needless to say, mixed with nostalgia.

The question comes up now: What to do with all these experiences? Book? Digital guide? We honestly don’t know.

For 10 years, it was just about the roads and the rivers.

Best Texas rivers: Attoyac Bayou

Attoyac Bayou is only 60 miles long. Yet it often appears on lists of significant Texas waterways. So we attacked it with our usual vigor.

RELATED: How to Trace the Medina River.

It rises in Rusk County and flows into the Angelina River in Nacogdoches County at top of the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. For much of its course, we found ourselves in what truly can be called backwoods Texas, including sandy, slurry roads on a rainy day.

Leaving Marshall, we didn’t easily find the Attoyac. We spent over an hour in dense thickets looking for the source our maps said was there. We we saw various rivulets, but without signage, we couldn’t be sure we were looking at the true source.

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The Attoyac outside Caledonia. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Eventually, much farther downstream, we found that it’s a lazy course with soft banks and hardwood overhead.

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Caledonia looking upstream. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We kept getting the impression that this had been cotton country at some point, but it had played out long ago, leaving small, isolated country churches, some of them African-American. But not much else.

Related: Tracking down good reads on Texas rivers.

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Shelby County. Contributed by Joe Starr.

One of the near-ghost towns was Arcadia, a place that seemed trapped in a past life. We wouldn’t have run across it if we hadn’t been forced to take backroad after backroad to reach the river.

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Outside Grigsby, looking upstream. Contributed by Joe Starr.

The Attoyac doesn’t get very big, even as it descends into the giant lake that is the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. The weather got cloudier and mistier as the day wore on.

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The Attoyac just south of New Hope. Contributed by Joe Starr.

You really get a sense of its wildness and isolation here. Very quiet, too, the bird song muffled by the gathing fog; nothing but the quiet muttering of the river.

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Right about here under this misty Sam Rayburn Reservoir, used to be the confluence of the Attoyac and the Angelina Rivers. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We finally found Jackson Hill Park along the lake across from the confluence of the Attoyac and the Angelina. We lingered here trying to take pictures of dewy spider webs. No luck. So we got back in the car and headed for Nacadoches for a nice dinner with an old chum at Maklemore’s Ale House and Bistro.

After several days and nights in East Texas, it was relief to be in a town — or small city — that seemed a part of the 21st century.

 

Best Texas rivers: Big Cypress Bayou

Big Cypress Bayou is perhaps best known these days as the source of scenic Caddo Lake, often called the only natural lake in Texas. Yet, as the displays on the walls of Caddo Lake State Park demonstrate, its water level has been manipulated by man more than once, including the current Caddo Dam in Caddo Parish, La. So natural? Not really.

RELATED: How to Trace the Medina River.

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Stately cypress and pine trees along the edges of tamed Caddo Lake. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Before we got to Caddo Lake to begin the tracing, we couldn’t resist stopping at Lady Bird Johnson’s childhood home in Karnack. While a historical markers stands in the center of this scruffy town, it is nowhere near the house, and there was no indication of where it might be. We were not deterred! Once we found the stately manse on a highway to the south, we discovered that the current owners of the home did not take kindly to unannounced visitors, or so their signs screamed. Still, we pulled over to take a quick snap in Lady Bird’s memory.

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Childhood home of Lady Bird Johnson (née Taylor), Karnack. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Caddo Lake might be the best place to find archetypical East Texas swamp scenery. Stands of bald cypress line the shore and rise from the shallow lake. There are pleasant lakeside paths and boardwalks extending over the lake for unobstructed views. The main entry point, however, in the state park is an oxbow lake should make for a pretty tame, but beautiful boat ride.

Related: Tracking down good reads on Texas rivers.

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Bald cypress in Caddo Lake State Park. Contributed by Joe Starr.

The bayou also famously served the river port of Jefferson, which, before the arrival of the railroads, was the fulcrum for East Texas transportation and distribution. Now a tourist magnet, among its many improved, renovated or restored sites is a park at the turning basin on the bayou. In Jefferson’s historic district is Excelsior House, a hotel in continuous operation since the late 1850s where Oscar Wilde once stayed during one of his American tours.

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Excelsior House Hotel, Jefferson, TX. Contributed by Joe Starr.

To confuse matters at this point, three miles west of Jefferson, Big Cypress Bayou is met by Big Cypress Creek. Which to follow? We followed the creek to Lake Bob Sandlin. More on that later.

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Defunct railroad trestle bridge at the turning basin, Jefferson. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Upstream of Jefferson, we stopped by the gorgeous Lake o’ the Pines, which attracts anglers and recreational boaters and gave us the opportunity to do a little nature watching. Amazing how the river changes so quickly once a few hills begin to define the terrain.

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Lake o’ the Pines on Big Cypress Bayou? Creek?

We remained uncertain — and there was a town, Uncertain, that echoed our concerns — about the bayou/creek designations at this point. But we ended up in Bob Sandlin State Park, a quiet place with, this December, an unusual number of large seasonal decorations. It also features an historic cemetery near a now-disappeared fort. We asked at the front desk, of course: Who was Bob Sandlin? Turns out he was a car dealer from the area who lobbied for years for the lovely lake that accompanies the park.

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This day of river tracing was fairly short. After two nights in Texarkana, we took refuge in Marshall, which turns out is not a very welcoming place for tourists. Dry as a bone, it did offer a tiny barbecue place, Porky’s Smokehouse and Grill, which reminded us how far away we were from Central Texas.

Best Texas rivers: Sulphur River

Like the Nolan and the Pease, the Sulphur River was unknown to us before we began to systematically trace the state’s waterways.

RELATED: How to Trace the Medina River.

For much of its course, the Sulphur tracks the more northerly and much larger Red River, running generally east from Lamar and Delta counties, while flowing into Wright Patman Lake in Titus County. Almost right away, it then wanders into the state of Arkansas and ultimately into the Red River.

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Cooper Lake State Park, just below the confluence of the South and Middle Forks of the Sulphur, Birthright. Contributed by Joe Starr.

At 183 miles, it’s not a particularly long stream, and, like several other East Texas rivers, it rises among hardwoods and prairies before cutting through pine forests and swampy lowlands.

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Just east of Copper Lake looking upstream, Hagansport. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Before hitting the river, we made a base camp at the Hampton Inn in Texarkana. There, we had the good luck of finding two local eateries — Cattleman’s, a traditional steak house with a traditional clientele and satisfying food, and La Fogata Bar & Grill, a family spot on highway on the Arkansas side of the border.

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Hagansport, looking downstream. Contributed by Joe Starr.

At our first stop in the morning, Cooper Lake, we ask the state park warden about water levels. She told us that they had been low for a long time and that the lake was vulnerable to yo-yo-ing supply. Now, however, the water line was pretty high and we lingered at a high point by the lake.

Related: Tracking down good reads on Texas rivers.

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Near Talco. Contributed by Joe Starr.

As we headed downstream, the only access to the Sulphur was usually along lonely county roads and bridges of dubious integrity. At places, it looked like recent floods had inextricably tangled the trees and brush along the shore. Slowly the hardwoods turned to pines as we reached Wright Patman Lake, a lovely spot, if empty on this winter day. We did encounter a flock of pelicans on an arm of the lake, an exciting turn of events.

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White Pelicans sailing out into Wright Patman Lake. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We made sure to stop at a little park just below the dam that impounds Wright Patman. It was there that we were reminded that the spillways enrich the water with oxygen, which attracts fish and, thus, fishing humans. This is a weird little park off a busy highway, but that didn’t stop us from exploring.

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Spillway from Wright Patman Dam. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We never really saw Lake Texarkana — couldn’t even find it on maps –but rather we stopped at a location downstream of Wright Patman just this side of the Arkansas border.

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A few miles farther east and the Sulphur flows into Arkansas and out of our purview. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We’d wager that 95 percent of our state’s citizens have never heard of the Sulphur River, but in the world of far northeast Texas, it’s a pretty significant waterway, our 47th to trace.

UPDATE: A reference to Lake Texarkana could not be confirmed.

Best Texas books: Recent on rivers

As many of you know, Joe Starr and I have traced 50 Texas rivers — by car and on foot — from their sources to their mouths, or vice versa.

RELATED: How to trace the Medina River.

Texas A&M University Press, teamed with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, noticed our progress. And the good folks at the Press now send us their latest releases related — sometimes tangentially — to Texas rivers.

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“Neches River User Guide.” Gina Donovan. Texas A&M University Press. Oh, how we wish there was one of these guides for every Texas river. This is the gold standard. Handy in size and format. Clearly delineated maps. Carefully notated river access points. Helpful nature samples with color photographs of many of the mammals, birds, reptiles and the trees you’re likely to see. Now, the Neches is an East Texas river that cuts through the Big Thicket and its bottomlands are periodically at risk. Getting to know the river through this guide should help the general public make a case for its preservation.

RELATED:  Repost: Texas River Tracing: Neches.

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“Of Texas Rivers & Texas Art.” Andrew Sansom and William E. Reaves. Texas A&M University Press. Virtually an exhibit catalogue, this volume is a handsome collection of representations of Texas rivers — paintings, lithographs, pastels and linocuts. Aspects of Texas’s history and culture are tied together with a riverine theme. It is particularly gratifying to see how artists saw some of the exact same views we enjoyed during our 10 years of Texas river tracing. We are also pleased to see some of our favorite artists — Margie Crisp, Fidencio Duran, Robb Kendrick — represented here. Essays by Sansom and Reaves serve as natural introductions to the subject of Texas rivers.

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“The Blanco River.” Wes Ferguson. Texas A&M University Press. While much of the book is a survey of the history and geography of the Blanco River, the final chapters are a very personal recounting of the devastating Memorial Day Flood of 2015. It bears a family resemblance to Jim Kimmel’s fine “The San Marcos: A River’s Story,” also published in the Texas A&M Nature Guides series. It tracks the trajectory of observations we made of this Hill Country river — so rugged and beautiful for much of its run — and how its final stretch onto the plains around San Marcos is not a thing of beauty.

RELATED: A healing line a year later: The Blanco River.

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“Why the Raven Calls the Canyon.” E. Dan Klepper. Texas A&M University Press. Less focused on the nearby Rio Grande River than on the Fresno Ranch, this collection of photographs can still be grouped with these other books, for the river’s presence is never far offstage. Divided into chapters such as “Labors,” “Dogs,” “Horses” and “Haircuts,” each introduced by a brief commentary, the book’s images nearly form a narrative of the years that the author and the ranch’s caretaker spent “Off the Grid in Big Bend Country.” It’s a gorgeous book that will be appreciated by anyone who savors travel in West Texas.

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“Discovering Westcave: The Natural and Human History of a Hill Country Nature Preserve.” S. Christopher Caran and Elaine Davenport. Texas A&M University Press. With everything from caretaker families’ photos to highly technical geological and topographical charts, this book should satisfy your various curiosities about this stunning seventy-six acre preserve on the Pedernales River. We’ve visited at various stages of the rescue of this box canyon, once trashed out by casual visitors and campers. It’s now a paragon of natural education.

 

How to trace the Medina River

Over the course of 10 years, Michael Barnes and Joe Starr have traced 50 Texas rivers by car and on foot. We inaugurate our expanded Texas River Tracing guide with the Medina River.

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MEDINA RIVER

Length: 116 miles

Source: Edwards Plateau in northwestern Bandera County

Mouth: San Antonio River in southern Bexar County

Lake: Medina

Our main route: Always try alternate routes. That’s how you discover Texas. This trip, we took Texas 16, FM 1283, PR 37, FM 1283, FM 471, US 90, Cagnon Road, Macdona Lacoste Road, Nelson Road, CR 1604, Palo Alto Road, E. Charles William Anderson Loop, Interstate 37 access roads, plus inevitable side trips and impulse stops.

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Places to See: In Bandera, the Frontier Times Museum and the courthouse; Hill Country State Natural Area, southwest of Bandera; Castroville, to explore Alsatian heritage and architecture, including the Landmark Inn, a State Historic Site; Lake Medina, good for boating and fishing when the water is up; Castroville Regional Park, not fancy but with good trails; Medina Natural River Area, a City of San Antonio preserve. (A reminder for your physical and legal well-being: Stay off private land.)

Natural history: Named in 1689 for Pedro Medina, a Spanish engineer, this river rises rapidly among extinct volcanoes that formed along the Balcones Fault. It shares a ridge on the Edwards Plateau with the more famous Guadalupe River. Primarily, it drains Bandera County in a region with a dry, subtropical climate that promotes short grasses and scattered oaks and junipers.

Human history: One of the bloodiest battles ever fought in Texas took place at the river on August 18, 1813, pitting Spanish Royalists against a ragtag army of republicans, an encounter that was part of the larger fight for Mexico’s independence from Spain. After four hours, the royalists won resoundingly. In 1842, Col. John Coffee “Jack” Hays defeated a band of Comanches during at Bandera Pass, a V-shaped cut in the ridge between the Guadalupe and Medina Valleys that was used by the Indians, Spanish, and early Anglos, and later formed part of the Western Cattle Trail. On maps of the 1830s, the Medina serves as the southern border of the Department of Bexar — and thus, Texas. On January 15, 1842, the empresario Henri Castro negotiated a contract to settle Alsatian families in a colony on the Medina, which he did with Hays’s assistance in 1844. Castroville was founded in September of that year. As with much of West Texas, very few slaves were brought to communities along the Medina; a little over 100 were counted in Bandera and Medina Counties during the 1860 census. Unsurprisingly, local enthusiasm for secession was not high. In the only real military action in the area during the Civil War, General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s Confederate cavalry brigade passed through on its way to invade New Mexico. In contrast with much of West Texas, there were no forts in the valley during the Indian Wars. Although US 90 goes through Castroville and San Antonio, the Upper Medina River region generally provides few transportation options. In 1880, for instance, Castroville refused to give the Southern Pacific Railroad a bonus, so it passed south of town. Tourism, including tubing, camping, and dude ranching, remains a major industry. Some farms produced minimal amounts of corn and cotton, but ranches have turned out plenty of cattle since Spanish days. Lackland Air Force Base helped transform the Lower Medina, and Medina and Bandera Counties are today included in the San Antonio Metropolitan Statistical Area.

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Our Trip: The drive from Kerrville to the source of the river is not for the faint of heart — a twisty, turning two-lane road through hills and dales. Like the other rivers wriggling south off the Edwards Plateau, its mother canyon is gorgeous and rugged. We followed it down Texas 16, the narrowest state highway we have ever encountered. The river, already swift and lined with cypresses, appears at full force before reaching the village of Medina, where the North and West Prongs meet to form the Medina proper. In the valleys, we encountered stretches of road that narrowed to one lane under construction. Traffic lights, rather than flaggers, guided the drivers from each direction. Drivers approaching from the opposite direction were, for the most part, courteous and mindful of the ersatz traffic signals. The first town of any consequence is Bandera, the self-styled Cowboy Capital of Texas, once a cypress lumbering camp and then a magnet for Polish and German immigrants. The beauty of the verdant valley is complemented by the historic downtown and numerous guest ranches. We wandered around a bit, but the scene seemed tilted toward the tourist trade. Our next adventure took us south, a right turn at Pipe Creek onto FM 1283, a winding back road to a lookout park over Medina Lake. The park itself was empty, and the lake — still low in late 2015 — without activity. But, boy, do those rugged hills make a great setting. The lake road was cluttered with “Do Not Enter” signs and trashed-out yards. A few miles past the Dancing Bear Cantina, we made a hairpin right on FM 471, where the Medina picks up steam again near the hamlet of Rio Medina The river then gently enters Castroville on the plains below. After longing to explore this Alsatian community for decades, we were delighted to find that many of the slope-roofed structures had been preserved. To catch the river, we hiked through Castroville Regional Park and stopped next to a camp of human snowbirds. On this fine day, joggers and picnickers joined us. The stream bends widely among thick cypresses hung with Spanish moss. It could have been East Texas! Lunch was at the Alsatian-themed Castroville Cafe—good food, much appreciated—and then we headed east on US 90 and drifted into the dreaded gravitational pull of San Antonio. To our surprise, little of the land southwest of the metropolis was developed. We couldn’t get close to the Medina’s mouth, at the San Antonio River just off Interstate 37. Just as well: from the surroundings, we guessed it would not be pretty.

Books to check out: Texas: A Historical Atlas, Rivers of Texas, Spanish Texas, Flash Floods in Texas, Texas Water Atlas, Handbook of Texas, The Adventures of Big Foot Wallace.

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Floods: In 1932, 14 inches of rain fell in a few hours, and Medina Lake rose 22.5 feet. In August 1978, 20.2 inches drenched the town of Medina, and the Manatt Ranch received 48 inches, then a record for a seventy-two-hour period. Raging water encircled the town, plowing through camps in the way. The river peaked at 56 feet in Bandera, which locals said was nearly as bad as a 1919 flood. In July 2002, the Medina flowed into Bandera shops and over the spillway at Medina Lake. Downstream, Castroville experienced its worst flood ever.

State of the River: The Upper Medina, which flows over a limestone bed, is fairly pristine. Settlers chopped down many of the ancient cypresses, but floods eventually wiped out the lumber industry. Now, other than during extreme droughts, the water runs clear and fast; it is never very deep except when in flood. Once the river drops onto the plains, agriculture, industry, dumps, and military installations bedevil it. The river borders the Nueces River Authority, established in 1935, but is not controlled by it. The lower part falls within the boundaries of the San Antonio River Authority.

How to Help: Save Medina Lake, a subset of Lake Medina Conservation Society, aims “to ensure effective stewardship of the water in the lake to benefit farmers, ranchers, recreational users, area businesses and surrounding counties.” The Medina River Protection Fund provides support for an annual river cleanup. Texas Rivers Protection Association, more generally looks after the quality of the state’s remaining natural rivers. The Texas Living Waters Project, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, is working “working to protect wildlife by ensuring that abundant fresh water is flowing in Texas rivers and into our bays.”

Best Texas rivers: Navasota River

We first did the Navasota River by canoe. A blue, plastic canoe. We embarked below the dam at Lake Mexia, navigated several weirs, explored the elaborate Confederate Reunion Grounds, then disembarked at Fort Parker Lake (also known as Springfield Lake after a tiny town that formerly served as Limestone County seat). Must have parked the Suburban at Fort Parker State Parker in advance, because this was well before mobile phones.

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The Navasota River near its source.

The Navasota, perhaps taken from an Indian word for “muddy river,” lives up to its name. It’s a prairie stream from beginning to end, wriggling its narrow way through clay and sandy loams. It rises near Mount Calm in Hill County and pours into the Brazos River at Washington-on-the-Brazos just southwest of the town of Navasota in Grimes County. The river and its tributaries spill into several dammed lakes: This time, we checked out Lake Mexia, Fort Parker Lake and the largest, Lake Limestone.

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Clouds became the stars of many images this day.

We first found the river flowing off FM 73 between Prairie Hill and Coolidge. Menacing skies threatened rain, but held off until the end of our day. Here, the land was ravaged, probably by cotton farming and overgrazing. We steered out onto eastbound U.S. 84, which crosses an upper arm of Lake Mexia. We stopped first at Booker T. Washington Park, site of Juneteenth celebrations and other reunions for African-Americans from the area. Then we stopped briefly to see the sadly untended house where my parents lived during the 1980s and ’90s.

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Booker T. Washington Park on Lake Mexia.

Down FM 2705, we stopped by the Confederate Reunion Grounds again, which looked tidier than during our past visits. Here, the river, replenished by a tamed spring, is still quite narrow. Only a few people fished or picnicked.

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The Colonel’s Spring in the Confederate Reunion Grounds.

We took a wrong turn but found our way to Texas 14, leading directly to Fort Parker State Park. Nearby is a replica of Fort Parker, the frontier settlement from which Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Comanche chief Quanah Parker, was kidnapped. (That year pass for Texas state parks is really coming in handy.) The lake here is pretty and not very wide. I can remember family reunion campouts here above the lake’s low banks.

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Fort Parker Lake.

Back out on Texas 14, we headed to Groesbeck, tidy courthouse town, the right onto Texas 164 and another right on FM 3371, which crosses a fat arm of Lake Limestone, which is big enough for sailing, but attracted this Labor Day only motorboats, and not many of them. Still, a little lakeside county park was pretty hopping with holiday guests.

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Lake Limestone.

We turned right at FM937 in Old Union, passed through Oletha before reaching Texas 7, where we encountered the Navasota again. We had hoped for lunch in Marquez, but we found no cafes or even barbecue joints open there, or in any of the small towns we visited. U.S. 79 took us back to the river, which had thickened and earned a fringe of hardwood forests along its banks.

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Navasota River near Marques.

A series of beautiful, winding roads pushed us past Hilltop Lakes. In my youth, I had won an overly easy phone contest for a weekend with my family there. It was, of course, a real estate scam, but we enjoyed the pool and restaurant and any excuse to get out of town back then. This day, we passed through Normagee and North Zulch before hitting Texas 6 in Bryan. Now Bryan-College Station is a city, but you hardly tell on 6, which is wide and often free of traffic.

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If you look closely, you can see the banks of the Navasota on private land not far from its mouth at the Brazos River.

A few miles down the road, we tooled around Navasota, which had been a booming railroad town at one point. Outside town near Texas 105 we got close to the river one last time. We could see the banks, but the river stays on private land here. On a previous trip, we had recorded the mouth of the Navasota and Joe captured the mix of colors as it joined the Brazos.

 

Best Texas rivers: Buffalo Bayou, Part 2

As you Texas river buffs might remember, we traced the lower part of 65-mile Buffalo Bayou from its mouth at the Lynchburg Ferry, through the industrial maze of the Houston Ship Channel, then along several urban parks and trails, to its semi-tamed midpoint at Bayou Bend in River Oaks.

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The next day, we went to the source.

And that source — the juncture of Willow Fork and Cane Branch in southwestern Katy — surprised us. Really not that far from Brookshire and the Brazos River, truth be told, master-planned communities stretch in very direction. Even here at Kingsland Boulevard, the bayou looks channelized, stressed by litter and anything but dangerous. But wait!

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There would be no West Houston if, in 1945, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not thrown up a huge earthen dams to create the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, located on either side of Interstate 10. There’s never much of a lake at the Barker Reservoir, except when it floods, but here’s the deal: When Upper Buffalo Bayou flooded in the past, just about everything west of Memorial Park was deemed under threat.

And, of course, there are reports that the Addicks and Barker dams have not been adequately maintained, leaving the city below at “extremely high risk.” Yikes!

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We headed down the curving Westheimer Parkway to take advantage of the vast George Bush Park located in the green lands above the Barker Dam, checking out the soccer fields before hiking a short distance through a water-tolerant forested area to a straight-as-a-line bayou channel where joggers and fishermen shared the banks.

Next we turned onto Westheimer Road (FM 1093), only to find a wide intersection blocked with more than a dozen emergency vehicles. There had been a horrible wreck. We worked our way via backroads to Wilcrest, where we headed north and met the bayou where the city has done a miraculous job of creating a sophisticated hike-and-bike trail among the conifers and hardwoods.

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I’ve walked the dogs along here many times while staying with relatives in the greater Memorial area.

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I can remember hiking, too, along the bayou banks as a boy scout at what was then Camp Hudson, but I can’t find any traces of that sweet spot these day.

The bayou continues from Wilcrest through several tony neighborhoods, some dubbed “villages,” where, along Memorial Drive and elsewhere, the mansions grow to enormous sizes in ever more extravagant styles. It is no exaggeration to call some of these places “palaces.”

img_3648The bayou enters the piney retreats of Memorial Park just west of Loop 610, where we scrambled down the muddy kayak ramp to discover quite a bit of nature underneath the residential towers that poked up above the pines. From here, Buffalo Bayou forms the undulating southern boundary of the park. There are many access points behind the picnic areas and the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, again a place we must visit in the milds of spring.

Best Texas rivers: Buffalo Bayou, Part 1

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Some readers might ask why we have included a bayou in our quest to trace 50 Texas rivers. Actually, it’s our second one. Years ago, we traced Bastrop Bayou in the tidelands of Brazoria County.

In this case, Buffalo Bayou is one of the state’s most important waterways, historically and economically. At 65 miles long, it outstrips some watercourses that are given grander names (the Comal River, for instance, flows only 2.5 miles before it reachers the Guadalupe).

When you boil it down, a Texas bayou is really a river that was named by someone from Louisiana; a Texas creek was named by someone from Tennessee; and an arroyo was named by someone from Spain or Mexico, and so forth. Those names stuck.

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We began our bayou adventure where we ended our tracing of the San Jacinto River — at the San Jacinto Monument. On dead-flat, brushy land at the juncture of the two waterways, the Texan army defeated Santa Ana and his Mexican troops. Surrounding that point at the Lynchburg Ferry are miles and miles of industral plants and gritty residential neighborhoods strung along the Houston Ship Channel, the largest such industrial agglomeration in the country if not the world. It’s awe-inspiring, though not in an entirely positive way.

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Joe Starr and I started by perusing the small, old-fashioned historical museum at the base of the monument before ascending the tower — taller than the Washington Monument and built during the Depression — in a tiny elevator. The small interior deck faces mostly west, but also south and north, where we spotted the mouth of the bayou near the docked Battleship Texas. Pretty spectacular setting.

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We next headed to old Harrisburg, a former port on the bayou and town that predated Houston, but now is a grim neighborhood within the city limits, split brazenly by freeways and railroad tracks. It took a little iPhone detective work to find the main historical marker here, located outside a modern drive-through bank. We never discovered the location for the marker that tells about Texas’ first railroad, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado, which embarked from here in 1853.

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Getting down to the docks themselves has never been easy, even less so since 9/11. We were politely turned away, for instance, from the Turning Basin at the head of the Ship Channel by a security guard. But just upstream on the still-wide bayou, we tromped around Hidalgo Park, part of an Hispanic neighborhood alongside Navigation Boulevard that goes back to the turn of the last century. Here, the banks are high and thick with brush, but we got a good view of a rusty railroad bridge and, from a distance, the Turning Basin. A reminder how the port and the rails made this town.

Except for a landscaped area around the original Ninfa’s restaurant, this is an unlovely stretch of Houston that I predicted would resist gentrification. I was wrong. Already, the section of Navigation that abuts downtown has attracted condo-buyers, bicyclists and dog walkers, three signs of what’s to come.

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Only a raving man camping atop a littered hill greeted us on the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike Trail near South Jensen Drive. A bankside theater sat across the bayou, but there was no human activity on either side. It continued to confound me that the bayou is so wide here. Later, I read that it is tidal all the way inland to Allen’s Landing, the starting point for historical Houston. Explains a lot.

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Dodging the freeways that entangle downtown, we found a lovely historical bridge on McKee Street next to James Bute Park. A handy marker informed us that this area was also a little town with a spotty history. It, too, eventually was overshadowed by the metropolis around it.

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Attempts to beautify and civilize the bayou get really intense at Allen’s Landing, whose old brick buildings were rediscovered by hippies when I was young, then later by the builders of University of Houston-Downtown.

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Beautiful walkways, gates and other structures makes some sense as tourist attractions, but that’s not the crowd that huddled there this day.

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We next explored Buffalo Bayou Park, part of a gargantuan program by the city to “green” its signature stream, mainly from downtown to the west. The amenities, including an upscale restaurant at Lost Lake, are, indeed, impressive. We walked out on a grand, empty pedestrian bridge.

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I’m sure that if it were not so incredibly humid, more joggers and bikers would have taken advantage of the park’s intricate, recently flooded landscaping.

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Our last stop of the day took us to Bayou Bend, the former home of philanthropist Ima Hogg, now an outpost of the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston. The parking lot located on the northwest bank off Memorial Drive was empty because, it turns out, the pedestrian bridge over the bayou, which leads to the house and gardens on the southeast bank, was under construction. We’ll come back in the spring when the azaleas are in bloom.

It’s worth noting that the bayou will still very high from summer rains. The vegetation along the banks in the River Oaks area is quite verdant. One could imagine what explorers or early settlers thought about this near-jungle when they first encountered it. We didn’t hike around the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. In fact, by this point, we could hardly stand being outside.

We settled instead for excellent Belgian fare at Cafe Brussels on Houston Avenue. The next day: Buffalo Bayou from its source to Memorial Park.

UPDATE: The river at the mouth of Buffalo Bayou was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this post.