Best Austin coffee shops near South Congress Avenue

You’re always a short walk from good coffee vibes on South Congress Avenue.

Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden. 121 Pickle St. 512-481-0694. cosmiccoffeebeer.com. 7 a.m.-midnight, Sun.-Fri. 7 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat. Lots of onsite parking, but cars overflow onto side streets at busy times. Decaf, teas, chai, beer, wine, cocktails. Music is lively, but one can find plenty of quiet spots in the garden.
Cosmic is cosmic. The latest adventure for Austin hospitality guru Paul Oveisi transforms a former industrial site into a garden of earthly delights for young and old alike. Across the way is a rock-climbing studio, gym and wine-tasting room. In between is a vast array of low, comfortable chairs set next to tables, fires and water features. Could use some more shade when the heat arrives, but Oveisi told me he is taking care of that. The counter to the back of the interior zone is simplicity itself. Adult beverages appear more prominent than the coffee offerings, but this is no dive. Kids wind their way through the garden, where old hippies, young hipsters and, yes, South Austin rednecks hang out. It recalls not only ABGB but, going further back, the Armadillo World Headquarters (1970-1980), Scholz Beer Garten (1866-today) and other beloved Austin casual spots. Is Oveisi making history again?
UPDATE: Paul Oveisi’s last name was misspelled when this was first posted.
Bennu Coffee. 512 S. Congress Ave. 512-448-3919. Open 24 hours 7 days a week. benucoffee.com. Limited parking in a shared lot with many restrictions, additional street parking up the hill on South Congress Avenue. Instant, free WiFi with no password. Decaf Americano. Low volume music.

East Austin favorite Bennu Coffee has taken over the slot occupied for years by social-justice-driven Dominican Joe. Good news: Bennu, which also pledges fair trade, local vendors, reduced waste and philanthropy, has given the L-shaped space a needed shot of energy. Open 24 hours, Bennu added seating indoors and outdoors without forcing a feeling of overcrowding. Despite the larger and younger crowd, the place — wonder of wonders! — is not all that loud. Lots of laptoppers, but also friends visiting in a leisurely way. The owners have simplified the decor and the drink menu, too, now divided into Hot, Cold and Smoothies categories. The food choices, on the other hand, have expanded to include more sandwiches and pastries. The heart of the place, however, hasn’t changed: The inviting counter and coffee stations operate quickly, efficiently and gracefully. My barista, for instance, didn’t shut down my preliminary decaf order, as so often happens at other shops, but rather emphasized the superiority of decaf Americano. Thank you! And mine was, in fact, superior.

RELATED: Best Austin coffee shops near South First Street.

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Jo’s Coffee. 1300 South Congress Ave. 512-444-3800. joscoffee.com. Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Street parking only. Good, free Wi-Fi. Decaf (Americano), tea, chai. All open-air seating competes with street sounds.

In 1999, this spot revolutionized the delivery of coffee, the design of shops, and even the flow of street life, not just on South Congress but all over Austin. Overnight, a simple green and red box was planted on the corner of the avenue and West James Street, and — this is key — right at the sidewalk line. One ordered through a walk-side window; the seating was open air and shaded, much of it facing foot, bike and auto traffic. Instantly, street life became theater for those who stopped for espresso and other coffee drinks, then a growing array pastries, tacos, chips, waters, teas, sandwiches and, for a while, beer. The last one was huge because alcohol laws had always forbidden anything that looked like open beverage take-out service. (It has since disappeared from the menu.) The coffee has always been good, even if it has been bested by a few specialists around town. Nothing can take away from the location, though, enfolded in the bosom of the Hotel San Jose and its adjacent social and entertainment events. Jo’s didn’t invent SoCo, but it is impossible to think of the city’s charismatic tourist attraction without it. Despite its popularity, there’s almost always an empty seat, subject to the weather.

RELATED: Best Austin coffee shops near Lower South Lamar Boulevard.

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Mañana Coffee & Juice. 1603 S. Congress Ave. 512-872-3144. mananaaustin.com. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Free underground parking. Strong, free WiFi. Decaf, tea, chai. Quiet inside and out.

One of the last pieces in the South Congress Hotel puzzle is in place. Conceived by the New Waterloo group, Mañana Coffee & Juice slips into a narrow spot behind the urban dining magnet Central Standard. You can enter this light, trim space from East Monroe Street, or from the hotel’s courtyard, where spillover tables invite guests to linger on clement days. Many of the interior seats line long counters rather than tables, and so attract solo typists more so than folks chatting. The coffee drinks — made by alert baristas — are potent and the beans come from Cuvée Coffee, while the teas are drawn from Kusmi Tea. A rare offering for an Austin coffeehouse: cold-pressed juices, along with milks, plus fruits and veggies overseen by chef Michael Paley. Pastry chef Amanda Rockman makes the quite fresh baked goods and snacks. These days, our downtown hotels rely on in-house Starbucks outlets, but that won’t do on idiosyncratic South Congress, where almost none of the businesses hail from out of town. Despite the lack of venues to rendezvous inside Mañana and the oddly uncomfortable stools at the bar, it’s likely to become a regular haunt.

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Sage Cafe. 2810 South Congress Ave. 512-916-8804. manray30.wixsite.com/sage-cafe. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. Free parking at Great Outdoors. Decaf, tea, chai. Free wifi with password. Quiet inside and outside.

Formerly Garden District Coffee, then Sage Coffee, this nature-loving spot is now called Sage Cafe. And for good reason, since the small outfit on the grounds of the Great Outdoors nursery offers a lot of food and drink. The outer terrace is swathed in green, cooled by deep shade on most days. Inside, which fills up quickly, old furniture is grouped into a few meeting or reading areas. One orders at a short counter from a multitude of offerings that include frappes, kombucha, protein drinks, cold-brewed and espresso-based drinks. Compared to the rest of the interior, the kitchen looks pretty spacious. What was this building in past eras? Its bones look like something out of the 1930s road culture. Nowadays, it’s as laid-back as possible for St. Edward’s University students from across the avenue and shoppers at the Great Outdoors. It should be remembered that, before the city of Austin improved the streetscape from Oltorf Street more more or less to Ben White Boulevard a decade or so ago, this stretch would not have a convivial location for a coffee shop or a cafe.

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TOMS Austin. 1401 South Congress Ave. 512-350-2115. toms.com. 8 a.m.-8 p.m Sun.-Fri., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat.. Street parking only. Decaf (Americano), no tea or chai. Email entry required for Wi-Fi. Muted music inside and not too loud outside.

Don’t know what it is about coffee and philanthropy, but they seem to go together. In 2014, charming Blake Mycoskie — briefly a citizen of our city — followed up his famous “One for One” shoe-and-eyewear charities with roasted coffee which helps pay for clean water projects. Showcased during SXSW that year, Mycoskie transformed a century-plus-old home on a rise at South Congress and East Gibson Street into a chic retreat, with oversized porch swings, lounge furniture, fireplaces, sheltering oaks and landscaping front and back. Two shopping niches offer the shoes and eyeglasses, while laptoppers congregate in an oddly arranged area to the back. Coffee comes by way of drip, cold, pour-over and espresso. A limited number of other beverages have been added, but there’s still a minimalist feel to the place. Good fit for the SoCo scene, with just enough local authenticity. Sometimes, little parties gather in the back, but the interior spaces, painted in playful colors, are hushed. One thing: It’s not as legible from the street as a coffee shop as, say, Jo’s down the hill. But it is cleanly branded as TOMS.

UPDATED: Apanas has closed on South Congress.

OUR ORIGINAL 2007 STORY.

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Art by Mike Sutter
10,000 Coffee Shops. In 2007, we proposed a series titled “10,000 Coffee Shops.” We found only 100 around Austin, but it felt like 10,000. Our point: That in the 1980s, there had only been three such spots here! We’re sure to count more than 200 during a new run in 2016-2017.

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.

 

Best Texas books: What the German Texans left us

Face facts, it’s still summer, weather-wise in Austin. So let’s look back at some recent Texas titles before rummaging through the fall books.

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“The Material Culture of German Texans.” Kenneth Hafertepe. Texas A&M Press. This is a big, beautiful book on a subject that will delight antiquarians and collectors as well as the just plain curious. Heftertepe, who chairs the department of museum studies at Baylor University, has already provided two volumes essential to understanding our region, “Abner Cook: Master Builder on the Texas Frontier” and “A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Fredericksburg and Gillespie County.” Here, he delves into a rich variety of vernacular architecture, as well as covering cabinetmakers, interiors, public buildings, houses of worship and — smart to include — graveyards and grave markers. Hafertepe speaks on his book’s subject at the Neill-Cochran House, designed by Abner Cook, on Sept. 25.

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“Haiku Austin: Vol 1.” Carlotta Eike Stankiewicz. Haiku Empire Press. Small gift books are all the rage. And we approve. Not every opus should double as a weapon. Stankiewicz’s slender volume brandishes its bright, quirky images and light, quirky words quite effectively. Don’t seek profundities here. Instead enjoy page after page of knowing smiles inspired by our town’s beloved singularities. Sample “Lucy in Disguise,” based on the costume shop on South Congress: “sequins and Spandex/drag queens flirt with evil clowns/grown-ups play dress-up.”

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“We Come to Our Senses.” Odie Lindsey. Norton. I look forward to reading this book more carefully and interviewing the Nashville-based author, who has lived in Austin and sets some of his stories here. Lindsey will appear at the Texas Book Festival Nov. 5-6. I can tell you from what I’ve read so far: His dialogue and scene-setting ring absolutely true. His prose reminds me, to some extent, of the plays and the novel, “Rules for Werewolves,” by Austinite Kirk Lynn, which I understand is being considered for movie or TV treatment. Lindsey’s vets are characters of natural interest, given the generational involvement in what seem like endless wars fought for an American public that doesn’t much care.

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“Finding Dorothy Scott: Letters of a WASP Pilot.” Sarah Byrn Rickman. Texas Tech University Press. The author is one of the key keepers of the flame regarding the nearly lost history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who trained in West Texas and ferried planes from base to base during World War II. (We recently wrote about one of the WASP flier, Susie Winston Bain, pegged to an excellent exhibit at the Bullock Texas History Museum.) Here, Rickman presents the letters of Scott, preserved by her twin brother, which reveal the flier’s inner life, but also the day-to-day routines of the WASP forces. Incredibly ambitious, Scott died in a mid-air crash at age 23.

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“The Mammals of Texas.” (Seventh Edition). David J. Schimdly and Robert D. Bradley. University of Texas Press. I love this book. And I’ve used it in the field for years. I can’t tell you what has been improved in this, the Seventh Edition, but what will likely open the eyes of first-timers are the number of whales, porpoises and dolphins that live just off our coast, as well as the numerous introduced species, such as eastern Thompson’s gazelles, Barbary sheep and Sika deer. There are even Japanese macaques loose in Central Texas. The authors have not left out domesticated mammals, which fewer Texans could identify these days as the state urbanizes and suburbanizes. One thing: The range maps, organized by county reports, seem pretty primitive for such a image-conscious publisher like UT Press.91pymvgiw7l

“A Kineñero’s Journey: On Family, Learning and Public Service.” Lauro F. Cavazos and Gene B. Preuss. Texas Tech University Press. A Kineñero is a descendant of Mexicans who worked on the King Ranch in the 1800s. Former Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos — appointed by President Ronald Reagan — counts himself as one. His father served as ranch foreman. A longtime educator, Cavazos also was president of Texas Tech University. He is assisted here in recalling his journey by Preuss, a professor of history at University of Houston-Downtown. The father of 10 children with Peggy Ann Murdoch, Cavazos was blessed with a wide-ranging interest in learning and, especially in interactions among cultures.

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“Texas Land Grants, 1750-1900: A Documentary History.” John Martin Davis, Jr. McFarland. Despite the cover art, this is a serious book about serious history. What could be more important to a country than the claim to the land and its resources? Especially in Texas, where, until the modern era, much of what happened here happened because of land grants. Davis, a retired tax attorney who lives in Fort Davis, is an authority on maps. He patiently takes the reader through the history of Spanish and Mexican grants, military and emigrant headrights, Republic of Texas practices, grants among disputed territories in the Trans-Nueces and Trans-Pecos regions, as well as homestead, education and internal improvement grants. He also provides lots of images of sample grants.

UPDATES: References to Lauro Cavazos, Kenneth Hafertepe and Sarah Byrn Rickman have been corrected.

 

 

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lampasas River south of Copperas Cove with cliff swallows.

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

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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.

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Mill Creek, upstream.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.