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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Lampasas River south of Copperas Cove with cliff swallows.

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

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.

Mill Creek, upstream.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

Note: All images today by Joe Starr.

Best Texas rivers: Barton Creek

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

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

IMG_2749.JPGWhat a difference six hours of rain makes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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