Nothing lowers my stress level like a twist of blue-green water and the rhythmic swish of a paddle.
This summer, I set out on a mission to kayak or canoe as many Central Texas waterways as possible. Before I finished, I’d glided down lazy snaking rivers, frothy rapids, a spring-fed oasis and a limestone-lined ribbon of green. I also flipped a few boats and bashed up my legs, but that’s just me.
I learned a lot along the way. For one, we’ve got some of the most beautiful waterways on the planet, and they’re easy to access and fun to explore. Two, sometimes the logistics of getting a vehicle to the start and finish give me a headache. Third, a good paddling trip is best followed by a plate of Tex-Mex or barbecued chicken.
I’ve rounded up some of my favorite trips here, with handy pro tips and information about rentals and shuttles.
Keep in mind that wind direction, speed and recent rainfall can affect how long a trip will take. Conditions can alter in a snap, and a river’s course is a living thing that changes due to flooding. Even if you paddled a stretch of river last year, it may be different now. That’s where the problem-solving aspect of paddling comes in.
Before you set out, make sure you’re prepared. Check river flows and don’t go if heavy rains have occurred upstream. Make sure you’re fit and have the endurance needed to make the trip. Wear a life jacket. Carry plenty of water and snacks, and slather yourself with sunscreen. And please, bring along a plastic bag so you can take out any trash you generate or find along the way.
Finally, consider getting instruction before hitting the water. The Olympic Outdoor Center in San Marcos (kayakinstruction.org), the Expedition School in Austin (expeditionschool.com), the REI Outdoor School (rei.com/outdoorschool/paddling-classes.html) and Paddle With Style (paddlewithstyle.com) all offer paddling instruction.
The 5.5-mile stretch of the Colorado River between Little Webberville Park and Big Webberville Park makes a fine training ground for beginners.
You’ll paddle wide stretches of water, without rapids or dams to navigate. Expect warm water and a couple of big gravel beds and islands suitable for picnicking to break up the lazy vibe. So far we’ve never seen so much as a single reptile when we’ve stopped to swim at Alligator Island. We’ve also rarely seen more than a handful of paddlers at a time on this stretch of river.
Both entry and exit points have concrete boat ramps, for easy put-in and take out, and huge shady oak trees make a good resting spot at the finish.
Pro tip: If you need a boat or a shuttle, drop by Cook’s Canoes, 1004 Water St. in Webberville, where quintessential river guy Neal Cook, who wears a beat up straw hat and looks like he might keep a pet nutria in his bathtub, will get you everything you need.
Sometimes, it’s nice to bust deadline. Especially when you’re in a kayak, paddling without purpose toward a small town with nothing but a smoked chicken on your agenda.
Honestly, my husband and I expected the 12-mile trip from our put in at Highway 87 to the FM 2768 crossing in Castell to take about three hours. Maybe we’re slow, maybe we didn’t try hard (yay!), maybe the flow was too low or maybe we just relished the no-plan plan. Whatever it was, it took us almost five hours. And we loved it.
Along the way, we discovered wide, shallow pools of water, rock gardens that split the river into channels, a few short, rocky drops and a couple of fun chutes. The scenery unfolds in slow motion — rocky outcroppings, brush-covered hillsides, gravel bars and islands that force you to choose which side to point your boat.
The trickiest part comes just before Castell, where the river widens and braids, and it’s unclear which channel to follow. I opted right, my husband went left, I bounced down some rapids and he got stuck in a thicket. Secure your stuff in dry bags and make sure you’re capable of righting a flipped boat.
Pro tip: Before you depart, call the Castell General Store, 19522 West Ranch Road 152, and ask Randy to hold a smoked chicken for you.
Lady Bird Lake
If smooth waters, lots of turtles, an evening bat emergence, a look at the underbelly of the Congress Avenue Bridge and a nice view of the Austin skyline top your list of paddling priorities, look no further than Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin.
Half a dozen outfitters rent canoes, kayaks or standup paddleboards, easing access to the lake, actually a dammed stretch of the Colorado River. At dusk during the summer months, park yourself near the Congress Avenue Bridge to watch the performance by the Mexican free-tailed bats. Just remember it’s against the law to swim in the lake.
Pro tip: For rentals, check with Texas Rowing Center, 1541 W. Cesar Chavez St., texasrowingcenter.com; the Rowing Dock, 2418 Stratford Drive, rowingdock.com/rentals, Zilker Park Boat Rentals, 2100 Barton Springs Road, zilkerboats.com; Capital Cruises, 208 Barton Springs Road, capitalcruises.com; the Expedition School, 34 Robert Martinez Jr. St., expeditionschool.com; Congress Avenue Kayaks, 74 Trinity St., congresskayaks.com; or Live Love Paddle, 1602 E. Riverside Drive, livelovepaddle.com.
San Marcos River
For a shady, tree-lined adventure in chilly, spring-fed waters, head to the San Marcos River.
We put in at the Olympic Outdoor Center on Interstate 35 and felt like Tarzan and Jane ducking into the jungle. Birds chirp, water flows clear and cool, and the buzz of the city doesn’t penetrate.
After a while, the San Marcos River merges with the Blanco River and runs wide and deep until you reach Cummings Dam. Pay attention to the warning signs; you don’t want to go over this one. It’s about a 20-foot drop, but paddlers can portage via a wooden staircase on river right.
We dragged our boats down the stairs and off onto the rocky beach below and went for a swim in the amazing, teal-colored pools. (Watch the currents; they’re extremely strong in places and could be hazardous to even strong swimmers. The bottom is slippery clay.) Another 30 minutes of easy paddling and you’ll reach Don’s Fish Camp, where you can call for a shuttle from the Olympic Outdoor Center to pick you up.
The only downside? Early on, we encountered mats of floating debris — river grass entwined with plastic bottles, beer cans, lost flip-flops and two full-size garbage cans.
Pro tip: Start early — no later than 11 a.m. — to avoid crowds of tubers, who put in at Don’s Fish Camp. And when you’re done, drive across Interstate 35 for a late lunch at Herbert’s, an old-school, inexpensive Mexican food restaurant.
When the dam on the south side of Medina Lake was first built, tourists described the area as the Mediterranean of Texas. Mexican Creek drops 160 feet through a gorge, creating a kayakers playground before it gushes into the Medina River above Diversion Lake.
When the flow is mellow, skilled athletes can easily navigate these waters. But inexperienced paddlers shouldn’t attempt the trip alone and should always wear helmets and life jackets. And when heavy rains fall, the lake overflows the spillway into the gorge, turning what now looks mild into a raging river of Class III, IV and even V rapids.
We launched our kayaks at Bedrock Resort on the south end of Medina Lake, about 2 1/2 hours from Austin, then paddled across the emerald green water to the top of a spillway, where we hoisted our kayaks down a steep and slippery incline to Mexican Creek.
The run starts off with a bang, in the form of the Big Enchilada, a frothy, three-tiered rapid that I left to the veteran paddlers. I portaged around it, sliding my kayak down some slippery boulders, and then I was back on the creek, twisting through a rocky channel for about a mile. Along the way I tackled plunges higher than my head, with names like Chupacabra, El Brujo and Carp Hole Tumble Syndrome.
Local law enforcement officials say paddlers are allowed to run the creek as long as they don’t trespass on adjacent private property. They’re also allowed to get in and take out via public easements. We took out on County Road 271.
Pro tip: Wallys Watersports (wallyswatersports.com) offers guided kayaking trips. For access to Medina Lake at Bedrock Resort, call 210-383-1417.
An hour west of Austin, the Pedernales River spills over a dam in Johnson City before snaking its way, unimpeded, to Lake Travis. Along the way, it tumbles down a 3-foot ledge, glides past an eagle’s nest and chatters through mazes of rocks and reeds, all amid some classic Hill Country terrain.
We put in at Pedernales River Park, a day-use-only park operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority in Johnson City, and paddled for 5 1/2 hours, covering 11 miles and emerging (with permission) onto a private road. But tack on 5 more miles and you can pull your boat ashore just above the falls at Pedernales Falls State Park.
But unless you have permission from a landowner, once you put in at Johnson City you’re committed to paddling all the way to Pedernales Falls State Park, and that’s a strenuous, 16-mile journey that can take eight or more hours, depending on conditions. Don’t take the challenge lightly.
At the park, exit before the falls, on river right. (Never attempt to paddle the falls; it’s against rules and extremely dangerous.) It’s a tough, uphill hike to the parking lot, especially if you’re dragging a boat. And don’t forget to pay the $6 per person park entry fee.
Pro tip: Make sure flow is adequate, you’re fit and you exit the river before the falls at Pedernales State Park.
IF YOU GO
Check the flow rates and the weather forecast before you start. The LCRA’s hydromet site at hydromet.lcra.org/full.aspx posts flow rates in Central Texas; the U.S. Geological Survey website at waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?site_no=08153500 and the American Whitewater site at americanwhitewater.org/content/River/state-summary/state/TX are also helpful.