Rugged beauty and pristine paddling highlight visit to Devils River

March 31, 2017
The Devils River is considered the most pristine river in Texas. Here, it’s seen from a ridge at Devils River State Natural Area. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

From high on a ridge, the Devils River unfurls like a teal-colored ribbon. I plop down on a slab of limestone, wipe a little blood from my shin and try to soak it all in.

I can’t. I’ve seen this river before, from a point farther south, and it always looks like a giant scraped his fingers down a streak of white clay, clawing out furrows. The water, in spots, looks unnaturally blue, and fish swirl lazily in carved-out pools.

The sun sets and I clamber back down the ridge, alongside my friend Marcy Stellfox, who has come along to share in the solitude, which we both desperately crave. We hike a mile to where our truck is parked, then bounce along the gravel road back to Campsite 4, where we’ve pitched our tent and hammock. It’s one of only seven campsites in the property’s 20,000-acre Del Norte Unit, and we could howl at the moon and no one would hear us. (Camping is not yet allowed at the 17,000-acre Dan Hughes Unit downstream.)

This land scratches, scrapes, bites and nips, but its harsh beauty heals the wounds it inflicts. I’ve long dreamed about doing a multiday kayaking trip on the Devils, but I figure a few nights at the Devils River State Natural Area, with a little day kayaking and hiking thrown in, will give me an idea of how I’d like it.

First, some history.

E.K. Fawcett drove a herd of sheep up from Del Rio in 1883, stopping in this area. He lived in a cave while he built a cabin, and the smokestacks from the old homestead, which burned in the 1990s, still stand near the gates. The property served, in turn, as a sheep ranch, goat ranch and hunting camp.

Today, no one just stumbles onto this place. You have to be headed here, and most visitors come to access the river. Logistics, though, are notoriously tricky for those who want to do a multiday paddle trip, and old-timers share tales of cranky landowners taking potshots at trespassing paddlers.

Most hire outfitters to help shuttle them to take-in and take-out points, and look for gravel beds in the river where they can legally camp. Things got a little easier this month, when Texas Parks and Wildlife officials announced the opening of two paddle-up-only campsites it has leased from private landowners. The new pack-in, pack-out spaces aren’t designed to put more paddlers on the water, officials say, but rather to provide safe and legal stopping points for the daily limit of permitted paddlers. That, they hope, will mean fewer trespassers.

With a proper permit (just 12 are issued per day), paddlers can pull ashore at a designated spot between Baker’s Crossing and the Del Norte Unit; the other site is between the Del Norte Unit and the Dan Hughes unit. Paddlers must portage around Dolan Falls, just south of the Del Norte Unit, and if flow rates are low, they’ll have to drag their boats in other spots, too.

Back at camp, Superintendent Joe Joplin drops by to say hi and reminds us that we’re 65 miles from the nearest city, Del Rio. That’s a long way to go in case of snake bite or vehicle breakdown or any other form of camping or paddling disaster. He also points out that the area is home to lizards, snakes, mountain lions, wild turkey, white-tail deer and audad, which look like bighorn sheep but are not native to the area.

Even without the river, wilderness lovers who don’t mind cactus spines in their hands and dirt on their pants will appreciate this prickly corner of the state. They can hike, bird, fish, swim and photograph the stark landscape, and since I’m trying to learn how to use a camera, I’m in heaven.

“More adventurous souls come here to test their wills against Mother Nature,” Joplin says. “It won’t ever be a park that people see a billboard and pull off and go for a picnic.”

The priority here is conservation, not recreation. The Devils River has been called the most pristine river in Texas, and Texas Parks and Wildlife officials want to keep it that way. “It’s spring-fed and doesn’t go through a town, city or oil field and never hits a pollution source,” Joplin says.

The next morning, Stellfox and I head down to the river and drag our kayaks into the water. We paddle upstream for about 15 minutes, pulling off to check out a spot where springs flow into the river, increasing its flow considerably. The Devils runs wide and clear here, like Barton Springs in the middle of the desert. Then we head downstream, gliding between patches of reeds and long fingers of limestone while hawks wheel overhead. I’ve gotten special permission from Nature Conservancy officials to stop and explore Dolan Falls, so we lug our kayaks ashore at the scenic spot, where water gushes over a 10-foot, intricately eroded rock formation.

That afternoon, Stellfox and I lace up our hiking boots and set out on a trek that takes us to a spot we dub the Secret Oasis. We sprawl on rock slabs as big as Volkswagens and talk in that way that happens only when you’re on a camping trip someplace remote. After a while we start walking again, exploring a narrow canyon, then follow a path that spits us out in a dry creek bed. We clatter down the rocky trail, peer up at pink- and yellow-hued cliff walls, and scamper around clusters of Spanish dagger yucca and prickly pear cactus.

That night, as we light coals in the fire pit at our camp, site manager and police officer Beau Hester stops by to tell us more about the state natural area.

“This is a rugged environment, and people come out here unprepared,” Hester says. “The experience is not for everyone, especially the river experience.”

That ruggedness, though, and the area’s distance from large urban centers help keep down visitation, which could be the Devils’ salvation.

“This river is something that needs protecting,” Hester says. “It’s all about keeping it the most pristine river in the state. If it weren’t for the location, this would be the Frio, and that’s not where we need to be with it. … We’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we’re right next door.”

His face lights up as he talks, even though the sun is setting behind a nearby ridge. We look out over the landscape, noting new beauty in every sharp-edged rock and spine-coated plant and listening intently to birds, frogs and insects singing in chorus.

“It’s a unique piece of Texas,” he says. “This is a special place, and that’s the bottom line.”

He’s right.

After a few days of exploring it, I’m ready to plan that multiday river trip. I know now I’d like it just fine.