By Melissa Gaskill
Thousands of miles of coastal shoreline, 3,700 named
streams, and 15 major rivers in Texas all beg to be explored, and kayaks offer
a great way to do so. I first boarded a kayak about a decade ago, and have
since used one of these versatile craft to explore all over Texas and beyond. Easy
to paddle and maneuver, kayaks put you right on the water, the better to see
what lives in and on it. Most people get the hang of paddling smooth water and
gentle rapids in a matter of minutes. If you’d like to see Texas’ natural
wonders from a new perspective, try kayaking. You can take a guided trip, or
head out on your own to explore one of the more than two dozen official coastal
and inland Texas paddling trails—or anywhere the water beckons. Here are a few
of my favorite destinations.
Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail, Houston
This trail starts at Texas 6 and follows the bayou 26 miles
to Allen’s Landing in downtown Houston. That’s too far to complete in one day,
but nine access points make it possible to choose paddles ranging from 15
minutes to a few (or many) hours.
On a warm spring day, my husband, Corey, and I put in at
Woodway Memorial Park, a tiny parking area with a narrow trail to the water at
Loop 610 and Woodway, for about seven miles of paddling. The first half of the
trip, we could hardly tell that the bayou bisects one of the country’s largest
cities. Tall willow, pine, and sycamore trees lined the sandy banks, and we
spotted more than a dozen great and little blue herons, a pair of hawks
circling in the blue sky, cardinals, turtles sunning on thick logs, and
two-foot gar splashing at the surface. Except when we passed directly under
roads, we heard nothing but the water, breeze, and birds. The second half
became more obviously urban, with views of manicured lawns, apartment buildings,
and finally, the gleaming Houston
skyline, quite an impressive sight from our bayou-level vantage point.
The trail stops at Allen’s Landing, a complex of historic
buildings named for the land-speculating Allen brothers, who laid out the
original city grid oriented to the waterway in the 1830s. Intrepid paddlers can
continue eight more miles to the Houston Ship Channel turning basin.
Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Bayou Preservation
Association, along with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, collaborated
to create this trail. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership offers monthly trips that
include kayaks, a guide, and shuttle back to your car. Another option: Buffalo
Bayou Shuttle Service, which offers both guided tours and shuttle service for
you and your kayak. You can arrange pick-up downtown to the put-in and leave
your car at Allen’s Landing.
Alternatively, if you’re with a group and are interested in
renting 10 boats or more, North Lake Conroe Paddling Company (which offers individual
kayak rentals for Lake Conroe and Spring Creek) can arrange a trip on the
Post-paddle refreshment: Splurge on a steak at downtown’s
Strip House (713/659-6000, www.striphouse.com), or toast the day’s adventures
at the venerable La Carafe Wine Bar, which is listed in the National Register
of Historic Places (713/229-9399).
Rest up at: Hotel Icon, two blocks from Allen’s Landing
(www.hotelicon.com, 713/224-4266), or the Four Seasons Hotel, two blocks from
Discovery Green (713/650-1300, www.fourseasons.com/Houston).
Lighthouse Lakes Trail
Aransas Pass/Port Aransas
This is the first official paddling trail in Texas,
established by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1999. The Lighthouse
Lakes Trail consists of four loops that explore the black mangrove estuaries,
sloughs, and seagrass flats between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas. The loop
trails range from about one mile to almost seven miles long. One trail leads to
the 1857 Lydia Ann Lighthouse on North Harbor Island. Wander the maze of
mangroves and get close to great blue herons, egrets, pelicans, and other
resident birds; or fish for flounder, red drum, and spotted sea trout. Lucky
paddlers might even merit a dolphin escort across the channel.
Take along a copy of the photo map, available on the trail’s
website or from local outfitters, along with a compass or GPS, as it’s easy to
get turned around in the maze of channels and mangroves. The trails are bordered
by Aransas and Lydia Ann channels, South Bay, and Corpus Christi Bayou, so you
won’t end up in Mexico, but a missed turn could mean a long paddle back. If
you’d like a guide, you can take a four-hour eco-tour of the trails with
Slowride Guide Services in Aransas Pass, which also offers fishing excursions
in the area. A company called Coastal Bend Kayak also offers guided trips in
If you prefer to embark on your own, launch at the trailhead
park on Texas 361, near Offshore Adventures at Crabman Marina in Aransas Pass,
which rents kayaks. (Island Surf & Kayak Shop in Port Aransas does, too.)
Post-paddle refreshment: A hearty Stopher Burger at Port
Aransas Brewing Company, a few blocks from the ferry landing. Call
Rest up at: The 1886 Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas is listed in
the National Register of Historic Places. Call 361/749-5555;
El Camino Real Paddling Trail
Colorado River, Bastrop
This Colorado River trail runs roughly six miles, about a two-
to three-hour paddle, from Fisherman’s Park in Bastrop to the Tahitian Village
subdivision just past the railroad bridge. I made this trip with fellow kayak
aficionado Paula Baker, renting kayaks at Rising Phoenix Adventures, which
shuttled us to the put-in. Once on the green river, we passed a few houses, crossed
under the Loop 150 and Texas 71 bridges, then passed a waterfall on the east
shore. At that point, signs of civilization slipped away for a while. We
enjoyed a constant escort of dragonflies (some of which hitched the occasional
ride), turtles, herons, and fish. A number of wooded islands split the river,
and trumpet vines decked with bright red flowers covered thick trees on the
bank. A few fun but easy rapids spiced up the route.
The takeout is a small, shady swim beach popular with
locals. It makes a pleasant place to wait for shuttle pick-up, and the ride
back to the outfitter’s office takes about 10 minutes. Rising Phoenix
Adventures also will shuttle you and your own kayak to the put-in and from the
take-out for $25 per boat.
Post-paddle refreshment: Piled-high burgers at the
Roadhouse, on Texas 21 across from the entrance to Bastrop State Park (and just
a few minutes from Rising Phoenix). Call 512/321-1803; www.roadhousebastrop.com.
Rest up at: Sleeping cabins (shared restrooms and running
water in common campground) at LCRA’s South Shore Park on Lake Bastrop. For
reservations, call 512/389-8900; for information, call 800/776-5272;
Columbus Paddling Trail
Colorado River, Columbus
This 6.5-mile route stretches from Business 71 under the
North River Bridge to Beason’s Park, which has picnic tables, restrooms, and
free parking (in case you provide your own shuttle service).
Here on the beginnings of the coastal plain, the Colorado
River sports sandy banks ranging from gently sloping beaches to steep cliffs.
The river banks alternate between lines of bald cypress, sycamore, and willow
trees, and open meadows populated by fat and happy cows. The warm fall day that
my friend Paula and I navigated this paddle, the river ran fairly low and some
of those cows were cooling their hooves in the water. Fortunately, they yielded
the right of way and we avoided any bovine showdowns. We slipped through a few
gentle rapids and encountered a couple of shallows where we almost ran aground,
but in general the current kept us moving at a leisurely pace. Dozens of
egrets, great blue herons, killdeer, and terns lined the shore, and turtles
sunned on exposed logs and rocks. Paddlers can fish for alligator gar, carp, channel
catfish, Guadalupe bass, and sunfish along this trail.
The put-in is behind Howell Canoe Livery, which rents
equipment and provides shuttle service from the take-out. Proprietor Frank
Howell uses an aerial photograph to give an overview of the trail, including
landmarks to look for. If you have your own kayak, you can put-in here for $10
and Howell will shuttle your car to the take-out.
Pre-paddle refreshment: All-you-can-eat buffet at Schobel’s
Restaurant, on Business 71 just off Interstate 10 in Columbus. Call
Rest up at: Waldhutte cabin, a secluded B&B between La
Grange and Columbus. Call 979/247-4802; www.centraltexascabin.com.
San Saba and South Llano rivers
The 100-mile-long San Saba River springs from the ground
near Fort McKavett, and flows through rocky rapids, under towering oaks and
pecans, and past wide pastures. The river doesn’t have an official paddling
trail, but perhaps it should. My family has enjoyed day-long paddles on this
pristine waterway half-a-dozen times, and even though part of me hates to share
the secret, here’s our route. From Menard, drive US 190 west about eight miles,
turn left on Bois D’Arc, and put in at the bridge for a six- to eight-hour paddle
to the dam at Menard City Park. (Time varies depending on flow on the river and
how much you fish and dawdle.) Catch-and-release fish for largemouth bass,
catfish, and the official state freshwater fish, Guadalupe bass. We enjoy the
fun little rapids, quiet pools, and scenic stretches. Great blue herons nesting
in tall sycamores along a few stretches of the river make a hard-to-miss
Guided kayak and fly-fishing trips with Peacemaker River
Outfitters in Junction start near the river headwaters at Talbot Lake, with
options ranging from one- to eight-hour trips.
Peacemaker and several other outfitters in Junction provide
rentals and shuttle service for paddles along the scenic and mostly gentle
South Llano River, too. Options include putting it at Boone’s Crossing on US
377 for a five- or six-hour paddle to South Llano River State Park, with great
fishing and sand bars for swimming and relaxing.
Post-paddle refreshment: Save room for dessert at Side Oats
Café and Bakery in Menard. Call 325/396-2069; www.sideoatscafe.com.
Rest up at: The two-bedroom Cool River Cabin on the Native
American Seed farm, near Junction. Call 800/728-4043; www.seedsource.com (click on “ecotourism”).
These paddling trips make rewarding day excursions or
weekend getaways, and as seasons and conditions change, each visit reveals
something different. I’ll see you on the water!