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Chasing Waterfalls

From precipice to plunge, water soothes the soul
Written by Joe Nick Patoski.

Gorman Falls, a 65-foot plunge created by Gorman Springs, lies in Colorado Bend State Park. Visitors can visit the falls by guided tour (a 1.5-mile, round-trip hike) or without a guide (a 3-mile, round-trip hike). The last 30 yards leading to the falls are steep, but a cable handrail facilitates access. (Photos by Laurence Parent)

When it comes to H20, in my opinion there is nothing as magical or evocative as a waterfall. The sight of water tumbling over a precipice and freefalling into a pool below and the sound of its powerful force being unleashed from the channel are inspiration for poets and dreamers. All it takes is a streambed, a vertical drop, and a steady flow of water.

That specific combination explains why waterfalls, chutes, steppes, cascades, or travertine shelves are typically hard to find in Texas. Unless you know where to look or it has been a particularly rainy season, waterfalls seem to be few and far between. And since Texas waterfalls are neither the world’s largest or grandest, they tend to be overlooked or underappreciated. Even though Texas’ falls may not join record-holders like Niagara Falls or Venezuela’s Angel Falls, they have plenty of distinctive appeal, albeit in a subtle, nuanced way that is uncharacteristic for Texas.

And yet, Texas claims a surprising number of waterfalls—hundreds of them, in fact. Some roar with scary force and power. Some are nothing more than a steady trickle that brings life to an otherwise desolate place.

A few persist in almost any conditions. Others appear only during exceptionally rainy periods, which is why many are referred to as pour-offs or wet-weather waterfalls—drops that are historically dry but prone to pour off water whenever there is heavy rain.

Capote Falls, Texas’ highest at 175 feet, is in extreme southwest Texas, west of Candelaria and southwest of Marfa—one of the driest parts of the state. But Capote consistently flows, as it is the main drainage below the Rio Grande Rift and the Sierra Vieja on its way to the river below. Unfortunately, the only way to see it is by air because it’s on private property. However, the second-highest falls in Texas, the 100-foot-tall Madrid Falls, and the third highest, Mexicano Falls, at 80 feet, are for all to see, since they’re located within Big Bend Ranch State Park. However, you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a long hike to view them up close.

But the visuals are no less stunning at the base of Ojito Adentro, a slow trickle at the end of a mile-long, moderately difficult trail into a small canyon at Big Bend Ranch State Park. That trickle creates an oasis within a microclimate that resembles a tiny slice of the Hill Country in the Chihuahuan Desert, rife with maidenhair fern and iridescent moss and lichens and shaded by cottonwood, oak, ash, willow, hackberry, and mesquite.

Colorado Bend State Park, between Lampasas and San Saba, features Texas’ largest concentration of falls accessible to the public, including the thundering 65-foot Gorman Falls. 

Another state property, the Devil’s River State Natural Area, in the remote scrublands north of Del Rio, lies just upstream of Dolan Falls, a spread-out complex of falls that spans the width of the Devils River and is a significant landmark on what is considered to be the cleanest river in Texas. Reaching the waterfalls by land requires permission from The Nature Conservancy, which stewards the falls.

But many Texas waterfalls are actually easy to get to and practically beg visitors to jump in and get soaked. That’s the case with the City Tube Chute, which is carved into the side of the dam on the Comal River in Prince Solms Park near downtown New Braunfels. This walled-in section of what was known as Clemens Dam is used by tubers in the warm months as an S-shaped water slide that drops about 20 feet into the Comal River.

Not surprisingly, this was the inspiration for the original Schlitterbahn waterpark nearby.

A few miles north of the Tube Chute on the Lower Guadalupe River is Hueco Springs Rapids, which functions as a giant waterfall/raging rapid for tubers and paddlers. Although there are other falls on the Lower Guadalupe, Hueco is the big kahuna, a 25-foot, Class III rapid when the dam release is at least 500 cubic feet per second. Hueco Springs does not discriminate when 
it comes to swallowing paddlers and tubers who come too close to its churning whitewater.

Several falls near Austin, including those at Westcave Preserve, Hamilton Pool Preserve, Krause Springs, Pedernales Falls State Park, and McKinney Falls State Park, are open to the public in varying degrees, as well.

Then there are small, unmarked falls like the ones in Angelina National Forest in the dense, deep woods of East Texas, or the one just north of FM 306 and Canyon Dam near Canyon Lake—or even the creek by my house in Wimberley, which runs for weeks after rainy periods. On those occasions when there’s water tumbling and splashing down the channel, churning up little froths of whitewater, bringing movement, sound, and life to the rocky creek bed, all seems right with the world.

As Laurence Parent’s images so wonderfully affirm, Texas waterfalls can soothe the soul.

Visitors to Angelina National Forest, which surrounds Sam Rayburn Reservoir east of Lufkin, can witness this beautiful sight by hiking a short distance on the Sawmill Trail from the Boykin Springs campground.

 

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From the August 2012 issue.

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