Scout the historic Texas rivers of the southern Edwards Plateau
HIGHLAND WATERS — Our cabin backed onto a cliff.
Steep wooden stairs led down from the cabin to a wide meadow on a limestone shelf. A few steps away flowed the Medina River — clear, cold and yet inviting during a December week spent in this small community of about 50 vacationers, retirees and commuters located five miles outside of Bandera.
Kip dipped into a nearby swimming hole. I opted to wade.
The community of Highland Waters, which goes back at least to the 1920s, is strung along a lonely road. Old-fashioned cabins and houses on the river side of the lane come with access to the Medina and a 2-mile-long semi-private park that leads upstream to a waterfall and more swimming holes.
The Medina is one of my favorite Texas rivers, one of five, depending on how you count them, that fall off the southern shoulder of the Edwards Plateau. The historic towns of Medina, Bandera and Castroville hug its banks, then it slows down as it winds through the southern stretches of the San Antonio sprawl before joining the San Antonio River.
A while back, a travel buddy and I spent 10 years tracing 50 Texas rivers by car, on foot and sometimes in the water. It's hard to overpraise the intense natural beauty and rich history of the Medina, along with its neighbors, the Frio, Sabinal, Nueces and Devils rivers.
Allow me to share some excerpts from previous reporting on those gems.
The refreshing Frio River
Somewhere northeast of Uvalde, the Rio Frio — which offers some intense vacation pleasures upstream at Garner State Park and the nearby tourist supply town of Leakey — simply dries up.
I’m not just referring to its tributary known as the Dry Frio. We took our first picture of the Frio River's waterless main course under the old railroad bridge outside of Knippa.
The Frio even disappears from two of our three most trusted maps. I’m no hydrologist, but the partial culprit may be the heavily irrigated plains around Uvalde.
My guess is that the Frio contributes to the aquifer via a recharge zone, and the aquifer is depleted by agriculture. And there’s lots of it for miles around this town of 14,000.
After Uvalde, we headed into the vast mesquite brush of the South Texas triangle. Here, the Frio reappeared in little rivulets and pools under thirsty motts as we moved through Pearsall, Dilley, Cotulla, Fowlertown and Tilden.
Then, almost without warning, the Frio spread into the Choke Canyon Reservoir. This wide, shallow lake provides water for the city of Corpus Christi. Fishermen hug its shores. Bird life swarms.
Our most exotic sightings on this trip were masses of crested caracaras, raptors that look positively tropical to us, but are quite common in this thorny brush country. We spotted a four-foot-long alligator just beyond the grassy shore. Later, we read that the state park at Choke Canyon is the westernmost home of the American alligator.
In the short distance between Choke Canyon and the town of Three Rivers, where the Frio feeds into the Nueces, early 20th-century ranches — including one owned by folklorist J. Frank Dobie — are interrupted by sightings of an enormous federal penitentiary and an old refinery.
In the shadow of that refinery, we visited Tips Park, part municipal recreation, part campground for winter Texans. At an artificial falls, a sign reads: “Alligators exist in the park.”
The tree-lined Sabinal River
The Sabinal River is a rare and exquisite jewel that rises in the steep, narrow canyons of Lost Maples State Natural Preserve northwest of San Antonio.
Here among big tooth maples and red oaks, the stream pools in clefts among the scattered boulders, evidence of raging floods that were no danger on a warm, cloudy December day.
The preserve has been one of our favorite hiking and camping spots for decades. Even though the fall colors had faded, a steady trickle of hikers followed its trails.
Just below the preserve is tiny Vanderpool, which guards two of the state’s most scenic drives on RR 337 — one westward to Leakey and another eastward to Bandera. These winding branches of 337 overlook craggy, green valleys.
In the Sabinal Canyon, the water flows freely from a series of springs and backs up behind stubby weirs. Fish wriggle through the crystal depths. Flycatchers, mockingbirds and a raven or two keep them company.
There’s little evidence of a tourist industry here, unlike the Frio River Valley just to the west. There’s no lake or tubing. Still, a few tourist cottages dot the Sabinal’s banks. Just beware flood season if you decide to get away here.
As the canyon widens into a proper valley, cypress trees line the river, almost as if they were planted with an architectural eye. Depending on the flora, the Sabinal shimmers green or blue, picks up speed then fades away for a while.
Ranching is an option here. We talked to one man who moved here from Colorado whose family’s ranches stretched well into the foothills of the Edwards Plateau. He told us about a “Black Hole” on the next ranch downstream where the Sabinal disappears altogether.
We discovered that this is true for other rivers coming down off the plateau to the south. They enter an arcing recharge zone and just go away for while.
Our acquaintance said that hydrologists had dyed the water that entered the Black Hole and said they found remnants in a bigger river below the town of Sabinal — probably the Frio, which eventually joins the Nueces River below Choke Canyon Reservoir.
Anyway, the valley remains lovely as far as Utopia, site of Kinky Friedman’s animal rescue ranch. Here, too, the farming begins. Irrigation from those aquifers that swallow up the rivers allows for some surprisingly intense agriculture around Uvalde.
The pristine Devils River
We started the day in Del Rio, a border city whose main east-west highway is littered with modern retail clutter. A few miles up the road on U.S. 277, however, the West Texas land and sky open up again.
Down State Recreational Road 2, we tested the Devils River as part of many-armed Lake Amistad, which also encompasses the Pecos and Rio Grande. With no sign of human activity — despite the presence of condos and recreational vehicles — we were left to the serene blue and white of the long, winding lagoon.
Ducks, gulls and what looked like tohees broke the stillness.
After drinking in the peace, we headed up U.S. 277 in the direction of Sonora. Over the past few years, we’d heard countless hymns to the Devils River, one of the state’s most isolated and pristine waterways.
Yet when we turned off 277 west on Dolan Creek Road about 40 miles up the canyon, we almost immediately encountered a sign that announced the state natural area was closed Mondays through Wednesdays. It was Tuesday. Bad planning.
The closure meant missing, not only this revered preserve, but also the tightly restricted one owned by the Texas Nature Conservancy, which is reached through the state lands. No Dolan Falls for us this time.
We chugged back up 277 past FM 189 to look in on a dry branch of the Devils. Sometimes, these rocky crossings are as fascinating as the wet ones, since one sees what flora and fauna thrive even without a constant flow aboveground. This time of year, huge cottonwoods were rouged with autumnal colors.
FM 189, otherwise known as the Juno Highway, follows the Devils River Canyon for quite a few miles downstream. The low road crisscrosses the dry channel, then joins Texas 160, which does the same.
Eventually, it dawned on us that, during flood season, this, the only paved road across the Devils, would be impassable. No wonder this 100-mile-long river is so untouched.
Were were nevertheless impatient for water. Just as the road rises higher along the canyon wall, a sparkle caught the corner of our eyes. We stopped and hiked back a bit. Well worth the wait, there was the full stream, fed by generous springs, rushing through a suddenly lush valley.
Ebullient, we stopped again and again to document the shallow but strong flow of the Devils River. By the time the river parted with the road, we were satisfied.
The lost and found Nueces River
On a lonely stretch of FM 624 southeast of Cotulla, the Nueces River doesn’t merit a sign. It doesn’t even merit a dry bed. One of the state’s major rivers – once the disputed border between Texas and Mexico – is completely invisible here.
It takes a lot of imagination to visualize this low stretch of thorn brush country filling up with any amount of water. It, however, must. GPS markings and satellite imagery don’t lie. The Nueces passes through here — at some time or another.
Despite their beauties, the Sabinal, Frio, Devils and Medina rivers don't produce the profound surprises of the Nueces, long associated in my mind with an unlovely, underpopulated stretch of South Texas brush land.
At its source and near its mouth, however, the Nueces turns quite lovely.
We started our day with the Nueces early in Uvalde, heading up Texas 55 through flat fields toward Camp Wood. We stopped by the sites of two Spanish missions, abandoned despite the promise of the valley lush with pecan trees that give the river its name (“nuts” in Spanish).
Camp Wood is a former U.S. fort, now a droopy, isolated town of 822 souls.
Higher and higher we climbed up a crease in the lower Edwards Plateau. At one point, I spotted a flat, white upright expanse on a canyon wall. Turned out to be a wall protecting a rather large white stucco house on a ledge.
In the otherwise vacant valley below, we encountered an even more impressive wall — topped with broken glass and guarded by thick wooden gates — that looked like something out of the wilds of Colombia or at least Mexico.
No signs indicated who owned such a high-security compound, but we didn’t linger to find out.
We were almost to Kerrville when we came to the source of the eastern prong of the Upper Nueces. As often is the case when a clear stream spills through rugged, semi-arid land, the air was full of birdsong and butterflies.
The day was clear and crisp as we headed back down the river, intending, as we did, to follow it to the mouth. One particularly pleasant discovery along the way: Lake Nueces, a small reservoir that provides year-round recreation just below Camp Wood. Fisherman dotted the dam as we explored the low-water crossing below it.
Below Uvalde, the river dries up. We knew this would happen.
First, because all our maps showed the thin blue line disappearing as it curled to the south and east, then a little north before joining the Frio River near Three Rivers. We had already watched the Sabinal and, on an earlier trip, the Frio disappear into the same arcing recharge zone.
As its riverbed crosses dry under U.S. 83 above La Pryor, there’s evidence of regular flooding among the spectacular piles of whitened stone.
On the other side of Crystal City – a tattered agricultural town somewhat uplifted by the nearby oil and gas fracking boom – we found the wet version of the Nueces briefly and with great difficulty. A short channel waited dark and oily behind a low dam at Presidio Park. Rarely has a Texas river looked more abused.
Then we set out across the great thorny brush of South Texas.
Nothing. No sign of the Nueces. Lots of crested caracaras, the national bird of Mexico. Lots of fracking sites. But very few people.
The Nueces magically becomes a river again after the Frio spills down from Choke Canyon Reservoir and into the bigger course. We crossed it irregularly before encountering the informal lake communities along Lake Corpus Christi, just a few miles from the city itself.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.