You’ve probably seen plenty of Texas through your car’s windshield. For a cooler perspective, hop in a boat and follow nature’s blue-green, liquid highway.
Explore most any Texas river and you’ll find the twisted roots of cypress trees, blue herons fishing for dinner, or even a bald eagle. Paddling lets you move at the speed of nature, and in a world dependent on cell phones and high-speed internet, that comes as a relief.
I started paddling Texas rivers seriously five years ago. Since then, I’ve made multi-day trips down the Devils and Pecos rivers in West Texas, and logged hundreds of cumulative miles on the Llano, the Pedernales, the Colorado, and the San Antonio River. I’ve even raced the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile slog down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers between San Marcos and Seadrift, on the Texas Coast.
If you’re looking for beginner-friendly places to paddle in Central Texas, consider these eight options.
Related: Fishing up old memories and making new ones at Inks Lake State Park
Colorado River from Austin to Webberville
Drop your boat in the water just below Longhorn Dam in downtown Austin, and paddle 24 miles to Little Webberville Park. You won’t believe you’re so close to the city. Instead of traffic and hordes of humans, you’re likely to see caracara and cormorants, and the occasional alligator gar, a long torpedo-shaped fish that looks like a miniature alligator. If the flow rate is low, you might have to get out and drag a few times, but you won’t encounter any rapids.
Colorado River through Webberville
Looking for a shorter taste of the Colorado? Put in at Little Webberville Park, 100 Water Street, and paddle 6 miles to Big Webberville Park, 2305 Park Lane. Both parks have cement boat ramps for easy access, and if you need a shuttle (or a rental canoe or kayak), stop by Cook’s Canoes, 1004 Water Street, and ask for Neal. Cook’s is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, and on weekdays by reservation. Solo boats rent for $35 a day; tandems are $50. Shuttle rates depend on where you need a pickup.
San Marcos River from Martindale to Staples
The San Marcos River serves up a lot of good options, but for a short beginner run, put in at Shady Grove Campground in Martindale and paddle 5 miles to Staples Dam. This short stretch of river ranks as one of my favorite places to paddle in Central Texas. Cypress trees tower over the water along this stretch of the river, and you’ll pass a leaning tree in the middle of the river with a few boards nailed to it. It’s fun to stop, climb up as high as you dare, and take the plunge. The launch fee at Shady Grove is $5 per vehicle for up to two people, plus an additional $2.50 per extra person. Takeout is at river right at the FM1977 crossing. Spencer Canoes at Shady Grove offers canoe and kayak rentals and shuttle service. Call 512-357-6113.
San Marcos River from Luling 90 to Zedler Mill
Texas State Parks designated this 6-mile run one of its official paddling trails, and it’s a beauty. Put in at the park (often with overflowing trash cans) located at the Highway 90 crossing, and plan on anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours, depending on skill level and water flow. It’s a gentle ride, though, and special to me because it’s where I first drove a 40-foot, five-human canoe during training for this year’s Texas Water Safari. Watch for snags and log jams along the way. The route finishes at historic Zedler Mill, which recently underwent renovations. If you need a boat, rent one from Texas Canoes & Kayaks.
Related: A river adventure to reset your life: Rafting the Grand Canyon
Llano River to CastellPam LeBlanc takes a break while paddling the Llano River near Castell. Chris LeBlanc photo
The 12-mile run from where Highway 87 crosses the Llano River to FM 2768 in Castell ranks as another of my favorite places to paddle in Central Texas, especially if you like to cap off a day on the water with a burger and a beer at a small-town general store. Just don’t expect it to be a quick trip. The river is rocky and braided, and you’ll probably have to get out a lot to maneuver around rocks. That takes time, and that’s OK. My other advice? Take a plastic kayak, not a metal canoe, which tends to stick to the limestone rock you’re liable to encounter. You’ll also hit some mini rapids, some wide, shallow pools, a few rock gardens and a pour-over or two. Be prepared. And afterward, stop at The Castell General Store for a burger, and say hi to Randy.
Blanco State Park
For a protected, placid stretch of water where you can practice your skills or just float around without worrying about getting tumped (that’s Texan for flipping a boat), head to Blanco State Park at 101 Park Road 23. The 105-acre park features a mile of frontage on the Blanco River, with dams at either end. This isn’t a place for a long run, but it’s good for families. Bring your own boat or rent a single or double kayak from the park store.
I prefer the less crowded east side of the park, but it’s a little tricky getting your boat into the water –– you have to wrangle it down a 3-foot bank. The reward comes in the form of cool, greenish-blue swirls and plenty of dragonflies. Afterward, drop by OroBianco Italian Creamery, 503 Main Street, just up the street, for a scoop of gelato made with buffalo milk. Park admission is $5 per person (free ages 12 and under) or free with a Texas State Parks pass.
San Antonio Riverwalk, along Museum Reach
In the last few years, San Antonio has experimented with allowing kayakers to glide through the horseshoe-shaped downtown section of the Riverwalk. That experiment is over, and for now paddlers are only allowed on the stretch farther north, near Pearl Brewery. Mission Adventure Tours offers one and two-hour kayak and stand up paddle board (SUP) rentals on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday mornings.
Customers get to explore the 2-mile, easy stretch of flatwater on their own, and along the way they can check out a few art installations. Rentals are $35 for an hour for a single kayak or SUP, or $60 an hour for a tandem boat. Park under Interstate 35 bridge on Camden or at Pearl Brewery.
Pedernales River from Johnson City to Pedernales Falls State Park
Looking for a longer stretch of river? Put in at the Lower Colorado River Association’s Pedernales River Nature Park, 404 U.S. Highway 281 in Johnson City, and paddle 16 miles to Pedernales Falls State Park, 2585 Park Road 6026. But be sure you’re fit and able because the land along this stretch of river is privately owned. Once you put in, you’re committed. Along the way, you’ll splash over a 3-foot ledge and navigate a few mazes of rocks and reeds. Once you reach the park, exit before the falls on river right. Then you’ll have to lug your boat up a hill, and that takes muscle. The trip requires a $5 per adult entry fee at Pedernales River Nature Park and a $6 fee at Pedernales Falls State Park.Deb Richardson paddles the San Marcos River. Pam LeBlanc photo