Destination: Canyon Lake
Travel time from:
Austin – 1 hour
Dallas – 3.75 hours
El Paso – 7.5 hours
Houston – 3 hours
San Antonio – 1 hour
Lubbock – 5.75 hours
Raging floods unearthed ancient dinosaur tracks at Canyon Lake.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
Long-tailed dinosaurs and seashell creatures once roamed the ancient shoreline where we’re standing. Beneath our feet, flat bedrock stretches north and south to sheer limestone cliffs, crowned with ashe junipers and live oaks. The typical Hill Country terrain makes it hard to imagine that an ocean, complete with tides and mudflats, ever existed here.
However, my husband and I are about to see the fossil proof, unearthed in July 2002 by raging floods that tore through a wooded valley and violently carved out what’s now known as the Gorge at Canyon Lake. Located west of San Marcos, the natural phenomenon has amazed thousands since public tours started in October 2007.
“Whoever finds the first dinosaur track wins a prize,” the docent promises as our group of 15 begins the three-hour trek. Won’t be me, I think. I’m just here to see the gorge.
“Can we choose the prize?” pipes up a little girl in black sunglasses and a maroon T-shirt. Everyone laughs.
Sometimes the best getaways are close by. In our case, Canyon Lake’s just a half-hour drive from home. So we’re familiar with the lakeside communities of Hancock, Canyon City, Sattler and Startzville in addition to the lake’s many parks and the beautiful Guadalupe River, which feeds the 8,230-surface-acre reservoir.
Brunch first. Whatever Granny D’s Home Cooking in Canyon City lacks in looks matters little after we taste our breakfast tacos, piled high with scrambled eggs and diced bacon. Across the highway, we pop into Mrs. Bush’s Pie Company to check out sweet treats. Since 2004, Marilyn Bush has run this funky bakery, decorated with knickknacks, newspaper clippings and witticisms scribbled on cardboard. Glass cases display her tempting fruit and nut pies, iced cakes and jumbo cookies. A bag of candied walnuts goes into our snack bag.
We might need those snacks after our afternoon hike. In the past, we’ve parked at Overlook Park and strolled the paved service road that tops the just-over-a-mile-long Canyon Dam, impounded in 1964 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and water conservation. Around the lake, the Corps operates eight parks (four day-use and four camping), along with six hiking trails that include one equestrian trail and two biking trails.
The Heritage Museum of the Texas Hill Country features dinosaur tracks, believed to be from iguandodon and acrocanthosaurus, embedded in limestone.
Once again, we leave our car at Overlook Park on the earthen dam’s south end. This time, though, we take the Overlook Trail, a caliche footpath that snakes through junipers down to the lakeshore, where we continue our hike. I pause to watch honeybees at work on the creamy plumes of abundant poverty weed and golden clusters of waist-high tatalencho. Along the shore, gentle waves of clear water lap across the rocks.
Around the bend, a greater roadrunner dashes across the trail. We freeze. It does, too. We stare at one another. Then it sprints into the brush. Finally, the path peters into a jumble of boulders, so we turn around. Heads up: Based on our previous visit, the Guadalupe River North Trail and South Trail below the dam are well worth a venture. Anglers frequent the North Trail, which offers a fishing platform. Towering cypresses and lush vegetation envelop the South Trail, which meanders for more than a mile alongside the river.
Day’s end calls for a leisurely cruise down scenic River Road, a half-hour drive (one way) that crosses the Guadalupe River four times. The narrow road winds past limestone cliffs, private picnic grounds, weekend homes and rental cabins. Spectacular views of the cypress-lined river tempt us to stop, but no parking is allowed along River Road. Tubing and fishing outfitters provide river access and rentals.
At the Fourth Crossing bridge, we pull off at the Rio Guadalupe Resort, our home base. Partners Bill Perkins and John Guenzel purchased the riverside property in 1977 and opened a campground. The resort also has river and fishing access. From December through March, Trout Unlimited and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stock points along the Guadalupe River with rainbow trout. Cold water continually released from Canyon Lake enables anglers to fish for trout year-round within 15 miles downstream of the dam. Bass, catfish and sunfish also inhabit the river.
The next morning, the resort’s shuttle drops James and me off with two kayaks about two miles upriver. We put in on the end point of the river’s mile-long “Horseshoe Loop” that fills up in the summer with tubers. Save for two fishermen on foot, we have the river to ourselves during our two-hour voyage.
Oh, the solitude of nature! As I dip my paddle in and out of the water, a belted kingfisher flits overhead. Northern cardinals, eastern phoebes and Carolina wrens call from the riverbanks, thick with bald cypresses and pecans. Red-eared sliders, basking on a sunny rock, slip into the water as we pass. A limestone outcropping, draped with maidenhair ferns and spider webs, summons me for a closer look.
Later, the Heritage Museum of the Texas Hill Country, midway between Startzville and Sattler, provides us with a look at regional history, such as marine fossils, Native American artifacts and a Canyon Dam exhibit. After a brief tour, we head outdoors to see the museum’s star attraction — dinosaur tracks embedded in limestone and protected by a huge pavilion. No one’s allowed near the three-toed tracks, but a covered walkway encircling the structure gives a bird’s-eye view from all sides. Experts believe that two gigantic dinosaurs — iguanodon and acrocanthosaurus — made the tracks more than 108 million years ago along an ancient seashore.
A waterfall spills down a limestone outcropping in the Canyon Lake Gorge.
Our last day turns up even more prehistoric encounters in the Gorge. Ahead of time, we made online reservations through the Gorge Preservation Society. Guided tours are $10 per person and limited to 23 people, ages 7 and up. Participants must wear sturdy shoes and carry bottled water; hats and backpacks are recommended. (Note: The tour is not recommended for people with heart conditions or bad knees or ankles, or those who are in poor health.)
Atop a hill in Overlook Park, we peer down on the dam’s spillway while docent Kerry O’Neal explains how the gorge formed in July 2002. Simply put, a tropical depression dumped more than 30 inches of rain within a week into the Guadalupe River watershed and, subsequently, Canyon Lake. For the first time ever, incoming water exceeded the lake’s capacity and gushed 7 feet over the 1,247-foot-wide emergency spillway with a rate that equaled one-third that of Niagara Falls.
The torrent’s force tossed aside massive boulders and bulldozed through the earth until pouring into the Guadalupe River two miles away. Officials later estimated that debris torn out downstream from the spillway could have filled a football field from end to end, 300 feet deep. Six weeks later, the water receded, revealing an incredible canyon with depths up to 45 feet in some places. Fossilized treasures were also unearthed.
“I found a dinosaur track!” the little girl squeals at the same time I realize I’m standing on one.
“You both win!” O’Neal announces. “These tracks may have been made by acrocanthosaurus, a meat-eating dinosaur of the Hill Country. We’re standing on what used to be a shallow ocean during the Cretaceous Period more than 110 million years ago.”
From the spillway, we descend into the gorge via a series of wide limestone terraces. One’s called Shell Flats, where O’Neal scoops up a palmful of tiny shells (Orbitolina texana) shaped liked disks. She also points out large gastropod fossils embedded in the limestone. On Curly Ledge, fossilized remnants of bivalve clams survive in the rock.
“Let’s have a few moments of silence so we can hear the waterfall,” O’Neal requests when we stop at a limestone cliff that drops off to a grassy bottom pocketed with small green ponds. “Lake water seeping beneath the ground feeds those ponds. Now let’s see what the power of water can do!”
Bushy bluestem and other grasses tickle my legs as we follow O’Neal over limestone rocks and down caliche paths. We pass deep ponds and shallow pools within the gorge’s gaping crevices. Near a moist seep fringed with river ferns, someone finds a juvenile western ribbonsnake. Above us, junipers cling to the edge of sheer canyon walls, laid open by the flood to expose rock strata.
Also exposed were more than 2,625 feet of the Hidden Valley Fault, a fracture long known about but never before seen until the gorge formed. We stand on the fault’s broad, sheared-off surfaces while O’Neal points out slickinlines, long marks left where the rock slabs scraped against one another as they moved apart.
Our tour ends at Fossil Bluff, a low outcropping of sedimentary layers. O’Neal encourages us to search the crumbling wall of dirt and ground for marine fossils, such as snails, sea urchins and bivalves. But we must return everything we find; collecting is a felony offense.
Back at the preservation society’s office, my new friend Cheyenne and I get to choose our prizes. She happily picks out a Gorge hat pin. I go for a mouse pad. Then we high-five. Dinosaur tracks and Canyon Dam rock!
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