Maegan Lanham | TPWD
No matter what inspires you, we’ve got a paddling trail to take you there.
To see how far Texas’ paddling trails have come, I decided to go back to where they all began, Luling’s Zedler Mill Paddling Trail on the San Marcos River.
In 2006, Luling’s became the first inland paddling trail. Today, Texas has 80 paddling trails across the state.
I’m joined by Melissa Parker and John Botros of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s rivers team. Melissa helped get the paddling trail program started.
“What a great day for a paddling trip,” Melissa says as we approach the put-in spot west of Luling. “I haven’t been here since we opened the trail. I’m excited to get back to where it all started.”
TPWD’s paddling trails were established to make it as easy as possible for even novice paddlers to enjoy the state’s waterways. With most of the state’s land in private hands, our rivers, lakes and bays offer fun, accessible and rewarding ways to enjoy some of Texas’ greatest natural resources.
As the river’s current starts to carry us gently down the stream, it doesn’t take long for us to set our clocks back to “river time.”
“Once you get on the river and around the bend away from the highway, it’s just another world down here,” Melissa says, showing us how we’re surrounded by green (the river and trees) and the sounds of birds. At one point, a great blue heron flies across the river in one direction while a great egret flies across in the other. Turtles plop off logs into the water as we approach.
When Melissa and others were establishing this trail, they were still trying to figure everything out — how long a paddling trail should be, how communities could support them, what kind of information to provide and even what the signs should be made of.
“We tried to design the trails so that a family could do them in a day or a half-day,” she says. “We tell people where they can put in on a river, where to take out and what to bring along. We try to educate them on how to behave responsibly on a river.”
The program’s website contains maps, descriptions, directions, safety tips and more for dozens of family-friendly paddling trips across the state. Signs and kiosks at each site offer additional guidance.
For TPWD, paddling trails provide an opportunity to get people engaged in water recreation, which can lead to appreciation and conservation. For paddlers, the trails offer destinations where they know they’ll have access to the water, a place to park and information on put-ins, take-outs and more. For towns, they are a path to nature tourism.
Some paddling trails are rich in scenery; others offer abundant wildlife. On some, the fish are definitely biting; some provide a trip through history. Whatever you’re after, here are great suggestions for your next paddling adventure.
Chase Fountain | TPWD
BEST PADDLING TRAILS FOR SCENERY
NECHES – DAVY CROCKETT PADDLING TRAIL
At 9.2 miles in length, this leisurely paddle on the Neches River outside of Lufkin gives paddlers a front-row seat for the amazing biodiversity of East Texas. The Neches River is one of Texas’ wildest and least-discovered natural assets. The scenic river winds its way through Davy Crockett National Forest with heavily forested banks and a rich abundance of wildlife.
CADDO LAKE PADDLING TRAILS
With 10 official paddling trails, the Caddo Lake area has more than 50 miles of canoe and kayak trails for visiting paddlers. Follow the trail markers to explore the mysterious maze of sloughs, swamps and bayous for which this beautiful region is known. Waterlogged cypress trees draped with Spanish moss create an otherworldly atmosphere.
BUFFALO BAYOU PADDLING TRAIL
You may be in central Houston, but there’s a surprising diversity of plants and animals to enjoy on this paddling trail. Birds, turtles, fish and other wildlife make their homes in this otherwise urban environment. The scenery is both natural and urban: You may think you’re in the middle of nowhere and then see a skyscraper around the next bend.
UPPER GUADALUPE – NICHOL'S LANDING PADDLING TRAIL
This 9.9-mile reach of the Guadalupe River is lined with an abundance of mature trees and a spectacular mix of limestone cliffs and shelves. Get ready for some rapids! Paddlers will enjoy an exciting ride on a variety of rapids between gentle stretches of river. The clear-flowing waters, giant cypress trees and limestone bluffs make this a Hill Country beauty.
VILLAGE CREEK PADDLING TRAIL
With beautiful white sandy beaches, amazing wildlife diversity and tall East Texas trees, Village Creek is a classic Texas paddling destination. Village Creek flows through Big Thicket National Preserve, possessing a dazzling diversity of plant and animal species rarely found in the same place on the globe. Cypress-tupelo swamps and backwater sloughs abound here. More than 1,000 different flowering plants, more than 100 kinds of trees, more than 200 bird species and numerous species of mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and amphibians call this primordial slice of Texas home, where multiple ecosystems converge. Bald cypress, water tupelo and black willow trees line the creek’s banks, while dense stands of pine, oak and other species grow in the forests and bottomlands. When the creek bends left or right, beautiful white-sand sandbars appear, inviting paddlers to stop for a break or even to camp. Multiple distances are available, allowing paddlers to spend a couple of hours or a couple of days exploring this scenic gem.
Chase Fountain | TPWD
BEST PADDLING TRAILS FOR WILDLIFE AND BIRDING
MARTIN DIES JR. STATE PARK PADDLING TRAILS
Two rivers meet here in the eastern forest of Texas, creating wild and diverse habitats. The park sits on the northern edge of the Big Thicket, known as the biological crossroads of North America. You will find a variety of mammals, birds and reptiles during all seasons of the year as you follow waterways through pristine, old-growth river-bottom hardwood forests and paddle around mammoth bald cypress trees. You can experience backwater bayous, the open waters of B.A. Steinhagen Lake and the swifter currents of the Neches River on the park’s three paddling trails. Water birds are abundant — look for herons, egrets, ibises and anhingas. Belted kingfishers skim above the water’s surface. In the summer, swallow-tailed kites entertain with their soaring acrobatics. Bald eagles also live around the lake in summer. Listen for the unmistakable call of the pileated woodpecker as it glides through the treetops. Keep an eye out for alligators, too.
COLLIER'S FERRY TO LAKE BAYOU PADDLING TRAIL AND COOKS LAKE TO SCATTERMAN PADDLING TRAIL
Collier’s Ferry is a 7-mile out-and-back loop trail that gives visitors a chance to paddle through one of the remote and beautiful backwater channels of the biologically diverse Big Thicket National Preserve. The 4.8-mile Cooks Lake loop trail paddles through a beautiful moss-draped cypress-tupelo slough in the Big Thicket.
MINEOLA BIGFOOT PADDLING TRAIL
This 11.9-mile trail offers a wild and scenic view of East Texas along the beautiful Sabine River. The river corridor supports a great diversity of plant and animal life, including wood ducks, owls, bluebirds, egrets, herons, hummingbirds, kingfishers, ospreys and woodpeckers. The trail flows along the edge of the 3,000-acre Mineola Nature Preserve, the “Birding Capital of East Texas.”
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN PADDLING TRAIL
Paddlers along this trail can expect plentiful wildlife, rugged landscapes and historic settings as they travel on one of Texas’ most storied rivers. Four trails take paddlers through majestic Brazos River bottomland forests near the coast, where towering trees, palmetto thickets and flowering plants support a multitude of wildlife species and provide a critically important stopover habitat for migrating birds.
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
BEST PADDLING TRAILS FOR FISHING
SOUTH LLANO PADDLING TRAIL
The South Llano River gurgles to life in a classic Hill Country landscape, fed by hundreds of natural springs. High limestone bluffs frame the twisting river channel, which contains quiet pools and small rapids. The South Llano is home to abundant quantities of our state fish, the Guadalupe bass. Texas anglers love Guadalupe bass in part because of where they live — the clear-running waters of the Hill Country — and in part because they're a fun, feisty fish. This 6.3-mile paddling trail starts at South Llano River State Park and ends at Junction City Park, a stretch of river offering some of the best waters in Texas for Guadalupe bass fishing. TPWD has stocked nearly a million Guadalupe bass in the South Llano over the past decade. In addition, this section of the river supports numerous largemouth bass, catfish and several species of sunfish.
CHANDLER UPPER NECHES PADDLING TRAIL
This up-and-back paddling trail allows exploration of the Neches River above Lake Palestine. In spring, white bass move into the river from the lake to spawn, attracting anglers from all over East Texas. During the summer months, blue and channel catfish provide an excellent fishery. Largemouth bass and sunfish can be caught year-round.
PADDLE POINT CREEK PADDLING TRAIL
Lake Ray Hubbard, east of downtown Dallas, offers a variety of great fishing. The lake supports numerous species including bass, catfish, crappie and perch. Hybrid striped bass and blue catfish are the prime targets here. Anglers can find success by fishing near the rocky riprap areas.
BASTROP PADDLING TRAILS
The Colorado River meanders through Bastrop on its way from Austin to the coast. Two paddling trails provide abundant angling opportunities for bass and catfish. This section is known for its large Guadalupe bass. Largemouth bass and sunfish are common in the backwater pools.
BEST PADDLING TRAILS FOR HISTORY
MISSION REACH PADDLING TRAIL
This 8-mile trail (shorter options available) starts just south of downtown San Antonio and flows through the city’s historic mission region. In the 1700s, the Spanish established a series of missions along the San Antonio River; four of those Spanish colonial missions make up San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Paddle through San Antonio’s history as you pass Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada, each about 2 to 3 miles apart (and not necessarily visible from the river). Ecological restoration has returned the river to its natural state, with more than 23,000 trees planted on the Mission Reach. Trails and public art line the river’s banks. Along the river, paddlers will encounter more than 30 “canoe chutes,” basically concrete water slides, that enable vessels to continue downriver during low flow levels.
GOLIAD PADDLING TRAIL
Enjoy quiet pools and several small riffles on the first inland paddling trail to include a state park. This 6.6-mile river trail on the San Antonio River ends at one of the most history-filled spots in Texas — Goliad. At the state park, be sure to check out the Spanish colonial-era Mission Espíritu Santo. Across the river, more history awaits at Presidio La Bahía, Zaragoza Birthplace and Fannin Memorial Monument.
LIMESTONE BLUFFS PADDLING TRAIL
This paddling trail covers about 5.3 miles of quiet water on the Navasota River from the Confederate Reunion Grounds State Historic Site to Fort Parker State Park. The Confederate Reunion Grounds commemorates a place where Civil War veterans gathered from 1889 to 1946. Fort Parker is a Civilian Conservation Corps-built park with freshwater springs and historical features. Old Fort Parker is nearby.
GONZALES PADDLING TRAILS
Gonzales has two paddling trails to choose from: the 2.6-mile family-friendly Independence Paddling Trail, which skirts a city park, or the 11-mile Come and Take It Paddling Trail down the Guadalupe River on a stretch that contains the confluence with the San Marcos River. Gonzales was a hotbed of Texas revolutionary activity, including the first skirmish of the Texas Revolution and the “Come and Take It” town cannon.
Sonja Sommerfeld | TPWD
BEST PADDLING TRAILS FOR FAMILY
FORT WORTH NATURE CENTER & REFUGE PADDLING TRAIL
Just minutes from downtown Fort Worth, this peaceful 6- to 7-mile loop paddling trail gives paddlers a chance to enjoy some quiet time on the West Fork of the Trinity River at the Fort Worth Nature Center. Paddlers can do an out-and-back trip while exploring the marshes in one of the most scenic and natural sections of the Trinity River in the Metroplex. There’s plenty of wildlife to see, such as great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, beavers and alligators. Civilian Conservation Corps structures can be found along the trail in the Greer Island area. The nature center covers 3,600 acres and features 20 miles of hiking trails, a bison herd and a prairie dog town.
BOSQUE BLUFFS AND BRAZOS BRIDGES PADDLING TRAILS
These two paddling trails are right in the heart of downtown Waco and offer easy access to paddlers. Enjoy a trip along the Bosque River or the Brazos River, each providing a unique view of the outdoors. On these out-and-back loop trails, enjoy the quiet serenity of nature while paddling through the parks and rivers of Waco.
BEAVER POND PADDLING TRAIL
Lewisville’s Beaver Pond is a wildlife magnet, and quiet paddlers have great opportunities to view herons, egrets, ducks, turtles, frogs, deer and many other wildlife species. There are plenty of cool, shady areas in which to escape the sun on warm days, and the 1-mile trail includes 12 stops at interpretive signs to enhance your experience. (Beaver Pond can go dry during drought; call ahead for conditions.)
LADY BIRD LAKE PADDLING TRAIL
Austin’s downtown lake is a popular place to paddle, as evidenced by the hundreds of kayaks, paddleboards and canoes that can be seen on a warm spring weekend. It’s great for families because the lake is calm and flat with lots of urban and natural scenery. On summer evenings, watching the bats emerge from the Congress Avenue bridge while on the water can be an amazing sight.
BEST PADDLING TRAILS FOR SALTY FUN
LIGHTHOUSE LAKES PADDLING TRAIL
The first Texas paddling trail, established in 1999, is a series of four loops ranging in length from 1.25 miles to 6.8 miles between Port Aransas and Aransas Pass. The trails meander through an extensive black mangrove estuary, into sloughs and back lakes near the historic 1857 Lydia Ann Lighthouse. Paddlers can glide through mangroves and seagrass flats that provide outstanding bird watching and fishing for red drum, spotted seatrout and flounder in the maze of tidal channels and flats. Birds are everywhere here: great blue herons, great egrets, white ibises, roseate spoonbills, brown pelicans, ducks and more ducks. Most of the area contains shallow water, so it’s best to explore during high tide. It can feel like a maze in there; map and GPS are recommended.
GALVESTON ISLAND STATE PARK PADDLING TRAIL
Paddlers can choose from three different trails that vary in length from 2.6 to 4.8 miles in waters off the bay side of the state park. The water is normally calm and makes for excellent paddling. The park has recorded more than 300 bird species, including wading and shore birds, mottled and mallard ducks, and more. Fishing’s great, too.
ARMAND BAYOU PADDLING TRAIL
The paddling trail follows Armand Bayou, and paddlers can choose a route depending on what they want to see and how long they want to paddle (and how many alligators they want to encounter!). Armand Bayou Coastal Preserve offers a stunning glimpse into two increasingly rare ecosystems — a riparian coastal flatwoods forest and a coastal tallgrass prairie.
PORT O'CONNOR PADDLING TRAIL
The Port O’Connor trail consists of six interconnecting trails through bays and saltwater marshes. The trails offer opportunities to paddle several hours, all day or several days as well as opportunities to bird, fish and relax. Birding and fishing are excellent. The main trail leads to Matagorda Island, where camping is available.
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