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Colorado River, Texas
Report by Marc W. McCord

SH 71 at Smithville to US Highway 77 at LaGrange
~ 36 miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Colorado is a long, wide, slow-moving river with few whitewater hazards and plenty of scenery to capture your eye. The section between Austin and Columbus starts inside Austin city limit and continues to Columbus over 155 miles below. Flowing northwest to southeast, the Colorado River is characterized by headwinds that will slow you down and which may make your trip a little less enjoyable. There are numerous access points for putting in and taking out, but some stretches can be many miles between them, so careful trip planning is essential.

The topography along this reach of the Colorado between Smithville and LaGrange is a little different than on sections above. Limestone formations are apparent along the banks. Large cliffs are occasionally seen, as well as fern-lined springs that feed the river. Wide and slow-moving, this reach almost always has plenty of water for a good paddling trip, though strong headwinds can sometimes play havoc with canoes and kayaks, not to mention what they could do to rafts. The heavily-vegetated cut banks contain fossils that many would find interesting. Minor rapids and occasionally swift currents will occasionally be found between Smithville and LaGrange, though the Chicken Ranch at LaGrange is gone ("...they had a lotta nice girls down there...") Numerous creeks feed the river from both sides, a characteristic that is shared by most of the Lower Colorado River below Austin. This section is very scenic, so a camera should be taken.

The entire length of the Colorado River flows through land steeped in Texas history. Many battlefields of the War for Independence from Mexico lie along this route. Names of people and places that are legendary in Texas history will be seen everywhere. The only major drawback is the lack of commercial liveries and shuttle services - you will need to bring your own boats and gear and arrange your own shuttles.

Location

Bastrop and Fayette Counties, in the plains of central Texas on the southeastern edge of the Hill Country.

Distance from major cities

Austin 45 miles; Waco 145 miles; Dallas 235 miles; San Antonio 110 miles; Houston 115 miles; Oklahoma City 444 miles; Little Rock 565 miles; Kansas City 740 miles; Albuquerque 748 miles; Phoenix 1,066 miles; Denver 1,035 miles; Salt Lake City 1,266 miles (all distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, put-in destination at the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Good to very good most of the time. Low water and high temperatures will reduce water quality. Recent rainfall will make the water murky to muddy. The flow is usually adequate for trips with zero to minimal walking or portaging, but that can change due to low or high water conditions. The river is wide and the current is very slow, though there are some areas with swift currents and small (Class I) rapids.

Best time to go

Spring and fall, when the plants are changing colors and the rains are more frequent, are the optimum seasons and winter can be good if sufficient rain has fallen and you are prepared for the colder temperatures. Summer is usually best avoided unless adequate local rains have fallen recently. Summer heat and high headwinds act to make the months from June through September less than ideal for paddling the Colorado River.

Hazards to navigation

Most of the hazards on the Colorado River are not rapids, waterfalls, rock ledges, outcroppings or obstacles to paddling. The river is, for all intents and purposes, free of such hazards. However, Mother Nature can be a problem unless proper precautions are taken. Some of these natural hazards include seering summer temperatures, lack of shade trees along the riverbanks, strong headwinds, fireants and occasionally snakes, though they are not usually a problem unless you step on them or attempt to handle them. The long distances between access points can be the single biggest hazard for most paddlers. The few rapids to be encountered will generally fall into the Class I- to I+ category, and are easily negotiated by being observant and taking the proper line through them.

River Access Points

Vernon L. Richards Riverbend Park (City of Smithville), near SH 71/95 at 0.0 miles; Plum Park (LCRA) at about 17.0 miles; Buffalo Trail Park off SH 71 in LaGrange at about 35.0 miles; US Highway 77 (poor access) south of LaGrange at about 36.0 miles. NOTE: It might be possible to gain access to and from the river by putting in or taking out on any of several creeks that cross SH 71 between Smithville and West Point, or creeks that cross FM 153 between Smithville and US Highway 77, but many will traverse private land, so be sure to have permission before launching or recovering from one of the creeks.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Vernon L. Richards Riverbend Park (City of Smithville) offers overnight camping, restrooms, potable water, picnic tables, 19 RV hookups, BBQ pits, a covered pavilion, lighted fishing pier and other amenities. Call 512-237-5235 for information; Plum Park (LCRA facility), about 17 river miles below Riverbend Park, offers overnight camping for paddlers without fees (call 1-800-776-5272, Ext. 3366 for information), waterless toilet and picnic tables, but no potable water; Buffalo Trail Park in La Grange, about 18 river miles below Plum Park under the State Highway 71 Business route bridge, offers paved parking, a paved boat ramp and picnic tables. There are no known commercial campgrounds located along this reach of the Colorado River. There are, however, many great sand and gravel islands and bars that are suitable for overnight camping or daytime stopovers for lunch or breaks, as well as some city and LCRA parks that are accessible to paddlers from the river. This reach of the river provides for primitive paddling and camping for those who enjoy "roughing it" on a river.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no commercial liveries operating on this section of the Colorado River. Remote boat rentals and shuttles may be arranged by contacting Austin Outdoor Gear & Guidance (512-473-2628), or other outfitters and liveries operating at or near other nearby rivers.

Reviewer's comments

The Colorado is one of those flatwater rivers that excites even a whitewater enthusiast because of the abundance of natural plants and animals to be seen. Paddling through a part of Texas that is largely unchanged from the frontier days before and after independence from Mexico is a step back in time, and if you close your eyes and open your ears you can sometimes hear the sounds of the past, where numerous Texas Indian nations fought Mexicans and Americans, and where the Texians made their stands against the armies of Santa Ana in 1836. Just seeing the bald eagles soaring in the skies overhead is an awesome thing to behold.

The headwinds can and will make you shout profanities at times, especially in times of low water, when you are already having to walk more than you wanted to do. However, the rugged, natural environment and the richness of the animal- and plantlife is a photographer's Valhalla. The key to enjoying the Colorado River is to know what to expect and be prepared to manage it within a time schedule you have developed for completing your trip. The access points allow you to plan trips of moderate to long distances according to your idea of a perfect river trip.

Technical Data
Class Rating I
Length 36 miles
Minimum Flow 200 cfs
Optimum Flow 500 - 3,000 cfs
Maximum Flow 5,000 cfs
First Put-in SH 71 in Smithville
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out US Highway 77 at LaGrange
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Smithville
LeGrange
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Year-round, weather permitting
Permits No


Cook's Canoes in Downtown Webberville

Colorado River map courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
Colorado River map courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Austin Paddling Club - Just for the fun of it!

Houston Canoe Club

Alamo City Rivermen - Paddling the fine line between geek and bubba

Dallas Down River Club - Promoting paddlesports,  safety and environmental protection

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Colorado River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

Colorado River

[ Colorado River Homepage ] [ US Highway 190 to Lake Buchanan ] [ Austin Town Lake ]
[ US Highway 183 (Austin) to FM 969 ] [ FM 969 to Smithville ] [ La Grange to Columbus ]

Tributaries

[ Barton Creek ] [ Pedernales River ] [ Concho River ]

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