Every Texas Hill Country river has a personality of its own. For the Upper Guadalupe River north of San Antonio, it’s gregarious and welcoming, full of charm and character, pressured by increasing crowds but still able to allow its true self to shine through.
It also happens to be one of the best entry-level paddling excursions for new kayakers, canoeists, and paddleboarders and the perfect place to do a relatively easy float but still beat the massive crowds along the Interstate 35 corridor.
The Guadalupe River’s headwaters are in Kerr County, west of Hunt, and the river flows about 230 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The roughly 23 miles between Bergheim and Rebecca Creek Road makes for some of the most reliable good paddling in the San Antonio area.
Since the first time I floated this river in spring 2016, I’ve seen it in nearly all its forms, except extreme drought.
My first introduction came in early May, after a series of rains had made the river swollen and turbulent. I thought a little too highly of my kayaking skills and ended up turning over in the first rapid. The only pair of expensive sunglasses I have ever owned lie at the bottom of the river somewhere.
Later during that trip, some of us caught a glimpse of a small alligator, a rare sight this far into the Texas interior. The former state herpetologist at the time told me that any gator upriver from the dam was likely someone’s pet that had been set free.
The story I wrote about it went somewhat viral. For the next few years, my friends and I continued to encounter the sort of you-won’t-believe-what-these-kayakers-saw-next clickbait that bloats the web.
The same river has shriveled to barely more than a stream in drier times, when floating the river requires some walking and dragging. Still, this section tends to have more reliable flow than other Hill Country rivers, such as the Frio and Medina.
On Saturday, conditions were close to perfect. A group of friends and acquaintances from Austin came down to experience the Guadalupe for the first time. When I proposed it, one of them asked me if it wasn’t just like the roughly 24-mile stretch of river between Canyon Dam and New Braunfels, much of which becomes a party scene on summer weekends.
The Guadalupe is a whole different river above Canyon Lake . Visitors will see groups on the river, but rarely if ever the huge crowds of the middle Guadalupe, Comal, and San Marcos. Still, some of the same rules apply: Make sure to leave glass and polystyrene containers at home or risk a $500 fine.
The river here also is facing changes wrought by development, some of which the Rivard Report has covered in detail.
Check the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Spring Branch before planning a trip. You’ll need a flow of at least 150 cubic feet per second (cfs) to run the river at all. All but experienced whitewater paddlers should avoid the river above flows of 1,400 cfs.
The Trailist recommends an ideal flow of around 500, especially when it’s been flowing like that for several days. That’s when the river turns from muddy brown water to a series of blue pools and clear riffles, as groundwater flows up through the countless springs and seeps along the river’s edge.
This section is an ideal one for beginning kayakers, canoeists, and stand-up paddleboarders. The flow is usually strong and steady enough that some of your group can opt for tubing, while others can rely on more advanced watercraft.
In our group, the tubers set a leisurely, but steady pace at just under 500 cfs. That kind of pace gave the kayakers a little time to explore the boulders and cypresses at the river’s edge.
Except for Nichols Landing, Guadalupe River State Park, and the crossings at Edge Falls Road FM 3351, the entire Upper Guadalupe in this section is surrounded by private property. Respect the landowners’ rights and avoid trespassing on the banks.
To outfit so many people, we relied on the services of Guadalupe Canoe Livery, right off of U.S. Highway 281. Their standard trip is about 4 river miles from the put-in point at Nichols Landing and the take-out at the livery property next to 281. They also offer longer trips, including at the put-in at Edge Falls Road.
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The standard trip took us around 3 ½ hours, and that was with kayakers and tubers. The river there has enough challenging mini-rapids for beginners but nothing too risky, so it makes for a perfect intro river to kayaking.
I’ve worked out a method that lets me kayak in this area solo, using only my own vehicle, without having to hitchhike or call for a shuttle. It’s allowed me to access the roughly 10-mile section between Nichols Landing and Rebecca Creek Road, located about 5 ½ miles downriver from 281.
This method involves kayaking downriver, then biking back to your car. You need a bike with a rack and panniers, plus an inflatable kayak and a sturdy strap. Once I’ve worked out more of the kinks, I plan to write a full column about what I’m calling pedal-paddling.
Most days, I’d prefer to be on the river with friends. No matter whether you go alone or in a large group, chances are you’ll be back to visit the Guadalupe again.