Clear spring water and amazing scenery make “roughing it” worth the effort.
By Melissa Gaskill
“This may be the only place on the planet where nothing has changed in my lifetime,” says Jim Finnegan, indicating a mile of river frontage in Devils River State Natural Area. He should know; Finnegan grew up on these 20,000-odd acres, where his great-grandfather established a sheep ranch in 1883.
Running south more than 40 miles to empty into Lake Amistad, Devils River gets 80 percent of its water from springs, several gushing from park property. The spring water and the site’s remote location, in the vastness of southwest Texas between Sonora and Del Rio, help make it one of the state’s cleanest rivers. It’s only impounded at its lower end, and that, along with deep pools, wide shallows, impressive rapids and sheer good looks, attracts canoe and kayak aficionados. The Devils River is not for the casual paddler, though. A typical trip is 45 miles long over several Class III rapids, and the wind along part of the journey is sometimes strong enough to blow boats upstream.
“This is not a float trip,” as Devils River Outfitter’s Gerald Bailey says. “You have to work to get down river.” A rough limestone bed, limited take-out areas, shuttle drives of up to five hours, and no medical care within 70 miles — without a doubt, running this river takes guts. The rewards, though, include miles of pale blue water shot through with sunlight, rugged cliffs punctuated by caves, shady pecan and oak groves, and more unspoiled scenery and solitude than most of us have experienced in a lifetime — not to mention some of the finest catch-and-release fishing for smallmouth bass around.
For $10, park staff will shuttle groups to put in for a down-river paddle between 8 and 9 a.m. There’s also a riverside camping area for those who start some 15 miles upstream at Baker’s Crossing Campground. The next public take-out after the park is Rough Canyon Marina and Recreation Area on Lake Amistad, 32 miles downriver, although Bailey can arrange take-out on private lands along the river to make for a 3-day river trip. Those without arrangements are duly warned: Trespassing is not taken lightly in these parts.
For those not up to that much adventure, Bailey offers two days of catch-and-release fishing based in a cabin at the park’s far edge, providing transportation, meals, gear and everything but the bedroll. In addition, the park has a 12-mile hike-and-bike trail, primitive camping, a group barracks that sleeps 10, and a group dining hall with a reasonably well-equipped commercial kitchen (check with staff for particulars). Finnegan, now a park staff member, and park superintendent Rick Thompson give tours of the river, park archaeological sites and Dolan Falls. Arranged in advance, these last about two hours and are $10 per person.
By land, the only access is via 22-mile-long, unpaved Dolan Creek Road. The turn-off is on Highway 277 near Loma Alta, between Del Rio and Sonora. High clearance and sturdy tires are recommended. No open fires and no pets allowed. Bring everything you’ll need, including drinking water, and plan to take out all your trash.
For more information on Devils River State Natural Area, call (830) 395-2133 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/devilsriver>; Rough Canyon Recreation Area: (512) 775-8779; Devils River Outfitters: (830) 395-2266.