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Beyond the River

Explore the trails, streams and quiet places at Guadalupe River State Park and Honey Creek State Natural Area.

By Dale Weisman

It’s a beautiful thing:
Families frolic and tube along a lazy bend of the Guadalupe River beneath creamy limestone cliffs. Children and dogs splash in the cool water, while parents chill out in low folding chairs in the precious shade of a flood-battered cypress.

Welcome to Guadalupe River State Park — or at least to the park’s idyllic swimming hole, which attracts most of the park’s visitors, sometimes in crushing numbers. Sure, it’s wonderful to see folks out enjoying themselves in nature, but there are times I desire something from a park experience that’s becoming as rare as a golden-cheeked warbler: solitude.

On some weekends, it seems as if most of the state’s 22 million residents have descended upon every beauty spot and swimming hole in Central Texas, from Garner State Park to the Pedernales River to Ink’s Lake and, yes, to Guadalupe River State Park.

Straddling Comal and Kendall counties, Guadalupe River State Park, owes its name and existence to one of the most scenic and popular recreational rivers in Texas. When Spanish explorer Alonso de Leon encountered the clear-flowing stream in 1689, he named it Nuestra Seora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico). The Guadalupe: a lovely name for a lovely river.

Rising in two forks in the Hill Country of western Kerr County, the Guadalupe meanders from its headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico entirely within state boundaries. Countless springs and tributaries feed the free-flowing Upper Guadalupe, and by the time the river carves a winding, four-mile path through the state park, it carries ample water for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, tubing, swimming and angling.

GRSP might be just another typical Hill Country park were it not for the exceptional public access it provides to a river whose banks are mostly private property. GRSP is also unique in the state park system in that it shares a boundary with a state natural area. Together, the 1,938-acre state park and adjoining 2,294-acre Honey Creek State Natural Area comprise more than 4,200 contiguous acres of Hill Country habitat.

When Guadalupe River State Park opened in 1983, uncluttered countryside surrounded the nearby intersection of U.S. 281 and State Highway 46. Today SH 46 bustles with retail shops, gas stations and restaurants as suburban sprawl creeps ever closer.

“The biggest thing about Guadalupe is that the park is located so close to a major city and still provides access to relatively pristine river environment,” says Mark Abolafia-Rosenzweig, superintendent of Guadalupe River State Park and Honey Creek State Natural Area. Mark landed the superintendent job at GRSP and Honey Creek about three years ago. Previously, he had spent 17 years managing Palmetto State Park.

“When I first got here,” recalls Mark, “I knew that this place was busy, but I really wasn’t prepared for how busy it is. It really never rests.”

Based on annual visitation, GRSP ranks among the top five busiest state parks in Texas. Mark estimates that the park draws some 160,000 visitors a year.

“With San Antonio virtually knocking on our doorstep,” he adds, “we have an enormous amount of visitor pressure, and that’s only going to continue to rise.”

Mark acknowledges that it’s good so many visitors are discovering the park, but the burgeoning visitation poses challenges for those who are looking for a serene, quiet atmosphere. “It’s really hard to find that here,” says Mark. “The park’s hiking trails and the Honey Creek guided tours certainly capture that quieter experience. That’s because more than 98 percent of our guests go straight down to the river and never step foot on the trails. The river is what attracts people, and that’s why the park was established.”

If some 98 percent of GRSP’s visitors flock to the swimming hole on the Guadalupe, I’m happy to be a “two-percenter” and explore the rest of the park.

There’s so much more to Guadalupe River State Park than just a good swimming hole. GRSP abounds with hiking trails that traverse the park’s upland forests, grassland savannahs and riparian zones. Hikers, mountain bikers and equestrian riders have access to more than five miles of multiuse trails that crisscross the uplands in a looping, figure-8 pattern.

My favorite trail, Loop 3 (accessible from the Cedar Sage Camping Area), meanders through dense stands of live oak and Ashe juniper. An especially scenic stretch hugs a sheer limestone bluff overlooking the bucolic Guadalupe River valley and an undeveloped 700-acre section of parkland on the north side of the river. Pending future development, the land remains closed to the public, with some limited use during the public-hunt season. A development plan is being finalized to accommodate primitive group camping, as well as hiking, biking and equestrian use on this tract.

Back to Loop 3, I had been warned that the overlook area was too rugged for mountain biking. I gave it a perilous try but ended up walking my bike along the bone-jarring trail, studded with limestone outcroppings. Geologists call this stony, water-sculpted landscape karst, a word of German and Slavic origin that refers to a European region riddled with fissures, faults, sinkholes, springs, sinking streams and caves. The Edwards Plateau has its own karst topography, and it abounds at GRSP and Honey Creek, which lie in the recharge zone for the Trinity Aquifer.

I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. Some of these arboreal monarchs are several centuries old...

Loop 2 (accessible from a trailhead near park headquarters) is smoother and less rocky than Loop 3, offering an easy 2.5-mile path for mountain biking and hiking, as well as a couple of small spur loops to explore. The morning I rode Loop 2, I didn’t see a single human soul — just me and the occasional white-tailed deer and armadillo. Other park denizens include raccoons, squirrels, opossums, bobcats and coyotes. Feral hogs are common, too, and I spotted the aftermath of their destructive foraging — swaths of porcine rotor-tilling.

The terrain alternates between juniper-choked woodlands and open grassland savannah dotted with oak mottes — the original Hill Country landscape that predated the arrival of settlers. Accounts of early Spanish and Anglo-American explorers describe rolling hills covered in “belly-high” grasses while “mountain cedar” (Ashe juniper) flourished in canyons and along escarpments. By the mid-19th century, waves of settlers, many of them European immigrants, poured into the region. The settlers upset the Hill Country ecology by allowing their livestock to overgraze, leading to soil erosion, and by suppressing wildfires that had rejuvenated the grasslands and kept the invasive cedar at bay.

In pockets of the state park and Honey Creek SNA, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department plans to use prescribed burning to remove scrub cedar and return the landscape to how it appeared 125 years ago. At Honey Creek, a major research project is now underway in which scientists are monitoring the effects of brush removal and the restoration of grasslands on water recharge and groundwater levels.

While native grasses, such as Indiangrass, switchgrass and little bluestem, are making a comeback in areas of the park, TPWD also protects old-growth Ashe juniper and live oak woodlands — prime nesting habitat for endangered golden-cheeked warblers, which migrate from Central America to breed in the Hill Country during the summer.

Nationally recognized for birding, the area harbors some 160 bird species. Depending on the season, expect to see (or hear) bluebirds, cardinals, canyon and Carolina wrens, white-eyed vireos, yellow-crested woodpeckers, kingfishers, wood ducks, wild turkeys and red-shouldered hawks.

For a combination of good birdwatching and gorgeous scenery, try hiking along the river through riparian galleries of bald cypress, sycamore, elm and pecan. One stretch of trail east of the swimming hole lies below the Wagon Ford walk-in tent-camping area, a secluded alternative to car camping. Tucked away in a shady pecan bottom, Wagon Ford is one of the prettiest camping areas I’ve seen in any state park.

I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else like the Ents of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Some of these arboreal monarchs are several centuries old and have weathered countless flash floods, including the “500-year floods” of 1998 and 2002. The bald cypress is aptly named because it’s a deciduous conifer (most are evergreen), turning rust brown, dropping its feathery leaves and “going bald” each fall.

Lingering by the creek, I gaze at the layers of shadow and light mirrored in the water and imagine sitting all alone in this quiet, green cathedral. I want Honey Creek to speak to me, to impart its wisdom...

A signature tree on the Guadalupe River, bald cypresses also flourish along Honey Creek. To protect the fragile riparian habitat, Honey Creek is accessible only by guided tour, held each Saturday at 9 a.m. The two-hour tour begins at the historic Rust House, near Park Road 31. Master naturalist volunteers from the Friends of Guadalupe River/Honey Creek (a nonprofit support organization) serve as tour guides.

The Honey Creek tour had been on my to-do list for many years, and to make up for lost time, I went twice last summer. My first Honey Creek hike was blessed by clouds and light rain, casting a cool veil of autumn over the late-July morning. Some 25 hikers — mostly families with children — gathered by the back porch of the Rust House, a rustic, wood-framed dog-trot-style house built in 1917 presumably from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail-order kit. The Rust House is one of three historic homes in the Guadalupe River State Park and Honey Creek property. The 1860 Bauer House, a classic example of German fachwerk half-timbering construction, is located on parkland on the north side of the river; the Doeppenshmidt-Weidnar House, continuously inhabited from the 1870s until the 1970s, is situated near Honey Creek.

Our tour guide, Tom Anderson, fits the part: “Redwoods” T-shirt, straw hat, walking stick and a booming voice cultivated through years of teaching environmental science and biology in public schools. Now retired from full-time teaching, Tom channels much of his time and considerable energy into the Friends group. “This is my passion, this is what I love,” Tom tells me. “I love teaching, and I love this creek.”

Tom leads us down the trail into a forest of live oak, Ashe juniper and hackberry. The woodlands give way to live oak-grassland savannah, speckled with white-blooming snow-on-the-mountain. Soon we enter a forested stretch of trail Tom calls “arachnid alley,” nicknamed for the huge webs stretched across the trail, spun by yellow-and-black orb weaver spiders.

We reach the edge of a bluff overlooking a fertile floodplain on the north side of the river — a perfect spot to observe wildlife in the grassy valley below. Standing beneath spreading live oaks draped in Spanish moss, I imagine Apaches or Comanches at this very viewpoint, scouting for game or foes.

From the overlook, the trail crosses a natural seep thick with Lindheimer’s muhly grass and mullein — a velvety soft plant with medicinal properties, sometimes called “cowboy toilet paper.” A loosely stacked stone wall, built nearly a century ago, lends a touch of ranching history to the lush tableaux. The stone walls and other remnant structures are the handiwork of German immigrants who accompanied Prince Carl von Solms-Braunfels into Central Texas and began homesteading the upper Guadalupe River and Honey Creek area in the 1850s and ’60s. Early German settlers in the area included the Doeppenschmidt, Weidner, Bauer, Richter and Rust families, who amassed thousands of acres of ranchland over several generations.

As the old ranches began to break up in the early to mid-1970s, TPWD purchased the tracts of land that later became Guadalupe River State Park. In 1981, The Nature Conservancy of Texas acquired the Doeppenschmidt-Weidner family’s Honey Creek Ranch and then sold it to TPWD in 1985 to be managed as a state natural area. TPWD bought additional acreage in 1988 to expand Honey Creek State Natural Area to its current size.

The jewel of TPWD’s acquisition is Honey Creek itself — a pristine, cypress-lined stream emanating from a gushing spring and quietly burbling through a low, riparian canyon on its three-mile course to the Guadalupe. Located on private ranchland adjacent to the natural area, the spring is a natural entrance to Honey Creek Cave, the longest explored cave in Texas. Known for at least a century, the cave was first surveyed in 1963. To date, cavers have explored and mapped some 20 miles of its passageways.

No one knows for sure how Honey Creek got its name — perhaps for the honeybees found near the creek, or the abundance of honeycombed limestone or the creek’s honey-brown hue each autumn when the cypresses shed their needles onto the water.

The creek habitat is ecologically significant and rich in floral diversity. It also harbors state and federally protected species, including the Texas blind salamander and the golden-cheeked warbler.

The final stretch of trail down to the creek winds beneath ancient oaks laden with wisps of Spanish moss. Centuries-old cypress trees rise up from the water’s edge, joined by pecan, walnut, sycamore, cedar elm, persimmon and gum bumelia to form a forest canopy that shelters a lush understory of dwarf palmettos, frostweed, switchgrass, maidenhair ferns and columbine. Spatter-dock, a pond lily, floats on the surface of long, smooth pools of water.

It’s unusual to see bog-loving palmettos (Sabal minor) this far west in Texas. But then there are many interesting features to appreciate about Honey Creek. Consider, for example, the remarkable outcroppings of black basalt near the confluence of Honey Creek and the Guadalupe River, formed when molten rock squeezed into vertical cracks in the surrounding limestone.

Lingering by the creek, I gaze at the layers of shadow and light mirrored in the water and imagine sitting all alone in this quiet, green cathedral. I want Honey Creek to speak to me, to impart its wisdom, but there’s no time today.

Surely the creek spoke to the generations of German ranchers and their children who found not just pure and precious water down here, but beauty and solace. The parkland along the Guadalupe River and Honey Creek is indeed good country.

See it, believe it, for yourself.

Details

Guadalupe River State Park and Honey Creek State Natural Area are located in Comal and Kendall Counties, 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio. From US 281, travel 8 miles west on Texas 46 and then 3 miles north on Park Road 31. The Park offers more than 90 campsites; day use areas for picnicking; river access for swimming (no lifegurard on duty), canoeing, tubing and fishing; a trail system for hiking, mountain biking and equestrian use (no stables in park); and interpretive nature programs on Saturday evenings.

Bergheim Campground & River Outfitter now offers a shuttle service and tube/kayak/canoe rentals inside the park; for details, rates and reservations, call 830-336-2235 or visit <www.bergheimcampground.com>

Guided interpretive tours of Honey Creek are offered on Saturday, beginning at 9 a.m. at the Rust House. The 1.5-mile hike lasts approximately 2 hours. While the tours are free, suggested donations are #2 per person or $5 per family. The tours are often led by volunteers from the Friends of Guadalupe River/Honey Creek support organization.

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