Sometimes it’s easy to forget about camping destinations that are in your own backyard. I wanted to plan a weekend canoe trip that was close to home. After a bit of research it hit me. The Colorado River runs right through Austin! A bit more research and I realized that a trip could be had on the portion of the river just south of the city. Jessamine and I had a few friends that were interested in accompanying us on a weekend trip and this seemed like the perfect location.
I found an outfitter, Cook’s Canoes, that rents canoes and will run shuttles to various entry and exit points along the river. We decided to enter the water at the FM 969/Utley Bridge and exit at Fisherman’s Park in Bastrop. This would be a roughly 15 mile trip and we planned to camp one night at a large island. There were six of us total, so we arranged to rent three canoes from Cook’s Canoes and have them provide a shuttle for us. The outfitter recommended that we meet him at the bridge to get our canoes and then drive to Fisherman’s Park to leave our cars overnight. The outfitter brought a van to shuttle us all back to the canoes. They assured us that Fisherman’s Park was a safe place to leave our cars.
On Saturday morning our group met at the bridge to get the canoes and move our cars. When the canoes arrived there were two Royalex models and one giant aluminum canoe. Somehow Jessamine and I ended up with the aluminum one, which we quickly nicknamed “Old Ironsides” for obvious reasons. The shuttle went smoothly and we were back in about an hour and ready to hit the water.
The Colorado at this point is a pretty lazy river. There is a mild current and we encountered many small rapids when we came upon islands that split the water flow. The water was shallow in places and “Old Ironsides” ran aground a few times. (I wouldn’t recommend bringing an ultralight Kevlar canoe due to the shallow water.) A couple people in our group had never been canoeing and we all managed to navigate the rapids fairly easily. There were some strainers (trees and bushes near the shoreline that could cause a canoe to flip) around various bends that had to be avoided, but overall I would say this is a pretty good trip for beginners. Just make sure everyone is comfortable swimming, that you wear your lifejackets, and I think you should be okay.
We had a leisurely paddle in the morning with quite a few small rapids to keep things interesting. At this portion of the trip we didn’t encounter a single other canoer, which made for a secluded feel. After paddling for a couple hours we decided to stop for lunch. You’ll have your options of many gravely sand bars and islands for a midday break. Jessamine and I brought a couple sandwiches that we picked up at a local sandwich shop. We packed them in Ziploc bags to keep them from getting soggy and tossed them in our cooler. They definitely hit the spot after a morning of paddling!
After a quick dip in the river, we hopped back into our boats to finish our day. The Cook’s Canoes website provides a really helpful map of camping sites with GPS coordinates. We had planned to stay at a large island (N30° 09.038' W97° 20.903') about 8 miles from our put-in. Before the trip I had loaded the GPS coordinates into my GPS, so that I could follow along as we went. I would recommend doing this as the river is quite windy and I had a hard time following along on the paper map that I downloaded from the LCRA website. I had also printed out aerial maps using google earth. These were easier to follow, but I would still recommend using a GPS unit if you have one.
After a couple more hours of paddling we hit the island! We were all ready to unload and set up camp at this point. A cool thing about the islands along the river is that they are public land and there is no fee to camp at them. Here we encountered the first other people on the river. There was a man that had kayaked to the island and was looking around for arrowheads. Our friend Ann asked him if he planned on staying the night and if he minded if we camped there. Luckily, he did not plan on staying and allowed us to make camp. We were very grateful because this island was a pretty supreme camping spot! There was lots of room and a much larger group would be comfortable camping here.
It was time to set up camp and break out the beer! We all had fun swimming, setting up our tents and tarp (for much needed shade), and getting our home base in order. After an hour or so of getting organized we were hungry for dinner. We all brought freeze dried food that only needed boiling water. We had plenty of space in our canoes, so we brought a few large water containers. While we were cooking dinner we saw a hovercraft boat whizzing down the river. We all stopped to look and realized that they were stopping at our island! A couple guys walked up and we saw that they were the Game Wardens. They briefly asked us where we were coming from and where we planned to exit. They were really polite and then they took off. I’m not really sure what they were looking for, but they didn’t harass us at all.
When nightfall hit we decided to make a bonfire on the sand. There was ample driftwood to make a really nice fire! One of our friends brought his ukulele and we spent the remainder of the evening drinking beer and singing around the fire.
The next day we had a breakfast of bacon and coffee while we broke camp. Once on the water, it only took a couple hours to reach Fisherman’s Park, our exit. We finally saw other paddlers and people lounging in the water as we reached the park. When we got out we called the outfitter to come pick up our canoes and loaded our gear into our cars.
Overall, this was a really fun weekend trip! Everyone seemed to have good time, and it was a great introduction to canoe trips to a few in our party. Positives included the short drive from Austin, seclusion, and relative inexpensiveness of the trip. We will definitely be doing this one again!
Outfitter: Cook’s Canoes
Best time to go: We went in August, but this trip could be done year-round. The summer heat was fine for us as it’s easy to take a dip at any time. You may prefer spring or fall for more moderate temperatures.
Trip Length: 15 miles, two short days and one night for our route.
Route: We started at the FM 969 Bridge and exited at Fisherman’s Park. I recommend this route for an easy overnight trip. The river continues on south of Bastrop. If you would like to make a longer trip there is an option to exit in Smithville. Jessamine and I have also started at the FM 973 Bridge near the airport and exited at Little Webberville Park. I do not recommend this route as strongly because we encountered a bit of trash and many old tires along the way. I think it’s worth it to make the small additional drive to FM 969.
Don’t Forget: Sunblock, a tarp of some sort for shade, extra water, sunglasses, and a hat.
Post-Trip Meal and Beer: Paw-Paw’s Catfish House