One of the subtle beauties of the Texas Hill Country is the transition to more drought-tolerant trees and plants as travelers progress from east to west. To me, the Llano River feels like the first West Texas river San Antonio residents can reach within a day’s drive of the city.
For weeks, the river’s flow has been meager, but recent rains across Central Texas have busted the worsening drought and left many rivers flowing strong again. A group of us decided to paddle the Upper Llano River upstream of Junction on Memorial Day.
The Llano often has a braided channel more akin to the Pecos or the Devils rivers than the nearby Guadalupe River. It forms countless mini-channels and islands of sun-bleached limestone rocks, held together by small trees and native grasses and flowers.
Upriver from Junction, the Llano is basically a series of long, flat pools with short sections of shallow, fast-water riffles where it’s easy to take a wrong turn. In the shallows, the river flows clear enough to watch fish and turtles swimming along its rocky bottom.
Upper Llano River – First Highway 377 bridge to Junction
Location: First bridge on Highway 377 upriver from Junction (30.362014, -99.889150) to Highway 481 bridge, shortly before dam (30.487478, -99.762308). Camping and access with overnight or day use fee at South Llano River State Park (1927 Park Road 73, Junction, TX 76849).
Trail miles: 17 river miles.
Restrooms: Toilets and potable water at Schreiner Park and state park.
Another difference between the Llano and other Hill Country rivers is the wide-open sky arcing overhead. The bald cypress trees that cast shade over the Guadalupe, the Frio, and the Medina rivers are absent from the Llano, replaced by sparser sycamores and pecans.
In between the trees, we noticed fields of wildflowers, especially the red and yellow Mexican hats that seem to be thriving this year. We also for the first time this season found ripe, purple dewberries growing along the banks.
We had cool, cloudy weather on our Memorial Day paddle, with occasional squalls blowing through. But beware an afternoon on the Llano River during a hot summer day, when the sun can beat down relentlessly. Even if temperatures are low, sunscreen, a hat, and long sleeves are a good idea on this stretch.
Southwest Paddler, generally a good starting place for Texas river info, recommends a minimum flow of at least 65 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the Junction river gauge. Having done this section a few times, I would recommend a more enjoyable flow of at least around 100 cfs to avoid any dragging. We paddled on May 31 with the river at 180 cfs.
The plan was to meet at 9 a.m. under the Highway 481 bridge near Schreiner City Park in Junction, which offers public parking with easy river access. We would then put in at the first Highway 377 bridge 17 river miles north. We figured it would the five of us about eight hours to paddle back to Junction.
Sometimes, these trips don’t go as planned. One of our crew had a small hole in the hull of his boat, which was steadily filling up with water at about nine or 10 miles into the journey. It kept dragging lower and lower in the water, slowing him down.
Fortunately, he and the other experienced paddlers had brought along a piece of sophisticated, high-tech leak prevention technology: bubble gum.
I had never heard this before, but apparently, you can actually make a decent impromptu patch for your plastic kayak by shoving as big a wad of chewed bubble gum as possible into the leak. It worked well enough that our friend was able to mostly plug his leaky kayak, at least well enough to get him through the last two miles.
In the end, we cut our trip about 5 miles short by pulling out at the entrance road to South Llano River State Park. If you plan on a 12-mile trip that involves putting in or taking out at the park, make sure to make day-use reservations ahead of time because the access road and bridge over the river fall within park boundaries.
From there, two of the group walked the roughly 5 miles back to the car, while the other three waited with the gear at the park, finishing all the snacks we had packed for the rest of the journey. It took the walkers about two hours to make it back to the car and reunite with the loungers.
Sometimes, it’s more fun to quit a little early, rather than spend your afternoon struggling with a hull full of bubblegum.
This story has been updated to accurately reference Highway 377 as the road with Llano River access.