In my home state of Colorado, finding a place to camp is relatively easy. On much of the federal land owned by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, visitors can find their own primitive camping spots and stay for up to two weeks.

That’s not the case in Texas with most of the land in private hands and a heavily-used state park system requiring permits for camping. But there’s one exception: river islands. In this state, where rivers are publicly owned even if both banks are in private lands, the river island is a no-mans-land where campers can set up tents in a wild space free of park rangers and permits.

That’s why, for my 31st birthday last October, my girlfriend Jess Mrozinski and I embarked on our first kayak-camping trip on the Colorado River upstream of Bastrop.

Colorado River – Little Webberville Park to FM 969 bridge

Offers: Kayaking, camping
Location: Little Webberville Park (100 Water St, Webberville, TX 78621) to FM 969 bridge at Utley (30.167871, -97.403240). No overnight parking at Little Webberville or Webberville parks.  
Trail miles: 20 miles of river
Restrooms: No restrooms or potable water

Jess and I had already visited the Colorado River a couple of times before our trip. We had used Hipcamp – similar to Airbnb, but for campsites – to book a private campsite along the banks of the Colorado east of Austin. I’m writing this post from that campsite, where yesterday we watched an aerial battle between a bald eagle and an osprey over fishing territory.

I grew up a few miles from the banks of the other Colorado River, the one that flows through seven states as it drains most of the American Southwest. Europeans named both rivers rather clumsily, but the Texas river clearly had the name first, as far back as the late 17th century.

The Texas Colorado River begins as a series of seasonally flowing creek beds in West Texas and ends as a mighty brown torrent flowing into the Gulf of Mexico at Matagorda Bay. Along the way, people have dammed the river to the Highland Lakes in the Hill Country and Town Lake in downtown Austin.

For our two-night trip, we chose a 20-mile section between Austin and Bastrop, where the Lower Colorado River Authority has a series of parks and access spots available for boaters. We started at Little Webberville Park and camped two nights on gravel islands before taking the kayaks out at the FM 969 bridge near Utley.

We used two vehicles to shuttle ourselves and the kayaks and our own camping equipment, which consisted of the basic backpacking overnight essentials: water filter, backpacking stove, tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads. We packed everything into waterproof bags and bungee-corded them to the two kayaks. This trip is best in spring or fall, with little shade in the middle of the river channel to block the summer sun. Sunscreen and bug repellant are must-haves here during any time of year.

This section of the Colorado cuts through rolling farm and ranch land, with cattle frequently grazing along the tree-lined banks. Sometimes when the channel cuts into the soil, it leaves a high bank like a canyon wall that looks like a layer cake of soil and gravel, held together by tree roots.

We encountered no other paddlers but a pair of canoeists who passed us weaving between fallen trees poking up from the surface. They told us the river was low compared to normal, but the water flowed clear enough to make out sandstone pebbles along the bottom, worn smooth by the current.

We paddled only 5 miles our first day before landing on a massive island that seemed to be made of rocks the size of softballs held together with trees and plants and separated from the river banks by flowing river channels.

Brendan Gibbons stands on a gravel island in the Colorado River used as a campsite.
Brendan Gibbons stands on a gravel island in the Colorado River used as a campsite. Credit: Courtesy / Jessica Mrozinski

We pitched our tent under a mesquite tree growing in desert microclimate on the sunbaked island. As the sun went down, we enjoyed long stretches of quiet birdsong with the occasional whine of outboard boat motors from passing fishermen.

We shared the island with a group of men who brought rifles, nets, and spotlights. All night, they cruised up and down the channel in their flat-bottom johnboat, occasionally stopping to chase critters in the reeds. I don’t know what they were hunting, but I do know they had found a place to roam freely, same as us.

Our second day featured the longest stretch of our trip. We paddled about 10 miles downstream of the gravel island before we found a smaller shoal with a lovely gravel beach formed by a bend in the river. We had no human neighbors, but we knew the island had recently hosted a cow convention from all the scattered droppings. Sometimes you have to take whatever island you can get.

Across the river, we could see the edges of a golf course of the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa. We laughed at the contrast inherent in sleeping in a tent on a cow poop island in the river outside a luxury resort.

Our last day of paddling only required 5 miles, including one unique stretch of river with a series of water-sculpted boulders that stood out in this land of mud, brush, and gravel. We faced a steady headwind most of the day that slowed our progress, and we pulled up to the FM 969 bridge in the late afternoon, sunbaked and spent.

This kind of trip isn’t for everyone, but we loved having a wilderness camping experience right in our own backyard. We might even try to paddle both Colorado rivers in 2021.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.