Conditions are prefect now to flow the upper Medina River between Medina and Bandera in Bandera County.
Conditions are perfect now to explore the upper Medina River between Medina and Bandera in Bandera County. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Con Mims, the Nueces River Authority’s executive director, once described Texas Hill County rivers as “long, flowing aquariums” that are “pristine, spring-fed, and unique to other streams in the state.”

His words, given as part of testimony before the State Legislature about the effect of sewage plants on rivers and streams, stuck in my mind during a day-long trip on the Upper Medina River this week.

The section of the river between the towns of Medina and Bandera in Bandera County flows with the clearest water I have ever seen.

The whole time, it felt like my kayak was gliding silently on liquid glass. I could see every fish, turtle, and aquatic plant passing underneath me. Even in the deeper sections where I could have plunged in up to my neck, I could still see well enough to pick out the individual rocks at the bottom of the river.

Right now, conditions are perfect for enjoying the upper Medina, especially if you have the time and equipment for a day-long adventure. My trip spanned 15 miles from the crossing at FM 337 just outside the town of Medina, down to the Ranger Crossing shortly upstream of Bandera. It took me 6½ hours with constant paddling.

Just downstream of its Hill Country headwaters, the Medina River is a twisting blue ribbon that weaves through quaint towns, farms, and ranches on its way toward Bexar County. During my visit, the smell of fresh-cut grass filled the air as farmers marked the end of summer by mowing their fields.

This region is part of the upper reaches of the San Antonio River watershed – an area of land where all the water eventually flows into a single river. But the Medina River above Bandera bears little resemblance to the deep, murky waterway it becomes just before its confluence with the San Antonio River in south Bexar County, a place The Trailist covered earlier this year.

In the upper section, the river keeps paddlers alert with its twisting, turning route. Some bends are so sharp they require digging in the paddle as a rudder and slaloming between overhanging branches, boulders, and cypress trees that jut up from the river’s surface.

A handful of small waterfalls with drops of two to four feet offer excitement and just enough risk of capsizing to keep things interesting. The most significant waterfalls are one just below FM 337 and another shortly below Peaceful Valley Road.

Getting out of the boat first to scout hazards like these before running them is the best way to avoid injury and losing all your gear.

Fortunately, there was plenty of water in the river to push me over obstacles and keep me from dragging on the bottom. A whole month of frequent rains had given the river a steady base flow, creating the kind of conditions that offer a clear, sunny day with plenty of water.

Recent rains throughout September have replenished the base flow of the upper Medina River.
Frequent rains throughout September have replenished the base flow of the upper Medina River. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

When I went, the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Bandera measured approximately 300 cubic feet per second, a flow rate that seemed perfect to me. This helpful Southwest Paddler guide to the Medina River recommends the ideal flow as between 250 and 700 cubic feet per second. Be sure to check the flow and weather conditions before your trip.

Lined with towering cypress trees that form a tunnel of brown and green, this stretch of the river feels remote, even though it roughly parallels Texas Highway 16.

The highway made it easy for me to lock my bike at the pull-out site and ride back to my car, though the whoosh and rumble of cars and trucks whizzing by does somewhat detract from the wilderness experience.

Besides FM 337 and the Ranger Crossing, there are three other public-access bridges in the section I described – Patterson Road in Medina, Peaceful Valley Road, and 3 Mile Bridge.

To me, all of these looked somewhat difficult to use to access the river because of steep banks, thick brush, and difficulty in telling where private land begins. I’ve heard that some people put in at Camp Bandina, which is about midway between Medina and the Ranger Crossing.

Wherever you put in, the Ranger Crossing is the best take-out spot because it has plenty of parking, a picnic area, and gaps in the trees that make it easy to pull a boat out of the river.

Patterson Road is only a few miles downstream from FM 337, but you could use these other two crossings to shorten your trip if you don’t have all day. Peaceful Valley Road to the Ranger Crossing is about 4 miles; 3 Mile Bridge to the Ranger Crossing is about 10 miles, according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife map.

Private land surrounds the river on both sides, so take care not to trespass on your journey. You’ll have to drag your boat over four private low-water crossings. I didn’t mind these chances to stretch out and dump out the water that had splashed in during the rougher sections.

As much as I loved the riffles and waterfalls, my favorite part of the day came when the water was calm. In late afternoon, as the light started to turn golden, I drifted silently, listening to the wind in the sycamore trees and watching streams of dragonflies and snout butterflies flowing in the breeze. It was strange how they seemed to be headed downstream, the same direction I was.

It made me feel grateful to be alive right then, absorbed in the moment, just another person in awe of a Texas Hill Country river.

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