Follow the legendary Guadalupe River across the Lone Star State to the Gulf of Mexico―and discover dance halls, swimming holes, and the world's toughest canoe race. 

Cypress Trees on the Guadalupe River, Texas
Towering cypress trees decorate the river on its way through Texas.
| Credit: Gary Clark

In the filtered morning light, the water beneath my raft gleams in shades of emerald―vibrant colors you'd more expect to see in the Caribbean than in Texas. Slender branches on lofty cypress trees paddle in the breeze like lazy windmill blades. I'm spending a week traveling the 432-mile length of the Guadalupe, the most beloved river in Texas. And I'm amazed at the way it enchants just about everyone who sees it.

I watch it charm tween girls so much they forget all about MP3 players and Miley Cyrus. I see it mesmerize grown men and women and send them paddling nonstop for days until they stare like zombies. I look on as streams of college students park perfectly good automobiles and drift away on inner tubes.

Here is a taste of what makes it so bewitching―from the camps and swimming holes in the Hill Country to a grueling canoe race that ends in the Gulf.

From Camp Mystic to Canyon Lake: Find Swimming Holes and Summer Camps
The river starts its journey high in the Hill Country, west of Kerrville, where the South and North forks meander past airy limestone cliffs before they join near the tiny town of Hunt. Some of the country's oldest summer camps nestle beside the cool waters.

I stop by Camp Mystic, founded in 1926. It's fishing day, and 104 girls line up on a creek bank, ready to catch a bass, a perch, or maybe even Big Charlie―a 22-pound catfish who's legendary around here and apparently easily tempted. He's been landed by as many as six campers in the past. Excitement buzzes each time a bobber dives under with a strike.

"For many of the girls, this is their first opportunity to catch a fish," says Dick Eastland, who runs the girls' camp with his wife, Tweety; three of their sons; and two daughters-in-law.

Nearby, I find my own summer adventures on the roads that hug the idyllic stretches from Hunt to Kerrville and down through the aptly named town of Comfort, just northwest of San Antonio. Cypress trees with massive trunks the color of weathered leather line the banks. Only short sections run deep enough for canoeing, but rapids splashing into jade-colored pools at almost every bend invite me to take a swim. Some of the access places are as small and informal as Schumacher Crossing, a postcard vision of the perfect swimming hole near Hunt. Others are as spacious as Guadalupe River State Park.

Late in the day, I stop to watch a sunset bright as a beach ball descend over the shimmering waters of Canyon Lake, the largest impoundment on the river. The lake helps control flooding, but I get a sense of how powerful these waters can be when I hike into a massive gorge near the spillway, cut almost overnight by one of the river's biggest floods in 2002.

From Canyon Dam to New Braunfels: Go Tubing and Two-stepping
In most years, water released from the dam turns the section of the river downstream to New Braunfels into a floating block party that lasts from spring to early fall. It's the most heavily used part of the river, visited by thousands of college students and vacationing Texans slipping away for a cool escape.

One sweltering afternoon, I float one of the most popular sections to the Gruene bridge and stop at Rockin R River headquarters to meet co-owner Zero Rivers, who helped bring the pastime known as "toobing" to the Guadalupe River in 1979. On weekends, Zero keeps 175 full-time employees busy renting tubes, ferrying customers upriver in buses, and guiding raft trips. "We started with 50 tubes. Now we have over 5,000," he says.

Many people spend the day on the river and then two-step into the night in New Braunfels's riverside historic district of Gruene (pronounced "green"). Texas's oldest dance hall, which helped send George Strait and Lyle Lovett on their way to stardom, anchors the main street. Most nights, Gruene Hall can't hold all the music that's inside. It carries from the white-painted wooden building's stage and spills out from the open windows. Even if you're just passing by, you'll be tempted to dance a little.

From Gonzales to Seadrift: See the World's Toughest Canoe Race
Rolling out across the prairie on its way to the coast, the lower Guadalupe usually gets overshadowed by the scenic upper river. But for one weekend in June, it hosts the Texas Water Safari, an event that is to canoeing what the Alaskan Iditarod is to dogsledding. It's billed as the world's toughest canoe race.

Ninety-five teams start the 260-mile race on the San Marcos River before it joins the Guadalupe near Gonzales. The teams range from boats powered by a single man or woman to 40-foot-long slender hulls made of carbon fiber and Kevlar, sleek as fighter jets, with six-person crews. They will paddle Hill Country rapids before thundering the last 170 miles down the Guadalupe to the Gulf.

Spectators and team captains―who are allowed to supply only ice and water to the paddlers―follow the boaters on land to the race's end in the small coastal town of Seadrift. The teams that finish the race arrive here after crossing the last 10 miles on the choppy waters of San Antonio Bay.

Two of the six-man teams are odds-on favorites. One is captained by one of the most frequent winners, Fred Mynar of San Marcos. The other is led by John Bugge, a 58-year-old plumbing contractor from Bryan, winner of six races. Bugge builds his own sturdy, streamlined carbon fiber-and-Kevlar boats, but he has something else in his favor―with him are five experienced river racers from Belize.

Predictably, the Mynar and Bugge boats set the pace for the first 30 hours of the race. Rapids are few along the lower Guadalupe, but there are plenty of other obstacles―portages over half a dozen dams, low branches called sweepers that'll sweep you out of your boat, and sunken trees that will drag you under. By early Sunday afternoon, the leaders are nearing Riverside Park in Victoria. "This is the 200-mile mark," says race director Allen Spelce. "Thirty boats have dropped out. It's going to get worse as the day goes on."

The Bugge boat is in the lead, but there are only four paddlers. Two of the Belizeans have quit. John Bugge pulls in close to the bank, picks up water, and drops off another exhausted paddler. He throws out lights and batteries to save weight.

"Bugge is only three minutes ahead of you. I think you can catch him," someone yells to Fred Mynar. "They only have three people in the boat."

For John Bugge, the race ends short of the bay. "The wind is gusting. The bay is white caps. There's no way we could push it against this wind," he explains. "This was supposed to be my 31st finish," he adds, his voice trailing off.

A half hour after midnight, the Mynar boat touches shore, finishing in 39 hours and 34 minutes. The second-place six-man boat arrives at 2:15 a.m. For four more days, the others keep coming, until the last two-man team finishes in just a little under 98 hours. For some people a little piece of the river won't do. They want it all.

That's the secret of these beautiful, enchanted waters. At the end of my journey on the Guadalupe, I've never felt more tired. Or more refreshed.