The Nolan River forms in Johnson County just northwest of Cleburne and then flows in a generally southeastern direction to its confluence with the Brazos River on the headwaters of Lake Whitney in Hill County. Above Lake Pat Cleburne, which is located on US Highway 67 just west of the City of Cleburne, the river is a narrow, tree-lined, slow-moving stream that is popular with anglers. Below the lake the Nolan River takes on a different character as it flows through limestone bluffs and ledges on a hard-packed clay and gravel bottom. The river banks are heavily vegetated with numerous species of large trees that hide the fact that just beyond the tree line is open farm land. Most adjacent property is privately owned, and tresspassing without prior permission should be avoided.
Fishing is excellent below the lake, with white and sand bass being the most popular species, but gar and catfish are also found on this stream. The river is also home to great blue herons, snowy egrets and many other bird species that give life and color to the river. This stream bends sharply in a few places and has very little straight length to it. Rapids, in the Class I to II+ (depending upon water level) range make a run in fast-moving water challenging and exciting, especially where deadfall blockages that are hidden in the overgrowth occur. Scouting blind spots is definitely advised on the Nolan River!
Several decent access points, and a couple that are not so good, but are available, make this river a place where paddlers can go for solitude and, when the flow exceed about 250 cfs, excitement. Undercut ledges on river bends and ledge drops in boulder gardens make the whitewater fun without being overly challenging. The only real drawback is the seasonal nature of this stream, which requires a heavy, recent, local rainfall to provide adequate water for a downriver trip below the lake.
The only access to the upper end of the river below the lake is to portage the dam - no roads lead to the dam. The first practical access, and it might not be so good due to very limited parking, is on South Nolan River Road south of Cleburne and just north of the Buffalo Creek confluence. Most of the accesses above Johnson CR 1106 have limited parking, but are usable, especially if you have a shuttle bunny to take your vehicle downriver.
Johnson and Hill Counties in northcentral Texas, flowing from northwest of Cleburne to its confluence with the Brazos River at the headwaters of Lake Whitney south of Blum. The river is about 60 miles southwest from downtown Dallas and about 35 miles south of downtown Fort Worth.
Dallas 60 miles; Fort Worth 36 miles; Austin 161 miles; San Antonio 240 miles; Houston 239 miles; Oklahoma City 238 miles; Little Rock 377 miles; Kansas City 588 miles; Albuquerque 661 miles; Phoenix 1,053 miles; Denver 789 miles; Salt Lake City 1,280 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination to the put-in at the river and route taken.)
Good to very good, flowing low, clean and clear except after heavy local rainfall when it flows high, fast and muddy. The Nolan River is a seasonally flowing stream, and it will be too low to paddle in some places at normal or low water levels. Adequate flows often depend upon recent heavy local rainfall when it becomes a Class I to II+ whitewater stream below Lake Pat Cleburne. The river below the lake needs about 250 cfs for a trip without walking and dragging, but at flows above 300 cfs it becomes a tricky, tight, twisting whitewater run with deadfall log jams and strainers.
The Nolan River will generally be too low to paddle except after significant rainfall within the drainage basin. Typically, any time after locally heavy rains, which usually come on spring and fall months, are best for paddling this stream.
The Nolan River below Lake Pat Cleburne is a tight, twisting stream with deadfall log jams, trees hanging over the water creating sweepers and strainers, occasionally undercut ledge banks, small boulder garden rapids, small ledge drops and occasionally fast moving currents that can be easily scouted and then portaged or run with caution. Some hazards are in blind spots where an overgrowth of trees and bushes obstructs visibility, so scouting anything you cannot clearly see is recommended. None of the rapids or drops exceed Class II+, even in high water conditions, but they may have Class III or higher consequences due to the remoteness and limited access of the area.
South Nolan River Road just south of Cleburne and east of Johnson CR 1210 / Gold Cup Drive (very limited parking) at 0.0 miles; Johnson CR 1109A (very limited parking) at about 1.6 miles; SH 916 just west of Rio Vista (very limited parking) at about 3.26 miles; Johnson CR 1106 (decent parking and access at low-water bridge) at about 4.26 miles; SH 174 south of Rio Vista (limited parking with decent access) at about 8.36 miles; Hill CR 1135 at about 11.14 miles; FM 933 at about 11.68 miles; Hill CR 1127 (dead ends on Rock Creek) at about 15.1 miles; Boat ramp on river right just above the Brazos River confluence on the headwaters of Lake Whitney at about 18.55 miles (easy access and plenty of parking.) There may be other access points along the way.
There are no campgrounds located along the Nolan River, which flows through mostly private property. However, numerous natural campsites are available all along the river on islands and river banks located within the streambed. Do not camp on private property without having first obtained permission. Meridian State Park, located about 33 miles southwest of the river off SH 22 and SH 6 in Bosque County, offers excellent campsites, drinking water, restrooms and other amenities. Cleburne State Park, located about 22 miles west of Rio Vista on PR 21 off US Highway 67 just west of Cleburne, offers tent and RV camping, cabin rentals, hot/cold showers, flush toilets, hiking trails, boat launch access and other amenities. Fort Fisher Park, off IH 35 at the Brazos River in Waco, offers campsites, restrooms, drinking water and other amenities, as well as access to motels, restaurants and other services in Waco, though most are not adjacent to the river.
There are no rental liveries or shuttle services operating on or near the Nolan River. You will need to bring your own boats and gear and arrange your own shuttles. Be careful about where you park - space is very limited at some bridges crossing the river.
Recently, I was invited to canoe the Nolan River with my good friends Chris Keese and Ken Bickel, and Chris' friend Nathan right after a huge storm hit the DFW area and raised the river substantially. By the time we launched two days after the storm the flow was down to a remarkable 323 cfs, and it was a truly beautiful trip with moderate, but exciting, whitewater over the 10.6 miles between Johnson CR 1106 and Rock Creek about 3.4 miles above the Nolan River Park boat ramp where we took out just above the Brazos River confluence. Everything was in full bloom, and a tree-lined canopy covered most of the river. Limestone bluffs, rock ledges, great blue herons, snowy egrets, fun, little rapids and a beautiful day combined to make this an excellent first visit to the Nolan River.
At flows above about 200 cfs I would recommend this river for those with moderate whitewater rexperience. below that level and with some walking in low spots the river could be paddled by just about anybody, and fishing would probably be best at the lower levels. The river is relatively shallow in most places, running from a foot to about 3-4 feet, with some deep holes tnat would probably attract catfish. The Nolan turned out to be a gem of a river just about an hour from downtown Dallas, and I will be watching the river gauges after heavy rains in this area for another opportunity to go back.