Barton Creek forms on the Hays-Travis County Line in the Texas Hill Country outside of Austin, then flows more than 25 miles to its confluence with the Colorado River on the side edge of downtown Austin. The upper 5+ miles is difficult to access, but starting at SH 71, the creek is boatable down to Zilker Park above the swimming pool, which is formed by a dam on the creek about a half mile above the Colorado River confluence. Barton Springs Pool is a long-renowned cold water "swimming hole" where more people sun on the banks than swim in the creek/swimming pool. The creek forms in an escarpment area southwest of downtown Austin, where the surrounding rolling hills hide most signs of nearby civilization. Above the swimming pool at Zilker Park the creek is a whitewater kayaker (and sometimes canoe) run with Class I to III drops that is usually boatable only after a recent local rainstorm that swells the creek to flood stage. Below the pool Barton Creek is a lazy half mile run down to the Colorado River where many novice paddlers go for a leisurely few hours on the water in canoes and kayaks. Recent residential development on the upper reaches of the creek have eliminated some previous access points, and others are either difficult to find, difficult to access, or both.
The waters in the creek are crystal clear, blueish-green in color and offer visibility to the bottom which, in places below the pool are as much as 8 or more feet deep. Rocks and plants are clearly visible, and fish have nowhere to hide, though fishing there is rare. Turtles seem to flock to Barton Creek and the slow-moving Colorado River. Above the pool the creek offers a few miles of adventures when it flows, but that is also the times when it becomes dangerous, occasionally killing a paddler (usually a kayaker) who runs a drop, then gets pinned and is unable to recover. Numerous portages around earthen or concrete low-head dams make the creek better suited to inflatable kayaks or creekboat kayaks than canoes or longer kayaks. The whitewater run includes semi-steep, though short, drops, several low-head dams, standing waves, holes, ledges, undercut boulders, playspots with surfing waves and an abundance of natural beauty. Rolling, tree-lined hills adorn the banks of this gorgeous town run in the "Live music capitol of the world". If you are here when it starts raining hard, then you may be fortunate enough to catch the creek when it is on the rise and have an opportunity to find out what Austinites have known for a long time - that Barton Creek is an excellent place to play without leaving town. If you are coming from any significant distance away, then you had better be a weather forecaster or else you will probably be too late to catch its window of navigable flow.
Starting barely northeast of the Hays-Travis County in the Texas Hill Country, most of the creek flows inside Austin city limit, ending at downtown Austin where it meets the Colorado River at Town Lake alongside Zilker Park.
Dallas 200 miles; Fort Worth 190 miles; Austin 10 miles; San Antonio 80 miles; Houston 186 miles; Oklahoma City 410 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination to the put-in at the river and route taken.)
Clear, cool and clean most of the time, turning muddy during periods of heavy rain. Barton Creek is generally too low to paddle, but becomes a super whitewater run in flood stage. It also becomes a killer when the water is high, fast and furious. Barton Creek flows best for canoes and kayaks at a minimum of 100 cfs up to about 400-450 cfs.
Anytime there is significant rainfall to raise the level of the creek to navigable depths. Summers will be hot, and winters will be cold, so plan accordingly and be prepared.
There are numerous Class I-III rapids and drops all along Barton Creek above Barton Spring swimming pool that, at high water, can be harmful or deadly if not run properly. Paddlers should not attempt to run Barton Creek unless accompanied by other paddlers, some or all of whom are highly experienced whitewater river runners with swiftwater rescue experience. Above Zilker Park there are 5 low-head dams on the first 12 miles down to Lost Creek, then another 3 dams including one major dam that MUST be portaged in the next 4 miles between Lost Creek Blvd and Loop 360. Starting at SH 71, the hazards of consequence are:
Dam # 1 at about 0.8 miles - scout and portage on river left in low-water conditions; Dam # 2 at about 4.4 miles - scout and portage on river left in low-water conditions (low-water crossing); Dam # 3 (Car Dealer Dam) at about 9.5 miles - scout and portage on river left; Dam # 4 at about 10.5 miles features a protruding pipe that must be avoided - scout and portage on river left; Dam # 5 at about 11.9 miles (at Lost Creek Country Club) - watch for guys dressing funny and driving golf carts. A portage can be made on river left or right, depending upon flow; Dam # 6 at about 12.7 miles, about 3/4 mile downstream of Lost Creek Access, can be portaged on either side; Dam # 7, at about 13.3 miles, is a small dam that can usually be run without portaging; Sculpture Falls (Class II to III), at about miles; Twin Falls Rapid (Class II to III), at about miles, can be run on either side after careful scouting; Three Falls (Class II to III), at about miles, can be run in high-water conditions after careful scouting to determine the best line and to make sure the landing zone is free of swimmers. Portage on river left in normal or low-water conditions, or if running is not your option of choice; Swirl Rapid (Class II to III), at about miles, is a "bone zone" drop with a large boulder at the end; Barton Screamers Rapid (Class II to III), aka Pinball, is a narrow, rocky rapid with lots of boulder dodging (thus, its nickname) at about miles; The Forest Rapid (Class II to III), at about miles, may be the most technical drop on Barton Creek with many trees, low limbs and boulders to avoid - be VERY careful; Bob Hog Falls (Class II to III), at about miles, features two large boulders guarding either side of the main channel - avoid pinning here!; Campbell's Hole (Class II to III), at about miles, is usually best run starting on river left, then turning hard right after the big drop to a line in river center or river right; Last One Rapid (Class I to II), at about miles, is the last drop before the take-out above Barton Springs Pool.
Note that many of these rapids will escalate by a level or more in high-water conditions. Barton Creek has killed and injured many very accomplished paddlers, primarily kayakers, over the years when it flows in flood stage conditions. This is NOT a novice run, and only paddlers with at least strong intermediate or higher level whitewater skills should attempt to run Barton Creek whenever flows exceed about 600 cfs.
SH 71 crossing 5 miles west of Austin city limits on river right at 0.0 miles; Crystal Creek Road Access south of Bee Cave road (FM 2244) on river left at about 7.7 miles; Barnes/Connally Bridge on Barton Creek Blvd. south of Bee Cave Road (FM 2244) on river left or right at about 9.4 miles; Lost Creek Access at about 12.0 miles; Scottish Woods/Camp Craft Rd. Access at about 13.0 miles; MoPac Fwy / Gaines Access (aka The Pavilion) at about 15.3 miles; Loop 360 Access at about 16.2 miles; Gus Fruh Access, from the lot between two houses at 2632 Barton Hills Dr, at about 18.0 miles; Spyglass Access, at the intersection of Barton Skyway and Spyglass Drive (across from the Stop `N' Go) at about 19.0 miles; Barton Skyway/Barton Hills Access, across the creek from Spyglass Access (from the church parking lot at the end of Barton Skyway west of South Lamar, or to the entrance at 2010 Homedale Dr. behind Barton Hills School) at about 19.0 miles; Barton Springs Pool Takeout, on river left near the fence (often muddy and slick) at about 20.0 miles. Some access points may no longer be available due to residential construction and private property limits to access.
There are no public or private campgrounds on Barton Creek. However, there are many good campsites in and around Austin and the surrounding area. This is usually a day trip right after heavy rains, and camping is not a factor.
There is one commercial outfitter operating on Barton Creek. Additionally, Austin Outdoor Gear & Guidance (512-473-2644) sells and rents boats and gear and offers shuttles to Barton Creek and the Colorado River. There are other commercial outfitters available for rentals and/or shuttles in or near Austin.
Barton Creek is much better suited to kayaking than canoeing or rafting, and most frequently boaters will be paddling squirt boats or other whitewater playboats that are short and enclosed. The creek seldom has adequate water to paddle, and boaters around Austin eagerly await heavy rains to swell the creek so they can run it. Barton Creek rages fast and furious after heavy local rains, but falls fast as it empties into the Colorado River just south of downtown Austin. This is NOT a place for casual paddlers. The creek is a killer at very high flows, and a threat to great paddlers at moderately high flows, though it is runnable for those with the skills and experience to handle violent whitewater bordering on wildwater on a narrow, twisting creek.