The spring-fed, free-flowing and very scenic Pedernales River flows through the heart of Lyndon B. Johnson's part of Texas. Rising in Kimble County, the river flows 106 miles through Gillespie, Blanco, Hays and Travis Counties to the confluence of the Colorado River above Lake Travis and Austin. The surrounding land is rocky and rugged, with the ground rising at the top of the Texas Hill Country to form a river valley below.
At normal levels the Pedernales is too low to paddle, but when rains come and the river rises it becomes a fast-moving whitewater stream of immense fun and thrills. It is not a river for the timid or the inexperienced - there is plenty of trouble if you fail to negotiate the rapids and drops properly. From Harper to US Highway 281 the river is narrow and very shallow, usually not navigable at all, but below Highway 281 the river widens and gets a little deeper. The upper section is very near Fredericksburg and Johnson City, for those who want a great bed & breakfast, quaint shops and restaurants for their time off the river.
The section most frequently paddled starts at Highway 281 about 1 mile northeast of Johnson City and continues to State Highway 71 immediately above Lake Travis. The river then flows to the confluence of the Colorado River, passing across Lake Travis, which was formed by the dam on the Pedernales immediately above where it joins the Colorado. The lower section covers some 39.1 miles and has only four access points including Pedernales Falls State Park. The river varies from about 30 to 60 feet wide and is usally shallow, though deep enough for paddling unless you are heavily laden. Optimum flows occur when the river rises 1 to 2 feet above normal, at which time the whitewater rapids and waterfalls become exciting for the experienced boater and dangerous for the lesser skilled paddler. The Pedernales (pronounced Per-din-al'-is by Lyndon B. Johnson and most of the people around Austin) is one of the prettiest rivers anywhere, with stands of Cedar trees atop the limestone bluffs and cliffs that overlook the river and huge Bald Cypress trees along the banks. Watch the USGS gauges and be ready to go when heavy rains start to fall. Because of the nature of the river above US Highway 281, this report will cover the generally navigable section of 39 miles from US Highway 281 down to State Highway 71.
Kimble, Gillespie, Blanco, Hays and Travis Counties in the Texas Hill Country between Fredericksburg and Austin. The Llano and South Llano Rivers are a few miles to the north and the Blanco and Guadalupe Rivers are a few miles to the south.
Dallas 240 miles; Fort Worth 220 miles; Austin 120 miles; San Antonio 96 miles; Houston 306 miles; Oklahoma City 450 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 flowing from springs in Kimble County and along the path downriver, turning muddy after significant rains, which may also create strainers from downed Cypress trees washed out by flood waters. The river is usually too low to paddle, but rises to great whitewater levels when the river comes up by 1 or 2 feet above normal. Beware the Pedernales in flood stage - it can be a killer!
Anytime there is significant rainfall to raise the level of the river by at least one foot. Summers will be hot, and winters will be cold, so plan accordingly and be prepared.
There are numerous Class I-II rapids all along the Pedernales that are not particularly troublesome for experienced paddlers. The first rapid of significance is Pedernales Falls, located at Pedernales Falls State Park at 17.0 miles. This one is a serious Class III-IV drop that escalates to Class V in high water, with a difficult portage. The next rapid of concern is the one immediately upstream from Hammett's Crossing at 32.0 miles below the US Highway 281 put-in. It is a Class II-III drop that can cause real problems. Both these drops should be carefully scouted, then run only after careful planning and a safety team in place.
FM 783 near US Highway 290 at Harper at 0.0 miles; SH 173 south of Fredericksburg at about miles; FM 1623 near Stonewall at about miles; US Highway 281 crossing 1 mile northeast of Johnson City at 66.8 miles; Pedernales Falls State Park located at the end of A. Robinson Road about 12 miles northeast of Johnson City at 83.8 miles; Hammett's Crossing (poor access) off SH 71 about 25 miles of west Austin at 98.8 miles; SH 71 crossing (high bridge - poor access) about 20 miles west of Austin at 105.9 miles; Private camp immediately below the SH 71 crossing at 106.0 miles.
Pedernales Falls State Park (830-868-7304) offers campsites with water and electricity, primitive campsites, RV hookups, restrooms, hot/cold showers, picnic sites, hiking and mountain biking trails, a trailer dump station and other amenities; There are numerous primitive campsites along the banks of the Pedernales River, though most are on private property. Always obtain permission from landowners before camping on private land, and regardless of where you camp always leave the area cleaner than when you found it. There are no other private or public campgrounds on the Pedernales River.
There are no rental liveries or shuttle services operating on or near the Pedernales. You will need to bring your own boats and gear and arrange your own shuttles.
I first walked the Pedernales River in 1971, on my way with my guitar and a friend to Hamilton Pool, where we sat in the natural ampitheater of rock and played music for hours. The river was completely dry, and was a river in name only. Over the years the river has remained relatively low and non-navigable except after local rains down to the backup from Lake Travis around Johnson City. The surrounding area is rugged, with high bluffs and cliffs lined with many trees native to Texas and huge Bald Cypress trees standing guard over the river. It is remote, unspoiled and a true wonder of nature near the top of the Texas Hill Country.
Paddlers who want to run the Pedernales need to carefully watch the USGS gauges and be prepared to go whenever rains start to fall. Because of the length of the run and the absence of good and convenient take-outs, this trip is not for everybody. Paddlers should have at least intermediate whitewater skills and be swiftwater rescue trained, with a little CPR knowledge
possibly helpful - you are a long way from medical attention at most points on the river. However, for those who are skilled and prepared, and who get lucky enough to catch the river after it rises the run will be one for many stories around campfires on other rivers. Be very careful at Pedernales Falls - this drop can kill you and ruin the trip for everybody else in your group. Most people start their trip below the falls just to avoid a difficult portage. Wherever you start, the Pedernales will be a river that you will want to run again after your first time, just for the sheer beauty of the scenery on your way downriver. It is a great place for a camera bug.