The Elm Fork of the Trinity River forms in Montague County in north central Texas, just south of the Texas-Oklahoma border, then flows through Cooke and Denton Counties and on down to Dallas County and the confluence of the West Fork, becoming the main stream of the Trinity River inside Dallas city limit. Along its path dams have been erected creating Lake Ray Roberts, Garza-Little Elm Reservoir (also known as Lake Dallas) and Lake Lewisville before flowing through downtown Dallas, then turning southeast to meet the East Fork in Kaufman County. Actually, the Elm Fork is considered to end where it intersects the West Fork just east of Loop 12 and south of SH 183 in West Dallas, near Irving.
Below Lake Lewisville Dam the Elm Fork is partially impounded by three small dams. The first is the Carrollton Dam at McInnish Park on Sandy Lake Road in the City of Carrollton, the second is the dam at California Crossing Road and Loop 12, and the third is Frasier Dam just east of Loop 12 and north of SH 183 along the Dallas-Irving City Limit. The surrounding area is a flood plain, stripped of most native vegetation and primarily undeveloped until the last few years. Valley Ranch, home of the often World Champion Dallas Cowboys, sits in that flood plain, protected by dykes erected to control flooding. Neither of the small dams is runnable, nor should that be attempted at any water level due to strong hydraulic currents below them.
As the Elm Fork leaves Lake Lewisville Dam the river generally flows clear and cool for about 6-8 miles, becoming slower and muddier as it moves toward Dallas. The area has a dense growth of Oak, Elm and Willow trees that shade the river and occasionally produce log jams that become obstacles to paddlers. The section between Lake Lewisville Dam and McInnish Park is home to Dallas Down River Club's annual Trinity River Challenge, and 11.8 mile marathon canoe race that continues to grow in popularity every year. The section of the Elm Fork most frequently used for recreational paddling is from below the Lake Lewisville Dam to California Crossing, a distance of about 21.5 miles, though some people occasionally paddle the greenbelt area between Lake Ray Roberts and Garza-Little Elm Reservoir. For practical purposes this report will describe the section from Lake Lewisville Dam to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Public Boat Ramp and Park at Sylvan Avenue, a total distance of about 33.7 miles.
Denton and Dallas Counties along the western edge of the City of Dallas, starting in the City of Lewisville and continuing to the City of Dallas Sylvan Avenue Boat Ramp in Dallas. This reach of the Trinity starts in Lewisville and then flows along the line between Carrollton and Coppell continuing along the line between Dallas and its western neighbors Coppell and irving until it turns inside the City of Dallas. Technically, the Elm Fork terminates at the West Fork confluence inside Dallas City Limits where it becomes the main stem of the Trinity River before flowing to the Gulf of Mexico near Houston.
Dallas 20 miles; Austin 240 miles; San Antonio 320 miles; Houston 280 miles; Oklahoma City 190 miles; Little Rock 350 miles; Kansas City 540 miles; Albuquerque 631 miles; Phoenix 1,070 miles; Denver 778 miles; Salt Lake City 1,248 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The Elm Fork of the Trinity River is usually a low flow river with murky to muddy water, clearing a little with releases at Lake Lewisville Dam. Typical flows are around 100-300 cfs, which is more than adequate for canoeing and kayaking upriver or downriver. There is usually enough water for paddling year round, though the river can swell to flood stage levels after a significant local rainfall, and can have flows too high for upriver trips during high releases at Lake Lewsville Dam.
Weather permitting, the Elm Fork is navigable year round, though the optimum time to go is March through November. Summer temperatures will be hot and sometimes humid. The river channel is tree-lined, so some respite from the sun can be found along much of the channel.
There are no rapids of any significance on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. However, log jams, low-hanging vegetation, a narrow channel and high flows from runoff or dam releases can create dangerous conditions for paddlers, boat fishermen or others playing in the water. Also, watch out for errant golf balls around Indian Creek Golf Course in Carrollton (just joking - but could be possible.)
The highest access point is immediately below Lake Lewisville Dam off Jones Street on the west side of the river at 0.0 miles; SH 121 Bridge (emergency access ONLY) at about 2.0 miles; Hebron Parkway on river right (southwest side) just after the bridge at about 6.1 miles; SH 121 Toll Road (emergency access ONLY) at about 6.65 miles; IH 35 bridge (emergency access ONLY) at about 8.8 miles; McInnish Park (Carrollton) boat ramp on river left at about 11.9 miles; MANDATORY PORTAGE AROUND CARROLLTON DAM - TAKE OUT AT McINNISH PARK AND PORTAGE ACROSS SANDY LAKE ROAD TO TRINITY RIVER KAYAK COMPANY launch on river right to continue downriver at about 12.2 miles; Bush Toll Road (emergency access ONLY) at about 17.0 miles; Richardson Grove Park (Irving) on river right pier at about 17.3 miles; LBJ Freeway on river right at about 17.6 miles; California Crossing (Dallas) boat ramp on river left above dam at about 21.5 miles; California Crossing (Dallas) boat ramp on river left below dam at about 21.6 miles; Wildwood Drive (emergency access ONLY) on river right at about 23.4 miles; Walton Walker Blvd. (Loop 12) (emergency access ONLY) on river right at about 24.3 miles; Storey Lane (emergency access ONLY) on river left at about 25.6 miles; Frasier Dam (emergency access ONLY) on river left at about 26.35 miles; Trinity View Park off Irving Blvd. (emergency access ONLY) on river right at about 29.25 miles; West Fork of the Trinity River confluence (NO ACCESS) at about 29.85 miles; Westmoreland Road (emergency access ONLY) at old low water bridge on river right at about 31.25 miles; Hampton Road (emergency access ONLY) on river right at about 32.35 miles; and Sylvan Avenue (City of Dallas) boat ramp on river left at about 33.7 miles. There are other possible emergency access points along the river. Most emergency access points have steep, muddy banks and some involve a long carry of people and gear to a vehicle accessible road.
There are no campgrounds located along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. The often steep banks are not condusive to camping along the streambed, and most adjacent property is privately owned. The Elm Fork is not the best place for overnight trips, lending itself more to day trips where you paddle downriver, or paddle down then turn around and paddle back to your car at the put-in. There are, however, some places suitable for overnight primitive camping, including Trinity View Park off Irving Blvd. on river right at about 29.25 miles below Lake Lewisville Dam.
At least four DFW area commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles and river information for the Trinity River in the Dallas area.
Access below Lake Lewisville dam is once again open to the public, so trips can start at the spillway and continue nearly 34 miles to the TPWD public boat ramp on Sylvan Avenue in North Oak Cliff. Considering the difficulty of access at any of the road crossings, and the lack of adequate and safe places to leave cars, it is generally best to park at McInnish Park in Carrollton on Sandy Lake Road, then paddle upriver, turn around, and paddle back downriver. An alternative is to hire one of the local liveries to run a shuttle for you, or else take along somebody who will not be paddling to run your shuttle upriver, then meet you at the McInnish Park take-out just above Carrollton Dam.
Under no circumstances should you attempt to run Carrollton Dam. Over the years several people have tried and most of them died. There are old souls and bold souls, but there are few old, bold souls. Running the dams at Carrollton and California Crossing is one way of not getting any older. But, if you are looking for a quick place to paddle in the DFW Metroplex, and can deal with the slow to still current and muddy waters, then the Elm Fork is a good getaway for a few hours.