The Main Stem of the Trinity River forms in Dallas County in Northcentral Texas near the Dallas-Irving city limits, then flows generally southward to its mouth on Trinity Bay of the Gulf of Mexico just west of the Town of Anahuac. Including its forks, the Trinity River flows 710 miles and is the longest river flowing entirely within the State of Texas. The main stem flows some 423 miles from Dallas to the Gulf. While technically suitable for recreational uses very few people canoe or kayak the Trinity's main stem between Dallas and Lake Livingston in Walker County about 250 miles below, but recent development of paddle trails by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is starting to open up new possibilities and encourage more use of the river.
In its earliest days after Anglos settled Texas the Trinity was used for commercial navigation, and before that by indigenous First Nations tribes, dying off in the early 1870's when railroad shipping to Dallas began to be a quicker and cheaper method of moving cargo from the Gulf to Dallas. Numerous attempts have been made to convert the Trinity River into a ship channel making Dallas a seaport, but all have failed, mostly due to a lack of funding. Starting in 1902, with a Congressional appropriation of $400,000, numerous locks and dams were built at a cost of about $2 million before the project was abandoned after World War I. Five of those locks were built between South Dallas and SH 34 on Ellis County, and are still there today, though they were never completed and are not in service. Today, commercial navigation on the Trinity would be a folly due to the difficulty of getting boats loaded with cargo up and down the river, especially getting around the dam at Lake Livingston, which is a major drinking water reservoir for Houston. But, to put the importance of the Trinity into perspective, it is the principle drinking water resource for over 50% of all Texas residents, and remains largely natural in its characteristics once you get away from the major cities.
This reach of the Trinity, flowing from the Sylvan Avenue boat ramp in Dallas to Dowdy Ferry Road in Ellis County, is about 18.0 miles in length. It flows, on a man-made diversion channel off its natural course, by downtown Dallas and down through the Great Trinity Forest in an area that is home to many species of wildlife including birds and animals. The Trinity Audubon Center, located below South Loop 12 in Dallas, is a microcosm of birding in an area that is hard to conceive as being a part of a city of over 1.2 million people. Below Loop 12 the Trinity is truly remote and natural all the way to Lake Livingston. The City of Dallas has passed a bond election to fund a $202 Million recreation venue along the banks of the river adjacent to Oak Cliff on the southwest side and downtown Dallas on the northeast side. Dallas also biult a whitewater park below downtown between Corinth Street and the former Santa Fe railroad line where a DART rail system runs today carrying passengers from Oak Cliff to Plano, Carrollton, Garland and other suburbs. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department built boat ramps and designated the area between Sylvan Avenue and Loop 12 as a Texas Paddling Trail for canoes and kayaks, one of seven such trails opened in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the past few years.
Starting in Dallas, the main stem of the Trinity River flows through or along the boundaries between Dallas, Ellis, Navarro, Henderson, Freestone, Anderson, Leon, Houston, Madison, Walker, Trinity, San Jacinto, Polk, Liberty and Chambers counties to its mouth on Trinity Bay of the Gulf of Mexico just west of the Town of Anahuac.
Dallas 0 miles; Austin 220 miles; San Antonio 300 miles; Houston 260 miles; Oklahoma City 175 miles; Little Rock 330 miles; Kansas City 520 miles; Albuquerque 610 miles; Phoenix 1,050 miles; Denver 758 miles; Salt Lake City 1,228 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The main stem of the Trinity River above Lake Livingston is usually a low flow river with murky to muddy water, clearing a little with releases at Lake Lewisville and Grapevine Dams, the latter being on Denton Creek in Denton County. Typical flows are around 300-400 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. Numerous creeks and other tributary streams feed the Trinity all the way to its mouth, with rain run-off being its principle source of flow.
Weather permitting, the Trinity River 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 Trinity River. However, log jams, low-hanging vegetation, a narrow channel, the aforementioned locks/dams and high flows from runoff or dam releases can create dangerous conditions for paddlers, boat fishermen or others playing in the water. The dams and locks can create strong hydraulic currents at high flows that are especially dangerous and should be avoided. There is only a single lock/dam of this reach of the Trinity located about 13.7 miles below Sylvan Avenue, just above IH 20. The bypass channel on river left is usually clogged with a massive logjam at the entrance forcing a tough portage on the far left side of the dam itself, but strong hydraulic currents at high water levels can be very dangerous. At normal water levels an experienced whitewater boater may be able to run the dam, but all others should consider a river left portage at any level. Always scout this hazard before portaging or running it.
Sylvan Avenue (City of Dallas) boat ramp on river left at 0.0 miles; Continental Avenue between the Continental and Margaret Hunt Hill Bridges on river right at about 1.0 miles; Dallas Standing Wave whitewater park on river right at about 3.6 miles (take out on boat ramp above the standing wave); South Loop 12 boat ramp just below the bridge on river right at about 9.9 miles; McCommas Bluff off Riverwood Drive (south from Loop 12) on river left at about 13.4 miles (this is a very steep, but negotiable bank at an easy landing. Safety of vehicles left parked here is not known and the character of the surrounding neighborhood makes leaving unattended vehicles inadvisable.); Dowdy Ferry Road on river right under the bridge at about 18.0 miles (requires bushwhacking and a long carry of at least one tenth mile up a slight incline to a roadside area where vehicles could be left. Safety of vehicles left parked here is not known - it is an extremely remote area.) 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 is no practical access at IH 20, and nowhere to park and leave a vehicle anywhere near the bridge.
Trinity River Audubon Center has a few primitive campsites just off the Trinity River below South Loop 12 that are available only by advance reservation (no vehicle access - these are only available as walk-in or paddle-in sites. There are no other campgrounds located along the main stem of the Trinity River. The often steep banks are not condusive to camping along the streambed, and most adjacent property is privately owned. The Trinity River 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 for those daring enough to venture there.
Trinity River Expeditions (214-941-1757), located at 304 Lyman Circle, Dallas, Texas 75211, offers guided and self-guided canoe trips on all parts of the Elm Fork, West Fork, Denton Creek, Mountain Creek and the main stem of the Trinity River down to Dowdy Ferry Road. At least four DFW area commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles and river information for the Trinity River in the Dallas area.
This reach of the Trinity has a very diverse nature. It starts in the shadow of downtown Dallas adjacent to IH 35 and numerous bridges crossing from Central Dallas into Oak Cliff, and then transcends into the Great Trinity Forest just below the whitewater park on a run that is about as remote and wild as it gets. While the top of this run is quite urban the bottom 75% of the run is pure wilderness replete with many species of animals, birds and plants. Just past the midpoint of this reach is the Trinity River Audubon Center, a wilderness facility that is maintained with natural grasses and plants, wildflower gardens and nesting areas for frogs, turtles, fish and birds making it a fovorite of birdwatchers and schoolchildren interested in learning about nature and its creatures. Historically, few people have paddled the Trinity River in the Dallas area, but that is starting to change due to an increase in paddlesports interest and the cost of gasoline to travel to more exciting rivers. The development of the TPWD Paddle Trail between Sylvan Avenue and Loop 12 is beginning to attract more people to the river and plans are afoot to expand the paddle trail from Lake Lewisville Dam to Dowdy Ferry Road, bringing with it new and better access points catering to paddlers of all capabilities.
Considering the distance Dallas residents have to drive to find another navigable river, development of the Trinity could play a major role in increasing outdoor recreation and education in the Metroplex. Starting on its two major tributaries, the West Fork and the Elm Fork, trips down the main stem of the Trinity could begin in Fort Worth or Lewisville and then continue all the way to Hutchins south of Dallas and IH 20. For now, access is limited and not always great, but many people still enjoy an urban paddle trip close to home where they can experience life as it was in Dallas 100 years ago. Just don't hold your breath waiting for Dallas to become a seaport - the planned development of the locks and dams necessary to complete that objective ended shortly after World War I nearly a century ago.