Listen to Austin 360 Radio

River Tracing No. 30: Devils River

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

On the Pecos River, it was a gate. On the Devils River, it was a sign.

A steel barrier kept us from exploring a key stretch of the larger Rio Grande tributary. The next day, a roughly made sign discouraged us from reaching a much-praised portion of the smaller river.

We started the day in Del Rio, a border city whose main east-west highway is littered with modern retail clutter. A few miles up the road on U.S. 277, however, the West Texas land and sky open up again.

Down State Recreational Road 2, we tested the Devils River as part of many-armed Lake Amistad, which also encompasses the Pecos and Rio Grande. With no sign of human activity — despite the presence of condos and recreational vehicles — we were left to the serene blue and white of the long, winding lagoon.

Ducks, gulls and what looked like tohees broke the stillness.

After drinking in the peace, we headed up U.S. 277 in the direction of Sonora. Over the past few years, we’d heard countless hymns to the Devils, one of the state’s most isolated and pristine waterways and the 30th in our series of 50 Texas river tracings, accomplished mostly by car and on foot.

Yet when we turned off 277 west on Dolan Creek Road about 40 miles up the canyon, we almost immediately ecountered a sign that announced the State Natural Area was closed Mondays through Wednesdays. It was Tuesday.

Gravel roads: 2. Joe and Michael: 0.

The closure meant missing, not only this revered preserve, but also the tightly restricted one owned by the Texas Nature Conservancy, which is reached through the state lands. No Dolan Falls for us this time.

We are, however, accustomed to adversity on these river tracings. We’d find another way.

We chugged back up 277 past FM 189 to look in on a dry branch of the Devils. Sometimes, these rocky crossings are as fascinating as the wet ones, since one sees what flora and fauna thrive even without a constant flow aboveground. This time of year, huge cottonwoods were rouged with autumnal colors.

FM 189, otherwise known as the Juno Highway, follows the Devils River Canyon for quite a few miles downstream. The low road crisscrosses the dry channel, then joins Texas 160, which does the same.

Eventually, it dawned on us that, during flood season, this, the only paved road across the Devils, would be impassable. No wonder, this 100-mile-long river is so untouched.

Were were nevertheless impatient for water. Just as the road rises higher along the canyon wall, a sparkle caught the corner of our eyes. We stopped and hiked back a bit. Well worth the wait, there was the full stream, fed by generous springs, rushing through a suddenly lush valley.

Ebullient, we stopped again and again to document the shallow but strong flow of the Devils River. By the time the river parted with the road, we were satisfied.

Like the other rivers that fall from the south wall of the Edward’s Plateau — Nueces, Frio, Medina, Sabinal — the Devils carves a rocky, gorgeous, mostly unpopulated groove down to a recharge zone that runs from San Antonio through Uvalde almost to Del Rio. These constitute some of the most beautiful and rugged parts of Texas, which, beyond Garner State Park and Lost Maples Natural Area, most tourists don’t see.

As for the rivers that flow north from the plateau, the Llano is still in good shape. Those headed east, however, hit urban congestion and the festering eyesore that is Interstate 35. Even the glorious Guadalupe River — mile for mile the loveliest we’ve traced — is overloved between Canyon Lake and Seguin.

Anyway, we learned that we must plan our next trip to the Devils River more carefully and bring along kayaks. The water route is complicated, however, on these West Texas rivers by landowners who fiercely contest any encroachment, not matter how innocent.

This day, we zoomed up to Ozona, then followed surely the smoothest, most relaxing drive in Texas along Interstate 10 — out West, it’s our autobahn — to Junction. Old U.S. 290 west of Fredericksburg has been widened, so what has always been a pleasant connection between Central and West Texas is now also safer.

Can’t say that for all the construction zones along the winery trail from Fredericksburg to Johnson City. Will be glad when that’s completed. Nothing will improve the ugly sprawl headed into Austin. The Y at Oak Hill, too, is still madness in both directions.

Didn’t matter. We were still comforted by memories of the healing Devils River.