Texas History: Take a cool dip into the historic Medina River with this detailed guide
During the hottest weeks of the summer, the mind drifts to the coldest rivers in the state.
The historic Medina River pours off the steep southern rim of the Edwards Plateau. Clear and very cool, it then wriggles over white limestone beds under a shaded canopy of mature cypress trees.
It passes through Bandera, with its dude ranches and authentic remnants of cowboy culture; stops for a break in a wide canyon at Medina Lake; then waters the scenic Alsatian town of Castroville, before wrapping around the southern edges of San Antonio.
Very close to both Interstate 37 and U.S. 281, it joins the San Antonio River on its way to a confluence with the Guadalupe River near Victoria.
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"The first European to see the river was Alonso De León, governor of Coahuila, who led his expedition across Texas in 1689 in pursuit of the French" reads the online Handbook of Texas. "De León noted in his diary that he named the stream for Pedro Medina, the early Spanish engineer whose navigation tables he was using in mapping his route through the wilderness with an astrolabe. On other old maps the river is designated variously as Río Mariano, Río San José, or Río de Bagres — Catfish River."
The Medina River came up in a recent "Think, Texas" column about Tejano patriot José Francisco Ruiz, whose family owned a ranch on the stream that provided supplies for various troops that tramped fairly regularly through the region.
I finally visited the Medina relatively late in life while tracing 50 Texas rivers from their mouths to their sources — or vice versa — by car, on foot and sometimes in the water with longtime friend and language teacher Joe Starr. I recorded our adventures in blog posts, while Joe took the memorable photographs.
At one point in our journeys, the two of us visited riparian guru Andrew Sansom at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos. He urged us to write a guidebook about our river trips for Texas A&M University Press. Long story short, we never finished the guidebook, but several sharp blog posts, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, came out of the effort.
A version of the following updated entry about the Medina River started out as a blog post long before "Think, Texas" was born. Joe and I did more research to produce something close to this entry a few years later. I offer it here in the spirit of cooling off, which almost all Texans need in mid-August.
Even pictures of the Medina make me feel cooler.
All you need to know about the Medina River
Length: 116 miles
Source: Edwards Plateau in northwestern Bandera County
Mouth: San Antonio River in southern Bexar County
Our main route: Always try alternate routes. That’s how you discover Texas. This trip, we took Texas 16, FM 1283, PR 37, FM 1283, FM 471, US 90, Cagnon Road, Macdona Lacoste Road, Nelson Road, CR 1604, Palo Alto Road, E. Charles William Anderson Loop, Interstate 37 access roads, plus inevitable side trips and impulse stops.
Places to See: In Bandera, the Frontier Times Museum and the courthouse; Hill Country State Natural Area, southwest of Bandera; Castroville, to explore Alsatian heritage and architecture, including the Landmark Inn, a state historic site; Lake Medina, good for boating and fishing when the water is up; Castroville Regional Park, not fancy but with good trails; Medina Natural River Area, a City of San Antonio preserve. (A reminder for your physical and legal well-being: Stay off private land.)
Natural history: Named in 1689 for Pedro Medina, a Spanish engineer, this river rises rapidly among extinct volcanoes that formed along the Balcones Fault. It shares a ridge on the Edwards Plateau with the more famous Guadalupe River. Primarily, it drains Bandera County in a region with a dry, subtropical climate that promotes short grasses and scattered oaks and junipers.
Human history: One of the bloodiest battles ever fought in Texas took place at the river on Aug. 18, 1813, pitting Spanish Royalists against a ragtag army of republicans, an encounter that was part of the larger fight for Mexico’s independence from Spain. After four hours, the royalists won resoundingly.
In 1842, Col. John Coffee “Jack” Hays defeated a band of Comanches at Bandera Pass, a V-shaped cut in the ridge between the Guadalupe and Medina Valleys that was used American Indians, Spanish and early Anglos, and later formed part of the Western Cattle Trail.
On maps of the 1830s, the Medina serves as the southern border of the Department of Bexar — and thus, Texas. On Jan. 15, 1842, the empresario Henri Castro negotiated a contract to settle Alsatian families in a colony on the Medina, which he did with Hays’ assistance in 1844. Castroville was founded in September of that year.
As with much of West Texas, very few enslaved people were brought to communities along the Medina; a little over 100 were counted in Bandera and Medina Counties during the 1860 census. Unsurprisingly, local enthusiasm for secession was not high. In the only real military action in the area during the Civil War, General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s Confederate cavalry brigade passed through on its way to invade New Mexico.
In contrast with much of West Texas, there were no forts in the valley during the American Indian Wars.
Although U.S. 90 goes through Castroville and San Antonio, the Upper Medina River region generally provides few transportation options. In 1880, for instance, Castroville refused to give the Southern Pacific Railroad a bonus, so it passed south of town.
In part because of this lack of development, tourism, including tubing, camping and dude ranching, remains a major industry.
Some farms produced minimal amounts of corn and cotton, but ranches have turned out plenty of cattle since Spanish days. Lackland Air Force Base helped transform the Lower Medina, and Medina and Bandera counties are today included in the San Antonio Metropolitan Statistical Area.
One beautiful day on the Medina River
Our Trip: The drive from Kerrville to the source of the river is not for the faint of heart — a twisty, turning two-lane road through hills and dales. Like the other rivers wriggling south off the Edwards Plateau, its mother canyon is gorgeous and rugged.
We followed it down Texas 16, the narrowest state highway we have ever encountered. The river, already swift and lined with cypresses, appears at full force before reaching the village of Medina, where the North and West Prongs meet to form the Medina proper.
In the valleys, we encountered stretches of road that narrowed to one lane under construction. Temporary traffic lights, rather than flaggers, guided the drivers from each direction. Drivers approaching from the opposite direction were, for the most part, courteous and mindful of the ersatz traffic signals.
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The first town of any consequence is Bandera, the self-styled Cowboy Capital of Texas, once a cypress lumbering camp and then a magnet for Polish and German immigrants. The beauty of the verdant valley is complemented by the historic downtown and numerous guest ranches. We wandered around a bit, but the scene seemed tilted toward the tourist trade.
(We should have scratched deeper, as podcaster Evan Stern proved in an episode of his "Vanishing Postcards" series set in an old western bar.)
Our next adventure took us south, a right turn at Pipe Creek onto FM 1283, a winding back road to a lookout park over Medina Lake. The park itself was empty, and the lake — still low in late 2015 — without activity. But, boy, do those rugged hills make a great setting. The lake road was cluttered with “Do Not Enter” signs and trashed-out yards. A few miles past the Dancing Bear Cantina, we made a hairpin right on FM 471, where the Medina picks up steam again near the hamlet of Rio Medina.
The river then gently enters Castroville on the plains below. After longing to explore this Alsatian community for decades, we were delighted to find that many of the slope-roofed structures had been preserved.
To catch the river, we hiked through Castroville Regional Park and stopped next to a camp of human snowbirds. On this fine day, joggers and picnickers joined us. The stream bends widely among thick cypresses hung with Spanish moss. It could have been East Texas.
Lunch was at the Alsatian-themed Castroville Cafe — good food, much appreciated — and then we headed east on US 90 and drifted into the dreaded gravitational pull of San Antonio.
To our surprise, little of the land southwest of the metropolis was developed. We couldn’t get close to the Medina’s mouth, at the San Antonio River just off Interstate 37. Just as well: from the surroundings, we guessed it would not be pretty.
Books to check out:"Texas: A Historical Atlas," "Rivers of Texas," "Spanish Texas," "Flash Floods in Texas," "Texas Water Atlas," "Handbook of Texas," "The Adventures of Big Foot Wallace."
Floods: In 1932, 14 inches of rain fell in a few hours, and Medina Lake rose 22.5 feet. In August 1978, 20.2 inches drenched the town of Medina, and the Manatt Ranch received 48 inches, then a record for a seventy-two-hour period. Raging water encircled the town, plowing through camps in the way. The river peaked at 56 feet in Bandera, which locals said was nearly as bad as a 1919 flood. In July 2002, the Medina flowed into Bandera shops and over the spillway at Medina Lake. Downstream, Castroville experienced its worst flood ever.
State of the River: The Upper Medina, which flows over a limestone bed, is fairly pristine. Settlers chopped down many of the ancient cypresses, but floods eventually wiped out the lumber industry.
Now, other than during extreme droughts, the water runs clear and fast; it is never very deep except when in flood. Once the river drops onto the plains, agriculture, industry, dumps and military installations bedevil it. The river borders the Nueces River Authority, established in 1935, but is not controlled by it. The lower part falls within the boundaries of the San Antonio River Authority.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. he can be reached at email@example.com.
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