We had been told that Texas drought conditions have hit Hill Country hard. While low water levels only slightly affect our travel activities, we know they have a much larger impact on the people (not to mention the plants and animals) who live here year-round. Officially, Texas has been in drought conditions since 2010.
In the region known as The Texas Hill Country (West of Austin and east of Fredericksburg), we revisited campgrounds we remembered from five years ago. They border reservoir lakes along the Texas Colorado River, or, I should say, "they used to." The Lower Colorado River Authority is controlling which reservoirs get the little water that is available. Marble Falls, Austin, and the estuaries at the Gulf of Mexico get priority while Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis can hardly be termed lakes anymore. This month, Lake Travis is down 38 feet and Lake Buchanan 19 feet below historic February levels. That's huge!
Compare these two photos taken five years apart from the exact same location at one of our favorite free campgrounds:
We feel sorry for the home owners who built homes on these lakes. This is "Lake?" Travis. Along the many smaller bays, the boat docks of expensive houses sit high and dry, far from view of any shore. Even along the central part of the lake (the Colorado River, now reduced to a small stream), many have given up on extending the boat docks to make them reach water.
Many related businesses are, of course, also closed. Although they remain optimistic for the future, I'm sure property values have dropped dramatically on these lakes.
How have Texas drought conditions affected our trip?
With paddling off the itinerary, we looked for alternative entertainment. Our friends near San Antonio had given us a list of popular Hill Country swimming holes to check out. Top of the list and on our route was Krause Springs. This private, family-owned operation is more like a small resort than a wild swimming hole. It is spring-fed so we knew it would be unaffected by the low water levels in the surrounding rivers and lakes. The pool on the upper level flows via a waterfall to a natural swimming hole about fifty feet below. The water from this warm spring is a constant 68 degrees - perfect on a hot summer's day when swimming under a waterfall or jumping in from the rope swing sounds like tons of fun! The campground is full every summer weekend but, on a cool and cloudy February day, it didn't tempt us. We only stopped to have a look.
The next day was again cool with a bit of rain - barely enough to tease the Texas drought. We spent the day touring President Lyndon Johnson Ranch - a National Historic Park. Right beside this park is another, LBJ State Park. It's an amazing living history museum that we had visited a few years ago. Both are excellent - informative and entertaining and a great value: admission is free! We were given a cd to play that explained the stops as we drove through the ranch at our leisure and we added the optional guided tour inside the Texas White House for $3.00 per person.
We came away now with a better feel for LBJ and who he was, confirming out thoughts that, of the US presidents during our lifetime, he's the one with the most "ordinary" background.
Being a farm girl myself, seeing the ongoing day-to-day ranch operations was an interesting part of the tour.
We moved on from Hill Country to Del Rio where we counted on another paddling opportunity on Lake Amistad. Paddling along the shores and bays in these clear blue waters had been on our bucket list ever since we bought our inflatable kayak.
But the effects of the drought were equally obvious here and the water much lower than we've seen it on any previous trip. Several campgrounds on the lake are no longer on water but we were lucky enough to find one, Rough Canyon, on the north side of the lake at the mouth of the Devil's River. Here we could camp and launch a kayak. Despite the lower water levels, the lake was as blue as I remembered it and still offerred a few side canyons to explore.
Rough Canyon only has four campsites so we were lucky to get one - it was not the weekend. At just $4.00 per night, the price is right and the view of boats anchored in the bay and interesting limestone cliffs across the lake was a nice bonus.
A few miles farther west, another first for us: we stopped at Seminole Canyon State Park. The bronze image at the visitor center depicts one of the many pictographs found in the caves of this canyon.
These cave drawings of the Pecos style are unique only to a 50-mile area and are thousands of years older than any other known cave art in the US! The only access to the caves is by guided tour and we were happy that, after driving by so many times on past trips, we finally weren't on a schedule that prevented us from stopping. The park was well-worth the $16.00 cost (per person $5.00 tour plus $3.00 park entry).
Sadly, after surviving the forces of nature, neglect, and graffiti for more than 4000 years, these pictographs have lost an extraordinary amount of detail and clarity during the past 80 years. This, despite the fact that they've been protected by the park for some years now. The loss is very evident when we compare them to the drawings made in the 1930s. Why are they deteriorating so fast now? The answer is pretty obvious and, unfortunately, nothing is being done to change it. Pollution and higher humidity (since the dam was built to create Lake Amistad) are the major cause. Unfortunately, it seems future generations won't have the opportunity we do to see or study these amazing images.
In fact, we were so impressed that we splurged even further and paid for a campsite in the park's primitive campground ($8.00) so we could hike the park's 7-mile Canyon Rim Trail the following day. It was the longest hike of our trip so far.
Despite battling a 50 mph wind, it was a great hike. The trail leads to the confluence with the Rio Grande River where, through binoculars, we could see another series of pictographs in Panther Cave.
We were so glad to note that, despite the drought, the Rio Grande still had a good flow. Our next stop is Big Bend National Park and we're looking forward to one of this trip's highlights: a kayaking day on the Rio Grande in scenic Santa Elena Canyon.
Days On The Road at time of writing: 47
Camping Costs To Date: $83.00