As a northerner intent on seeing central Texas’s famed Hill Country from the cockpit of a kayak, I felt like I had to relearn the English language before I reached my destination. It’s not that Texans speak especially poorly or have accents too thick to understand, it’s just that this particular area is notable for its unorthodox pronunciations.
My first lesson came when I asked about Lake Buchanan, my put-in for this scenic afternoon paddle. “You mean Lake BUCK-han-an,” I was dutifully corrected.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I said. “It’s right near Burnet.”
“It’s BURN-et, durn it, can’t you learn it?”
“Uh, maybe I’m confused. This lake I want to paddle on is right near Tow.”
“You’re not from around here, are you? It’s pronounced Tow, like cow.”
Local lingo lesson completed, I was off to the Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park, which occupies 940 acres of virtually untouched land, thick with flora and fauna, on the northern shores of Lake Buchanan. Canyon of the Eagles is not the only place to put in on Lake Buchanan, but it is by far the best for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the bald eagles that winter there from November to mid-March before their migration north.
Lake Buchanan was formed in the late 1930s, when the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) dammed the Colorado River to generate power, maintain adequate drinking-water supplies, and help control the damaging floods that had wreaked havoc on Austin downriver in the past. And though this enormous 30-mile-long man made lake has a fair amount of “civilization” along its southern shores, the approximately 18 miles from Canyon of the Eagles up to Colorado Bend State Park are undeveloped and remote–perfect for a paddling adventure, whether it be a day trip or an overnighter.
The LCRA’s work in the area doesn’t end with the dams, however. It owns and operates the Canyon of the Eagles (in partnership with Presidian, which runs the lodge) and emphasizes education and conservation all along the lower Colorado River. As a result, great paddling is just one of the attractions that make this a worthwhile destination. Those interested in fishing, birding, hiking, and even astronomy will find plenty to do at the park.
Getting There: From Austin, Lake Buchanan is an easy hour-and-a-half drive through central Texas’s scenic Hill Country. Take Interstate 35 north out of Austin to State Highway 29. Head west on 29, and look for the sign for Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park, which is located at the end of County Road 2341. Once in the park, signs will direct you to the lodge, campgrounds, RV sites, beach, and boat launch. Logistics: Some of the best opportunities for wildlife watching occur from December to March, when 25 to 30 migratory bald eagles live on the shores of the lake and the temperatures are mild. Spring offers an abundance of wildflowers, while fall is a good bet for avoiding crowds. Summer is very hot, and you’ll encounter a lot more motor-powered craft. While You’re There: Paddle over to Fall Creek Vineyards and take a tour and sample some of their award-winning wines. Call (512) 476-4477 or log on to fcv.com. For a more family-oriented activity, explore the 12 miles of nature trails in the Canyon of the Eagles Nature Park or spend an evening stargazing at the Eagle Eye Observatory (also in the park). Camping/Lodging: The Canyon of the Eagles Lodge, which perches on a wooded bluff above Lake Buchanan, offers 64 comfortable rustic-chic rooms–many with back porches that overlook the lake. Call (800) 977-0081, (512) 756-8787, or log on to canyonoftheeagles.com. There are also two campgrounds and one RV park in the 940-acre park. Another camping option is the LCRA-run Cedar Point Recreational Area on Lake Buchanan’s western shore, across from Canyon of the Eagles. Call (800) 776-5272, or log on to lcra.org. More adventurous paddlers can travel upstream approximately 18 miles to Colorado Bend State Park, (915) 628-3240. Outfitters/Resources: Lake Buchanan Adventures is located on the beach at Canyon of the Eagles. Canoe and kayak (and accessories) rentals are available, and they also offer a boat-shuttle service. Call (800) 977-0081 or log on to lakebuchananadventures.com. For a more complete list of outfitters, see our Adventure Paddling Directory .
But on this scorching mid-May morning, I was here to paddle with John Van Ness, the owner of Austin Outdoor Wilderness Supply and a guide for Lake Buchanan Adventures, the park’s exclusive outfitter. Lake Buchanan Adventures is located on a grassy beach and can outfit you with a canoe, a roto-molded or inflatable kayak, and all the accessories you need. They also provide a boat-shuttle service if you’re looking to visit a specific spot but don’t have all day to get there.
Van Ness was taking a group of us to spectacular Fall Creek Falls to check out the nearby rock formations and maybe cool off under the falls themselves. Lake Buchanan Adventures owner Tom Clark tied our kayaks in a towline behind the shuttle boat and we headed off toward the falls. The terrain surrounding the lake soon turned from flat, fertile fields (where even wine grapes are grown) and scrub-covered hills to steep cliffs–dotted with flowering prickly pear cacti–that jutted straight out of the water.
Once near the falls, Clark beached the shuttle boat, helped us into our kayaks, and sent us on our way, with Van Ness leading the pack. Though impressive from afar, the Fall Creek Falls are amazing to paddle around, behind, and even under. They nestle in a cove protected from the prevalent lake breezes and flow over a limestone lip that grows by the thickness of a sheet of newspaper every year.
For the Native Americans who once lived in the area, this was a sacred site. An archaeological excavation done before the dam was built uncovered more than 30,000 artifacts. Across the lake from the falls, a burial ground for Native American children was also discovered. Even today, the towering rock formations are imposing and seem to contain a certain power.
Paddling along the steep cliff faces and into a nearby cove, we sought shade underneath one of the larger trees that lined the rocky banks. Though most of the trees in the Hill Country are short and scrubby, this oak, its long branches extending out over the water, was an exception. As we glided silently beneath its canopy, two large black buzzards also taking advantage of the ample shade eyed us lazily.
Because so much of the surrounding area is dry, Lake Buchanan naturally attracts a lot of wildlife to its fertile shores. Depending on the time of year, you’ll see bald eagles, white pelicans, great blue herons, egrets, terns, whitetail deer, feral pigs, and many brightly colored terrestrial birds, such as cardinals and tanagers. Walk some of the 12 miles of trails in the park and you might see the endangered black-capped vireo or golden-cheeked warbler, or maybe even a roadrunner ambling down the path.
Cooled enough to begin our paddle back, we decided to try paddling through one of the waterfalls to get a good soaking before we headed back to the lodge. Though some of the handful of falls that cascade down are powerful enough to swamp a boat and it’s not advisable to go under them, others are no worse than a hard downpour–you’ll get good and drenched, with a bit of water in your boat, but you’ll stay upright. Just keep your bilge pump handy.
And though there were more falls in the area and plenty of shoreline to explore, we had to cut our adventure short that day because of the unseasonable 90-degree heat. But now that I’ve learned the Lake Buchanan lexicon, returning to this great paddling destination will be a cinch.
Adem Tepedelenis a freelance writer based in Seattle.
This article first ran in Canoe & Kayak Magazine’s Beginner’s Guide. To order a copy, call (800) MY-CANOE, ext. 114, or CLICK HERE.