Featured Destination: San Marcos, the Pearl of Texas

Rivers and springs of San Marcos are great for families and beginner paddlers

Standup paddleboarding onSpring Lake. Photo courtesy the Meadows Center

By Katie McKy

San Marcos, Texas has more than 200 percolating springs fed by the Edwards Aquifer. These springs fill the city's Spring Lake and flow into the San Marcos River, which meanders through the central Texas town.

The springs once attracted tourists with an underwater theater featuring swimming pigs and Aqua-Maids, bathing beauties who would dance in the gin-clear water. Those shows are long gone, and today the pristine waters of San Marcos attract visitors more interested in paddling than watching pigs swim. The springs and nearby Guadalupe and San Marcos rivers are ideal for family paddling trips, and folks who want to try kayaking, canoeing and standup paddleboarding have a host of options to choose from.

San Marcos also is home to the only whitewater play park in Texas, right downtown at the Rio Vista Dam. Here the spring water tumbles over three terraces that deliver user-friendly rapids for play and practice. The park is a great place to learn kayaking or improve your skills. Paddlers come year-round to have fun and hone their skills.

Most paddlers choose to continue their journeys south and east of San Marcos, where local rivers provide a pleasant way to enjoy Texas’s green, rolling Hill Country. Several local businesses provide rentals and lessons.

The Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail is a great family-friendly rout on the San Marcos River. The Texas Parks and Wildlife water trail is a great half-day trip just east of San Marcos. This section of the river is beautiful, and with nothing bigger than smile-inducing Class I rapids at most water flows, it is a gimmie for all skill levels.


The downtown water park is a great place to try paddling or hone your skills. Courtesy Olympic Outdoor.

Now it’s also possible to paddle on Spring Lake itself, through a collaboration between Texas State University's Meadows Center and REI's Outdoor School. The Explore Spring Lake programs offer afternoon, evening, and sunset outings on the lake. Each trip is 1.5 hours long and uses REI's boats and stand up paddleboards–a precaution to protect the unique, some of which is found only in Spring Lake and the San Marcos River. These include the Fountain Darter, the Texas Blind Salamander, and the San Marcos Salamander. Spring Lake teems with other species too, giving it a coral reef vivacity right in the city.

Standup paddleboarding is growing in popularity in San Marcos. Courtesy Olympic Outdoor.

“You will see the springs that create the headwaters, get an historic overview, see the wildlife and ecological features, and paddle toward the dam that creates the San Marcos River,” says Ivey Kaiser, outdoor program and outreach coordinator for the REI Austin Market. “There's a lot of education involved and some paddling instruction too.”

If you prefer current, enjoy the San Marcos River below Spring Lake. "It's the pearl of Texas, a beautiful, beautiful river,” says Duane Te Grotenhuis, owner and operator of T G Canoes and Kayak. “The water is always 72 degrees. It's extremely refreshing in the summertime, and in the wintertime it's warm. Folks from up north feel like they've died and gone to heaven."

And how do San Marcos locals spot the Yankees?

"In the winter, the northerners are wearing shorts and shirts while we're wearing wet suits and dry suits."

Get in the Swing: San Marcos is a music-lovers Mecca. Courtesy photo.

San Marcos juxtaposes Texas Hill Country charm and a multitude of family paddling options. The town also hosts the legendary Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile nonstop paddling race from San Marcos to the Gulf of Mexico. It's a test of physical and mental endurance, as well as a window into the Lone Star State’s rich and unique paddling culture.

Off the water, San Marcos offers a host of activities. The downtown area known as The Square hosts local shopping and eateries with lip-smacking good Tex-Mex, barbecue, comfort food and craft brew.
There's Moe Better Burgers, a burger joint as fun as its name. Want some Texas heat? Try Torchy's Tacos. Prefer pizza pie post-paddling? There's Pie Society, where the thin, crispy crusts keep the focus on the fresh toppings. After hours, The Square becomes the central spot for local nightlife. An array of bars and pubs serve students and locals with an authentic small-town Texas undertone not found in neighboring Austin or San Antonio.

San Marcos is also home to Texas State University, which complements the small-town atmosphere with a dash of culture and art, including exhibits at the Wittliff Collection. You can also find art glass at nearby shops like Wimberley Glassworks.

Music is ever-present in San Marcos, with historic venues like Cheatham St. Warehouse which has hosted such local legends as Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Annual music events such as Swing on the Square in April are a regular part of the San Marcos vibe.

San Marcos also boasts the Central Texas Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, which keeps old birds, aka World War bombers and fighters, in the sky. And though the swimming pig show is a thing of the past, San Marcos still has it’s share of quirky family fun. The Unicycle Football League competes in “flackle football, described as flag football with the option of using "the least amount of force required to cause the ball handler to dismount their unicycle."

Learn more about San Marcos attractions, events, restaurants and lodging at TourSanMarcos.com

Paddling Liveries and Schools in San Marcos:

TG Canoe
Spencer Canoe
SUP Adventures San Marcos
Olympic Outdoor
Meadows Center Kayak & SUP tours

–More paddling DESTINATIONS from C&K.