A Devil of a River in Texas
In order to get to heaven, sometimes you have to go through hell to get there. That’s certainly true when it comes to the Devils River.
To say that the location of this 94-mile-long river is primitive would be a gross understatement. Located somewhere between Sonora, Del Rio, and the ghost town of Juno, the river and surrounding land is largely untouched by humans. The turquoise-blue water conjures visions of the Caribbean. The rugged, limestone landscape is reminiscent of the Texas Hill Country, while the brush is purely northern Mexico. The rocky hills are green considering the geographic location, and the river banks are lined with grass and trees. The Devils River is an oasis in this arid, raw part of West Texas.
But just like the Devil himself, all is not what it seems.
If the Devils River were a person, she’d be Courtney Love. Calm one minute and bat-shit crazy the next. This spring-fed river is smooth as glass and will lull you to sleep with its lake-like tranquility…except when it’s not. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and the Devils River is no different. The rapids here are much like Victoria Falls in that they can’t be seen until it’s too late. Many of the drops are camouflaged by cane as high as ten feet, making it impossible to see what’s in store. Paddling the Devils River requires a Herculean effort to survive. Think Bear Grylls.
Nasty Dolan Falls is the Cerberus of the Devils River. Much like the three-headed dog guarded the gates of Hades, Dolan Falls protects the rest of the river from outsiders. There is no warning of the falls. The horizon is flat and the water smooth. With a fifteen-foot drop, this the highest continuously flowing waterfall in Texas. The drop should be the least of your concerns, however. The water at the bottom of the falls violently churns backwards, so after your kayak or canoe is destroyed on the limestone rocks below, you’ll be sucked underwater and pinned against the base of the falls. Death is eminent, and Dolan has done its job.
I first heard about the Devils River a decade ago. Family friends own a house overlooking the river. My first trip out was a long one. Austin to Sonora and then down a few two-lane highways got me to the turn off. Forty-five minutes down a dirt road, and I wasn’t sure this place even existed. Through brush, gates, up and down canyons, and across wash-board roads I went until finally I got my first look. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. How could something like this exist in this area?
The land surrounding the Devils River is almost all privately owned. The “No Trespassing” signs aren’t there just for decoration. Land owners don’t think twice about having someone locked up in the Val Verde County jail for stepping foot on their property. If you do decide to ignore the signs, being arrested might be your best thing that could happen to you. This is Texas, and we take the right to bear arms seriously. Land owners won’t hesitate to defend their land with firepower. That’s right. Prepare to be shot at if you’re not where you’re supposed to be. This is Texas, after all.
Fortunately my visits to the Devils River don’t involve dodging bullets or escaping the grips of Dolan Falls. Further south on the river is where I frequent. Here the water is calm. Giant, flat limestone rocks make the perfect spot for relaxing in the hot, West Texas sun. The water is the cleanest in Texas; it’s even drinkable. And talk about clear, standing in the river you can see the rocks, fish, and your feet.
As you can imagine, wildlife abounds in this area largely void of humans. Big and small-mouth bass, gar, catfish, and perch are just some of the fish that can be found in the Devils River. Hawks, herons, and kingfishers all hunt the river, while deer, javelinas, and mountain lions roam its banks. And snakes? There’s a bunch. After all, what would the Devil be without snakes?
Given the fact that the Devils River is seriously remote, most of the surrounding land is privately owned (including 25 miles by The Nature Conservancy), being shot at, arrested, or drowned by Dolan Falls are distinct possibilities, why would anyone in their right mind make a trip to the Devils River?
The risk is worth the reward. The opportunity to see a stretch of ecological perfection like this is unusual. The feeling of complete isolation is something that is rarely duplicated. The chance to remove yourself from any and all outside distractions exists at the Devils River. Nothing else matters but nature and survival. It’s primitive and surreal, even down to the prehistoric pictographs that still exist in the caves surrounding the river.
How does one experience the Devils River without knowing a property owner? For those wanting to brave the river in kayaks and canoes, the best point-of-entry is located along Highway 163 at Baker’s Crossing. There are camp sites available and your car can be left there. Although, if a heavy dose of rain hits, you might not find it upon return. Flash flooding is quite common in the area.
Fifteen miles down the river from Baker’s Crossing is the first legal campsite at the Devils River State Natural Area. Don’t expect too much from this so-called campsite. It’s simply a limestone ledge along the river. However, putting up a tent there won’t get you shot or arrested, so that’s what’s really important.
Unless you’re wanting to extend your two to three day trip at least one more, you’ll get out at the Blue Sage subdivision and knock on the door of Gerald Baily. He’s a local guide that rents equipment, offers fishing trips, and will take you back to Baker’s Crossing and your car (if it’s still there). If this opportunity is missed, you’ve got several more miles down the river until it runs into Lake Amistad. From that point, Rough Canyon Marina is another twelve or so miles.
The land owners aren’t the only ones particular about the Devils River. The State of Texas has very strict guidelines concerning the river’s use. Camping is by reservation only and required at least one day in advance. The Devils River State Natural Area allows visitors to day hike, camp, mountain bike, and take guided rock art tours by appointment only. This is one of the most beautiful and unspoilt parts of Texas, and there is a legion of people dedicated to keeping it that way.
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the Devils River lures you in with its stunning landscape and pristine, tranquil water. And when you least expect it, the river attacks. Texas Ranger Captain, John Coffee Hays, knew exactly what the river was when he first laid eyes on it in the 1840s. Originally called San Pedro, Hays reportedly said that it looked more like the Devil’s river than Saint Peter’s.
James A. Garfield said, “A brave man is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil.” Captain Hays was brave enough to call the Devil a Devil, but was he brave enough to tackle Dolan Falls? That’s the real test for bravery.
I encourage y’all to watch this short video on the Devils River and the land surrounding it. My words can’t begin to do this place justice.
All of these beautiful images are by Austin-based photographer, Whitney Martin. She’s grown up visiting the Devils River most of her life. These photographs were taken near her family’s home on the Devils River in July of 2012. You can read her personal reflections on the river and see more stunning pictures here.
Whitney has a Master’s Degree in Photojournalism from the University of Texas and a Bachelor’s in Communication and Business from Texas A&M University. Her work has spanned the globe, photographing in Texas, New York, Costa Rica, and those places in between. She’s brilliant, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my friend.