“Hiking” the River Trail to the Coast

Feature Story:  Meet the Trail Crew

Mark Taylor at Rio Vista on the paddle to the coast
Some time in the Spring we first hear the song of the returning Summer Tanager, repeating softly in the early morning. For some, this song says warmer weather is ahead. Others pull out their binoculars to get a better view. For me, this call clearly says, “It’s time to start practicing again for the Texas Water Safari”. My Water Safari teammate Pat Stroka and I begin settling into a pattern of activity - monitoring flows up and down the San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers, watching rain events closely, picking out different sections of river to paddle on the weekends, long practice runs preceded by breakfast tacos and chocolate milk, punctuated by stops on shaded gravel bars for lunch or snacks. Lots of paddling, reading the river, negotiating obstacles, looking back to see if the fork we didn’t take would have been the better choice, learning the river’s lessons, often the hard way.

The route of the Water Safari is a trail - San Marcos, Martindale, Staples, Fentress, Prairie Lea, Luling, Palmetto Park, Gonzales, Hochheim, Cuero, Thomaston, Nursery, Victoria, Tivoli and Seadrift - a river trail of 260 miles that must be completed in under 100 hours. For Pat and me, “hiking” this trail in the Water Safari means lining up shore crew “team captains” (kudos to my brother Jeff, and our friends Dan Duncan and Jon Cradit this year) to meet us at checkpoints, resupply us and encourage us from steep, muddy riverbanks. It means preparing ourselves and our boat to paddle night and day, deal with soreness and pain all over our bodies, and take naps on the ground in odd, often noisy places. It means, at the end of the race, paddling a choppy bay into a stiff headwind for hours before Seadrift is in sight.
Portage over the Staples Dam

“Hiking” this trail also means enjoying a oneness with nature all along the way. The pristine upper San Marcos, the broad (but still tricky) Guadalupe below Gonzales, the marshy delta as we approach the coast. The marvels of birds, fishes, turtles and alligators. The ubiquitous pecan, cottonwood and box elder trees, and every now and then the lines of stately cypress trees along river banks, spared from human harvest and floods.

We’re often asked, “Why do you do the race?” Our best answer is, “We love the river”. Perhaps a more complete answer, given the extent of the efforts we expend along with our team captains, is “Because it’s there”.  We tip our hats to the Victoria Advocate for their opinion column - https://www.victoriaadvocate.com/news/2017/jun/14/n-topic-texas-water-safari-n-our-viewiconic-event-/ 

--Mark Taylor

Stories in this series are from the trail crew on their otherworldly adventures.

SMGA is launching a new website!

Dear SMGA Members,

We are delighted to announce the official launch date of our newly redesigned website is tomorrow, which has been many months in the planning! This endeavor was generously funded by the City of San Marcos Ecotourism Fund.

Our goal with this upgrade is to provide a faster and easier to navigate website for visitors to learn about the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance. The new site features a responsive design across all devices, search engine optimization and a mobile-friendly navigation system that will make maps of hiking trails in the City's natural areas more readily available to visitors.

Needless to say, over the next few weeks there are bound to be lingering problems. We’d ask you to bear with us as we put the final touches to our new site and please email us if you notice any issues.

June Bird Walk along the San Marcos River

   Colton Robbins led the June 3rd bird walk along the river.  Water always draws the most birds and the turn-put of birders at an even dozen was respectable also. With more than six years of birding
At City Park on the San Marcos River
walks we've accumulated quite the history of birds seen in the San Marcos area. We visit all five of the natural areas, Spring Lake and the San Marcos River are popular, and a few hidden gems with access only to guided groups.
   All experience levels are welcomed on the walks that are sponsored by the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance and conducted by Stephen Ramirez and Colton Robbins with an occasional guest birder adding their expertise.
  The monthly walks are announced a couple days prior to the first Saturday of each month depending on probability of best sightings.  Contact Stephen@birdsIview.org to be included in the eMail notification or check the Facebook page; San Marcos Bird Walk, for location and time (usually day break).  Bird lists are found on the LOOP and at eBird for past walks.  --LJ

San Marcos River Walk, Hays, Texas, US
Jun 3, 2017 7:04 AM - 8:09 AM
Protocol: Traveling
0.25 mile(s)
Comments:     San Marcos monthly bird walk. 75 degrees, mostly cloudy, little to no wind.
27 species

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  1
Neotropic Cormorant  2
Green Heron  2
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron  1
Black Vulture  1
Inca Dove  2
White-winged Dove  45
Mourning Dove  4
Yellow-billed Cuckoo  2
Black-chinned Hummingbird  1
Golden-fronted Woodpecker  1
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1
Downy Woodpecker  1

Olive-sided Flycatcher  1
So much too see in one place; woodpeckers, herons, flycatchers

Eastern Phoebe  2
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher  1
Blue Jay  3
Barn Swallow  1
Cliff Swallow  4
Carolina Wren  3
Northern Mockingbird  4
European Starling  2
Northern Cardinal  3
Common Grackle  1
Great-tailed Grackle  20
House Sparrow  4

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37354950

Plenty of bugs at the Discovery Center in June

  Bugs don't just walk.  They fly. They crawl. They bite. They do all kinds of interesting things like spin webs. And they morph. Humans don't morph. Bugs morph. Butterflies didn't start out as butterflies. We learn so much from observation and someone willing to share their knowledge.
Gabby identifies a captive before release
   The San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance is honored to share the knowledge of individuals who have attended, or are attending, Texas State University in pursuit of higher learning. Leading our monthly bug walks is Gabby Cole, a master's program candidate in Biology.
  We should probably call it an arthopod walk as there is much more than insects. For the second time, an even dozen joined our expert for an exploration walk.  We found so many different creatures under leaves, on cactus pads and, of course, in the nectar of numerous flowering plants.
Visit San Marcos Bug Walk on Facebook for the location of the next hike, generally two days before the event. -- LJ

(all photos courtesy Stephen Ramirez)

Trail crew tackles Schulle Canyon June 15th

Downed Chinaberry tree tackled by SMGA trail crew.
   Trail crew Thursday, the third week in June, saw (pun intended) the crew address limbs and logs and snags and trees that needed some attention in Schulle Canyon. Nestled between Holland Street and Sierra Circle the pocket natural area has Ashe juniper, Cedar Elm, Live Oaks, Mesquite and a half-a-dozen Bois d'Arc trees.  Invasive Chinaberry and ligustrum continue to out-compete the more desirable native trees.
   Wind, drought and flood have taken their toll and pulled trees out of the sloping landscape, blown-down tall chinaberry trees and generally impacted the four trails that total less than a mile. The City of San Marcos Urban Forester, Kelly Eby, joined the crew and provided guidance for the morning's efforts. The SMGA trail crew also discussed future improvement plans with her.
The fruit from a Bois d'Arc
  The 21 acres at 100 Ridgewood at the end of Alamo Street is popular with neighbors ready for a nature fix. Moms with babies in strollers and dog walkers are familiar sights.
  Last week we cleaned up the western section of Spring Lake natural area now open after the Golden Cheek Warbler nesting season closure with weed whacking, lopping, and other maintenance chores. If you haven't experienced Roadrunner, Porcupine, Blue Stem and Centipede trails in Spring Lake the access at N. LBJ is now open although street access is limited due to construction.  --LJ

Flooding damages natural areas

  April 11th the San Marcos area received between five and eight inches of rain in a short time period. The natural areas did their job of flood mitigation and improving water quality by allowing water to flow into karst features and eventually, the Edwards Aquifer. The next day trail crew members scouted the different trails to assess the work that needs to be done. Here's the report:
Schulle – More water in all the usual locations. The creek has more inflow than it has had historically probably from increased impervious cover upstream and certainly from the weather pattern. It has caused the visible erosion of the creek bottom to creep back up stream toward our armored crossing.  The crossing is rock and will likely slow it down but it will be degraded at some point.  Best solution is a bridge.  The city could create a detention structure that might also provide a crossing but that is hypothetical at this point.  Various bridge concepts have been considered but we have no plans or permission to construct a bridge at this point. 

New trail reroute is under water in Lower Purgatory.

The big washout on the gravel trail, Witte Way, between the entrance and the loop just gets worse. The parks department has plans to build a boardwalk.  Other locations on that trail, mostly in the looped section, will require a variety of treatments that SMGA could address. The solutions will require some materials best supplied by the city.  Other natural trails seem to be holding up though it is time to make some minor improvements.  Kenneth knows the park well and reported conditions as well as getting in to trim the trails and tweak here and there.

Ringtail – The gravel trail has two major issues: 1) the bridge on the east side of the park which has its abutment points badly eroded such that one has to step up to use the bridge, 2) the section of the gravel trail between the aforementioned bridge and the back side of the ponds gets repeated scouring with every heavy pulse of rain. The repair of the bridge will take some heavy work to guarantee the attachment of the structure and the stability of the two approaches.  The trail section will also require major reconstruction.  The parks department received a promise of funds to make repairs from FEMA. Whether that money makes it into their control and whether or not the money is actually spent on those projects is not certain.
The good news is that the rainwater system is functioning well though it is not filling as fast as we would hope. Our other trails are working well after a trail crew maintenance blitz April 6th.  Ringtail is sometimes overlooked by those seeking a pleasant, accessible, varied nature hike. It’s always worth the visit.  Al worked there after the flood and reported conditions and addressed some of the larger dead or leaning trees throughout the park.

Spring Lake natural area – Oye!  I scouted the day before the big rain and noticed erosion in the gravel trail, Tonkawa, near the upper portions before it turns toward the hilltop. This area was seriously damaged in 2015 and the city restored it to the original state.  I have not seen it since the rain we had on Tuesday but I understand the rain rates were not as bad toward that end of town so perhaps the continued erosion was not too serious.
A big reason we have the natural aeas is the "T" behind dam #5 in Lower Purgatory

On the Lime Kiln side of the hill all the trails have issues. These trails are older, badly planned jeep tracks that all need rerouting which was my mission for scouting on Monday. It will take some time to do. In the meantime the mud pit on Buckeye where it meets Exogyra near the pond continues to generate lots of complaints and muddy shoes.  Even with an alternative trail I’m not sure this segment can be closed due to its proximity to the pond and the intersection with other trails. We may have to get serious about a fix.
I walked in on Roadrunner from Elm Hill Court to the overlook today and it looks great. The permeable plastic pavers work well at holding tread and what little loss in gravel there is would easily be replaced and tweaks made to reduce reoccurrence tough not really necessary.   The rock sitting nook that Joel and Mary and others helped create is getting use.  Across the valley of the LCRA easement a large crane can be seen expanding the substation on Ramsey St.

Purgatory Creek natural area – Lower Purgatory between Hunter Road and the dam and overpass was, of course severely impacted by the heavy rains. on Wednesday afternoon.  Trail crew is pestering the parks operations manager to move some of the gravel wash from the spillway to the new Dante to serve as a trail crossing.
Gravel bar from Halloween flood is underwater again.
All three possible paths were blocked by water as the dam outflow channel was still running
Lance, then Joel and I checked out this area. Joel went on to inspect the creek bottom, the inundation area behind the dam. Beatrice was swamped since the water level was just slightly below the T-head drain. It was clear that a great deal of the flotsam we saw in 2015 has come back to cover the lower elevation segments of Ovid and Beatrice and Dante. [long sigh] We’ll have to wait and see. We may have to repeat some of the tasks we had to address after the 2015 flood. Maybe it's time for some strategic trail contemplation. Not sure what there is to report from Malacoda.
Prospect had some serious erosion on Virgil mostly in the bottom meadow area.  The switchbacks near the entrance we reconstructed a few years ago held up well though it may need some prevention attention by next year.
Virgil's Way in lower Prospect

Thursday, April 13 - Normally when conditions are this wet we don’t work but we had a number of odd tasks to attend to in Prospect and in the workshop including the taping and sharpening the tools, rehandling a Pulaski (very well done by Scott and Joel) and the control of a beehive right next to Limbo Loop trail by Gordon, a newer member who many of you may not know. He said it was amazing that the hive hadn't attacked anyone. We did a little experiment on a big Ligustrum, took out some elbow bush, pruned along Virgil, cleared out more dead wood and more. We also seeded areas that were washed to the ground in an effort to add more diversity and pollinators to the natural area. Meanwhile Kenneth worked in Schulle.  Sheesh!  They’re a mighty productive group to say the least.
We had two new people join in today, Olivia and Jeff, who's first day was a bit atypical. Even our customary and lively "debriefing" at Wake the Dead was different. Sherwood came by to provide ample elucidation of the greater context of the proposed Willow Springs trail segment.…t.o.d.  -LJ

iNaturalist Hike April 15 at The Meadows Center

We are teaming up with Texas Parks & Wildlife, Texas Master Naturalists and the Audubon Society in a fun challenge to see which city can document the most species using the iNaturalist app. Not only is this a competition between Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Marcos and Houston, cities across the nation are participating, let’s show them what we got!

With the iNaturalist app, you just take a picture of a plant or animal, and the community will help identify which species it is. If you’re new to iNaturalist, learn some more on the iNaturalist Getting Started page.

Join SMGA for an iNaturalist hike to explore nature at Spring Lake and grounds of the Meadow Center led by Dr. Ben Schwartz. The hike will be held from 8am - 10am. Meet at the Meadows Center parking lot (no parking fee on the weekends - click here for directions).

Find out more information about the City Nature Challenge at:

Monthly bird walk April 2017

American coot by Colton Robbins
  Spring Lake natural area and the Lime Kiln trail head was the destination for this month's bird walk. 19 birders viewed 22 different species of birds in the mostly wooded section of the natural area. A small stock pond provided refuge for an American coot that swam across the surface of the water.
We journeyed up the hill to the highest point in the 251-acre preserve. An inch-and-a-half of rain earlier in the week left parts of the trail in mud and precluded walking out to the Blue stem trail.
Many of the bird sightings were overhead, in flight as birds in the trees were not as active.
  The monthly birding hikes are sponsored by the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance and ably led by Stephen Ramirez and Colton Robbins. Previous months bird lists are on eBird.  --LJ

At the highest point in the Spring Lake natural area.

San Marcos- Spring Lake Preserve, Hays, Texas, US
Apr 1, 2017 7:32 AM - 8:48 AM
Protocol: Traveling  19
0.75 mile(s)
22 species

Pied-billed Grebe  1
Great Blue Heron  1
Cattle Egret  7
Black Vulture  2
Turkey Vulture  3
American Coot  1
White-winged Dove  2
Mourning Dove  1
Chimney Swift  1
Black-chinned Hummingbird  2
Crested Caracara  1
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher  1
White-eyed Vireo  2
Carolina Chickadee  1
House Wren  2
Carolina Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Northern Cardinal  6
Great-tailed Grackle  3
Brown-headed Cowbird  1
Lesser Goldfinch  1

View this checklist online at