Packrafting The Trinity River Paddling Trail Out Your Own Backdoor — From The M-Streets to The Audubon Center

Floating the rain swollen Trinity River under the towering cottonwoods and pecans of the Great Trinity Forest just downstream of White Rock Creek in Dallas, Texas September 21, 2013
Hurricane Ingrid Track from NOAA

Earlier in the week and some thousand miles to the south, Hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel slammed the Central Mexican coasts along both the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific. As the storms moved into the interior that tropical moisture funneled north via the annual monsoonal flow across the Southwestern United States and Texas.

Coupled with the approach of the first strong Canadian cold front, the tropical moisture created a much welcomed and widespread heavy rain event in the Upper Trinity River Basin of North Texas.

Hitting the river at the height of the flood

The Dallas Fort Worth area saw 3 to 6 inches of rain causing minor flash flooding and the Trinity River to rise some 15+ feet above normal. The average flow through Downtown Dallas is some 500-600 cubic feet per second, after the heavy rains the flow was ten times that, over 5,000 cubic feet per second.
Downstream, White Rock Creek, a tributary to the Trinity River, saw flows over 1,200 cubic feet per second below the White Rock Lake Dam. This translates into a faster speed of flow too, some two-to-three miles per hour.

With the river high and running fast, what better time to get out on the water. Even better, use specially designed lightweight whitewater-purposed packrafts and mountain bikes to make for an entire car-free adventure through the Great Trinity Forest and points beyond. Nearly all the photos here were taken inside the inner highway ring loop of Dallas, Texas known as Loop 12. The exception being a scant few photos taken while visiting Joppa Preserve and the Trinity River Audubon Center which sit a mere city block from Loop 12.

Paddling on the Trinity River in southeast Dallas under the massive twin I-45 bridges originally designed to accomodate barge traffic between North Texas and the Gulf Coast

A Float On The Last Day Of Summer
The trip down here hits a number of exceptional places to visit on the Trinity River in one of the largest urban parks in the country known as the Great Trinity Forest. Highlights included not just the grand spectacle of running the river. Anyone can do that. It’s being able to fold in a connection to the people on the Trinity using them as a way to connect dots and relevance to a place that has no signs or guideposts. It’s still amazing to know that a six mile river float, a twenty mile bike ride, a visit to a world class Audubon Center, a pre-Columbian Native American site, a drink out of an ancient spring and crossing through the State Fair of Texas can all be done inside the city limits of Dallas.

Floating the Trinity River with the famous Texas Buckeye Grove commanding the view in the background

Off The Map Route
The ease of access afforded by not just floating the river but also traversing the woods by mountain bike allowed us to condense what would be a twelve hour canoe and hike into one that was a mere five hours. The luxury of not being tied down by a vehicle on the river means no shuttling, no backtracking, no waiting around and means you can go “the back way” at every turn. The road less travelled or no road at all. 26 miles altogether, much of it where no street address exists.

Paddling Portion
Paddling Route data can be found here:
Map route data Trinity River Paddling Trail Santa Fe Trestle to Loop 12

Six mile float route from the Santa Fe Trestle Trail down to Loop 12 and the Boat Ramp take-out

The route used for this trip follows the Main Stem of the Trinity River from the Santa Fe Trestle Trail at Moore Park, down to the Loop 12 Boat Ramp located at the Trinity River and Loop 12. It’s a straightforward route that includes a number of historic sites, rarely seen bridges and wildlife.

Since the water was high, we were able to use the pack rafts to negotiate up the mouth of White Rock Creek to an area behind Big Spring at Mile 5, where Bryan’s Slough/ Oak Creek joins White Rock. A rare treat to briefly paddle into the heart of the Great Trinity Forest.

Cycling Portion
Route data can be found here:
Map route data Trinity Forest Bike Trail Loop 12 to Trinity River Audubon Center

Four mile bike route from Loop 12 to the Trinity River Audubon Center

Packrafts make the trip possible

Getting ready to launch boats at the Standing Wave

It’s packrafting, not canoeing. It’s packrafting, not cycling. These are high performance boats and not pool toys, either. Hard to explain to us Texans as the lionshare of packraft users are high adventurers in the mountains of far flung continents, in desolate hard to reach places no one has ever thought to venture before. To some extent, the Trinity River fits into that. A true classic wilderness float with rarely another human seen the entire trip.

The first use of modern inflatable boats began in the mid 19th century, but the history of inflatable boats goes back much further. In fact, indigenous tribes around the world have, in past centuries, sought to use animal skins and inflated bladders to keep them afloat in the water. These rafts proved in a practical manner that you can fill a water resistant material with air and float the surface of the water.

The first use of inflatable boats was in 880 BC, when the king of Assyria used greased animal skins inflated with air to move his troops across a river. Other records of history show that during the Ming Dynasty in China, inflated skins were used for river crossings.

Peter Hackett’s boat design used in the Canadian Arctic

In the 1840s, the army and several naval officers, including British Lieutenant Peter Hackett, developed inflatable boats specially designed for use in an Arctic exploration. In 1848, U.S. General George Cullum introduced an inflatable rubberized fabric that is used to some extent in the civil war. In 1866, three men crossed the Atlantic on a raft of three tube, the first transoceanic voyage in the history of the inflatable boat. It was shown that many of these inflatable boats were sturdy, reliable and worthy of further development.  Vulcanized rubber changed the history of rubber boats  In 1900, the manufacture of vulcanized rubber inflatable boat took to the next designs to the next level.

Modern day pack rafting via mountain bike in Dallas

The background of inflatable boats in the 20th century saw their use across a broad spectrum from saving many lives on the Titanic, to downed aviators during wars, to specially designed boats used in clandestine military operations.

The refined and contemporary design of modern boats used today allow for a lightweight and strong boat that can carry many hundreds of pounds of gear and equipment with the boat itself weighing around 6 pounds.

Alpacka Boats and Big City Bike Rafts

The boats used are Alpacka brand boats from Alpacka Raft Mancos, Colorado. They are the Rolls-Royce of adventure boats and are the worldwide standard for expedition travel where water crossings and remote water travel is required. With the Rolls-Royce quality, comes a Rolls-Royce pricetag to buy one. The boat, lifejacket and paddle can run $1000 and priced about the same as a traditional well made kayak or canoe. Well worth every penny.

Will Saunders

Those not wanting to fork over that kind of money for a boat can rent one from Will and Evan at Dallas based near White Rock Lake, they’ll rent you a boat and gear pretty cheap if you have something that you have been interested in trying.

I had been on a previous bike rafting trip down the river with Will, it started and finished from the Katy Trail Icehouse along the Katy Trail in Dallas. The writeup from that trip in February can be found here:  Bikerafting the Trinity River from the Katy Trail. He has some cool outside the box ideas on where to take these rafts around Dallas and could show you the in’s and out’s of how they work in just a few minutes. He is good people and has some real creative solutions to getting more people interested in the outdoors in Dallas.

If you want to read more about what these boats are capable of, source a book written by Jonathan Waterman and published by National Geographic called Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River. Jonathan Waterman used an Alpacka on his 1450 mile journey from the source of the Colorado River on the snowpack in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park all the way through Arizona’s Grand Canyon and down to Mexico’s Baja

Assembling The Boats

Putting the boats together and disassembling the bikes for the float downriver takes only a few minutes. Even without much practice, the assembly and inflation of a boat takes a blink of an eye. The boats don’t use pumps for inflation, they use a pillow bellow system. Much like a pillowcase, you grab some thin air and simply squeeze the air into your boat. Simple by design and allows for rapid inflation.

Taking the bike wheels off and securing to the bow of the boat takes another few minutes. A 25 pound mountain bike weighs very little in a relative sense. The boats are capable of carrying a field dressed elk, moose or bear out of a boundary wilderness area, a bike cargo is nothing compared to that. The trick with a bike is to make sure all the sharp points of the pedals and cranks do not contact the boat.

This could easily be done with a road bike or any other bike that allows for wheels to be taken off. We were all using the larger 29″ wheeled mountain bikes and everything fit aboard with room to spare.

The oars break down into 4 parts and the stuff sack for the boat serves as a dry bag when on the water.

With quick assembly and a recheck of gear, safety chat and route plans, it was time to hit the water.

Our group of four was rounded out by Brendan and John. Brendan has prior experience on the Trinity River upstream the previous year and in heavy thunderstorm conditions.

A note on safety and self-rescue:
I would recommend first time river runners on the Trinity to use a guide or organized group outing with experienced friends who know the ins-and-outs of the river. Makes for a much more enjoyable float. Launching on the fast running and swift rain swollen Trinity is an exciting trip but one I would suggest only for more advanced paddlers in excellent physical condition.

Looks can be deceiving with obstacles just under the surface. With an extra 10-15 feet of water in the river and 10 times the volume of flow, many of the snags and obstructions, actually all of them, were unseen. Made for a beautiful float as not a car tire or piece of trash was seen on the bank. Also makes for very difficult conditions if problems crop up.

Putting Afloat On The Dallas Trinity River Paddling Trail
The Dallas Trinity Paddling Trail is one of 57 Texas Paddling Trails that dot Texas. Half a dozen of which are in the Trinity River basin. More information can be found on the TPWD Paddling Trail Website

Putting in at the Standing Wave 32°45’9.26″N, 96°47’26.43″W is a breeze using the ingress and egress ramps used for portaging around the river obstruction there. A concrete ramp leads from the sidewalk right into the water. Before you know it, you are away.

Just downstream from launching at the Trinity River Standing Wave, Will and Brendan pass the mouth of Cedar Creek

Just downstream from the Standing Wave is the mouth of Cedar Creek 32°45’5.08″N,  96°47’17.34″W. Most know it as the creek that flows through the Dallas Zoo. Where this creek meets the Trinity River(river right) a small fort once stood, built by the Army of The Republic of Texas during the expedition to scout a Military Road from Austin to the Red River. I-35 now follows that route.

Under the MKT Bridge downstream

The old Katy railroad bridge 32°45’0.06″N ,  96°46’38.94″W dates supposedly to 1905 and is one of the oldest railroad bridges still in operation over the Trinity River, if not the oldest. Few ever see this bridge. Tucked away behind a few bends in the river it stands virtually hidden to the river beyond. From this point on, save for a few freeway overpasses, the city that surrounds the river is silent. The river and the 4000 acres of trees that surround it soak up noise like a sponge

P&G Plant Pumphouse, lower intake of structure is submerged in the photo

Photo from 2012 showing the low water view

The Proctor and Gamble Pumphouse 32°44’55.95″N, 96°46’33.35″Wsits some 500 yards south of the Proctor and Gamble Plant on Lamar in South Dallas. Built in 1919, the plant was constructed at the vital crossroads of two major railway lines and in close proximity to the Trinity River. The two story structure here served the purpose of providing cooling water to coal fired boilers behind the plant and also non-potable water use not involved in the production process. By the time this pump was operational, new standards for sanitary disposal of wastewater were law. Pumphouses such as this can only lift water in feet height equal to the atmospheric pressure in water, 34 inches, which translates to 34 feet. Roughly the same height as this structure. This plant was modeled after a sister factory in Cincinnati on the Ohio River.

One of the many quiet sections of the Trinity River just south of Downtown Dallas where large tree canopies dapple the sunlight as the strong current gives us an effortless journey downstream

As one approaches I-45, the river picks up a little speed. Here the river drops a little more in elevation than other sections, thus speeding things up a little. During high water the extra speed is unnoticed, it’s easier to see in normal conditions.

Approaching the twin I-45 spans over the Trinity River

The I-45 Bridge, built in 1971, was constructed with the belief that one day high profile barge traffic from the Gulf of Mexico might one day turn Dallas into an inland port. The Jefferson Street Viaduct near Downtown Dallas has the same elevated look to it. Beyond I-45 is Miller’s Bend where the river nearly doublebacks on itself within a 1/3rd of a mile. Steeped in history and one of the more interesting places on the Trinity River.

Entering Miller’s Bend

The namesake of the Miller’s Bend is William B. Miller an early Dallas pioneer who made a lasting mark on much of Dallas as a whole. An enterprising businessman on the south bank of the Trinity, he needed a ferry crossing to reach Dallas. In turn, Dallas needed a reliable ferry crossing to reach Hutchins, Corsicana and points south. He owned and operated a ferry here for a number of decades beginning in the 1850s. Freedman Henry Critz Hines later ran the ferry through the 1870s. Miller’s Ferry road still exists today in southern Dallas County and served as the piggybacked route for the first railroad, first highway and first interstate into Dallas. More can be read about the background of Miller’s Ferry, the Native Americans and the bridge history here Miller’s Ferry.

Conversation With The Jet Ski Guy On The Trinity River at Miller’s Ferry

I would imagine that it has been awhile since riverine traffic has passed each other on the Trinity River in Dallas. One might need to go back a dozen decades to find the last time traffic passed each other here. What better place to have that happen than at Miller’s Ferry.

In the distance, we hear the low hum of a boat, rounding the bend, just at the exact spot of historic Miller’s Ferry is none other than the jet ski guy.

Like us, the man on the Sea-Doo was riding the crest of the recent rains. He told us that he lives near Ennis and was riding up the Trinity River all the way to Fort Worth! Pretty far.  He stopped to talk with us, inquiring about the height of the river at the Santa Fe Trestle and whether or not the “Dallas Wave” aka Standing Wave was inundated. He needed the water to be high so he could pass safely through. Answering in the affirmative, we chatted further.

Part Chuck Norris, part Kenny Powers, talking about Trinity River alligators at Miller’s Ferry with the jet ski guy

I had previously seen the jet ski guy during high water back in 2012 at McCommas Bluff. There high above the swollen river, I saw two jet skiiers navigate over Lock and Dam #1 and head upstream. Robert Wilonsky at the Dallas Morning News wrote a brief about it here:
Raising Awesome Bar To New Level

The 2012 video is here:

 Fun to talk with someone like that as their experience on the Trinity is very parallel to mine yet seen from a different perspective. He spent a moment talking about an alligator recently not far from Downtown Dallas. His gestures suggested an alligator in the three foot range and in an area upstream of Lamar and south of Downtown. The alligator slid off the bank and into the water as he drove past.

The jet skier was headed for Fort Worth that day, we bid our goodbyes, he started his engine, we put paddle to water and just like that we were all gone from Miller’s Ferry.

Floating under the old Central Exwy Bridge

Buckeye Trail vicinity on Trinity River

Beyond Miller’s Ferry one floats through Rochester Park aka William Blair Park and some real wildscape areas known for the towering trees and native Texas Buckeyes. River right is the Wetland Cells, a Corps of Engineers partnership and part of the Trinity River Corridor Project. River left is the Buckeye Trail and network of trails that meander through the woods there towards the mouth of White Rock Creek.

White Rock Creek and Boating to Historic Big Spring

Will Saunders at the mouth of White Rock Creek, Trinity River in far background

With some nice high water we ventured off the Trinity River and headed up White Rock Creek aways. With great ease and a little paddling we reached the flooded mouth of Bryan’s Slough also known as Oak Creek.

Up White Rock Creek from the Trinity River

The water is usually 2-3 feet deep, on this day it was 20 feet deep and we were paddling through the tree canopy.

White Rock Creek left, mouth of Bryan’s Slough at right

A little further up the creek we reached Bryan’s Slough. Banks were steeper here to the left with the mouth of the creek to the right. As proof of concept, we could have in theory paddled almost the whole way to Big Spring on Pemberton Hill.

Heading back down to the Trinity, on White Rock Creek

Bryan’s Slough was the turnaround and we let the current drift us back down into the Trinity.

Scenic section of the Trinity downstream of the White Rock Creek mouth

Not much was said south of White Rock Creek. We just drifted along at a good clip, enjoying the shade of the trees and soaked it all in. Many canoeists face this straightaway as a curse. During normal slack flows and a strong south wind this section gives many a tough go of it. Not this day. It was cruise control.

Take out at Loop 12

At the Loop 12 Boat Ramp

Taking out at Loop 12 is fairly straightforward. A standard one lane boat ramp exists there with an interlocking paver design. The Loop 12 bridge does funnel the water to some extent making for some needed elbow grease to get into the ramp. Very easy. Taking apart the boats, re-assembling the bikes took only minutes. It was time once again to saddle up on bikes and head towards our next stop the Audubon Center.

The Great Trinity Forest Trail

A four mile paved trail was built in two phases, 2009 and 2012 between Loop 12 and the Trinity River Audubon Center. The bike path skirts Little Lemmon Lake, Lemmon Lake and a couple of unnamed ponds on the south side of the Trinity River. The concrete trail was built upon an old gravel road which once served private fish camps along the lakes when it was a private hunting and fishing club known as the Trinity River Rod and Gun Club.

The tall trees of Joppa Preserve near Lemmon Lake

We were able to see numerous birds at Little Lemmon Lake including shore birds and a rare White-Faced Ibis listed as a Threatened Species. Interesting to see.

Trinity River Trail Bridge Crossing

The bike path crosses the river south of the Trinity River Audubon Center and about 200 yards upstream of the mouth of Elam Creek.

Trinity River Trail Phase II near the Audubon Center

Trinity River Audubon Center
North of the bridge, the trail is shade-free as it crosses through the old Deepwoods landfill east of the Audubon Center.

Trinity River Audubon Center

The Audubon Center sits in what one could call the middle of the Great Trinity Forest and it serves as a great educational primer to the woods and Trinity River Project. Lots of maps, lots of scale models and many hands-on exhibits to introduce children and adults alike to the Trinity River.

Will talking with Jenna Hanson Director of Education at the Trinity River Audubon Center

Jenna from the Audubon Center came out to speak with Will about the bike rafts and doing something with the Audubon in the future. Bike rafts might be a good fit for exploring the Trinity down here in the near future as more people visit by bike.

Brendan at the TRAC

The actual trailhead for the Trinity Trail is about half way down the Audubon drive, it has a dedicated parking lot, water fountain and trail kiosk. The Audubon Center is a separate facility and has it’s own parking lot, operating hours and such. More information including exciting new programs including the Audubon’s new river expeditions and birding by bike excursions can be found on their website: They also offer Trinity River Bird Count field trips, which are probably the best way to venture into the Trinity with a group. The bird counts are free to attend and are safe as you are with a group.

Visiting Big Spring and Shooting The Breeze With Billy Ray Pemberton

Historic Big Spring in the Great Trinity Forest

Billy Ray Pemberton

We did not bother with filling water bottles at the Audubon Center. I knew a place just a five minute ride up the road where we could fill up, where the water was clean and cold. Big Spring.

We’d already had a great time meeting the jet ski guy, had the red carpet rolled out for us at the Audubon Center, how to top that?

Only one place to go, that’s a visit to the Pembertons. We found Mr Pemberton on this stunning bluebird sky of a summer afternoon relaxing at the base of the ancient Bur Oak next to the spring. I imagine if anyone reading this had some magic place like this behind their home, you’d likely do the same. The sounds of the city disappear down here. It’s often quiet enough to hear a bird’s wings flap in passing or the sound of wind moving through a field of grass. It’s an oh so rare refuge inside Loop 12.

Mr Pemberton welcoming the guys to Big Spring

Volumes could be written about the place. The water, the land, the trees and the deep history that reside here. Mr Pemberton’s family has been on the land here since the 1880s. Before that the Beeman family and the founder of Dallas, John Neely Bryan lived here. Before that it was used by Native Americans for many many centuries as a water source. Their stone tools and artifacts can still be seen today.

An hour or two earlier we were not far from this spot, having paddled up White Rock Creek to where Bryan’s Slough terminates. As Mr Pemberton explained the big floods over the years we mentioned how far up the creek we had come that day on the height of the water. I think we could have easily paddled here that day rather than ride, had the mood struck.

Billy Ray Pemberton telling the story about the Big Flood of 1908 and the walnut tree here that marks the high water mark

So much history sits here that it would take ten trips to soak up. Billy Ray gave us a short cliff notes on the place as we filled our water bottles, drank the water, then refilled again. Few Dallasites have seen what Dallas once looked like, before there was a Dallas. Few realize that some residents like Billy Ray still work the land, grow their own crops and eat the bounty that God provides. He lives it.

I have yet to find someone who does not come away with a deep and profound appreciation for Big Spring or the treasure of a man named Bill Pemberton. Put a smile on our faces the whole ride home.

Ride Up White Rock Creek to the M-Streets

Riding Samuell near Lawnview

The ride back was a breeze. We followed the hilly White Rock Escarpment up the east side of White Rock Creek along an area skirted by Jim Miller Road, Scyene and the Parkdale neighborhoods. Lots of good scenic rough hills in here, commanding views of Downtown Dallas and the streets are fairly low in traffic.

The Lower White Rock Creek Trails are better walked that ridden, rough entrances and trailheads are difficult to find and traverse Devon Anderson, Grover Keeton and Gateway Parks in this area. Out of the floodplain the trail is on solid limestone outcrops and features cedar trees for the most part.

I think the city is moving away from the idea of trails here, preferring to use a floodplain route they call the Arboretum-to-Audubon Trail. That would run closer to the creek and be more prone to extensive flooding.

Past the putting green of Tenison Golf Course

The last rise in the route was over the hills of Tenison Golf Course and the grind up La Vista through Lakewood Country Club.

From outward appearances we look like a group coming back from a casual concrete grind around White Rock Lake. The truth was we had come full circle with the ride here as we merged onto Skillman, reaching a point where we had been just five hours before.

Riding through Lakewood Village

Thanks again to Will Saunders of Big City Bike Rafts, Jenna of Trinity River Audubon and Mr and Mrs Bill Pemberton for their gracious hospitality. Great float, great ride, great people. I think that it’s the people who make so much of these visits worthwhile and rewarding.