Barton Creek doesn't usually have enough water to be runnable, but when it does, it creates one of the best Class III runs in the state of Texas, right through the heart of Austin. Barton does not generally rise as quickly as other area creeks, but it can definitely go from low to raging in a matter of hours after a heavy rainfall. Because the creek does not always flow, there are often trees and strainers throughout the run, particularly if the creek has been recently dry. This stretch in particular contains several Class III rapids that are formed by trees growing close together in the creek bed. The lines through these rapids are not always visible from the top, and fallen trees do occasionally create hazards to navigation.
Put-in parking is available at the Barton Creek Greenbelt trailhead next to the Loop 360 Bridge where Mopac and Highway 360 intersect. If the trailhead parking area is closed (which it sometimes is after a heavy rain), then parking is also available in the adjacent dirt lot. There is a trail to the left of the fence that leads directly down to the water.
The takeout for this run is at Zilker Park, in the parking lot for Barton Springs Pool. Paddlers usually take out at river left just above the dam at the upper end of Barton Springs Pool. It is technically illegal to paddle over this dam and into the pool, and if you do that, you will usually get yelled at by a lifeguard and may be hassled by police or fire officials in some cases. The dam creates a nasty hydraulic at some levels, and the bypass grate that is supposed to divert the normal flow of the creek around Barton Springs Pool becomes a potentially deadly strainer at high water.
On at least one occasion, boaters have been skunked on this stretch, because a flood bubble had reached the put-in but had not yet reached the takeout (which was still bone dry.) This created a bizarre situation whereby the paddlers literally reached the end of the river and had to wait 10-15 minutes in each successive pool for the water to rise high enough to activate the next rapid. If you are paddling a runoff event (which, on Barton, is more often the case than not), then check both the put-in and takeout gauges to make sure that the entire stretch has water.
A note about boating bans:
As a result of the July 3, 2002 accident at the low-head dam near the Hill of Life that killed Austin firefighter Rob Horne, AFD instituted a policy whereby boating could be banned on area creeks during periods of high flow. Throughout the rest of the 2000s, however, there was reportedly a handshake agreement between the fire chief and the Texas Rivers Protection Association (TRPA) whereby boating bans would be issued only if the creeks were exceptionally high and dangerous. Unfortunately, this handshake agreement was seemingly abandoned with the appointment of a new fire chief in 2009. In 2010, the City of Austin began issuing blanket boating bans on all area creeks during heavy rainfall runoff events. These boating bans are not always well-publicized, and historically speaking, they have rarely been reflective of actual navigability dangers. After Tropical Storm Hermine, for instance, a boating ban was issued and was not lifted until Barton Creek dropped to 150 cfs (below runnable.) During Hurricane Harvey, a preemptive week-long boating ban was issued before rain even began falling, and since the hurricane largely missed Austin, few creeks within the city limits even became runnable during that ban. The city seems to be basing its authority to issue these bans on § 31.092 (a) of the Texas Water Safety Act, which allows the "governing body of an incorporated city or town, with respect to public water within its corporate limits and all lakes owned by it" to "make rules and regulations relating to the operation and equipment of boats which it deems necessary for the public safety." As of this writing, the Austin Homeland Security and Emergency Management Dept. considers issuing boating bans whenever the creek is above 1500 cfs. At times, Barton Creek has run clear at 2000 cfs on a sunny day, and it has been safely navigated at much higher flows than that, so local boaters are of the opinion that automatically closing the river at levels above 1500 cfs represents a regulatory overreach on the part of the city. However, that's not an argument that can be won on a river bank, so if you intend to paddle the creek at flows above 1500 cfs, check for a boating ban announcement on the HSEM web site first. If the creek is running really high (thousands of cfs) and there is a boating ban in place, then there will often be police or fire officials stationed at the Zilker Park takeout (river left.) They can issue fines or even impound boats in certain cases if they catch paddlers breaking the ban.
Distances and gradient measured using GIS tools in 2015.
This video shows local paddlers running various parts of Barton Creek below Lost Creek. This was mostly shot after the Halloween Flood of 2013 when the creek was running about 2000 cfs.
(III+ above 2000 cfs.) Triple Falls is the first major rapid after the 360 Bridge. It is composed of three drops spaced about 40 yards apart. Upstream from the first drop, the main flow of the creek jogs left through the trees. After you make that jog, go right of the tree in the middle of the creek to get set up for the first drop.
The first drop is typically run center left, but at high flows (above 2000 cfs), a retentive hole forms in the center of the channel, and a right-to-left maneuver is required to avoid it.
A great play wave emerges at the bottom of the second drop at moderate flows, and kayakers tend to stop here and surf for long periods of time. Eddy service is best on river left but can be a bit tricky due to low-hanging branches. If you miss the eddy, pull out at river right below the third drop and hike the trail back up. At higher flows (> 2000 cfs), the second drop becomes more of a wave-hole, and a wave train forms to the left of it.
The third drop is a shallow but surfable ledge at moderate flows, but it washes out at higher flows.
Here is a video of kayakers surfing Triple Falls:
(Really more of a III- at most levels.) Swirl is typically run river left. Pinball gets its name because of rocks just below the surface that can bounce boaters around, particularly at lower flows. Pinball is basically a "follow the water" rapid. There are some turns required, but the lines are generally straightforward. At high flows (> 2000 cfs), water starts flowing over the boulder at the bottom, creating a deep hole right in the middle of the channel, but the wave train to the left sets you up for some strainers along the left bank.
The standard line for Campbell’s Hole is to start center and work left, bypassing right of some "FU" rocks and then left of the large hole and boulder at the bottom (this line sometimes requires ducking under a tree branch.) Large rocks just below the surface have been known to flip kayakers and send them into the hole (particularly at lower flows.) At flows around 1250 cfs, the hole can be easily boofed by experienced boaters. At above 2000 cfs, a straightforward line opens up at center right, skirting the right edge of the hole.
Minimum 250 cfs
Optimal 500-2500 cfs
Gauges are at the put-in and takeout. Since Barton is often paddled during a runoff event, make sure that both gauges are running. Drainage area is 116 square miles.
Permits are not required for this reach.
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Campbell's Hole rapid 20cfs
Squirrel Surfin Barton Creek
Campbell's hole 20,000cfs
Earl The Squirrel at Triple Falls
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