The Devils River is a true desert oasis. Bounded on all sides by arid scrubland, the river's constant spring-fed base flow creates a unique riparian ecosystem with numerous cottonwoods and other large trees, water as clear as a coral reef, and abundant fish and wildlife. The geology of the Devils is unusual, even for Texas. Numerous uplifted limestone slabs create artificial dams, so essentially the river takes the form of a series of long lakes separated by short rapids. The rapids are frequently braided into narrow channels separated by dense vegetation. The physical character of the river thus bears more resemblance to a mountain stream than it does to a typical Texas river. The high calcium content in the water (which is responsible for its clarity), as well as the relatively low flow, has caused accretion of a travertine-like substance on all of the rocks in the shallow areas of the river (i.e. the rapids.) This substance is extremely grippy and rough and makes it impossible to run many of the rapids at low flow. It also puts a great deal of wear & tear on boats. With the exception of the four named rapids (Sycamore Chute, Dolan Falls, Three-Tier, and Dandridge Falls), the rest of the rapids are Class I-II and are often separated by miles of flat water with frequent headwinds. Thus, many choose to paddle the Devils in recreational boats rather than whitewater gear. The appeal of the Devils is mostly its scenic beauty, crystal-clear water, and the experience of overnighting in one of the most remote areas in Texas.
As with many scenic rivers in Texas, the Devils has numerous access issues. TPWD owns two large sections of land, one at approximately Mile 15 (from Baker's Crossing) and another at approximately Mile 30. These are called, respectively, the Del Norte and Dan A. Hughes (formerly Big Satan) Units of the Devils River State Natural Area. Unfortunately, however, as of this writing, only authorized outfitters/guides (concessionaires) are allowed to access the river at these locations. If you want to run a private trip, your only choices at this time are:
Running the entire 47 miles from Baker's to Lake Amistad is strenuous and logistically difficult, due to the scarcity of public campsites and access points. There are paddlers' camps in both units of the Devils River SNA, and paddlers can, for a nominal fee, obtain a permit to camp in these sites. However, because the campsites only hold a handful of people, permits are limited. Plan well in advance if you want to camp in these official campsites. Otherwise, if you cannot obtain a permit for your chosen days, then your only other choice is to camp in the riverbed or on islands in the stream (nowhere in between.) Choose your campsites wisely along this river, as the ranchers in the area do not take trespassing lightly. There are reports of paddlers being harassed by landowners, even when the paddlers were camping below the gradient boundary. If you choose to camp in the riverbed or on an island, pay close attention to the weather. Flash floods along this river are rare, but they do occur.
For the most part, the landowners along the Devils would prefer that you not be there. Encounters with them are rarely friendly. They seem to believe that the Spanish land grants that gave the land to their ancestors supercede current Texas navigability law. This is such a pervasive myth that even the local law enforcement will regurgitate that talking point, and/or they will try to convince you that there is a special exemption in the law for the Devils River. There is not. In fact, the Spanish land grants ended at the riverbank (reference: Handbook of Texas.) It was a 1929 law (the Small Act) that granted ownership of the riverbed to landowners who owned both banks. However, referring to this article from a TPWD lawyer, "[E]ven if a landowner's deed includes the bed of a navigable stream, and taxes are being paid on the bed, the public retains its right to use it as a navigable stream ... [T]he general public has the right to walk within the boundaries of any navigable streambed, even if there are private ownership rights under the Small Bill." As with other Texas navigability disputes, being on the right side of the law does you no good when you are staring down the barrel of a landowner's rifle-- particularly when the sheriff agrees with said landowner. The rangers in the state natural area seem to take a more balanced tone, but even they will tell you (incorrectly) that the gradient boundary is a constant 11" above the water line (since the water line is flow-dependent, this obviously can't be true. Refer to the aforementioned TPWD article for the accepted legal definition of the gradient boundary, the definition that is applied to every other navigable stream in Texas.) In general, neither the landowners nor the local law enforcement recognizes the right to portage on the Devils. In short, you may be hassled if you access the riverbank or riverbed adjacent to private property, even if you are clearly within the legal definition of the gradient boundary. When choosing unofficial campsites, your best bet is to camp on one of the islands adjacent to the state natural areas.
The Devils is a leave-no-trace area, so if you plan to camp, you will need to haul out all of your waste (including human waste, unless you are camping at one of the official paddlers' camps, both of which have composting toilets.) Please respect this unique and pristine ecosystem. Please do not trespass. Through your actions, you are not only helping to preserve this beautiful river, but you are also demonstrating to landowners that paddlers are good river stewards.
The Devils can generally be divided into three sections:
1. Upper: Baker's Crossing to Del Norte Unit of Devils River SNA
This section mostly consists of the aforementioned long lakes and short rapids, with Sycamore Chute being the only rapid of any consequence. This section is doable at about 2.3' on the Baker's Crossing gauge, but at that level, it will require a lot of butt scooting and/or creative line choices and/or dragging boats down the more shallow rapids. 2.8' or above is recommended. The average gradient of this section is 11 fpm.
2. Middle: Del Norte Unit of Devils River SNA to Dan A. Hughes Unit of Devils River SNA
Starting at about Mile 14 from Baker's Crossing, the river picks up additional flow from numerous springs and from Dolan Creek. This section is therefore runnable at lower levels than the upper section is. It is known to be fully or almost fully runnable at 2.3' on the Baker's Crossing gauge. The average gradient on this section is less than that of the upper section (5.5' as opposed to 11'), but the rapids tend to be steeper. Three of the four named rapids (Dolan Falls, Three-Tier, and Dandridge Falls) are all along this section of river. While this is the most popular section, running it without running the other sections requires (as of this writing) paying a guide/outfitter many hundreds of dollars for a shuttle between the two units of the state natural area.
3. Lower: Dan A. Hughes Unit of Devils River SNA to Rough Canyon Marina
When Lake Amistad is at full pool (1117'), the Devils will run out into the lake somewhere near Pafford Crossing (between Mile 33 and Mile 34.) When the lake is low, however, then an additional 4-5 miles of rapids can appear. For the most part, the rapids along this stretch of river are extremely wide and extremely shallow, often punctuated by a maze of narrow, slightly deeper channels ("wagon wheel ruts".) Unlike the upper section, the pools between the rapids on this section are small or non-existent. When they exist, they are often shallow and contain numerous shoals. At 2.3' on the Baker's and Pafford Crossing gauges, the rapids on this section are known to be mostly unrunnable. Some can almost be run by carefully picking lines through the maze of deeper channels, but often these channels will peter out before the crux of the rapid, requiring boaters to get out and walk. 3' or above on the Pafford Crossing gauge is recommended. Hiring a motorboat shuttle to carry you from the end of the river to Rough Canyon Marina is strongly recommended.
TPWD provides a planning guide for Devils River trips, which contains additional beta. Southwest Paddler also provides additional beta, although it tends to overstate the difficulty of rapids (Dolan Falls is not a V+.) Texas Whitewater provides additional beta regarding the behavior of the river at higher flows.
Distances and gradient measured using GIS tools in 2015.
TPWD owns a small piece of land adjacent to the bridge on the downstream river left (northeast) side of the crossing (look for the Devils River SNA sign.) Paddlers are free to access the river here, but there is no long-term/overnight parking or camping allowed. Parking and camping are available 1/4 mile south on Hwy. 163, at Baker's Crossing Camp. Both the locals and the sheriff claim that Baker's Crossing Camp has a high incidence of vehicle vandalism (including removal of wheels), and they advise strongly against leaving an unattended vehicle there. It is unknown how legitimate this risk is. It is possible that the locals are overstating the risk in hopes of discouraging paddlers from running this section of river, or in hopes of encouraging paddlers to use an outfitter. Regardless, it would be ill-advised to leave valuables or a nice car at Baker's Crossing Camp.
If you can catch Mr. Baker, the landowner adjacent to the state-owned put-in, he has been known to let boaters camp and park on his land-- for a price.
The springs that provide most of the base flow for the Devils are about 8 river miles upstream from here (above that point, the river is normally dry), but there is no public access above Baker's Crossing.
Known to be duckable at 2.3'. Will probably require a portage at higher levels.
This large island near the confluence of Miller Canyon is a popular legal (but unofficial) camping spot for paddlers. This can be used the break the trip into more manageable segments. There is a house on the river right bank within shouting distance of the island, so keep a low profile if you camp here.
Must-portage. No public access or camping.
II+/III- at most levels. Requires a slight S-turn in a narrow chute.
This large island near the state natural area boundary is a popular legal (but unofficial) camping spot for paddlers.
Paddler camp on river left, part of the Del Norte Unit of Devil's River State Natural Area. Composting toilet is available. Camping is by permit only (for a nominal fee-- reserve well in advance.)
This is also a potential put-in for those who don't want to run the entire river, but please note that only authorized guides (concessionaires) are allowed to drive to the river access points in Devils River SNA.
Dolan Falls, supposedly the biggest continuously-flowing waterfall in Texas, is a 12-footer that is known to be runnable (by experienced whitewater boaters with appropriate boats and gear) at 2.3' and higher. The lead-in is likely too shallow at lower levels than that. At very high levels, Texas Whitewater describes "nasty hydraulics." Suggested portage for long boats and recreational boats at all levels.
If you choose to run the falls in your whitewater boat, it is strongly recommended that you unload it first. The basic move is to enter from river left into the left-to-right chute above the falls, then take a right boof stroke at the lip of the falls to send you left and away from the hydraulic at the base. At higher water, it is likely that another line opens up to the right, avoiding the meat of the falls. Use extreme caution, however, as there is also a "room of doom" at the right, which may come into play at high water.
Dolan Falls is owned by the Nature Conservancy, and there is a 24-hour surveillance camera located on the river right bank. In general, the rangers will advise you that running the falls is OK, provided that you have sufficient skill and proper equipment, but hanging out on the banks for any significant length of time is not OK. The rangers seem to believe (incorrectly), and have recounted to boaters, that the only reason why it is legal to portage Dolan Falls is that the state has a cooperative agreement with the Nature Conservancy.
II+/III- at most levels. The first tier requires a slight S-turn and, when the flow is relatively low, it generally can only be run at river right. The other two tiers have straightforward lines, and when the flow is relatively low, they can generally only be run at river left.
The Blue Sage Subdivision runs from approximately Mile 21 to Mile 25. Boaters can access the river here by paying Gerald Bailey (Devils River Outfitters, 830-395-2266.) As of this writing, Devils River Outfitters is not a TPWD concessionaire and cannot give you access to either of the Devils River SNA units.
Paddler camp on river left, part of the Dan A. Hughes (formerly Big Satan) Unit of Devil's River State Natural Area. Composting toilet is available. Camping is by permit only (for a nominal fee-- reserve well in advance.)
This is also a potential takeout for those who don't want to run the entire river, but please note that only authorized guides (concessionaires) are allowed to drive to the river access points in Devils River SNA.
Numerous large islands (AKA legal camping spots) exist between Mile 30 and Mile 32, adjacent to the state natural area.
At least according to Google, the Amistad National Recreation Area starts here. According to the NPS web site, backcountry camping is allowed in the national recreation area (including presumably along the banks of the river), as long as it is at least 1/4 mile from a developed area.
When Lake Amistad is at full pool, the Devils will run out into the lake near here, and arranging a motorboat shuttle for the remaining 14 miles to Rough Canyon Marina is strongly advised. When Lake Amistad is low, then an additional 4-5 miles of shallow rapids can appear below Pafford Crossing.
At low levels, a river-wide (200-yard) breakwater constricts the flow to a smaller channel at river right. It is unknown what the purpose of this structure is (possibly to prevent backflow from the lake into the river.)
The Baker's Crossing gauge is just downstream from the put-in. The Pafford Crossing gauge is near Mile 33.4. This page will show you the flow in cfs.
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
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Dolan Falls (5/30/2011)
Looking at Devils above the Devils River State Natural Area
Whoops! Avoid doing this on your trip
Sunset on the Devils
Camping on rock islands in the middle of the Devils
Devils River Topography
Paddling through reeds in the Devils
Approx 2-4 miles after Bakers Crossing
Put in at Baker's Crossing (05/29/2011)
Dolan Falls (Largest Falls in Texas)
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