By Melissa Gaskill, Texas Highways Travel Magazine of Texas
Thousands of miles of coastal shoreline, 3, 700 named streams, and 15 major rivers in Texas all beg to be explored, and kayaks offer a great way to do so. I first boarded a kayak about a decade ago, and have since used one of these versatile craft to explore all over Texas and beyond. Easy to paddle and maneuver, kayaks put you right on the water, the better to see what lives in and on it. Most people get the hang of paddling smooth water and gentle rapids in a matter of minutes. If you'd like to see Texas' natural wonders from a new perspective, try kayaking. You can take a guided trip, or head out on your own to explore one of the more than two dozen official coastal and inland Texas paddling trails—or anywhere the water beckons. Here are a few of my favorite destinations.
Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail, Houston's 26-mile-long Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail affords a new perspective on Texas' largest city.
This trail starts at Texas 6 and follows the bayou 26 miles to Allen's Landing in downtown Houston. That's too far to complete in one day, but nine access points make it possible to choose paddles ranging from 15 minutes to a few (or many) hours.
On a warm spring day, my husband, Corey, and I put in at Woodway Memorial Park, a tiny parking area with a narrow trail to the water at Loop 610 and Woodway, for about seven miles of paddling. The first half of the trip, we could hardly tell that the bayou bisects one of the country's largest cities. Tall willow, pine, and sycamore trees lined the sandy banks, and we spotted more than a dozen great and little blue herons, a pair of hawks circling in the blue sky, cardinals, turtles sunning on thick logs, and two-foot gar splashing at the surface. Except when we passed directly under roads, we heard nothing but the water, breeze, and birds. The second half became more obviously urban, with views of manicured lawns, apartment buildings, and finally, the gleaming Houston skyline, quite an impressive sight from our bayou-level vantage point.
The trail stops at Allen's Landing, a complex of historic buildings named for the land-speculating Allen brothers, who laid out the original city grid oriented to the waterway in the 1830s. Intrepid paddlers can continue eight more miles to the Houston Ship Channel turning basin.
Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Bayou Preservation Association, along with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, collaborated to create this trail. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership offers monthly trips that include kayaks, a guide, and shuttle back to your car. Another option: Buffalo Bayou Shuttle Service, which offers both guided tours and shuttle service for you and your kayak. You can arrange pick-up downtown to the put-in and leave your car at Allen's Landing.
Alternatively, if you're with a group and are interested in renting 10 boats or more, North Lake Conroe Paddling Company (which offers individual kayak rentals for Lake Conroe and Spring Creek) can arrange a trip on the bayou, too.
Post-paddle refreshment: Splurge on a steak at downtown's Strip House (713/659-6000, or toast the day's adventures at the venerable La Carafe Wine Bar, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (713/229-9399).
Rest up at: Hotel Icon, two blocks from Allen's Landing ( 713/224-4266), or the Four Seasons Hotel, two blocks from Discovery Green (713/650-1300,
Coastal Bend Kayaking offers guided treks of the Lighthouse Lakes Trail and other Gulf Coast destinations.
Lighthouse Lakes Trail, Aransas Pass/Port Aransas
This is the first official paddling trail in Texas, established by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1999. The Lighthouse Lakes Trail consists of four loops that explore the black mangrove estuaries, sloughs, and seagrass flats between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas. The loop trails range from about one mile to almost seven miles long. One trail leads to the 1857 Lydia Ann Lighthouse on North Harbor Island. Wander the maze of mangroves and get close to great blue herons, egrets, pelicans, and other resident birds; or fish for flounder, red drum, and spotted sea trout. Lucky paddlers might even merit a dolphin escort across the channel.
Take along a copy of the photo map, available on the trail's website or from local outfitters, along with a compass or GPS, as it's easy to get turned around in the maze of channels and mangroves. The trails are bordered by Aransas and Lydia Ann channels, South Bay, and Corpus Christi Bayou, so you won't end up in Mexico, but a missed turn could mean a long paddle back. If you'd like a guide, you can take a four-hour eco-tour of the trails with Slowride Guide Services in Aransas Pass, which also offers fishing excursions in the area. A company called Coastal Bend Kayak also offers guided trips in the area.
If you prefer to embark on your own, launch at the trailhead park on Texas 361, near Offshore Adventures at Crabman Marina in Aransas Pass, which rents kayaks. (Island Surf & Kayak Shop in Port Aransas does, too.)
Post-paddle refreshment: A hearty Stopher Burger at Port Aransas Brewing Company, a few blocks from the ferry landing. Call 361/749-2739; www.portabrewing.com.
Rest up at: The 1886 Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Call 361/749-5555; www.thetarponinn.com.