Turkey vultures circled overhead as we trekked across the rough limestone bedrock. Ahead of us, docent Susan Bogle, though she’s made the same hike countless times, still couldn’t contain her excitement as we approached what most of us had come to see for the first time.
“If your heart is racing,” she announced, “then that means you’re about to meet THE CANYON LAKE GORGE!” With a flourish, Bogle waved her hand toward the colossal ravine, forged by the July 2002 flood that coursed down from the Guadalupe River watershed.
During our recent visit to Canyon Lake, we toured the gorge. We also discovered a stunning scenic drive and a cool museum.
First, we headed east on FM 306 and pulled into Potter’s Creek Park, located on the lake’s northernmost side. The campground is one of four operated around Canyon Lake by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is open year around. So is newly renovated Crane’s Mill Park, located on the lake’s south side.
Two more parks–Canyon and North–are open April 1 through September 30. In all four campgrounds, campsites range from electricity and water only to full hookups, tent sites and screened shelters.
Via the South Access Road, we motored up to Overlook Park and walked the Canyon Dam Crest Trail, an .8-mile (one way) paved walkway atop the dam. The trail is handicap accessible and open to bicyclists as well.
Overnight, we stayed at the Canyon Lakeview Resort in Startzville. Our “mini apartment” had a kitchen and living room, a bedroom with a king-sized bed and a bathroom with a tub. The resort also has six Cathedral Cabins, which each have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, living room, a deck with a hot tub and an upstairs balcony.
The next morning, Richard Ferrell, executive director at the Canyon Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, chauffeured us down scenic River Road, which parallels the Guadalupe River. Wow–what a beautiful drive! An abundance of local outfitters provide river access and a variety of rentals. Even in dry summers, this 22-mile stretch of the river between the dam and New Braunfels never slows, thanks to continual releases of water by dam authorities.
After lunch, we hiked the Guadalupe River South Trail, located below the dam. The U.S. Corps of Engineers also maintains three more hiking trails around the lake: Guadalupe River North Trail (.5 mile long, handicap accessible, anglers welcome), Madrone Trail (8.2 miles long, bicyclists welcome) and Old Hancock Trail (3.5 miles long, equestrians welcome). All are free.
From April 1 through September 30, Canyon Beach and Comal parks–also operated by the corps–welcome day-use visitors, who want to picnic and swim (fee charged).
Next we visited the Heritage Museum of the Texas Hill Country. The site, which opened in 2000, preserves several hundred dinosaur tracks estimated to be more than 108 million years old. Docent Xena Jones guided us through the museum’s four exhibit rooms. Then we went outside to see the museum’s star attractions, which lie beneath a huge, protective pavilion. We followed a covered walkway that led us completely around the track site, which is off limits to foot traffic.
Buried for millenniums, the footprints, which are embedded in a limestone slab, were uncovered in the early 1980s. Paleontologists later determined that two kinds of dinosaurs (which both walked upright on their hind legs) made the tracks–meat-eater Acrocanthosaurus and plant-eater Iguanodon.
That afternoon, we made the three-hour tour of the Canyon Lake Gorge. As advised, we wore comfortable walking shoes and carried water bottles. (Note: The hike is physically demanding and not recommended for people with heart conditions, bad knees or ankles, or who are in poor health.)
From a high peak at Overlook Park, we gazed down on the dam’s spillway while docent Susan Bogle explained how and why the gorge formed nearly 10 years ago after heavy rains deluged the Hill Country. Since public tours started in October 2007, more than 10,000 people have gone through the gorge.
To date, scientists have discovered more than 80 species of animal fossils, exposed by the floodwaters. On the dam’s spillway, Bogle pointed out dinosaur tracks left by Acrocanthosaurus, the meat-eater. Below the spillway, we admired a beautiful, large gastropod cast in stone. And later, Bogle scooped up a handful of tiny fossilized snails and bivalves, each no bigger than a rice grain.
Within the gorge, geologists and other scientists were most excited to find the Hidden Valley fault, a fracture they knew existed deep underground but had never actually seen. Further along in our trip, Bogle stopped and showed us the fault–a sheer uplift that arises from the gorge’s rocky floor.
Alas, I’m no whiz when it comes to the earth’s geological history. But thanks to our tour through the Canyon Lake Gorge and around Canyon Lake, I’m better educated now in a lot of areas!
Next time, we’d like to meet Wayne and Patty McNeil, who operate Fawncrest Vineyard on the lake’s north side. “We just won our first awards at the 2012 San Antonio Wine Festival!” Wayne reported. In December, festival judges bestowed a Gold medal on Fawncrest’s Cabernet Franc 2010 and a Bronze on its Meritage 2010. Tasting hours: Saturdays, noon to 7 p.m. or by appointment Sunday through Friday, free. www.Fawncrest.com, 830-935-2407.