Friday, April 22, 2011

Dallas Trinity River Paddling Trail

Texas Parks and Wildlife announced in April 2011, a new addition to the network of state paddling trails, the Dallas Trinity Paddling Trail. Ten miles in length, the trail will take users from Sylvan Avenue to Loop 12 through the heart of Dallas and the Great Trinity Forest.

The new canoe and paddling trail on the Trinity River will add to the 25 other paddling trails in the state. Eight of the twenty six trails are in the North Texas area and include trails in Arlington, Bridgeport, Grand Prairie, Lewisville and Rowlett.

Sylvan Avenue Boat Ramp, Trammell Crow Park Dallas, Texas

The Trinity River proper is created just north of Hampton Road in Dallas by a marriage of the Elm Fork and the West Fork of the Trinity. Below Dallas County, the East Fork merges with its sisters, leading to the obvious conclusion that the name "Trinity" derives from three rivers joining as one.

Sieur de La Salle

French explorer Sieur de La Salle called the Trinity "the river of canoes" because it was the major artery through the area for Native Americans.

The Trinity was officially named in 1690 by Alfonso de Leon, a Spanish officer who was sent to raid and capture La Salle's French colony on the Texas Coast.

Historian AC Greene wrote that since de Leon was 200 miles downstream from the three main branches, he could not have known they existed. The Spaniard actually called the river Rio de la Santisima Trinidad, meaning river of the most holy Trinity, probably, says Greene, because he crossed it on Trinity Sunday.

It was 150 years later that John Neely Bryan rode into the Three Forks region and looked down on the river from a high bluff that is now Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. Bryan, the founding father of Dallas, thought the spot ideal for a city. He viewed the river which then flowed about where the triple overpass is situated as Dallas' link with the Gulf of Mexico. Thus did he envision Dallas as an inland port.

Mouth of White Rock Creek at Trinity River, Mile 8.5
That vision died. In 1852, Congress authorized a survey of the river, and an Army engineer's report the next year called the Trinity the deepest and least obstructed river in Texas. Navigation, it was predicted, was practical.

In 1868, a steamer called Job Boat One reached Dallas from Galveston. The trip took a year and four days, much of that time being spent clearing logjams. Other barges and steamers subsequently made the trip, but the northward expansion of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad slowed interest in Trinity River shipping until the late 1870's when dissatisfaction with railroad freight rates renewed interest in river shipping.

The great flood of 1908 forever changed the way citizens of Dallas viewed the river. Widespread flooding, loss of life and property prompted the government to add flood protection levees and channelization of the Trinity River from Bachman Lake to the Santa Fe Bridge south of Downtown.

In the ensuing years, Congress approved two more studies of Trinity River navigation. but it was not until 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson was President, that the Trinity River Project was authorized for construction.

Initial estimates for the project exceeded $1.5 billion and included stream channelization for four parts of the river, a huge reservoir halfway down the Trinity and a pipeline to carry water from the reservoir back to Fort Worth. Much of this work never happened other than a turning basin for ships built on land now used for the McCommas Bluff Landfill.

700 miles in length, the Trinity River is the longest river wholly in the State of Texas. The Trinity has four branches: the West Fork, the Clear Fork, the Elm Fork, and the East Fork.

The West Fork has its headwaters located in Archer County. From there it flows southeast, through the man-made reservoirs Lake Bridgeport and Eagle Mountain Lake then flowing eastward through Lake Worth and then the city of Fort Worth.

The Clear Fork begins north of Weatherford and flows southeastward through man-made Lake Weatherford and man-made Benbrook and then northeastward, where it joins the West Fork near downtown Fort Worth and continues as the West Fork.

The Elm Fork flows south from near Gainsville and east of the city of Denton. The West Fork and the Elm Fork merge as they enter the city of Dallas and form the Trinity River.

The East Fork begins near Mckinney and joins the Trinity River just southeast of Dallas.

The Trinity then flows southeastward from Dallas across a fertile floodplain and pine forests of eastern Texas, many of which were settled during the period of the Republic of Texas. It flows onward south, into Trinity Bay, an arm of Galveston Bay, an inlet of the Gulf Of Mexico, near the town of Anahuac east of Houston.

Dallas Paddling Trail Map

The proposed Dallas Trinity River Paddling Trail will be 10 miles in length from the Sylvan Avenue Boat Ramp to the Loop 12 Boat Ramp. Crossing under 15 bridges along the way.

Trailhead location is at the Sylvan Avenue Boat Ramp:

3700 Sylvan Avenue Dallas Texas

Loop 12 Boat Ramp address:

4600 Loop 12 Dallas Texas

Trail Description:The first 3.5 miles are inside the Trinity River Levees in what amounts to a man made ditch. There are very few areas to get out of your boat in this area since the banks are steep. The first real chance to get out of your boat if you wish is at the Dallas Wave, just past the DART Bridge. An information kiosk is planned for this location.

Past the Dallas Wave, the river is no longer in a man made channel. The trees are larger, banks easier to manage and you will see more wildlife. The mouth of Cedar Creek just above the Cedar Crest/MLK Bridge is a good spot to stop before continuing further. From that point forward you slip deeper into the forest where the city noise gives way to those of nature.

Past the 310 Highway Bridge it's possible to stop at the Buckeye Trail Overlooks and the mouth of White Rock Creek as you make your way to the Loop 12 Boat Ramp.

The current is usually quite slow, even when the river is high. Expect no more than 2mph of movement downstream. Since the wind is usually blowing from the south, you can expect a strong headwind which can impede your progress and lengthening the duration of the trip by a considerable amount.

In the summer, the best option for paddling the Trinity is to take short breaks under each bridge in the shade. Here you can look up at the resident Cliff Swallow communities that call the bridges home for the summer. At least one bridge also has a resident bat population. If you travel the river in the evening shortly before sunset you can see the bats leave their roosts for the evening.

There are not any good spots to bail the route early or ways to shorten the trip once you pass the Dallas Wave. The distance from the river to a nearby road that can be reached by private vehicle is over 1/3 of a mile in most cases and is not workable. Plan accordingly.

The Sylvan Avenue boat ramp is large enough to launch small boats, canoes, kayaks, small motorboats. Ample parking is available to park vehicles. No water fountains available.

Sylvan Avenue Boat Ramp

Note: As of this posting, the Trinity River is closed along a portion of the route between Sylvan Avenue and the Cedar Crest Blvd/MLK Bridge. This is due to construction safety concerns regarding ongoing bridge projects. The Calatrava Bridge at mile 1 and the Santa Fe Trestle Trail bridge at mile 3.5. The city cannot close the river itself to traffic. Just use caution when using the river in these areas.

Closure sign at Sylvan Avenue Boat Ramp(mile 0):

Calatrava construction(mile 1)

Warning sign on the river at upstream approach to Dallas Wave:

The signs above were originally placed along the river during the summer of 2010 when the Trinity River was originally moved from the traditional streambed for the coffer dam construction for the Dallas Wave/Standing Wave whitewater project. The signs as of April 2011 are still in place. Overhead construction for the Santa Fe Trestle Trail is ongoing in this area.

The route through this area is to stay on the left hand side, north bank as you approach the Dallas Wave. A bypass channel has been built into the Dallas Wave allowing for easier passage for non-surfing traffic. The south bank features a small landing above the Dallas Wave for portaging if one wants to go that route.

Loop 12 Boat Ramp

Handy links:

Trinity River flow gauge:

Trinity River Gauge at Commerce Street Bridge

Canoe Dallas, canoe rental and guide service for Trinity River

Dallas Wave information


  1. Tried to run the trail today. Used kayaks outfitted for whitewater, but were only looking for a nice paddle. At the Wave took the bypass and discovered it is very nasty. Partner made it rhough (with difficulty). Thank goodness he had a full skirt on his boat (not normal when we are just doing a paddling trail, but today we had them). I was not as fortunate. I made it through both drops on the bypass channel in good form, but then I got sideslammed into the dividing wall,(I was ok. blocked the shock with paddle and boat). I pushed clear only to be pulled into a vortex at the tip of the barrier that flipped my boat (Still OK so far, just disgusted). But then I tried to right myself only to discover the vortex and the wave were too strong. Got pulled under several times. finally managed to work free of the vortex and escape with the help of a thrown tow line from my partner. He tried to come in close to help, but the current was too strong and he couldn't get through. I do not want to consider what would have happened with a canoe or a less experienced person. I highly reccomend that anyone using this trail portage the Dallas Waves-even if they have whitewater skill-- until something changes. The rest of the trail was wonderful and the current (about 1000 cfs I think) was perfect so long as you avoid the wave.
    By the way, thanks for this blog. The information is helpful.

  2. Teresa,
    Sorry to hear about your spill. You are not the first to have issues with the site. Last summer during construction some folks in canoes were injured while navigating a temporary diversion channel there. I think the only way to be safe running the river in that area is a complete portage. To do this, one can exit the river on the south bank(right side) upstream from the standing wave at a small ramp. Portage. Re-enter the river using a sidewalk on the south side of the river. It would be about a 100 yard portage using the concrete path.

    Glad to hear you made it in one piece!

  3. can i get a canoe through there now? 2013 feb?

    1. Sure you can, although I would suggest portaging river right about 50 yards upstream, the putting back in at a landing near the end of the Standing Wave.