It's almost impossible to write a trip report about this stretch of river without mentioning John Graves. Not that he doesn't deserve mention. I could never praise his fine work enough. Especially his writing concerning this river. He is mentioned in just about every trip report that concerns this stretch of river. And if you don't know who he is or what he has written, just Google "John Graves" and someday read his books. You can thank me later.
This has arguably become one of the more popular float trips in Texas. It's convenient to the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex and gentle enough for all ages. Weekends during the spring and summer are crowded so hit it midweek or during the off season if you prefer solitude.
This trip begins at Hwy 16, just below a masonry arch bridge cut from limestone, completed in 1943. It ends just past the Dark Valley bridge on Farm to Market road 4. As the crow flies it's about 5 miles or so between the bridges. As the river winds it's 19.5 miles.
This segment of river is roughly in the shape of a cursive "W", dominated by a geographical feature known as Schoolhouse Mountain, a long ridge running roughly north and south nearly filling up the entire first loop of the "W". This is part of the Palo Pinto range of mountains which pop up out of nowhere in a part of Texas that is generally flat to gently rolling prairie.
My younger brother Daryl and I parked our truck at the hwy 16 bridge and unloaded 2 Oldtowns and enough gear to get us to the Gulf of Mexico. This is actually an improvement over my last trip on which I carried enough to get around the world, or the one before that which could have got me to the moon and back. So I am improving at lightening my load. The outfitter, "Rochelles Canoe Rental" by name, would come pick up the truck and park it at the take out. They actually own a lot of land at the take out and live there. They have a small store and office there and a big campground. There was a group of 6 or 7 kayak fisherman putting in ahead of us. They would be the only other paddlers on the river this weekend.
It was a fine autumn day in early November. Sunny and 70 degrees. Wasnt much water in the river, 45 cfs according the Graford flow gauge at the bridge. But it was enough to float us with an occasional paddle scrape on the river bottom. The water is cold and clear. Enough so that there is a population of hatchery stocked trout between the dam and the bridge. They're fun to catch and make excellent forage for the huge striped bass, largemouth, and hybrid stripers that are caught in great numbers and sizes here. There was no wind blowing so the water was nice and calm. It reflected the tree covered hills and the deep blue autumn sky. Every rock and pebble and occasional fish could be seen through the clear shallow water. The trees were in their fall colors, making horizontal bands of red and gold and shades of greens.
The first bend of the river comes quickly as the Brazos runs into a high sandstone bluff and turns you left in a north east direction through a small riffle that allows you to quit paddling for a second and enjoy the scenery. Just downstream on river left are more high bluffs, scooped out near the top, yellow underneath and gray on top, crowned with cactus and cedar. After another half mile or so the river bends east for a long lazy mile past huge boulders near the shore and the ever present views of the surrounding hills and bluffs. The water remained shallow with a few deep spots.
Just past Garland Creek at mile 3 on river left, the Brazos heads south into Fortune Bend and the first loop of the "W". Schoolhouse Mt. is on our left. Fortune Bend is huge. It is 4 or 5 miles from Garland Creek to the bottom of the bend at Ioni Creek. We plan to camp near there. Since this is our first trip here, we dont know where the best campsites are.
The day wears on, a beautiful day, sunny with a light breeze. Lunch is summer sausage, crackers and fruit at mile 5, then we push on. Dark comes early in November, and the shadows grow long as the river starts to turn back east at the bottom of Fortune Bend. I keep expecting to hear the rapids that mark the approach of Ioni Creek. We pass some nice campsites, and I should really stop, knowing from experience that the one you skip may be the last good spot for a long ways. Daryl puts this into words, but I push us on, being goal oriented and all, wanting to keep to the trip schedule I had set back home. I'm learning to be more flexible concerning these matters when I'm on the river, but I still have far to go. It's just bad habits from the old rat race. We had set aside 3 days for this trip. So there wasn't any hurry. Yet hurry I do, past high, level, tree shaded, wind shielded campsites on river left. On river right scenic bluffs and ridge's tower over us, behind which drops the sun, taking some of it's warmth and light with it.
Finally the mouth of Ioni Creek appears on river right. In front of the creek is an island which splits the river, the main channel on river left carrying us away from the creek, picking up speed as it heads toward the first of only two genuine rapids on this trip. Not a good looking camping spot in site. No time to stop. Getting dark.
The rapid is a long, straight chute, and a wave train from start to finish. The canoes scrapes bottom a couple of times, not enough to slow us down and we fly right through. A fun little rapid.
Back in the 1870's a settler was killed by Comanches about a half mile up from the mouth of Ioni Creek. I think about this as we pass the creek, and regret we hadn't found a site to camp there. The plan was to paddle up the creek the next day to get the feel of the place and think about the early settlers and the Indians. John Graves tells all about the incident in his book.
Half a mile past the creek and we're looking hard for a place to put in for the night. The right bank is steep and heavily wooded, the left bank looks better, it's flat and somewhat open, but covered with brush and weeds all the way to the bank. Daryl spots an opening in the weed that looks like a well worn trail. It's in a very small covelike area, an indentation in the bank. The water is shallow next to the bank so we cruise over and tie up to a stout mesquite tree, the canoes in the water between the bank and a small island of reeds. There's a nice opening 10 yards inland, about 6 feet above water level. We set up in near dark, get a fire going, get into our winter clothes, and heat up some homemade spaghetti. The night is dark, clear and cold getting colder. We smoke cigarettes, drink beer, eat snack crackers and such until bedtime. We dont have a view of the river, but are surrounded by brush, mesquite trees and high weeds. It's a warm pocket of dancing firelight framed by the cold dark winter night.
I leave some water in a pan outside the tent, and the next morning it is frozen over with about a quarter inch of ice. We have oatmeal, fruit and coffee for breakfast. By 8:00 a.m. we are loaded up and on the river. The original plan was to just spend the day where we camped so we could fish and laze around and just generally enjoy the river. But we want to find a more scenic campsite to pursue this, so off we go.
The river now bends back to the north east in a long calm pool between heavily wooded rocky banks. On river left just downstream of our camp, we pass a really nice dock. The part of the dock that's on shore is covered and underneath are tables, benches, a big smoker, and up hill from the dock is a house. No one seems to be home though. This is the first sign of civilization we've seen since we put in.
At mile ten (from the put in) we come to a long narrow island. We take the right channel. It is a narrow fast moving chute with an overhanging canopy of trees. We notice that there are a lot of nice campsites on the island and mark it in our memories for future reference. Another long pool, then another shallow rocky shoal where we take the left channel around an island. From the right bank out steps a big doe about 50 feet in front of us. She's not worried about us at all. She gingerly steps across the shallows toward the island, giving me plenty of to fumble around for my camera and snap off a couple of good shots.
We're almost to the top of the middle of the "W" now, going into Crawford Bend. A long, broad pool, and as it starts to bend back south we hit our first strong headwinds of the trip. Strong enough to whitecap the water. Most trip reports on this stretch of river list the only hazards as being the heat in summer, dam releases, and brutal head winds. On our left is another high ridge, and overlooking the river from the ridge top is a strange looking house. It is totally white and shaped in a long oval, projecting out from the bluff with a wraparound porch. Under the overhang, above the porch are a series of what look like cameras. Kinda weird. We see an island coming up downstream, flat and level, and here we will camp. It'll get us out of the headwinds, and since it's still early in the day we'll have plenty of time to loaf and just enjoy the river.
And that's what we do. The island is long enough to hike and explore and hunt (fruitlessly) for arrowheads. There are lots of artifacts to be found up here. The area is rich in Native American history, including many stories of warfare between the Comanche and the Anglo settlers. And we fish, also fruitlessly. So at supper time what would have been fish soup is just vegetable soup. But along with cornbread and beans it works for us. Then it's just sitting around under the stars till shut eye. Nice.
The next morning brings the threat of rain. Oatmeal and fruit for breakfast and we're on the water early. A mile or so downstream Eagle Creek comes in, flanked by steep rocky banks and shielded from the main river by huge house sized rocks. Just downstream are seven more house sized rocks standing out in the water in a crooked line. We paddle through the tight spaces between them, listening to the muffled slaps of the river against their waterlines and watching the reflection of the water off their rough surfaces. Graves described them as "twisted rhombic blocks."
We are in the middle of Chick Bend, and as we come out of the bend we are heading north, toward the top of the "W". We pass an island that is at least a half mile long with some excellent campsites. It is high off the water, level and has many pecan, mesquite, elm and willow trees. The river is shallower now, and we scrape across several shallow shoals, some which require getting out and dragging the canoes for short distances. The river bottom is level and mostly sand and gravel, pretty easy for walking. Daryl spots some turkeys on this stretch. They disappear like ghosts in the brush before I can take their picture.
Unlike the two previous days, this day is gray and in the 50's with occasional drizzle. The river is also gray and the fall colors are more subdued.
In the deep pools, I let a spinnerbait troll behind me and catch a 13 inch spotted bass that puts up a great fight. First fish of the trip. Would have been supper last night. But maybe not. 13 inches might not be legal.
The river bends northwest at approximately mile 16. Kyle Mt. is on our right. Local lore tells of a hairy manlike beast that haunts the area around the mountain. This legend may have originated around the campfires of a longtime Boy Scout Camp located just up the river.
At mile 17 another sharp bend, to the west northwest. Dalton Bend. The river runs into a high wooded bluff, turns right and splits around a small island. There are nice fast riffles on both sides of the island, but halfway through a short drag is required. Then a long two mile stretch. The river is broad but shallow on this stretch. Our paddles scrape bottom constantly. A couple of times we need to get out and drag. The rain comes down pretty hard for a while. Near the end of this stretch, on river right, are some yellow rock bluffs that edge the river for about a half mile. Graves describes them as "curiously arching cliffs." We paddle over to touch the rough surfaces. It's very hushed and still next to the bluffs. The water is deep and very dark green, like jade. A drum, a 3 pounder maybe, hits my spinner and after a good fight falls off right at the edge of the boat, saving me the trouble of removing the hook.
At mile 18 or so the river makes one last slight bend straight west. Theres a little zig zag rapid with a jagged pipe sticking out of the left bank. One of us avoids the pipe, and warns the other, "Watch out for the pipe!" One of us gets stuck against the pipe and has to get out and pull the canoe down the rest of the shoal into the deeper water. One laughs uncontrollably while the other shoots back angry looks. It will make for good campfire talk later.
The river stays wide and shallow. The wind has been mostly at our back all morning. Both banks are high, steep and heavily wooded. From river left a bald eagle flushes from a treetop and flies on down and across the Brazos to disappear into the treeline. The Dark Valley Bridge (our takeout) is in sight. Daryl, trailing behind me, spots some wild hogs.
The second and last genuine rapid on this trip is right under the bridge. It's sort of an "S" shaped rapid with a few big rocks to avoid, a class 1. At this low level it wasnt much more than a shoal. At higher levels it's a lot of fun. At real high levels you need to be careful to avoid wrapping around the bridge piling. Just before the bridge, Dark Valley Creek comes in on river left. Just after the creek is the take out at Rochelles. We beached the canoes and from the river I could see my old blue Chevy pickup on top of the hill, right where Buddy Rochelle had parked it. We weathered quite a rainstorm for a couple of hours, then it cleared up somewhat and we stayed at Rochelles campground that night before heading home the next morning.
This had been a great trip. We didn't have to deal with the notorious brutal southerly headwinds that this trip is famous for. Those come more with the spring and summer. As does many more people. Fall trips are excellent on the Brazos. Just do it.
Rochelles has plenty of primitive campsites at take out and a restroom.
Oldtown Guide 147
Oldtown Discovery 133
Parking $3 per day
Camping at takeout $10 per night
From Dallas take I-20 west to Weatherford. Take US Hwy 180 exit at Weatherford. West on 180 to Palo Pinto. Take FM 4 north from Palo Pinto about 15 miles to Dark Valley Bridge.
Google "Rochelles on the Brazos" for rental info
Texas Rivers and Rapids