There are plenty of ways to enjoy the Brazos River and all its natural beauty. Fishing, paddling and even hiking along the river are popular recreational activities, but nothing gets you quite as immersed in the great outdoors as camping on the river itself.
The Brazos River, spanning 820 miles, is navigable in some areas and less so in others.
But some sections of the river, like the area from the Possum Kingdom Dam to US 180 or Farm-to-Market 979 to the Gulf of Mexico, are popular paddling trails. Many people take multi-day trips down these sections of the river, meaning that some camping is required to finish the journey.
While the Brazos River Authority does not own park or put-in locations along the Brazos, the streambed of all navigable rivers in Texas is state-owned. This means that camping, fishing and picnicking are legal there, including on the sandbars.
Where Can I Camp?
Depending on current flows and water levels, there may not be many areas to camp on the Brazos without venturing on private property. If you are interested in camping on the river, you'll need to be careful not to trespass onto private property. Brian Bayne, the owner of Brazos Outdoor Center in Rainbow, TX, says that an easy way to avoid this is to stay within the riverbed and the natural boundary of the riverbank.
"Almost all the property along our section of the Brazos is private, so we remind people about this frequently," Bayne said.
The gradient boundary is a term used by Texas courts to define the dividing line between public ownership of a stream's bed/lower bank area and private ownership of the higher banks. However, the gradient boundary can often be left up to interpretation and can be difficult to determine when looking for a place to camp after a long day of paddling.
"Sometimes called the "mean" gradient boundary, it is located midway between the lower level of the flowing water that just reaches the so-called "cut bank," and the higher level of the flowing water that just does not overtop the cut bank," Texas Parks and Wildlife states on their website. "The cut bank is located at the outer edge of a stream's bed, separating the bed from the adjacent upland and confining the waters to a definite channel. Surveying the gradient boundary is a complex task performable only by specially trained persons."
Buddy Rochelle, who owns Rochelle's Canoe Rental in Graford, TX, says that following any signage along the river, especially "No Trespassing" signs, and not crossing over fences usually keeps people out of trouble while camping along the river.
Another tip that Bayne recommends is placing your tent on as high of ground as you possibly can, placing a reasonable distance between yourself and the river. "A sudden rise in river levels can send belongings downriver and can be dangerous as well," Bayne said. "Our section of the river has many sand bars in and along the riverbed which make for good tent sites. It's generally a good idea to avoid setting up on the rocky sections of the riverbed as the rocks can damage equipment, can be hiding places for snakes and other critters and can make for an uncomfortable night's sleep!"
What Do I Do if the River Rises Quickly?
Another important aspect of camping along the river is safety. Conditions on rivers can change rapidly, especially with Texas' unpredictable weather. Before setting out, campers and paddlers alike should know the streamflow conditions of the area they want to paddle and camp. During high flows, the whole river can rise very quickly and may bring the unsuspecting paddler into other hazards, like logs. It is vital to your safety to stay alert for possible rapid increases in river levels and speed.
"Place a stick in the ground at the river's edge and pay attention to the water level," Bayne said. "If it starts to rise too rapidly, move to higher ground."
If you are paddling or camping just downstream of a dam, an increase in the dam's release rate can cause an even quicker rise in the river's height.
The BRA has several resources for checking streamflow that anyone can use. The BRAs homepage, available here, always has each of the BRAs reservoirs' current release rates and reservoir levels. You can also sign up for the BRAs downstream notification system, which sends out a text, email or phone call notification for gate changes at Possum Kingdom Lake, Lake Granbury and Lake Limestone. You can sign up for those notifications here.
You can also find real-time data for streamflow conditions across the Brazos River basin by visiting BrazosBasinNOW, the BRAs web page that offers streamflow, reservoir and rainfall data in a map-based, gage-system format. You can also access the Hydrologic Prediction Service's hydrographs when you view streamflow gages.
To access the hydrograph, click on a gage. There will be an icon that shows two text bubbles—click on that. Then click the link that says, "West Gulf River Forecast Center." The graph will show a timeline with dates across the bottom and a measurement of streamflow showing flood categories across the left side. The solid blue line shows the actual measurement of the flow at that gage. The dotted purple line to the right of the vertical line shows the NOAA Weather Services prediction for the river at this gage. The NOAA Hydrologic Prediction Service updates these graphics several times a day to reflect actual streamflow changes in the river.
No matter where you are located on the river, you must be prepared to deal with an emergency and quick changes in conditions. Know where access points are located along the stretch of the river that you are paddling—having a physical map can be helpful, especially if cell service is limited. But even with bad service, you should still bring your cell phone and place it in a waterproof bag in case you need to contact emergency services.
What Else Should I Pack?
Rochelle recommends packing light, but efficiently.
"You'll never want to leave without rope, especially if you are camping," Rochelle said. "You can always use rope, but mainly to tie your canoe or kayak up at night. If the river starts rolling, that water can send your canoe or kayak down the river."
Rochelle also recommends waterproofing or placing your materials in waterproof containers. Other items he recommends are an army duffle bag containing your sleeping bags and foam mattresses, a small zipper duffle bag for extra clothes and toiletries, one five-gallon plastic bucket with a lid containing dry food items, eating utensils, paper towels, a mess kit and one-burner gasoline stove, another bucket containing electric lantern, camera, binoculars, flashlight, sunscreen, a knife and of course—insect repellent.
And don't forget to leave your campsite better than you found it.
"Pack out what you pack in," Bayne said. "We stress the importance of not littering or leaving any trace behind when conducting any activities in/on the river. We don't allow glass of any kind, and we provide our guests with a mesh bag for collecting trash and loose items."
Especially during drier conditions, make sure that your campfire is completely out before you leave. Check if there are any burn bans in the area before you even head out to the river—if there is a ban, be sure to respect it.
Camping on the river can be a fun and enlightening outdoor experience for those who want to enjoy the Brazos River. Being prepared before your trip can turn potential hazards into a positive outcome. And remember always to let someone know where you are paddling and camping, what your boat looks like and when you expect to return. You can remain "off the grid" while still letting your loved ones know of your whereabouts.
And finally—have fun!
For more recreational tips and information, click here for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's webpage and here for Southwest Paddler.