Paddle Guide: The San Marcos River

There are a lot of people out there that want to get into kayaking rivers, but have a hard time figuring out the logistics of doing so. As someone who plans a lot of kayak trips, it does require some time and planning to have these kinds of trips run smoothly. With pick ups, drop offs, shuttles, portages, etc, it can feel quite overwhelming at times. In this article, I am going to show you exactly how to plan and execute a river trip on the San Marcos River in San Marcos, TX. 

With San Marcos only being a half hour from Austin and about 45 min from San Antonio, it makes it an easy drive for most people in central Texas. This is an awesome river with the headwaters being in the heart of San Marcos near the Texas State University Campus at Aquarena Springs

Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, TX

Aquarena springs have never run dry with the lowest record flow rate being in 1956. The average flow rate out of the over 200+ springs is 152 ft³/s. This keeps the San Marcos river flowing year round with constant water temp of about 70º. For those chasing flow in Texas when there has been little to no rainfall, the San Marcos makes a perfect river to keep as a back up when other rivers are low.

Wild Rice is an endangered species that grows in the headwaters of the San Marcos. The clear water and waving fields of rice make for a great view while in a kayak.

When Will You Be Going?

For starters, you will want to figure out when you are going. During the summer months until October, there will be two sections with tubers on them. On a Saturday during the summer, this can mean thousands of people between the 4-5 tubing companies. I will list which sections have those tubers on them and give you the spots to go if you would be trying to avoid that.

That being said, this river is great to run in the cooler months when there are not as many people visiting the river. Not only does this give you more room on the water, but the clarity will be a ton better. Without tubers and swimmers kicking up silk, you can have 25ft+ clarity in the water (and that may be low but don’t want to exaggerate). The headwaters have protected wild rice growing that you won’t see in many other rivers. Coupled with the constant water temperature, this is a great fall/winter/early spring river to take advantage of.


How Far Are You Wanting To Paddle?

The next thing you will want to think of is what distance you would like to go. Camping on these rivers can be difficult due to lack of legal camping sites, but some of the tubing companies allow camping and you can rent out a campsite from them. For those that would like to get out at Texas State Tubes Top/Bottom property, make sure to give them a call to discuss your plans.

If you would like to have them shuttle you to Lion’s Club (so your vehicles are waiting for you when you get out) they can have that arranged for you if you have a minimum of four kayakers. With smaller groups of at least two, you can leave the gear at the put-in, drive the vehicle down to the get-out and catch an Uber back to town for about $15. This makes it nice when getting off, not having to shuttle people or vehicles back into town.


Put In Texas State Tubes Top Property /Old Bastrop HWY Bridge TST Bottom Property Skull Road Bridge Martindale (HWY 1979) Staples (HWY 1977)
Lions Club 5.2mi 8.0mi 9.25mi 11.0mi 17.0mi
Map of San Marcos River
Map of San Marcos river access courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Website

Where To Start?

I like to start at Lions Club Rentals in San Marcos. This is a public river access point that has a nice launch with sidewalks down to the river’s edge. However, this is a start of one of the tubing sections in town, so there will be tubers for the first .75 miles of this trip until Rio Vista Park.

Rio Vista does have three chutes which can be ridden, but can be a pain if you flip. Flipping the first one makes it difficult to recover before hitting the next two (which are not as bad as the first). I prefer to portage on the left side of the first chute, over the damn wall. Depending on your skill and gear, you can try to run the second and third chute as they each get smaller/less intense.

Putting in at Rio Vista can leave you with a long walk through a crowded park which is my main deterrent for not putting in there.


Making Your Way Down River

Your next portage will be just upriver from Stokes park. The river splits to the left, but you should portage over the concrete wall and go to the right. This is a fairly easy portage where you will lift the kayak over a small wall and walk it about 10 yds downhill. It is also a cool spot to hang for a bit and swim around in front of the small waterfall.

After you pass Stokes park the river winds for a few miles with no rapids, making this a good section for beginners. You will finally arrive at a split in the river, to the left is where the Blanco River runs into the San Marcos and the San Marcos continues to the right.

You will pass what the locals refer to as the Tree Of Life! Dog for scale*

At the bottom of Stokes Park you will see an old dam-turned-natural-water fall that flows when the water is up.

The river will open up and get pretty wide here coming up to Cummings Dam. This section will have slow moving water and can be a workout with a strong headwind.



Cummings Dam

As you come up to the dam, you can either portage to the left or the right. The right side portage is down a staircase in which you will need to lower the kayak down with a strap. The left side portage is longer, but can be easier. Because there is grass, you can slide the kayaks through the grass and get down to the bottom.

This is someone’s property so, however being a legal portage, make sure you are respectful as they have probably had run-ins with kayakers who have not been very respectful. Once we make this portage we will shoot across the river to hang out and swim by the dam. Do not go swimming near the waterfall over the dam.

From personal experience, in my younger days, the white water near the waterfall can pull you down very easily. I paddled close to the dam and had my kayak flip over. Even with a PFD the water was pulling me down, but I was lucky to get two fingers in a scupper hole of my overturned kayak to stay up and float away from it.


Main Tubing Section

After the Cummings Dam, you will run into the Texas State Tubes top property where many of the tubing companies will begin dropping off tubers in the summer. You can plan to take out at this top property to avoid the tubers. The tubers will be with you for the next couple miles until the Texas State Tubes bottom property. In this section you will find a few more quick sections that will require a little more skill than the upriver section.

If the river is packed, like it is on a weekend over the summer, this may be challenging with the extra tubers creating more obstacles. Once you get down to the tubing outfits, where most of the tubers will be getting out, giving you the river to yourself again.

Going downriver from there there will be a low water crossing that can look doable in your kayak, but be careful that the water level is not too high where you may hit your head. I have heard stories of people getting injured trying to go under that low water crossing. Best to pull to the right and heave the boats over the road.


Scull Road/Martindale Dam

The Next get out will be the Scull Road Bridge with the Martindale dam being a couple of miles past the bridge. On this dam, you will portage to the right side. There is a slanted concrete wall that you can carry the kayaks down to the bottom section of the river. Now you can carry on to Staples for the next get-out.

Here is a YouTube video going down the San Marcos River earlier this year in January if you are interested in seeing what kind of river you will be getting in to:

River Trippin’ – San Marcos River on YouTube

If you are trying to plan a trip for you and your friends on the San Marcos and need to get shuttles or rides scheduled, I would highly recommend contacting Texas State Tubes to get all that figured out. Like always, if you have any questions or need any recommendations, please feel free to hit us up on any of our social media platforms or give one of our shops a call.