The Great Outdoors
Discover the beauty & authenticity of San Marcos!
By: Hilary Stunda
We were visiting Austin. My friend Rick and I took in the music scene and stayed up into the wee hours of the night like our college days.
We certainly paid the price for all the late nights and over-sized dishes of Mexican food. Our voices grew hoarse from talking over indie bands, our blue jeans a little tighter around the waist.
One morning over huevos rancheros, Rick looked up, and with a weary eye said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to just float down a river?”
The waitress who was refilling our coffee replied, “Y’all should go to San Marcos. They’ve got a nice river there.”
Thirty minutes south of Austin and 45 minutes north of San Antonio is a hamlet of lush, quiet beauty. It’s a town with nature trails and a river that runs through it.
There is even a place where margaritas cost .99 cents.
NEXT STOP: SAN MARCOS
We pulled into San Marcos in the late afternoon.
Upon arrival, the town was quiet. A few students walked across a quaint and classic square. Even though Texas State University (TXST) attracts 35,000 students (in addition to the 50,000 population) the town boasts a laid back atmosphere.
We drove down a main street lined with restaurants, bars and shops, and passed through the historic district bustling with charming mid-19th century architecture.
Pam, a proprietress from a B&B just inside town, was more than happy to point us in the direction of some local flavor. We witnessed the annual “Just For Fun Parade.” A unique happening that features folks playing “Unicycle-Football,” which is essentially football played on unicycles. The Unicycle-Football League plays weekly, so we can catch the competitive and entertaining game on our next San Marcos trip too!
Before we got swept up in the action, Rick asked Pam, “And where would we find the river?”
Pam told us: “You have to get on the river if you’re going to understand San Marcos.”
The San Marcos River is spectacular. Pristine and a soothing 72 degrees year round, you can see why throughout history, the river has been a life force (archaeological findings of the Clovis Indians date back 12,000 years) and a source of bliss and escape for kayakers, canoers, tubers, stand-up paddleboard enthusiasts, scuba divers and snorklers. Pam couldn’t have been more right.
We found SUP Adventures, a guided stand-up paddleboarding experience. Our guides, owners Jake Walker and Chris Burnett, gave us a quick “how-to” and set us on our way.
I smiled one of those “no problem” smiles, but I was really thinking: How do I get off this thing once it gets going?
Indeed, the great thing about the San Marcos River is that it caters to folks of all ages. Old and young, swimmers and bathers—even Olympic kayakers come in wintertime to train on the tougher rapids.
My worrying for naught, I had it down in 10 minutes. Apparently, so did the others. Some SUPers even began doing yoga right on their boards.
“Now, that’s enlightenment,” Rick laughed.
Finding, and then actually experiencing, a good swimming hole is a thrill all its own. It never gets old. It is as archetypal an experience as something Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer might stumble onto.
The river was gentle and the large trees on the riverbank cast a warm glow from the setting sun. We spotted kayakers gliding along the river. They told us where to catch sightings of fish, turtles, prawns and plants found only in the San Marcos River, such as the endangered Texas Blind salamander and Texas wild-rice—an aquatic perennial grass found only in the upper two miles of the river. We were able to find the beautiful plant's bright green leaves waving in the current near the bottom of the river.
One hundred yards from the riverbank was a small public restroom facility. A vibrant mural celebrating the unique riparian ecosystem, painted by artist Mateo Jaime, covered its walls.
It was one of the ongoing public art program murals commissioned by the City of San Marcos to raise awareness of the arts and deter the “tagging” that was starting to befall such public buildings.
“The beauty of nature cannot be equaled, but I try to take some meaning behind the beauty to translate into a map readable to humans.”
After a day on the river, any memories of loud hipster bars and the frenetic pace of Austin were fast receding.
We found Grins. Here, where margaritas cost only .99 cents, it is easy to slip into “San Marcos’ time,” where bantering with new friends comes easy.
Rick, a former biology major at Texas State University, struck up a conversation with two graduate students about the nearby hiking trails.
Scribbling down notes on a bar napkin, our new friends clued us into the best trails to hike and the name of a local birder, Stephen Ramirez, who leads monthly bird walks.
By luck, our visit to San Marcos couldn’t have been timed better, as Ramirez only leads hikes once-per-month.
HIKING AND BIRDING A LA TEXAS STYLE
Thanks to the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance, San Marcos has protected and nurtured a 850-acre swath of interconnected parks and natural areas for generations to come.
We began our walk below the waterfall of Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River, and began meandering a few miles downstream along the river, which takes you through the campus and some adjacent city properties and a mix of urban parks and naturally wooded sections.
“A lot of wading birds spend their time fishing and raising their young during the summer,” Ramirez said. “It's fun to see year-round residents like the Red-shouldered Hawks as they build their nests in the winter, mate, and fledge young hawks in the spring.”
Like many of the locals we spoke to, Ramirez arrived as a student, took one look at the river and the surrounding nature, and never left.
“What if I want to get really lost in wilderness?” asked Rick, who was looking for less of an urban experience.
“Blanco Shoals and Purgatory Creek Greenspace are the best areas to explore nature and enjoy the bliss of just wandering through nature,” Ramirez said. “Depending on the time of year and location, sometimes you can locate as many as 29 species.”
Being creatures of comfort, we ended up back at Grins after our walk. A little sunburned and fully content, we hoped to find our grad student friends nursing a few margaritas during happy hour.
“It would be complete luck if they were here,” said Rick as we walked in the door. We were eager to share our bird sightings.
I hadn’t seen Rick as engaged in being in the outdoors since college.
We took a seat at the bar.
Guess who walked in.
“It’s the .99 cent margs, right?” said our friends.
“Mississippi Kite. White-eyes Vireo. Black-crested Titmouse. Starlings. A Hawk.” Rick’s eyes flashed with excitement when he spoke.
He fished around in is pocket, taking out his notes from the day—his birding “log.”
“Okay,” Rick said. “You guys were right. They don’t call San Marcos “San Marvelous” for nothing.”
I felt like we had discovered something previously unseen. And sharing it with an old friend was the best part.
Visit San Marcos for the outdoor adventure of a lifetime! And here's a short video to help plan your next adventure.