San Marcos Like a Local

An Insider's Guide to the San Marcos River

August 3, 2018

The San Marcos River in central Texas is a welcome oasis for recreation. @j_medrano25

The Texas heat can be brutal. By August the temperature hovers around 100 degrees, scorching anyone who dares leave the comfort of an air-conditioned environment. During these summer months, Texans flock to any nearby water source. Luckily for the folks in central Texas, a spring-fed river with water at a refreshing 72 degrees year-round runs through the heart of the state.

The crystal-clear water of the San Marcos River bubbles out of hundreds of springs near downtown San Marcos. The river flows southward through parts of the Texas State University campus and downtown San Marcos. It joins the Blanco River about four miles south of town, passes through Luling and Palmetto State Park, then joins the Guadalupe River 75 miles downstream.

Because of San Marcos’ mild winters and warm springs, the river is a popular recreational spot year-round for snorkeling, fishing, swimming, tubing, and kayaking. The spring-fed river water is not only cool, but it is also 10 times cleaner than the EPA standard for drinking water, making it among the cleanest water in the country.

History of the River

It was this water that drew people to the area in the first place. Near the river’s mouth archaeologists have found evidence that suggests people inhabited the area 10,000 years ago. When the Spanish arrived in Texas during the 1700s, they found Tonkawa Indians camping near the river. In 1808 the Spanish established a settlement called San Marcos de Neve downriver from the present San Marcos. After Texas became a state in 1845, settlements began popping up all along the river. Settlers knew a spring-fed river meant it would be the last river to run dry during a drought.

Today the Edwards Aquifer still provides the necessary life-supporting water for the area. It is one of the most prolific artesian springs in the world, serving the agricultural, industrial, residential, and recreational needs of more than 2 million users in central Texas. The San Marcos River is also considered one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the southwestern United States. Rare and endangered species such as the Texas Blind Salamander, Fountain Darter, and Texas Wild Rice need the clean, continuously flowing water with a stable temperature to thrive here.

What to Do on the Water

But what the river is most known for today is as a playground for water activities. Visitors pull up to parking lots with trucks full of kayaks, tubes, paddleboards, and snorkel gear. You can access the river for free at several locations, including City Park, Plaza Park, Bicentennial Park, and Rio Vista Park. The San Marcos River is one of the most popular outdoor recreation spots in the area, so it is always a good idea to start your day early to find a parking place and to avoid the crowds on the river. If you do not have your own kayak or paddleboard, you can rent one from several vendors. They also will pick you up after your ride for a small fee.

Because of its constant, easy flow, it’s a great river for beginners. Do not let that fool you, however, as there are some challenging areas along the way. The rapids and drops at Rio Vista Falls, for instance, are not for the faint of heart.

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Each June the river is home to the start of the Texas Water Safari. Known as the "World's Toughest Boat Race," the event includes hundreds of participants who race 262 miles from San Marcos to the Gulf of Mexico using just human power. Onlookers can cheer on their favorite racer at any public access point along the river.

Take Your Time

Whether it’s by kayak, paddleboard, or tube, it’s no wonder people enjoy a comforting ride down the San Marcos River. Protected from development, it’s a nature preserve of sorts. Huge elephant ears and native wild rice line the banks of the river. With clear water that allows you to see the bottom of the river and white, puffy cloud filled blue skies, it is easy to forget you are in the middle of a town of nearly 65,000 residents.

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No matter what water activity draws you to the San Marcos River, make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen. The trip is so refreshing, it’s easy to forget how hot it is out there. After your trip, you’ll find all kinds of great bars, restaurants, and entertainment in San Marcos. It truly is a signature, central Texas experience—one that you don’t want to miss.

Written by Jennifer Simonson for RootsRated Media in partnership with San Marcos CVB.