Hill Country Rivers ~ The Sabinal

Sabinal ~ River and rock

Many decades ago, I associated only two rivers with Texas: the Red, which marks a portion of the border between Oklahoma and Texas, and the Rio Grande, our border to the south.

Over time, I discovered how river-rich the state actually is, and how striking differences among our rivers can be. My favorite hill country rivers  — the Frio, Sabinal, Guadalupe, and Medina — are nothing like the broad, muddy Brazos and San Bernard flowing through my southeast Texas neighborhood.

The Sabinal, a favorite feature of Lost Maples State Natural Area, rises from springs percolating through the limestone rock common there. After flowing through steep canyons, the river eventually joins the Rio Frio; in turn, the Frio flows into the Nueces, which ends at Corpus Christi Bay.

The Sabinal, flowing

Fed by a variety of creeks, the river traverses flat to rolling terrain; the surrounding sandy and clay loams support a variety of hardwoods and grasses. Once paralleled by a well-known Indian trail designated ‘Comanche Trail’ on early Spanish maps, the river originally was known as Arroyo de la Soledad, or ‘Stream of Solitude.’ Solitude still can be found there, as well as a wealth of natural beauty.

Solitary Sabinal seeds


Comments always are welcome.

66 thoughts on “Hill Country Rivers ~ The Sabinal

    1. The variability is wonderful. The Neches, the most wild of east Texas’s rivers, flows through forests and thickets; the broader, slower Brazos once was used for steamboat navigation. The rock-rimmed rivers of the hill country can have waters as beautifully colored as those in the tropics, and true to its name, the Rio Frio is cold and clear, making it a popular tubing destination in summer. As so often is the case, it’s the details that compel interest.

    1. Because Texas is so big, and because our ecoregions differ substantially, so do the rivers. Hill country rivers running over limestone look a whole lot different from those running through red soil. The Brazos is more akin to the Mississippi — the ‘Big Muddy’ — than it is to the Sabinal.

      I was so taken with those seed pods. I rarely find a pod with all of its seeds intact, so this one was special.

  1. So much to explore in your part of the world, Linda, and I’m enjoying tagging along virtually. Part of me is a bit sad that blogging wasn’t a “thing” when I lived in Texas — who knows how many interesting spots I’d have found to write about? Oh well, there are interesting things in every part of our world, and it’s up to us bloggers to find them, right? And then share them with those unable to see them in person.

    1. Believe it or not, there are places in your state I’d love to visit; I was introduced to them through other blogs, and have them on the mental ‘to visit’ list I carry in my head. I’ll never make it to New Zealand or Alaska, but Illinois might be doable. You’re certainly right that there are interesting things in every part of the world, so while I can’t travel to faraway places, I at least can explore those closer to home.

    1. They do look lizard-like: iguanas, maybe. I wish now I’d explored that curled-up one a little more. I don’t know if it curled because of drying, or if an insect was making a home of it. At the time, I guess I was more interested in keeping my balance on the rocks.

  2. Linda, this piece set me remembering the Texas rivers I’ve known, grown up with, and loved along the years… My childhood rivers, the Brazos, the Colorado, the San Jacinto. My teenager rivers, the Frio, the Nueces, the San Antonio. the middle Colorado, the Llano, the upper Brazos of John Graves “Goodbye”. The river crossings, the bridges, the riverside parks and picnic grounds. The memories, the vacations, the summer days and fall nights, winter walks and spring explorations… For such a short little piece, you’ve opened up a book full of memories. From the Red River to the mouth of the Brazos, from the Pecos to the Sabine, and all of the little rivers in-between, I’ve now spent more time than I expected remembering… Thanks.

    1. We’re blessed with riches beyond measure in this state, and you’ve had a lifetime of enjoying them. I occasionally get to sit back and listen to stories of waterskiing on the San Jacinto and Trinity, back in the day, and those guys love remembering as much as you do. The Neches is one I want to spend more time with, although as more and more low water crossings are closed off, the time for enjoying them is growing short.

      I still remember my astonishment at learning that steamers made it all the way up the Brazos to Chappell Hill and Washington on the Brazos. One of the early pilots was John Ross, who reportedly faced low water with aplomb, saying, “Tap a keg of beer and we’ll run four miles on the froth.”

    1. That’s west Texas and the Panhandle, for sure, but that’s only part of the story. There’s so much of the state I’ve not visited or studied, I’ll never fit it all into the years I have left. That’s just all the more reason to keep on truckin’, and see what I can see!

  3. Lovely set of photos. I don’t think I’ve ever been to the Sabinal, I’m sorry to say. You’re right that, while our rivers aren’t huge, raging rivers, there are quite a few of them. I love the movement in the first two photos, and the structure and texture in the third. Warm, gentle coloring is just the perfect thing for all these shots.

    1. On the other hand, there’s a reason for the flood gauges at so many low water crossings. This view of the Sabinal in flood isn’t that uncommon. My friend who lives on a hill between Kerrville and Medina talks about being ‘watered in’ the same way northerners talk about being snowed in. The flash flooding can be bad, but when the rivers come up, ‘raging’ is just the right word.

      I love the first image for the way the water seems as solid as the rock. In the second, the water was only inches deep, and there was some sort of plant just below the surface that contributed to the ripplely effect. You can see some of the leaves in the lower left corner.

  4. I once stayed at Neal’s Lodge, almost thirty years ago, in Concan, TX, close by to the Rio Frio. It is a place heavily favoured by birders and the cabins there are perfect for a self-catering stay. Upon my return I submitted a detailed report to the owners of the lodge about the birds I had seen, with many helpful tips on finding key species, and they told me that I had a free breakfast waiting for me on my next visit. I doubt that I will ever claim that breakfast, but I did hear from a couple of people who found the information I submitted helpful.

    1. Your comment brought a smile. I know exactly where you were. If you had headed to Neal’s from the little store at the intersection in Concan, but turned left at the first (then gravel) road, about five miles or so up that road you’d have come to the place where I used to stay. At the time, that little store wasn’t open at night, so we’d go up to Neal’s to snag a wi-fi connection. I still remember the post I wrote sitting at a table at Neal’s.

      It’s great that you’ve been able to do so much birding here, and that you’ve been able to share the results. If you and Miriam ever come back to claim that breakfast, we’ll have to arrange to meet. I’m always ready for a visit to that area.

  5. S.S. says of the S.S.S. (Solitary Sabinal Seeds) that they look like another S., senna. If so, the distinction between Lindheimer’s and two-leaf senna would depend on the plant’s leaves.

    1. I haven’t a clue about the leaves, since they were (as I recall) missing. On the other hand, I’d be willing to bet that these pods belong to Lindheimer’s senna; this photo seems to confirm it. I’ve found both Lindheimer’s and two-leaf senna in bloom, but never had seen the pods. They really are beautiful, and I was so pleased to find one with the seeds intact.

      1. Well, you may be out of the woods near the Sabinal River but you’re not out of the woods when it comes to determining what kind of senna you found, because both local species produce similar-looking pods. Either way, your portrait’s a good one.

        1. I’ve joked occasionally that when I started learning about our native plants, the best I could do was “Pretty flower!” In this instance, at least I can alliterate, and exclaim, “Pretty pod!”

    1. And they surely can sparkle and sing. Of course, as more than one person’s pointed out, if it weren’t for the Brazos, et.al., the Gulf would be pristine as Florida waters, and we’d be even more overrun with people heading for the beaches. We may not have the Big Muddy, but we have the Medium Muddies, and they do us a good service.

    1. I hope you can make it. There’s a lot to see, and one visit isn’t enough. One visit per season might be a good start, but that could eat into your beach time!

    1. In our hill country, the rock is as important as the water when it comes to rivers, so I was pleased to be able to pair them in this way. I was quite pleased with the seed pod image, too. I often have photos that turn out less impressive than I’d hoped, but this one surprised me by being better than I expected.

  6. I just watched TPWD show on paddling trails on Texas waterways. There are a lot of rivers in Texas and I know most of the world thinks we are dry, as I have to often explain on my blog. I was surprised when I first visited Hill Country where river crossings are a dip and not a bridge. I’m near the San Jacinto, which has visited our community on several occasions.

    1. Your understated comment about the San Jacinto certainly made me smile. Those ‘visits’ had to be memorable. A little farther west, I remember the relatively recent time that the Colorado and Brazos flooded so badly they met in the middle. The poor San Bernard didn’t have a chance.

      I don’t remember ever seeing a flood gauge until I got to Texas and discovered low water crossings. Now they seem to be more common in other states, but I might just be paying more attention. Of course, in Iowa there weren’t many low water crossings, either. The last time I was there, I saw more ‘Snowmobile Crossing’ signs.

      1. Thanks for that link. I just watched an interview about a Cigar Box Guitar maker and will now follow the TCR channel to learn more about Texas. I didn’t think the state was only dry gulches but there is more than I had any idea about despite all the great posts by you, Bob, Steve, and so many others. I’m not much of a guitarist but I sure would like one of his if he sold them. But I’m not Brad Paisley so I guess I’ll just express my envy. :)

        1. We not only have a multitude of ecoregions (twelve, I think) we have quite a collection of cultures, too. I used to live near the “Macaroni line,” a railroad built by Italian immigrants. There’s a Danish museum in a town called Danevang I often pass by, and the Poles and Czechs were very early settlers. There are Germans and Swedes and of course Tejanos — it’s great fun, especially since all of that contributes to some of the best and most varied music on the planet. Food, too, of course!

  7. That’s a wonderful shot of silky water flowing in the Sabinal. I have a good friend who lives on the banks of the Sabinal. He loves to end a hot summer day sitting in that water, sipping a cold one. I need to pay him a visit after the weather warms up.

    1. I loved the underwater plants’ featheriness at the time, but I didn’t see the glimmer of color until I put the image on the computer. The patterns are almost Escher-like. Artsiness aside, there’s nothing better than cooling off in one of those rivers. I’ve done it myself a time or two; it beats hot Gulf water and sand.

    1. Thank you, Sherry. I’m glad I posted this image first. I have an abstraction of the pod on the left I’m going to show separately: perhaps with some of the flowers.

    1. Every now and then a photo surprises me, Lavinia, and the pod certainly did. Your appreciation means a lot, since you have an eye for beauty. When these rivers flood, they can be as dirty and debris filled as any, but under normal circumstances, they are peaceful and clean. Some of the spots where tubers gather to drink beer and float downstream can become problematic, but once summer’s over and the tourists leave, things seem more peaceful.

  8. and don’t forget the San Marcos and the Blanco and the Pernanales and further west the Pecos, one of my favorites. and closer to home the other muddy river, the Colorado.

    1. I know the Colorado more than those others. In fact, the Colorado is the only river in Texas that I’ve sailed. It’s interesting — I can tell which parts of the state I’ve spent the least time in by the rivers I don’t know — like the Blanco and San Marcos. The Pedernales ought to be more familiar, but I’ve never taken the time to follow it east out of Fredericksburg. Something else to put on The List.

    1. At one point, I was going to include ‘abstract’ or ‘abstraction’ in the title, and would have, had it not been for the seed pod. The colors of the rock seems unexpected, and its relative smoothness was pleasing. My guess is that it’s limestone, but I can’t say that for sure.

      It took me a second to get “seedPod.” Clever, that — as clever as your iPocket.

  9. Rivers are special and sometimes whole countries are formed by rivers. One of those are The Netherlands which was formed by the sediment left behind by the mighty Rhine. Very fertile land!
    On our previous farm we had over a kilometer of river frontage and it was lovely to see it rage after heavy rain often wiping out fences.

    1. Believe it or not, there’s a river here that’s in the process of adding land in the same way that your rivers did in the Netherlands. My favorite Louisiana river, the Atchafalaya, is building delta; here’s an interesting article about it. I can imagine how you enjoyed your river frontage; that kind of land is much sought after in our hill country, and is fetching astronomical prices. Of course, as more and more of it is privatized, access for “just folks” is becoming more and more restricted.

  10. I was thinking about the two names, Linda: Arroyo de la Soledad and the Sabinal. My first thought was I that I preferred the former. I still feel that way, but having read that Sabinal stands for a large group of Cypress trees, it has a nice ring as well. –Curt

    1. I’d never heard that about the meaning of Sabinal; the closest I was able to come was ‘juniper.’ The Ashe juniper is common in the area; I wonder if the name actually was for those trees rather than for the bald cypress. In any event, while Arroyo de la Soledad is more poetic, I actually prefer Sabinal, since that’s the word — at least for me — that’s so filled with the river.

      1. This is what I found in the Hill Country Sun, Linda: Moving still eastward, they next came to a river lined with very large cypress trees. This stream they named the Cypress River. In Spanish, the word for a single cypress is “Sabino.” But in the Spanish language if you want to describe a large group of trees rather than a single specimen you add the suffix “al”. Thus a large group of cypress trees is not a sabino but a sabinal. In this way the Sabinal River was named.

        1. I was curious about some of the complexities of this, so I emailed Steve Schwartzman, linguist extraordinaire. Here’s what he had to say:

          “From what I’ve been able to find, sabino is a Mexican Spanish name for Taxodium mucronatum, known in English as Spanish cypress. The genus makes it a close relative of our bald cypress. The -al suffix in Spanish does indeed turn the name of a tree into a group of that kind of tree, so a sabinal is a grove or colony of sabino trees.

          We’re still left with a geographic problem in the would-be explanation for how the Sabinal River got its name. The USDA map shows that in Texas the sabino, or Spanish cypress, grows only in the Rio Grande Valley at the state’s southern tip. If the story your commenter quoted is correct, the Mexicans who named the stream would have mistaken the bald cypresses there for their genus-mate the Spanish cypress. That’s less of an error than English speakers calling Ashe junipers cedars.”

          Oddly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary has a second meaning for ‘sabino’ — Ashe juniper! The area of the Sabinal river has both Ashe junipers and bald cypress, so who knows how that happened.

  11. Linda, I’d like to link to this post and wondered if I could include a cropped form of your seeds photo (cropped to bottom third) and I’ll advise to come to your post to see the whole photo. I’d also link to a Nat Geo video I found after reading your post (about the ‘Selah’ property in the Texas hill country and how over time, using native grass planting, David Bamberger reinstated natural water sources on his property), assuming you’re ok about that. -from the footage it looks amazing!

    1. That would be fine, except that I’ve intended to post a cropped image of that seed myself, as a followup. If you link to the post, I’d prefer that you simply include the link to what I’ve already posted, and not an edited image. If you’d like to include this image, that would be fine. Thanks!

      1. Cool, thanks! That’s helped me get the post together and I’ve included a copy of the (whole) image. Cheers Linda, I’ll put the post up shortly.

  12. The photographs really do evoke a feeling of “solitude”.

    Some of our most cherished memories were created in that area. Lost Maples, Garner State Park – campfires, clear night skies packed with stars, fantastic birding. Sigh.

    1. It’s such fun photographing things that turn out to be familiar to others. That whole area is glorious. I missed Garner State Park this time, but it’s still on the list. Apart from the river and the pavilion dances, my favorite spot at Garner is the really, really big hollow tree by the river that people have used for generations as a ‘changing room.’ I couldn’t find a photo of it online; I hope it’s still there.

  13. Your Sabinal seed pod reminds me of what I look for in milkweed pods. Open but with a nice display of the seeds all set up like some botanical paratroopers. It’s interesting to learn about your different river environments. Here most of what I visit are more or less just like all the others until you start looking for more intimate compositions.

    1. I really enjoy seed pods. I’d never seen this one, so I was glad Steve helped out with identification.

      I’d like to document at least a bit of every major river in the state. There’s a lot of history to go along with the beauty. It’s no wonder we have so many and such diverse rivers. I just looked up the square mileage of our respective states. Texas is 268,601 sq. miles; Massachusetts is 10,555. That’s really pretty amazing. Our twelve major ecoregions support a lot of variety.

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