Last summer, I drove into the Nueces Canyon from Leakey on Ranch Road 337, one of the storied Twisted Sisters drives favored by weekend motorcyclists. I was looking for what I suspected was one of the most pristine bodies of water in Texas, a Hill Country river hardly anyone ever talks about.
I arrived in Camp Wood, population 736, a century-old town originally known as a hub for raising sheep and goats. Most of the storefronts along State Highway 55—the main drag dually known as Nueces Street—were occupied, but this did not feel like the Hill Country most tourists experience. None of the businesses were gussied up, and there wasn’t a winery or distillery for miles. The newest structure was a Family Dollar. The shuttered two-story hotel, the faded sign identifying the mohair business, the empty Lindbergh Park, and the mysterious point of interest with seven flagpoles on SH 55 just north of town serve as testaments to events that transpired here on the western edge of the Hill Country over the past 250 years or so.
These spots exist expressly because of the Nueces River and its adjoining creeks, springs, and tributaries. The river is why people settled in the remote Nueces Canyon and why they remain. It’s also why a growing number of intrepid travelers are passing on popular Hill Country destinations to play in Camp Wood, as well as Barksdale, Montell, and points in between.
I’m a spring-fed freshwater swimming nut. Rivers and creeks are my thing, as long as they’re unspoiled, untamed, and unchlorinated—the clearer, the better. The sweetest water I’ve ever seen was on a ranch near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Nueces, out in the middle of nowhere. The water, fresh and infused with ozone, even smelled amazing, like a crashing wave at the beach, minus the salt. I wanted to know if the main channel of the Nueces River, about 20 miles south of its headwaters, was as clear, clean, and dreamy to swim in as the neighboring Frio and Devils rivers.
My guide was Jim Holder, a chirpy, suspenders-wearing board member for the local volunteer group installing exhibits and signage for Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, a public archeological site near the banks of the Nueces. Holder is a retired school teacher and businessman whose kinfolk go back to the 1880s around these parts. He attended elementary school here before moving away and returned as a retiree eight years ago. Holder enjoys life in Camp Wood.
“The smaller the town, the more people want to visit,” he noted, as we headed north of town to Camp Wood Springs, aka Old Faithful Springs, a couple hundred yards from the river. “Until two years ago, this was the sole source of drinking water for the town,” Holder said of the gin-clear water in the small pond.
Holder guided me to Barksdale, four miles north of Camp Wood, to look at more springs. We took Ray McDonald Ranch Road off SH 55 past a low-water bridge and across a field of white rubble deposited by the October 2018 floods. The actual river was a thin channel maybe 20 feet wide in the rubble, wedged against a low limestone shelf. As the westernmost Hill Country river, constantly rechanneled by big floods that periodically tear through the basin, the Nueces’ riparian landscape is minimalist: white rocks of all sizes, with occasional stands of hackberry, sycamore, oak, and pecan. It reminded me of the Greek islands.
Holder told me this was one of his favorite places on the river to visit. We parked and I had a swim. The water was brisk for a Texas river in August and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. A few small bass and cichlids congregated around rare patches of vegetation.
If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection. While I swam, Holder read Paul Horgan’s book Great River, about the Rio Grande. “I can spend two hours here every day, easy,” he said.
Compared to Hill Country rivers to the east, the Nueces is relatively unpeopled. The dearth of attractions beyond the water is no liability; it’s an asset.
The next stop was the former site of Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, just north of the Camp Wood town limits on the west side of SH 55. Situated on a small ridge above the east bank of the Nueces River, the empty but overgrown grounds sandwiched between two rural residences would have been easy to miss if not for seven flagpoles by the highway. “Those are the six flags over Texas,” Holder said. “Plus, the Lipan Apache had their own flag.”
The site was originally excavated in 1962 by Curtis Tunnell and a Texas Memorial Museum field crew from the University of Texas at Austin. Over the past two summers, it has been reexamined by Tamra Walter of Texas Tech University along with the Texas Archeological Society, which had 300 volunteers camping near the location while doing excavation work. Interpretive signage will be installed, Holderpromised, as a manner of explaining the site’s deep connection to the river.
Back in Camp Wood, we turned west and followed a dirt road maybe a half-mile to The Quince. This is the town’s sparkling swimming hole, hollowed from a bed of gravel by the sycamore-shaded banks of the Nueces and named for its 15-foot depth. Heading south on SH 55, we hit water crossings for the next 19 miles. On the dirt path of County Road 416 South, the southern extension of Wes Cooksey Park Road, Holder suddenly cautioned, “Slow down, slow down. STOP!”
The road abruptly ended. A 50-foot-long low-water bridge, built five years ago, had both ends washed out by the October 2018 deluge. The route was impassable. The washed-out bridge is now a choice slab for river swimming.
Nine miles south of Camp Wood, we stopped at a clearing on the east side of the highway with four historical markers, three of them faded and tilted. The markers identified the second Spanish mission in Nueces Canyon, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón. Unlike Mission San Lorenzo, Señora de la Candelaria completely disappeared as the adobe eroded into the terrain.Holder turned around and pointed across the highway. “That’s Montell,” he said.
Back when I conjured my first “Top Ten Swimming Holes in Texas” list, for the June 1985 issue of Texas Monthly, I had one major omission. Liz Rogers, then a hard-charging attorney in El Paso, told me I should have written about her family place on a creek that fed the Nueces in her hometown of Montell. It was the best swimming hole anywhere, she contended. I couldn’t include Montell, I told her, since it was on private property. More than 40 years later, making my way downriver from swimming hole to swimming hole, I appreciated Rogers’ passion for the water.
The heart of the settlement of Montell is a stout, rectangular old stucco building identified as the Montell Country Club. Built as a one-room schoolhouse in the early 1920s, the building was converted into a community center after the school closed. “That country club is the reason I had no idea that country clubs usually connote wealth,” Rogers told me. “The canyon can be insular,” she allowed. “But it was a beautiful place to grow up. We were surrounded by people that pushed us and cared about us.”
Holder and I drove 9 miles south to Nineteen Mile Crossing, where Nueces Canyon flattens. We then looped back to Camp Wood and Leon Klink Street, just west of Nueces Street. Leon Klink Street was named for the pilot and airplane owner who flew with 22-year-old Charles Lindbergh when their Canuck biplane accidentally landed in a field north of Camp Wood in 1924.
“This was where the plane landed, crashed, and took off,” Holder explained while slow-cruising Leon Klink Street. He pointed out the vacant site of Warren Puett’s hardware store, which the biplane crashed into while attempting takeoff. Lindbergh and Klink were forced to stick around and wait for a propeller replacement and materials for wing repair. “That was the two-story Fitzgerald Hotel where Klink and Lindbergh stayed,” Holder said, pointing to a one-story, blue-green house behind a white picket fence. Three years after the Camp Wood ordeal, Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.
The naming of the rivers, along with mountains, valleys, and other natural landmarks, is often a perk reserved for their conquerors. That’s why you never hear about the Chotilapacquen, as the Nueces was known to the Coahuiltecan-speaking locals. They were defeated by the Spanish, whose name prevailed.
The Spanish explorer Alonso de León named it “Nueces” for the abundant pecan groves he observed along the river’s banks. Other Spanish explorers mapped the river upstream from Corpus Christi Bay across the Brush Country of South Texas to the westernmost canyon of the Hill Country and its headwaters, 2,400 feet above sea level and 315 miles away. Along the journey upstream, the river disappeared for stretches. Around present-day Uvalde, the water was startlingly clear and surprisingly abundant. Upstream, the river frequently vanished under piles of gravel and rocks, again and again, only to reappear a few hundred yards later.
The early Spanish explorers chose a location 30 miles downstream from the headwaters, just downstream from Camp Wood Springs, which provided a constant source of water. There, in January 1762, Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz was founded by a Spanish commander with the help of a Franciscan missionary. The mission aimed to spread Christianity while offering shelter and protection to the Lipan Apache, who were being harassed by Comanche and other hostile tribes. The establishment of the mission—at least 14 adobe and limestone structures—came four years after Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá near present-day San Saba was destroyed by the Comanche. The Comanche were angered by the alliance the Lipan Apache, their enemy, made with the Spanish.
Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón, a companion mission 10 miles south, was established two weeks after San Lorenzo. Within seven years, both were abandoned. Two smallpox epidemics, Comanche attacks, and the realization that the Lipan Apache weren’t interested in converting to Christianity prompted the retreat. The closings in Nueces Canyon marked the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire’s expansion into Texas from Mexico.
Following the end of the Texas Revolution, in 1836, Mexico regarded the Nueces River as the southern border of the breakaway territory. That is, until the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, formalizing the southern boundary as the Rio Grande. In 1857, the U.S. Army established Camp Wood, near the site of Mission San Lorenzo, as a deterrent to Native American raids. But the camp was abandoned at the start of the Civil War. The town of Camp Wood was eventually founded in 1921 as the railhead for logging cedar.
I returned to Nueces, Canyon a few weeks after visiting with Holder. I wanted to drive from the headwaters down toward Camp Wood, a dramatic drop of 1,000 feet in elevation. I came this time to meet the River Whisperer.
Sky Jones-Lewey, a chestnut-haired 60-something whose steely eyes portray a no-nonsense demeanor, lives on a ranch at the south end of Nueces Canyon. I call her the River Whisperer because she has spent most of her life learning about the Nueces River and all things riparian. She shares that knowledge as resource protection and education director for the Nueces River Authority. Her publication Your Remarkable Riparian: A Field Guide to Riparian Plants Within the Nueces River Basin of Texas is a bible of information about Texas river sedges, grasses, ferns, woody plants, and trees.
The Nueces is Jones-Lewey’s river. She took me to its edge, just downstream from the low-water crossing in the Camp Wood Hills subdivision west of Camp Wood. We parked in a cleared lot she said used to be a dumping ground—”trash, animals, everything”—but is becoming a county park. I was surprised to find such a great spot to take a swim, which I promptly did after she offered her mask and snorkel. As I immersed, I thought back to the detailed explanation of the Nueces’ immaculate state Jones-Lewey emailed me in advance of my trip.
“Nueces basin headwater streams (Nueces, Frio, Sabinal, etc.) are so incredibly clear because they are naturally carrying almost no nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus,” she wrote, “and so far, no nutrient-rich wastewater has been allowed to be added to any of them.” According to Jones-Lewey, the towns and camps across the Nueces headwaters utilize the soil, via land application, for their wastewater disposal, with zero discharge into the river.
The clarity of the Nueces, she continued, has to do with the river’s unique underwater landscape. “The base of the aquatic food web in this desert is a delicate community of periphyton (algae, bacteria, and other microbes) that have found ways to prosper on bare rock. These plant-like organisms are harvested by teams of tiny specialized May and Caddis fly larvae, beetles, and snails that are in turn eaten by the Nueces plateau shiner, Spring salamanders, and other endemic species.”
Between dips in the river, we discussed water, riparian habitat, and humans’ relationship to and impact on the environment. The good news is, while some rivers and waterways in Texas are either polluted, compromised, or threatened, the rivers of the Nueces basin—the Sabinal, Frio, and Nueces—don’t attract near the number of visitors that the Guadalupe and Colorado river basins do, although prime swim spots get crowded on summer weekends.
“This is the last of the pristine rivers in Texas,” Jones-Lewey said during one swimming break. “It’s extremely clean.”
Robert Mace, a hydrologist who is executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos, agrees. “Due to its rural and remote locale, and the perpetual gnawing of water against the limestones of the Edwards Plateau,” he said, “the headwaters of the Nueces are among the most pleasing in the state.”
This is in large part due to the work of Jones-Lewey, who led the Nueces River Authority’s efforts to help persuade the Texas Legislature to ban driving in riverbeds. Sitting on the rocky beach at water’s edge, she illustrated why, scraping away large, dry rocks at our feet to reveal pebbles of wet gravel underneath. “The river’s here, too,” she said. “We just can’t see it with all these rocks in the way.”
The Nueces was all that I thought it would be: some of the best swimming around, with calm and cool waters, free of debris and with clear visibility. Hovering below the surface, rhythmically reaching one arm out after the other, steadily paddling my extended toes, I felt like I was floating in a state of suspended animation. Locals are cautiously optimistic the river will continue to allow a magical experience. Awareness about respecting and protecting it has been raised, slowly but surely.
“The river’s in good shape because there are miles and miles of undisturbed streambed,” Jones-Lewey said. “People have not done anything to it. So far.”
The love for the river is deep and wide, and lives on forever in Nueces Canyon High’s school song:
Down below the plains of Texas,
where the hills arise,
there’s a land of sparkling waters,
canyons and blue skies.
Ring ye Nueces High with music,
we praise your power and might.
Hail to thee Nueces Panthers,
hail to Blue and White.
Lodging and outfitters in Nueces Canyon
The Cable Cabin, a block east of Lindbergh Park, hosts up to 20 guests spread over the main cabin, which sleeps nine. There are also two classic RVs and two vintage Cavalier travel trailers. 201 N. San Antonio St., Camp Wood. 512-300-6656; cablecabin.net
Arrowhead on the Nueces includes a large house that sleeps 12, a cottage that sleeps four, and five basic cabins. It sits on 7 acres along Old Faithful Creek and the Nueces, a half-mile north of town. 921 SH 55, Camp Wood. 830-597-4421; arrowheadnueces.com
Mill Wheel on the Nueces offers a house, a lodge, and two cottages. $250 per night and up. 214 N. Nueces St., Camp Wood. 830-597-4411; millwheelonthenueces.com
Los Rios Campground has cabins and dedicated river access, and it’s within walking distance of The Quince. 751 River Road, Camp Wood. 830-597-4239; losrioscampground.com
Wes Cooksey County Park, 3 miles south of town, has RV spaces and camping. 33719 SH 55, Camp Wood. 830-597-3223
The Riv, located across and above the Arnold Crossing dam, features new luxury cabins. 140 CR 417, Uvalde. theriv.com
Big Oak River Camp is a campground and RV park with log cabins on its own stretch of the Nueces, 4.5 miles south of Camp Wood. 32598 SH 55, Camp Wood. 830-597-5280; bigoakrivercamp.com
Jesse Falcon shuttles tubers and kayakers ($40 per shuttle)—and rents kayaks ($25 per day)—from Barksdale down to the dam, a 6- to 8-mile run, or from the dam down below Montell. 830-591-4411
This article first appeared on Texas Highways. Click here to view the article in its original format.