The deer see you and freeze, as if not moving will make them invisible. But their eyes follow you as your canoe drifts downriver. This is a staring contest you will lose—and an encounter you won’t forget.
“Not only do you see things on the river that you wouldn’t ordinarily see, but you see things in Dallas that you wouldn’t ordinarily see,” says Bryan Jackson, a longtime local paddler. His daughter Angela Rogers chimes in: “We’ve seen bald eagles that you wouldn’t think would be around here, but they are.”
“The river” is the Trinity, which connected Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton long before plans for Interstate 35 were conceived in whatever circle of hell is reserved for eternal road construction.
Traveled for hundreds of years, the river is fundamental to the founding and evolution of our cities; Dallas once tried to become an inland port that would welcome steamships from the Gulf of Mexico. (It didn’t work out.) Yet we North Texans often treat this resource with undeserved dismissiveness.
“This is like the secret here in the Metroplex,” says Teresa Patterson, a local river guide and American Canoe Association certified instructor who serves as the paddling manager for the nonprofit Trinity Coalition. “The people who are in the city don’t think about the river. They have no idea that this gem is sitting there right at their feet.”
So the Trinity Coalition has assembled the 130-mile Trinity River Paddling Trail, which as soon as this month could become a National Recreation Trail. That’s a big deal—National Park Service big. And despite the Hill Country’s reputation for float-worthy rivers, the Trinity would boast the first paddling trail in the state to earn the National Recreation Trail designation. Yes, the Trinity.
Why the Paddling Trail Is Good for Families
Jackson and Rogers rattle off an impressive list of wildlife spied from the river: otters, beavers, coyotes, wild pigs, deer, eagles, owls, lots of turtles. The best area for nature, Jackson says, is the Great Trinity Forest in Southeast Dallas (which, by the way, is the largest urban hardwood forest in the country).
Patterson mentions that launching from the Fort Worth Nature Center, she sees the occasional alligator. “Very tame, friendly alligators,” she adds hastily. “Don’t pet one, but they won’t mess with you.”
Obviously, this is a very different side of DFW than most of us typically see—but thanks to the paddling trail, it’s right here at our oar-tips. The river also connects parents and kids as they explore North Texas from a new vantage point. For Jackson, being on the water means being with family.
“It’s a lot of memories,” he says. “I used to work a lot of hours and that was the only time I got to see Angela just one-on-one. We’d have a day off, and we’d hop in the boat and go someplace.”
Now he and Angela are taking her 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, on paddling trips. “It not only gives her an outlet for something to do, it gives me and her something in common that we can spend some time doing,” Angela says.
A dad gets a lot of the credit for encouraging the development of the trail. As Dale Harris, president of the Dallas Downriver Club, scouted the river, he envisioned a string of safe, accessible launches only 4–6 miles apart. “I had kids at the time, and I know you can’t get them out on the river and expect them to be out there five to six hours,” he says.
As he talked to others, he found out that paddlers were more comfortable with the idea of an established trail rather than just a list of access points.
At some spots along the river—particularly on the Fort Worth side—the water is calm enough to return to the same launch, which is a great option for kids to (figuratively) get their feet wet. Where the river flows, however, a boat ramp doesn’t do families much good if the next access point is 10 or 20 miles downriver. Sewing the trail together required inter-city cooperation.
“While the Metroplex has done a good job of putting together a vision for uniting their bike trails,” Patterson says, “[the cities] didn’t have any idea that they each had pieces of the river that might be able to be united.”
Now with a National Park Service label imminent, cities are eager to spiff up their sections—so far, the trail has 21 official launches from Southeast Dallas to Lake Lewisville to Lake Worth, and more under construction.
The Paddling Trail Is Only the Beginning
Though the project is itself an accomplishment, Steve Smith, board chairman of the Trinity Coalition, explains it’s a stepping stone to an even grander goal: for every public green space in DFW that touches the Trinity to become part of a 40,000-acre National Recreation Area.
What’s the difference between a National Recreation Trail and a National Recreation Area? For one thing, the latter requires an act of Congress—so big, big deal—and the National Park Service would be likely to set up at least one local office. Most exciting, local cities might receive funding to clean up and preserve those green spaces, and North Texas would become a destination for nature tourism. The Trinity Coalition is even working to trademark the phrase “Where Nature Happens” to support that goal.
Just imagine the National Park Service arrowhead welcoming families to parks all over town; in a handful of years (Smith hopes), you might see it for real. “Think about how that will change the way that people think about that park,” he says. “It’d be, ‘Oh, wow—I need to be more careful about throwing litter down; I need to be more careful about protecting nature.’”
For local families, living next to a National Recreation Area would mean access to even better-maintained parks and amenities, and perhaps more incentive to explore the area we all call home.
“I really think that the Trinity River Paddling Trail is already starting to unite the cities,” says Smith. “And I think that if we can get the full National Recreation Area brand on it, then the cities will start thinking of themselves as being really DFW people, not just Dallas people or Fort Worth people.”
Visit Trinity Coalition for a map of the Trinity River Paddling Trail and—most important—safety information. It can be dangerous to paddle when the river is high, so the website links to color-coded gauges for each launch site that will tell you whether conditions are safe.
If your family is new to paddling, the best way to hit the trail is to go with a guide. Pandemic permitting, these three organizations offer guided paddles (boats and lifejackets included):
The Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge takes family-friendly trips along the Western portion of the paddling trail, including canoe tours and full moon paddles. // $20 per person. 9601 Fossil Ridge Road, Fort Worth
Trinity River Expeditions hosts guided canoe trips the second Saturday of each month, year-round. Call Charles Allen at 214/941-1757 to find out which upcoming trip would be best for your family, or to arrange a private tour. // $45 per person.
Besides managing the paddling trail, Teresa Patterson co-owns Adventures Unlimited Paddling Company, which offers guided tours of the Trinity and full moon paddles. // From $40 per person; $5 per child too young to paddle.
For even more, check out our guide to local outfitters and paddling the Trinity with kids—including where to go, what kind of boat to rent, and how to keep your kiddo safe on the water.
Photo courtesy of Faisal Khan.