Thanks to the Trinity River Paddling Trail, families have access to 131 miles (yes, you read that correctly) of nature and cityscapes along Dallas-Fort Worth’s signature waterway. New to paddling? No problem—we talked to paddling trail manager Teresa Patterson and some longtime local paddlers to find out how to get started exploring the Trinity with your family.
Pro Tip: Bookmark the Trinity Coalition website, which has an interactive trail map and safety information.
Choosing a Boat: Canoe or Kayak?
Canoes may have a reputation for being tippy, but local paddler Bryan Jackson says they’re the best option for beginners. “Start out in canoes—especially if you’ve got little kids,” he says. “You don’t want to put an 8- or 9-year-old kid in a kayak by themselves. Tandem kayaks are OK, but the adult has to be a little more experienced. A tandem canoe is a little bit more forgiving.”
Patterson agrees that canoes are more comfortable for families, especially if you want your kids in the boat with you. But “kayaks are easier to paddle,” she adds. “They are more stable because you’re in the bottom of the boat instead of sitting up on a seat.”
Local outfitters (scroll down for links) may offer an orientation and safety briefing in your boat of choice; if you’re unsure about which kind to rent, ask for their advice.
Paddling Safety 101
Three words: Respect the water. Paddling is as much about safety as it is about fun. Taking some precautions will ensure that your family enjoys your time on the water.
Everybody in the boat needs a lifejacket (aka PFD) that fits well. “The most dangerous thing that can happen—and it doesn’t matter whether it’s calm water—is for a child to hit the water and that vest to slip up over their head or cause a problem in the water,” explains Patterson.
Not every outfitter has lifejackets for all ages, so if you’re renting equipment or taking a guided trip, ask about PFD in advance.
On the water, make sure everybody is wearing their life vest. “It does no good if it’s sitting in the boat,” Patterson says. “That doesn’t keep you safe any more than wearing a bullet-proof vest would protect you if it’s sitting in your car.”
If your little one is prone to unbuckling their car seat, keep an eye on their lifejacket to make sure it stays fastened.
It’s a very bad idea to load up your boat and just put in at the nearest launch site. When the Trinity is high and flowing fast, paddling can be dangerous even for experienced paddlers. So before you go, check the water level. The Trinity Coalition has made it easy: Go to the water levels page and click on a section of the river to see a color-coded gauge. You can also find links to the gauges on the interactive launch sites map.
Generally, the portions of the Trinity in and around downtown Fort Worth tend to be calmer, while the Elm Fork north of Dallas is more prone to high water. But always check the gauges before putting in anywhere.
Just in Case
Should your party get into trouble, you need to be able to direct help to your location. “The main thing you need to know is where you are and if there’s a local police emergency number or what jurisdiction you’re in, so that if something does happen they can come get you,” Jackson says. “The paddle trail signs at the put-in usually will have all that information.”
What To Bring
Besides safety gear, be sure you have a cellphone—preferably in a waterproof container if the phone itself isn’t waterproof. But your kids’ electronics? “Leave the phones and the games and everything else at home,” advises Jackson. Your child may pout at first, but they’ll be much more engaged in the trip. To pique their interest, tell them about the wildlife and other sights to watch for on the water.
Also take plenty to drink—“even in December, the sun’s pretty hot if you’re out paddling on the water,” warns Jackson—along with snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses and hats.
Where To Go
Jackson says that young kids do well with a short out-and-back paddle (say, 1–2 miles). A river guide (see below) can take you on sections of the Trinity that are good for beginners, but our expert paddlers share a few favorite sites that—when the water level is safe—are fun for families:
- “Trinity Park has three little chutes that when the river is really low, kids could even tube over them,” Patterson says. “But what we recommend for families is to launch at the unofficial place just downstream from the last of these (which is called Double Drop), and then it’s a really lovely paddle all the way up to Panther Island.” You can access this unofficial launch from Trinity Park at the Tilley Memorial Bridge.
- Rent a boat at Panther Island from Backwoods Paddlesports and travel up- or downstream. “Usually there’s no current,” says Patterson, “and it’s very calm and very narrow, so if there’s an issue you can paddle over to the side and get out. It’s not at all challenging.”
- “You can put in at White Settlement Road and paddle either way—up to the dam, or downstream to Panther Island—and back, because usually the flow there is low enough,” Patterson says. She adds that this section of the river offers spectacular views of the Cowtown skyline. You can find this official launch site on Trinity Coalition’s interactive map.
- “The best area for nature is the Great Trinity Forest on the way out of Dallas on the south side,” Jackson says. “That’s the least developed area, and it’s got the most wildlife.” He recommends taking a trip with river guide Charles Allen of Trinity River Expeditions (see below).
- When the Elm Fork isn’t too high, you can put in at McInnish Park in Carrollton and paddle upstream, or portage the nearby Carrollton Dam and head downstream (the Trinity Coalition site has a map for portaging). “The section below Carrollton Dam, you can take it to a couple of the parks in Irving,” says Jackson. “That’s nice, it’s short, it’s nothing dangerous.
Local Outfitters, Guides & Groups
Beginners may want to go out with a guide. (In fact, the expert paddlers recommend it.) These three organizations will take families on guided tours of the river:
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. Canoe and kayak rentals available as well.
When open, 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. Check their calendar for upcoming dates. $20 per person.
Local Paddling Club
Even beginners can join the Dallas Downriver Club’s events, says Jackson. That’s a good way to safely explore the Trinity (and other Texas waterways) surrounded by knowledgeable paddlers. Check the website for upcoming paddles.
Photo courtesy of Faisal Khan.