by Michael Barnes and Joe Starr | photographs by Erich Schlegel
A mission to trace Texas’ major rivers leads to a discovery of two waterways that hold plenty of history and beauty despite flowing under the radar
After gushing up from cold springs,
the James River’s crystal-clear waters wind through a narrow, verdant canyon before joining the Llano River at a shoal of smooth stones just south of Mason. Farther north, the Pease River runs in ribbons from the caprock through grass-tufted mesas and across pebbled limestone beds. Near its mouth at the Red River in Vernon, it bends around muddy pastures covered with tall grasses and big trees.
The James and the Pease, no matter how lovely, remain largely unvisited. There are few points of entry, making them difficult to access. During trips in 2016 and 2019, we—Michael Barnes, a longtime columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, and Joe Starr, an English as a Second Language professor at Houston Community College—hardly saw anyone on their banks. In fact, when we started tracing Texas rivers a decade ago, we had never even heard of the James or the Pease.
The two of us came up with a term for these rivers: half-forgotten. Few seem to know of their existence, and those who do don’t visit them often. So they sit isolated, hidden, and relatively untouched by human interaction. In seeking out the James and Pease rivers over the course of 10 years, we came to learn a lot about their distinct characteristics.
We got to know each other in college 45 years ago and have been road trip buddies ever since. By the early 2000s, we had traveled across almost the entire Lower 48 by car, van, and truck, visiting parks, monuments, museums, and whatever else the road happened to throw our way. Our shared urge to trace Texas rivers started out as a hankering for space. As Texans living in urban areas, we longed for a stretch of road with no cars in sight. In 2003, we decided to track the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition from Camp Dubois in Hartford, Illinois, all the way to Fort Clatsop, Oregon. Like the early explorers, we followed the rivers.
A few years after that, standing on Bryan Beach at the mouth of the Brazos River near Freeport, it hit us: What if we traced every major river in Texas?
We read a couple dozen books about those rivers, then crisscrossed the countryside. We documented our hikes to the rivers, visited scores of parks, sampled hundreds of local eateries, photographed a great many courthouses, and stopped at just about every historical marker along the way. We blogged about our adventures for the Austin American-Statesman.
We were careful not to trespass on private property and stuck to riverbeds, which are fair game according to navigation rights published by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. We started out with paper maps, including some that were very detailed—and at the time, expensive—published by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Through the 50 river-tracing road trips that took us down from the mountains, through the deserts and hills, across the prairies and forests, and, in some cases, right down to the Gulf shore, we got to know Texas a little better. Even though it sometimes feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of this state, seeking out new-to-us corners of natural beauty with tangible connections of past to present endeared us even more to the place we call home.
Called “The Unknown River of Central Texas” by nonprofit advocacy group the Environmental Defense Fund, the James is the only major tributary of the Llano if you don’t count the North Llano and the South Llano. The latter join neatly in the aptly named town of Junction. The James, meanwhile, begins in Kimble County and continues northeast to meet the Llano near Mason.
The James-Llano system suffered major floods in June 1935, September 1980, and October 2018. Perhaps that’s why there are so few structures or mature trees along the river or James River Road, which follows the low canyon for much of its length.
In 2019, on our second visit, we started at the true headwaters of the James, located on private land. There, Russell Rogas looked out over the low, smooth, tilted canyon. “After the big floods, just about everything you see had changed,” said Russell, a Brenham resident whose family owns the land surrounding the headwaters in Kimble County. “That boulder was over here. This pond was over there.”
His father-in-law, Larry Tegeler, purchased the terraced valley on Ranch Road 479 between Harper and Junction “for the view and the water,” which are ardently enjoyed by Russell, his wife, Amey Rogas, and their four outdoorsy sons. The Rogas family has survived epic floods, wildfires, and, three years ago, a tornado that somehow did not damage what remains of the Creed Taylor Ranch Home. A historical marker notes it was once dubbed “the finest home west of San Antonio.” It burned down in 1926 and again in 1956. A single-story house now sits on the 19th-century foundation.
“We just come and relax,” Russell said. “In this world where everything goes on, this is a nice respite for the boys.” His sons—Britt, 18, twins Ben and Grant, 16, and Jack, 11—are all over these highlands in ATVs, Russell said. That morning, Jack had killed a hog, and the boys estimate they shoot 15 feral hogs a month on the land during the summer. They invited us to sift through the remains of a Native American midden littered with chert that rises slightly above the clear, cold first waters of the James.
“There are springs all through here,” Amey said. “In the summer, you can hear it. It sounds like a bathtub with the faucet on full.”
Below this spot, the casual visitor comes in direct contact with the James and its shorter tributary, the Little Devils River, at only a few spots along RR 479 and RR 385. Travelers can also see the James by taking the granite-gravel James River Road, which shadows the lower James until it converges with the Llano River near RR 2389 in Mason County. Yet there are plenty of sights along the way, including an especially helpful historical marker that explains how a Spanish expedition in 1808 forged through these canyons on the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
We stopped in the dry bed as the river road crossed recharge zones. There, we marveled at the stratified rock canyon walls and the pools of water teeming with tiny sunfish and Guadalupe bass. The anglers’ paradise would not have gone unnoticed by practiced fishermen, such as revered authors Fred Gipson and John Graves, who wrote poignantly about the James.
John Karges, an affable and well-informed conservation biologist with The Nature Conservancy of Texas, met us the next morning at a tiny roadside park at the intersection of US 87 and RR 1723, just south of Mason. After exchanging enthusiasms about the James River, we followed Karges to RR 2389. Our destination was the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy. One of the few public amenities on this stretch of river is the Dos Rios RV Park, which perches on a bluff above this confluence, serving as a base for fishing, swimming, and kayaking. From there, our journey took us up the James River Road, where Karges stopped to show us a natural grotto and a smooth-edge bedrock canyon above the James.
“This really reminds me more of the geology of West Texas,” he said.
Under Karges’ direction, we crossed the wide ford that had held us up the previous day. A few yards away is the well-marked, gated entrance to the 8-acre preserve named after Phillip Eckert, a rancher who made the first recorded discovery of the cave in 1907. His grandson, Clinton Schulze, and his wife, Anne Schulze, are credited with assuring the land’s conservation and shaping the interpretative trail that leads to the cave’s mouth. During the summer months, the conservancy offers scheduled weekend tours for as many as 100 people at a time to two viewing spots outside the cave. The water-carved cavern is home to 4 million bats of two varieties, Mexican free-tailed and cave myotis, which live in separate colonies inside the cave and emerge in pulses containing an estimated 100,000 flying mammals at a time. Predators lie in wait at the entrance, but since the bat population is in the millions, the numbers are on the bats’ side.
“They make vortex spirals as they emerge,” Karges said. “And now we know that there are exchanges among the Central Texas bat colonies. They are hard to monitor, but we are learning more all the time.”
The Pease begins northeast of the small town of Paducah. It continues to where it disgorges into the Red River after flowing through rugged ranchland near the town of Vernon. It also passes by the city of Quanah, which we wanted to explore for its associations with the last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, and his mother, the twice-kidnapped Cynthia Ann Parker. After Quanah, the Pease curves northward toward Vernon and its terminus at the Red River.
The Pease River awaits visitors along the stony banks at two handsome plots of public land, the Matador Wildlife Management Area and Copper Breaks State Park. We encountered the North, Middle, and South Pease rivers up and down county roads off US 62 between Childress and Paducah. Two of the three forks of the Pease are accessible for tourists at the Matador Wildlife Management Area, which contains 28,000 acres of rolling high-grass prairie dotted with mesquite, juniper, and shinnery oaks.
“Quail season is our busiest time of year,” said Chip Ruthven, manager of the wildlife area. “If it’s a good quail season.”
Northeast of Paducah, the full Pease is crossed by one of our favorite river vantage points in Texas: a relatively new bridge on Cottle County Road 104. Here, one can easily park on the north side of the bridge and walk down to wide sandbars, braided streamlets, and high white bluffs pocked with overhangs and caves. So half-forgotten is the Pease that if you browse online for images of it, among the top returns are photographs we took on our two trips.
At Copper Breaks State Park, a few miles south of Quanah, park interpreter Will Speer answered our questions while we toured the museum at the headquarters.
The name of the park comes from rocks containing copper mineral that cover the land. “But none of it was worth anything,” Speer said. “Little chunks of copper buried in clay. Basically, it could not be smelted.” The broken topography explains the latter half of the name. “The sandstone and mudstone from the San Angelo formation and the Permian bedrock are quite rugged above the creek,” Speer added.
The Comanche gathered in the area because of the spring-fed Big Pond and the four conical Medicine Mounds, which they believed held spiritual powers. The mounds rise 200 to 350 feet above the plains. “This area was one of their strongholds, revered as sacred or ceremonial grounds,” Speer explained.
Despite all of this, the Pease remains unloved, in part because the amount of gypsum that naturally shows up in the water makes it unpleasant to drink.
This information dovetailed with what we had learned earlier in the day from Shane Lance, who showed us around the Quanah, Acme & Pacific Railway Depot Museum. The town of Quanah, backed financially in part by Quanah Parker, was built on the fortunes of railroads and a giant nearby gypsum mine and plant. Acme, the plant’s company town, was promoted by Harry Koch, the grandfather of the billionaire Koch brothers.
Despite its relative solitude, the Pease is perhaps best known for an 1860 battle that was part of the frontier’s Indian Wars.
“It wasn’t a battle, actually,” Speer corrected. “It was a massacre of 15 or so women and one brave down in Foard County. They were camped on the south side of the river and were surprised by Sul Ross and his Rangers, who killed everybody except Cynthia Ann Parker because her hair was light and her eyes blue.”
The state’s most famous kidnapping victim and Quanah Parker’s mother, Cynthia Ann was taken by the Comanches in 1836 in what is now Limestone County, and then retaken by Texas Rangers on the Pease River in 1860. She had become the beloved wife of Chief Peta Nacona and mother of their three children, including Quanah. Her later life among the Texans was miserable; most of all she missed her sons. Several times she tried to escape, according to A Fate Worse Than Death: Indian Captivities in the West, 1830-1885 by Gregory and Susan Michno. Speer told us about a marker near CR 3103 on the way to Margaret that commemorated where Cynthia Ann was recaptured.
Cynthia Ann’s story stayed with us as we drove up and down the narrow county roads. Yet, as hard as we tried, we could not find the marker or the battlefield.
But disappointments and dead ends, as well as delights and discoveries, are part of the fun of tracing Texas rivers. There is a certain pleasure in being thrown off balance—learning from what we sought but could not find, and getting lost in parts of Texas we did not recognize.
Accessing the Rivers
The Dos Rios RV Park features 23 RV sites, 15 tent sites, 5 cabins, and 3 renovated vintage Airstreams. The park also rents kayaks and canoes by the day.
4500 Dos Rios Trail, Mason.
You can access the river for fishing at the Matador Wildlife Management Area, but you will need a permit as well as a fishing license.
3036 FM 3256, Paducah.