It just doesn't feel like summer in Texas without floating the river. COVID-19 put a halt to this tradition last year, but now the San Marcos River is open and ready to welcome visitors again.
Rising up from hundreds of springs in the center of the city, the waterway is a remarkably pristine body of water that’s 10 times cleaner than the EPA standards for drinking water. It’s also 72 degrees year-round, making it the perfect destination for both hot summer afternoons and cool winter days.
Whether you’re in the mood for a leisurely float, whitewater thrills, a sightseeing tour, or something completely unexpected, the San Marcos River is the place to be.
Here are five of the best ways to have a Texas-sized adventures on the river, and a few things to keep in mind before you go.
Is chilling out in a tube and watching the world float by a little too tame for you? Then try whitewater kayaking at Rio Vista Park, where there are three man-made rapids where you can test your skills. You can even paddle at night, as the park stays lit after the sun goes down and remains open until 11 pm.
Never whitewater kayaked before? No problem! The upper San Marcos River is a great place to paddle in calm waters — perfect for new kayakers or those looking for a beautiful, leisurely adventure.
2. Glass-bottom boat tours
The San Marcos River is known for being so clear that you can see to the bottom, so what better way to experience it than with a glass-bottom boat tour? Head to the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, which is at Spring Lake, the headwaters for the San Marcos River.
Tours run continuously every 30 minutes and offer you a chance to sit in a comfortable, covered boat, where you can peer into the water below and observe turtles, salamanders, fish, and more. While you’re there, take a stroll on the wetlands boardwalk for another very cool view of the local aquatic flora and fauna.
Scuba diving isn’t just for the ocean — you can get your scuba on deep in the heart of Texas, too. The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment offers a unique opportunity to dive into the clear headwaters of the San Marcos River. While you can’t dive recreationally, volunteers can dive in this stunning part of the San Marcos River in order to help preserve the ecosystem.
The center offers a course for those who are already scuba-certified that allows them to dive in this critical habitat in exchange for science-based volunteer work. For those not scuba-certified, snorkeling downstream of Spring Lake is an excellent option for great views of the river.
If you so much as mention heading down to the river, you can pretty much guarantee that your friends will start airing up their tubes for a day of floating. If you’re looking to tube the San Marcos River, you have the option of either renting a tube or bringing your own.
One of the most popular spots for tube rentals and river shuttles is the Lions Club Tube Rental at San Marcos City Park. Here, you can rent tubes every day of the week and float from San Marcos City Park to Rio Vista Park. Once there, you’ll find natural pools to take a dip in and fun waterfall chutes.
The journey from park to park takes about an hour, and you’re welcome to sip a cold beer along the way so long as it’s not in a glass bottle. For a longer tubing option, rent a tube from Texas State Tubes or Don’s Fish Camp and take advantage of shuttle pick-up services along the way.
5. Stand-up paddleboard
Also known as SUP, stand-up paddleboarding is one of the coolest ways to experience the San Marcos River. You can rent a stand-up paddleboard and paddle the mighty river, or you can take part in a nighttime paddleboard glow experience.
Picture the moonlit San Marcos River, plus you, your friends, and a whole bunch of technicolor neon. This must-try adventure allows you to take to the water on a SUP that’s equipped with underwater LED lights boasting different colors and settings. Bring your own glow sticks to light up the night even more. The unforgettable tour is guided and takes approximately an hour to an hour and a half.
And now for some helpful tips:
Where to park
Parking is permitted at the Fish Hatchery, Ramon Lucio Park, and along CM Allen Parkway and Cheatham Street.
Don’t forget a bag
San Marcos is full of natural beauty and we all want to keep it that way. Make sure you bring a bag for your trash and belongings so nothing goes astray or ends up unintentionally becoming litter. The plants, animals, and locals will thank you for taking extra care of their beautiful city.
Remember, it's a real river
The San Marcos River is a natural-forming body of moving water, so visitors should be aware of currents and wildlife when enjoying it. Wearing a life vest is highly suggested when exploring the river, especially for children and those who are inexperienced swimmers.
Protect your skin
No matter what SMTXperience you have planned, you should always be prepared for the hot Texas sun. Always wear sunscreen — even on a cloudy day — and reapply every two hours or when needed. Wearing hats or sunglasses will help protect your eyes from the bright sun. After all, the worst memento from a fun day in the sun is a painful sunburn.
Hydration is key
Staying hydrated can be tricky during the hot summer months (because, no, beer doesn't count). Bring plenty of water and try to drink it consistently throughout the day. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, and make it harder for your body to stay hydrated. Alcohol is not allowed in parkland, but it can be brought into the river through the public access points for your water recreation activities.
Leave glass and styrofoam at home
Glass bottles and styrofoam (yes, even styrofoam coolers) are prohibited in San Marcos parks and waterways. Glass can easily break and end up on the river bed and bank. Styrofoam breaks down into bite-sized pieces for fish, birds, and turtles where it remains in their stomachs, causing them to feel full and starve to death. The best option is to bring your drinks in a reusable steel or plastic bottle to decrease your carbon footprint.
Wear appropriate shoes
While flip flops are a convenient footwear choice for the summer season, you're better off wearing a sturdier shoe that secures to your foot. The extra stability makes it less likely you’ll take a tumble, break a strap, or lose them altogether. The river current is stronger than you think, and your improperly secured shoes can vanish downriver faster than you can react.
Stick to public access points
The San Marcos River connects with the Guadalupe River and flows into the Gulf of Mexico, so don't forget to get out of the river at one of San Marcos' many public access points. These public access points allow you to get in and out of the water without trampling some of the much-needed flora on the river banks. It also designates public parkland, so you don’t end up trespassing on someone’s private property.
For a full list of park do's and don'ts, visit keepalidonit.org.
It doesn't get much better than San Marcos in the summertime. The river is waiting — all you have to do is dive in.