It is generally accepted that the Grand Canyon was formed over the course of 18 to 20 million years (give or take a few million). Scientists estimate that Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon took 90 million years to form. Based on firsthand knowledge, the Canyon Lake Gorge was formed in two days.
If you’ve never been, Canyon Lake is about as picturesque as they come: wide-open Texas sky, rolling Texas hills and one giant pool of crystal-clear water plopped down in the middle of it all. Formed along the flowing Guadalupe River in the 1960’s, this 8,000-acre lake is the perfect solution to any boiling-hot Texas summer. I’ve spent many an afternoon basking on the shores of Canyon Lake, which lies just one hour from San Antonio, with plenty of public parks for waterfront access.
However, on this particular day I headed to Canyon Lake for a very different reason. I wasn’t in search of water, but the remnants of what water had left behind — an incredible gorge half a mile long and 200 yards wide formed over the course of a few days by a raging flood. You see, the average rainfall in this part of the Hill Country is 15 to 34 inches per year. However, on the July 4th weekend in 2002, the Canyon Lake area received 34 inches. That’s a year’s worth of rainfall in a single weekend!
Luckily for area residents downstream, the Canyon Lake dam was engineered to withstand this sort of downpour. Instead of flowing over the top of the dam and jeopardizing its structural integrity, the lake was equipped with a “spillway” to channel the high water around the dam and down a small gulch. While it had never been tested prior to that weekend, the Canyon Lake spillway worked exactly as planned. Water was diverted around the dam and funneled over the spillway into a small ravine. It then flowed downhill to rejoin the Guadalupe River below the lake. It rushed over the spillway for days. However, when the water subsided, nobody expected that it would leave behind Texas’ newest natural wonder — the Canyon Lake Gorge, formed not in a matter of millions of years, but in a matter of days.
My trip through the gorge
I had heard about the gorge through some friends and was overly excited to see it myself, so I hopped onto a guided tour with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. Because of the gorge’s unique nature, it’s only accessible by guided tour, which was all right by me, as it is so spectacular that it needs some explanation from an educated guide. Since guided tours began in 2007, the Gorge Preservation Society volunteers have led over 10,000 people through the gorge, and I was pumped to be one of them.
The tour group and our fearless leader started at Overlook Park, which is just above the gorge at the mouth of the spillway. The guide brought us back to that weekend and how the rushing water sounded like a freight train moving through the terrain. The water was so powerful that if you stacked the amount of stone moved out of the gorge on a football field, it would be 30 stories tall. And as the water moved this massive amount of debris, it tore into the native limestone and exposed a number of very interesting things.
After that explanation, we set off on foot into the gorge. Our guide took us past a set of dinosaur tracks, then the underground channels of an aquifer, and finally a number of huge fossils, including a prehistoric “rock lobster” (cue the B-52s). Seeing these treasures on the rock surface is like peering 110 to 112 million years into the past. It’s such a unique opportunity that oil and gas companies are paying thousands of dollars to study the gorge and conduct minor scientific tests. As we traveled down the gorge, water suddenly began to flow out of rocks and into beautiful turquoise-blue pools connected by tiny streams and waterfalls. I didn’t mind the hike, but the hardest part for me was restraining myself from diving headfirst into these sparkling pools, as swimming is banned in the gorge.
While a hike down the gorge is a rugged and exposed hike through nature, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority recently purchased 20 acres of adjacent land with plans to build an Environmental Learning Center, complete with a shuttle bus and trails for those with limited mobility.
It’s amazing to think that something so unusual and beautiful could be formed in a matter of days. And with the help of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, it will be around for generations to come.
Reserve a spot: Remember, you can only experience the gorge on a guided tour. So check the schedule and reserve a spot at canyongorge.org. The hike is for folks 7 years and up.
Drink water: While the hike through the gorge isn’t too tough, water is essential … so is sunscreen.
Wear SHOES: Flip-flops make great lakeside shoes, but you’ll need appropriate footwear to hike in the gorge.
Tune into The Daytripper on your local PBS station, or visit www.thedaytripper.com