San Marcos Day Trip Guide: Floating, Tubing, River

Home of the reformed Texas State University “the party school”, San Marcos has earned a reputation for its rowdy student parties and crowded river. But as the former home of Lyndon B. Johnson and the birthplace of George Strait’s career, it’s clearly more than a college town.


With its unique blend of Old Austin charm and fierce individual identity, this laid-back town 30 minutes south of Austin is a great breath of fresh air for fast-paced city dwellers. (Don’t go comparing it to Austin with the locals.)

From a San Marcos has-been, here’s a guide to all things “San Mo:”

tubing

(Don’s Fishing Camp/Facebook)

The heart of San Marcos is its river, which runs through downtown and dominates most summer activity. When you reach the crystal clear water, which stays at 72 degrees all year round, you’ll understand why.

There are three schools of thought when it comes to river tubing in San Marcos:

  1. For a quieter ride: Although this is the only route that crosses the city, the one-hour route from Sewell Park to Rio Vista is best for more leisurely family fun. Those with ties to Texas State University can take tubes at Sewell Park for just $6 and pass through several parks and pristine views (though you have to travel a mile and a half to return your tube). The Lions’ Club rental offers a similar option for $18 with an unlimited river shuttle. For both rides, watch out for Wild Rice, which is rampant due to its endangered status, and Rio Vista Rapids, they’re not for the faint of heart.
  2. For a complete tubing experience: Located on the outskirts of town, Texas State Tubes combines a back-to-nature experience with a crowded party vibe. Visitors take a subway ride filled with rapids, lulls and swings before returning to an old yellow school bus three hours later. The standard experience is $25, but Austinites who avoid driving can also take a shuttle from downtown Austin for $69.
  3. For the “river rats”—Don’s Fish Camp is like the slightly more pointed twin of Texas State Tubes. Like Texas State Tubes, Don’s Fish Camp is three hours long, though it’s located further out of town and has earned a slightly bigger reputation among tube veterans.

Every ride is different, but newcomers can get to tubing in no time with these general rules:

  • Bring lots of sunscreen, lots of drinks (don’t forget water too!) and a rope to tie the tubes together. For the best experience, tie each tube together during the slow stretches and untie them before reaching the fast ones.
  • Chill tubes are available for rent at both Texas State Tubes and Don’s Fish Camp. Although you can bring alcohol to either without a problem, glass and styrofoam are not permitted. Alcohol bans are also lightly enforced in city parks.
  • Be sure to pack for long hours in the sun – hats, sunglasses and shirts are all great for protecting you. For those committed to keeping their toenails, sandals and river shoes are also recommended.
  • Unless you have to, don’t bring your phone or other valuables – anything can get lost in the river.
  • Arrive wherever you are going early to avoid the crowds, especially in the summer.
  • Everything you forget, from river shoes to cooler tubing, can be had cheaply at HEB.
  • When you’re about to attack a rapid, remember to lift your butt and avoid the rocks!

More river fun

(Texas State University/Twitter)

Tubing is not the ultimate solution for fun on the river in San Marcos. Those interested in picnicking or sunbathing can head to famous Bikini Hill in Sewell Park, which also offers swimming, beach volleyball, basketball, and paddleboard/kayak rentals.

Other swimming spots include Rio Vista, home to three rapids and several nearby restaurants, and Stokes Park, which offers a more secluded swimming and trail experience. Five Mile Dam is another popular natural swimming destination, and famous swimming holes abound just twenty miles west of the small town of Wimberley (though it could be a day trip).

The crystalline origin of the San Marcos River (and possible origin of civilization) can also be explored via a glass bottom boat at Spring Lake. The only home of the San Marcos Salamander, the spring is also considered the oldest continuously inhabited site in North America.

Non-river alternatives

Once you’ve wiped yourself clean, here are a few other things to try around town:

  • Wonder World Cave & Adventure Park: This family-friendly attraction features a natural cave system, a tower with the highest views in the county, and a train that runs through a wildlife park.
  • Purgatory Creek Natural Area: Nature lovers, bird watchers and mountain bikers will all thrive in this natural area, which features dozens of miles of trails through creeks, limestone cliffs and more.
  • The Square: Although it’s teeming with barhoppers at night, strolling through downtown San Marcos is also a great way to start your day. Visitors can stroll past downtown murals and the occasional live music show in Kissing Alley before stopping at downtown restaurants, cafes, and vintage shops. The square also fills up for community events like the weekly Farmer’s Market, which takes place every Saturday.
  • San Marcos Outlets: The San Marcos Outlets are one of the most popular tourist destinations in Texas. Spanning over one million square feet, the mall is home to hundreds of stores and can temporarily triple the population of San Marcos in high season. Be sure to arrive early and wear your best walking shoes.

Food

Here’s a rundown of the best bites in town:

Best breakfast—An off-the-beaten-track Tex-Mex treat, Chepo’s offers inexpensive homemade tacos for breakfast and more before closing at 2 p.m. each day.

Best brunch—Head to Blue Dahlia for a classic hangover cure: mimosas and an all-day breakfast menu (including the best waffles in town).

Best coffee—Jo’s Cafe is quintessential San Marcos and offers coffee, breakfast tacos, and more on a quiet street near downtown.

Best Tex-Mex—Since 1976, Herbert’s Taco Hut has been serving low-key Tex-Mex fare just steps from Rio Vista Park. Honorable Mention—Toma Taco.

Best date—Palmers’ charming courtyard has won numerous Hays County awards and is perfect for a romantic night out.

Wine & dinner—Patio Dolcetto is never too crowded and always stocked with San Marcos’ finest wines, wine-based cocktails and artisanal appetizers.

High-end cuisine—The Root Cellar Cafe is a more upscale downtown dining option, while Cody’s Bistro offers stylish cocktails and creative menu options near outlets.

For dessert-From goat cheese and raspberry to animal cracker, Rhea’s Ice Cream offers ice cream flavors that easily rival Amy’s. Next door is Gil’s Broiler, home of LBJ’s favorite dessert, the Manske Roll.

Drinks

Icehouse of Zelick- Perhaps the man’s best-known activity in San Martian is grabbing a $6 beer and shot combo at Zelick after a long day of tubing. Built from a 1930s gas station, the “Best Little Icehouse in Texas” offers live music, events, and a queso-centric food truck in a casual setting near the plaza.

Davenport Lounge—The former home of Buzzmill Coffee, this cozy indoor-outdoor venue offers craft cocktails, great food, and live music most nights of the week.

Treff Tavern—Are you tired of the prices charged in the big cities? For the first week of every month, this North LBJ neighborhood favorite offers $2 house drinks of your choice all night long.

Stone wall- San Marcos’ only gay bar attracts a clientele of all types for its over-18 restrictions, drag shows, and lively events.

Shade roof bar— One of the many downtown rooftop bars, Shade offers a more laid-back setting in the rowdy square.

Sean Patrick’s—The best Irish pub in San Marcos offers Irish food, dozens of draft beers and activities from darts to parties.

Music

Cheatham Street Warehouse—Originally a humble grocery storehouse, this unassuming venue was the site of George Strait’s first performances and has since hosted many other honky-tonk greats.

The Mark—From its famous Latin Nights to Shaquille O’Neal, San Marcos’ biggest venue attracts celebrity attendees of all genres, especially EDM.

Open mic nights and more— Live music and weekly open-mic nights take place in San Marcos Square, with popular hotspots such as Nephews and the Gray Horse Saloon. Further afield, events often take place at the truly unique Studio San Martian as well as Roughhouse and Middleton Brewing.

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