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HomeNL-2015-03 Champion Lake 2

Champion Lake
Jan. 29th, 2015
Joe Coker


  • Champion Lake is located in the southern portion of the 25,000 acre Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge established in 1994.
  • Remnant of a once much larger bottomland hardwood forest.
  • Often flooded to one extent or another depending on rainfall and the Trinity River which at high levels overflows into the refuge.
  • Occupied for 1,000 years by the mound-building, Caddoan Indians.
  • Home to over 275 species of birds (100 of which breed there), 632 types of plants and a plethora of other swamp critters including gators, mocs and Rafinesque’s Big Eared Bat. Plus 400 species of butterflies and moths.
  • Transected by Big Caney Creek originating west of the park (across FM 1409, west of Area #12. See Map), winding generally eastward, finally opening out approximately opposite from the boat ramp. The Creek and the south shore channel are the main lanes of the roughly 10 miles of paddling trails. Caney Creek thins down substantially beyond #12. However, much of the area south of #12 all the way down to the south shore is navigable at water levels above 7 ft and makes for an interesting paddle through the dense forest. Boats under 12 ft are recommended in there for necessary maneuverability. (See Map)
  • Main attraction: The huge area of Spanish moss covered cypress mainly in the #13,14,15 areas, plus along the south shore channel.
  • Paddling conditions and accessibility vary dramatically season to season depending on water levels and weed growth. Max gauge height is approx 7.5 feet, (partly controlled by the outflow-control mechanism and the dam) although flood levels can temporarily be substantially higher. Paddling is excellent above 7 feet. Suggested paddling minimum gauge height is 4 feet. The gauge is located on the dock near the boat ramp. (For current info call the TRNWR at 936-336-9786).
  • Hazards (apart from the critters) are submerged logs and cypress knees. The only other problems are nuisance weeds and sawgrass obstructing some of the trails. Large lotus beds also occasionally clog sections along the south channel.
  • Carry a compass! Head south to the shore if you get lost.
  • Note: Protected bird sanctuary. Regulations prohibit entry within 200 yards of the rookery between March 1 and June 30. (That means essentially the entire western third of Champion Lake.)
  • Park access sunup to sunset. Locked Gate!
  • Hiking trail to the Trinity 4.6 miles round trip.
  • Driving directions: Approx. 1 hr. east of downtown Houston. I-10 east. Exit 565. Go north 2 miles. Right on FM 1409 for 3 miles. Right on CR 417 for 1.8 miles to end of road. Boat ramp. Immediately across the road from the Picketts Bayou put-in.
  • TRNWR office location: 601 FM 1011, Liberty, TX 77575
  • Telephone: 936-336-9786  Website:
  • Contacts: Stuart Marcus and Laurie Gonzales
Champion Lake Trail Map



January 29, 2015 was a remarkable winter day... sunny, with temps in the 70’s!  Dave Kitson and I decided to take advantage and explore more of Champion Lake, even though we had just done an HCC group trip out there on Jan. 25.

The main objective for the day was to try reaching remote Area #12 and to also scout the uncharted interior west end. On arrival, we were elated to see the gauge had risen to 7’8” being more than two feet higher than the respectable 5’7” on the previous Sunday trip. That unusually high level opened up a myriad of possibilities and insured accessibility to virtually all the areas. (See Map.)

We put in around 10:30 and first headed to the right towards the dam to see if the higher water had perhaps dislodged some of the blockage on that channel. However, no such luck. If anything, the increased current had added to the congestion by cramming in quantities of more duckweed up against what was already there. The forward main blockage of hyacinth and pennywort seemed permanently wedged.

From there we poked into area #2 and then moved on up into Caney Creek toward areas #3 and 4 which are essentially small duck ponds off the main channel. Both were easily accessible on this day with a little bushwhacking at the entrances.

After briefly exploring those areas, we continued up the main Caney Creek channel which shortly beyond comes to a fork. A tall, dead cypress tree with 5 “fingers” at the top clearly marks the spot. Turn right to access #5, 6, 7 & 8. Bear left to continue on Caney Creek toward #10 and 12.

On the 1/25 group trip, we went to the right and up into Area #5. Then we retraced back toward #15, across to #13 and 14, ultimately winding down to the south shore.

On 1/29, Dave and I elected to follow the Creek up to #10 and remote #12. With the high water, it was easy and unimpeded the whole way. Area #12 was wide open, and we could have gone substantially further. Beyond the marked path, the forest becomes somewhat more dense with the trees very close together, but there was water as far as you could see and definitely navigable for a good ways further.

On a similar trip last March when the gauge was at only 5.5 feet, we ran out of water just short of #10 and couldn’t continue. Plus, that point marks the beginning of the restricted nesting area. The following two pics, taken at roughly the same spot on both trips, illustrate the seasonal diversity in the area, plus the amazing contrast at different water levels.


#10--Feb. 2015--Gauge 7’8”     #10--Mar. 2014--Gauge 5’6”

After a good look at area #12, we retraced our course and took path #9 (with a brief diversion into #19) down to the south shore... a very pretty, unobstructed run. From there, we followed the channel, hugging the north side, all the way to the west end... also a beautiful segment winding through the moss-laden cypress trees.

The south channel eventually peters-out about a half mile NW of #20. However, at gauge levels above 7 feet, it is possible to easily navigate well into the huge uncharted area to the east (north of area #20). In fact, we were able to paddle a relatively straight line due east from the west end border all the way across to area #10 (approx half a mile)....Lots of maneuvering through the tightly knit maze of trees and skirting around thick bushes, but totally doable and a very interesting paddle. Exciting to go where likely very few others have gone before!  Warning: Do not enter without a compass!  Note: No access from March 1 to June 30.


Area #12      West end interior 
We marveled at the stark beauty of the winter forest and repeatedly commented on how incredible it would be in there with all the trees leafed-out. Hopefully, we’ll get to experience that someday. That whole area holds many hours of exploratory fun, but with our mission complete, our bodies aching and the afternoon waning, we headed back to the security of the south channel and made a quick bead for home.

An excellent day! Approx. 8 miles and 5.5 hours.  Pics are on the HCC website, here.

The author, Joe Coker