The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, March 23, 2001, Columns

River Haven Cabins outside of Leakey stands on a bluff above the Rio Frio like a log fortress. The constant sound of the water over the river rocks, accented by the chirping of birds in the tall cypress trees, makes it a refuge of relaxation.

Over the past 16 years the owners have replaced the weathered summer cabins with 16 new duplexes that look like stout log houses. The covered porches on the back of the cabins offer a panoramic view of the river from treetop level. Just the right place to kick back with your feet on the rail to watch the sun disappear behind the hills on the other side of the river.

It is the kind of place that attracts families back year after year for summer vacations and lasting memories. That's how Janie Johnson ended up there 23 years ago as the live-in manager. Recently divorced at the time with two small children, she escaped the Dallas metropolitan area for the wilds of the Rio Frio Canyon. On March 1, 2001, Janie began training her replacement as manager of the River Haven Cabins.

Janie taught in the Leakey public schools until she retired from there in 1997. A battle with cancer has convinced her that she needs to slow down and retire again, this time from the job that has been her life and the camp that has been her home for nearly a quarter of a century. She plans to move to a little cabin being built on the other side of town by her husband, Ken Nichols, and to enjoy her four grandchildren.

"It's very peaceful out here," she says when asked what she likes best about living on the river. "It's very quiet, but I love the river the most." Janie began coming to the camp with her parents in 1945. At the time it encompassed considerably more area than the current 6.5 acres and was much more rustic.

River Haven was one of the first tourist accommodations on the stretch of the river above Garner State Park. The Hardin family moved to Leakey, operated a drugstore in town, and opened the property with a couple of cabins and tent camping in 1942. The locals didn't care much for the idea of attracting more visitors to their river, Janie says, but the enterprise slowly expanded through a succession of owners.

"They did away with the camping in the 1950s and put in several little cabins," she says. In 1963, the owners subdivided the property, and her father was one of several who bought an acre of land with a cabin and river frontage for $7,000. By 1975, new owners began replacing the old cabins, which were little more than screen shelters, with the duplexes that are as comfortable as hotel rooms, but with the character of a river lodge.

Each log cabin has a great view of the river from the porch and is equipped with central heat and air. River Haven is one of the few accommodations on the river that offers a fireplace in the good-sized living rooms, making it a year-round getaway. Each cabin has two bedrooms, some with two bathrooms, plus a hide-a-bed in the living room.

The all-electric kitchens in the lodges come fully equipped with dishes, silverware, microwave, coffeemaker, pots, and even a corkscrew. Towels and linens are also furnished. "That's why people like to come here," Janie says. "They don't have to tote all that stuff out here with them." All that is required for a good time is a well-stocked refrigerator.

Summer weekends fill up quickly, so reservations are recommended early. "We have families that come out every summer. We've watched each other's children grow up," Janie says. "We have very little 'riff-raff,' as my grandmother used to call troublemakers."

For many visitors, opening a cold drink and soaking their feet in the cool river water is enough of a vacation at River Haven. For others there are horses for rent nearby. Hiking is available at Garner State Park five miles south and at Lost Maples State Park 17 miles away. The river along the camp is a mixture of shallow rapids and moderately deep pools, ideal for cooling off. The valley is on a major migratory bird route between South America and Canada, with more than 200 species of birds passing through during the year.

Tubing along the Rio Frio has not become the drunken sport it has along the Guadalupe River largely because the outfitters and campgrounds are more spread out. Janie says River Haven is on the upper end of the recreation area and doesn't have the crowds like on the lower part of the Rio Frio. Guests are welcome to tube from Leakey down to River Haven. The next public access point is a six-hour float downstream.

Friends, old and new, wish Janie Johnson the best of health after years of being a part of their family's vacation memories. The new managers Margie and Bill Davis begin new traditions this summer, but Janie will not soon be forgotten.

Rates for the log cabins range from $130 to $150 between May 1 and September 30. In the winter the rates range from $88 to $108. All prices are for up to four persons in a cabin and are plus local sales tax. For more information, call 830/232-5400 or visit their Web site at

Coming up this weekend ...

Spring Festival at Winedale presents local artisans, homegrown music, and delicious foods in a historic setting, March 24-25.

979/278-3530 or

South Texas Polka & Sausage Fest in Hallettsville mixes music with sausage, sauerkraut, kolaches, and chicken noodle soup, March 24-25. 512/798-2311 or

LBJ Ranch Roundup offers a behind-the-scenes look at the presidential ranch outside of Stonewall, March 24. 830/868-7128.

Coming up ...

Rock Swap sponsored by the El Campo RV Park in Van Horn showcases lapidary dealers and collectors, March 30-31. 915/283-2427.

Bayou City Cajun Fest in Houston features lots of music and Louisiana food while shopping at Traders Village, March 31-April 1. 281/890-5500 or

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