Caddo Lake in Autumn

Fall Colors in Caddo Lake  |  Caddo Lake

I’d been to Caddo Lake a few times previous to this past Autumn. Many springtimes ago I was hired by Texas Highways Magazine to photograph the tulips near Gladewater. On another trip, I was fortunate enough to have friends who had a house in the Caddo area show me around from the dry confines of their boat. Using a GPS, we navigated the mysterious waters lined with the gnarly roots of cypress and enjoyed beautiful sunrises and sunsets. So, while I looked forward to this return to east Texas after many years away, I did not expect anything new except for a few cypress changing to their Autumn shades of orange and red. We camped at Caddo Lake State Park, using the facilities to stay reasonable clean. All in all, it worked for us.

I’m not much of a water person. Sure, I thoroughly enjoy photographing all forms of water – lakes, ocean, waterfalls, and rivers (even standing in rivers if I’m wearing waders). But I don’t particularly enjoy being wet besides in a clean shower. And that first morning, there I was – paddling a kayak in the dark well before sunrise while awkwardly propelling my kayak down an unknown canal in search of a place called Benton Lake – a small pond in the bigger Caddo Lake collection of waterways. My kayak was a rental from the fine and immensely helpful folks at Riverbend Outfitters ( Before I continue on, I must pause and express how amazing and helpful Kristi and her staff were to the success of my trip: Emails and phone calls answered quickly and happily; a laminated map of the area (lakes, canals, paddling paths) provided without even asking; even help pulling in my kayak from the water with me in it just to be friendly. Highly recommend them!

So I churned through the water, weaving and paddling in the cold and dark before first light. I wore chest-waders, but a leak in the left foot thwarted my attempt to keep dry. My go-to hip boots I wear when fly-fishing were at our condo in Colorado. The temperature was in the low 40s, and I had my camera gear including three lenses, tripod, and tripod-extender ready for action. I tried in vain to keep pace with my Houstonian friend, Greg, as he and his non-rental kayak glided through the glass-like water with ease. Soon, he was just a wee light in the distance while I kept chugging along. That’s how it started.

We arrived 30 minutes later in Benton Lake, and when the sun began to shed its light across the area, one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve enjoyed in my years of photographing Texas slowly appeared before my eyes. The left wet foot, the cold, the sweat while paddling suddenly made sense. In all directions, the cypress turned from dark shadows to shades of rusty orange hues, fully enveloped by the arrival of Autumn in the morning light. This morning, and for nearly a week, I was in awe of the singular beauty of the cypress surrounding the canals and small lakes through which we padded, and occasionally we’d stop to capture the moment.

In lieu of writing a novel, I’ll just share here three of my favorite moments and places. Before I start, though, I’d like to briefly explain the process of photographing Caddo Lake – at least for my friend and me.

I’m a firm believer in tripods. I like to bracket my RAW files (taking several images at different exposures) especially at sunrise or sunset when the darks and lights are in such contrast. Sometimes, I blend multiple images together to bring out more color like our eyes can see.

That said, when we found a location we wanted to photograph, we would check the water's depth using the length of the paddle, then gently slide our tripods into the water. We also added an extender to our tripods that provided a few extra feet of height so the camera could sit above the water. More often than not, my tripod was completely submerged and only the tip of the attached extender was above the murky water’s surface. Often, my camera was less than six inches from submersion and certain death. This made for some tense moments, especially when the tripod would invariable shift one way or another in the gooey mud below. Also, incredibly frustrating was that I found the slightest touch of the tripod sent my kayak slowly rotating around the tripod. This fact of physics and motion made pointing and focusing the camera in the desired direction quite challenging. However, as the days passed, I slowly figured out how to blend together my movements of the camera and tripod and kayak into a harmonious dance.

Now, back to the fun. Here were my three favorite places during my time at Caddo Lake.

Benton Lake

As I wrote in the beginning, Benton Lake is where my journey started. Here is a shaky hand-held cell phone shot of the Benton Lake sign:

From Riverbend Outfitters at Backwater Jacks, the 2.4 mile round trip paddle was about 25 minutes round-trip (maybe shorter) to Benton Lake. I know many folks like to photograph the close-up, more intimate scenes of the cypress trees. I like those, but I also like a balance of landscapes with the sky, as well, especially at sunrise or sunset. Greg and I visited this area several times at sunrise, and each morning was unique and colorful. My first morning, I found myself near the back of Benton Lake among the scattered cypress and positioned my kayak close to a large cypress trunk. From there, I sunk my tripod, spent at least 10 minutes trying to steady my boat, tripod, and camera, and waited for what turned out to be a spectacular sunrise as the colors permeated the morning through the hanging moss and cypress leaves.

A beautiful sunrise lit up the sky over these old cypress trees on a cool Autumn morning. Fall colors were on display across Caddo Lake.

From a corner of Benton Lake, part of the larger Caddo Lake system along the Texas-Louisiana border, the sunrise on this cool November morning was breathtaking. After a long paddle to reach this area, I’d been sitting still in my kayak for nearly thirty minutes waiting for this moment. My tripod was snug in mud outside the kayak, maybe sticking out of the water’s surface by about eight inches, and my camera was ready. The colors of sunrise were so vibrant, it almost didn’t seem real.

One morning at Benton Lake, a thin layer of clouds allowed light to filter through to the cypress, brightening up the orange-red leaves. The misty air created a sort of painterly quality to the craggy roots, trunks, and branches. I didn’t realize it at the time, but from this morning I captured one of my favorite panoramas of Caddo Lake:

Fall colors of cypress in November are seen in this panorama from Caddo Lake in east Texas.

In the quiet of an Autumn morning, cypress rise from the smooth waters of Benton Lake, part of the Caddo Lake system. With leaves showing rusty orange shades of Fall color, the beauty of this scene is one that will linger in my memory.

Taken from a tripod just outside my kayak, this panorama is comprised of several images stitched together from a cool November morning.

This panorama shows the fall colors from Caddo Lake.

From my kayak on Benton Lake in the Caddo Lake domain, the orange cypress seemed to glow in the morning light. The water was calm and peaceful, offering pristine reflections, as well. This was a morning I won't soon forget.

Saw Mill Pond - Caddo Lake State Park

We camped at Caddo Lake State Park, and accessing the water with our kayaks was a matter of dragging the kayak about 20 feet – and off we went. The image below is of our neighbors canoe. We kept our kayaks just to the left of this photograph at our campsite.

Let's Go Exploring 2

This canoe waited for the intrepid explorer along the bank of Saw Mill Pond in Caddo Lake State Park. The sky was blue and the cypress leaves orange on this crisp Autumn day in November.

Saw Mill Pond, the small body of water that bumps against the state park grounds, is special in its own right. Surround by a forest of old cypress along with a sprinkling of cypress trees spread throughout the water, Saw Mill Pond provided a nice place to explore both in the evenings and a sunrise on my last morning.

Caddo Lake Fall Morning 1

I spent about thirty minutes in this one amazing spot on Saw Mill Pond in Caddo Lake on an early Fall morning. The calm waters were in stark contrast to the low clouds that raced across the morning sky above the orange-hued cypress. And the reflections of the pink and blue clouds showed up in the smooth lake waters just beyond my kayak.

Cypress trees adorned with Fall colors stand silently in the still waters of Caddo Lake.

Among the mysterious waters of Caddo Lake, ancient cypress trees rise like giants from the murky shadows. Their reflections are seen in the mirror-like water, and paddling this area in a kayak made for a mesmerizing way to spend a week during the Fall colors of November.

A pier is also an option for those not wanting to paddle, and it offers excellent views of the surrounding area. I even shot the Milky Way one night from this area.

Turtle Shell Paddling Area

Many years ago, I saw Turtle Shell with a friend who zoomed us around the area on his boat. In those days, the water was wide open. Today, this water is covered by an invasive aquatic plant called the Giant Salvinia. Several paths still exist to paddle throughout Turtle Shell, but in a few sections, your upper body will get a workout because you’ll need to propel the kayak through thick green plants. Fortunately, enough stretches of clear water (about the size of a one-lane road) allowed us to explore this area. Here is a photograph showing the salvinia with cypress trees at sunset. In some places, the salvinia was so thick, plants had grown on top of it, creating free-standing islands!

Caddo Lake Sunset 117-1

Beautiful colors of rust-colored cypress leaves rise into the fading light of Caddo Lake. Giant lilipads and the invasive Giant Salvinia stretched as far as the eye can see, covering what was once an open body of water. These days, paddling through the Turtle Shell Paddling area is a struggle, but the landscape is still unique and pretty amazing, especially in fall when the Autumn colors are on full display. This image was taken with my camera on a tripod with an extender. While trying to keep my kayak motionless, I'd slide the tripod into the muck below (with an extender attached to give my tripod more height, and reel off a few shots before the tripod would sink further. It was a challenging process, but the results usually made it worth the effort.

I came away amazed at the beauty of Autumn at Caddo Lake. I feel fortunate to have spent a week in this less-visited area of Texas. Greg and I hit it at peak color for the cypress, and at times, especially in Benton Lake, I’d just put down my paddle and drift, trying to take in the colors, the stillness, and fleeting moments I had there.

Orange leaves of cypress in the fall on Caddo Lake make for a beautiful scene on a cold November morning.
Caddo Lake Autumn Colors 1

Rusty shades of orange and red in Autumn make the Caddo Lake area a mysterious and beautiful place to spend a morning kayaking. This is Benton Lake, connected to the Caddo Lake Nature Preserve through swamps and bayous. The cypress here rise from the murky, shallow water, and put on a colorful display of Fall color each November.