The Texas Hill Country. Mention this area of the Lone Star State to any Texan and be prepared for a barrage of superlatives,…..“beautiful, gorgeous, fabulous, stunning, lovely, etc., etc., etc.” I had to wonder if ANY location could live up to all the hype. Well, it can.
Truth be told, Texas was not in our plans. We enjoyed our time in California last fall and winter so much that we wanted to repeat it this year. We sought out volunteer opportunities at the many California state and national parks. We made inquiries, applied to A LOT of places, called, emailed, you name it. God just kept closing door after door. Then last May, on a “whim,” I thought I’d give Texas a try and apply for a volunteer park host position. I was in the middle of reading James Michener’s Texas and was intrigued with the state, its history, geography, and people. That, plus the fact that one of our daughters-in-law is a Texas native and has nothing but rave reviews of her home state. Well, I figured, why not? I filled out the online application at the Texas Parks and Wildlife site and within 15 minutes of clicking “Submit” our phone was ringing, our email inbox was filling, and the rest is history.
The Texas Hill Country is located pretty much in the middle of the state and is characterized by, you guessed it,…..HILLS,…..gently rolling, undulating hills. Perhaps the reason it resonated with us so much is that it reminded us of our Columbiana County, Ohio home—-rolling hills, close-knit communities, small towns, lots of farming/ranching/agriculture, and plenty of room to breathe. It’s no wonder the early explorers and settlers referred to the Hill Country as The Promised Land. Those first pioneers had to travel through some challenging terrain to get here. Vast stretches of barren desert, hundreds of miles of prairie, the Gulf Coast, and the Rio Grande River all form a buffer around the Hill Country, providing solitude and repose for its inhabitants. Dozens of lakes and spring-fed, meandering rivers provide much needed water for ranches, farms, and recreation. Add in a sprinkling of canyons, caves, waterfalls, and gorgeous vistas and you have the makings of a real slice of Paradise.
The Hill Country is home to nearly 20 state parks and natural areas. We were offered a volunteer position at Colorado Bend State Park (CBSP), a beautiful 5,300+ acre park along the Colorado River. CBSP is on the site of the former Gorman and Lemon ranches and joined the Texas park system in 1987. The park is a bit out-of-the-way (just our kind of place!) requiring a 20-25-mile drive to the nearest town. The road leading into the park is on open range ranch land, so you never knew who or what might be blocking your path! In our travels out West, we’ve often seen ranch roads going off into the distance and talked about what it would be like to turn the truck onto one of those roads and go live out there. Well, now we had our chance and it was a blast!
CBSP offers over 30 miles of hiking trails, primitive camping, fishing, mountain biking, backpacking, kayaking, swimming and has many historically significant sites as it was once home to a cedar logging camp. The park also boasts over 400 caves and karst features, a couple of which are available for guided tours. A few of the campsites can accommodate mid-sized RVs, but be aware there is NO dump station or hookups and there is one doable, but pretty tight turn on the road heading down into the campground. There is a $5 per person day use fee, unless you have the Texas State Parks Pass which offers free entry to all Texas State Parks.
As park hosts, we had a full-hookup site with 3 other host couples near the entrance of the park at the maintenance area. The campground is located 5 miles down the hill near the river so this was a different experience for us to be separated from the campers. Some of our duties as hosts included: cleaning and restocking restrooms, litter patrol, assisting in the office, roving around the park to help visitors or answer questions, and working on different projects such as sprucing up trailhead parking lots, painting signs, etc. We were encouraged to hike and explore the park for our own benefit and also to be “eyes and ears” for the park staff and alert them of any needs or problems we found. We worked four days a week and had 3 days off, giving us ample time to explore and sightsee.
CBSP has over 30 miles of hiking trails and we challenged ourselves to hike every mile during our 3-month stay. Trails vary in difficulty, length, and geography. The most popular trail in the park is near the entrance and takes visitors to Gorman Falls, the crown jewel of the park. Gorman Falls is a 65-foot travertine waterfall that cascades down to the Colorado River. Gorman Falls is unique in that it is constantly changing and building itself up due to the minerals in the water that are continuously being deposited as it trickles and flows over the hillside. It is a fragile and protected area—no swimming or wading or walking on the rocks is permitted. The Gorman Falls trail is only 1.5 miles, but the final leg of the path descending to the falls is quite challenging, requiring hikers to hang onto a cable to reach the bottom. But, oh is it worth it!
Our other favorite trail is the Spicewood Springs Trail which can be reached via the parking lot by the boat ramp or by hiking the Spicewood Canyon Trail which links up with the springs. The day we hiked it, we chose to take the Spicewood Canyon Trail which climbs up and along the ridge of the canyon wall before descending to Spicewood Springs. The Spicewood Springs Trail is absolutely delightful as it travels a mile down to the river with terraced pools and waterfalls, several stream crossings, and opportunities to cool off in some of the cleanest, clearest, refreshing spring water you’ll ever swim in.
CBSP has two back country camping areas. The River Backpacking area is along the river near the campground. The Windmill Backpacking area is a 1.5 miles off the main road nearer the entrance. During our stay, we decided to get out our backpacks (which we had been hauling around with us for over a year and not used once!) and do some backcountry camping. Can I just say that there are many things in life you can just “pick up where you left off?” Riding a bike, playing cards, an old friendship, to name a few. Backpacking is NOT one of them. About 100 feet into the first hike, we had to stop, readjust the pack, shift the weight, and try again. This went on for 3 hours! I was NOT what one would call a “happy camper.” Things improved once we got to our site at the river and took the packs off. Lesson learned! Go on some practice hikes WITH the pack before tackling a 6-mile trip. The two nights at the River were wonderful. I’m always amazed at the sounds I hear when tent camping. At dusk, the herons would call out to each other up and down the riverbank—it reminded us of watching “The Waltons.” “Good night, Jon-boy.” “Good night, Mary Ellen.” And the armadillos, on the hunt for food, loudly rustling through the tall grass kept me awake longer than I liked. Our second backpacking excursion was to the Windmill and it was an entirely different experience! This section of the park was formerly part of a ranch and after years of careful restoration, has been returned to its original state of open, rolling grassland with a variety of live oak and some juniper. Remnants of the windmill and watering trough are in the backpack area. Since this camping area is more open, there’s a lot more sky to see and our night out was timed with the November Super Moon. Wow, just wow! The coyotes are much more active and vocal in this section of the park. It’s fun listening to them getting all stirred up before they go out on their hunts. They get pretty crazy barking and yipping and howling and laughing.
I must say we had the best rv site at the maintenance area. Having an uninterrupted southern view over the park was spectacular. We would begin the day with a cup of coffee watching the sunrise color the morning sky with shades of pink, rose, coral, purple, and yellow. Some mornings a mist would rise up from the canyons, outlining the shapes of the ridgelines. If an afternoon storm was in the forecast, we could watch the gathering clouds boil and roll in. On more than one occasion, all activity would stop at day’s end as we watched another magnificent sunset paint a masterpiece in the sky. We also had prime viewing of not one, but three Super Moons! And on clear nights, the Milky Way would impress us with its smattering of stars. How blessed we were to have such a view!
A spectacular view, challenging hiking trails, beautiful waterfalls, crystal clear spring-fed streams,….Colorado Bend State Park was a fabulous place to spend three months. And if being surrounded by such gorgeous scenery wasn’t enough, we were privileged to work with some outstanding fellow hosts and top-notch park staff. Three months gave us a lot of time to not only get acquainted and build friendships with everyone, but it also allowed us time to pick the brains of park staff who are lifelong residents of the area. The wealth of knowledge they shared about the region, its land, people, history, and environment provided information that no textbook could give. Plus, they are just downright nice folks! Being parked in the maintenance yard with the other hosts gave us that sense of “neighborhood” as we shared meals, fireside chats, and work projects. Our favorite event was the Christmas Eve “Cocoa, Carols, and a Campfire” program we organized for the campers. It was a fun evening of singing, drama, jokes, and conversation. It was a Christmas Eve for the memory books.
So did 3 months in the Hill Country live up to the hype? You betcha! We would happily go back in a heartbeat!