Active Wildlife, Lazy River at South Llano

Active Wildlife, Lazy River at South Llano

One of the things I love most about traveling around Texas is seeing the incredible diversity of geography and vegetation. This state has it all: desert grasslands, coastal plains, marshes, pine forests, plateaus, mountains, valleys–everything beautiful in its own way.

So I thoroughly enjoyed the long, lonely drive to South Llano State Park, if only to experience the rugged beauty that is Texas Hill Country. I’ve still got a lot of the state left to see, but this part of Texas is currently my winner for Most Beautiful.

It helps that, apparently, my timing was extra good–it was hot as hell in late June when I arrived, but I was told that there’d been a lot of rain in the area so everything outdoors was much greener than it normally is at that time of year. There was a nice breeze on the day I arrived (another perfectly-timed force of nature, as a fellow camper told me there’d been no wind at all the day before), and the following day there was a bit of rain in the morning and some very welcome cloud cover in the afternoon.

But South Llano State Park has more going for it than beautiful vistas. This very clean park has a large network of hiking trails, a wonderfully cool and clear river to float down and a whole lot of active and visible wildlife. The headquarters building is in a cute old house with a porch swing and a wishing well in the front yard, only adding to the park’s already considerable country charm.

The Trails at South Llano

I did not get a chance to explore all the trails at South Llano–I was not camping alone, so I coordinated my activities with other people and didn’t spend 100% of my time hiking and taking photos as I usually do on these trips.

But even if I had been on my own I’m not sure I would have hit every trail. While there were some shorter and flatter trails near the camping areas, several in the backcountry were much longer and went up and down some fairly steep terrain, and were only accessible from other long, steep trails. I like a challenging hike, but add in the blistering summer heat and I was worn out faster than usual. If I go back to South Llano during the summer I’ll probably bring more supplies on my hike and take a rest and a meal along the way.

My camping companion and I tackled the West Canyon Loop trail together. It was a great two-person trail–very wide–with some rocky areas and a mix of shade and sun, and at least one very steep part. We found a patch of touch-me-nots growing along the road (see the video below) and kept spotting pretty rocks that we’d have to pick up and examine closer (my childhood self would have been in heaven!) It was a very straight-forward trail–no chance of getting lost–with some lovely vegetation and scenic views, especially when we got up a little higher.

Of the rest of the longer southern trails we only did short stretches of the Golden-Cheeked Warbler (which has since been renamed the Mid-Canyon trail) and the Fawn. We stopped to admire an old-fashioned windmill then made our way back towards camp.

I later hiked up the short-but-steep Overlook trail by myself. This one was a bit of a disappointment–much of the trail was paved road, and I don’t think the scenic view at the top was interesting enough to make the steep hike worth it. However I did enjoy seeing multiple cairns that other hikers had left behind–the abundance of small rocks scattered everywhere must be hard to resist. I understand rock stacking is controversial, but the carefully-balanced piles did make for some fun photos (see below).

A Nighttime Park Ranger Program

I’ve never before taken advantage of the many park ranger programs provided at Texas State Parks, but in South Llano my friend and I went to an after-dark tour. It was fun wrapping our flashlights in red cellophane (red light is less disruptive to both the wildlife and human night vision) and tramping through the dark with a group of excited campers.

I had assumed we’d be looking for hidden wildlife, but this tour was actually an exploration of the “five senses” with group activities that included trying to identify all the night noises we could hear by the river, making wintergreen mints spark in our mouths and pretending to be frogs. I was a little bummed not to be stalking night critters, but it was a pretty cute activity–though probably a lot more fun for children.

Wildlife at South Llano

South Llano has the advantage of being close to a couple of bat caves, so one evening a couple friends and I joined a tour to visit the Devil’s Sinkhole, where huge numbers of bats are known to swarm out of at sundown. Unfortunately we weren’t visiting at the best time of year, so we had to content ourselves with a handful of bats and the impressively-large cave opening (60 feet wide in places!) and our tour guides’ wealth of information.

Coming back from the cave, though, we saw quite a bit of nocturnal wildlife in the park: multiple raccoons, hogs, armadillos, mule deer, white-tailed deer and so many jack rabbits. I tend to conk out early when I camp, but seeing how many animals come out after dark has made me reconsider my bedtime schedule.

During the day we saw a lot of bugs and lizards, and there were multiple bird blinds–I was especially impressed with the Acorn Blind near the camping area, which featured a variety of feeders and a little burbling fountain (most park blinds I’ve visited before this haven’t put in so much effort). I visited this blind early in the morning on my last day and got a lot of great pictures of hummingbirds and squirrels, and a couple of bad shots of the legendary painted bunting.

The River at South Llano

You can’t visit South Llano without floating down the river! After a sweaty morning of hiking steep hills in the oppressive heat, nothing sounded better than a leisurely swim. Tubes were available to rent at Headquarters, and if you have two cars (or one car and a non-swimmer) you can get between the start and end points of the floating area without having to do a lot of additional walking.

The river was cool, clear and delightfully lazy. Here and there it would speed up and get a little bumpy, but there were no falls or anything difficult to get over. The float took a bit over an hour each time (we went twice) and was the ideal way to relax in such a beautiful but sweltering environment.

Last Thoughts

South Llano was a wonderful and truly unique state park. The park rangers and hosts were lovely people, the park itself very clean and almost completely litter-free with a lot of great features and activities for its visitors–and there were quite a lot of them there, especially on the river. This leads to my one complaint: the bathrooms were a little run-down and much too small for the number of guests (there were long queues for the two showers on the women’s side every evening.)

But it was absolutely worth the long, lonely drive to enjoy such a great park and all its amenities in one of the most beautiful parts of Texas.

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Mother Neff: A Hidden Gem

Mother Neff: A Hidden Gem

Near the end of June I decided to make one last camping trip before giving up for the summer. My original goal was to spend a couple of nights at South Llano, but as it was a good 6 hours from my house I wanted stretch the drive out over a few days and work in a couple of more park visits.

This is how I came to stay at Mother Neff State Park–it just happened to be about halfway between me and South Llano. I didn’t know anyone who’d camped there and didn’t know anything about it. From the registration website I could see that it was a small park with a mere 20 camping sites, and that about half of the park was closed down and inaccessible (due to flood damage, I learned later.)

I expected to have a good time–because I have a good time at all Texas state parks–but I was surprised at just how much Mother Neff charmed me from the moment I pulled up. The headquarters building was practically brand new–all white stone and warm wood and high ceilings with a design influenced by the historic structures of the area, and lush beds of wildflowers and native plants hugging the entrance. I’ve since learned that this new building is part of a larger reconstruction effort that hopes to reduce the impact of flooding, which is apparently a real problem for this park.

I left HQ to set up camp and the campsites were absolutely pristine and nestled among clumps of short trees, each one edged in white rocks and carpeted in fine gravel that had been raked smooth like a zen garden. My site in particular (number 14) was even nicer than my neighbors’ as it was set back in a little cove of greenery that kept my gear and my picnic table and everything else in the shade, and had two small trees near the front that appeared to have been planted for the sole purpose of hanging my hammock.

A thoughtfully-placed trail near my site cut through the camping loop and gave me easy access to the bathrooms and a little lending library with a shelf full of of William Johnstone. The bathhouse itself was as clean and new as the headquarters–I didn’t see a single cobweb up in the rafters–with a lot of hooks, shelves and benches inside, which park camping has taught me to really appreciate.

The Trails at Mother Neff State Park

After settling in I hit the trails, starting on the north side with the Pond trail and the Prairie Loop. These trails were flat and dry and hard-packed, weaving through lush fields of wildflowers–purple horsemint, red firewheel, yellow sunflowers and more–and everywhere clumps of pale green cacti. It was the hottest part of the day and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but a near-constant wind made the sun bearable. I walked to the end of the short Pond trail, a thousand grasshoppers buzzing into the air around me with every step, until I reached the little smudge of a pond at the end and the small blind overlooking it, although it was too hot to sit inside. I turned back and turned off onto the connecting loop trail, appreciating how different the prairie landscape was from my own piney woods back home–here the trees were all short and fat and mostly evergreen, bobbing in little clumps along the wildflower sea. It was so, so hot, so windy, and very beautiful.

I returned to camp for a water break in the shade then headed for the rest of the trails that lay south of the camping loop. These wooded trails were more like what I’m used to back home–narrow and steep in places with lots of shade but no wind. I climbed the CCC-built stone tower (an old water storage tank and lookout tower with a staircase wrapping around the outside) and made my way down to the Tonkawa Cave, which was a pretty if not especially deep depression in a wall of stone, where I rested a while again and tried to take pictures of birds.

On the way back from the cave I took the Bluff trail, which was almost as rocky as the cave, then turned off to visit the CCC-built wash pond–a small but enjoyable pond in the woods that was much prettier than the mudhole back in the prairie area–where you can sit on a bench and really soak in the still and muffled beauty of the woods.

Spiders and Snakes, Oh My!

I saw more than one sign in the park warning about snakes. I hoped this meant I might see one and, sure enough, on the way back out of the woods on the Wash Pond trail I nearly stepped on a small diamondback rattler stretched out in the middle of the path. I spent a few exciting moments trying to switch camera lenses without moving or scaring it off and managed to get one decent head shot. A nice change from the water moccasins and copperheads back home!

I saw deer in the woods and rabbits near my campsite, but my favorite Mother Neff critters were definitely the daddy long-legs. I spotted two large clumps of them hanging off the low ceiling of the cave and spent a lot of time trying to photograph them without banging my head into the rock too many times. I thought that was a pretty good find until I was headed back on the Bluff trail and stumbled upon an enormous colony of the things–seriously, there must have been a million or three–all bobbing and dancing on the shady side of a boulder alongside the trail. I had no idea they’d gather in such large numbers like that–very cool!

After an early dinner I ventured back into the wildflower fields, this time to get a closer look at the large bell I’d noticed on my way back on the Pond trail. This was yet another CCC relic from the 30s–sturdy and intact, unlike a lot of CCC artifacts I’ve visited at Texas state parks–and was probably used to call the workers for meals or to alert them to emergency situations.

A Little History on Mother Neff State Park

Mother Neff State Park was created by Governor Pat Morris Neff in the early 1920s and named for his mother Isabella, who donated the land. Isabella was originally from Virginia but traveled to Texas with her husband in the 1850s via carriage–a trip that took them 52 days, as they did not do any driving on Sundays.

It was one of the first Texas state parks (but not the first, which is apparently a pretty persistent myth) but the history of the land goes back even further–the Tonkawa Cave, for example, is named for the Native American tribe that used it for shelter in the 1800s, and the general area is thought to have been inhabited by the Clovis people almost 10,000 years ago.

Flooding is a real issue, and has closed the park (or sections of it) down more than once. More information on the history of Mother Neff can be found here and here.

The loveliness of Mother Neff State Park makes me wonder about all the other little Texas state parks I’ve overlooked–sure, I’m looking forward to, for example, Palo Duro Canyon and Dinosaur Valley and Colorado Bend after hearing so many people talk about these places–but there are so many more parks in Texas. What other hidden treasures are waiting for me?

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A Hiker’s Paradise at Mission Tejas

A Hiker’s Paradise at Mission Tejas

Mission Tejas is one of the more modest Texas state parks I’ve visited so far–there’s a mere 17 camp sites huddled together in one small area (except for two water-only sites a short stroll away), and the only water feature is one little muddy pond–no swimming allowed.

I heard from park regulars that it’s usually quiet and attracts few of the weekend and holiday day-users that you might find at a larger, lake-adjacent park. The bathrooms are clean, the headquarters building is beautiful and new and there is a generous playground for the kids (I overheard two little girls talking about a playground ghost, and I kind of wish I had followed up on that). But Mission Tejas’ real charm lies in its rich Texas history and–to my delight–its extensive and varied network of hiking trails.

Living History

I chose this particular weekend to camp at Mission Tejas as I had joined an outdoor adventure Meetup group and a hike was scheduled for Saturday morning. It was only after plans were in place that we realized this was also the weekend of the 14th Annual Folk Festival, where costumed presenters demonstrated their crafts and trades and explained everyday life of frontier Texans (see photos below). So quiet little Mission Tejas was actually pretty busy, but the crowd was handled well by the friendly park staff and a busy shuttle van.

The festival was an unexpected treat, and complemented the other historical elements at the park such as the CCC-constructed replica of the Mission San Francisco de los Tejas building (available for weddings!), a restored log home (one of the oldest structures in the area), the remnants of a fire watchtower and a piece of the El Camino Real de los Tejas trail.

The Trails, The Trails, The Trails!

But my favorite part of the park was, by far, the hiking trails–Mission Tejas has a positive hairball of hiking trails. Some are as narrow as a single person, some are as wide as a road. Some are old and historical (you can always spot a CCC-built trail by the presence of old wood or stone stairs), some are much newer (the official park map is missing at least four, although you can get a more accurate trails map at headquarters). Some are steep and twisty and dramatic, while others are flat and straight and relaxed.

I got turned around more than once when I went hiking by myself on the first day, although the most confusing trail bits are also the shortest and I’d soon stumble onto a sign-marked crossroads and get myself righted again.

As there are so many trails I won’t go over every single one: as a general rule the trails in the middle of the cluster are the older ones, ducking in and out of thin valleys and crisscrossed with streams–these are narrower, shorter and very steep in places (so definitely the most fun!) I enjoyed the challenge of the Steep Steps and the narrow, wandering Olen Matchett; I was completely charmed by the rickety old stairs at the end of the Big Pine that led up to the historic log home. I savored the nature trail looping around the CCC-constructed pond first in the morning, when the muddy water turned still and reflective and beautiful.

The outer, wider trails were just as enjoyable–especially the Steep Ravine, which surges upwards for a long, sweaty time before sending you through several switchbacks, then tumbles back down again–and the Chimney Loop, which has its own quiet rest area in the middle of nowhere, where I dozed off on a bench until a pileated woodpecker startled me awake.

The only trail that put a dent in my fun was a victim of recent weather–the Nabadache Loop’s entire northern section was all mud and standing water, and I just kept pressing forward (and sinking down) thinking that, surely, it would get better. (It did, eventually, after getting a lot worse.) But even that mucky trail had some beautiful views of the San Pedro Creek.

After two full days of hiking these wonderful trails I returned home thoroughly exhausted, but already looking forward to my next trip. Five stars for Mission Tejas!

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Chasing Pelicans at Fairfield Lake

Chasing Pelicans at Fairfield Lake

The last state park I chose to camp at was a bit of an impulse–I saw a bunch of pelicans on the Fairfield Lake State Park Instagram feed and two days later I was there, chasing enormous flocks of migrating birds around the cold and windy lake shore and learning some hard lessons about wildlife photography. 

I never quite got the pelican shots I wanted, although the cormorants were much more accommodating (the friendly park rangers told me they spread their wings out like that to get dry because their feathers aren’t waterproof). I was also surprised to see large groups vultures (a “kettle” of vultures refers to a group of them in flight, and a “committee” is a bunch of them in a tree–and I saw both!)

I also chose this trip to test out my new backpack with a hike into the park’s primitive camping area. I haven’t hiked into a site or done primitive camping in about a decade (and never by myself) so this was a fun–if exhausting–trip for me. I enjoyed sleeping in the dark and lonely woods, quiet except for an occasionally nearby pack of coyotes, although I most likely will only do it again when the campsite isn’t so far in the woods (see my notes on the long trail below.)

Fairfield Lake State Park is long, linear and spread out. If you stay in the regular camping areas you’d be close enough walk to one of the day use areas, but if you’re staying in the primitive sites like I was expect to drive around to visit the rest of the park. 

The first picnic area I visited (where the pelicans kept shifting around the lake to avoid me) was especially charming. It was empty while I was there, but I could easily imagine how accommodating the large picnic space and easy access to the lake must be for families in the summer and over holidays. It’s also beautiful in December, but even when the sun is out the wind coming off the water cuts right to the bone (and pulled my hat off my head and tossed it into the lake–pretty sure the pelicans enjoyed that.)

On the same peninsula is a boat ramp, fish-cleaning station and a nice-looking dining hall where I spent some time experimenting with taking back-lit photos of trees in the afternoon sun.

For the rest of my day out I explored the small Birdwatching trail (see below) and the other, smaller day use area and boat ramp–this one is about 4 miles in–where I snapped pictures of committees of vultures and the now-quiet power plant across the lake.

I turned in early, due to the short day and the long hike back to my tent, stopping by headquarters first to borrow a book from the little lending library just outside their doors (I love this and wish all parks had it!) and hiked the remaining trails the following morning.

The Trails at Fairfield Lake State Park

I know the Big Brown Creek trail the best because I hiked the darn thing four times. It’s length is just long enough to be infuriating (the map says 3 miles but the park rangers told me it was 3.5 to the primitive camping area–whatever it is, it felt longer.) I don’t mind the walking, but the time really got to me. I would take nearly an hour to get back to my car, losing a chunk of short and precious daylight that I would have liked to spend photographing things instead, and I felt compelled to return to camp sort of early to avoid tripping over the trail in the dark.

Half of Big Brown Creek trail is comfortably flat, and the other half is drainage ditch. It’s easy enough to follow (although on my first trip back I twice wondered up the wrong ditch for a bit) and would likely be very comfortable terrain during drier parts of the year. As for me, I slipped and slurped through the mud and gingerly forded small streams–I somehow managed not to fall or lose my boots and did enjoy seeing all the deep animal tracks (raccoons, deer, wild hogs and horses) pressed into the goo.

Big Brown Creek is a very utilitarian trail. True to the name there’s a big brown creek, a handful of brown streams and a small brown pond. I spotted two armadillos and a rusted-out old car (eventually identified as a 1945 Buick Roadmaster, also brown) but didn’t bother with any nature photography until I went to the very end of the trail, where you can see the lake and lots of evidence of wild hogs.

I had high hopes for the short Birdwatching trail on the other side of the park (it was birds that got me to this park, after all!) but I didn’t spot much in the woods–partially because I didn’t bother to sit quietly on one of the many benches along this trail, I assume, and probably also because of the time of year. Not really any good lake views, although there’s a bit of an uphill hike to a little lookout point where you can just make out some of the water and I caught a glimpse of, I think, a duck.

There was also a neat little spur off this trail that was covered, tunnel-like, with welded-wire fence. Due to the high water line I couldn’t get very far into it, but I’m betting it’s normally a good place to watch wildlife.

I was also looking forward to the small Scenic Loop trail as one of the park rangers told me bald eagles had been spotted in the area. It’s a short and easy half-mile walk with a couple of pretty views (and also probably looks better at other times of the year.) No eagles for me, unfortunately–more vultures though!

I’m saving the best for last: the Nature trail was a freaking storybook of a trail. Imagine how Disney would design a hike: lightly wooded with only the gentlest of elevations and lazy, charming curves that wind around a small peninsula, and open up here and there to the lake for very pretty and unobstructed views. Airy, a little windy, lined with soft grasses–I even saw a few wildflowers that had survived the winter–and everywhere titmice and other small and adorable birds flitting about in the branches above.

And it’s only about 2 miles long–the perfect, feelgood trail when you just want to take a weekend stroll and remember why you like being outside. 

There’s one last trail–the Dockery trail, wrapping around most of one side of the park–but it’s 5.25 miles long one way and my legs didn’t have another 10 miles in them. I’d love to come back when it’s a little drier and try that baby out on my bike.

Fairfield Lake State Park was a gorgeous, five-star experience–even in the off-season–with some pleasant hikes, nice recreational accommodations and friendly staff, but when I return I’ll stay in one of the regular campsites in order to make the most of my time there.

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