View from the Pecan Flats nature trail in June at Inks Lake State Park, Texas

Inks Lake: Bigger and Better

When I decide to camp at a Texas State Park I have a couple of different approaches–either I obsess over every little detail, poring over reviews and photos and trail maps and trying to pick out the perfect campsite and all the must-see hikes before making my reservation, or I go in completely blind and just hope for the best.

I went into Inks Lake State Park completely blind. I only made my reservation because I intended to visit Longhorn Cavern State Park on the way back from South Llano River, and needed somewhere to stay for the night (Longhorn doesn’t allow camping). Inks Lake was just up the road.

There’s something magical about just showing up at a new park and plunging in, discovering all its charms organically–like unwrapping a gift. And Inks Lake was the gift that kept on giving.

The first thing I noticed was the sheer size of the place. Inks Lake State Park has somewhere around 200 campsites (and another 20-something cabins), and it felt, as I got lost circling through overlapping camping loops, as if every single one of them was occupied for the weekend. It felt chaotic at first, but after a while I could see that it was just another summer day for the park and its busy rangers, and I got the hang of the loops. There was litter, yes–not surprising on a weekend in summer–but the bathhouse in my camping area was immaculate (and plenty large).

After getting settled in a couple of times (I accidentally pitched my hammock at a neighbor’s site) I went exploring along the lake till I found the Devil’s Waterhole, a busy swimming area cradled by tall bluffs of stone dotted with clusters of people sitting and looking at the water or jumping in it.

I climbed to the top of a bluff and was delighted to see one of my favorite outdoor environments: a whole bunch of rocks and water. A creek wound through a field of stone–everything from pebbles to boulders–and pockets of rich green grass and mounds of shrubs. It was a wet day, completely overcast and not-exactly-but-yeah-kinda raining; the greens in the grass and shrubs were vibrant; the rocks, however, were slick as hell.

I managed to slip and slide down to the river without falling on my butt more than once. I poked along the river and tried to capture, in photographic form, the bliss I feel when I’m in a place like that. There were fewer people here, and I met a cool dog that was much more sure-footed than I. I could have stayed there for hours, but I was dying to see what else Inks Lake had in store for me.

The Trails at Inks Lake State Park

I tackled the Devil’s Backbone nature trail first, a narrow path about a mile long that explored woods and prairies and rocks–mostly in a flat way, but fairly steep in a few places. There were some lovely cliff-top views of the lake, and at the end of the trail was the nicest bird blind I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure “blind” is the right word for it–it was more like a cabin, with multiple rows of wooden seating facing large glass windows on one side. Beyond the windows lay a garden full of bird feeders and bird-friendly plants and the birds that loved them; I sat for a while and played with my long lens.

I later walked the Valley Spring Creek trail. It was an easy, wooded trail that I briefly lost when it came to a creek running beneath a road. I hung out under the bridge awhile, snapping pictures of bugs and angry cliff swallows, then found my trail on the other side of the creek and kept going. The sun started to come out.

After that I did the first part of the Lake trail on my way to another hike on the map. The Lake trail was well-worn and an easy walk for the most part, occasionally vanishing completely where the ground had turned to stone slab and the trail signs turned into painted green dots on the slab.

The Pecan Flats trail did not start off as anything special–a few nice boulders, some yellow wildflowers, pretty but similar to what I’d already seen. It ducked into the woods for a little while, where there were a lot of cedar trees and a lot of cedar mulch around them–the smell was amazing!–but then the trail stepped back into the sunlight and into some of the most stunning natural beauty Texas has to offer.

The sky was blue, with only a few puffs of cloud scattered around it, and that morning’s drizzle had been replaced by steady wind. The sun was out in full force, and it was hot–even the wind was hot. But as I walked into all that open beauty I got actual chills up and down my arms.

Imagine a million golden wildflowers; now imagine a million more, bowing in rippling soft waves like the ocean. They carpet the hills and valleys like shag, broken up only by clumps of boulders and naked black trees and cacti and my thin, rambling trail.

The landscape was bathed in wind and sunlight, open and wild and unspoiled–only when I got to higher points on the trail could I see civilization in the distance. The blackened trees (I assume from a recent controlled burn) stood in beautiful stark contrast against the waves of golden yellow. I was in love.

The whole rest of trail was that way, like walking through a living postcard. I saw one other person out there–twice, because I looped around and did part of the trail again–but was otherwise alone with nature.

I hit two smaller trails on my way back (The Upper and Lower Fisherman’s trails). They were perfectly nice, with several good lake vistas (and fishing spots) but at this point I was exhausted. I left the Woodland trail for another trip. I’m dying to know if it’s as nice as Pecan Flats.

Inks Lake State Park is now one of my favorite Texas State Parks. And it has a certain quality–something about the size, I guess, and the way it positively hums with activity around the lake–that makes me want to revisit with a bunch of friends and stay multiple nights. Solo camping is great, but wild and wonderful Inks Lake begs to be shared with everyone.

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