Sun setting behind the CCC-constructed bell at Mother Neff State Park

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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Jamie Payne

Jamie Payne

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