St. Ed’s Park is Keeping Austin Wild

One day recently, I was surprised to turn off of loop 360 on my way to St. Edwards Park and all of a sudden be out in the country. It’s rare to find a nearby pocket of wilderness in any town, and even in “green” Austin most of our city parks are within eyeshot of urban world.

But not St. Edwards Park. Since St. Ed’s Park is one of the top rated parks in our city, a group of outdoorsy ladies and I investigated one day last Fall so we could bring you this report!

The Highlights

  • One of the highlights of the park is Bull Creek frontage.

The limestone cliffs are pretty and the creekside trail is flat and easy, so would be perfect for young kids. (And dogs who want to get in the water. 🙂 )

So scenic!

  • Trails are ample, so you can get a good work out in.

So ample, in fact, that you might get a little lost.

We got slightly turned around in the extensive network of trails and had to use Siri to get us out. Hi, I’m Whitney from a hiking guidance blog. I have gotten a group lost in the woods. Go me.

(This is my “whoops” face.)

Fortunately the park is small enough that you couldn’t get lost forever.

  • On that note, one highlight is that you still get cell phone reception, so if you’re needing to check a sports score, stay accessible to work colleagues, or Instagram your adventures, then this is a great place to be.
  • And the view!! The view from the top is so pretty. Can you believe this is urban Austin?

How spoiled we are.

  • The park is only 10 min from the Arboretum
  • Last but not least, the park has some steeper trails so if you’re eager to feel the burn, or are training for a tougher climb out in the mountains, you can definitely find it.

By the time we were done with our hike, we sure were happy to see the car again and crack open an ice cold La Croix.

Thanks to Wild Rose Apparel for outfitting us with hats and koozies!

All in all it was a good park and I will be returning eventually. In the future I will only stick to the hillside trails and not go along the creek bottom. I also want to check out River Place trail before returning here.  Have you been to St. Edward’s Park? Would love to hear from you!

FYI

  • The park has lots of brambles down by the creek, so prepare to feel like you’re bushwacking if you choose to hike in that area
  • There are no picnic tables, which is kind of a bummer…so plan for a “tailgate party” after your hike
  • After a big rainfall event (more than a few inches), it will be very muddy and there is a good chance some of the trails will be flooded, so I would avoid it
  • Don’t wear your fancy tennis shoes on the creekside trails, they will get dirty
  • Several of the hills are steep
  • There are no bathrooms

Have fun! Hashtag #whitswilderness if you check it out and want to be featured on my page. Happy hiking!

 

A Favorite Hill Country Hike: Canyon Lake Gorge

This is easily one of my favorite hikes in Texas. Not only is it beautiful, but its historically, hydrologically, geologically, and paleontologically significant. Not to spoil the surprise, but on this hike you will get to see dinosaur tracks, fossils, waterfalls, crystal blue pools of water, caves, and cliffs.

And, it’s all downhill. That alone makes it pretty wonderful, right?

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I ended up there several years ago, back in the beginning days of Brandon and my relationship. As my readers know, he is a water resources engineer, so I thought he would enjoy seeing it. My best friend Courtney wanted to meet him, and so this was our excuse for that to happen. Her husband is a hydraulic engineer so suffice it to say, this was their cup of tea.

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Awwww, look at young Brandon!

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Courtney dangles her husband precariously off the edge.

The most amazing part of the gorge tour experience is to stand at the bottom of the gorge and imagine the sheer force of water that carved it out in one single event–the flood of 2002.

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Before that time, the landscape was gently rolling hills, much like the landscape above the cliffs you see in this picture. There were no cliffs, no waterfalls, no gorge, and the dinosaur tracks were a good 25 feet underground.

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Then, in one week in the summer of 2002, the land upstream from the Guadalupe river received 34 inches of rainfall, nearly all of which flowed directly to Canyon Lake. The lake filled so quickly that it spilled over into the spillway, an area reserved for times of severe flooding.

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The spillway served as a kind of emergency outlet for the water, like a drain hole on the side of a sink. It had never been used before, so it was completely flat and forested.

Over 67,000 cubic feet per second gushed through, uprooting trees and shooting them 1.3 miles downstream towards the river. Once the trees were out of the way, the water started pummeling through the rock like a massive jackhammer.

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Boulders the size of cars were tossed up into the waves and bounced downstream like toys.

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For six weeks, the water dug through the limestone. In that time, over 1.5 times the entire amount of water in Canyon Lake flooded the spillway. Finally, the water retreated into the lake and left the gorgeous gorge in its wake.

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The devastation downstream, where the spillway met the Guadalupe, was extreme, but the silver lining in all of this is that now, the public is invited to see all of it!

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And it truly is remarkable.

As you walk down through the gorge, you pass through eras of history with every step. The water peeled back the rock layer by layer, creating a cross section of history.

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At one level, we saw fossilized waves from the time of the Permian Sea (when Texas was only a twinkle in God’s eye.)

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At another level, dinosaur tracks.

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At nearly every layer, we saw fossils.

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The place is a fossil lover’s paradise!

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One of my favorite aspects of the tour was that it is guided by an expert.

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By the time our hike was over, we felt we had certainly earned a lazy afternoon in the river.

The Canyon Lake gorge can be seen from South Access Rd. on the south side of Canyon Dam, but if you ever have time to pop in for a tour, I recommend it. You will not be disappointed!

Whitney and Brandon at the Gorge

Plan Your Visit

  • Location: Canyon Lake, Texas (1.5 hours from Austin and San Antonio)
  • Length: 3 hours
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Fee: $10 (some exceptions–university, scout, and high school groups admitted free)
  • Guided by an expert in the site’s features and history
  • Reservations not required but highly recommended!
  • Website: www.canyongorge.org/tour

 

 

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Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge…and Pie!

Monday of last week was a good day. I got to spend time with my nieces and sister in law at one of the 19 National Wildlife Refuges in Texas and then follow our hike with a big plate of breakfast food and a piece of pie at Blue Bonnet cafe in Marble Falls.

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The Balcones Canyonlands refuge is an enormous expanse of green rolling hills northwest of Austin, on the northern side of Lake Travis. Most people don’t even know it’s there. In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful parks near Austin. There’s running water, wide open spaces, and incredible views…and in the Spring, miles of wildflowers.

Map

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I had heard of this park because, being the nerd that I am, I wrote my senior thesis paper in college about two little endangered birds that inhabit Central Texas and this refuge. They require the old ashe juniper and shin oak trees in Central Texas. (Many endangered species are Earth’s pickiest animals.) These two birds, the Black capped vireo and the Golden cheeked warbler, caused a stir because a large portion of their critical habitat happened, inconveniently, to be located on Fort Hood army base. Fort Hood was in high gear at the time testing artillery and preparing troops for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, a system was created where ranchers nearby protected the habitat on their land in exchange for Fort Hood continuing to operate, and the little birds are doing better today. ANYHOW, not to bore you with wildlife facts!

Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia), Friedrich Wilderness State Park, San Antonio, Texas

Photo credit: Flickr Commons user Vince Smith

But that is why the refuge is here.

Unlike the south side of Lake Travis, which is booming, this side of the lake is peaceful, quiet, and as untouched as you can possibly find so close to Austin. (Probably because no one knows about it.) Green hills give way to more green hills, and a little two-laned paved road winds through the 25,000 acre refuge. For perspective, Zilker park is 350 acres, the Domain is 303 acres, and UT’s main campus is 431, so 25,000 is quite a lot!

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(PS. The green space on the left side of that bend in the lake is Pace Bend park. Kind of cool to see where we had just camped from this vantage point!)

First, we popped in at the Visitor Center for some maps and a restroom break. Good news: this refuge has very clean restrooms. You never know what you’ll get at a park’s restroom, so I was pleased to walk in and smell a combination of bleach and lemon fragrance, which just screams Clean! to me, and see that everything was spotless. (Maybe I am as picky as the warbler about where I put my golden cheeks.)

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Hehe.

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At the Visitor Center, you can see a Golden cheeked warbler and Black capped vireo up close, along with other taxidermied animals. Some were a little creepy, like a possum hanging upside-down from a branch by his tail, but some were beautiful and a good representation of what was on the refuge.

There’s also a game, which appealed to my niece and talked about bird life.

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PS. My niece got glasses recently and I can’t get over how cute they are on her. Kids in glasses, how cute are they? Cute cute cute. Cute.

There are two hiking areas of the refuge: Warbler Vista and Doeskin Ranch. Warbler Vista has three trails and an awesome lookout, where you can see for miles. That’s Lake Travis in the distance.

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On the map, this lookout is called “Sunset Deck.”

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You can hike or drive. If driving, follow the road past the restrooms and after about a half mile, there will be a parking area on the left.

On the other end of the refuge is Doeskin Ranch. It had a good selection of trails–some went straight up the side of hills, while others stayed on flat ground and followed the creek through the valley.  We chose the Pond & Prairie and Creek Trails, which ended up being about two miles.

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We found a good wading spot in the creek and rested our weary bones. The sun had come out to remind us we were still in Texas, and as sweat slid down our backs, it was nice to put our feet in the cold water.

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Grace had told Stephanie that morning, “I want to wear this dress because Whitney loves animal print!”

That girl may only be four years old, but she is observant and knows the way to my heart–through leopard! 🙂

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I loved these views!

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Pond & Prairie and Creek Trail were easy, flat, or mostly flat, for the entire way. Although I do want to come back and hike some of the more challenging hillside trails in this area.

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We didn’t have any luck finding a warbler, having likely scared them off with our camp songs and chatter.

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This waterfall and the pool were awesome finds towards the end of our hike on Pond & Prairie, and I was wishing for a swimsuit. There weren’t other people for miles, so perfect conditions for wearing a swimsuit! Ha.

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The water seemed to be 3-4 feet deep here and would have been perfect for a post-hike dip.

But we couldn’t waste time, we had business to attend to at Blue Bonnet cafe.

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Stephanie and I ordered big plates of eggs and bacon and biscuits, Ann ordered a BLT, and we all ordered pie.

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My choice was banana cream.

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It was delicious, and along with the big glass of iced tea, totally hit the spot after a hot day of hiking.

A funny thing did happen at the cafe. I ordered Brandon a chocolate cream pie slice to go, and when the waitress came by I emphasized it was “for my husband.” However, when she brought the to-go box of pie to me, it had a fork sticking out of it. As if the waitress was saying, Sure, you say this is “for your husband,” but just in case you can’t wait until you get home to eat it, here’s a fork.

Pig.

I didn’t know whether to be offended or grateful! The truth I had to acknowledge was, that woman knew me and my tendencies whether I liked it or not!

By the grace of God, the pie made it home, to Brandon, without a bite missing.

Small miracle.

They say kids don’t remember their favorite day of television, and while that may only partially be true for Grace who quasi-enjoyed hiking in the heat, I think she enjoyed our day together. I had fun and loved Balcones. I will definitely come back with Brandon. Texas doesn’t have very many national refuges compared to other states, and it’s neat to have one in Austin’s backdoor. But unfortunately they don’t allow dogs, so Trooper will have to stay home, on his throne, barking at squirrels.

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Not bad for a Monday!

Plan Your Visit:

  • Blue Bonnet Cafe website: here
  • Note: Blue Bonnet Cafe only accepts cash or check
  • Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge Site: here
  • Warbler Vista Map
  • Doeskin Ranch Map
  • Pro tip: Use the restroom at the visitor center because the other ones aren’t as nice.
  • Side note: You can hunt on the refuge during hunting season. Click here for more information.

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9 Things to Love about Pace Bend Park on Lake Travis

Brandon and I spent the weekend at Pace Bend, a large park on the edge of Lake Travis near Austin. The lake was full, the weather didn’t go above 75 degrees, and we took our s’more making game to a whole new level with chocolate peanut butter s’mores. You could say it was a perfect weekend!

Brandon’s been working hard (and winning Young Engineer of the Year) and we were up for a little vacation.

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Trooper came too. Between the owls hooting all night, the pack of coyotes yipping at 4am, and the many other critters rustling around in the brush, he barely got any sleep.

Clearly, it’s an exhausting task being guard dog.

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As for us, we hiked, hung out around the campsite, napped, and watched a bike race go by. We had fun and found this park to be an easy jaunt from Austin. I’ve compiled a list of what I loved about this park below. Enjoy!

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What I loved…

Extensive Shoreline

Pace Bend has 9 miles of shoreline on Lake Travis. Need I say more! As readers will know, one of my preferences when I go to a park is a pretty natural feature to enjoy. This park is perfect for canoeing, kayaking, and swimming. It even has a boat ramp. One year ago, “Lake Travis Frontage” wouldn’t have been anything to brag about, given the lake being down 40 feet, but this year, after record rainfall, the lake is almost full and the shoreline is gorgeous. And I am a happy camper.

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(That was, actually, my first time to say “happy camper” on this blog.)

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Boat ramp!

Endless Hammock Options

There are so many beautiful shady oak trees at this park, it is really ripe for hammocking.

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Can anyone guess the total number of hammock location options in this picture?

Scenic Trails

Nearly everywhere you turn, lake views greet you. While there are dozens of trails, the rangers still invite you to bushwack cross country and find your own. For the Hill Country, these trails were nice, with big views and diverse terrain.

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Trail Names

I thoroughly enjoyed reading trail names like “Tapeworm,” “Wookie Way,” “Straddle Your Saddle,” and “Chicken Foot.” Whoever named these had a sense of humor.

Fortunately, so far, no signs of tapeworm after hiking that trail.

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And my favorite…

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I’m not even sure what happened with that name.

Ample Picnic options

Whoever put in the order for picnic tables must have added an extra “0” by mistake, because there are more picnic tables than there are people to sit at them. All of the tables are numbered, and at one point I noticed one numbered “257.” Just…wow.

And nearly all of them are located in a beautiful setting.

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Campsites with a View

If this park wasn’t made for hammocks, then it was made for camping. There are hundreds of campsites. A set of twenty “improved campsites” with water and electric are located at Levi Cove, which is where we stayed. The rest are primitive (meaning no electric) campsites are strung along the 9 miles of Lake Travis frontage. There really isn’t a bad seat in the house, as almost all of the campsites are on the lakeshore, have phenomenal views, beautiful trees, and a decent amount of privacy. I really loved this feature of the park.

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(I want this one next time.)

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Here’s a peek at the bathrooms!

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They were…okay. The sink is tiny and there’s hardly any counterspace. But they are kept very tidy.

Proximity to Austin

Only 45 minutes from Austin, Pace Bend is convenient and handy for a short, spur of the moment getaways.

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Availability

As I mentioned, Pace Bend has plenty of campsites so availability is rarely an issue unlike some state parks.

Starbucks on the way home

Sometimes all I want after a campout (and campfire coffee) is Starbucks, and there is conveniently a Starbucks about 1/3 of the way back to Austin.

Last but not least, what was my favorite thing about Pace Bend?

The puns.

Pitching this tent was as easy as copy and PACE.

I can’t wait to get some quality Pacetime with you this weekend.

Smile! I’m posting this one to Pacebook.

Pace on earth.

We go together like Pace and carrots.

I’ll stop now.

All in all, I give this park a gold star. I hope you enjoy it if you ever check it out!

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Things to Know

  • Online Reservations: Click Here
  • Park Website: Click Here
  • Distance from Austin: 45 minutes
  • Best Trails: Wookie Way, Graceland, Post Oak/Rosenbush Loop up by the coves
  • Cell Reception: Perfect

Review: Pedernales Falls, Y’all!

One evening a couple of years ago I was listening to Carter Smith, the head of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, speak at an event. He was asked in the Q&A what his favorite state park was, and he immediately replied that he likes the one his wife likes. Smart man. “Pedernales Falls,” he continued. “Because it has the cleanest restrooms.”

We women have standards! Ever since then, I have been curious about the restrooms at that park.

Last month while camping there, I found out that indeed his wife was right, the restrooms at Pedernales Falls sparkle. I never once thought, “Ew…gross, ”  and that is nothing short of a miracle.

Usually, this is me at public restrooms:

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One tip on this – the restroom at the main gate is usually busy and is not the best restroom. Instead, use the restrooms at the campsites, which are marked on the map. Only about 3 minutes from HQ.

I loved the campsite setup at Pedernales Falls.

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Each one is secluded, tucked into groves of juniper and connected by charming trails winding through the woods. We had privacy, but at the same time were comforted to know that restroom amenities and the park ranger’s cabin were within a hundred yards.

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This was the view from our tent. Rain wasn’t in the forecast so we left the rain fly off. Looking up through the clear roof of our tent made my trip complete.

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Perhaps most importantly, Pedernales Falls has running water and electricity at each campsite. You don’t have to completely forego modern conveniences to enjoy the outdoors here. I plugged in string lights, my phone, and a coffee maker, and I felt like my normal self. PS. Don’t forget to pack an extension cord.

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A park is always fun if it has a cool waterfall or other unique natural feature to ooh and ahh at. Pedernales Falls takes the cake in this department.

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Behold, 8 square miles of rock waterfall to climb around on and explore.

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There’s also a sandy beach, which is a huge hit with kids and corgis alike. Trooper loves running in the sand.

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Along these falls, there are boulders bigger than your car, cavernous limestone formations, and springs sprouting out of the rock.

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And if the falls aren’t enough to tickle your fancy, there is also an additional set of waterfalls, Twin Falls, a gorgeous tiered waterfall in a different part of the park that looks like something out of a magazine. My pictures don’t do it justice, you’ll just have to see it in person!

Only an hour from Austin, Pedernales falls is doable in a weekend or day trip.

I hope you get to check it out. You will not be disappointed!

PS. Check out Google images of the flash floods before you go. Pretty incredible.

A few points to file away for your next trip:

  • Campsite restrooms are cleanest
  • Picnic area is beautiful and spacious
  • Twin Falls is a must
  • Bring a multiplug and twinkle lights if camping

Trail Review of Colorado Bend State Park

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Saturday morning of Valentine’s Day started full of possibilities. We were finally warm again, after freezing all night in our tent, and we were feasting on a breakfast of Dutch oven cinnamon rolls.  Things were looking up!

We decided to hike to Gorman Falls, one of the major landmarks of Colorado Bend State Park, and chose our route on the map. Our plan was to follow Gorman Falls Trail and take a Right, Right, and Left, in that order, at a series of forks in the trail, with a predicted arrival at Gorman Falls one mile and one hour later.

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Fast forward one hour, and we’re still walking down the trail and no waterfall can be seen or heard for miles.

The nape of my neck was drenched and my legs were sending a distress signal to my brain. I’d already emptied one water bottle and was eyeing the second. Trooper’s tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth. As an even bigger signal of his exhaustion, he had given up sniffing and peeing on one plant every five feet to only sniffing and peeing on one plant every fifty feet.

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Where in the heck were these Godforsaken falls? I was asking myself. They were only supposed to be about a mile from the parking lot, but I knew we had covered at least a mile and a half and all we could see was flat terrain.

We got out the map to assess the situation and found we had taken a Left, Right, Right instead of Right, Right, Left, or something, and added oh, just a few miles onto our journey. The trail we were currently on was called Tie Slide Cutoff, which, despite its distance from our intended destination, had gorgeous views of the river.

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Pressing on, we finally reconnected with the proper trail and reached Gorman Falls, which were so beautiful that I forgot about how exhausted I was. You can’t miss this sight if you go to Colorado Bend. (Pics below.)

And, on the bright side, we saw a lot of the park. Here are a few of the trails that piqued my interest:

Tie Slide Trail and Cutoff – 1.9 mi, Easy

Frequent changes in scenery, minimal to no traffic, and incredible views of the Colorado river down in the valley. This part of the park is at higher elevation so the views are pretty sweet (when not obscured by juniper trees.)

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Heller Brakes Trail – 1 mi, Easy

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Flat, pretty, easy.

Gorman Falls Trail – 1.2 mi, Easy

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A must see.

Shockingly this trail is labeled “Strenuous.” How this trail is labeled strenuous and the sheer cliff I skied down last year in Breckenridge is labeled green/easy? Whoever is in charge of labeling slopes has probably been responsible for a lot of confusion.

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The last twenty yards or so down to the falls is steep, but no more difficult than climbing two steps at a time on a staircase. I watched a woman do it in flip flops, for heaven’s sake.

I don’t recommend doing it in flip flops, though.

River Trail – 3.6 mi (depending on where you start/end), Easy

Loved this one.

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Flat, wide, and endless river views. There’s something relaxing and peaceful about staring at a body of water for an entire hike. Another reason to like this trail—it connects with a web of other trails, giving you lots of choices.

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Brandon and I followed it up past our campsite for about a mile and a half.

Tinaja Trail – 5.5 mi, Long and “challenging”

I didn’t actually try this trail so can’t vouch for its difficulty. I was bummed we didn’t get to hike this one because it promises to have the best views of the park. NOTE: The guidebook says it’s only 3 miles long, but fails to mention that in order to get to the trail, and then back to your car again, you need to hike an additional two miles or so.

There are more trails than I’ve mentioned here but these are the ones that interested me.

Lesson learned: when you come to a fork in the road, get out the map.

What I loved about Colorado Bend State Park

I know some women think the last thing they want to do for romance is camp outdoors. The prospect of bugs and sleeping bags as opposed to nice sheets may indeed be a great a sacrifice, but when done right I personally find being out in the middle of nowhere, building campfires and looking at the stars very romantic.

And so my beloved and I ended up at Colorado Bend State Park for Valentine’s day.  We reserved a campsite through Parks and Wildlife’s online system, which was a snap.

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What I loved – The Remoteness

After driving for an eternity down a two lane road, we were certain we had missed the turnoff. But I had been warned that the park was very remote, and if we felt like we had gone too far, then we were on the right track. We finally came to a small general store called “Bend Store–for all your camping supplies” and assumed the park would be around the corner, but we found we still had 10 minutes before we’d reach the entrance to the park. I loved the signs along way, “Unfenced area: watch out for livestock.” 

As we drove deeper into the park, the road began to descend until eventually we were in the bottom of a canyon at the level of the Colorado river.

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By the time we got there, we felt very remote. Our cell phones didn’t work, and we had to give up internet for an entire weekend, which actually ended up being really nice.

What I loved – The Cliffs

The sun was beginning to set when we arrived and the cliffs along the other side of the river were beaming brilliant reds, pinks, and oranges.  Each hour they turned a different color.  It was like watching a show.

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Strung along the river facing these cliffs are the campsites, restrooms, water spickets, and ranger house.

The campsites are located in the most beautiful part of the park, and while they are crammed right next to each other, the gorgeous views make it worth it.

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Our campsite was #43.

What I loved – The Stars

As night descended, we were treated to one of the most spectacular starry nights I’ve seen in Texas. The park is nearly 6,000 acres and the nearest town is almost an hour away, so light pollution is minimal.

I felt like I was looking from a plane onto a city. It was absolutely breathtaking.

What I loved – Gorman Falls

Perhaps my favorite sight other than a s’more was Gorman Falls, which we hiked to the next day.

The last 20 yards of the trail to the falls is steep but not half as difficult as the guidebook will have you believe.

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About a half dozen people on the trail told me Trooper would have trouble making it because of his short legs. (Excusez moi!)

And he handled the hill like a champ.

When we reached the falls, I felt like I had descended into an enchanted forest. Rising a hundred yards up from the ground, the cliff was covered with bright green moss and gurgling waterfalls ran over the rocks in hundreds of different places. Big oaks cast permanent shade onto the area and it was cool and damp.

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All it needed were teacup-sized fairies dancing around the ferns and the enchanted forest image would be complete.

We ate our sack lunch on a big rock outcropping by the falls and watched boys from a scouting troop pass by, all of whom were trying to outdo eachother.

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What I loved – The River

The water was shallow and its banks were flat, so I pulled up a chair by the water and read a magazine while my boys, Brandon and Trooper, waded up the river.

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In the summer it would be a great place to kayak, and you can rent boats at the headquarters.

What I loved – River Trail

I also loved the river trail which follows the river upstream from the campsites. We had it to ourselves.

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What I didn’t love — Potty Situation

Colorado Bend state park is very primitive, and there are no flushing toilets.

I like to think I’m a tough girl, but I loathe port-o-potties. I live in Austin, the music capital of the world, but I have never been to a music festival because I refuse to use a port o potty.

But I had to suck it up and deal.

In all fairness, they are a really nice version of a port o potty, and don’t look like a port o potty on the outside, and on the inside they are spacious and have tiled floors. But there’s no mirror, no sink, and no faucet. There are two water spickets near the campsites, so bring your own mirror, a big jug and a bucket. Fill them up and take them back to your campsite so you can wash your hands, do your makeup, and refill your water bottles.

In the end, I know it was worth it in order to be in such a beautiful park. But be warned.

All in all Colorado bend is one of the prettiest parks I’ve been to and I recommend it, regardless of the potty situation.

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