Lake Somerville Campout: Birch Creek Unit October 2012

Lake Somerville Birch Creek Unit Last October, we took our first trip to Lake Somerville State Park.  There is something very freeing about visiting a park for the first time.  Not knowing what to expect, we were in full acceptance of what awaited us.  Letting go of the push to arrive early on Friday to claim the best camping site made the transition from a week of doing to a weekend of being much easier.

Letting go is a lesson that keeps resurfacing on our camping trips. On the rare occasions when I can manage an attitude of acceptance, I am more open and in the moment.  I am happier.  I think this, more so than the amount of time I have, is key to experiencing the renewal I seek when I head outdoors.  Of course, given the choice, I will always prefer a lengthy camping trip, no matter what state of mind I am in at the time.

We arrived after dark and the office was already closed, but a note on the door listed the available campsites.  There were only a few remaining sites and they were all in the Post Oak Camping Area.  We wrote them down, grabbed a map, and went to see what was left.  We felt fortunate to find site 51 was spacious and naturally secluded, so we called it home for the next two nights.

Site 51 Lake Somerville Birch Creek Unit DSC02918 After breakfast the next day, we gathered our packs and ventured down to the picnic area to claim a spot by the lake.  We planned to spend the majority of the day watching wildlife, playing games, and hiking around.  It was rather windy that day, but otherwise, the weather was perfect. Lake Somerville Picnic Area DSC02761 DSC02763

Lake Somerville

Lake Somerville State Park

After a morning of watching Great Egrets and American Coots and playing games, we ate lunch and spread a blanket out by the water to rest.  Later that afternoon, we hiked the loop trail to and around the Yaupon Camping Area.  The majority of the trail follows the shoreline, offering beautiful views.

Hiking Lake Somerville

Lake Somerville Birch Creek Unit

Lake Somerville

Hiking Lake Somerville

If Lake Somerville aims to please, this park is an overachiever.  Whatever your reason for heading outdoors, this park will not disappoint.  The lake provides the traditional boating scene, but if you prefer quiet river paddling, Yegua Creek offers a 5 mile paddling trip perfect for viewing wildlife.  If you own your own horse, there is an equestrian camping area complete with nearby riding trails. There are over 22 miles of trail in both Birch Creek and neighboring Nails Creek Units.  Both units are connected by 13 miles of trail that runs through undeveloped land on the west end of the lake offering hiking and backpacking opportunities for those who prefer a little more solitude and to experience a closer relationship with nature.  The Blackland Prairie and Post Oak Savannah Habitats come together here.  The large, undeveloped area encourages a rich biodiversity of these two habitats and a unique opportunity for even the most experienced nature enthusiast.

Lake Somerville

We only had one full day at the park since we arrived late on Friday and had to leave early on Sunday, so we didn’t get to hike the main trail connecting the two parks.  We plan to make a return trip with our kayaks to paddle down Yegua Creek and hike the main trail.  I have learned since our trip that Flag Pond, which lies along the main trail between the two parks, is a popular place to spot waterfowl and wading birds.  On our way home, we drove over to Nails Creek Unit to check out the park.  After visiting both units, I would prefer to camp at Birch Creek, but there are plenty of birding opportunities at Nails Creek.  These photos were taken at Nails Creek across the lake from a portion of the main trail.  They are a bit unfocused since they are so far away, but you get the idea.  Look at all of those egrets!

Lake Somerville Nails Creek Unit

Lake Somerville Nails Creek Unit

Waterfowl across Lake Somerville from Nails Creek Unit

On our last morning, we reluctantly packed our gear after breakfast. Lake Somerville had made our top 5 favorites list for 2012 and we were already talking about our next visit.  The large, undeveloped natural world along the main trail and Yegua Creek calls for our return.  It’s a call we won’t ignore.

Behind our campsite-Lake Somerville


A Day Trip to McKinney Falls: Just Me And My Shadow

Upper Falls-McKinney Falls State Park

Upper Falls

On the last Friday of this past September, with an overcast day on the forecast and the first reasonable temperatures in over three months, I threw my pack in the car and set out with my dog, Shadow, for a day of hiking at McKinney Falls State Park.  It  was the first day in a long line of Fridays that I could chance taking her on the trail without risking heat exhaustion.  I had missed it, and was in desperate need to shed the daily noise and distractions.  Over the previous three months, my agitation had been building for far too long and I knew there was only one thing that would bring balance and renewal.  I needed to be back under the trees with the breeze on my skin and nothing but the sound of the trail under my boots and water flowing in the distance.  Like good medicine, the first step on the trail brought a sigh of relief.  It wasn’t long before I was sitting on a rock next to the creek which was still flowing in spite of the drought.   I was outside on the trail and all was right again.

Located in  Austin, and only a short 30 minute drive from home, this park was an easy addition to my goal of 12 parks in 2012.  While this park is not at the top of my list of favorites, it was good to be in a campground again, even if it was just for the day.

We started off on Onion Creek Trail between the Walk-In Primitive Camping Area and Upper Falls.  The park was pretty empty that day and surprisingly quiet considering its proximity to the airport and downtown Austin.  I only met three other hikers on the trail and one family swimming at the falls.


Picnic Area

Hike In Camping Area-McKinney Falls State Park

Hike-In Camping Area

Onion Creek Trail is a short, 2.8 mile trail that surrounds the camping and picnic areas and follows a short distance along Onion Creek.  The trail leaves the creek side just past Upper Falls and The Smith Visitor Center.  A short distance from the visitor center, your path will reach the ruins of the Horse Trainer’s Cabin before crossing the park road and continuing on past Park Headquarters.

Horse Trainer's Cabin

The Horse Trainer Cabin was once a two room house where John Van Hagen, Thomas McKinney’s horse trainer, lived.  Thomas McKinney was one of Stephen F. Austin’s original 300 colonists and once owned the land here at McKinney Falls SP.  After helping Texas win it’s independence and co-founding Galveston, he retired here to raise horses in the mid 1800’s.   The ruins of his homestead, his horse trainer’s cabin, and the gristmill lie within the park.  The homestead and gristmill can be found on the Homestead Trail, which is also 2.8 miles long and begins at Lower Falls.

Lower Falls

Lower Falls

Depending on rainfall, it might be tricky getting to the Homestead Trail since the trailhead is located on the other side of the falls.  Reaching the trail requires crossing the creek.  With the drought, Shadow and I had no problem crossing the relatively dry limestone bed just above the falls.  Depending on what time of year you find yourself here, though, you might want to be prepared to get your feet wet if this trail is high on your to do list.

Once you cross Onion Creek at Lower Falls, the trailhead is well marked.  Apparently, this trail is popular with mountain bikers which tend to begin the trail loop by going left.  It is recommended by some for hikers to go to the right and hike the loop counter clockwise in order to keep good visibility between hikers and bikers.  However, the park was relatively empty that day, and since it was approaching midday, the heat and humidity were on the rise.  Spotting the homestead ruins at the trail junction, we proceeded left toward the homestead.

McKinney Homestead Ruins

McKinney Homestead Ruins

McKinney Homestead Ruins

We hiked about a third of the Homestead Trail that day and then had to head back home to pick up the girls from school.  Later I learned about the Rock Shelter Interpretive Trail and knew I would have to return to hike this short, but beautifully shaded historical trail.  With three camping trips planned before the end of 2012, it was not until after the new year that Shadow and I returned.

Shadow ready for the hike!

Shadow ready for the hike!

Rock Shelter Interpretive TrailRock Shelter Interpretive Trail

Bridge to Rock Shelter

Bridge to Rock Shelter with Onion Creek in the distance

Thomas McKinney was not the only one to have chosen this area to call home.  A short, well shaded one mile hike on the Interpretive Trail begins at the Smith Visitor Center and follows Onion Creek between Upper and Lower Falls to a limestone rock shelter overlooking the creek.  This place was believed to be inhabited by Native Americans intermittently between 500 AD until the late 1700’s.  The last occupants here were closely related to the Tonkawa.

Rock Shelter

Rock Shelter

Onion Creek just below Rock Shelter

Onion Creek flowing just below Rock Shelter

We discovered so many beautiful parks in 2012, many of which we would like to revisit.  Although we didn’t camp at McKinney Falls, it’s nice to know such a quiet place exists so close to home.  With Austin’s rapid population growth, it’s sometimes difficult to find a secluded place to return to nature.  There are so many beautiful hiking trails in Austin, but many of them are over-crowded, even during the week.  While we probably won’t return to McKinney Falls to camp, I’ll keep it in my back pocket next time I’m between trips and feel the need to put on my boots, grab my pack, and shake the city off for a while.

On the way to the Homestead Trail

Once In A Blue Moon

When I made our reservations for South Llano River State Park many months ago, I had no idea our first night would be spent under a blue moon.  As fate would have it, though, that’s exactly what happened.  We arrived much later than we had originally planned and on a Friday night, no less.  It was overcast and very dark, so choosing a spot that was easily accessible, but tucked far enough away from the main trail wasn’t easy.  Once we found our campsite, the clouds rolled back and we set up camp, no flashlight required.

After we set up the tent, we stayed outside for a while to enjoy the second full moon of August.

The next morning, we were pretty pleased with our campsite selection.  While most campers had moved further down the loop, we were the only ones at the top and our campsite was nestled alone in the trees.  We had no one around us.

I was a little concerned about tent camping in August.  For those of you who don’t live in Texas, August is dry and brutally hot.  The days were topping out at 100 degrees, but the nights dipped into the sixties.   We were fortunate to have a nice breeze for most of the trip.  After breakfast on our first full day, we packed a cooler and went down to the river to enjoy being outside the only way possible…in the water.  We spent the entire day swimming, tubing, and hanging out under the pecan trees along the river banks.

The South Llano River flow rate depends on rainfall, but springs ensure the river constantly flows.  The 2600 acre park, which was donated by Walter Buck to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1977,  boasts two miles of river frontage, majestic pecan trees, over twenty miles of hiking and biking trails, and is one of the most biologically diverse parks in the area, particularly with regard to wildlife.  For over a hundred years, the Rio Grande turkey has made this location along the river its roosting spot.  Every year, between October and April, over 800 turkeys come to roost at South Llano River State Park.  In order to protect the turkeys and ensure their return to roost every year, although the park remains open to visitors, some areas of the park are closed during this time.

South Llano River State Park marks the beginning of a 6.3 mile paddling trail ending at Junction City Park on the north bank of Junction Lake just east of the bridge.  There are several outfitters that will rent canoes and kayaks and provide drop off and pick up services.  The river character is slow with quiet pools and gentle rapids.  The float time is 2-4 hours depending on the water level and river flow rate.  We are looking forward to a return trip when the weather cools off to stay a little longer and kayak the river.  Being on the water offers an entirely different experience and the seclusion will offer some great opportunities to see the wildlife.

In the evening, once it became a little cooler, we took the two mile hike up the hill behind our campsite to the scenic overlook.  Hiking a little later in the day would have yielded some much better photos.  Still, it was quiet and beautiful.

Overall, we loved the park, but everyone agreed some cooler temperatures would have made this trip much more enjoyable.  The park has so much to offer, but when it’s over 100 degrees outside, it’s hard to do anything but stay in the water.  We will definitely come back to kayak the river, hike a few trails, and hopefully see some turkeys.

Camping keeps trying to teach me to let go a little and enjoy the ride.  Unable to arrive early on Friday, I wondered what sort of campsite would be left to choose from.  The bottom of the barrel, I imagined.  The same thing happened at Colorado Bend.  I got the leftovers.  And you know what?  I ended up with the perfect spot both times.  I’ve learned that you can’t make the perfect camping trip happen.  It happens when you let it.  It’s hard for me to remember that, but once in a blue moon, I get it right.

Three National Parks, Two Great States, One Amazing Road Trip: Pt 1 New Mexico

We set out early on a Thursday morning in June.  I enjoyed the first day’s twelve hour drive overall, mostly in anticipation of the trip ahead and the fact that I always love a good road trip.  There are plenty of places in Texas I would like to visit and share with you, but this time I am skipping straight to our first stop, Santa Fe, NM.  If you have ever driven through West Texas, you’ll understand my omission here.  There are some interesting places to see in West Texas, but none of them are along the main roads and our goal was to make Santa Fe by early evening.

We chose Santa Fe as our first stop not only for it’s funky charm or that the city itself breathes art and history, but also for it’s close proximity to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.  I read about this hike on The Blonde Coyote. If you are planning a road trip, I highly recommend her blog.   After reading her post on Tent Rocks, we made this stop a priority on our way to Colorado.  As it turns out, this side note excursion was one of the highlights of our trip.  With it’s narrow slot canyon trail, unique rock formations and then final ascent to the mesa top for a seemingly endless view which includes the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia Mountains, the Rio Grande Valley, as well as a bird’s eye view of the canyon trail and tent rock formations, there is little left to be desired.

View of the mesa top from the trailhead.

 We didn’t tell the girls we would end up at the top.  There are times when you know ignorance is bliss.  In the end, they were proud of what they accomplished and impressed by the spectacular view, but I think we all agreed, the best part of the hike was through the narrow slot canyon.

Entrance to Slot Canyon Trail

That’s a doorway to enchantment if I’ve ever seen one.  Even now, I see a world ahead of mystery and adventure.  The only thing I would have changed is the amount of time we spent here.  There are a few more hikes in the area we would have liked to explore, one of which leads to a hand carved ancestral cave dwelling, but the Million Dollar Highway was calling from up ahead and reminding us we needed daylight to enjoy the famous scenic drive.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks was designated a national monument in January, 2001.  The hoodoos (or cone shaped tent rocks) and the adjacent meandering slot canyon are products of tremendous volcanic explosions that left behind layers of pumice, ash and tuff over 1,000 feet thick. Over time, wind and water have patiently sculpted the work of art existing here today.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the area was inhabited by ancestors of The Pueblo de Cochiti who still live in the surrounding area.  Tent Rocks National Monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in partnership with the Pueblo de Cochiti, The University of New Mexico, and Sandoval County.

Almost there!

We made it to the top!

We took a break on the mesa top and enjoyed the view for a while.  Then we hiked back down the way we came, through the slot canyon to the trailhead for a picnic lunch.  The canyon was a cool relief from the midday sun.  Soon we were on the road to Colorado knowing we would come back to Tent Rocks someday and that next time, we’d stay a little longer.

Next stop: Ouray, Colorado!

Guadalupe River State Park

When I think of summertime in Texas, there are several rivers that immediately come to mind.  Among my favorites are Medina River, Comal River, Frio River, and The Guadalupe.  I have heard South Llano River is well worth the trip and one we plan to take later this summer for the first time.  When the temperatures were warm enough for tubing, we took a trip to Guadalupe River State Park.  This park is tucked away in the Texas Hill Country between Blanco and San Antonio. If you find yourself in the Texas Hill Country, don’t miss the opportunity to visit, or even better, set up camp for a while.  On our way to the park, I envisioned myself hanging out by the river reading my book.  Instead, I found myself staring at and listening to the river for hours.

We arrived Friday afternoon and pitched our tent in the Wagon Ford Walk In Campsite Loop.  The campsites at the end of the loop are more spacious and surrounded by trees which give them a secluded feel.   Although the park was booked for the entire weekend, our campsite was quiet and felt worlds away from civilization.   The walk-in or hike-in sites are becoming my favorite areas in most campgrounds to set up camp.  It requires a little more planning and effort, but the reward is experiencing nature more and my neighbors less. Nature is what pulls me out there, so it’s worth it to me to go out a little further.  I’m learning the importance of becoming a minimalist, though, which I am convinced will only improve everything.

The trail to our campsite

Wagon Ford Walk In Tent Area

Our campsite

 On the second morning of our stay, I took a hike down the trail behind our campsite.  The trail disappeared quickly with overgrowth and I almost turned around, but decided to keep moving forward, hearing the water in the distance.  I’m glad I did.

The nights were cool and the days were warm.  We spent our days down by the river, swimming and tubing.  There is a large day use area down by the river.  We took a picnic and a few chairs and set up under a cluster of bald cypress trees along the riverbanks.  Occasionally, we would hike upstream with our tubes and float back down to our spot.

Although not high in adventure, this trip was just what we needed at the time.  A couple of lazy summer days spent on the banks of the river.  Summer makes an early appearance in Texas.  Although it wasn’t officially summer yet, the thermometer had it’s own opinion on the matter.  I was concerned it would be too hot to sleep, but the nights were cool enough to need blankets.  When we camp here again, we plan to visit the nearby Honey Creek State Natural Area.  Entry to the area is only permitted with a guided interpretive hike which focuses on the history and geology of the area.  Although I am sure the hike is beautiful, I have a feeling our favorite place will still be underneath a cypress tree, on the banks of the river.

Return to Colorado Bend State Park

After visiting Colorado Bend State Park for the first time with my daughter’s troop back in January, I knew a return visit would be top priority for our family in the spring.  We have since added this park to the list of our top favorite places to camp in Texas.

My intent was to stay in the same campsite as before.  I loved that spot.  It was shady, with a nice, slightly elevated view of the river. I realized the day of our trip I had reserved a spot in the walk-in camping area by accident.  Unable to change our reservation since the park was full, I decided to remain optimistic.  After all, there was nothing I could do, and we had all been looking forward to this camping trip for some time.  After our last camping experience, a few friends suggested we stay in a hike-in or walk-in campsite to help weed out those noisy neighbors.  I’m a believer.  This was quite possibly the best camping “mistake” I’ve ever made.   When we arrived late, there were only three spots available, so at check-in, I asked which site was best of those that were left. I was worried. Usually I go to great lengths to make sure we get a beautiful spot. It turns out fate had better plans. We ended up in the most beautiful and peaceful campsite. All the planning in the world could not have rendered better results.

Our campsite

So, I’m learning to let go more and allow myself to be surprised every now and then.  It may not always turn out the way I imagined, but I think it makes for a much better experience.  That might be true with just about anything, really.

We arrived late Friday night.  We were exhausted from the long day of work, packing, driving, and then setting up camp.  When we were finally still and in our tents, I smiled at the only audible sounds; the river and the frogs.   The next morning, we were able to see just how fortunate that mistake really was.  Although we had no shade at our campsite, the open feel was perfect against the backdrop of the neighboring Colorado River and drastic cliff walls on the opposite side.

A trip to Colorado Bend State Park is incomplete without a hike to Gorman Falls.  I have not been able to take a picture that does this breathtaking place any justice, but I am determined to keep trying.  After hiking through the rocky hills with surrounding mesquite and cedar trees and blooming cacti, the trail’s end descends steeply into another world.  It feels as though you’ve been dropped into a rain forest, millions of miles away from Central Texas.  If you have the chance to visit the park, don’t leave without visiting Gorman Falls.  It is worth every step and more.

On the trail to Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls is a living travertine waterfall.  Over 65 feet tall, this waterfall is growing instead of eroding.  The water from Gorman Spring slowly dissolves the limestone bedrock below.  The water that surfaces is rich in a mineral called calcite.  As it spills over the falls, the calcite is deposited over time creating travertine which is porous and contains nutrients to allow the unique plant life you see here to flourish.

Photo credit for photo above: Scott Siebert

If you follow the trail beyond the falls, you will reach the Colorado River.  The falls spill into the river here and it’s a perfect spot to just sit for a while and take it all in.  We stayed here for the rest of the afternoon.

You won’t find electricity or showers at the park and there are rare pockets of cell phone service, but I love it that way.  The natural beauty here has been relatively untouched.  After driving 8 miles down a dirt road from the park entrance to the campsites and making the descent from the hills down to the river, and yes, even losing that cell phone service, it’s just you and this beautiful place.  Worlds away from the daily grind, distractions, and the calendar that’s always too full, it doesn’t take long to let that all go and just be.   A few deep breaths and you’re good.  Warning:  You may never want to go back!

Inks Lake: Let The Camping Begin

My camping story begins with Inks Lake. This is where I learned to love camping as a child and it is where I returned to reunite myself with the great outdoors. Inks holds my childhood and my reunited love of camping. This park is my home. I returned here with my family for the first time just over three years ago after being away for more than 22 years. I wanted to share some of my favorite childhood memories with my daughters. I feared they would miss the computer, the TV, or one of the many other daily distractions, that I would hear the disappointing “I’m bored.” It never happened. Nature won them over.

Camping as an adult is different than camping as a child. As a child, we have no responsibilities, really, except to get out there and have fun. We contribute here and there, but by in large, the bulk of the work is done for us. As adults, we take on the tasks and try to learn and balance the fun with the work. I am beginning to suspect the key to this balance has something to do with being able to simplify. Simplifying is not my forte. I struggle with it constantly. Camping has a lot to teach me, though, and I am her willing, though not graceful, student.

Inks Lake is nestled in the heart of the Hill Country on the Colorado River in Burnet County located on the Highland Lakes Chain and is surrounded by granite hills. Inks Lake is one of five lakes on this chain along the Colorado River and is a constant level lake, so it is minimally affected by floods and drought.

We arrived Friday night. It was a chilly 32 degrees and rainy. Many of our friends thought we were crazy for going out in the cold, rainy weather, but we were eager to get out there and decided we would deal with whatever nature brought our way. We weren’t excited about the rain, but we had a nice, relaxing first day. We spent most of the day in the tent resting, playing games, and reading. I loved hearing the rain falling on the tent. Every now and then, it would stop raining and we would step out of the tent to take a look around. In the evening, it stopped raining long enough for us to build a fire and cook dinner.

Sunday morning was beautiful and we all knew exactly what we wanted to do first.

Life is better outside, but life is even better outside in a kayak. Some friends of ours loaned us their kayaks for the week and it was, by far, the highlight of the trip. I loved being out over the water. It was so peaceful and quiet, but exciting at the same time. We could go anywhere, adventure awaiting us at every turn. We traveled to new places and gained a different perspective of our favorite spots. The entire family is hooked.

Photo by Katy Poulter

I learned something about kayaking. When you are more than a mile away from your campsite, the wind is blowing directly toward you, and your shoulders are on fire, only one thing will help you…your niece singing “Just Around The Riverbend” at the top of her lungs.

Our friends came out for a day visit early in the week. We enjoyed a relaxing day hanging out together. The weather was warm enough for swimming and the girls enjoyed an hour on a paddle boat, but I think kayaking made the top of the list that day.

Photo by Kynna Sullivan

When we camp at Inks, the girls love to take a daily trip to the General Store. It’s a small, country store with friendly staff. Sometimes, we sit on the back porch and play checkers.

There are several beautiful hiking trails at Inks Lake. One of our favorite hikes leads to Devil’s Waterhole, a popular spot for swimming. It’s also a popular spot for cliff jumping.

Although Devil’s Waterhole is popular, our favorite place to swim lies just up the hill and further down the trail at the falls on Valley Spring Creek. The creek feeds into Inks Lake. The rocks and cliffs all around Devil’s Waterhole and surrounding the creek have beautiful pink veins running through them. This is called Valley Spring Gneiss (pronounced “nice”) and is formed from recrystalized sedimentary rocks.

Valley Spring Gneiss

Valley Spring Creek Falls

Photo by Scott Siebert

My sister and her daughter camped with us for a few nights. My sister and I had not been to the falls together since we were kids. We reminisced about riding down the falls in tubes and camping at Inks when we were young. On the last day of our stay, our Mom and Dad joined us. We all hiked up to the falls together, remembering our past adventures at Inks Lake and made a few new memories, too.

Overall, we had a great trip, but with Spring Break, the park was packed and we had several annoying neighbors. Another important camping lesson for me to learn is how not to lash out irrationally at rude and inconsiderate neighboring campers and if I do, who really wins in the end. Early on, I was friendly and reasonable. By the end of the week, I resembled a militant maniac at war defending my campsite. I actually started thinking of ways I could use my gear to form a barricade of sorts around the campsite. I can’t really say this was my finest moment at embracing all that nature has to offer. There will always be people around who will interfere with important moments. I’ve been on both sides of that equation. The question is, how much power will I give them?

Camping is not always the “getting away from it all” experience that I’d like it to be, but I still love it just the same. For me, it’s necessary. Spring Break brings it’s own challenges with people who have different ideas of what the camping experience should be like, but how do I keep loving something with the same passion in spite of the flaws? Sometimes you can live with the flaws, and sometimes you have to walk away. I think I’ve learned what’s worth holding on to and what’s worth letting go. The lesson is accepting what I do love entirely and learning not to let a few irritations ruin the entire experience. I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

In the meantime, maybe learning a little backpacking wouldn’t hurt, either.

Life Is Better Outside