Lifestyle

Camping at the River’s Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

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I hadn’t camped in years, but I craved a respite from the late October political and pandemic news swirling around me like a tide pool floating downstream. I decided on an old-fashioned camping experience, and the beauty of Colorado Bend State Park presented the perfect opportunity.  Checking a long-term weather forecast, I reserved a primitive camping spot on the Texas Parks and Wildlife portal. I was determined to experience a portion of the beautiful Colorado River that runs through this part of Texas.

The camping gear was still tucked away in the garage, where I had left it 20 years ago—check. My decades-old “well-seasoned” Coleman stove, named Wilson, fired up like a champ in my driveway—check. The good news boosted my confidence, and I was prepared for anything.

Camping at the River's Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

Photo: John Spaulding. Kristen Millican welcomes pecan customers.

Only a few days out, the weather forecast changed, pointing to a chillier-than-expected excursion. Undaunted, I threw in a couple of extra blankets. When the Big Day arrived, a blue norther had dropped the temperature to 33°F. upon my arrival in San Saba. Although I passed many “Hunters Welcome” banners hailing the beginning of deer hunting season, I had not prepared to harvest game. My protein and fat content would come from the Millican Pecan Company. Kristen, married to fifth-generation owner Winston Millican, greeted me with their selection of fine pecans and a brief history of the company, founded in 1888. I joyfully stocked up with enough pecans not only for the journey but also a hoped-for pecan pie to be created by my wife for the holidays.

Camping at the River's Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

Photo: John Spaulding. An 800+ year-old live oak shades the range station.

The weather had not improved by the time I arrived at the ranger station, ready to check-in. However, the reasons for coming here began to appear, as I gawked at the enormous, gnarly live oak squeezed between the entrance road and the outer wall of the station. Its twisted limbs might have been part of primeval history. The ranger answered my question: “I heard that it is between 800-1,000 years old—or maybe older.” It was a reminder of the ancient and timeless beauty of this place.

Light was beginning to fade, and although the cold rain had held off most of the day, my time to set up camp was running short. From the parking area, the campsite below came into view: a tranquil spot underneath a towering triple-trunked pecan tree, fanning out to offer shade on even the hottest days. The river and I made our first acquaintance, as it gently flowed about 30 yards from my site. The campsite was, surprisingly, much better than pictured on the website.

Camping at the River's Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

Photo: John Spaulding. Campsite #5 after the rain.

I unloaded the car and set up the tent as fast as I could, ready to cook my steak and beans. However, Wilson, the old stove that worked so well at home, now began leaking fluid from the tank. My alternative food supply was cold rations, including gorp, powdered Tang drink, which I had not sampled in decades, and a baloney sandwich.

A light, cold rain started to fall, and daylight was now just a memory. During the night, occasional downbursts fueled a low, rumbling sound coming from the river. Wild thoughts of being swept away by a roiling, bubbling torrent began to trouble me, although I figured I was high enough on the riverbank to escape. The edge of the tent started to leak onto the toe of my sleeping bag, but it was just the rain, not a rising river. A mere annoyance, given my vivid imagination throughout the night. And all evening I heard the crackle and crunch of what I thought was a raccoon, eagerly opening and digesting a bottle of energy drink I had left on the picnic table outside. After a few hours of this, I thought it odd that the raccoon had developed a yen for polyethylene. There is no accounting for tastes.

But the next morning, my energy drink was still there. The only thing missing was the motorcyclist at the next campsite whose only protection had been a tarp draped over his hammock on the river’s edge. He evidently had had enough of the soggy conditions and packed up to leave in the rain. After I started drying out, a breakfast of more Tang and an energy bar awaited me in the now-heated car. But no matter my condition or disappointment with the grub, I was determined to explore this bit of paradise.

I first hiked a bit of the forested trail by the river, now beginning to glisten in the increasing sunlight. Feeling more acclimated, I decided to also try the Spicewood Springs trail at the edge of the campground. Informative signs guided me through the flora and fauna that inhabited this land. I was surprised by a live and quite docile armadillo, foraging for insects among the dew-laden grasses hugging the riverbank.

Camping at the River's Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

Photo: John Spaulding. Bend General Store offers food, drink, live music, and their Moon Pie Motel.

The sound of gurgling water up ahead announced a chain of waist-deep natural wading pools, each separated by small waterfalls, sparkling in the sun. I was tempted to take a dip in these clear, blue-green waters, but the air temperature of only 50°F. brought me to my senses. I backtracked and drove to the Bend General Store, just outside the park for the hot meal which had eluded me all day.

The store reminded me of Luckenbach, made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. In addition to a small performance stage and bar, their Moon Pie Motel offers four individual cabins for overnight stays when one tires of the camping life. What interested me more was the hefty burger with thick bacon and a black truffle sauce. Now we’re getting somewhere. I was now fortified to continue my journey.

Camping at the River's Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

Photo: John Spaulding. The full moon made a great camping companion.

Back at the campground, the full moon was rising, and the river was dead calm. The mid-week emptiness of the campground must have emboldened the creatures that call this area home. The mysterious crackling sound outside my tent resumed, this time with all my water bottles stowed away; a screech, sounding like a flock of pterodactyls were skimming the river. We don’t have those birds in Dallas. Then, an unusual sniffing and grunting, followed by a “whee-whee-whee!” only a few feet from the tent. Could they be javelinas or wild hogs with hungry offspring in tow? I decided not to leave the tent to find out.

Camping at the River's Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

Photo: John Spaulding. Gorman Falls tumbles 70 feet into the Colorado River.

I awoke the next morning with new-found purpose, to tackle the Gorman Falls trail. Its 70-foot descent makes it one of the highest in Texas. The challenge is not the rocky and rugged trail, but the last tenth of a mile of vertical decline. On a dry day, the rocks are still smooth, and if not for the well-placed cable to grab, the trail would be extremely difficult for even experienced hikers. However, once at the bottom, I was greeted to a sight reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The green, moss-covered rock in the dappled shade gives way to a seven-story cascade of water, draining into the Colorado River nearby. I realized I would have braved raccoons, armadillos, and even pterodactyls, just to get to this stunning view.

Exhilarated, I returned to the campsite and decided to start a bonfire in the large fire ring, after buying wood at the ranger station. The sunny mid-afternoon skies lifted my spirits, and the noisy fire demanded my steak and beans, which I cooked in the skillet and pans I’d brought from home. The second hot meal in two days disappeared in record time.

Camping at the River's Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

Photo: John Spaulding. Finally a hot campsite meal.

After roasting a marshmallow or two for dessert, I knew one more place was on my to-see list. Driving back to Bend and heading a few miles east, Fiesta Winery became visible in the distance. Arriving at closing time, I was not able to sample their wines, but did snap some photos of their lush grounds. I imagined post-pandemic times of music, people, and laughter in this lovely area, while sipping wine under the shade of old live oaks, and viewing acres of grapevines in the distance. Note to self—return to this place.

Camping at the River's Edge: Colorado Bend State Park

Photo: John Spaulding.

Back at the campsite, I saw the long-weekend campers starting to arrive, with the sites becoming fully occupied by evening. As the sun gave way to the rising full moon, I heard that crackling sound that perplexed me all during my stay. This time I carefully opened the tent flap and trained my flashlight into the darkness. There was no raccoon. The small group of deer and I stared wide-eyed at each other. I laughed as they immediately went back to happily munching on the native pecans that dropped from the old tree shading my campsite. I joined them by munching on a few of the ones I’d bought earlier. Mystery solved.

The next morning greeted me with a frost. The river had changed again, giving me another glimpse into its secrets. It sensed the oncoming winter, and provided a dancing smoke-like mist rising from its calm waters. I unfortunately didn’t take advantage of the opportunities to fish, kayak or spelunk in nearby caves this trip. However, I silently committed to return to this place to experience more of this Park’s and the river’s allure.