Social distancing and the Great Outdoors.
A match made for 2020.
My wife and I realized in mid-spring that the chances of our family taking any kind of long haul trip this year were looking slim. COVID-19 was locking down everything, and visiting family out of state seemed unwise. So armed with our annual state park pass, we looked around us.
Though the governor opened state parks, their capacity was limited due to the pandemic. That meant if we wanted to go somewhere more popular, such as Mustang Island State Park in Corpus Christi, we had to reserve our spot more than a month in advance.
In the meantime, there were plenty of other choices closer to home. Some, such as Meridian State Park, felt like undiscovered gems.
Meridian State Park: Small but not a haul from Abilene
Meridian, named after the 98th meridian upon which it was built, is 140 miles east of Abilene. Meridian State Park is nearly four miles southwest of Meridian on State Highway 22. Overall, it’ll take you about 2½ hours if you don’t get hooked by the museums in Dublin or Hico along the way.
Meridian was a day trip for us.
Our two girls, 6 and 9 at the time, enjoy a good hike, as does my wife. I do as well, though my old friend John Blodgett still to this day razzes me about hiking.
Years ago, both of us were living in Utah when he called one day about taking a hike. Feeling wiped out for some work-related reason, I replied, “A hike? That’s like a long walk uphill!”
Rendering him speechless, I have yet to live it down. To this day, he zings with my own words every time I post pictures from one of these trips. But that’s what best friends are for.
As state parks go, Meridian isn’t large.
Shaped roughly like an arrowhead, the park measures about a mile wide near the lake and nearly two miles end-to-end. Lake Bosque at 72 acres occupies the center with trails and campgrounds surrounding the shoreline.
Opened in 1935, the park contains some of the earliest examples of architecture from the Civilian Conservation Corps. The architecture of the limestone refectory, basically a fancy snack bar and bathrooms, along the lake will look familiar to Abilene State Park fans.
The park has four marked trails ranging from easy to challenging. We took the 2.2-mile Bosque Hiking Trail around the perimeter of the lake. Rated as the most difficult, it was a moderate exertion for me and my wife, while the girls motored along with few complaints.
It was early June, so humidity was a factor and the day was somewhat warm. The air seemed more close amid the trees, but nobody says you have to take the whole trail at once.
Some of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever seen anywhere were along the lake and the view provided an excellent reason to stop, sip a little water and take in the sight. It had me wishing that we could stay the night.
Later in the afternoon, my wife and I set up our beach chairs along the lake while our daughters went swimming. Lake Bosque isn’t big enough for water skiing but it is perfect for canoes and kayaks. We saw several folks paddling around, and more than one lunker jump out of the water.
There were a couple of water snakes and snapping turtles out there too. So make sure the rope you reach to for tying up to doesn’t have an opinion about it first.
Through email, Stephanie Garcia of Texas Parks and Wildlife informed me that during the pandemic, park staff across the state have taken the slowdown as an opportunity for tackling a number of improvement projects.
At Meridian, that’s an overhaul of the restrooms at Group Hall, which is used for indoor events such as banquets.
Dinosaur Valley: Make your own tracks
Father’s Day fell near my birthday, so we combined both events and checked another park off my bucket list — Dinosaur Valley State Park near Glen Rose. It’s just a bit closer, about 130 miles east of Abilene.
Dinosaur Valley gets its name from the dinosaur tracks preserved in the rock at the bottom of the Paluxy River. Granted, that water is only about a foot deep usually, less as the summer progresses, but it is an important detail to note.
When you’re little and walking around, like my girls, it’s no big deal to fall in the water. For somebody in their mid-50s carrying a pack with snacks, water and phones, it’s another matter.
I can’t emphasize enough that you bring footwear, either sandals or water shoes, for the river. That algae and moss make for treacherous walking if you’re barefoot. When you’ve got a foot of water to fall into, that’s fine. But if you want to cross the river to hike the trails on the other side, realize there is no bridge. You’re walking over slick rock barely an inch underwater, it was tricky even in sandals.
I can understand keeping the river setting natural and not building a bridge. But a rope line suspended overhead for people to grab onto would be a real improvement here. I’m sure there’s an Eagle Scout or two in need of a service project to work on that could make this happen.
Regardless, we were all impressed by the tracks, even if they were underwater. The Ballroom, a section of the river where theropods millions of years earlier were chasing a sauropod, features 19 tracks.
Back then it was mud they were running through. Something occurred to immediately preserve those tracks and over millions of years, they hardened to the stone we now see.
But like going to see the Grand Canyon simply for the view, if all you’re at Dinosaur Valley just for the tracks, then you’re missing out.
The park has much more to offer.
The hiking was excellent, taking us high above the river at one point. In fact, I was so far up that I could take a FaceTime call from my mom when she rang to wish me Happy Father’s Day (and talk with the girls).
The trails can get pretty hot away from the river. While the giant boulders we found in a creek bed were fun to climb, eventually we descended to the river for the breezes wafting across it.
Most of the day we saw folks on the river, either hunting for tracks or picnicking along the shore. Near 5 p.m., most of them left as the park closed for day visits.
We, on the other hand, had a camping permit for the night. After setting up the tent, we went back to the river where we practically had the whole thing to ourselves. It was one of my favorite memories.
Kudos to the Dinosaur Valley park staff, they’re mosquito game is top drawer. I don’t think I was bitten once, not even that night when I was dozed in my camping chair under the full moon.
Mustang Island: Ride, skeeters, ride
I wish I could have said the same thing about our visit to Mustang Island State Park in early August.
Having arrived about a week and a half after Hurricane Hanna, every mosquito along the Gulf Coast seemed intent on sampling our hemoglobin.
Lilybelle wanted to go to the beach for her seventh birthday and so we’d reserved a camping site at Mustang Island in June. But by the time we were about to go, alarming COVID-19 case numbers in Corpus Christi had caused the park to shut down for a few days, cutting into our plans.
Instead of seven days, we could only spent four. As it turned out, that was plenty.
Any mosquito bites sustained during the nights got burned away by the sun and Gulf water the next afternoon. After a time, we were all feeling burned out, in every sense of the word.
Most of the bloodsuckers hung out around the campsites. I think if we ever return, we might go for the primitive camping along the beach. Sure, you’ve got to drive to the bathroom instead of walk, but at least you won’t lose a quart of blood along the way.
We’d brought a good double-armful of mesquite wood from our yard. For our last two nights, we built bonfires on the beach, watched the moon rise over the water, roasted marshmallows and tracked the International Space Station as it crossed overhead.
Weirdly, the last night the mosquitoes all but disappeared. I guess they were full.
Colorado Bend: Be cowrageous
We made our last park trip in the waning days of summer to celebrate Willow’s 10th birthday. Staying close to the Big Country, we took a day trip to Colorado Bend State Park.
About 150 miles southwest of Abilene, the fastest way to get there is by taking U.S. HIghway 183 from Brownwood until you reach Lometa, then head west on FM 581. Then, it’s a right turn onto FM 580 and a brief drive through the community of Bend until you reach the park.
If you go, watch out for the cows.
You’ve got to cross private land to get to the park and cattle like to stroll alongside the road. It’s not so bad during the day, but the only thing you’ll see of those black cows at night are their eyes.
So, keep it slow and you’ll avoid the bovine bodywork.
As you probably guessed, the park is named after the bend of the Colorado River which borders the east side. We arrived in the afternoon and took the Gorman Falls Trail to the Tie Slide Overlook Trail.
Overall, there are 35 miles of trails at Colorado Bend.
The trail varied between open terrain and oak forest. The path itself was a little tricky, however. While most state park trails are easily defined by their smooth, wide track, this trail was peculiarly marred by buried stones and their jutting angles.
It would be very easy to turn an ankle on this trail, so high-topped shoes are recommended if you are susceptible to that kind of thing. I found myself looking more at my feet than the sights around me.
The view over the river from the overlook was worth those rocks, however. A railed-in platform 200 feet above the water let me catch the breeze and I could see for miles before me.
With the afternoon getting on, we marched back to the car and then drove down to the river bend to hike along the shore. Nellie wanted to check out the campsites for future reference.
The primitive walk-in sites actually looked to be the best ones. About 100 yards from a compost restroom, the campsites themselves sat in a beautiful meadow along the river. Each had a fire pit and table and it wasn’t too hard to imagine myself snoozing in my camping chair there, either.
We struck out for Spicewoods Springs Creek, which was about a mile from the parking lot along the river. Once there, the girls splashed in the pools where the creek meets the river.
I looked for a back entrance to cross the water, not wanting to risk the slick rocks in my barefeet, and so backtracked and took the Spicewood Canyon Trail above the creek. But as I got higher and higher, my right knee began feeling it, so at a lookout over the canyon, I turned around and went back.
Overall, Colorado Bend looked like a park worth more exploration. There are caves to visit as well as the rest of Spicewood Canyon and the Gorman Falls which we didn’t get to see, either.
Parks a cure for pandemic blues
If you’re needing an escape during the pandemic, you can’t go wrong visiting our regional state parks.
With fall arriving, everyone will want to visit Lost Maples State Natural Area near San Antonio, but with visitation numbers still being limited, it’s to your advantage to try something new.
According to numbers provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife, Dinosaur Valley was one of the most popular spots over the summer, averaging 30,000 visitors over three months. By contrast, Meridian averaged 3,000.
Colorado Bend was between 13,000 to 10,000 June to August, while Mustang Island averaged just over 5,000 for the first two months, then nearly 7,000 in August.
Closer to home, Abilene State Park saw numbers ranging from 7,500 in June, up to 8,600 in July, and then 6,500 in August. Lake Colorado City also saw nearly 5,000 for the first two months, then a drop to 2,500 in August.
All of these numbers are down from previous years, of course. TPWD is limiting access due to COVID-19 and everyone who visits is required to wear masks or socially distance.
Now more than ever, it’s a good time to get away. Not only is getting outside good for your physical health but your spiritual and mental well-being will feel rejuvenated, too.
Who knows, you might even hear from your mom.
This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: Happy hiking: Four Texas state parks to visit not a long trek from Abilene