Our Favorite Nature Escapes: Colorado Bend State Park
A tropical waterfall in Texas? Hundreds of hidden underground caves, some not yet explored? A bubbling natural spring inviting you for a long, cool soak? Yep, right here in Texas. Just cruise three to four hours southwest of Dallas/Fort Worth to find this hidden oasis, right here in the Lone Star state: Colorado Bend State Park.
Last summer, our college-age son introduced us to this little-known state park in the Northern reaches of Texas’ Hill Country in Bend, Texas. He had landed a summer internship at this unpretentious Texas treasure and, after our first visit, we quickly became a couple of its most ardent admirers.
You’ll feel like you’re going to the middle of nowhere. The town of Bend is made up of a couple of buildings and one hamburger joint with a cantankerous owner who opens and closes for business at will. Keep going and follow the signs to the park — down a gravel road that never seems to end. Be patient and 20 minutes later you’ll arrive at the site of a former fishing camp. Colorado Bend State Park is 5,300+ acres of awe-inspiring biodiversity along six miles of Colorado River frontage. It is one of the state’s newest parks, having only opened to the public in 1987, and offers 26-miles of mixed-use trails that wind through the limestone canyon lands and offer breath-taking vistas of Hill Country.
The river offers riverbank camping, fly fishing (it’s famous for the white bass run in the Spring), swimming, and, if the water’s deep enough, canoing.
The park’s prime jewel is the 60-foot high Gorman Falls, now accessible to the public for day use activities via a 3-mile round trip self-guided hike over rugged terrain or via a two-hour 1-1/2 mile park-guided tour. You won’t see it from the road. It’s worth the hike — round one bend in the limestone and you’ll think you’re in the Brazilian rainforest.
Approximately 150 wild caves are also located on the park property — ONLY accessible via guided park tour. An experienced guide will lead you on a speleo-adventure through caves where you crawl, slide, and climb through small spaces and into large chambers. Be prepared to get dirty and maybe even soaked (not for the claustrophobic or arachnophobic). [NOTE: Unfortunately, the large Gorman Cave shown in the picture has been closed to walking tours, as of July 29, 2010, to prevent possible human transmission of White Nose Disease to the large, native colony of bats.]
Another hike and you’ll discover Spicewood Springs — a series of sparkling clear, natural-fed spring pools, that invite you to slip into their cooling embrace and unwind after a long day of hiking or caving.
Looking for wildlife? Birders can enjoy viewing some of 155 species of birds found in the park, including specialties such as golden-cheeked warblers, black-capped vireos, and bald eagles. Herpers (that’s folks who seek out amphibians and reptiles) can check out lots of local rock dwellers, including the elusive black-tailed rattlesnake. If you prefer mammals, they also have their share of raccoons, cottontails, and armadillo.
Be forewarned — this locale is not for the Ritz Carlton type of vacationers. Although Colorado Bend’s natural wonders offers you Texas bliss, the available overnight accommodations are limited and rather primitive. Riverbank tent camping is available and self-contained RVs spaces are limited (generators must be turned off by 10 pm). Composting toilets and cold water-only showers are available onsite. Your only other option is one of the affordable chain hotels, about a 45-60 minutes drive away in Copperas Cove, Lampasas, or San Saba.
A few important Tips for your Visit
1) Do NOT drive your luxury vehicle. There is an 8-mile long gravel road just to get into the park that kicks up a ton of dust and requires a very slow 15-20 mph crawl — and you might want to change your air filter once you get home.
2) Do NOT bring children under 8 years old or those who can’t hike over rough terrain for long stretches — this is NOT stroller country or for kids who poop-out after 10 minutes of hiking. Perfect for older kids, teens, and adults who adore the wonders of nature (just forewarn your teens that cell phones do NOT work here…yes!).
3) DO bring all your provisions with you. Either bring EVERYTHING you need from home or stock-up in the not-so-near towns of Lampasas or San Saba.
4) DO make early reservations for your campsite and get there early on a weekend — first come get the best sites. The park is especially busy in March and April — the white bass run and wild laurel in bloom brings out lots of nature-loving visitors.
4) DO call ahead to make reservations for the Gorman Falls waterfall tours and crawling cave tours — incredibly informative, led by knowledgeable park naturalists. Call the park office directly to check schedules, weather conditions, and to make reservations: 325/628-3240.
Gorman Falls Tour: 1.5-mile round trip hike to the Falls, reservations recommended, $5 per person, offered each Saturday at 2 pm.
Gorman Cave Crawling Tour: reservations required, $30 per person, Saturdays at 9:00 am.