Cooking up camping traditions at Inks Lake

The best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten was prepared by my husband’s grandmother in a cast-iron skillet atop a two-burner camp stove at Inks Lake State Park.

The golden-brown crispy skinned delight, aptly paired with spicy campfire beans and juicy corn on the cob, is a once-a-year delicacy relished in our family. It’s a meal with nostalgia folded into the ingredients — the kind of food capable of evoking memories as warm as the Texas weather in which it is served.

For more than 15 years, camping at Inks Lake State Park has been an annual tradition for our family. My husband’s 80-year-old grandparents and various members of their brood of five children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren look forward to this camping getaway that mandates a brief hiatus from daily life to reconnect with nature and one another. Over the years, some have upgraded their tents to trailers and campers, but a few still sleep with the ground beneath their backs. And at Inks Lake, you have the luxury of choosing how you sleep beneath the stars — there are 226 campsites and 22 cabins dotting the sprawling 1,200-acre state park.

As Central Texas residents, we are fortunate that opportunities for unwinding in the outdoors aren’t hard to come by. Nineteen state parks are speckled around Austin’s parameters, all less than two hours away. Nestled in the the Hill Country located just 10 miles west of Burnet off Texas 29, getting to Inks Lake from Austin requires a little more than an hour’s drive and a little less than a quarter tank of gas.

A true camper’s paradise, Inks Lake is an idyllic escape for those looking to create memories in a place that is as tranquil as it is picturesque. Rolling pink granite hills surround the 800-plus acre lake situated on the Colorado River in Burnet County. Part of the Highland Lakes chain, these serene waters boast a maximum depth of 60 feet and a level that remains fairly constant, allowing recreational activities such as kayaking, canoeing, boating, swimming, skiing, fishing and even scuba diving to continue despite frequent droughts.

“Inks Lake State Park is a wonderful place to visit because there is so much to do,” says Tara Humphreys, a state parks regional interpretive specialist. “Sunset or morning cruises allow you to sit back, relax and enjoy the lake on a guided boat tour, or you can learn new skills during a ranger-led canoe or kayak program.”

Inks Lake visitors can rent a paddle boat, canoe or kayak, or cast their poles into waters brimming with gilled residents including largemouth bass, white bass, crappie, catfish and sunfish. Traverse the 7.5 miles of hiking trails weaving through this Hill Country haven where unique pink rock outcroppings of Valley Spring Gneiss rise up through the surrounding limestone. After taking in some spectacular sights and working up a sweat, wander down to Devil’s Waterhole, where you can cool off from the summertime heat by leaping into the water from the rocky cliffs that loom above.

While there is no shortage of ways to occupy the time at Inks Lake, our family takes advantage of the rare chance to sit still, doing as little as possible in nature’s stunning panorama. We kick-start the day with a pot of cowboy-strong coffee brewed over the campfire before whiling away the morning playing cards under the copious shade of cedars and live oaks. Lazy afternoons are filled with games of Scrabble and horseshoes, bouts of laughter and an occasional paddle across the lake. Evenings consist of warm meals, meandering lakeshore walks and campfire chats as we watch the fiery sun sink behind the lake, staining the water shades of pink and red.

This is the real lure of camping at Inks Lake — young or old, busy or still, tent or trailer — it’s an easily accessible and extremely affordable way to create family memories in the outdoors. This year, we introduced our two young boys to tent camping, and as the morning’s soft glow roused them from their sleeping bags, our oldest exclaimed in his most excited 4-year-old voice: “I can’t believe I slept in nature!”

Growing up near the vast open spaces that surround this city, it’s an experience he is sure to have again.

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