- Mauri Elbel Special to the American-Statesman
“I wish we could live here in our tent for 100 days,” our 4-year-old pants as he trots along the craggy trail leading to one of Colorado Bend State Park’s main gems.
“Me too,” his big brother agrees before racing ahead and climbing onto another big boulder flanking the rugged route to Gorman Falls.
While our tent is quite possibly the last place I would like to live for 100 days, I can’t argue with the beauty and constant adventure that unfolds just beyond our zip-up canvas door.
Camping out at Colorado Bend State Park — just under two hours from Austin — feels a world away. Perhaps it’s because there’s no reliable signal out here. For three full days, all emailing, texting, calling, news-reading and picture-posting are on temporary hold, giving us the chance to unplug and let nature do all the talking.
Listening to the symphony of rushing waterfalls, chirping birds and rustling leaves playing on these 5,300-plus acres situated west of Lampasas and southeast of San Saba, no one will miss a smartphone. Your kids won’t long for TV shows or video games, either; campsites include endless entertainment for little ones in the form of dirt piles to dig in, sticks to collect, rocky cliffs to climb, campfires to start and a big, refreshing river to wade into.
Along the picturesque Colorado River, visitors can choose to fill their days with any of the following: camping, caving, mountain biking, swimming, kayaking, fishing, birding or hiking along 32 miles of trails that span from easy to challenging.
Gorman Falls Trail is one hike to put at the top of your list. Although the trail is characterized by uneven, rocky terrain and requires a steep, slick descent to get to the falls, the four young kids in our group did the nearly 3-mile, round-trip rugged hike without a hitch. The treacherous trek pays off as soon as the cool misty air surrounding Gorman Falls’ incredible cascades and pristine pools hits your warm skin.
Rising 65 feet above the river, this unique geological formation features numerous cascades pouring out from a towering limestone cliff carpeted in emerald moss and draped in ferns. Gorman Falls is a living waterfall that took millions of years to form and, unlike many waterfalls, gradually grows larger over time instead of smaller. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department signage explains that the same natural process that created Gorman Falls also makes it so vulnerable and warns visitors to view the falls from a distance. Walking and climbing on the falls prior to TWPD’s protection caused significant damage that could take centuries to reverse.
Throughout Colorado Bend State Park, more than a dozen hikes invite visitors to discover its untamed beauty. The Windmill Trail is an easy, relatively flat 1.6-mile route weaving through classic upland savanna grasslands. Those who want a longer hike can veer onto the adjoining Lively Loop, which offers another 5 miles of easy terrain with rolling hill vistas. The park’s most challenging route, the 2.8-mile Tinaja Trail, provides spectacular vistas and access to its hidden rock bowl (tinaja), a bedrock depression carved out by springs and seeps. While you have to drive to many of the trailheads, we spent our afternoons walking from our campsite to the densely vegetated River Trail, a 4.2-mile easily navigable path fringing the Colorado with numerous downward sloping paths that provide riverbank access perfect for skipping rocks and fishing.
Colorado Bend State Park is also home to more than 400 caves, and the best way to explore them is by booking a tour with Nichols Outdoor Adventures. The cave tour company, launched in January by passionate cavers and soon-to-be husband and wife team Jeffrey Nichols and Heather Tucek, currently offers five different cave tours. Nichols and Tucek, Austin residents who have both worked as cave specialists for the city of Austin and logged hundreds of hours underground, spend their weekends at Colorado Bend State Park introducing people to below-the-ground adventures and educating them about the importance and sensitivity of cave ecosystems.
“There are caves all over Central Texas,” says Nichols. “You’ve got this really unique and interesting part of the world that you never really think of existing right beneath your feet.”
Nichols Outdoor Adventures’ individual cave tours have varying age and skill requirements. For example, the Discovery Tour is suitable for kids as young as 4, while the Climber Tour is limited exclusively to experienced rock climbers. The strenuous Expedition Tour requires participants to hike several miles and crawl through Gorman Creek Crevice Cave, Colorado Bend State Park’s longest cave, for an hour. While tours are currently offered only on Saturdays and Sundays, Nichols Outdoor Adventures will add weekday tours over spring break and the summer.
Since we had young kids in our group, we signed up for the Discovery Tour, the most family-friendly caving experience on offer. Like all of Nichols Outdoor Adventures tours, helmets are provided, but you will need to bring your own flashlight. I was a little nervous watching the boys drop underground one after another, bracing themselves against the walls of the cave opening as they descended slowly into the darkness. But once inside, Dynamite Cave is surprisingly roomy and its impressive stalactites and stalagmites, a few tricolor bats, lots of cave crickets and several raccoon skulls thrilled the boys for nearly an hour. Nichols patiently countered incessant questioning from our young and curious spelunkers with easy-to-digest answers that helped familiarize them with some of these underground wonders.
Above ground, be sure to spend some time in the water — six miles of Colorado River frontage invites guests to swim, enjoy some of the best bass fishing in the area (a fishing license is not required in state parks) or rent kayaks from the park office.
If you’re a mountain biker, you’re in luck at Colorado Bend State Park. Roughly 30 miles of multiuse trails range from easy, flat tracks to challenging, rocky terrain.
The best way to end a day of outdoor adventures is by sitting around a crackling campfire after a hearty camp-cooked meal and gazing at the stars twinkling in the coal-black sky. For us — and families all across Central Texas — camping provides one of the most affordable, nearby travel experiences to reconnect and enjoy nature without all the normal distractions.
Looking at our kids in the glow of the campfire, one with a hot chocolate mustache and the other steadily devouring his s’more, it’s easy to see why they don’t want to leave. Though I am very much looking forward to a shower and my cozy bed at home, I am grateful for the memories we are making with our little green tent.