Mother Neff State Park offers room to roam, plus a helping of history

Spending time at parks instills a love of playing outdoors.

Ashley and Tyler Ficker stand solemnly, each with a hand held high, while Jeremy Gann swears them in as Junior Rangers.

“I’m going to let everyone know who I am and what my job is,” 14-year-old Ashley says when the ceremony ends and she and her 12-year-old brother can proudly display their hard-earned plastic badges and certificates.

“That’s good,” grandfather Gene Ficker tells her. “Now you can help protect the place.”

Parks are a great place to instill a love of the outdoors and an active lifestyle in kids. When I was growing up in Austin in the 1970s, my parents took me and my sisters to parks all over Central Texas, where we romped down wooded trails and leaped into lakes. Those days shaped the person I am today — one who still craves outdoor play and exercise.

Mother Neff State Park, located about an hour and a half north of Austin, offers plenty of terrain for hiking, trail running and tooling around on a bike.

It was one of the earliest state parks in Texas, park officials recently unveiled $6.5-million in renovations and it’s the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps encampment. The legacy of the work those men did in the 1930s lives on today through the stone pavilion, recreation hall, roads and a water tower that all carry that wonderful old CCC flavor.

A 20-site campground, once located in the park’s flood-prone bottomland, has been moved to higher ground, where 817 workers lived when they worked here. You can still see remains of the old camp water fountain, an old chimney stack, the crumbling grill from the long-gone mess hall and the spot where the flagpole once stood. The new visitor’s center features an exhibit about the CCC history here, too. You can read an old camp newsletter, check out a uniform hat and inspect old photos.

The park is named for Mrs. Isabella Eleanor “Mother” Neff, who donated 6 acres of land for a park along the Leon River in 1916. She died in 1921, but her son, Texas Gov. Pat M. Neff, created the Mother Neff Memorial Park, which later became an early unit of the Texas State Park System. In 1934, former Gov. Neff deeded 250 acres and Frank Smith added 3 acres to the existing memorial park. It officially opened to the public in 1937 and today is one of more than 90 state parks in Texas. (Park officials purchased an additional 150 acres three years ago, but they’re not open yet.)

I first discovered the park seven or eight years ago, when I got tired of just driving past the Mother Neff State Park sign on Interstate 35 south of Waco and pulled off the highway. Things have improved since then, when staffers were working out of a cramped temporary office and hauling off trees that had been killed in the latest flood.

Besides the new campground and headquarters, the park’s entrance has been relocated. There’s a new maintenance area, new restrooms with showers and new roads. More improvements, including a group hall, campfire theater, group bunkhouse, cabins, riverside kayak launch and repairs to the historic CCC structures, are planned when more funding becomes available.

“This doesn’t have a cavern like Longhorn Cavern or a large lake like Inks Lake, but it’s a place you can get on a trail and hike a few miles and see prairie, canyon and river bottom all in a small area,” says Gann, the park’s interpretive ranger. “It’s a beautiful place to be.”

He grew up in Waco and visited the park often as a boy. “It was my home park. We’d fish the Leon River, camp out and get attacked by mosquitoes,” he says.

I tramped all over the park during my latest visit, walking beneath huge pecan trees down by the river, exploring a rock shelter once used by Native Americans and taking in the view from a grass-covered prairie. (Note: The trail map at park headquarters isn’t quite accurate, but the trails are short, so you can’t get lost for long.)

I wished I’d brought my running shoes, because the trails are perfect for running — twisting dirt paths with dips and hills, but nothing too technical. Bikes are allowed on paved park roads but not on trails.

The Ficker clan understands the appeal.

After earning their Junior Ranger badges, they hop back on their bicycles and pedal back into the thick of the park. I’m sure they’ve got an afternoon of exploration on their minds.

“I love the nature. I love running wild and playing in the woods,” Ashley says.

“My favorite part is just spending time with the family, exercising and getting out and running around,” says Tyler. The downside? “When there’s a tent and only one air mattress and everyone wants it.”

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