“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.
IF YOU GO
Daily entrance fees are $5 per adult; children 12 and under are free. Drive-up campsites are $15 nightly; walk-in campsites located on the riverbank are $13 nightly; and primitive backpack-in sites are $10 nightly. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/colorado-bend.
TIPS FOR FIRST-TIMERS
- Pack smart. It always seems like we’ve overpacked for camping trips, but sometimes it’s the little extras that make happy campers. For my kids, it’s remembering the bag of marshmallows and packets of hot cocoa. For me, it’s what lies beneath my sleeping bag: a blow-up, battery-operated, queen-size mattress I bought at Costco for $40. Here are a few more of my must-haves: tent, sleeping bags, pillows, foam pads, hiking and waterproof shoes, several pairs of socks, clothing layers for warm and cold weather, facial wipes, ear plugs, hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, swimsuit, rain jacket, toothbrush, towel, first-aid kit, folding chairs, flashlights/headlamps, lanterns, coffee press, binoculars, a book, card games, camera, trash bags, resealable bags, plates, cups, a spatula, skewers, knives, paper towels, charcoal, wood, kindling, starter fluid, waterproof matches, cooler and ice, biodegradable soap, can opener, foil, cooking pan and utensils, stove and fuel and extra batteries.
- Book ahead. Spring and fall are the most popular times for camping, so make reservations weeks or even months in advance at texas.reserveworld.com.
- Plan your menus. Make a list of all the meals, snacks and beverages your crew will need for the duration of the trip, hit the grocery store in advance and pack everything on plenty of ice. Many state parks are miles away from grocery stores and restaurants, but most offer wood and ice for purchase.
- Come prepared. At Colorado Bend State Park, there was a compost toilet with hand sanitizer near our campsite, but no running water or electricity in the area. Because we looked up the campsite’s features, we brought battery-operated items and extra water and biodegradable soap for washing dishes and hands.
FOUR NEARBY SPOTS TO SET UP CAMP
Camping options abound around Austin. Here are four of our favorite spots to sleep under the stars — all of which can be reached in three hours or less.
Pedernales Falls State Park
Distance from Austin: 42 miles (52 minutes)
Why go: These 5,200-plus acres on the pristine Pedernales are an ideal camping spot for first-timers coming from Austin because less than an hour stands between your tent and home. Go for the camping, miles of hiking and mountain biking trails (10 miles of which you can ride your horse along), geocaching, wildlife viewing and cooling off in 6 miles of swimmable river frontage.
Inks Lake State Park
Distance from Austin: 66 miles (1 hour, 15 minutes)
Why go: As tranquil as it is picturesque, Inks Lake lets overnight guests choose how they sleep beneath the stars with nearly 200 campsites and two dozen cabins dotting the 1,200-acre state park. Hike miles of trails along rolling pink granite hills, go fishing, rent paddle boats, canoes and kayaks, and cool off in spectacular swimming spots like Devil’s Waterhole.
More at: tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/inks-lake.
Lost Maples State Natural Area
Distance from Austin: 150 miles (2 hours, 45 minutes)
Why go: Lost Maples State Natural Area is one of the best places in the state to view the fall foliage, but this Hill Country haven’s 2,200 acres of towering bigtooth maples, rugged limestone canyons, pristine streams and plateau grasslands are great for exploring year round. Hike trails lining the banks of the Sabinal River, picnic, bird-watch, swim, fish and then rest your head at one of 70 campsites.
More at: tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/lost-maples.
Garner State Park
Distance from Austin: 170 miles (3 hours)
Why go: Sitting on the southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau, Garner State Park offers 1,774-acres of beauty where towering cypress trees meet the cool, crystal-clear waters of the Frio River. Surrounded by vistas of soaring mesas, carved limestone cliffs and ancient rock formations, campers can spend their day hiking, biking, swimming, bird watching, geocaching, paddle-boating and miniature golfing while stargazing and dancing the night away at the park’s legendary free jukebox dances during summer.
More at: tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/garner.