Somewhere on the first mile of our hike through Bastrop State Park, I quit gawking at the canopy of foliage above and realized our trail had transformed into a fine, beach-like sand. I stopped and scooped up a handful, recalling the park guidebook in my pocket discussing this sandy earth; how it retains moisture from the clay-based soils below; how it’s the reason a dense pine forest is able to grow in the heart of Central Texas. As we lingered among these towering trees, I told my girlfriend, Duvall, that the setting reminded me of the Deep South—perhaps southern Alabama or Georgia, or my home state of Mississippi, for that matter.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When we were planning the October 2011 issue of Texas Highways magazine, there was no way we could have imagined the devastation that would alter the lush landscape of Bastrop State Park. We were excited to put the park in the spotlight––to share this gem for others to enjoy and explore. We are grateful to have been able to capture the essence of the park before the wildfires. Now, this issue stands as a testament to what was lost ... and what can be once again.
Bastrop State Park will be closed through at least October. All other area parks remain open, including nearby Buescher and Palmetto state parks and Monument Hill State Historic Site.
Instead, we were half an hour east of Austin in the Lost Pines, a region marking the westernmost block of loblollies in the United States. Against the surrounding oak savannah landscape, the Lost Pines create a botanical island of sorts, and within it, Bastrop and Buescher state parks together spread across nearly 7,000 acres and offer a bastion of outdoor recreation: road biking, hiking, camping, swimming, fishing, even 18 holes of golf at the Lost Pines Golf Club.
At least that’s what I had always heard. In 2009, when I first moved to Texas, I accepted a job in Bastrop, working for the local newspaper. In spite of my proximity to the parks, I somehow neglected to truly experience Bastrop/Buescher. After moving to Austin for a new job the following year, I told myself I would return and remedy this omission. And so one Saturday last October, inspired by a cool breeze and cloudless sky, Duvall and I set out on Texas 71 en route to Bastrop.
Before arriving, I called park superintendent Todd McClanahan for background. McClanahan explained why the place has such an intoxicating aura. “It’s the unique ecosystem and outdoors experience that draw people here,” McClanahan said. “We have people who work in downtown Austin who come out here to hop on a trail and completely immerse themselves in nature for a few hours. Then they go back to their lives in the city.”
With a day and a half to spend, we had decided to take advantage of primitive camping along Bastrop State Park’s seven-mile Lost Pines Trail loop. I knew this would not be a hard-core excursion, yet it occurred to me somewhere after the third mile that we weren’t on a picnic either. Here we were, right in the heart of the Houston-Austin-San Antonio triangle, yet trekking through unfamiliar terrain with a trail map in hand. The trail had begun among pines stretching as wide as a small automobile and climbing at least 50 feet in height. Next it passed through thickets of peppervine and yaupon and saplings, then alternating sections of forest and meadows scattered with wildflowers.
Near the five-mile mark, we found a clearing for making camp. While Duvall leaned against a tree and cracked a book, I took off to explore for a few minutes before dinner. Per strict instructions from headquarters—and my own knowledge of a wildfire that had erupted near the parks a year prior—there would be no campfire. So by the waning light I made pita pockets stuffed with tuna salad, tomato slices, shredded cheese, and avocado. Then we leaned back in our fold-out camping pads, content to gaze at the stars through swaying tree tops. This was what I had come for: a chance to fall into the rhythms of nature.
The next morning as we hiked out, we came upon a series of creek beds and shallow depressions filled with water. These water sources, McClanahan had told me, are the breeding grounds of the Houston Toad, a highly endangered species now virtually limited to the Lost Pines. The challenge of balancing human recreation with the toad’s recovery is a continual one, he said, and only compounded by increasing residential development outside the parks.
Back at the car, we decided to drive through the rest of Bastrop State Park before heading to Buescher. We turned west on Park Road 1A, passing joggers and bikers and busy campgrounds set off in the trees. The next turn revealed the public pool and refectory. The painstaking craftsmanship employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during construction of the parks in the 1930s was clearly evident here. Using Carrizo sandstone from a nearby quarry and lumber harvested from the surrounding forest, the CCC workers created facilities that are not only still serviceable, but a showcase of hand-carved features and non-intrusive designs.
But they are also in need of expensive renovations. At the pool, for example, work would soon begin to repair cracks in the foundation. McClanahan had also told me new electrical wiring was being installed in the refectory, and that many of the Pioneer Village cabins up the road would see renovations as well. These cabins, 13 in all, are perhaps the most eye-catching examples of the CCC’s talents in the entire park. Perched on the shores of the park’s 10-acre lake—a popular spot for canoeing and fishing—the cabins jut out from the hilly earth like natural rock outcrops. Explaining the cabins’ appeal, McClanahan said, “You actually get to sleep in a bed made 75 or 80 years ago, smell the smoke from the fireplace, and touch and feel massive stones and boulders that were hand-hewn and put in place three generations ago. You can have a real connection with the history of this park while enjoying all the modern recreation it has to offer.”
We continued our tour onto Park Road 1C. The 12-mile route connects Bastrop and Buescher and is renowned in the cycling world for its picturesque turns, its dips and rises, and the tunnel-like effect created by arching tree branches overhead. We took our time navigating the road, pulling over at a number of overlooks and finally entering Buescher, where we could see the park’s 25-acre lake through the trees. (Anglers fishing these waters may find themselves reeling in bass weighing upwards of 10 pounds.) We made a full circle of the lake and passed the three main camping areas and the historic recreation hall—another renovation project.
One of the first things I noticed in Buescher was the predominance of old-growth oak trees, many strung with hanging moss. At the main pavilion—a stone structure with gray-green lichen creeping up the sides—I stopped and read a historical plaque commemorating the CCC men who built it. I walked inside and eyed the remnants of a retired fireplace. Carved on the wooden panels lining the stone walls were weathered initials of sweethearts. I pondered times long-gone—the countless families that had shared this place together; people who had come here to leave behind, if only for a few hours, whatever trials lay outside the forest.
Before heading to the park’s exit, Duvall and I decided to hike a portion of the 7.7-mile Buescher Trail. We parked back on Park Road 1C and entered a path that took us down a series of cutbacks and leveled out in what seemed like a glen. (I later learned the trail was appropriately named Pine Gulch.) Suddenly, from somewhere above us, a fast thumping sounded out. We stopped and scanned the treetops. A few moments later a pileated woodpecker emerged with wings spread, the unmistakable bright-red head and huge body swooping over us and into the branches of a nearby tree. A second woodpecker followed, pulling up near the first one for a moment before they both took off and disappeared into the woods. I thought about this sighting as we hiked toward the car, and I felt a combination of satisfaction and unrequited curiosity. On the one hand, I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend. But on the other hand, there was so much more to see, more to do, more to discover in these woods. I knew I would be back, though. After all, it was just up the road.
Additional images in the October 2011 issue.