A Morning in Bastrop State Park
Continuing our theme of visiting state parks during the Covid-19 crisis, both Kris and I decided to visit Bastrop State Park for a day-hike on a random Tuesday morning. Fortunately our visit was prior to the Governor of Texas shutting down state parks due to the ongoing crisis. Before I spend too much time on our day-hike tale I wanted to give the uninformed some history on this particular state park and the disaster suffered some 9 years ago.
Back in 2011 Bastrop State Park was the epicenter of a calamitous forest fire that burned many acres and decimated the park and local community. As you could imagine, a disastrous forest fire takes a long time to recover from. Fortunately the community sprang into action and the recovery has been pretty solid. As you will see though, in images taken during our hike, that the recovery effort in the park is ongoing and there is really two stories present at every turn and in every frame.
Kris and I arrived at the park early and were warmly greeted at a social distance of 6ft and from behind a large plexiglass barrier by the park attendant who was sporting a smile a mile wide as we rolled up and presented our day passes. I don’t know if it was due to the fact we always print them out (especially in the age of Covid-19) so “contact” is limited, or the fact that she was excited to have people in the park. My suspicion is that both of these things were true. With the park in its recovery mode still I’m almost positive that foot traffic is probably limited.
Now I’m going to preface my tale by saying that I’ve never been to this state park before and that I understand it was quite beautiful in its hey-day and that the destruction was devastating. In saying that, I’d also like to state that my expectations were very low and I was simply happy with the opportunity to get “on-trail” and just be outside and in nature due to being trapped in the house. My only real concern that day was the weather report. Central Texas had been hammered with heavy rains the last week or so and this day was to be the only clear patch of weather for the next two weeks. Regardless, Kris and I gathered up our packs and grabbed some additional supplies from the van like emergency rain ponchos, a compass and some forks for lunch (yes, I keep plastic cutlery in my van… ever try to eat tuna from a pouch with an oak twig? Yeah you would keep cutlery in your vehicle too).
Reckless punctuation aside, Kris and I strolled a couple hundred yards under the foreboding sky onto the Farkleberry Spur. I have to say, I love the names of the trails in this park. To this day I don’t know what exactly a “Farkleberry” is but I do have an active imagination. Yes, I know a quick google search would reveal the mystery, but I want to live in my own world. My own world imagines a “Farkleberry” to be a mystical and magical berry that sparkles in direct sunlight and bestows some sort of powers unto the individual who stumbles upon one in the wild. Oh, and “Farkleberries” are very rare only appearing under foreboding skies in late spring. Okay, enough about “Farkleberries”.
The trail was pretty straightforward and after a few steps the landscape of the park was almost overwhelming. Along both sides of the trail were the charred remnants of many Loblolly Pines and assorted oaks. In the distance some of the burnt trees stood in defiance. Along the trail there were actual warning signs stating to beware of falling trees. A bit further down this trail, and after a slight descent, we were greeted by the site of many smaller (nursery sized) pines, sage and wildflowers providing a stark contrast to the charred defiant pines. I had never seen anything like this before. I’ve hiked along trails where there was excessive storm damage of lightning strikes and the like, but never anything like this. The only way I could describe the sensation was both depressing and inspirational. I would carry this “sensation” the rest of the morning as we traveled further into the park. The other sensation that would be tickled throughout our day would be the scent on the breeze. Imagine a slight breeze kicking up and passing over you with the scent of wildflowers, fresh rain and an undertone of cinder/ash. It wasn’t a smokey odor, just a slight hint, it was surreal. I wish I could have captured it to share with you.
Descending further we arrived at our first crossroad and we elected to continue along the “Scenic-Overlook” trail. This trail, as the name implies, climbs up to an old stone gazebo that looks south-east over the entirety of the park. While the path was similar to the “Farkleberry” spur (no mystical berries were discovered), the exposure to the wind was intense due to the lack cover lacking due to the loss of all those pines to the fire. In fact, it was here that the damage was really evident. Upon turning back toward Kris I was greeted by a panorama of charred pines pointing toward the ominous sky. Maybe I was imagining it but it seemed like those pines were accentuating the charred scent.
Atop this upward looping trail sits a small camping area with benches, grill sites and ample parking. I was somewhat relieved to have reached this point in a dry state, knowing that our next trail after a short rest and some photos would be the Lost Pines loop portion of the trail which was the longest (4 or so miles) and the furthest point from the van we would be on this day.
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, Kris and I took some time in the small gazebo. It was at this point that Kris told me about her footwear. Apparently her sneakers were taking on sand and gravel at an alarming rate. Up to this point I have neglected to share the trail conditions. As you may already know, when it storms pretty heavily the trail gets really nasty and the rangers and custodians head out for repairs with their bags of sand. Well, the trail was exceptionally sandy. When Kris had taken her shoes and socks off to remove the sand I was amazed to see just how much she had been carrying with her. If you have ever seen archival footage of the dust-bowl in the American mid-west that would be a good comparison. Oh my God, I couldn’t believe that much had found its way into her sneakers. Fortunately she has been on many hikes and in an assortment of conditions so she oftentimes heads these issues off before blisters or other unfortunate trail induced injuries present themselves. In fact, she has prevented a myriad of unpleasant conditions from afflicting me on a daily basis. I could list them all here but that would likely be unpleasant for you the reader and makes me chafe merely recounting it in my head. So I will simply say, “Gold Bond Powder” is your best friend pre-trail and with a 4.5 star rating on Amazon how could you go wrong?
Refueled, un-chafed and certainly less sand-filled, both Kris and I went to the big “YOU ARE HERE” board and mapped out our next couple hours along the “Lost Pines Loop”.
Lost Pines is actually another trail in the Bastrop State Park and Bastrop area that has an interesting, albeit mundane (other than to botanists), tale of its own. The pine trees present in this park are called “Loblolly Pines”. Other than having a name that is fun to say many times quickly in succession, they are not native to this part of the country. The pines are present in the eastern portion of Texas along with the rest of the south-east of the country and also in the mountain west I believe. What makes these pines lost is the fact that other than right here in this park there are none within hundreds of miles, thus these pines are a long way from where they should be; hence lost.
As you could imagine, this area was largely devastated by the wildfire. If you have ever walked along an old railroad bed where the tracks have been pulled up and there is ten to twelve feet of verge along each side; that is the feeling of hiking along the first part of this trail. Another way to explain it would be similar to walking down trails along power lines. Another lovely feature along this portion of the trail was an abundance of “fire-ants”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with “fire-ants”… imagine the Balrog from Lord of The Rings. Imagine that Balrog the size of an ant. Imagine a million of those swarming out of foot high ant-hills on either side of you. Put all these things together and you will have the first mile of Lost Pines Trail from the Scenic Overlook Trail; Enchanting isn’t it? Oh, and there is a ton of sand to hike through.
After the second time finding a place to sit, that wasn’t infested with fire-ants, to unburden shoes from sand, we rounded a corner into a small cluster of oaks and pines spared from the fire. This cluster became a covered trail and for another mile we felt like we were hiking back home in New England. The scent of pine and the assorted foliage was surreal. The path wound in and out, up and over small streams and into a small valley of pine covered ferns. Captivated by the beauty, Kris and I must have taken a thousand photos in a twenty minute span. As we headed further into the forest we ascended a slight ridge, turned a corner and were greeted by “Harmon Road”. The road provides the option of shortening the overall “Lost Pines Trail” by a couple miles and marks the boundary of the park. Looking at the sky and feeling some intermittent raindrops, both Kris and I elected to follow the road to get back on trail about half a mile up. We were now the furthest from shelter as you could be in the park and the sky was not looking good. Ponchos, available at a moments notice from my pocket and a bunch of camera gear in a non-waterproof bag we retreated back into the woods.
Through more fern groves and under the canopy of loblolly’s we continued back toward the southern portion of the trail back to the southern loop of the “Scenic Overlook Trail”. The landscape was much the same as it was on the northern portion and many a picture was captured.
On a slightly upward portion of the trail I was amazed to see the erosion created by the loss of the pines and their significant root structures. There were some instances where one slightly misplaced step could send one hurtling down the hillside to a painful death. Okay, maybe not death, more like an embarrassing slide induced wedgie. Either way, my steps would be perfectly placed as Kris had her camera readily available and would never hesitate to produce a hilarious image of me in a compromising position for the amusement of others.
With an embarrassing death avoided and returning toward the “Farkleberry Spur”, our day-hike was nearly at its end. We were still dry and chafe-free which is always an exciting thing after any hike. “Fehr’s Scenic Overlook” is off of a small .1 mile gravel spur that looks like an unassuming maintenance road. Knowing that we were near the end of our half-day and with lunch-time approaching it would be the perfect place to stop for a bite. I was somewhat wary of just what the scenic overlook would display, but based on the appearance of the rest of the park my expectations were measured.
“Scenic Overlook” is a very generous term to describe the old stone shelter. If by scenic you are referring to a stone hut a hundred or so feet elevated from highway 290E you are indeed quite generous. With the sounds of traffic whirring by at 70mph and a rumbling of thunder in the distance, Kris and I dropped our packs and opened up our food bag for some lunch. I have to say when you have been in the woods for a morning hiking up and down hills and carrying a bunch of gear you get pretty hungry. I can only imagine how people hiking the AT, CDT or PCT must feel at mid-day. Here we had only done about 4 miles and I was ready to start sampling trailside berries.
Have you ever eaten that tuna that comes in those little foil packets? You know, the ones that come in all those crazy flavors? Oh my God they are delightful! This day I enjoyed the “Sweet and Spicy” tuna. That stuff is awesome, it gives you protein, salt and a nice pleasant feeling. Additionally, I enjoyed some Gatorade Zero (Kris will not let me enjoy any other beverage other than this or water on the trail, I don’t know why and maybe I’ll work up the courage to ask at some point), and a serving size box of raisins. I’d like to say that I love those little boxes of raisins and that I always have. I remember being a little kid and finding those in my lunch-box and being so excited. I mean, not only do you get a great little nutritious snack but you also get a kazoo when you are finished! I love lunch on the trail!
Belly filled and back onto the remaining mile or two of trail, the sky was beginning to look quite spiteful. Knowing we only had a small portion left to hike we pressed onward at a steady pace. As I continued up and around the hillside I was very impressed with the management of this park (not so much with the scenic overlook) and how the efforts to preserve what remained from before the fire and to nurture the new growth was being carried out. I believe this park was once an incredible place and with dedicated care and management will be once more. In fact, Kris and I made an agreement that if we are still living in this part of the country we will return every year to document its progress. I know, not a lofty goal or aspiration, but in my own opinion; worth it.
Off trail and back inside the comforts of the van, it began to rain. In an hour we would be back in Austin. In a few days the state government would close access to Texas parks. I’m glad we made it out to Bastrop State Park before the general shutdown because it is an amazing place and will give me a lot to think about until parks reopen and we get back on trail.