As I’d mentioned in my last entry, “Day-Hiking Season is Upon Us,” this last month both Kris and I visited four parks and have many more planned. Being located in Central Texas, we are fortunate to have a wide variety of state parks within an hour or two. Additionally, many of our favorite long-weekend getaways extend that range another hour further out. Halloween weekend we packed up our bags and visited one of our favorite stops in the hill-country; Llano, TX and by extension, Inks Lake State Park.
For those of you who have visited the hill-country in Texas, you know what to expect in the small “cities” that dot the country-side… so I’m not going to go into that here. All you really need to know is that the people are nice, life has a relaxed pace and the barbecue is awesome (Inmans and Coopers, I’m looking at you). There is really something that can be said about seeing Austin fade away in the rear-view…
Okay, I’m getting a little bit off course here… how about the day-hike?
Rising at sunrise on a foggy morning at the Hickory Ridge Hideaway Cabin, Kris and I ran through our brief checklist. With packs, snacks, trekking poles and an overabundance of water we climbed into the van and were off.
Inks Lake State Park is located in Burnet, TX which was about 45 minutes east from Llano… nothing quite like driving east just after sunrise… If ever the sun should go supernova I would imagine this drive would have been representative of the experience. Searing heat and burnt out retinas aside, the drive was actually quite pleasant. There is a peaceful quality of hitting the road on an early weekend morning when there isn’t a soul around.
As the van bobbed up and over hill after gently sloping hill, we discussed our plans for the day and it was just then that we rounded a small bend and saw in the distance a large group of deer bounding a ranch fence and crossing the road. I can only describe the heard overtaking the fence as a display of grace, a wave of tan and white-tailed bodies moving in a fluid motion as if connected by invisible tethers. Amazing! Slowing down to watch, while creating a little space for stragglers, we watched the spectacle for about twenty seconds and then we were on our way once more.
Pulling into the park, the ranger station at the entrance was empty. Oftentimes this is the case when arriving before 8am. Cruising past, we slowed to grab our reservation receipt from the window and some maps. I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t bother with the paper map and just use a JPG screen-captured on my phone for my map. I don’t know why I do that, must be the millennial in me. Anyway, paper maps from now on, it is just easier and then I’m not that guy on the trail staring at my phone…
Anyway, when we got to the trail-head there was only one other group setting out. Taking our time to let them get a good head-start, both Kris and I meandered around the area doing all manner of innocuous activities. After a good five minutes, we grabbed the obligatory trail-head photo and started out on the “Lake Trail” which connected to our first destination trail, “The Pecan Flats.”
I always enjoy a short connector trail. These short trails give you a chance to get comfortable out there, they kind of set the pace and allow one to shift pack weight around, move rings onto smaller fingers and adjust the height of trekking poles. For me the first mile is when I am most aware of any potential discomfort. You see, I have a messed up back due to scoliosis and if my pack is “off” I’ll have a lot of trouble the next few days. Additionally, I have freakishly long arms so depending upon the terrain I might adjust my poles a few inches either way to account. As for the ring… if hands get warm, they swell and rings get tight, so there you go. What a picture I just painted for you, a swolen-knuckle-dragging-twisted-spined-freak, lol.
Anyway, this first trail was pretty nondescript. It was your typical pecan and scrub tree trail. Since it was early, the birds were peeping and the fog was lifting a bit. Comfortable and in my stride, we switched trails at the junction onto the Pecan Flats Trail.
Now, I don’t know why they call it the Pecan Flats Trail, cause it certainly wasn’t flat and the tree-cover was scant at best. Not unlike Enchanted Rock outside Fredericksburg, TX, the trail popped out of the brush and we were met with an impressive (by central TX standards) gneiss (pronounced “nice”) edifice. Apparently this particular stone formation is quite abundant in the region and consists of many types of quartz, limestone and granite. I don’t know much about geology. In fact, you could fill a large warehouse with what I don’t know as it relates to that particular humble science. But what I do know is that when the trail markers stop at the base of an edifice, that means one is to begin climbing.
With trekking poles in prime position and the contents of my pack arranged in a scoliosis accommodating manner, I strode up the gneiss slab with the confidence of that Ricola guy and his shofar from those 90’s cough drop commercials. Arriving at the summit, I surveyed the surrounding landscape and got my first proper view of Inks Lake itself. The crystalline blue water was captivating. I moved about the summit capturing images of the lake from many angles… and then it happened. I somehow lost the trail…
I’m not ashamed to admit it, but hiking on these loosely marked trails up the side of nondescript slabs causes me a minor degree of distress. I know that when I arrive at the top I will always lose track of the trail, especially if the markers are 4×4 circles painted on the ground… yellow, like the natural color of many of the stones/rocks up there.
About ten minutes and several chigger bites later, Kris spotted a yellow dot and we were once again back on the “trail.” Coming down the backside of the slab, the trail meandered down into a small valley with tall prairie grasses that quickly closed in to the trail until we were hiking on what felt like deer tracks.
“Bush-wacking” with my trekking poles, or at least reaching out ahead and shifting the grasses from the trail on the lookout for snakes, the sun had made its way overhead and the heat of the day was setting in. Eventually, under the shade of a large pecan tree, we shed our outer layers and got back to “bush-wacking” on the small connecting trail that would spit us out on the “Woodland Trail.” The trail we would be connecting to was actually a large 2.5 mile loop that promised a “back-country” hiking experience.
I must say, the connecting trail was not exactly “back-country.” I think for a connector trail, it was a nice change from what the rest of the day had been. As far as the “Woodland Trail,” there were many small slabs of gneiss and pink granite under the canopy as well as some nice views of the lake. Overall it was an excellent series of trails, but not exactly “back-country.”
After completing the loop and coming back into the main trail system we began to encounter other hikers. Somehow we always manage to choose to go in the opposite direction as other hikers which is really a blessing. Unfortunately one ends up meeting most of them on the way back coming in the opposite direction on these loop trails.
On a side-note, I had heard a long time ago that when people are presented with a choice between going left or going right, that 90% of people will go to the right. I’ve actually tried this little experiment in crowded venues when leaving with the rush of people. I can honestly say that at concerts and sporting events I enter and exit to the left every time and it works like a charm. Try it next time and there is perhaps a 90% chance you will have a similar experience.
On the way back to the trailhead we must have gone by about a dozen or so groups of on-coming parties. After many quick recitations of “good afternoon” and “beautiful day to be out,” we came upon a small group of Chinese tourists meandering on a small wooden foot-bridge over a small creek. In typical fashion, they were oblivious to the fact they were blocking the path and would not move or even shift position to allow egress. After being ignored trying to get past the first cluster, I barreled through with Kris in my wake (yes, I am an ugly American if one forces me to live up to that stereotype).
Leaving the small group of Chinese tourists frantically trying to rescue several wayward party members from the creek, both Kris and I retraced the beginning mile or so back to the trail-head where we were greeted by a jam-packed parking area full of Covid-19 masked hikers.
Gear tossed haphazardly into the van and hoping to hit a couple more trails in the northern section of the park, we drove out of the lot and proceeded down the park road toward the “Devil’s Waterhole.” We had hoped that we could reach the trailhead before it go too crowded… holy s**t, when we got there we must have seen about a hundred cars and just as many people headed onto the small trails. Looking at each other and after brief simultaneous mutterings of “f**k this,” we cruised around the loop and headed for the park exit. We will surely be back next time out to Llano and we will be sure to do these trails first as to avoid the large midday crowds.
Overall, I would say Inks Lake State Park offers a great experience to day-hikers. There are some really nice and peaceful trails that offer some pretty views and if taken at a brisk pace will certainly get that heart-rate up. The pros far outweigh the cons. My only advice would be to come in early, don’t get lost on the Pecan Flats Trail and to hit the Devil’s Waterhole first to avoid the crowds.
Thanks for taking the time to read my experience on this day-hike. If you enjoyed the post, please drop a like or leave a comment.