Classic Colorado Bend
With caves, waterfalls, great hikes and fishing, Colorado Bend State Park is an unspoiled Hill Country gem.
By Erica H. Brasseux
The desolate, 10-mile gravel road to Colorado Bend's main entrance gives no hint of the wonderland waiting around the last turn of the bend. This rugged canyon land, where bald eagles return to find refuge each winter, remains virtually untouched by modern progress. The Colorado River still flows undammed, cutting a deep gorge through the limestone-rimmed canyons. Two spring-fed creeks yield an oasis of crystal-clear swimming holes along more than 12 miles of scenic trails. Located at the most upstream end of Lake Buchanan, the first of the chain of Highland Lakes, Colorado Bend State Park truly is a timeless beauty.
Found on the map somewhere between Lampasas and San Saba, though not really close to either - or to anything else, for that matter - Colorado Bend remains one of Texas' wild and untouched destinations. A place so pristine, in fact, that it was almost never opened for public use.
After acquiring the 740-acre Gorman Falls area in 1984 (now part of Colorado Bend State Park), the state immediately began making plans to turn the area into a state park. First, however, they had to ensure that public visitation would not damage or destroy sensitive areas around the falls. A team of archaeologists examined the site and discovered Indian artifacts that were buried in redeposited limestone in the plateau above the falls. Later findings by wildlife biologists revealed that a large colony of endangered golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos occupied the area, and a pure strain of the Guadalupe black bass inhabited Gorman Creek. The team advised Texas Parks and Wildlife that Gorman Falls was too sensitive to be opened to the general public.
But thanks to park ranger Dave Paddie, who felt that it was a waste to have something so beautiful and not let anyone see it, TPW reconsidered its decision. In 1987 the state purchased the adjoining 4,300 acres, previously Lemons Fishing Camp, and Colorado Bend State Park was opened later that year.
Today I have the chance to experience this Hill Country jewel for myself. On Sunday morning, assistant park manager Jon Byrd is our guide for a tour of Gorman Falls, a 60-foot waterfall located on the western bank of the Colorado River. On our last 100 feet of the arduous 11/2-mile hike to the falls, we encounter a fairly steep climb down the side of a rocky bluff. A safety rope stretches from the top to the base, serving as a handrail for support. I'm careful of my footing as I ease my way down, but every near-stumble along the way is a small price to pay for this humbling view.
Like a scenic postcard from the lush jungles of Costa Rica, a waterfall cascades from the cliff high above, continuously misting the blanket of maidenhair ferns, moss and other Hill Country vegetation that surround it. A twisting myriad of roots from the towering oak trees expose themselves along the quiet pools at the base, which support miniature aquatic communities. Vines of all shapes and textures curtain the perimeter of the observation deck where we stand and admire this breathtaking view.
Unlike most waterfalls, which over time slowly erode from the constantly flowing water, Gorman Falls is actually growing. Walking around at the falls is prohibited, a precaution taken to ensure its beauty for future generations.
"The entire waterfall is made up of travertine, which is a fancy term for calcium deposits," explains Byrd. "As the water flows, the calcite precipitates out of the solution, actually allowing the waterfall to grow, up and out toward the river. The top two to three inches is very fragile, kind of like crackers, so walking on it would crush the top layers, stopping the waterfall's growth."
After the tour I hit the trails - a great way to explore the park's more than 5,000 acres of rugged Hill Country terrain. Miles of scenic trails wind through a verdant landscape of large oaks, pecans, willows and elms, offering a peaceful sanctuary for hiking, biking, birding and wildlife viewing.
My favorite, the 2.7-mile Spicewood Springs Trail, begins at the main camping area and follows a sparkling stream down to the Colorado River. Along the way, many blue-lagoon swimming holes offer respite for tired feet, or tired bodies, for that matter. Today a father and son stop to cool off under a small trickling waterfall in one of the pools. A husky golden retriever, accompanied by his owners, carefully checks his footing on the smooth, slippery rocks before also plunging in. (Leashed pets are welcome in the camping and hiking areas except during tours.)
There's wildlife at almost every turn of the 5.7-mile Upper Gorman Creek Trail, which loops through woodlands, leading you to the higher levels of the park overlooking the river. It has several offshoot trails that allow you to customize distance. Although my attempts to see the endangered golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos that live in the area prove fruitless, I do eye two cardinals seemingly engaging in a game of chase as they dart from branch to branch. Though April and May are the best months for birding, more than 150 bird species make their home in the park throughout the year.
A herd of eight or so deer grazing down by the river are undisturbed by my presence, though I catch a pair of cottontail rabbits off-guard and they scurry off into a distant patch of dense brush. Another hiker's miniature terrier barks ferociously - well, as ferociously as a miniature terrier can bark - at a squirrel in an adjacent treetop. During the spring, the area is crawling with armadillos, and on weekdays, when the park is often deserted, these trails are a great place to see wildlife.
Crawling cave tours, offered almost nowhere else in the country, are available to adventuresome visitors who don't mind getting a little muddy. Of the park's more than 150 caves, only five are available for touring - one by walking and four by crawling. And at 68 degrees year-round, the atmosphere is comfortable regardless of the season. On today's guided four-hour tour, we explore Turtle Shell and Cicurina.
I feel a little silly gearing up in grubby clothes, kneepads, elbow pads and hard hat. But as I wriggle along on my forearms and knees, bumping my head against projecting rocks along the way, I am grateful for the protective gear.
Flashlights in hand, we tunnel like a parade of ants carrying little lanterns through a maze of narrow openings and corridors, some of them only slightly bigger around than the average man. On our stomachs in a head-to-foot line, we slosh through cool, dark mud and, at some points, up to three to four inches of water. During several parts of the tour, the tight squeezes open up into large rooms where we can stand up, stretch and explore. Byrd, who is again our tour guide, points out rock formations such as stalagmites and flowstones along the way.
While anyone with claustrophobia should probably not attempt this particular tour, there should also be fair warning to anyone with arachnophobia. The walls along the entrance of both caves prove a popular hangout for harmless but abundant daddy longlegs. Most first-time spelunkers choose the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach as they close their eyes and shimmy down the first few feet of the tunnel. The encounter is brief, however, and well worth any shortlived inconvenience. Idiosyncrasies like this one, however, add to the total caving experience. It's unspoiled and natural - and it's certainly no picnic in the park.
For many people on the trip, the cave crawl was a once-in-a-lifetime, been-there, done-that experience. "Our guests on the tour are either really excited about crawling through the caves - or they are never going into another cave in their life!" says park manager Cory Evans. "Some are a little unsure of the caves altogether and prefer to just sit at the entrance. Either way, the funniest part of any crawling cave tour is that everyone is completely covered in mud afterward!"
For visitors who want to explore a cave but prefer to do so upright, a tour of Gorman Cave, the park's largest cave, is the answer. Accessible only by guided tours on Saturday and Sunday mornings, this cave offers an up-close view of the same formations and geological points of interest that you'd find in the crawling caves, though on a much grander scale. And because this 31/2-hour tour 800 feet into the cave is far less strenuous, the guides have more time for explanations and question-and-answer sessions. A small stream that winds through the cave allows visitors to literally get their feet wet in what is for many their first noncommercial caving adventure.
As we back the boat into the river from the park's onsite boat ramp, a fisherman gears up in waders, his pole and tackle in tow. Our ski boat putters slowly downstream, where 10 miles ahead the Colorado River feeds into Lake Buchanan. Boaters and paddlers alike can enjoy navigating the river, but only when the water in Lake Buchanan is at normal level. The fisherman continues to trek through the waist-deep water, searching for his "sweet spot" where he hopes to land a yellow, channel or blue catfish - fish that bite year-round.
The park is busiest during the spring white bass run, which begins in earnest sometime in February, peaks in March, and peters out by April's end. This fishing phenomenon occurs when the white bass migrate upstream from Lake Buchanan in thick concentrations as they perform their annual reproductive ritual (see "Striking Silver," April 2002). Fishermen often book campsites months in advance, so plan your trip accordingly, or visit on weekdays.
As we push onward through the slow-moving water and the beautiful canyon country of the Colorado, we encounter a surprise as we round the first bend of the river. A slightly smaller version of Gorman Falls spills into the river from the top of a high canyon wall. For a moment we are speechless as we move in closer. Post Oak Falls, we later find out, is visible only from the river. We continue to circle the area, snapping pictures in front of this picturesque backdrop.
Half a roll of film later, we continue our journey toward the lake. Our progress is slow, however, as we spend a great deal of time taking turns waterskiing on the river's rippling surface. By late afternoon we reach Fall Creek Falls, which greets us as we enter a cove at the entrance of Lake Buchanan. Our sunny afternoon is quickly being replaced by a pinkish hue that fills the evening sky as the sun sinks slowly behind the canyon walls. We take one last plunge into the river before beginning the 10-mile return trip to the park.
Erica H. Brasseux is associate editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.
The park is west of Lampasas, southeast of San Saba. From the intersection of U.S. Highways 281 and 183 in Lampasas, take FM 580 west 24 miles to Bend and follow the signs four miles to the park entrance. From San Saba, take U.S. Highway 190 about four miles to FM 580 and follow the park signs 13 miles to Bend.
The headquarters and main camping area are six miles past the entrance on the gravel road (unmarked County Road 442). The campground area is operated on a reservation basis and includes tables, fire rings, water taps, chemical toilets and fish-cleaning stations. A primitive backpacking area and two group areas also are available. There are no fueling stations for some 30 miles, so plan accordingly. The park is open every day, year-round from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. except during public hunts. A day-use fee of $3 per person is required.
Call Colorado Bend State Park at (915) 628-3240 or visit Colorado Bend's web page for more information.
To reserve a campsite call (512) 389-8900 or go to the main parks page and click on "Make a Reservation."
The caving opportunities at Colorado Bend are one of the things that make this park so special, but to protect fragile ecosystems and due to various hazards in the caves such as low oxygen levels and poisonous gases, all caves in the park are closed except through guided tours. Reservations are highly recommended for all tours; the crawling cave tour often requires reservations up to two months in advance. Contact the park at (915) 628-3240 to make reservations and to check questionable weather conditions. Substantial footwear is recommended for all tours. The schedules below are weather and resource permitting.
- Gorman Falls Tours - Saturday 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.
- Gorman Cave Walking Tours - Saturday and Sunday, 9:15 a.m.
- Crawling Cave Tours - First Saturday of each month, 1:30 p.m.