Hiking, History, and Early Halloween at Mother Neff State Park

Ever since we’ve moved to Texas, my husband has spent the months leading up to Halloween looking for the ideal place to replicate our two family camping trips to Brown County State Park in Indiana. While we’ve considered several options (including a return trip to Lake Livingston State Park during the last weekend of October), we’ve given up every year, usually using scheduled soccer games as our excuse for why we just can’t do it.

But this year we decided we didn’t care. While we checked with our son to make sure that he wasn’t going to be bothered if he had to skip a Saturday soccer game, we were determined that this year we were going to bring back tradition, even if it was only for a year. Jeff looked at the “close” options in relation to Houston, and while we knew there was certainly a celebration at Lake Livingston just over an hour away, he was intrigued by the activities promised at Mother Neff State Park, nestled between Waco and Austin. I looked at pictures of the park and even though it was going to be at least a three and a half hour drive after a full day of work, I was willing to commit to reservations in the single, small camping loop.

The kids had the Friday we were to leave off from school, so when I returned home from work I discovered that everything on our camping notebook packing list had been checked off. We were on the road within 45 minutes, heading north and west from Houston. We made a gas and food stop at Buc-ee’s, confident that it would be best for all to arrive at our destination with full bellies. A cold front had just moved through Texas, leaving snow in the Panhandle, and by the time we arrived a couple hours after sunset, the temperatures had dipped below 50 degrees. We were in fall camping heaven, despite the cold hands as I directed Jeff into our generous parking spot. The darkness cloaked the state park, complicating the task, but with the help of my cell phone flashlight and the hand-held radios, Jeff backed in straight with plenty of room to spare. We unpacked, turned on the Astros game, and relaxed under blankets and extra layers to ward off the cooler-than-normal temperatures.

We woke up to blue skies and a cutting wind that complicated my breakfast production. Regardless, I served up bacon, eggs, and sausage (with our son’s “help” cooking the sausage), and we started planning for our day. We had trails to walk, park events to participate in, and general time to spend together. Once breakfast was over, the kids decided that it was time to pull out the handful of Halloween decorations that we had brought along, setting up a skeleton scene in the front of our the campsite and putting the projector on the other side of the camper for a nighttime show. (I took a nighttime video of it once the sun finally went down, at which time our daughter decided to also add marshmallows to the skeleton’s roasting stick.)

I convinced the rest of the family that the dogs needed exercise so we took the Pond Trail right next to our campsite. When JT gave Jeff too much trouble with pulling and noise (he hates to be in the back of the pack and since family hikes are a sporadic activity, he’s not well-practiced), Jeff returned him to the camper and then raced to catch up with us at a sad little pond that our son decided had been created by a meteor. Eight-year-old boys can be so violent.

We walked over towards the bathrooms where they were doing a dutch oven cooking presentation, presenting information on birds of the park, and displaying information on the Civilian Conservation Corps (responsible for originally building the park) and Buffalo Soldiers. We tested some tasty stew and peach cobbler, our daughter got to pet an owl, and both kids spent well over 30 minutes talking to volunteers about weapons, tools, and animal pelts.

We headed back up to the park office where the kids worked on nature crafts and we picked out a couple items at the gift shop, primarily a book about the CCC and Texas state parks and our customary magnet. While the crafts normally end up getting thrown out whenever we head out on our next camping trip, both kids love creating, so we felt like it was still time well spent.

But I wasn’t going to be content until I had completed the most scenic hikes in the park.

The Tower Trail starts within the camping loop, so we checked our water bottles, changed clothes again (since the temperatures weren’t sure what they wanted to do), and started up the trail. We walked past signs marking different trees and plants, working our way to the now unused water tower that had been built by CCC crews during the 1930s. Then we continued along the tower trail until we found the CCC table, a stone table that had been used by those same crews and left for another generation to discover and climb onto.

The Tower Trail turned off to the Cave Trail, which we followed until we reached Tonkowa Cave, a rock formation that had been used by indigenous tribes and then European settlers over the last several centuries. We appreciated the natural sitting areas and the shade from the warmth of the sun.

Our return route took us on the Wash Pond Trail, which led us to the wash pond which had gone from a place to wash clothes to a prime location to wash bodies when it was enlarged by CCC crews in the 1930s. The return hike was far from drama free. I twisted an ankle and quickly recovered, our daughter hit herself in the head with her water bottle and then tripped over a root, and then our son fell for real after several dramatic attempts to get our attention. Regardless, we saw the last of the sights on the hike and returned safely, ready for some quiet reading time for the parents while the kids wanted to check out the natural playground in the camping loop.

The natural playground is unique and would have probably been more fun if our kids were a little younger, but they pulled Jeff into a game of catch with the football and by the time we headed back to the campsite, the kids didn’t feel like the time had been wasted.

We broke our “no TV” rule for the second night in a row so that we could watch Michigan football and the Astros game. For the first time in a long time, we watched the games as a family. I wasn’t home, where I would get distracted by things that I feel need to be done around the house, and the kids didn’t have all of their toys and other activities to pull them away. Normally I would resent the use of technology while we were camping, but with a burn ban preventing us from sitting around a campfire, it was the perfect end to our weekend. I microwaved makeshift s’mores (and felt like I was breaking some kind of camping law by doing so) and then we sent the kids off to bed.

It would be a bit hyperbolic to say that it was a perfect weekend, but it was pretty close. Yes, we had to drive a long way to get here, but in less than 36 hours it worked its way into one of our favorite Texas state parks. As our son said when I interviewed them at the end of the weekend, we pretty much enjoyed everything.

We have more places to explore but we will return. After all, we still need to pick up another National Parks stamp at Mammoth National Monument, less than an hour from the park.

We just have to plan for a longer weekend.

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