It was late in the morning, and the line to enter Brazos Bend State Park was already long. The state park is south of Houston and is a favorite day time spot for families. Elm Lake is in the center of the park and is home to an estimated population of 900 adult alligators. I guess that makes it a great place for families. It would be for me as a kid.
We ended up leaving late for the park, which was a mistake. I tend to underestimate how popular the state parks are on the weekends, especially just south of Houston. It felt like everyone converged on the park the Saturday we arrived. The main campsites were filled, so we ended up camping at the overflow site, which was similar to an overflow parking lot surrounded by grass lots for tents, a picnic table, and a barbecue grill. We could have camped in the primitive/equestrian area near the Brazos River, but I wasn’t certain if that would work in our favor, because it could only be accessed by hiking to the far side of the park.
My original plan was to hit the lakes in the center of the park, but the area was packed with visitors, so I decided we should just take a long hike starting at Live Oak Trail and follow the perimeter of the park. Most of the crowds were likely not staying overnight, so we could hike around the lakes the first thing in the morning.
Live Oak Trail runs along the southern border of the park. It’s a well-forested trail running right along one of the park’s many wetlands. It is a haven for water birds; spoonbills, egrets, and herons. The trail also granted solitude. It was far from Elm Lake and noisy families. The loudest sound we heard was our heavy steps along the dirt and limestone mixed trail.
Live Oak Trail loops around the park’s edge and ends at the center of the park, near the observatory. There was going to be a show that night, so we had to navigate the families huddled on the trail as we passed the observatory toward White Oak Trail and the Brazos River.
I’m sure we got a few weird looks. This was a state park near Houston, and the two of us were decked out in our backpacking gear. I thought that we must look like the vagabonds I used to see hanging out at the coffee shops in Portland, Oregon, with their belongings carried in a backpack.
White Oak Trail started in a clearing just north of the observatory. A few grand oaks grew in this clearing, bunched near the entrance like arboreal guards. Silence soon came on the path traversed by only a few hikers enjoying the tranquility.
It was later in the afternoon when we reached River View Trail. The trail skirts the eastern edge of the park and is in view of the Brazos River. The trail sits high above the river; the thick foliage and the steep river valley makes it difficult to view the river. Along the trail, we noticed spherical mounds of dirt and debris. The mounds were nearly a foot high and lined along the trail. The mounds were built by fire ants. Amazingly, the tops of the mounds were also level with a brown line on the tree trunks in the vicinity. A high-water mark. Peering down into the ravine, I noticed that the undergrowth and green foliage usually found along a river valley was gone. Thick mud and bare tree trunks remained. Many trees were uprooted.
The year before, massive rainstorms swept through eastern Texas. Houston suffered serious flooding. Here in the state park south of Houston, I saw evidence of it a year later. Not only that, but the river must have risen over the valley it is nestled in and swept across this area of the park. The fire ants responded, building up their nests to perhaps just above the waterline. It was just incredible to see the remnants of what the rains did to the Brazos River.
At the end of the trail, we reached the primitive campsite. I regretted not camping out here. It was a fine place nestled in the trees. Much better than overflow parking. Most importantly, that would have also meant our day hike would have stopped here.
Unfortunately, for us, it didn’t.
Evening drifted over us on the hike back to the campsite. We traveled along the river and heard a pack of coyotes on the other side of the river. At least, I think they were on the other side of the river. Their haunting howls and yelps vibrated through the very air. They sounded close, almost as if I waited long enough I would catch a glimpse of them. We left the river to head toward our campsite and left the coyotes behind. Our night was filled with the long shadows of trees reaching across the trail like massive twisted, bony hands in the fading light. Also, we heard the noisy rustling of armadillos waddling around in the refuse like nature’s drunk uncle.
The night certainly does play tricks on a traveler. We were, at first, startled as we stumbled to the sight of Spanish moss hanging above us with no tree to drape over. It appeared to float in the air with fresh starlight behind it. Curiosity took over once the initial shock passed. I shined a light and found it hanging over a power line, invisible in the starlit sky. We then heard the sound of other campers, especially their children.
But this wasn’t our campsite. Nope, we still had half the park to cross.
With the park blanketed in darkness and only our headlamps lighting the way, I decided against heading back to our camp through the trails that would take us around Elm Lake and 40 Acre Lake. These were the areas where the alligators congregated, and I wasn’t certain what would happen if we met one in the dark. We followed the road back to our camp instead.
We had been hiking for hours at this point. My feet were on fire and the first signs of blisters were showing. Also, the ground on the sides of the road were sloped at a steep angle, which made the hike more uncomfortable. It was easily two to three miles to our camp, across uneven ground, with traffic from the observatory passing us.
Exhaustion crept in on the last half-mile and we just wanted our tents and some sleep. It was at this point that a park ranger in a pickup truck stop to ask if we needed a ride to the campground. Now, a sane person would jump at this chance. In fact, we had discussed this possibility earlier.
However, when the opportunity presented itself, we puffed our chests out and decided we were going to walk the rest of the way. Pride overtook common sense. The ranger told us we were about half a mile from the campground. And it was the longest half mile I had known up to that point.
I slept well that night, but my feet burned all night long.
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