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Baptized by Fire

Destination: Bastrop County

Travel time from:
Lubbock – 6.25 hours
Dallas – 3.25 hours
El Paso – 9 hours
San Antonio – 1.5 hours
Houston – 2 hours
Brownsville – 5 hours

Bastrop County's scorched state parks are on the comeback trail.

By Camille Wheeler

Bastrop County’s Lost Pines ecosystem remains badly scarred from the worst wildfire in Texas’ history. But seven years later, the forest is recovering, with young loblolly pines growing by the millions on a landscape littered with charred, dead trees.

Beyond that fire’s devastation, there’s plenty to explore within the regenerating forest, around the bends of the mighty Colorado River and throughout this rural county’s wealth of culture, outdoor recreational opportunities and early Texas history.

My journey began within the Lost Pines, the westernmost stand of loblolly pines in the U.S. that holds the county’s crown jewels: Bastrop and Buescher state parks, which bear the imprint of the Civilian Conservation Corps and compose the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lost Pines State Park Complex. CCC Company 1805 arrived in 1933 to develop the Bastrop facility, and CCC Company 1811 arrived in 1934 to help develop Buescher.

Both parks are healing from natural disasters. The 2011 Bastrop County Complex Fire, the most destructive wildfire the state has ever seen, burned more than 34,000 acres of the Lost Pines and most of Bastrop State Park.

trees

The park sustained more damage in 2015 when Memorial Day weekend flooding blew out its lake’s earthen dam. And in fall 2015, the Hidden Pines Fire burned about half of Buescher State Park and reburned parts of Bastrop State Park.

“You can’t not talk about what has happened,” says Jamie Creacy, superintendent of the Lost Pines State Park Complex. “It’s part of our story now. It becomes present.”

Yet this story is not all doom and gloom. Here at Bastrop State Park, the Lost Pines’ most contiguous component, a fascinating narrative is unfolding as an early successional forest takes root. It’s the chance of a lifetime, Creacy says, to witness the changes of this ancient forest as loblolly pines, native grasses, yaupons and oaks grow together.

And with autumn’s cooler temperatures just around the bend, now is the optimal time to visit these state parks that feature tent and RV camping and extensive hiking trail systems (Buescher’s trails also allow mountain biking). Additionally, Buescher offers limited-use mini-cabins and a 30-acre lake with fishing and paddling opportunities, including canoe rentals. Bastrop State Park holds two white-tailed deer hunts in the winter, including one for youth.

Evidence of the CCC’s work is found throughout the parks, including Bastrop State Park’s rustic native stone and pine cabins that seem to notch into hillsides.

cabins

Each park holds hidden treasures. At Bastrop State Park, I crossed a wooden footbridge and suddenly found myself in a thick, lush-green understory of bracken ferns, a plant with fossil records dating back 55 million years.

And every chance I got, I drove Park Road 1C that CCC workers built as a scenic, forested lane between the state parks. Each time I entered Buescher, passing beneath tree canopies connected over the road, I imagined I was driving through a shaded tunnel.

A theme of easy access to water resonates throughout Bastrop County. In downtown Bastrop, two TPWD river paddling trails begin and end at Fisherman’s Park: the El Camino Real Paddling Trail flows 6 miles downstream, and the Wilbarger Paddling Trail starts upstream at the FM 969 bridge northwest of Bastrop.

Near Fisherman’s Park, next to the historic Old Iron Bridge that spans the Colorado River, the Bastrop River Company offers overnight camping trips for paddlers and day-trip shuttle service for kayak, canoe, paddleboard and tube rentals.

In Smithville, Colorado River access is simple: Turn off Texas Highway 95 onto American Legion Road and then turn right onto a dirt road that leads to a public boat ramp. Also within the city limits, the Vernon L. Richards Riverbend Park offers tent and RV camping.

Northeast of Bastrop, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) operates Lake Bastrop’s North Shore and South Shore parks. The parks feature cabins, tent camping and RV sites, plus new amenities this fall: a nine-hole miniature golf course on the south shore and Airstream trailers for rent on the north shore, which features Hero Water Sports, Texas’ first inflatable water park.

Anglers lured by the lake’s high-quality bass fishing may rent one-person trolling boats, Ultraskiffs, on the south shore.

At the LCRA’s McKinney Roughs Nature Park between Austin and Bastrop on Texas Highway 71, hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders enjoy multiuse trails, some leading to the Colorado River. The park’s most adventurous explorers soar over a forest of loblollies by booking tours with Zip Lost Pines.

ziplines

There’s much more to digest in Bastrop County, such as the jalapeño cream cheese burger I devoured at Maxine’s Cafe, a Bastrop Main Street restaurant. My burger was so big, and so deliciously juicy and messy, that I ate it with a fork.

Texas history buffs enjoy touring the county’s three major cities, starting with Bastrop, which Stephen F. Austin established in 1832 as the westernmost Anglo settlement in North America. In starting his colony, Austin chose the point where the Old San Antonio Road crossed the Colorado River, a stone’s throw from the downtown Museum and Visitor Center of the Bastrop County Historical Society.

Elgin, like Bastrop, is a Main Street community as part of the Texas Historical Commission’s Main Street Program that focuses on the revitalization of cities’ historic downtowns. As the Sausage Capital of Texas, Elgin is gearing up for the Oct. 27 Hogeye Festival that celebrates the community.

sausage

And in Smithville, once a thriving railroad community, tourists take in historic sights aboard the 25-passenger Ann Powell Express train. Of special note this fall is the Oct. 13 Texas Photo Festival on Main Street. The festival will include a 20th-anniversary showing of Hope Floats, the movie starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. that was primarily shot in Smithville, the state’s first “Film Friendly Community” as designated by the Texas Film Commission.

As I traveled, I saw firsthand the resiliency of Bastrop County residents who don’t shy away from talking about the major disasters — fires and floods — that have slammed their communities in recent years.

At the Bastrop County Museum and Visitor Center, burned loblolly pine wood from the 2011 complex fire was planed and sanded to create columns between exhibits, including one documenting that blaze. At the museum, Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape told me that county residents don’t want to be called victims.

“You know what, deal our hand and we’ll play it. It doesn’t matter what the cards are, we’ll make the best of it,” he says about the local attitude. “And we have made the best of it, through thick and thin, through hell and high water.”

The same can be said for the Lost Pines, where the early successional forest is transforming from grave­yard to garden. It’s a story of human connection, of thousands of volunteers coming together to plant 2 million loblolly pine seedlings throughout Bastrop State Park over the past six years.

It’s a story of toughness in areas of the park where flames didn’t reach tree crowns. Loblolly pine trees that died, and those that survived, both dropped pinecones onto the freshly scorched forest floor. With layers of pine needles and oak leaves burned away, mature seeds germinated on bare mineral soil, producing millions of natural regeneration loblollies.

Creacy family

The loblolly pines’ tender-green growth is delightful to behold. But the park’s young forest of loblollies is already too thick in some areas, Creacy observes, with trees competing for space and increasing the risk of a natural fire that can’t be controlled.

“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have it look like it did before,” Creacy says, explaining that fire suppression, done to protect nearby growing populations, altered the landscape.

Hence TPWD’s continued strategy of using meticulously planned prescribed fires to manage the forest’s growth. Prescribed burns mimic the historic cycle of wildfires that burned through the Lost Pines, moving through the forest’s understory, preparing the ground for seed germination, and burning out so-called “ladder fuels” — such as yaupon — that carry flames into tree canopies.
“These trees need fire to regrow,” Creacy says, explaining that if fire were never allowed to safely burn through the Lost Pines, oak trees eventually would far outnumber loblolly pines.

My most memorable Bastrop State Park hike came last spring when I joined Creacy and Cullen Sartor, the park’s site manager, in chasing smoke we saw from Park Road 1C. After futilely driving in search of the fire, we hoofed it through the woods, finally spotting the gray, ashy smoke from a tree that had been struck by lightning and ignited the tree next to it.

Without human intervention, it was possible that the smoldering trees could spark an out-of-control blaze. So Creacy and Sartor called for backup assistance. By nightfall, the TPWD crew had safely felled the trees and extinguished the fire.

For Creacy, such work is part of nurturing this Lost Pines forest where she and her husband, Greg Creacy — the regional fire and natural resources coordinator for TPWD’s Central Texas state parks — are raising their 3-year-old daughter, Emma. By 2020, the forest should see its first offspring of natural-regeneration loblollies that Emma will grow up with.

The Lost Pines’ recovery involves long-term vision, the 38-year-old Creacy says, adding that she won’t see the ecosystem’s full succession in her lifetime. In our culture of instant gratification, Creacy notes it would be easy to walk away from the mission of protecting the forest for future generations, saying, “Wow, not what I’m here for.”

“But,” she continues, “that’s exactly what I’m here for.”

 

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