Smitten with Smithville
More than a movie set, this Central Texas town celebrates nature and historic homes.
Just off Texas Highway 71, nestled next to the Colorado River, is a town still so full of historic buildings that it’s easy to imagine yourself transported back in time. On the Fourth of July in 1886, when the first passenger train came to town, Smithville began to thrive as a railroad hub; many buildings constructed during that boom still stand, giving it a romantic, old-timey air that attracts the movie industry.
You can glimpse these nostalgic homes and charming places in films like Hope Floats, The Tree of Life and True Grit or on a Smithville “movie sights” tour (find a map at smithvilletx.org . Or get acquainted with Smithville — just a short drive from Austin, Houston or San Antonio — on a six-block walking tour of downtown (find a map at explorebastropcounty.com featuring 26 historic commercial properties, still thriving today.
Smithville offers charm of the natural variety as well. Bicycling provides an opportunity to ride the oak-lined streets at a leisurely pace; pack the bikes up and head out to nearby Buescher State Park for a country kind of ride. The Colorado River runs through town, and kayaking offers another means of slow, relaxing touring.
It’s a lovely day, so I decide to head out to the park first.
A few miles north of Smithville, Buescher packs it all in. There are plenty of great camping spots for a home base, or rent one of their cute cabins or screened shelters for a little lakeside comfort. Fish and paddle the 30-acre lake (closed for construction until 2023) or hike/bike under tall trees on 6 miles of trails that range from easy to challenging. Park Road 1C offers a hilly 12-mile trek to Bastrop State Park, where you can witness the wonder of nature in action as the forest recovers from the devastating 2011 wildfire.
I park at the Winding Woodland Trailhead and wander up to the Big Tree Retreat. I’m a sucker for giant trees, and it’s just a short hike up to this arboreal champion. I kick back for a moment to soak in the majesty and tranquility of the scene — this tree is truly magnificent.
Soon enough, the trails are a-callin’, though, and I am ready to answer.
Winding Woodland Trail is a wonderful walk through the trees, providing satisfaction for hikers of all levels. The symphony of bird song makes the walk seem more like a stroll through a Disney film. The 1.5-mile trail ends in a breathtaking view from a scenic overlook, where you can take a break and then circle back or continue to the more challenging Pine Gulch Trail. (Pro tip: Bring a picnic. I was hungry, and the view definitely influenced me to want to sit a while.)
The Pine Gulch Trail will take your breath in a different way as you traverse the steep hills of the Pine Gulch through the forest of towering trees. It’s absolutely beautiful — I could have stayed all day, maybe even longer. Who doesn’t love feeling alone in and with nature?
For mountain bikers craving even more adventure than Buescher State Park has to offer, Rocky Hill Ranch is just up the road, about a mile and a half from the park, with more than 25 miles of sweet single-track trails of varying difficulty with a variety of different obstacles. It’s $10 to ride all day.
After some energetic fun out on Buescher’s trails, it’s time to head into town. Smithville has a charming downtown with lots of interesting ways to relax.
The James H. Long Railroad Park and Museum provides a look into the history of Smithville. The park is perfect for a picnic and offers a playground nestled between two real cabooses. The museum, housed inside the Smithville Chamber of Commerce building, is chock-full of engaging exhibits and artifacts.
In 2019, just months after the completion of a renovation, an arsonist destroyed the building. Two years later, a new building now houses the Smithville Area Chamber of Commerce, visitor center and railroad museum. While some furniture, oil paintings and metal items were able to be restored, many paper items couldn’t be saved. A century’s worth of photos and plaques were lost forever.
How did Smithville get its name? The legend is that a coin was tossed to decide if the name would be Smithville or Burlesonville, for Murray Burleson, who donated land for the railroad depot. The coin toss resulted in the selection of Smithville, apparently in honor of pioneer settler William Smith.
Some of Smithville’s history is more whimsical, fitting for the storybook feel of the town. At one end of the park is a statue honoring the “World’s Largest Gingerbread Man” baked by the town in 2006 and certified by the Guinness Book of World Records. The cookie creation, baked over hot coals during Smithville’s annual Festival of Lights celebration in December, weighed more than 1,300 pounds and was 20 feet tall.
That day, 750 pounds of flour, 49 gallons of molasses and 72 dozen eggs and a few other ingredients were poured into a molded cookie sheet and baked over a dumptruck of charcoal. The cookie was eaten, and today we pose for selfies with the cookie sheet to commemorate our visit. (The IKEA Corporation of Norway broke the record in 2009.)
Two helpful women at the Chamber of Commerce give me a short tour of the museum. When I ask if there is anything special going on this weekend, I find out that my timing is fortuitous. Tomorrow just happens to be the Saturday when the annual Eco/Photo Fest kicks off. The fest focuses on the connection between photographic instruction and relatable topics in the environment, ecological systems and outdoor tourism, with a morning full of fun to kick it off. This is right in my wheelhouse as a Texas Parks and Wildlife videographer. How lucky to be here at the right time — I’m eagerly anticipating a great weekend.
Meanwhile, I’m famished. Just around the corner is Honey’s Pizza, and I’m overcome by the intoxicating aroma of wood-fired pizza when I open the door. There’s an awesome mural of Queen Margherita, inspiring me to order her namesake pizza. The staff welcomes me with open arms and gets my Friday evening started off perfectly.
Honey’s Pizza is named after the fictional diner in Hope Floats, the most famous of the films shot in Smithville. The renovated building used to be part of the old Pines Hotel. Amy and Steve Simmons (of Amy’s Ice Cream fame) are the creators of this lovely eatery; they even became certified to make traditional Napolitana pizza. You can taste the hard work behind every authentic bite. The crust has a toothsome crispy-to-chewy ratio that satisfies the pizza monster raging inside of me after such an activity-filled day.
The next morning, Smithville’s Eco/Photo Fest starts off with a bang. People go all out for the bird parade — I know I’m in the right place when a golf cart decorated to look like an owl drives up. Many costumes have a bird head incorporated into some sort of helmet; one contestant transforms a patio umbrella into an avian creature and parades down the street carrying his “bird” proudly. Judging the contest couldn’t have been easy with such stiff competition but, in the end, the decision was unanimous. All the kids, with so many amazing costumes, tied for first place.
Next, downtown Smithville is filled with the excited sounds of kids running up and down the streets, dashing in and out of antique stores and art galleries, trying to find everything on the scavenger hunt list. The rest of the event is a fascinating mix of speakers and activities, contests and workshops. Some activities were virtual the past two years; check smithvilletx.org this summer to see the lineup for 2022.
Smithville has a lot going on, with several fun events throughout the year that will be worth checking out. I’m hoping to make it back sometime.
Experience some small-town Texas charm and relax in the beauty of nature just a short drive from the big city.
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