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Having It All in Belton

Central Texas town and its
namesake lake offer biking, climbing and barbecue.

By Russell Roe

April 2024 Issue

camp fishing

On a Saturday afternoon in Belton, we popped into the Cochran, Blair & Potts store downtown, the oldest department store in the state.

“We've got a little bit of everything,” says store operations manager Branch Skeeter. “Our customers could be somebody who needs steel-toed boots or somebody who needs jewelry.”

At Miller's Smokehouse, one of the top barbecue spots in the state, I ordered the “Fire in the Bowl,” which contained brisket, sausage, pulled pork, beans, potatoes and corn chips. A little bit of everything.

A stop at the Beltonian theater nearby gave us a peek at a dueling pianos show featuring songs by Elvis, Madonna and Billy Joel. A little bit of everything there, too.

After spending a day rock climbing and mountain biking the week before, I decided that's what Belton was offering me: a little bit of everything.

Matthew Wells thinks so too. He moved from Austin to teach art in the cozy community. Lake Belton is his go-to place for recreation. “I love it here,” he says. “It has definitely sustained my interest in the outdoors. I have found amazing things here just by wandering around on public land and exploring, mostly around the lake.”

map of Belton Stillhouse Hollow

Talk about a little bit of everything: Wells goes to Lake Belton to engage in his many outdoor pursuits — sailing, fishing, duck hunting, rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, swimming, camping, wildlife watching and exploring.

Interstate 35 goes through Waco, Temple and Salado, giving drivers a glimpse of those towns, but it skirts away from Belton, putting it just off the radar for Texas travelers.

Lake Belton, surrounded by rolling hills, limestone cliffs and rocky shorelines, is a little-known gem managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates several parks, campsites and wildlife management areas on the lake. The lake contains Texas paddling trails — the Morgan's Point Paddling Trails offer 12 miles of exploration in the lake's rocky coves.

“Belton's lake is surrounded on one whole side by Fort Hood [now Fort Cavazos],” Wells says. “It's undeveloped and pretty wild. The wildlife is abundant.”

The lake contains several other recreational treasures that I wanted to explore. Where else in in Texas where you can go rock climbing and mountain biking in the same place?

Rogers Park entrance at Belton Lake male rock climber female rock climber

On the Rocks

I headed up to Rogers Park, on Lake Belton, to do some bouldering with my friend Luke Stollings. Despite having climbed in Central Texas for years, neither of us had been to Rogers before.

First, Luke wanted to stop for doughnuts. I was game for that. As the soft pastry practically melted in my mouth, I was reminded of the pleasures of a warm glazed doughnut. So good.
Since it was a weekday morning, we thought we might be the only ones at Rogers Park, but we heard voices as we hiked in. Three climbers from Texas A&M University were bouldering at the crag.

“You got it, Gabby,” Anna Theodore says in encouragement of her friend Gabby Coronado, who was scaling a 15-foot rock face. “You're strong. There it is.”

Bouldering involves climbing boulders and shorter cliffs without a rope — thick “crash pads” lay at the bottom of the climb in case Gabby fell.

“Outdoor climbing is different from climbing in the gym,” says their friend Matthew Speights. There are scarier situations outdoors, so “You've got to train your mind. You have to compose yourself,” he says.

I stood in front of a boulder problem called Jaws, with an overhanging section at the top, wondering if I could compose myself in what I knew would be a scary situation.

I asked Matthew if he could show me how to do it.

“That's one of the Rogers classics,” he says. “I can do it with gusto.”

He made a few moves and launched for the final hold, grabbing the edge at the top while his feet cut out from under him.

“That's so fun,” he says. “I've done that climb so many times.”

Powered by doughnuts, Luke and I decided to stick to some of the easier but still-plenty-challenging climbs. We were probably 40 years older than our fellow climbers. We're wily even if we're not as strong.

“Did any of you guys stop for doughnuts on the way here?” Luke asks.

No? We didn't think so.

male biker on trail

On the Bike

After spending the morning at Rogers Park, we headed off for some mountain biking at Miller Springs, a park that sits below the Lake Belton dam.

In the parking lot we ran into bikers Keith Kelly and Chris Thomas, who came down from Waco to ride for the day. They had heard about some new trails at Miller Springs and were looking forward to riding them.

“We ride Cameron Park; we ride Dana Peak,” Keith says, referring to biking spots in Waco and Stillhouse Hollow Lake. “We're always looking for new dirt, new trails, new adventure.”

Dana Peak is the premier place to ride in the Belton area, with 21 miles of trail along the shores of Stillhouse Hollow. The Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area, operated by Fort Cavazos, also contains several miles of trails for hiking, biking or horseback riding.

Miller Springs offers 10 miles of trail, and soon Luke and I were pedaling across a rocky plain below the dam before heading downhill through a forest.

Miller Springs is a beautiful natural area along the Leon River, with bottomland forest, rolling meadows and rocky ridgelines. We happened to run into Keith and friends on the trails, and we rode together through trees, up and down hills and along the river. The trails are mostly fairly easy, and the ride felt exhilarating as we navigated the twists and turns on a sunny and mild winter day. At the far edge of the park we reached a historic metal truss bridge that spans a small creek.

“This old road and bridge served the communities that are now under the lake — the towns of Tennessee Valley, Sparta and Bland,” says biker Nelson Hutchinson.

bikers crossing bridge

The bridge is a historic landmark at Miller Springs, and it was my destination for another reason. I knew there was rock climbing on the cliffs nearby.

The Miller Springs canyon, with a spring-fed creek flowing through, was favored by the Tonkawa, and it contains tall, overhanging cliffs, rock shelters and large pecan trees.

People have inhabited the Belton area for thousands of years. The Gault site, in nearby Florence, practically rewrote the timeline of human occupation in the Americas. Gault site archeologists have established that people were in the Americas as early as 20,000 years ago, far longer than many had believed. The perennial springs and abundant flint at the Gault site provided an ideal setting for early humans. Luke and I learned more about the Gault site at the Bell County Museum, housed in an old Carnegie Library building.

The museum explores the history of the county, touching on Native Americans, Anglo settlers, the railroad, the Chisholm Trail, Fort Cavazos and more.

The presence of Fort Cavazos, one of the largest military installations in the U.S., influences life in Belton. “We have lots of retired military people here,” says Terry Wells, father of Matthew Wells.

people sitting around fire pit Miller Smokehouse sauces and rub Carnegie building

On the Town

My fiancée Heather and I met Terry and wife Jane for dinner at Miller's, one of Texas Monthly's top 50 barbecue restaurants.

“The brisket is hard to beat,” Terry says. “The sausage is good. Everything's good.”

Terry and Jane lived in San Antonio, Seguin, Lake McQueeny and Austin before moving to Belton, where they have a house overlooking the lake. “The lake is beautiful, and it's uncrowded,” Jane says. “We might see six boats on a busy day.”

After dinner we strolled downtown and around the courthouse square.

At the courthouse, Terry pointed out their usual parade-watching spot. “We have a big Fourth of July parade every year,” he says.

Jane's a member of the Woman's Wednesday Club, whose members have been meeting in Belton for more than 100 years. The club helped start the library that was housed in the Carnegie building.

The Woman's Wednesday Club originally met in a room at the Central Hotel owned by the Sanctified Sisters, a women's religious group with a fascinating history. This group, also known as the Belton Women's Commonwealth, was established in 1867 when Martha McWhirter had a religious conversion and formed a community of women who wanted to leave their unfulfilling lives. The group had a commitment to celibacy and communal living. The women lived together, sold bread, opened a laundry service, practiced dentistry and operated the hotel, running several successful businesses. Their collection of books became the foundation of the city's library.

I love a good utopian community story. This one thrived for more than 30 years before moving to Washington, D.C.

Belton may have lost that little bit of utopia, but it holds on to other pieces, like the overlooked Lake Belton, a watery utopia with a little bit of everything.


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