Monday, December 28, 2020

The Walter Buck Ranch - Otherwise Known as South Llano River State Park

Trail map for South Llano River State Park

It was the Sunday of Thanksgiving Day weekend and I was on the road. (El Día de Acción de Gracias in Spanish, which somehow sounds not only more mellifluous but also more like the original intent of the day, emphasizing, as it does, the action of giving thanks - not that any of that's relevant to this post - - - so moving on - - -)

I didn't plan on being on the road on this day. I don't usually get out on the road for any holiday, let alone one that means travel with a capital T to the collective American psyche as much as this one does. It just happened.

When I made my reservation for a campsite at South Llano (pronounced Yah-no) River State Park several months ago I was just looking for a block of available nights, and the calendar on the reservation site doesn't differentiate holidays from normal days, so when I found a campsite with a consecutive string of 5 free nights I closed the deal.

It wasn't until a week before the trip, when the reservation system finally allowed me to pre-register and print my windshield-pass, that I realized the conflict between my reservation and the close of the holiday weekend.

Oh well. I wasn't about to give up my hard-won slot so I guess I was just going to have to pull up my big-boy pants and tough it out.

Originally, on my way to the park I had planned on stopping in Fredericksburg to get some architectural reference photos for a painting style I wanted to try.

Fredericksburg is always busy, but tucked in behind the National Museum of the Pacific War, (Admiral Nimitz was born here in this town) just across Austin Street and snugged into a bight of Town Creek, is the Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

 (Sadly, as I write this on Dec 20 I just heard a report that the long-standing, month-long Fredericksburg Christmas Festival is attracting large crowds this year that are defying COVID guidelines and threatening to turn it into a protracted superspreader event. Many are claiming freedom as an excuse for this behavior. The citizens of Wuhan where COVID was first detected, people that come from a culture that focuses on the well-being of the community rather than the me, me, me of the US culture, bit down hard on a strict and difficult 76 day lockdown and took it seriously. The result? It's been over 6 months since the last locally transmitted new case of COVID was detected in Wuhan and with basic precautions the city is opened up and functioning almost normally. Some businesses didn't survive and some jobs have not yet returned, but generally people are working, and, without getting sick and dying in the process, restaurants, bars, gyms, museums, stores, schools etc. are open and operating at near pre-COVID levels. In other words the economy took a hit but it is functioning and well on the way to a full recovery, while the US continues to set records for new infections and deaths nearly daily, and weekly first-time unemployment filings pile up at a record pace. Who's free now?  Frankly our grandparents and great-grandparents would be horrified at how stupidly selfish we've become. - - oops, a bit of a rant there - - But it's my rant and it stays, so deal with it!)

Now I don't really care about either the convention nor visitor bureau, but there's also a 120 slot, free visitor's parking lot back there, and since it's a whole block and a half off of Main Street, which makes it way too far for most of us to walk as we'd rather circle and circle, and circle, Main Street until we finally happen to come upon someone backing out of one of the coveted closer parking slots, I've never had any trouble finding a parking spot back there. (There's also an adjacent public restroom that may have come in handy in the past but right now I'm avoiding enclosed public spaces, including restrooms, like the plague - or to update that statement, like the COVID!)

The plan was to slip The Van in back there, mask up, grab the camera, and temporarily leave its protective bubble of sanctuary to anonymously wander the streets for a few minutes grabbing some photos, but I started getting jittery as I got closer to town and the the traffic thickened. Then when I got into the heart of the action a few blocks before the museum and saw the ebb-and-flow of Corona-oblivious people crowding the sidewalks and piling up nuts-to-butts at crosswalks like so much driftwood waiting for the dam to open and release them to bobble and drift on another block to the next pile-up, I went into full meltdown and drove right on past my turn at Lincoln Street while averting my eyes lest I inadvertently turn and join the deadly flotsam.

Instead I settled for a few one-handed, stop-light photos as the anxiety quietly whined in the back of my throat and spilled out through my nose (Why is that car getting up so close behind me? Haven't they heard about social distancing?!) until I finally cleared the last traffic light at the west end of town and was spit out into less popular, and less populated, country again.

An hour and a half later I pulled into the State Park where, even though I had pre-registered and had my pass taped to the windshield, I still had to walk into the little headquarters building (former residence of the Buck family) and check in with a live, potentially diseased, person. (Masked and behind Plexiglas, but still - ) Of course as I was collecting my paperwork to go in, someone else drove up and got in ahead of me, so I had to wait around outside until they were safely out of the way again, and to make sure any respiratory particles they left drifting around behind them also had time to leave, I hung out for a little longer. (OK, yes, I'm aware that I'm pretty obsessive about all this isolation stuff, and sometimes wonder if I'll ever be able to go back to "normal" in the future.) If it wasn't for this check-in my trip would have been completely contact free.

It (how much contact is involved) appears to depend on the park, and even the day, but when I went to Bastrop and Colorado Bend SP's during the summer I just drove right on in with my pre-printed pass. If there was any contact at all it was someone checking my windshield pass while I was out hiking. But when I went back to Colorado Bend in November there was now a little kiosk with adjacent generator plopped down in the middle of the entrance road and I had a masked, drive-thru type exchange with someone inside that "checked me in" on the computer and handed me yet another (potentially contaminated) pass to tape to my windshield. And here at South Llano, though I actually had to enter the headquarters building (shudder!) to check in, I was told my pre-register pass was all I needed to display.

Different parks, different superintendents, different rules.

These are my collective hikes from this latest trip

Anyway - Other than a short, shallow stretch of the South Llano River which you can tube from a put-in at the low-water crossing of the entrance road, down about a half mile to a takeout point, (Just a graveled spot on the bank, then you have to hand-carry your floating gear down a path back to the parking lot near the put-in) South Llano River State Park doesn't have what the general public might consider any distinctive geological features or attractions.

And, other than a handful of walk-in tent sites and 4 backpacking sites which aren't on the reservation system and don't appear to have been used in some time, the only camping is the 50 or so rather pricey ($20) water-electric sites which aren't my first choice. (But during winter camping it is nice to use some of that overpriced electricity to run a small cube-heater in the evenings - - -) 

But this 2600 acre former ranch has it's own quiet, understated beauty, a peaceful dignity that comes from being what it is, no more, no less - not to mention a lot of solitary hiking! (I covered a shade over 56 miles on foot during this latest 5-day stay and encountered three whole people - which, now that I re-read that statement, kind of implies that there were some partial people too, which there weren't. At least none that I saw!)

Being located down on the edge of the river-bottom the campground is well treed and doesn't have any real solar-friendly sites, but then that's how I'm going to get value out of my 200 usable Ah's of lithium-ion batteries, so no big deal. 

Walter Buck was 18 when his dad, also a Walter Buck, bought this ranch and moved the family from the Dallas area in the hopes that the drier climate would be good for Walter's  tubercular older brother. Unfortunately the brother died within a year but the Bucks stayed on, with Walter Jr. taking over the successful ranch when his Dad died.

Walter was quite the environmentalist and quickly reduced the 1000 head of sheep, goats and cattle by half and eventually he was down to 150 head of cattle as he focused on restoring the ranch's sustainability and natural ecosystem. He never married and in 1977, at age 85, donated the ranch to the Texas Department of Wildlife and Parks. It was opened as a State Park in 1990.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying this place is definitely worth a visit, or two, or, in my case five or six, so far.

The ranch is actually divided into two distinct habitats. The lower section (the north end) lies in the Llano River valley and these bottom lands support hardwoods, many of them pecan which allowed Walter to harvest some 60 thousand pounds of nuts per year. Then just behind the relatively lush bottom land rise the limestone ridges and canyons typical of the hill-country. It's much drier up here with a whole different set of plants, most of them pretty spiky.

I was still pulling hair-fine cactus spines out of my leg several days after getting back home. If that doesn't sound like your idea of fun stick to the established trails!

Speaking of trails, as a former ranch, the majority of the trails are old ranch-roads, or tracks depending on your definition of a road. This is one of them, along the eastern fence line, that is still almost road-like, with others maybe not so much. But still, none of them present any particular difficulties to even the novice hiker, other than maybe length, (A loop-hike to the far end of the ranch and back again will come in at about 11 miles)

But there are a couple trails, including this one which is new since I was last here in 2017,

that are more conventionally trail-like.

Of course, as soon as I discovered this new trail, which isn't on the maps yet, I had to try it. But part way up to the overlook


Oh, wait. I just scared the crap out of myself over an innocent Honey Mesquite seed-pod!

Well that was a good start to my stay here! But it didn't stop me! So there's some South Llano hikes coming up in future posts.



  1. Ah, one of my favorite parks in the Texas state park system. We started going there just after it opened. We'd camp in our little folding camper, and my daughter and I would start at the low water bridge at the entrance and raft down to a take out spot and then walk back to the campground. Hiked all the trails at one time or another. Great wildlife. In the pre-internet days, we'd get frustrated when we'd show up and trails would be closed for hunting. I look forward to reading all your reports.

    1. Even now, when they are no longer show-up-at-the-gate surprises, those hunting black-outs are still annoying.

  2. Looks like a great park to explore.

    Not a fan of in-person check-ins either. I know it sounds silly, but I try to avoid going inside anywhere (that isn’t home) for longer than I can hold my breath. We’ve got a local farm supply store that offers a five cent discount if you pay inside for gas (and hopefully buy some more stuff). No thanks.

    1. I'm with you there on staying out of stores. Instead I've been handing out $5 bills - tucked under the edge of the mat in the hatch-back - like candy to the kids that bring my shopping out and load it up while I stay behind the wheel.

      One day before the holidays we drove to the city, made 4 carefully scheduled store-stops and one drive-through, then drove back home, elapsed time 6 hours, all without setting foot outside the car.