Don’t hit the Damn Cows! Colorado Bend State Park, Bend, San Saba County, Texas

One of my favorite spots to hike in Texas is Colorado Bend. Colorado Bend combines canyons, springs and waterfalls, which by the way are not very numerous in Texas, so to find a good one is a great challenge. At Colorado Bend, Gorman Falls is one of the best …….. the tallest continuously flowing waterfall in the state. There is a direct hike to the falls across the prairie but I don’t like that hike. It is out and back and you are often walking on rocks many which are slick in the morning dew. So I usually do a longer hike in and out which also embraces the springs that feed the falls and a couple of canyons.

But first of all don’t hit the Damn cows! The adventure of Colorado Bend starts on the drive in. Much of Texas still has open range. There are no fences and to keep the cattle where they want them, instead there is a series of “cattle gates” in the road. For those not familiar with this a road “cattle gate” is a series of metal pipes embedded in the road that a cow can’t/won’t cross. So coming through the open range into Colorado Bend you cross a couple of these and you are now among the wandering cattle, some to your left, some to the right and some in the road. Cattle are like Honey Badgers, they don’t care. Don’t hit ’em!

Colorado Bend is a huge park. It contains over 5300 acres and was purchased by the State of Texas in 1984. How big is it? from the entrance gate to the headquarters/park store is 6 miles by road! There is no way you can hike the whole thing in a day. In fact, after various trips there I still haven’t hit all the trails. In this post I will focus on the two best areas of the park, Gorman Springs and Falls and Spicewood Springs and Canyon.

Gorman Springs and Falls: My hike starts at the “Cedar Chopper ” Area. This area gets it’s name from the camps of men that came and chopped cedar for use as fencing, building barns and making charcoal. Not much here but a bunch of old stumps and new growth Ash Juniper aka “Mountain Cedar”.

The cedar choppers were a rough bunch. They didn’t try to save money but spent it eating well and of course drinking heavily. They loved a good brawl. This area once was home to a clan of choppers complete with a store and school. When the Texas landscape began to get fenced off the cedar choppers became pretty well to do. they could make up to 25 dollars a day chopping and fashioning fence posts from the trees when the average wage at the time was 25 dollars a week! What happened to the cedar choppers over time? Some relatives still live among the hills west of Austin although they live more modern lives. The advent of the chainsaw was their ultimate undoing.

The sun rises over the Cedar Chopper area at Colorado Bend

The Cedar Chopper Trail takes me to the Dogleg Canyon Trail. This small canyon is one of the best in the park. It is dominated by a large Hoodoo. The surrounding hills rise to 1300 feet.

What is a hoodoo? A hoodoo is a rock spire that has formed when the top rock is harder and erodes less quickly than the surrounding rock. Because the caprock can’t erode a spire is formed as the surrounding rock erodes. They are typically found within canyons in hot, dry, arid regions.

my first “hoodoo”.
Dog Leg Canyon

Next, I Hit the River Trail along the Colorado River. Now is this confusing you. Isn’t the Colorado River in Arizona as in “Grand Canyon”? Yes, it is. But there are in fact two Colorado Rivers. This one is located entirely within the state of Texas. It is the main source of water in the Texas Hill Country and Central Texas as it flows 862 miles from the Llano Estacado near Lubbock to Matagorda Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. And although entirely in Texas it is still the 18th longest river in the United States! That’s how big Texas is.

The Colorado River, (the Texas one) has cut a deep wide canyon through the park. This is also the area where there are several caves, including Gorman Cave. They used to do cave tours but I think they stopped that for now.

Colorado River at Colorado Bend. Canyon wall on the far side
Trail along the Canyon walls on the Park side
Entrance to Gorman Cave

Now the trail goes past the spring that feeds Gorman Falls aptly named Gorman Springs. Gorman Springs bubbles out of the ground with enough flow to form Gorman Creek.

Gorman Springs Creek

The last part of the trail down to the Falls viewing area is very steep and on Rock that has become quite treacherous from the climbing up and down over the years. But there is a strong reliable cable stretched the length of the descent that will hold you upright and allow you to pull yourself back up. The falls are well worth this effort.

Gorman Falls.
Gorman Falls

Looks quite different from most falls doesn’t it? Gorman Falls is what is known as a living or travertine falls. Chemicals in the water react to the air to form the “travertine” so Gorman Falls is actually growing in size. The falls drop 65 ft but is 650 feet wide when counting all the trickles. Gorman is surprisingly, the tallest continuously running waterfall in Texas.

More of Gorman Falls
Gorman Falls showing the travertine

My hike now takes me back towards the Cedar Chopper area through Tinaja Canyon. In this canyon is a Tinaja or bowl. These are rare landforms which collect seepage and rain water in arid environments and support life in their vicinity.

The Tinaja Canyon is rather deep. The sides here rise to 1350 feet. The canyon is wide but the vertical walls are quite obvious.

The Tinaja at Colorado Bend

Past the Tinaja the Trail loops around the other rim of the canyon back towards the Cedar Chopper area and the end

looking Across Tinaja Canyon

Spicewood Springs and Canyon: Another fun part of Colorado Bend is the Spicewood Springs/ Canyon area. This is accessed through a hike across the Lemon Ridge Pass Trail which also leaves from the Cedar Chopper Trailhead as I did or you can just drive through the campground to the trailhead! Spicewood Springs and Canyon Trails are unique. On the former you spend a lot of time right along the creek with several crossings. It is wise to check with the park staff as this trail could be closed due to high water while all the other park trails are open.

Starting at the Cedar Chopper Trailhead I took the Lemons Ridge Pass Trail to the Spicewood Canyon Trail, the Spicewood Springs Trail, back to the Spicewood Canyon Trail and Lemons Pass. This created a grueling ten mile lollipop loop, one of the toughest hikes I’ve been on in Texas. I would rate the Lemons Ridge Pass Trail as moderate just due to length, The Spicewood Springs Trail is Extremely Strenuous, due to elevation changes, several stream crossings and a couple of technical areas. The Spicewood Canyon Trail is strenuous, due to elevation change and length.

Lemons Ridge runs much of the length of the park. It is at 1330 feet of elevation and all the major creeks and canyons start their journeys atop the ridge. as you approach the Spicewood area the elevation drops to about 1300 feet after crossing the high point at 1370 feet. So, the ridge is relatively flat.

Lemons Ridge Pass Trail, lots of rock, trees and miles

As I exited the car on this adventure the thunder rolled. I had been hitting light rain showers the whole drive here and although the sky was clearing the one thundershower in the area remained over me for the first 45 minutes of the hike. Thankfully the rain was light and on the Lemons Ridge Pass Trail there isn’t much but rocks, trees and miles so the trees dampened the rain. After seemingly forever I arrive at Spicewood Springs.

Spicewood Springs

Now the fun begins. I arrive at the top of the canyon and waterfall.

The cliff

Last time I came here I had to climb this wall, and it wasn’t any fun. So today I designed my route to go down it: actually I thought I lost the trail last time; but no, here we are at the same damn wall of travertine. Travertine forms in these water fall areas because of the chemicals in the water reacting to air. The waterfalls actually continue to grow whereas most waterfalls continue to erode. Most travertine is fragile but this area is old and weathered so it is just slippery rock. Travertine doesn’t create the best walking surface and today it is wet so I will have to be very careful. Trekking poles can be lifesavers at times although I am not a big fan. I carry at least one on every hike just for these very situations. Once down you are at the waterfall and a swimming hole.

This hike will take you to multiple swimming holes if you are into that kind of thing.

Falls and Swimming hole on the Spicewood Springs Trail

Although I don’t swim on hikes this was a beautiful spot to stop for lunch. After lunch the next part of the hike remains on the technical side with multiple slippery creek crossings and some areas where I recommend at least one trekking pole.

Spicewood Springs Creek waterfall
See a trail? It’s that slanted rock of wet granite as marked by the blue diamond on the tree
The trail that’s barely there
This is the final slippery creek crossing.

After successfully navigating down the canyon I found myself at the main swimming hole.

The “beach” in Spicewood Canyon

At the swimming hole I caught the Spicewood Canyon Trail and began my ascent back to the top.

Looking back down into the canyon
Spicewood Canyon in the fall
The Canyon of the Colorado River from the Spicewood Canyon Overlook.

Now it’s just a long boring hike back to the car but this challenging route was well worth it.

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