Tucked away at the Top of the Hill Country, Meridian State Park serves as a cozy camp-n-cookout escape for outdoor enthusiasts
Lush, pristine and a sanctuary to solitude year-around, Meridian State Park remains one of the best kept secrets in the Texas Parks System. But it’s the park’s historical significance that makes it stand out as truly special.
Like most state parks, Meridian State Park has remained open since a brief shutdown in April due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. With that said, some limitations and guidelines were put into place for everyone's safety, beginning with reduced capacity. But those restrictions have not kept the park from filling up every weekend.
From the depths of the Great Depression came one of the greatest investments in the American landscape as the Civilian Conservation Corps served as one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal work programs, enlisting unemployed men to work on land conservation and park development projects.
More than 50,000 CCC enrollees served in Texas working six days a week under National Park Service and Army supervision. The CCC constructed parks from the ground up across the state, creating the Texas State Park system.
Meridian State Park represents one of those historic parks with its distinctive cabins, bridges and refectory built by CCC Company 1827, comprised of World War I veterans. In 1933, the enrollees also constructed the rock and earthen dam across Bee Creek that impounded the lake. They developed the park using local limestone and timber, primarily oak and cedar. The small, but gem of a park is located along the 98th meridian on the edge of a natural transitional zone between prairies and hill country.
As a mini piece of peace and quiet, Meridian State Park proves to be an easy drive and easy find from Austin or the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and close to town for groceries or other amenities.
The park won the 2017 Region 7 Park of the Year award for its management and facilities. Working to earn award again, park management strives to do everything in their power to improve facilities and services.
And with each project, the management and staff hold the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department mission statement and goals in mind: to manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and historic site, provide recreational and educational opportunities and foster and understanding of the diversity of Texas’ lands and heritage for all generations.
Within the 505-acre park, visitors can enjoy a 72-acre lake, a five-mile scenic drive along with the characteristic limestone and timber buildings nestled among the natural surroundings.
The park’s lake offers fishing in addition to swimming and no-wake boating. Surrounded by cattail, bulrush, water willow and fields of American lotus, the predominant fish species are largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappie and sunfish. Each year in January, the lake is also stocked with rainbow trout. The park loans out fishing gear for use in the park and recently added solar lights on the fishing pier.
In recent years, rental kayaks and paddle boards were added to the park’s inventory, and the rangers offer kayaking 101 lessons. Besides the extensive brochures available, the camp store merchandise was expanded to include basic camping supplies, marshmallow sticks, games, sun screen, bait, walking sticks, t-shirts, mugs and water bottles and bottled water. Also increasingly popular is the 24/7 available firewood vending.
The last couple of years the park has seen record years in attendance and revenue, welcoming more than 42,000 visitors annually. With that said, the park rangers strive to make everything welcoming and accessible for everybody visiting. Most activities therefore are accessible to all ages making them family and children friendly.
The camp has added several new geo-caching sites for those interested in combining modern technology with nature hikes. And for those who simply cannot do without, there are now three locations where open access Wifi is available.
In addition to campsites for tents and RVs, the park also has screened shelters, group facilities, group cabins and primitive camp sites. Several new camp sites have been created at the northwest side of the lake, and some of the cabins have been converted with air conditioning and heat and bunk beds – making them usable year-round.
Other cabins have received removable screens to shelter from possible wind and weather. The signs and interpretative panels have been upgraded or replaced. An Eagle Scout project brought a “grab a book, leave a book” library to the park.
Besides improving the camp facilities, the MSP is expanding its ranger team’s knowledge – each staff member is now certified to teach a specific interest – and its educational events.
The park also continues to expand its partnerships with other educational facilities like the Texas Aquatic Sciences, Texas Stream Team, Texas naturalists and the Texas Ornithology program. For example, during recent Spring Breaks, Texas Master Naturalist Aaron offered bird walks, and park rangers offered programs about things like fishing and aquatic science, spring birds, flowers, or the CCC history.
Bird-watching is excellent and there is a good chance of seeing the rare and endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Thanks to a grant, the park added a bird blind to the facilities where Golden Cheeked Warblers rank among many unique species common in the area.
Offering a somewhat unique opportunity, Meridian State Park offers different habitats and breeds within a relatively small area.
The park also partnered with Connected Texas in providing distance learning programs for schools that cannot make it out to the park. In October, the park offered a “Leave no Trace” program about stewardship of the natural resources and outdoor ethics. The programs for second, third and fifth graders, complete with worksheets are aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements.
Other popular activities include camping, picnicking and bicycling on park roads. The Bosque Hiking Trail encircles Lake Meridian and features limestone outcroppings with fossils, a scenic overlook and aquatic vegetation.
Other state parks in the Heart of Texas region include Cleburne State Park, Dinosaur Valley State Park, Lake Whitney State Park and Mother Neff State Park.
During this COVID-19 time when outdoor recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing, biking, jogging, walking, hiking, wildlife viewing and the like represent essential activities for Texas citizens more than ever before, the state parks offers an opportunity for some stress relief. TPWD vows to continue to do its part to actively encourage and promote these opportunities in ways that are safe and close to home.
“As we navigate through these challenging times, it is essential that outdoor experiences and opportunities are available for Texas families,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director Carter Smith said. “We have been diligently working with our partners in local communities across the state to help safeguard our state park visitors, volunteers and staff when they return to Texas State Parks."
With parks filling up early every weekend, officials strongly encourage making day pass and camping reservations before visiting by calling (512) 389-8900. For additional information, find Meridian State Park on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/MeridianStateParkTX/ or visit the website at: https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/meridian.
Things to know before visiting Meridian State Park during these COVID-19 pandemic times include: 1) Face coverings are required inside state buildings, including restrooms; 2) We are not accepting cash or checks, credit cards only; 3) No groups of over 10 people are allowed, except for families or people living in the same household; 4) Maintain at least a six-foot distance from people not in your group; 5) Most park headquarters, visitor centers and stores are open; 6) We are not renting or loaning equipment; 7) In-person events will have limited capacity; 8) Park hours may be adjusted - be sure to check park hours before you visit. Contact the park for the gate code during regular hours if you will be arriving after hours to camp; 9) Check travel restrictions before you go.
So for those of you tired of looking at walls and computer screens, take advantage of the opportunity to embrace one of the Lone Star State’s natural resources – the great outdoors. But you better plan ahead.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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