Back Roads Nature–South Llano River State Park

The proud Texas rancher quietly reminisced as he sat back and watched cloud shadows passing over the bushy hills, leaving dark bruises on the green slopes before him. Through hard work and persistence he’d found good fortune in Kimble County. Walter Buck Jr. didn’t invent air conditioned tractors or create the first automated stock gate . . . but he left his mark nonetheless. Having survived the terrible draught of the 1950’s, he appreciated the value of the Llano River chuckling through his land as it rolled vast and silent under the sky.  With river frontage and bottom land studded with pecan trees, his homestead provided sanctuary to white-tail deer and represented one of the most substantial and oldest winter turkey roost areas in Central Texas.

Walter Buck Jr. moved with his family to this area in 1910 and took over management of the ranch after his father’s death. A bachelor all this life, Walter relished the pecan trees and loved his land.  He not only enjoyed native pecans but cultivated his own.  One year his land produced 75,000 lbs. of pecans! He knew he had something special. What better way to preserve this treasure than donate his 600-acre property to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department . . . a charity which calls all naturalists brother.

Today South Llano River State Park comprises 2,600 acres, after the Wildlife Management Area named after Buck was added. The park is located outside of Junction, Texas (a tad over an hour’s drive from Fredericksburg).  It was opened to the public in 1990, one of the newer parks in the TPWD system.  As you move west from the Hill Country, state parks become scarce. Like a Pony Express way station, this one provides a final refreshment before launching into the hot arid Texas desert.

Entering the park, it’s easy to believe you made a wrong turn onto private property. There’s no fanfare; just a simple sign and large open gate, backlit by the brilliant sun.  The leggy road curves and sweeps, passing the Llano River at a low-water crossing popular with dogs and families playing in the shallow current.  The route seems endless.  Continuing, you eventually round a corner where a picture book view of lowlands bordered by a verdant tree line unfolds before you.  A driveway beckons to an old ranch house, shaded by giant oak trees.  You have arrived at Walter Buck’s family home—you have arrived at park headquarters!

The campgrounds and day area are yet another quarter mile down the road, tucked into the wilderness which connects to the backcountry, bottom lands and more than 23 miles of hiking trails. The river is close by too. Several miles of old ranch roads give access to the former wildlife management area for mountain bikers, hikers and primitive campers.  One short, steep hike leads to a scenic overlook.

The lush bottom lands not only offer lazy, comfortable walking paths and numerous bankside fishing spots but they also celebrate diversity. In addition to the ubiquitous pecan trees, you can stroll in the cool shade of chinquapin oaks and massive cedar elms.  The backcountry is more scrubby and open with Texas persimmon and Spanish daggers.  The trees thin out as you reach the higher areas.  Here, in addition to hardwoods, ashe juniper become more prevalent in the rockier soil.

The park is a major refuge for birds and there are four observation blinds to allow photographers and birders to do their thing. Home to wood ducks, painted buntings, various kingfishers, golden-cheeked warblers and many other “arid-land species,” birders have a paradise within the park.  One of the observation blinds opens into the large wild turkey roost area. Aside from the diversity of birds, the park presents two other special features that attract the public.

The most popular attraction is the South Llano River itself, especially in summer. People love to splash in the cool waters and ride the current. The river provides visitors a refreshing float through a lush river bottom, complete with gentle banks, frequent entry and takeout points and ancient trees towering overhead. The river gives life to all who live and play here. You can rent canoes, kayaks or tubes directly from the park, or from shuttle services operating out of Junction.

The second distinguishing feature of the park is the silent beauty of stars everywhere in the broad, deep night. The park is one of only three Texas parks chosen by the International Dark Sky Association as a Dark Sky Park.  It carries a Bortle Scale reading of 3. The Bortle Scale rates how well you can see stars and other celestial objects, taking into account light pollution and sky glow.  Lower numbers mean darker skies. To put this into context, Big Bend Ranch State Park has a Bortle Scale rating of 1, while Cedar Hill State Park, near Dallas, has a Bortle rating of 8.  The park hosts frequent star parties, maintains perpetual star maps and real-time dark sky monitoring on its website to help people understand the night sky.  Star gazers are a lesson unto themselves:  nature observing nature!

Wildlife abounds here. You can find common Texas residents all around—such as deer, armadillos, bobcats, javelinas, beavers and others. You might even run across some imported exotic axis deer, black buck antelope or fallow deer. Then there are regional regulars:  ringtails, gray foxes and common porcupines.  But it doesn’t take long to realize the guest of honor here is the Rio Grande Wild Turkey. The Edwards Plateau is the historical geographic center for this sub-species of wild turkey.  Although they don’t migrate, they do have distinctly different roosting sites; one for summer, one for winter.

In the fall and win­ter, many turkeys gather at the park and make their way into the pecan forest. In the evening, they fly high up into the tree branches and sleep there for safety. They prefer to roost in open understory, which is why they often roost in the large trees over the water. They have no problem sharing their roost trees with other species, like black vultures and crows.

From Oct. 1 through March 31, the turkey roost area is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. This allows plenty of time in the morning for the turkeys to leave the roost to look for food in the surrounding area, and time for them to return in the afternoon. Outside of the restricted roosting months, people are free to walk or mountain bike through the open woodland, along the riverbank, and by two small oxbow lakes where fishermen can try their luck.

Outside the park, the nearby town of Junction is named for the convergence of the north and south forks of the Llano River. As tributaries of the Colorado River, each fork is stream-fed, originates in west Texas and, after merging, flows into Lake LBJ and the Highland Lakes some 100 miles downstream. The river is well-known for its excellent fishing and is the home of the state fish of Texas, the Guadalupe Bass.  In all the years of draught in Texas, the Llano River has never run dry—ever!

Southeast of Junction you can visit Native American Seed Company, a famous family-run source of native Texas wildflower and grass seed. Known for ecologically friendly farming methods and advocacy, every naturalist should pay this place a visit. At first glance it appears to be an ordinary farm complete with gravel roads, granaries and lop-eared dogs. Spend a little time with these folks and you quickly see the professionalism—and how much they love the land.  Native American Seed Company was one of the providers who helped heal the Bastrop area after the Bastrop County Complex Fires. Visitors are welcome, everyone is country-friendly and you’ll be heartened to see the focus on everything native at this very successful business.

On the western edge of the Texas Hill Country, South Llano River State Park offers the ultimate getaway. If you are one of those people who come alive outdoors, who seeks relief from cities and large crowds, then you’ll be at home here. If you are someone who can see the divinity in all natural things, who can be alone in the woods without being lonely, who feels a presence in the wilderness, as a part of that wilderness . . . then you are a lot like Walter Buck.  He loved his land so fully that sharing its wonder with everyone was his way of closing the circle, making that all-important connection. When you next find yourself in awe of the eternal show that is Great Nature, take a cue from Mr. Buck . . . and pass it on.

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