Lazing beside a river shaded by towering cottonwoods, the afternoon sun filters through to the grass below. There’s a noisy picnic in progress, laced with the smell of fried chicken and blueberry pies while busy mothers set out the spread. Kids swim and splash along the shoals and fathers nurse cane poles from the bank—the sun winking at them from the water. Families camp here overnight to extend the experience and savor the peace of the countryside beneath glittering stars and red summer moons. Sound as good to you as it does to me? These were some of the pleasures in rural Texas in times of old. Before we had social media feeds and text messaging, people found joy in spending time together.
In the mid-1800’s, Noah and Isabella Neff ran 900 acres near the Leon River in what is now Coryell County, Texas. Isabel openly encouraged friends and neighbors to gather along the river. These events sometimes blossomed into church meetings, family reunions and even political rallies. The Neffs were respected within their community for friendliness and generosity; Isabel was endearingly referred to as “Mother Neff.” Mother Neff and her family always refused payment for use of their special place. Her selflessness and good heartedness left a lasting impact on others; Mother Neff died in 1921 and she donated six acres of her prime riverbank to the State of Texas for eventual use as a park.
There were no Texas state parks in 1921 but Isabel made her wishes clear—this beautiful place was to be enjoyed by families well into the future, just as it had been during her lifetime. When her son inherited the land, he named it in honor of his mother. Pat Neff developed the small Neff Memorial Park setting out campgrounds, picnic spots and walking trails with an eye toward later making it into a state park. He was especially well suited to make his mother’s wish come true. You see, Pat Neff was Texas governor when the state park system was created, next served as president of Baylor University, and, later, was a sitting member of the State Parks Board. All told, he donated a total of 250 acres to Texas in 1934. His neighbor, one Frank Smith, added another 3.5 acres. Mother Neff State Park was officially born in 1937.
There’s a myth about Mother Neff being the first state park of Texas. It’s not true, but a good story doesn’t die easily—a number of websites and travel companies today still claim the park as our state’s first. The state park website itself dispels this claim. “Contrary to popular belief, Mother Neff was not the first park; Texas had others at the time of Mother Neff’s development,” it says.
As Texas state parks go, Mother Neff is not flashy. To fully enjoy its charms, it helps if you can—even for one day—adopt the “simplicity” that early Texans practiced. You can find immeasurable peace in a windswept prairie dancing with wildflowers or the refreshment of a gentle breeze from a tree-lined riverbank. There’s no lake, no screaming motor boats, no crowded concessions, no tangled knot of hiking trails—it’s just a pleasant sanctuary for people looking to get outdoors. Located west of Waco, Mother Neff State Park is only 259 acres. As you cruise along Interstate 35, take exit 315. . . it’s a day trip for many central Texans.
Still, like all state parks, it does have its unique attractions. The park is laid out as a thin triangle which traverses the landscape, offering up a variety of terrain and plant life often not found in parks several times its size. Three distinct geographic zones can be found within this triangle: bottomland of the Leon River floodplain; limestone escarpment and canyons; and part of the Washita Prairie. The camping community is well provided for here. There’s recently renovated overnight campsites, picnic tables and a nice playground for the kiddos.
There are 3.5 miles of easy hiking trails, although parts around the canyon areas can be steep, rocky and precarious. Canyon, Bluff Loop, Cedar and Live Oak trails all interconnect, offering the feel of a longer trail system. Because of close borders, the trail does, at times, pass close to roads, diffusing any sense of a wilderness experience. Hidden along the trail you will find a natural “wash pond.” This is a well-worn and unusual stone depression, fed by water runoff and a small spring which can be seen bubbling up after rains. It attracts wildlife and birds; it also provides a comfortable rest and observation area for hikers.
Another natural attraction is the “Tonkawa Cave,” which carries a rather hazy history. Actually, it’s really more like a rock overhang, thought to have been used as shelter. We know the Leon River area was populated by indigenous people for thousands of years. The Clovis people lived near here about 9,800 years ago and Spanish explorers spoke of meeting the Tonkawa in this area in the 1500’s. Later, settlers in the early 1800s also wrote about the Tonkawa living along the river, although there’s no proof of any Tonkawa ever having used the cave. While the CCC worked the park in the 1930’s, the remains of three Indian graves were discovered. Two were reburied in a nearby cemetery and the third was reinterred under this rock overhang and marked by a plaque. Someone removed the plaque in 1969—or so the story goes—and it never was replaced.
There’s a couple of man-made surprises along the trail too. The park was constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Company 817 between 1934 and 1938. One of their whimsical creations was a massive rock table, apparently intended as part of a secluded picnic spot in the woods. But the signature structure in the park is known simply as the “Rock Tower.” It’s a major destination along the route, conveniently placed near a very active bird blind. The practical function of the structure was to serve as the park’s water reservoir. The spiral staircase adds a high vantage point to take in a panoramic view the park. The men of company 817 put in park roads, a recreation hall, a concession hall and the distinctive water tower. Other park structures were added later.
The Leon River had a reputation for heavy seasonal flooding. CCC park planners built the riverside campground on the highest nearby ground they could find, placed the recreation hall on a built up man-made mound and terraced much of the floodplain. Despite these mitigation efforts, occasional flooding continued. Later, rising water related to unanticipated construction of nearby Lake Belton in 1954 threatened and inundated facilities in the lower stretches of the park—that’s the “historic” part containing most CCC structures. Flooding has closed the park numerous times over the decades. In response, a new park headquarters and visitor center was built above the floodplain in January 2015. It contains an interactive display showing the history of the CCC developing 29 state parks across Texas. The modern camping loop (mentioned above) with full facilities was also added in 2015. Just know that the closest ice is 40 miles away in Moody. For serious shopping, it will take Gatesville to satisfy your needs.
There’s one more easily overlooked treasure which completes the story of early life along the river. You find it just outside the west entrance. Winding out in front of you like a film running backwards in slow motion is a 6-mile roadway built in 1939 with federal funds, known as Oglesby Neff Park Road. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, the road follows the Leon River for much of its length from the west entrance of the park to Farm to Market Road 107. Majestic old growth trees, nurtured by the river, drape over the road blotting out the blue sky above. Secluded farm houses, sprinkled along the way, complete the pastoral scene. It seems a road time has forgotten.
As you walk along you can almost hear the echoes of those who frolicked along this old river in years gone by—an escape from the hardships and worn routines that dictated most of their days. It means those who come today to Mother Neff State Park with humble hearts will be rewarded. Daytrippers can enjoy an unforgettable picnic, a liesurely walk in nature or a restful day of quiet contemplation among the wildflowers. Those who come to spend a few nights, will be embraced by a dream world of summer fireflies, dazzling silver stars above and silence so deep you can hear your own blood circulating. Either way, this is a contemplative place—not attractive to crowds or those seeking “entertainment.” It’s kind of a warp in time, like a bubble in old glass.