A lone eagle drifts up high in lazy circles, searching the massive expanse of water below for fish; a heron lifts on slow sliver wings. Gentle breezes nick the surface, shimmering pinpoints of light across the mirrored lake. Sparkling with the muted luster of good pearls, 11,000 acres of water sprawls in the late afternoon sun. At dusk, from somewhere within the swaying grasses, comes the too-human call of a whippoorwill. This is Lake Somerville State Park, and it’s all about water. Sustained by three main creeks, the dam is located on Yegua Creek, 20 miles upstream of where it joins the Brazos River, about two miles south of the town of Somerville. The lake itself spills into three counties (Burleson, Washington, and Lee). With 85 miles of shoreline, this might as well be the Pacific Coast!
Located about 10 miles west of Brenham, the park is conveniently half-way between Austin and Houston but getting there can be a little tricky. You see, four units make up Somerville State Park. Most of the facilities are found in the first two. The Birch Creek Unit is on the north side of the lake, while the Nails Creek Unit is on the southwest side. The remaining parts comprise a 13-mile connecting Lake Somerville Trailway, and Somerville Public Hunting Land, also on the lake. So, it depends on where you want to go and where you start. Find the Nails Creek Unit just off State Highway 77, near Lexington in Burleson County. The Birch Creek Unit is off Texas 36 traveling south out of Caldwell, in Lee County. You can get to both units from Bastrop via Texas 21 East.
Big water like this pulls on the heartstrings of boating and water recreation enthusiasts, fishermen, swimmers, and all forms of aquatic creatures. Both Nails Creek and Birch Creek have boat ramps, there is a fishing jetty at Birch Creek, and you can open up your 100 hp speedboat full throttle without constraint! Almost any kind of motorized watercraft is free to enjoy the lake, as well as canoes, kayaks, or other floatables. Like all state parks with water features, you don’t need a fishing license to fish from the shore; however, licenses are required when fishing from a boat. Anglers regularly pull out white bass, crappie and catfish. The Nails Creek unit sports a large group pavilion overlooking the water, ideal for group boaters, families, and Texas-sized barbeques. Water, water. . .everywhere.
Not so in-your-face obvious is the allure you can feel here for another category of outdoor disciple. A short look around Nails Creek unit makes it clear that horse people are very welcome. Most folks without horses never give it a second thought but if you own a horse, beautiful places to ride can be both difficult to find and expensive. If you own a horse and don’t already know about Somerville State Park, you’re in for a treat! Horses are welcomed on the 13-mile long Trailway (26-miles including the side trails/loops) and most trails at Nails Creek. Overnight accommodations at Nails Creek are primo, with water, electricity, showers, restroom, and private corral facilities right next to your campsite. For the Western trail rider, it doesn’t get much better than that!
Okay, so you’re not a boat jockey, not a fisherman, neither a horseman nor the head of a 14-person household; why would you want to come here? Well, hikers and bikers, listen up. There are more than 40 total miles of hiking trails within the park, most of which are open to mountain bikes. Given the developed camping facilities at both Nails Creek and Birch Creek units, and, given there are primitive campsites sprinkled along the connecting Lake Somerville Trailway, you will have no trouble creating a memorable trekking challenge of whatever degree of complexity turns your crank. The Lake Somerville Trailway was designed to let people explore the shoreline by connecting the Birch Creek and Nails Creek units around the west end of the lake. There are 20 primitive campsites peppered along the route, all with fire pits, some with chemical toilets, and with non-potable water for horses at Newman Bottom and Wolf Pond. Overnighting along the trailway is for those rugged souls who bring their own drinking water and pack out their own trash. If you’re on horseback, a day traveling through scenic overlooks, water crossings, and wooded rolling hills can only be surpassed by spending a night out under the stars, and watching the bony fingers of bare tree branches reach up to lay hands on a full moon.
The Somerville Trailway also provides access to a special place, known as Flag Pond. The area was originally developed by a private hunting club but now serves as natural habitat for all sorts of critters. This should be a primary destination for birders, wildlife photographers, and those who value wilderness settings (a 4-mile hike from Nails Creek, 9 miles from Birch Creek). It sports a 350-acre pond in a natural depression fed by the Yegua Creek watershed and serves as wetland habitat for waterfowl in the winter. It’s also used for various school educational programs and offers its own system of trails, outdoor classrooms and the Flag Pond Nature Theater, which surrounds the pond.
Lake Somerville State Park has the usual east-central Texas fare when it comes to animals, to include the occasional snake on a trail. The area has foxes, coyotes, white-tails, coons, rabbits, and quail. Evening birding opportunities include chuck-wills-widow and the eastern whippoorwill. Because of the amount of water, there are some rarer inhabitants you might not easily find at other state parks with smaller bodies of water. These include alligators, river otters, wood storks, brown pelicans, loons, eagles, and kites. It’s definitely a step up from the typical milk- toast urban greenbelt experience.
Unlike many other state parks in Texas, there’s no evidence of Civilian Conservation Corps influence here. No old pumphouses, no refectories, no stonework. That’s because the park was first opened to the public in 1970. It was, of course, all made possible by the establishment of Lake Somerville. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground in 1962 and began filling the lake six years later. It was not until 1969 that TPWD leased the complex from the federal government and opened the lake to the public for the first time. The two agencies work hand-in-glove, as TPWD also manages the Somerville Public Hunting Land under a license agreement in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This mutually beneficial arrangement provides multi-purpose recreation for the state of Texas, as well as flood control and water supply needs for area residents. A win-win for everybody!
It could be a rousing game of horseshoes or volleyball on the swimming beach; it could be a leisurely trail ride over rolling terrain through post oaks and hickory trees; it could be hiking, camping, birding or just getting away to the wilderness. Aside from the understandable lure of the near limitless water for fishing and boating opportunities, Lake Somerville State Park has something to satisfy just about anyone who loves the outdoors. Next time you’re looking for a new place to go, give it a try!
By Larry Gfeller