Lone Star Legacy Weekend comes around annually during one of the most beautiful times of the year, and with a beautiful bonus: free parking and no admission fee to state parks and historic sites.
The free weekend -- this year Oct. 19-20 -- was launched in 1998, as a way to entice Texans to explore the 120 state-maintained facilities. Each year parks around the state hold special events from fishing tournaments to concerts to make guests' visits more memorable. While entrance fees are waived, most other fees still apply.
The Parks and Wildlife Foundation of Texas will be accepting donations at the parks for an endowment fund to raise enough money to provide the parks with additional income for operating expenses. The campaign has already raised more than $9 million. During the weekend, Toyota is underwriting the admission fees that the Parks Department would otherwise be losing.
Central Texas is blessed with 26 state parks, historic sites, and wildlife management areas within an easy day's drive. Here are some of my favorites:
McKinney Falls State Park on the southeastern edge of Austin is a jewel that few Austinites seem to know about. For years the water of Onion Creek was too polluted for swimming, but it has been cleaned up. The pool under the waterfall is nearly surrounded by sandy beaches that make this a favorite swimming hole. In 1839, Thomas McKinney, one of Stephen F. Austin's original 300 colonists, built his horse ranch at the site. The remains of his homestead are still in the park. The five miles of trails are generally easy enough for beginning bikers.
Bastrop/Buescher State Parks is a great place to take a scenic Sunday drive on the 14 miles of park roads. The towering longleaf pine trees create an environment that one might expect in East Texas, rather than 30 miles east of Austin. This is one of the oldest state parks, and during the Depression, companies of the Civilian Conservation Corps built many of the park facilities that we enjoy today.
If you can get a reservation in one of the CCC-built cabins, you're in for a real treat. Reservations are usually filled for weekends a year in advance, but there are often weekdays available. It is possible to get lost hiking the 8.5 miles of trails.
Pedernales Falls State Park just might be the heart of the outdoors in Central Texas. The Pedernales River cascades over a series of stair steps, producing rapids and pools that are inviting during the summer heat. If the weather isn't conducive to swimming, then it is probably just right to hit the 20 miles of hiking and biking trails.
For bird watchers and wildlife photographers, this park is a wonderland. The park is also habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and the rare black-capped vireo.
Lyndon B. Johnson State Historical Park is the place to take children to see animals. At the park's Sauer-Beckman Living History Farm, a working history museum re-creating farm life around 1915, there is everything from dairy cows to buffalo. This is also the starting point for the National Park Service's bus tours of the Johnson Ranch on the opposite side of the river.
Other state parks in the Austin area to check out, if you haven't already, are:
Inks Lake State Park and the adjoining Longhorn Caverns State Park are a wonderful one-two punch for a full weekend. Inks Lake is a great canoeing and swimming lake, plus it has its own golf course.
Blanco State Park in Blanco is a great fishing and swimming park right in town. Pack a picnic and feed the ducks while enjoying the peaceful scenery.
Lockhart State Park is a quiet retreat just south of the barbecue capital of Texas of the same name. The small park on a creek has a nine-hole golf course and a rodeo arena.
Enchanted Rock State Park is the crown jewel of the tiara that is Central Texas parks. The Indians consider the bald mountain sacred, and so should we. The popular park often reaches capacity on weekend mornings, and camping reservations can sometimes be hard to get, but they're worth it.
593rd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.