A log cabin at Stephen F. Austin State Park
In the same "neck of the woods" where in 1823 Stephen F. Austin put down roots of the first Anglo-American colony in what was then Mexican soil, today's Texans find a verdant, wooded refuge in which to pursue a variety of recreational pursuits and see one of the state's most significant historic sites.
Stephen F. Austin State Park and its sister San Felipe State Historic Site occupy 664 acres of blackland prairie woodlands and Brazos River bottomlands about 40 miles west of Houston just three miles north of Interstate 10 in San Felipe. Exiting the freeway and heading north on FM 1458, park-bound motorists will traverse roughly the same route taken by Austin's first 297 families who colonized the area almost 200 years ago under a Mexican land grant. Just a couple of miles shy of the Brazos River, where a park road meets the highway, signs point one way to the state park's 647 acres of recreational facilities and another way to the 17-acre site encompassing the early 19th century townsite.
It was here in the "Cradle of Texas Liberty" that Austin, who is known as the Father of Texas, built his first log cabin and established the seat of government of the first Anglo-American settlement on a bluff overlooking a busy Brazos River ferry crossing on the Atascosito Trail. The town hosted the Conventions of 1832 and 1833, and the Consultation of 1835 that led to the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department archeologists in 1995 discovered numerous artifacts from the colonial town's plaza in a four-acre historical section of the park, supporting the area's earlier designation as an official State Archeological Landmark.
Today's visitors to the historic site will find scant reminders of San Felipe's glory days when by 1835 the town boasted more than 600 residents and enjoyed a bustling Commerce Square that included a town hall, hotel, dining room, stables, residence and water well. Only the water well, restored in 1928, remains of the original 1830s structures. Nonetheless, it's worth the visit.
Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, guided history tours lead visitors to the mostly undeveloped historic site to see the bronze statue of a seated Stephen F. Austin, a commemorative model of his dogtrot-style log cabin, several monuments and the J. J. Josey General Store. The store, an 1847 white frame structure that was moved to the present site in 1970, is operated as a museum by the local historical society. The store was the last commercial building built in San Felipe, which was rebuilt after Sam Houston ordered it burned in 1836 to keep the town out of the hands of the advancing Mexican Army. Early-day San Felipe earned a number of "firsts" in Texas history, including the first English-language newspaper, first home of the Texas postal system and beginning of the Texas Rangers.
While the San Felipe historic site preserves part of our state's heritage, the state park itself serves as an important natural history preserve and readily accessible public place to relax and enjoy a host of recreational pursuits. The Austin County parkland along the Brazos River was turned over to the state for development as a state park in 1940. A number of park visitors come to play the beautiful, forested 18-hole golf course that sees some 30,000 rounds played a year. Green fees are $18.58 weekdays and $27.24 weekends. Call (979) 885-2811 for tee times.
Naturalists and birdwatchers will find abundant wildlife to enjoy amid the more than 600 acres of oak-hickory-pecan woodlands, wetlands and tall grass prairies found within the heavily wooded park. More than 200 bird species have been documented there, sharing the upland forests and river bottoms with white-tailed deer, armadillos, squirrels, foxes, raccoons, opossums and the occasional coyote and bobcat. Anglers can try their luck from the banks along the Brazos River, whose languid water flows along the edge of the park like liquefied chocolate.
A system of five miles of hiking trails crisscross small creeks and wind along the riverbanks, cutting through the dense forest undercover and skirting the river. A quarter-mile nature trail provides a good overview of the diverse flora that range from water-loving plant species like palmetto and water hickory found in the park's swampy areas to cedar elm, hackberry and American elm found in the higher and drier areas of the park.
The park benefits, too, from wide expanses of shaded open grassy areas that prove popular with picnickers and campers alike. Scouts and other groups can choose to gather at one of several group facilities, including an air-conditioned dining hall available for day use ($125), a group picnic pavilion ($30) and screened recreation hall that can be rented overnight ($110). Overnight camping facilities include 38 pull-through sites with full hookups designed for trailers, 38 water-only campsites popular with tent campers, 2 campsites with electric and water hook-ups, and 20 screened shelters tucked beneath towering pecan and other hardwoods. Facility prices range from $12 to $25 a night.
Park traffic, which is close to 200,000 visits annually, picks up about mid-September and remains high throughout all but the summer months, according to park manager Alan Stilley. He recommends making weekend reservations for campsites well in advance to ensure availability. Many visitors, the majority from the Houston area, are families who have been coming to Stephen F. Austin for generations.
"They like the friendly staff and good service," Stilley said. "Unlike lake parks that tend to have more hustle and bustle, our park draws people because they like the quiet and it's a good getaway for the weekend not far from home. They can get out and hike, ride their bikes and it's safe for the kids."
Other recreational facilities include a playground with swing sets, a basketball court and an orienteering course for those trying to learn how to use a compass. Those looking to take home a souvenir can browse the well-stocked State Park Store found at park headquarters.
Stephen F. Austin State Park is one of more than 100 state parks that make up the Texas State Park System. The park is located three miles north of I-10 in San Felipe east of Sealy in Austin County. For more information about the park, call (979) 885-3613. To learn about all of the Texas state parks, call (800) 792-1112, or log onto the Texas Parks and Wildlife Web site: www.tpwd.state.tx.us
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