Cleburne State Park
We arrived at Cleburne State Park a little after noon on the last Sunday of September 2023. The temperature was 102° as we rolled up to the state park's headquarters. After a minute, a ranger emerged from a side door, chewing on a mouthful of food.
"Did we catch you in the middle of lunch?" I asked with a smile.
"No, I was just finishing up," she said. "Do you have a park reservation?"
"What's the name?"
She went inside to look us up in her system and reappeared with a receipt for us to tape on the inside of our windshield.
"The burn ban has been lifted. So you can make a fire if you want," said the park ranger.
"That sounds good," I said, thinking about how hot it would be to stand by a fire.
She gave us a park and trail map and asked if we needed anything else.
"Thank you, ma'am. I think we have everything we need," I said.
"Okay, y'all enjoy your stay."
As we drove down Park Road 21 into the park, we passed the historic Camp Creek Bridge the CCC built over Camp Creek from 1935-1940 (per park literature). Even though another modern (but boring) bridge replaced it, they left the old one so visitors could admire the craftsmanship and study the architecture.
We drove down the winding park road to the North Creek camping area and backed into beautiful level site #38. Cedar Elm, Hackberry, and Juniper trees shaded our peaceful campsite.
Before doing anything else, we connected our RV to park power to crank up our air conditioner and chill down our little house on wheels. It was too hot to do anything else, so we spent the afternoon setting up camp while frequently retreating to the trailer for cool-down breaks.
Shortly after we set up camp, a rig similar to ours showed up and parked three campsites from us. The couple appeared to be about our age, maybe a bit older. They began unloading gear and setting up their camp in traditional RV camping style - camp chairs parked around a fire ring, table cloth on the picnic table, lantern hanging from the lantern pole, flags on a PVC flagpole, and a "Welcome" sign out front.
Later that afternoon, a fellow with a long grey beard showed up at the old folk's campsite. He drove an old rust-colored Chevy pickup with what appeared to be years of mail, receipts, and newspapers piled on the dash. All seemed quiet enough, but I kept an eye on the group - being the nosy camper I am.
We made tostadas for dinner - a favorite first-night meal we enjoy on RV trips because it is easy to make - and spent the evening planning Monday's outdoor activities.
Hiking the Spillway Trail
The next day, we woke before sunrise and prepared for hiking. It was supposed to be a hot day, and we knew if we didn't get an early start, there would be no hiking - or the hike would be miserable - or both.
On the drive to the Spillway Trail, I noticed that the bearded guy and his old pickup were gone. No surprise there. He probably had a 'day pass' and was there visiting friends.
We headed out on the Spillway Hiking Trail first since it was short and appeared a sunny hike compared to the somewhat shady White-tail Hollow Trail.
The rocky Spillway trail mostly paralleled the dry riverbed of Camp Creek. We ran into only two other hikers on the trail while there, but we were hiking on a Monday in September - not much trail traffic when the adults are at work and the kids are in school.
Scrub oaks and cedar trees lined one section of the Spillway Hiking Trail. The rest of the less-than-one-mile trail was sunny and warm. We always keep our eyes and ears open for birds, but there weren't many in the park - mostly House Sparrows and White-winged Doves. It was a little early for the fall bird migration back to Mexico and South America.
We read that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the impressive multi-level spillway by hand. It was hard to imagine the amount of human effort it took to construct the magnificent spillway. The spillway pools were dry, with only a few small puddles of stagnant water in the lowest levels.
We imagined what the spillway must look like on a wet year or after a monsoonal rainstorm. A front-row seat on the bank would be most entertaining.
White-tail Hollow Trail
The White-tail Hollow Trail, labeled in pink on the map and labeled with pink markers along the trail, meandered indiscriminately through the woods below the Cedar Lake dam. I found it impossible to match the pink squiggles on the trail map to where I was on the trail. But the trail covered such a small area that it would have been impossible to get permanently lost.
While hiking the trails, we saw an occasional squirrel and a couple of rabbits but not much other wildlife. The park's critters must retreat to a cool place during the day to avoid the 100+ temperatures.
One stretch of the trail was atop the dam itself. You could see most of the 116-acre lake from the top of the dam.
While hiking the trail, we almost ran into the web of this wicked spider that spread across our path. It is not uncommon to come across spiderwebs while hiking on wooded trails. We always try to walk around spiderwebs, but a walking stick takes care of the job if you can't.
When we returned to our campsite, the old folk's tow vehicle was gone, but their campsite was left as if they would return shortly - boxes of stuff on the picnic table, a roll of paper towels standing upright, chairs still guarding the fire ring. They probably went to town for groceries.
Before heading to bed, I made one last trip to the bathroom and noticed that the old couple still hadn't returned.
That night, a shower passed ahead of a cold front that was supposed to bring cooler temperatures. We woke the next day to find everything outside our trailer covered with rainwater.
The old couple hadn't returned. The roll of paper towels had blown over and was thoroughly saturated. Something is wrong. No one would leave their campsite like that if they knew they were not returning before dark. Strange.
I grabbed my spinning reel rig and tackle box and headed to the fishing pier. While walking down the ramp, I spotted some fishermen in a bass boat working a small cove between the pier and the east bank. That's promising, I thought. If someone fishing from a boat thought a cove you could easily access from the pier was good fishing, it would surely be my happy-go-lucky pier-fishing day. I tried all my usual topwater rigs, plugs, rattle traps, spinner bates, and worms, but no luck.
I had the pier to myself for about 30 minutes, and then a couple of fellows in a new white GMC pickup showed up. They proceeded down a short ramp to the floating fishing pier carrying three or four rods each and a couple of tackle boxes. The taller of the two gave me a nod. I nodded back without saying anything. They set up their operation at the end of the pier as if they had done it many times before. They avoided the area where I was fishing - fishing etiquette - it was good to see that some fishermen still acknowledged it.
"Are you guys staying in the park?" I asked, trying to make conversation.
"No, we are from Cleburne. This is one of our fishing holes. Where are you from?" said the tall fellow.
"My wife and I are from Round Rock on a 10-day camping trip to four state parks in this part of Texas."
Neither of the fellows responded. I figured they preferred to focus on fishing rather than waste time making idle conversation with someone they didn't know. I'm sure they were wondering how long I was planning to take up valuable fishing space on their pier.
I continued to fish my small cove while listening to fishing talk from the GMC boys. I hoped to hear what they were using for bait without directly asking, but I never heard.
"Did you see that?" said the tall man to the short man, pointing to one of his rods leaning against the railing.
"No," he said.
"I'm pretty sure that was a strike, old buddy!"
"I didn't see it," said the short man.
"That was where I caught that big crappie the other day," said the Bean Pole fellow.
The short guy acknowledged with an uninterested look and continued fishing with his three rods cast straight out from the end of the pier.
"My wife and I hiked the Spillway trail yesterday. It must be impressive to witness water flowing from one level of the spillway to the next," I said.
"That hadn't happened in more than a decade, maybe two or three," said the tall feller, "When the lake is full, you might see a trickle of water flowing over the spillway, but that's about it."
"You must not be a truck driver," I said.
"Why do you say that?" asked the tall guy. The short guy turned to hear my response.
"A truck driver would have told a story about the time he and some buddies rode tubes down the main shoot after a 15-inch rain," I said, smiling.
"I'm not a truck driver, but I'll try to make the story more interesting next time," he said with a big smile.
I fished for another 20 minutes without a bite and decided it was time for me to get back to camp and start packing for the next leg of our trip to Dinosaur Valley.
"Well, I'm going to leave it to you guys. I hope y'all catch some fish today," I said as I walked the plank to shore.
"Thanks, buddy. Have fun on your trip," said the tall man.
I gave a final wave and headed back to camp.
We stowed our gear, hitched the trailer to our truck, and left our campsite. The couple was still missing. I wondered what had happened. I entertained all kinds of scenarios, but none could be proven. I guessed we would never know what happened, if anything.
Despite the mysterious missing campers, we had a wonderful time at Cleburne State Park. We only hiked a fraction of the trails but vowed to do the rest when we return someday.