Nestled on the banks of the Brazos River, Stephen F. Austin State Park is an easy drive from Houston. This beautiful 663-acre park offers visitors a variety of camping options and 6 miles of hiking and biking trails. As a Texas State Parks Pass holder, I visit this park as often as I can throughout the year.
Any visitor to the park should set aside some time to visit the nearby Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site — the birthplace of Texas. It was at this location in 1836 that representatives of Texas settlements met to make a formal Declaration of Independence from Mexico and where the government of the Republic of Texas was created.
As someone who enjoys mountain biking, the trails at Stephen F. Austin State Park are among my favorite. Although there are only 6 miles of trails at the park, these single track trails are a lot of fun to ride. They are perfect for beginner and intermediate level riders. I generally try to do at least two loops on these winding trails.
One of the things I enjoy most is the opportunity to see wildlife along the trails. There is no shortage of whitetail deer, rabbits, armadillos, barred owls, and a variety of birds. The Brazos Bottom Trail leads to and follows the bluff along the banks of the wide and slow-moving Brazos, the longest river in the Lone Star State. There are a couple of spurs along this trail where you can park your bike and hike down to the river.
Although these trails are fun to ride, I do have to remind myself to slow down and stop occasionally to enjoy the scenic overlooks along the banks of the Brazos or to just listen to the sounds of nature. There is something unquestionably therapeutic about spending time outdoors. The trails at Stephen F. Austin State Park are visitor friendly and just what the doctor ordered for anyone needing to relieve a little stress.
So, whether you enjoy mountain biking, trail running, or just a slow walk through the woods, I encourage you to check out the trails at the park. The park office will provide you with a good and easy-to-read trail map. Honestly, you would have to work really hard to get lost at this park. But I do guarantee that you will get lost in thought as you wander the shaded trails at Stephen F. Austin State Park.
One final note. Remember to stay hydrated as you enjoy the trails at the park. Always carry a water bottle or hydration pack and, if you plan to be out long, a few nutrition bars.
Something good happens when you combine book learning with field trips — somehow the things and events that happened in a particular place seem to make more sense. I am a firm believer that being onsite can help folks to gain greater insight. Being in the geographical context of history’s happenings stirs the imagination, stimulates brain activity, promotes conversation, and inspires wonder.
Last week, my friend Brad Flurry and his sons Hunter and Drew joined me for a Texas History road trip. Since we only had a few hours before the boys had to be at football practice, I planned a route to two locations along the Brazos River — San Felipe de Austin and Washington-on-the-Brazos. San Felipe is regarded as the “Cradle of Texas Liberty” and Washington-on-the-Brazos is the place where Texas became Texas.
Before visiting San Felipe, we drove to a spot where the boys could walk down to the Brazos River. This was the perfect setting for talking about the Lone Star State’s longest river, including how it got its name and the role it played in promoting commerce in the early days of Texas. And, of course, it was also a good spot for chucking a few rocks into the river.
San Felipe was the unofficial capital of the colony that Stephen F. Austin founded at this site in 1823. Today, the folks at the San Felipe State Historic Site, a Texas Historical Commission property, guide visitors in understanding the significance of the many historical events that occurred in this community. The site features a hand-dug water well from the period, a museum, and a replica of an old cabin with toys and games from the period.
From San Felipe we drove an hour north to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. This is the place where Texas became Texas. In March of 1836, while the Alamo was under siege by Santa Anna’s army, 59 representatives of the Texas settlements met in an unfinished frame building at Washington to make a formal declaration of independence from Mexico. A replica of this building, known as Independence Hall, marks the place where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed.
From Independence Hall we hiked to a scenic overlook of the Brazos River and talked about the Runaway Scrape of 1836. As Santa Anna’s armies swept eastward from San Antonio, panic set in among the settlements of Texas. Colonists gathered personal possessions, abandoned their properties and headed eastward under difficult conditions. Settlers often waited days to cross the Brazos at Washington. After the Texas victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, settlers slowly returned to their homes.
To stand at the very spot where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed or where something like the Runaway Scrape occurred does indeed stir the imagination. And, that’s a good thing! It’s far to easy for us to live disconnected from the past, unaware of how and why we are the beneficiaries of the courage and the sacrifices of those who came before us. The best antidote to that is to personally visit the places that shaped our history.
There are no shortages of affordable day trips from wherever you live in Texas that can help you and your kids gain a greater appreciation for the history of the Lone Star State. I hope you’ll hit the road soon and embark on a Texas history road trip.
The Brazos is the longest river in the Lone Start State and one rich in history. The name of this 840-mile long waterway comes from the Spanish word for “arms.” Early Spanish explorers named this wide and slow-moving river Rio de Los Brazos de Dios — translated “The Arms of God River.”
There are several legends about how the Brazos got its name. However, the common denominator among these stories is that thirsty explorers happened upon the river in the nick of time and were refreshed by its waters. These intrepid souls felt as though they had stumbled into the arms of God and were saved!
San Felipe de Austin, founded in 1824 by Stephen F. Austin, was the first permanent settlement along the Brazos River. Located on a high and easily defensible bluff near the Brazos River, San Felipe became the unofficial capital of Austin’s colony. The town was later incorporated in 1837 and became the county seat of the newly established Austin County.
The nearby town of Washington, also known as Washington-on-the-Brazos, is recognized as the birthplace of Texas. It’s where Texas became Texas. On March 2, 1836, fifty-nine delegates met at Washington to make a formal declaration of independence from Mexico and birthed the Republic of Texas. Today, visitors to the Washington-on-the Brazos State Historic Site can walk through Independence Hall, the simple frame building where the fate of Texas was determined.
In the early years of Texas, the Brazos River was navigable from the Gulf all the way to Washington. Today, canoeists and kayakers enjoy paddling the slow flat waters of the historic Brazos River. Over the past few years I have enjoyed paddling on the Brazos as well as just relaxing on its banks as it flows past Stephen F. Austin and Brazos Bend State Parks. These parks afford bikers and hikers some exceptional views of the Brazos.
The next time you drive across Texas and cross over the Brazos, take a moment to reflect on the long and rich history of the longest waterway in the Lone Star State. If you have time, visit one of the parks near the river and bike or hike the trails that overlook this magnificent waterway. And be sure to slow down and make time to relax, reflect, and enjoy the quiet when you visit the Brazos. Enjoy the embrace of Los Brazos de Dios.