McKinney Roughs
Story by Ingrid Edisen and Hollis Wayne

Beaux Graham of The Happy Horse Hotel on his Tennessee Walker, Major leading Linda Ramirez on her Paint mare Gypsy on the Deep Sandy trail which runs along the Colorado River at McKinney Roughs.

The Lower Colorado River Authority asked for help and input from the horse people who use their wonderful McKinney Roughs Nature Park, between Bastrop and Austin off Hwy 71, and boy did they get it!   With only a week’s notice about a town meeting to discuss a comprehensive equestrian trail plan at park headquarters (at 7pm on August 26th) about 100 equestrians showed up, with and without our barn clothes and riding boots.   And they had plenty to say about what LCRA should do now that things are changing so rapidly at this gem of a horse and hiking park. 

For the past six years, trail riders have enjoyed coursing over some 18 miles of fabulous trails spread out over nearly 1900 acres of scenic wild land that is part of the Colorado River basin area, purchased by LCRA in the mid 1990s after housing development plans by another entity fell through.   And then, in April of 2004, LCRA completed the lengthy negotiations resulting in the sale of several hundred acres to the Woodbine Development Corporation of Dallas.  

As a result of this recently completed sale, the trail head parking lot for horses, riders and rigs that was located at the Windmill Ranch site off Pope Bend Road was slated to be phased out and shut down, replaced by a similar facility, also located on Pope Bend Road but built by the Woodbine people on land they recently purchased from LCRA.

According to Jeff Singleton, Project Manager for LCRA, the sale of this tract (purchased separately from the original large park-proper acreage along Hwy 71) to Woodbine, which had been in the works for almost five years, accomplished LCRA’s objective for acquiring Windmill Ranch in 1998:  to protect the boundaries of the McKinney Roughs Nature Park from incompatible development, such as a high density residential area.  The resort Woodbine intends to build on this acreage adjoining the large park lands will be a very low density development to include a 500 room Hyatt Hotel and an 18 hole, Audubon-certified golf course.

The immediate issue discussed at the August 26th meeting was the forthcoming closure of the very large and totally efficient old parking lot at Windmill Ranch, and the totally inadequate nature of the new replacement parking lot being built by Woodbine off Pope Bend Road at the top of Road Runner trail, which LCRA intends to administer.   By the time of the town meeting, LCRA had already graciously acknowledged that Woodbine’s efforts and allotted acreage left much to be desired and LCRA had already volunteered to step in and make a second larger trail head parking lot on LCRA land, right off Hwy 71 on the eastern edge of McKinney Roughs.   

At the meeting, LCRA asked for comments on the plan and sought suggestions and ideas for amenities the equestrian users would like to see at both of the trail head parking lots.   The biggest issue was safety and space.   Adequate space for the large rigs to maneuver and space between the tied horses; space to park the growing number of truck and trailer units that come to the park, so that no one is turned away and no one finds it difficult or unsafe to enter, exit or maneuver their rigs inside the parking lots.   The safety factor was exactly why LCRA decided to spread out the access and provide two places from which to enter the park trails by horseback.   This unexpected extra Hwy 71 parking lot will also be a boon to those riders who have seldom ridden long or far enough to get to the upper areas of the park.   Bobcat Ridge Trail is a very scenic place; full of those Lost Pines Bastrop County is so famous for.   More people will definitely get to see them now, and it’s always better to have a choice about where to start.   The trails heading out of the Pope Bend parking lot lead directly to the shady trails along the river, and are mostly dirt.   The trail heading out of the Hwy 71 parking lot is rockier, but leads directly to the glories of Bobcat Ridge and the Lost Pines of Bastrop, with a quick descent to the new river access and the beautiful winding Bluestem Trail.

The Woodbine parking lot was of woefully insufficient size to accommodate the current number of horse visitors, much less the future numbers, so LCRA did the right thing by stepping in to build another much larger facility, and putting it right off Hwy 71 will definitely increase ease of access for many people.   The initial parking lot that opened on Sept 7th is temporary, and LCRA will get right to work on the permanent Hwy 71 parking lot, which will be considerably further back inside the property.   Getting a water line to this site is the major construction feat, and once that is done, things will proceed quickly.   Until then, the new Hwy 71 trail head will have a water truck and tank unit, hidden in the shade of a large cedar tree. 

The large and opinionated crowd of horse people expressed their sincere appreciation for this newest development, since many of them have not enjoyed the trek down rough and tumble Pope Bend Road to the Windmill Ranch parking lot.
As the discussion broadened out to a more comprehensive look at the future plans for the park trails, many horse folk commented on how the new river access site (between Riverside and Bluestem Trails) is not nearly as usable or safe as the one that was sold to Woodbine.   When the river level is low, access to the large sandbar is adequate; when the weather has been recently bad, there simply is no river access, and the trail ends in a muck hole.  Improvements would be appreciated since getting the horses into the river is, by everyone’s vote, one of the peak experiences of this unique park.  It is why many people come to McKinney Roughs, especially when it’s hot.  The scenic aspects are totally secondary to the absolute necessity of having a safe place to water the horses, since so many people ride this park in the horrendous heat of the summer months.  In June LCRA was forced to add two watering stations with a hose and trough, and buckets for those riders who didn’t wish for their horses to drink out of a common trough.  These helped the horses immensely, but a river access is still preferable.   LCRA vowed to try harder to make this a safer and more usable site, since they know that it is in their best interests to do so.

Other requests that were brought up and avidly discussed were the need for new trail mileage to replace the more than 3 miles that have been lost to Woodbine; a few mounting blocks (environmentally correct tree stumps) along the trails and at the river area; more watering stations with buckets and hoses in various places, since the river is no longer a reliable place to give your horse a drink; corrals and picnic tables at the trail heads; perhaps some security lighting; and adequate turn space at the entrances and highway offset and cross-over to the Hwy 71 trail head.

The possibility of special groups being given occasional permission to camp at the trail head was also discussed, and Mr. Singleton said occasionally permission might be given but it is not LCRA’s intention to open a campground.   Currently no overnight camping is allowed, although the Happy Horse Hotel (a private camping facility on Pope Bend Road) has helped to fill that void.   For those wishing to stay overnight near the park trail head, HHH can be contacted at www.happyhorsehotel.com or by calling (512) 303-0589.  There are 10 large horse pens and room for 3 or 4 rigs with electric, plus a bungalow for those who do not have living quarters.   For out-of-town horse guests, it is the perfect solution to not having to go home after enjoying the park trails.

Singleton said LCRA would try to implement as many of the suggestions into the plan as were practical, but would not promise to do them all.  A 2 or 3 mile perimeter trail loop is already in the works, around the western edge along Pope Bend Road, and several other trail loops are planned once the parking lot situation is under control.  They hope to restore the trail mileage to about 18 miles as quickly as possible. 

Brian Trusty is also working on a plan to build a stout wooden horse bridge, somewhere over a scenic gulch, in order to provide another interesting challenge for equestrians.  Singleton also mentioned that LCRA is considering the addition of horse trails to various other parks it administers.   Roger Lewis, LCRA Project Manager of the park; faithfully documented the comments from the audience so a record of all the suggestions will be at hand for future reference.
The Pope Bend trail head is now slightly over a mile off the highway, just past the really bad curve with the bashed-in gate.  It is on the right side of the road and has a sign that says POPE BEND TRAIL HEAD.   

The Hwy 71 parking lot is on the right if you are coming from Bastrop, about 1/2 mile before the McKinney Roughs entrance or just a bit after the Ballards convenience store.  From Austin it is about a mile farther past Pope Bend, on the left, directly across from a cross-over and before you pass the Ballards convenience store.  There is also a sign that says Hwy 71 TRAIL HEAD.

There will be water, portopots, picnic tables, corrals, maps and honor boxes at each trail head.  Tickets are still $10 per horse and rider.  Discount ride tickets are available by purchasing a book of 50 for $250, from the office (512-303-5073), by check or credit card.   The trails are open from dawn to dusk.  Many people think the trails are only open during office hours, but this is not the case.  Dawn to Dusk, 7 days a week, period and closed if it rains.   Call 1-800-776-5272 ext 7427# for a daily trail report about whether the horse and hiking trails are open or not.  Never haul to this park without calling first! 

The work on the development will continue for quite some time.  Estimated completion date for everything is between March and August of 2006.   By that time there will be a private separate entrance road from Hwy 71 to the Hyatt Hotel, and the horse trails will cross it along the western edge of the park, so expect to see construction even in some of the areas where you will be riding now.   

Another feature Woodbine hopes to offer its guests is horseback riding, and they are currently searching for an Outfitter up to the task of running a livery horse operation at the edge of the park, on their own land.  Guides would escort riders into the park trails.   Woodbine is in the process of accepting Requests for Proposals, and the outfitter is expected to supply his own insurance and his own horses and gear.   It is expected that the horse operation will involve 15-20 horses, with a facility to be built near the Pope Bend parking lot.  Anyone interested in doing this should contact Les Melcher at lmelcher@woodbinedevelopment.com or call (214) 855-6029.

Before the meeting Bill McCann, LCRA Manager for Corporate Communications, gave a brief rundown of the history of LCRA.   Formed in 1934 by the Texas Legislature, the organization has been charged with flood control and electricity generation.   Managing parks and open land space is also one of its functions.  McCann mentioned that 23,000 folks visit McKinney Roughs annually.  Of that, approximately one half are children who avail themselves of the many educational park programs and also use the river in an educational context.   About ten percent of McKinney Roughs visitors are equestrian users and LCRA feels the equestrians take very good care of the land they are sharing.

Singleton said the property is unique because it contains 3 box canyons and four different ecological regions.   Under the directorship of Brian Trusty, LCRA Supervisor of Natural Science Centers, the hands-on work of trail-building is done by Mike McCracken and Keith Treadwell, who are also the “ears on the ground” to pass on riders’ observations and wishes for the park.

Jana Hellbusch handles many of the office functions of the park and can be reached at the main number (512) 303-5073.  Office hours are from 8am to 5pm Monday through Saturday, and are NOT to be confused with the hours that the trails are open!  

HORSE and HIKING TRAILS ARE OPEN FROM DAWN TIL DUSK, every day.  Hiking admission is $3 and $1 for those under 14 years of age, or over 64.   Equestrian users pay $10 PER HORSE AND RIDER, but a book of 50 tickets can be purchased for a 50% discount, LCRA’s John Gosdin explained.   The park’s address is 1884 Texas Hwy 71 West and it is located 7 miles west of Bastrop, Texas.

Riders are encouraged to continue to give input about the park and the trails to Jeff Singleton at jsinglet@lcra.org (512) 473-4078.  You may also write to Mr. Singleton c/o the LCRA at PO Box 220, Austin, Texas 78767-0220 or for more information visit www.lcra.org.

All during the meeting the horse people continuously expressed their appreciation for everything LCRA has already done, and intends to keep doing, in order to make this park one of Texas’ premier riding experiences.    Their commitment to the growing numbers of their horse customers is deep and profound, and given time, everything will come out very well.
Remember to Call Before You Haul.   If it rains half an inch on the trails on Thursday, it’s likely to still be closed on Saturday.   Sometimes the message will change in the middle of the day, when Mac makes another tour of the trails and discovers that wind and sun have dried them sufficiently for safety, he will then change the message and opens the park to horses.  

 

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