My family and I are only eighteen state parks in to our goal of visiting all 88. No matter what weather, adventures, or misadventures await, we always find something to enjoy. At some parks, this requires patience and creativity. This was not the case on the April morning when we arrived at Meridian State Park, fifty miles northwest of Waco. Like any good host, Meridian greeted us with fresh flowers—an almost immoderate bounty of bluebonnets. My family was intoxicated by their fragrance and charm, snapping photos and gleefully pointing them out to each other. Spring in Texas is notoriously fickle, but we lucked into a gorgeous weekend, serendipitously timed with the arrival of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. With its easily accessible location, Meridian is a park both manageable and magical, a delicate balance to achieve.
The warm smell of ashe juniper clung to the corners of our shelter as we unloaded our supplies before heading down to the lake to cool off with a swim. Other than seven ducks, we were the only ones at the lake. Unfazed by the icy water, the proliferation of duck poop near the edge, and the strong wind, my kids happily waded in. My youngest joyfully announced, “This is the perfect ocean for me!” as she splashed about and regaled us with a musical revue of ocean-themed Disney films. When she finally chattered, “I’m freezin’, y’all,” we called it a night, but came back the next afternoon to kayak.
Sitting in the middle of the park, 72-acre Lake Meridian is the result of the rock and earthen dam the Civilian Conservation Corps built on Bee Creek. Try your hand at fishing for bream, crappie, catfish, or largemouth bass; the lake is also stocked with rainbow trout each winter. A vending machine next to the lake has four kayaks that visitors can rent for a minimum of two hours. I paddled under a beautiful blue sky, enjoying all the wildlife. I saw several greater yellowlegs stalking in the shallows, a wren hopping among the brown reeds, a dragonfly darting along the tall limestone cliff known as Bee Ledge, ducks swimming and taking flight, and a tiny yellow butterfly. When our eleven-year-old got back from her turn on the kayak, she excitedly shared about two turtles she saw and casually mentioned parking the boat to go on land. (It wasn’t until my husband Ben finished his tour of the lake that he realized she had free soloed halfway up the steep Bee Ledge that overlooks the water, both to our amazement and admonishment.)
In a little over a year, between July 1933 and October 1934, Company 1827 of the CCC built the 505-acre park Texans have been enjoying for almost a century. Although Europeans didn’t settle Meridian until 1854, civilization in the region dates back thousands of years and includes the Tonkawa, Tawakoni, Wichita, and Caddo tribes. Sitting at the top of the Hill Country, Meridian State Park also finds itself on the ninety-eighth meridian, a geographical location that might seem arbitrary but that Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb described as an “institutional fault [line].” In his Great Plains thesis, he proposed westward expansion had been briefly stalled on this divide between the “wooded environment to the east” and the “arid environment of the west,” until certain innovations, such as barbed wire, the windmill, and the six-shooter, made further settlement accessible.
Armed with none of these innovations, we headed out early to hike the 1.5-mile Shinnery Ridge Trail with Texas master naturalist Aaron Lincoln, who leads these guided walks several Saturdays each spring, when the golden-cheeked warbler arrives at its breeding grounds. I’d expected the walk to focus on the more than 175 avian species identified in the park, but I soon found myself in a giddy treasure hunt for flora instead. We stopped to note what poison oak looks like, admired gold dust lichen, and squatted down to examine hilly sandwort and other species growing in the little divots of flat limestone along the trail. Surprises abounded. Lime green pods hanging from a young oak tree looked like fruit but turned out to be a sponge oak apple gall caused by a parasitic wasp. My daughters crouched down in the path, mesmerized by a group of tiny white snails. We passed Texas bush clover, bent down to see the new growth of a lady’s tresses orchid nestled among the bluebonnets, listened to the high-pitched song of the blue-gray gnatcatcher, and paused to look at scat, briefly debating its origins before shrugging it off as everyday dog poop.
Underlying the entire hike was the hope of spotting the little black-and-white bird with its splendid yellow mask. The endangered birds’ nesting territory requires a mix of mature juniper and smaller oaks, which help grow the caterpillars to feed the young. The shin oak, endemic to the region, and the namesake of the trail we were hiking, only grows at certain elevations. Aaron stopped us in a gorgeous bend filled with old-growth ashe junipers. While enchanting, the canopy forms an “impenetrable thicket,” leading to a lack of biodiversity you could hear in the silence. Emerging into the more hospitable region, the group quickly came to a stop to listen to the golden-cheeked warbler’s distinctive song. The anticipatory giddiness was palpable and contagious. One after another in our group spotted the bird in the near distance, sitting atop the uppermost branches of an oak. I desperately scanned the trees, finally catching sight of the little bird’s rapid movements before it flew away. I am not sure if the golden-cheeked warbler is my spark bird—that’s birding lingo for the one that gets you hooked—but it was indeed a thrill.
After an early dinner of campfire nachos, we hiked Bosque Trail, a 2.2-mile loop circling the lake. Named after a river that runs through the county by the same name, it’s a satisfying hike with changes in elevation, rocky terrain, and wildlife in abundance. We passed a field of wildflowers, the CCC bridge still showcasing the original 1934 timber, and the CCC Refectory built of local limestone. Crossing the CCC dam, an oasis of spring, lush with grass and covered in purple flowers and yellow butterflies, it felt as if we were walking through a panorama from J. R. R. Tolkien’s imagination. Depending on whether you begin or end with the scenic Bee Ledge, you’ll ascend or descend a precarious incline. At the top, we paused to watch the sun sink low in the evening sky.
A few favorite images from the trip have stuck with me: Wildflowers bursting from the earth, a radiant red cardinal flitting about a campsite, an armadillo rustling through the leaves, the sight of climbing milkweed with its heart-shaped leaves and star-shaped flowers, and a cluster of furry black caterpillars spotted on our hike. As we huddled around, admiring the caterpillars, another hiker blurted out, “I get so excited my cheeks start hurting from smiling.”