Kids crowd around picnic tables on the outdoor patio, chowing down on burgers hot off the grill. Inside, grown-ups eat from heaping plates, occasionally getting up to chase a little one or to snag second helpings from the endless containers of food in the kitchen. The spacious room echoes with the clatter of utensils, murmur of conversation and occasional shrieks of delight. Several youngsters stand briefly mesmerized by a chocolate fountain on a counter.
Some 30 yards away at the waterline of Lake Brownwood, Ronnie Crumpton stands with his little boy, the former skipping rocks, the latter chunking them into the water. Charred bits of wood and a pile of ashes testify to last night’s campfire.
Some 22 members of Crumpton’s family have converged on the Beach Lodge in Lake Brownwood State Park, in from Plano, and Ruidoso and Hobbs, N.M., for one of their semi-annual gatherings.
“It’s a central location for all of us, a great place to relax,” says Ronnie, who with wife Stacy has four kids. “It’s the only place I know of that holds so many people.” The afternoon promises more fun and hanging out, followed by more food, another campfire and a friendly board game tournament.
Many families are scattered these days, and few have the luxury of the family ranch, beach house or mountain cabin at which to muster the troops. Cabins and lodges such as this one at Lake Brownwood fill the gap, serving as gathering places where youngsters can get to know their relatives; adult brothers and sisters can catch up; and everyone can relax and have the kind of experiences that bond families together like glue. Similar settings can be found at select parks and camps across the state.
The facilities at Lake Brownwood, constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of local timber and stone quarried nearby, range from cabins that sleep two to the Crumptons’ choice, Beach Lodge, two dormitory wings with beds for 26 around a central kitchen and living area.
The same weekend, in the five-bedroom Fisherman’s Lodge, Todd and Jennifer Holubec of Cedar Park and their two kids have met up with Jennifer’s brother Scott and his wife, Carla, and their kids from College Station, along with parents and in-laws Mary and Richard Terry. Before noon, the gang is fishing and hiking; later there is a campfire and, of course, s’mores.
“We live all over and have to make an effort to get together,” says Mary Terry, who lives in Houston. “The cabins are inexpensive and more central.” Not to mention perhaps one of the most attractive features, that no one has to clean the house before and after hosting the relatives.
Brownwood also has a pavilion overlooking the lake, perfect for dances, family reunions and weddings. In fact, that same night, Misty McDowra married Cody Petty on the spacious patio in back, followed by a traditional reception inside. “We had our prom out here when I was a junior in high school,” Misty says. “My husband was raised at the lake, and we lived on it in the summer growing up. It felt like home and a nice place to have a wedding.
“People have talked about the setting and how it was done, the building, and how pretty everything turned out. The building set the theme for our wedding.” The 130 guests fit comfortably on the patio for the ceremony and inside for the reception. The Pettys held their rehearsal dinner there on Friday night, too.
“It was neat being out and away from everything, nobody around to bother you. It felt like we were out in the country. My grandparents stayed at the park in their RV, and some friends of my parents stayed in cabins.”
For some, the idea of gathering the relatives is appealing, but bunking with them might not be. Room for everyone but a bit more privacy, too, is possible at Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. Considered the crown jewel of CCC projects, the lodge resembles a Native American pueblo, multilevel white tiers in stark contrast to the rugged grassy slopes that surround it. Workers molded the adobe blocks on site. Renovations in 1967 and 2001 retained the original 18-inch adobe walls, ceilings of pine vigas, or beams, and almost 200 pieces of the original hand-carved cedar furniture.
Indian Lodge’s 39 rooms can sleep some 128 of your closest aunts, uncles, cousins and other assorted friends and relatives, who can gather around a swimming pool that boasts the most beautiful view of any in the state, or in front of the lobby fireplace, under bird feeders on the stone terrace, or in the Black Bear Restaurant. The lodge does not have kitchen facilities, but Uncle Bob can toss burgers on the grill in the park’s picnic areas. The gang can walk those burgers off on 9 miles of trails (plus 10 more in the Limpia Canyon Primitive Area) through yucca-studded grasslands and up steep slopes to piñon and juniper around 6,000 feet. Two trails connect to Fort Davis National Historic Site.
Lake Houston Park
Lodges at what is now Lake Houston Park, 30 miles north of Houston, were constructed for the Girl Scouts in the 1950s. A group of 40-something women who camped at Peach Creek Girl Scout Camp converge from all over the country to re-create those carefree days at Lazy Creek Lodge. They hold scavenger hunts, hike and tell ghost stories around the large fire pit, while the moon climbs the limbs of the tall pines that cover the park.
The scout camp, which played host to thousands of Houston-area girls in the 1960s and ’70s, was sold to the State of Texas in 1990 and combined with additional land to form Lake Houston State Park, which opened in 1992. The park’s pine woods, ponds, creek and San Jacinto River shoreline were transferred to the City of Houston in August 2006.
Thirteen bunks line the walls in the main room at Lake Houston’s Lazy Creek Lodge, with two long tables in the middle and couches in front of a large fireplace. Nearby Forest Cottage now hosts many a slumber party, with five bunk beds in the main room and a separate bedroom and half-bath where the grownups can hide out. The park has miles of hiking and equestrian trails, tent camping, and a nature center with exhibits and programs such as “Owl Prowls” and birding walks.
Devils River State Natural Area
A bit farther off the beaten path—22 miles of unpaved road, to be exact, off U.S. Highway 277 between Del Rio and Sonora—Devils River State Natural Area offers deeply quiet nights and severely clear skies. This is the place for quality time together with no distractions or interruptions.
The comfortable but no-frills Group Barracks, a former hunting camp, sleeps 10 in five separate bedrooms, with two bathrooms and a central room, outdoor covered deck and picnic table. Down the road 100 yards, the Group Kitchen’s commercial-size stove and refrigerators make it easy to feed the whole family. The park is nearly 20,000 acres and 70 road miles from any kind of civilization, with 12 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, and a mile of shoreline on the pristine Devils River, where catch-and-release fishing for smallmouth bass and swimming are allowed. Several of the springs that provide most of the river’s flow gush from park river frontage.
Whether gathering the extended family or rounding up old friends, seeking a place to relax and do nothing, or for fun activities like hiking and fishing, park cabins and lodges are just the ticket. It’s less expensive and more interesting than the typical hotel experience, and a darned sight easier than hosting the gang at home.
For reservations, call Texas Parks and Wildlife Department main reservation number (512) 389-8900. Linens and kitchen utensils not always provided. Park entrance fees may apply.
Lake Brownwood State Park, (325) 784-5223. Beach Lodge sleeps 26, two full baths, dining area, kitchen. Fisherman’s Lodge sleeps 10, two baths and kitchen. Group Recreation Center or Clubhouse, day use only, kitchen, restrooms without showers. Cabins for two to four people also available.
Lake Houston Park, 22031 Baptist Encampment Road, New Caney, (281) 354-6881. Forest Cottage sleeps 12. Lazy Creek Cottage sleeps 26. Cleaning/security deposit required. Heat/air conditioning, kitchens and bathrooms with showers. Handicapped accessible.
Indian Lodge, Davis Mountains State Park, State Highway 118N and Park Road 3, Fort Davis, (432) 426-3254. Singles (one double) and standards (two doubles) available. One king bed, a two-room Executive Suite (two doubles and hide-a-bed), or two-room Junior Suites also available. Telephone, television, maid service. No smoking or pets. Restaurant open year-round, hours seasonal.
Devils River State Natural Area, Dolan Creek Road off U.S. Highway 277, 47 miles south of Sonora, (830) 395-2133. Carry out all trash. No ground fires. Group Barracks and Group Kitchen available. Catch-and-release fishing only. No pets.
Lake Brownwood State Park is served by Comanche Electric Cooperative. Devils River State Natural Area is served by Rio Grande Electric Cooperative.
Melissa Gaskill, who lives in Austin, frequently writes about travel.