Lake Brownwood State Park offers 87 campsites, 16 cabins, four lodges and two group facilities, but reservations are already tight, and it’s a situation expected to remain through summer, Superintendent John Holland told members of the Brownwood Rotary Club on Wednesday.
“The lake is above spillway right now, and it’s been that way for a good while,” Holland said. “We have reservations right now nearly all the way through September. We’re looking to be really busy this year.”
The park has been accommodating visitors on spring break this week, and attendance should remain strong as schools in other parts of the state take March holidays.
“We can approach having 500 people at the park on weekends, so it’s very much like a small city,” Holland said.
Attendance at the state lake approached 80,000 last year, Holland added, which is almost double the number of visitors in 2011 when drought conditions dropped the lake level to more than 17 feet below spillway.
Holland’s 30-year career in the field includes 21 years in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“When I came here in 2006, the lake was 8 feet down, and people said that was bad,” Holland recalled. Heavy rains helped fill the lake the next year. At times, the level was too high to safely allow access to the shore.
The only bright side to the low lake level in 2011 was the receding water levels allowed access to docks for repairs. The lake was so low, Holland said, that someone in boots could walk across to McCartney Island. The water separating it from shore was only ankle deep.
Those days are history now, and with normal lake levels come thousands of additional visitors.
State parks throughout Texas are also thriving, Holland said. It’s not uncommon for visitors from places like Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and even Houston to tell park officials that they came to Lake Brownwood because they couldn’t find openings any closer to their homes.
Holland noted that when the state park system was established in 1923, most Texans lived in rural areas. Now, however, the state is predominantly urban, so residents need areas like those found in state parks to enjoy the outdoors.
“We’ve been fortunate in funding,” Holland said. Legislation regarding the allocation formula for the sales tax on sporting goods enacted during the last session allows for a more dependable source of funding.
Holland traced the history of the Texas parks system, which is nearing its centennial year. He said it began when the family of Gov. Pat Neff donated acreage on the Leon River near Moody that later became Mother Neff State Park, the first park in the system created in 1923.
Lake Brownwood State Park began development in the early 1930s after the lake was constructed, and major structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps are still in use, but with improvements.
“The structures were designed in what is now called ‘National Park Service rustic’ to blend into their surroundings, and if you don’t know what that looks like, just come out to the park,” Holland said. “The CCC hired local people and used natural materials in the area. Sometimes, you walk right past a bench because it blends into the terrain so well.”
The major project underway at the Lake Brownwood State Park involves a new wastewater system. Holland said it will replace the one installed in 1971 and is long overdue for replacement. Bids are being secured now for work expected to be completed in two years.
The wastewater system upgrade comes after a series of other improvements to park facilities in recent years, Holland said.
“When the buildings were built, they didn’t have heat or air-conditioning. It was just a fireplace and a window.”
The local presence of the state park at Lake Brownwood has been enhanced in recent years by a series of annual public events. Those include open house scheduled on Friday and Saturday, May 12-13 this year; its anniversary celebration in October; holiday activities for children on the Saturday before Christmas; and the First Day hike on New Year’s Day.
Park officials are also working with the Lake Brownwood Community Development Council on a Kids Fish Day scheduled on April 22.
The open house festivities in May are now in its 21st year, Holland said, and this year’s event will feature a dozen different programs from throughout the state, including Buffalo Soldiers.
“If you just don’t want to pay the $4 admission to come to the park, that’s the day you need to come out,” Holland said with a laugh. “Admission is free during open house.”
Events on that Friday are typically reserved for area school children, Holland said, while the general public attends on Saturday.
Lake Brownwood State Park is located northwest of Brownwood. Take Park Road 15 east off of Highway 279.