Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Enjoying Colorado River trails close to Bastrop

Mike Leggett

Not long after the Bastrop wildfires, there's still a whiff of burned something in the air.

Joan Russell weaves her way down through Tahitian Village streets marked by giant, devastated pines and the burned-out hulks of people's homes.

But as she gets down close to the Colorado River, Russell makes a turn west and bounces down a dusty gravel road to a parking area next to the river, the main site of the Colorado River Refuge.

"The fires stopped just to the east of this spot," says Russell, a founding member of the Pines and Prairies Land Trust, which controls and manages the refuge. The trust has holdings in Bastrop, Caldwell, Lee and Fayette counties and is working to make people aware of the opportunities available at the multiple sites.

"We were so lucky that nothing was lost, because so many people lost everything," Russell says.

At 90 acres of riverine habitat, the Colorado River Refuge now can offer a free outdoor opportunity for hikers, paddlers and swimmers, right in the middle of much of the area that was so hard-hit by the fires.

"We have classes for home-schooled kids and their parents, which is a way for them to be outdoors when they might have no other opportunity," Russell says.

Russell and I drive well past the area currently designated for parking and picnics and stop on another gravel road to park. Then we take off on a primitive trail, built by volunteers, that carries us through scrub oak and elk thickets, down to the river and the giant cottonwoods growing hard against the Colorado.

The air is cool and the land is quiet down there, and we meander along the trail that runs up to an overlook area and back to the main parking area and then southward to the far edge of the refuge.

"There are places where we have natural gravel bars for swimming areas and canoe and kayak paddling trails where people have access to the river," Russell says. "I like to bring my grandchildren down here. They love it."

Volunteers are working on improving trails and adding to the amphitheater area where nature classes are taught, Russell says.

Disabled access areas also are being built to make the site available to as many people as possible.

Russell is the trust's resident bird expert, and she offers up identifications on the run as we make the hourlong walk through one of the refuge's two trails.

"This area had been abused for a long time before we acquired it," Russell says. "People were coming down here and leaving behind a lot of trash and just not taking care of it. We've gotten that stopped now, and it's such a beautiful place. We just want people to know it's here for them to enjoy."

mleggett@statesman.com