Review of Inks Lake Park
I’m going to come right out and say it: This is by far my favorite state park I’ve visited so far in Central Texas. The hiking trails are excellent, the boat access is wonderful, and even on a day when all the day passes were sold out, it never felt crowded. Read more to see my review of Inks Lake Park!
The Purpose of This Review of Inks Lake Park
This review was researched and written during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Once the state parks reopened for day use, I took advantage to get out of the city and away from other people and to get some fresh air. The research on the lack of transmissibility of the disease outdoors is promising, so along with practicing social distancing and wearing a mask any time I was around other people, I felt that getting out to a park was the best thing for both my physical and mental health.
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This series will cover parks within a 1-2 hour drive of Austin that would make perfect day trips, either during this pandemic or for visitors to Austin to get out of the city. The state parks are all reasonably priced with Adult Admission at $6 per person or less, and kids 12 and under are free. You are required to reserve day passes online prior to arrival (and this park sells out far in advance). This review of Inks Lake Park is the very first in the series!
Inks Lake State Park is located about an hour's drive north of Austin in Burnet County. It's an easy and scenic drive across Route 29 or up Route 281, depending on where in Austin you come from. Its nestled next to Inks Lake, which is the second lake in the chain of highland lakes formed by several dams along the Colorado River in Central Texas. Because its a reservoir created by two dams, the lake level is constant, regardless of rainfall.
Its location in the Texas Hill Country allows for a wide variety of terrain, from open meadows to rocky outcroppings. If you can, go during the months of April or May for the wildflowers! They blanket several areas of the park and the drive out there and are absolutely stunning.
The park also sits next to Longhorn Cavern State Park, so you can even make the day a double feature if you have the time.
I highly recommend going to this park as early as possible, not only because this is Texas and it gets as hot as the surface of the sun in the summer, but also because the park is so popular, it gets busier the later in the day it is. If you want to feel like you have the place to yourself (and the coolest temps), get there at opening (check the park website for opening times).
Available Activities at Inks Lake Park
This park has a lot of great options:
- Boat Ramp
- Boat and Paddleboard Rentals
- RV Camping
- Tent Camping
- Cabin Camping
- Primitive Camping
- Swimming Hole
- 9 miles of hiking trails
This review of Inks Lake park will focus mostly on hiking since I was only there for the day, but it looks like a nice place for a longer stay. I personally prefer camping that isn’t so close to so many other people, so I wouldn’t choose to camp here. The sites are a bit close together, even the tent and RV sites. The facilities are nice and some of the bathrooms are new and updated. There are also showers available. If you've always wanted to try hiking but have been too intimated, read my guide on how to get started!
Review of The Hiking Trails
There are 9 miles of trails at Inks Lake State Park and over the course of several visits, I’ve covered a lot of these. They have several loops of varying sizes and degrees of difficulty so you can choose how far and long you want to go. Maps are available at the park headquarters, but they’re also available on the AllTrails app and on the park website.
The Pecan Flats Trail
This loop isn’t too challenging but does have a bit of a climb in the middle. It goes through beautiful meadows with wildflowers and birds. The day I hiked this trail, I didn’t see a single other person.
This trail crosses the road (which people have a tendency to drive very fast on, so be careful crossing). It also loops through and around the primitive campsites. There are primitive toilets as well, but they were closed the day I was there since the primitive camping was closed.
There were a few small stream crossings on this trail, nothing major. I was in my waterproof hiking boots and was happy to not have to worry about getting my feet soggy. I would also recommend shoes with good traction as the rocks can be a bit slippery, even when dry.
After enjoying some nice shade coming through the primitive sites, the trail opens up into a meadow area. The morning I was there, the grasses and flowers were growing into the trail. It was easy to see where to go, but I wasn’t wearing long pants like I should have been, just capris. With the tall grasses and flowers, I highly recommend long pants. I stopped every few minutes to check for ticks and did find a few I had to take care of. There is also a very sticky wildflower that attached itself to my leggings. Even after several washings, I haven’t gotten all of it off yet. So washable, removable clothes are a good idea. I didn’t see any poison ivy on this particular trail, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there (I’m not great at recognizing it!). It is definitely present on some of the other trails.
From the meadow, the trail goes up rocky hills and has the most beautiful views of the surrounding area. Be careful when pausing to take pictures, though, as there were a TON of red ants nests on this trail (and all the trails in this park). Fire ant bites are no joke, so I kept a lookout and booked it through any areas I saw the devils scurrying around in (and made a mental note to warn everyone about this in my review of Inks Lake!)
This park has a few connecting trails between the major loops. I had set out with the intention of doing the full Pecan Flats loop but instead decided to use the connecting trail over to the Woodland Trail. I knew at this point that I planned to do a review of Inks Lake park, so I wanted to see as much of the park as possible. This made my hike a whole lot longer than I was planning and I wasn’t really ready for it. There are signs at each intersection to help you find your way. The printed maps also have elevations and distances so you can plan better than I did.
There are no restrooms on the trails (other than the primitive toilet in the primitive camping area) so plan accordingly. If you’re only doing one of the loops, you’ll probably be fine for a few hours. If you plan to do anything longer, make a potty plan. Remember to follow your Leave No Trace principles and anything you bring in (including toilet paper), pack it out.
The Woodland Trail
I did this loop on a different visit with a friend. It was a longer loop than the Pecan Flats trail, with more challenging terrain. The Woodland Trail doesn’t have as much open meadow as the Pecan Flats, so there were fewer wildflowers on this loop (and it was later in the season, which probably contributed).
You will see evidence of the large wildfire from July 2008 with many trees still burnt. Many are still standing and it makes for a fascinating study in how nature recovers from fire. A lot of the underbrush is growing back. It also can make it a little difficult to tell where the trail goes due to a lot of the ground being sandy and without vegetation. Keep an eye out for trail markers and check your AllTrails app just to be safe.
There was a lot of variation between shady woods and open granite outcroppings on this trail so it made for some nice variety. There were also some nice rock formations.
The Lake Trail
This trail was the shortest loop option. I used it to get to and from the Woodland Trail. Don’t let the short distance fool you - there are some serious elevation changes. It's also easy to lose the trail markings on the granite rocks, so keep a close eye out for them. They’re color-coded to match the color of the trail on the map, so these trail markings are green.
This trail has great views of the lake itself (hence the name) so if you just want a quick hike with amazing views, this is it.
The Lake at Inks Lake Park
When I visited the park a few years ago, I wasn’t really into hiking yet, and so I only took my dog kayaking on Inks Lake. The boat ramp is easy to use and has plenty of parking nearby. It's available for smaller boats like my kayak, or larger motorized ones. There’s also the camp store right next door that offers paddleboard and kayak rentals. The lake is the perfect configuration for kayaks and paddleboards, with a wake-free area inside the park. In the main body of the lake, wakeboarding and jet skiing are popular so the waves can get a little intimidating if you aren’t a strong paddler. Stay inside the wake-free area for a more relaxing outing.
Also inside the wake free area is the swimming spot called Devil’s Waterhole. It's a short hike from the day-use area downhill to get to the swimming hole, but it's also accessible via small boat or paddleboard. While there’s no lifeguard on duty, a lot of people jump off the rocky cliffs here. Lola and I sat and watched for a while and it was a great way to spend an afternoon.
If you want to enjoy kayaking with your dog, I have all the details of how I got started!
Visiting During a Pandemic
I visited this park twice (so far) during the coronavirus 2020 pandemic. In my opinion, this park is one of the best places to spend a day outside, pandemic or not. The variety and distances offered on the trails meant that I was alone in nature most of the time. Even on my second visit where there were definitely more people hiking and visiting in general, it never felt crowded.
Visitors were also great about following social distancing. They moved slightly off the trail to let me pass (or I did the same). Most people had masks that they would put on if we all got too close. Wearing a mask in the Texas heat is not a pleasant experience, but everyone worked together to make the most of the situation.
The park rangers were very nice and informative when I checked in. They wore masks and let me know which bathroom was open (only one was open when it was only day use). To avoid any paperwork handoffs, the park maps were available on a separate table. They patrolled regularly around the park as well.
Visitors were allowed to use the overnight camping spots since there were no overnight campers. I found a perfect location with a little beach right on the lake. After my hike, I changed into my swimsuit, set up my camp chair at the edge of the water, and just watched the happenings around the lake. (If you ever want hours of entertainment, find a lake where people are trying to learn to wakeboard. Trust me.) I brought lunch and used the cabin’s picnic table and had the best afternoon relaxing after my morning hike.
Now that the parks are opening for overnight use again, I’m sure I won’t ever have quite such a blissful day. But while the park was open for day use only, it was probably my favorite spot to be.
Review Wrapup: Would I Go Back?
When I was married, I would try new recipes and my husband was always careful in how he would review the recipe. I finally learned to ask one simple question: Should I make this again? He would answer that question honestly, which is how I knew if he actually liked the recipe or not.
I'm using the same philosophy in my park reviews, wrapping it all up in one simple question: Would I go back? To me, this is the ultimate test of if something has been enjoyed. Would you do it again?
In case you couldn’t tell from my effusive review of Inks Lake Park, I would definitely return. I would go back even while the park was open at full capacity. Between the options for hiking and doing things in the water, the helpfulness and friendliness of the rangers, and the consideration of other visitors, it will definitely remain on my list of favorite spots around central Texas.
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