For a couple of years in my late 20s I lived in Denver, where, as you might know, people enjoy spending their spare leisure time in the mountains. While I was there I worked as a writer at an advertising agency, and one day I was sitting in my office when a co-worker popped his head in to discuss plans for spare leisure time that weekend. He was going to mountains and assumed I was too. But he was in for a surprise because that weekend I would be traveling to see family in Texas.
“Huh,” he said, momentarily at a loss for sounds that make real words. When he recovered, he said, “Well. What will you do in Texas?”
He wasn’t asking in an idle way. This wasn’t a casual, “So, tell me how you plan to spend your spare leisure time,” inquiry. I could see in his eyes that he truly had no idea what one might do in a place like Texas. A place where you could not spend your summer weekend driving into the higher altitudes to hike and bike and experience the elevation.
I knew exactly what I would do in Texas. I was going to eat tacos at every meal, and then in the hours between the meals I was going to take some long walks so I could digest and prepare for my next round. I wasn’t sure that would paint the most positive picture of Texas possible, so instead of directly answering the question I gave him some general information about the Lone Star State.
“In Texas,” I told him, “you can go hiking.”
Hiking was his most-loved mountain activity, and he considered this statement for a long moment.
“But you don’t hike up,” he said.
Of course there are plenty of places in Texas where a person can hike up: Big Bend, the Guadalupe Mountains, Enchanted Rock. The list could go on … for at least a few moments.
But generally, his point was a fair one.
“No, you don’t usually hike up,” I said. Then I shrugged and gave him the win.
And giving him the win was where I made my mistake. Because no, we don’t hike up. But the definition of a hike is to take a long walk, and that we do. Sometimes we do it with a belly full of tacos. Other times we do it with tacos still in hand. That may not be what more intense, mountain-going people consider hiking. But as we live in a time of the great deep dig for personal truth and the expression of that truth to anyone who will listen, I should not have felt shame for whatever type of hiking makes my heart hum. I should have leaned across my desk, with the backdrop of a couple Colorado mountains visible through the window behind me and said, “But we would be willing to hike up if there was a restaurant serving tacos on top of the hill.” And then walked out of the office to board my plane without looking back.
I think about this conversation every time I go hiking at Meridian State Park. Should you have some spare leisure time on your hands and an interest in digging deep to discover your personal truth about how hard you need to exert yourself to consider it a true hike, it’s worth taking a drive to the park.
From Waco, the city of Meridian is easy to get to — Highway 6 goes all the way there. Say what you will about Highway 6, the one thing it delivers is consistency. No matter when you go you will see some lovely hills spotted with roaming cattle. You will see a gaggle of tourists dangling dangerously close to the road in order to take a picture of Chip & Jo’s famous abode. You will need to slow down to the posted speed limit when you go through the small towns. But eventually you will be far enough from Waco that you will start to feel “out of town,” and that’s probably about the time you will arrive on the outskirts of Meridian.
Right there on the outskirts is State Road 22, and that’s the turn you need to enter Meridian State Park. If all you want is some park time then it is possible to get in and out of the park without visiting Meridian at all. And as luck (or fate) would have it, Meridian’s best Mexican restaurant is located at that initial intersection to town. Zapata’s (514 West Morgan Street) is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day of the week except Wednesday and Thursday. If during other deep digs into your own personal truths you have discovered any kind of revelations that connect joy and happiness with heaping piles of refried beans, I recommend you stop there. If you want to linger they will serve you food in the restaurant, or if you want to test your dexterity at eating tacos while you walk they will wrap it to-go so you can take it into the park.
And into the park is the next stop for $5 per adult and no fee for children under 12. Admission gives you access to swimming, fishing, hiking, conversing with fellow Texans who may or may not like refried beans (remember, it’s important to remain open to people you encounter on your trip, even if they are different than you), birding (again, different strokes for different folks) and having your eyes glaze over while your mother explains the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the park. Though that last activity could just be something my kids do.
Lake Meridian is the heart of the park, and it’s not a tiny, little pond that someone decided to name a lake just to get people in the door. This 72-acre body of water is big enough to make renting paddleboards, canoes or kayaks an interesting option. You can even put a boat in the lake as long as you respect the no-wake rules. Unlike most other areas in Texas, you don’t need a license to fish from shore, pier or boat in the park.
There are hiking trails to explore throughout the park, but the 2.2-mile loop that goes around the lake is the best place to start. It offers frequent lake views, scenic overlooks and wooded areas where you can see signs of small wildlife. Birders who visit between March and July might be interested to know that golden-cheeked warblers, the endangered birds also known as the gold finch of Texas, are sometimes seen in the park. Nonbirders will be interested to know that the people staring at the sky with jaws dropped and glee gleaming in their eyes during the months of March through July are birders.
When you finish the loop you will be back in the area in front of the lake, and if you are there during the summer, you might join the swimmers in the lake. Or this is a good time to read up on the park’s history, which starts with how the men in the CCC Company built the dam across Bee Creek that impounded the lake. During the relatively short time they worked in the park between the years of 1933 and 1935 they also constructed a limestone refectory — a communal area typically used for group meals — the entrance portal to the park and 5 miles of scenic roads within the park.
After some Texas history and hiking, dipping (at least) your toes in the water and just slowing down to enjoy the pace of the park, if it feels too soon to leave, always remember that you can camp at Meridian State Park. There are primitive campsites where you can pitch tents and unroll sleeping bags, as well as RV hookups and cabins that sleep up to six people each.
Even if you don’t hike up, you will feel up after enjoying time in the park. And isn’t that what taking a day trip is all about? If you dig deep for your personal truth and the answer to that question is “yes,” then you are right to be here in Texas. And chances are good you’ll enjoy a drive out to Meridian State Park.