River Ranch Park officially digs in to development

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

River Ranch Park has been a distant dream for residents in western Williamson County since the 1,011 acres was first purchased in 2008.

But area county and city officials, along with engineers, designers and contractors gathered Monday to officially kick off phase one development of the project, attaching a 16-month estimated timeline for the park to open to the public.

In 2010, a master plan was completed for the park located between Liberty Hill and Leander and sandwiched between Bagdad Road and County Road 282. Since that time, it has been a waiting game for many, but Williamson County Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long is more than excited to talk about what it finally means for park lovers all over the county.

“We are so excited about this park,” she said. “It is going to be a gem in Williamson County and will be a huge asset for the whole county. From a proximity perspective it will be closer for precinct two folks to get to, but I think we’re going to see people from all over the county enjoying it.”

The land cost the county $10.6 million in 2008, paid for with voter-approved bonds. County voters again said yes to bonds in 2013, which is the pot of funds the phase one development – with a price tag of $11 million – is coming from.

River Ranch is designed to be something completely different than other area parks.

“The goal of River Ranch is to be a passive park experience,” Long said. “One where you can be in parts of it and look around and see no other signs of human life. We want kids to be able to go out and hike around and see things, and be able to pick up and touch things that they see and learn and explore. This is not a park where you will see lots of ball fields and lots of what we call very active kinds of things.”

The lengthy development timeline is due to the need for extensive infrastructure.

“Keep in mind, this is like building a small city,” said Williamson County Parks Director Randy Bell. “Whenever you develop a park like this, you’ve got to make sure there’s water, wastewater, can you drive safely, have restrooms, everything you need.”

The entrance for the park will be off Bagdad Road, rather than CR 282 since right of way was acquired on the east side.

“That intersection (CR 282) is incredibly dangerous and we wanted to avoid that because we are going to have people with horse trailers and RVs that need acceleration space,” Bell said.

With rapid growth in the area, Bell said preserving this space in a natural way will make for a great escape for visitors.

“This is going to be an island in a sea of development,” he said. “We have development on our southern border, I know that’s going to happen to the east and it has already happened to the north. Future generations are going to love this place and be really thankful the County preserved it.”

The park’s proximity to the urban areas of Williamson and Travis counties makes for a close escape for anyone looking for the quiet outdoors.

“There are not any large land tract parks in Travis or Williamson County,” said River Ranch Park Manager Jay Gomez. “There’s not a place you can go camping or have access to a double-digit amount of mileage of trails without driving an hour or more. It is just a convenience factor.”

He added that access to the San Gabriel River from the park won’t be what many see on rivers in Central Texas.

“What’s going to be a draw for the real outdoorsy people is going to be our river access because it’s not going to be open access,” Gomez said. “You’re not going to be able to drag a beer cooler out there or trash it out. If you are going to the river you have to be dedicated to making the effort.”

Amenities and features planned include the park headquarters, three trailhead parking areas, two walk-in tent camping areas, an improved RV camping area and a day use area, most all of which will be in the southern third of the property.

“The park headquarters is very similar to what you would see in a state park anywhere across Texas, because we want to develop, operate and maintain this property much like a state park would be,” Bell said. “The day use area will have a pavilion, restrooms, a playground.”

Also in the phase one plan is an interpretive center. The County received a grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife for the interpretive center.

“There will be an outdoor amphitheater, where you might have things like Ranger talks,” Bell said of the center. “The building might have restrooms on the outside, with exhibit space, a classroom, an office and a small conference room inside. It is going to be a great thing, and I anticipate a lot of volunteer help with this because there are a lot of groups very interested in what we do.”

Exhibits on display in the center are not set, but could include area ranching history, information on the river, or geology of the area as possibilities.

“In the parks business, the interpretation is a whole separate element of the experience,” Bell said. “The easiest way is to describe it is, if I had a school bus load of kids for 30 minutes, what would I want them to leave knowing about this park? I anticipate a lot of school groups will come and enjoy this place, especially when we get our interpretive center going.”

Williamson County Mater Naturalists and the Native Plant Society have spent a few years working on the property to catalog and identify the plants through the different seasons of the year.

“We’ve had thousands of hours of work done by our Master Naturalists in Williamson County,” Long said. “They have come out and logged every plant species they have found, they have logged every animal, just about everything they have been able to see.”

Much of the park will remain undeveloped to maintain the natural beauty and condition for visitors to explore.

“It leaves the two-thirds in the northern piece native and natural, just trails, with primitive campsites. That would be the extent of development for now,” Bell said, adding that maintaining the natural feel was critical in planning.

“That’s been the challenge all along with our consultants,” Bell said. “How do you fit the elements you see into this natural setting and still create a state park-like feel, which is what we’re after.”

Bell said the wildlife is abundant in the park and has remained undisturbed for a good while.

“It’s happy right now, it’s been sitting here for about 10 years without too much disturbance,” Bell said. “There’s a lot of turkey and deer and some hogs.”

The northern two-thirds of the property, which includes a portion of the South San Gabriel River in the northeast corner of the park will be undisturbed aside from trails and some primitive camping.

“We’ll have kiosks in the staging area and trailhead that will show you where you are, then we will have strategically-placed kiosks within the trail system at major intersections to try and minimize people getting lost,” Bell said.

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