As we travel, we always like to ask folks about their favorite parks. We get a lot of recommendations to visit parks like Garner State Park, Tyler State Park, Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Brazos Bend State Park. We have enjoyed our time at all of those parks, BUT if you love state parks, then Mother Neff State Park should absolutely be on your list of places to visit! After all, this is the birthplace of the Texas State Park system.
We visited Mother Neff during the 4th of July and we expected it to be packed and crazy busy with activity. It is only about 30 minutes from Waco and a short drive to Fort Hood. What we found was a quiet, relaxing park with shaded hiking trails and tons of CCC history!
Our Campsite at Mother Neff State Park
This park has changed a lot in recent years, so if you haven't been to Mother Neff since 2015, it will likely seem like a completely different park to you. The original recreation and camping areas of the park lie near the Leon River. With changes upriver, this section has become very susceptible to flooding. In fact, park rangers told us that one flood brought a half-mile long log jam that held 20 feet of water over the lower section of the park for months!
To save the park from so much downtime, a major renovation was completed here in 2015. A new headquarters, camping loop and playscape were opened as part of the renovation. The new headquarters, built in the style of the Civilian Conservation Corps features a park souvenir store and a history museum of the park.
The new camping loop feels like a high dollar RV resort with level concrete parking pads and gravel campsites surrounded by natural growth wildflowers and trees. All campsites include full-hookups with 30 and 50 amp electricity. Some sites are very private, some are very shaded, some are back-in and some are pull-through.
The road into the park and through the camping loop is in great shape and easy to navigate. It is wide enough for 2 rigs to pass each other going the opposite direction without too much stress. There are campsites here that can accomodate any size rig.
We did not see a dump station in the park, but again, all sites are full-hookup so it really isn't necessary.
The campsite bathrooms are also new and, again, feel like a high-end resort. They are not air conditioned, but have shaded open windows near the roof line and large fans circulating air. They were very comfortable in July. Each bathroom features 2 showers which are completely private and have doors separating them from the other shower and everything else. Handsoap is included at the sinks. The bathrooms were spotless during our visit.
The one downside for folks who travel with dogs is the lack of grass in the individual campsites. We walked Star down to the grassy area in front of the restrooms when she needed to potty. (seemed appropriate enough) :) If you are visiting during the summer, we definitely recommend outfitting your pup with booties like Star has. We weren't worried about her burning her paws on the way to the restroom at midday.
Historic CCC Rock Tower
The History of Mother Neff State Park:
Native peoples like the Tonkawas likely passed through here as little as 200 years ago. They were drawn here by the Leon River, the grassy plains (which attracted wildlife), and the rocky grottos (like Tonkawa Cave) that could be used as shelter. But the story of this land, and its importance to folks was only just beginning.
To talk about the history of Mother Neff State Park, you have to first talk about Mother Neff herself. Isabella "Mother" Neff and her husband, Noah, came to this part of Texas from Virginia during the 1850s. They settled here along the banks of the Leon River to raise their family. The Neff family believed that spending time outdoors was good for folks and would often open up a portion of their land for the community to picnic along the river. Isabella, in particular, was a huge proponent of sharing their beautiful land. She was also active throughout the community. They say everyone loved her and, over the years, she became known as "Mother Neff".
The Neff's youngest son, Pat Neff, was elected Governor of Texas in 1920. Noah Neff had already passed away, but Isabella (now in her 90s) moved into the Governor's Mansion with her son in January of 1921. Just a few months later in May 1921, Mother Neff passed away. In her will, she requested that 6 acres of her land on the Leon River be protected and always open to the public.
Governor Pat Neff, inspired by his mother's generosity, began to think about his recent travels around Texas during his campaign, and realized that there were no public lands for people to relax and enjoy nature. There were a few state historic sites that were protected, but the state park system that we know today had not yet been established. He and a neighbor donated another 200+ acres to his mother's donation to establish Texas' first state park.
Mother Neff History Boards
View from the Rock Tower
Governor Neff then established the first Texas State Parks Board, and with the Board, began contacting land owners across the state to ask for land donations for a park system. While they were successful in obtaining land donations, financial support from the state funds was another issue. Tired of struggling to obtain funds for park infrasture, Governor Neff built the first "park" building on his donated land using his own money.
As the 1920s rolled by, the growing number of automobiles on the roads was leading to an overcrowding in national parks, and the federal government began encouraging states to build their own park systems to alleviate some of these crowds. And then came the Great Depression.
With high numbers of young men and WWI veterans out of work, President Franklin D Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of his New Deal program in 1933. CCC camps were set up like Army camps. CCC workers would build roads, drainage, ponds, buildings and so much more across the US during the 10 years of the program. The men of the CCC were responsible for building state and federal parks.
Sensing an opportunity to build on Pat Neff's state parks plan, Texas Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson signed a bill that included state park funding in the annual budget for the first time in 1933. With the help of Pat Neff, who now served on the State Parks Board, Governor Ferguson successfully obtained federal funds and CCC camps for 26 projects in Texas within days of the creation of the CCC. Fifteen of these projects would create state parks.
CCC Company 817 arrived at Mother Neff State Park in 1934. Over the next four years, they built the original park entrance, roads, culverts, the rock tower (which served as both a water tower and lookout point), picnic tables, trails, fences and buildings including the pavilion, concession building and superintendant's home (now the park lodge). Unfortunately, some of the historic CCC buildings including the rock tabernacle and the pavilion are currently unaccessible due to flood damage. The same is true of Governor Neff's wooden tabernacle. However, you can still visit the stone tower, CCC-built picnic table and the camp dinner bell.
There are a few parks currently in the Texas State Parks system that officially opened before Mother Neff State Park (Mission Tejas State Park and Palmetto State Park). But the Neff family dream of a public park system all began here at Mother Neff State Park!
Rock Tower Trailhead
Things to Do at Mother Neff State Park:
Hiking: One of our favorite activities at Mother Neff is hiking. Trails range from easy to moderate. Many are shaded. They are well-marked and maintained, with interesting points of interest like the CCC-built rock tower, CCC picnic table and Tonkawa Cave.
A unique feature of this park is the layout of the hiking trails. The longest individual trail is listed as 0.6 mile long. However, the trails are connected so that you can create your own unique hiking experience and distance.
Bird Watching: With bird houses spread throughout the park along trails that include information on the types of birds you might see here, Mother Neff State Park is a great park for learning about birdwatching. The variety of ecosystems here (grassy plains, forests and rocky hills) make for an interesting year-round home or migration rest area for a variety of birds. We had painting buntings visit our campsite here.
Geocaching: Though the lower river-side section of the park was inaccessible during our visit, the park has a few geocaches hidden in the areas that are open to the public.
Shaded Hiking Trails
CCC-Built Picnic Table
Biking: During our visit to Mother Neff State Park, most of the trails were marked as hiking only. However, you can use your bicycle to get around inside the park, and the bike parking stations are carved from downed trees.
Wildlife Viewing: Though we didn't see any during our visit, we've been told that deer are plentiful in the park.
Ranger Programs: Mother Neff State Park has an active ranger program schedule that includes weekly guided hikes, plant and wildlife education, and history seminars. As with most parks, these events are typically held on the weekends. Check with the park for a schedule.
Inside Mother Neff Headquarters
Other Amenities at Mother Neff State Park:
CCC Structures: This park is STRONG on CCC-history! Signs throughout the park tell the story of the CCC's work here. Explore the park to visit the Rock Tower, CCC Table, Dinner Bell, and BBQ pits. Behind the campground restrooms, near campsite 20, check out the display boards to learn more about the setup of the CCC camp that was here.
Library in the Park: An unexpected find! This park features a small library at the campground restrooms. Borrow a book during your stay and return it before you leave, or leave a book and take another. The collection includes books for all ages.
Nature Playscape: The most unique playground we've come across in a state park, the Nature Playscape near the camping loop is constructed of trees that were downed in the park by flooding. Shaded picnic tables sit just behind it and parking is available at the playscape.
Museum: Another of our favorite parts of Mother Neff State Park, the headquarters features a small museum which tells the history of the Native folks who passed through here, the Neff family, the founding of the Texas State Parks system, and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Bird Blinds: Overlooking the pond, approximately a half mile from the camping loop, you'll find the park's bird blind. Inside you'll find posters to help you identify birds, butterflies and other winged creatures. A second bird blind is located on the trail leading from the campground to the stone tower.
At the time of this write-up, this is the only camping currently available in Mother Neff State Park. It is available to both RVs and tent campers. This camping loop was added to the park during a major park renovation and opened in 2015. It is located at the site of the original CCC camp. Look for signs and remnants of the camp in and around the camping loop. All campsites feature paved concrete parking pads and gravel camping areas surrounded by wildflowers and natural plant growth. All have 30 and 50 amp electric service, water and sewer connections, as well as a lantern hook, fire ring and picnic table. Some of the sites are back-in, others are pull-through. Some are very shaded, some are partially shaded and others have very little shade. Some campsites are very private.
There is a new bathhouse (2015) with showers located in the loop. It was very clean during our visit, and almost felt like a resort bathhouse. Each shower has its own private dressing area which is separated from the rest of the bathhouse by a door, not a curtain. The shower dressing areas also feature benches and hooks for hanging clothes and towels. The sink area has hand soap. While the restroom does not appear to be air conditioned, the open upper windows and fans provide plenty of air circulation.
There is no dump station in this park.
Modern, Clean Restrooms
Cabins and Shelters at Mother Neff State Park:
CCC Cabin / The Lodge
Air Conditioned Cabin: 1
4-Bedroom, 2-Bath House
Park at Lodge
Formerly the park superintendant's home, this CCC-constructed cabin can sleep up to 8 people inside. It is ADA accessible, has central air conditioning and heating, and a full kitchen. More than just your typical park cabin... this is a house! :)
Visiting Mother Neff State Park For a Day:
Day Use Areas
Spend the day hiking and exploring or take the kiddos over to the park's nature playscape. Information about local vegetation and birds (as well as the park's history) is located throughout the park.
Mother Neff State Park Information:
Year Opened: 1937
Discount Passes Accepted: Texas State Parks Pass
CCC Park? Yes! Visit the historical gallery inside the Park Headquarters, Stone Water Tower, CCC Picnic Table, Dinner Bell, Wash Pond and BBQ Pits. Don't miss the CCC information boards near campsite 20.
Park Store? Yes, for souvenirs. Inside the Headquarters
Lodging Options at Mother Neff State Park: RV Camping, Tent Camping, Air Conditioned Lodge
Disclaimer: These details are accurate to to the best of our knowledge. We try our best to provide accurate information, but we are human and sometimes details change. Please check with the park directly to confirm current information.