Spring Ideal Time To Explore Lesser-Known State Parks
AUSTIN, Texas -- Longer, milder spring days lure thousands of campers, picnickers, boaters and hikers to popular state parks such as Cedar Hill, Garner and Mustang Island, but Texas Parks and Wildlife suggests at least two dozen "best-kept secrets" in the state park system for a more relaxed park experience.
Texas state parks officials have come up with a park list of 24 hidden gems that offer outstanding natural and cultural resources as well as a valued spring commodity -- available campsites. More information about all Texas state parks is available toll-free at (800) 792-1212. Persons wishing to reserve a campsite, screened shelter or group facility need to contact the state's reservation center at (512) 389-8900 or visit the TPW Web site (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/).
Big Bend Country
Monahans Sandhills State Park -- Rent a sand disc or sled to descend sand dunes as high as 70 feet at this West Texas park just off Interstate 20 between Odessa and Midland. A new interpretive and educational center explains the natural and cultural history of the wind-blown dunes within the 3,840-acre park that offers camping, hiking, picnicking, nature tours, wildlife viewing and an equestrian area. For more information, phone (915) 943-2092.
Seminole Canyon State Historical Site --Colorful geometric shapes, animals and humanlike figures painted on rock shelter walls by ancient peoples thousands of years ago entice visitors to this 2,172-acre park 40 miles northwest of Del Rio. Guided tours of Fate Bell Shelter are conducted Wednesday through Sunday. Hiking, camping, picnicking, mountain biking and an interpretive center round out the park's offerings. For more information, phone (915) 292-4464.
Magoffin Home State Historical Site -- El Paso's only historic house museum, located on the edge of the border city's bustling downtown, offers daily tours of the 1875 adobe house built in the Territorial architectural style. The 19-room structure constructed by pioneer civic and political leader Joseph Magoffin is filled with many of the original family's furnishings. For more information, phone (915) 533-5147.
Colorado Bend State Park -- Early spring rains have polished this diamond-in-the-rough between Lampasas and San Saba to a sparkling luster, refilling nearby Lake Buchanan and greening the ruggedly beautiful countryside. The 5,300-acre park draws spelunkers to its caves, anglers to its waters and sun-baked hikers and campers to its emerald spring-fed pools. The lack of campground amenities is outweighed by the park's natural wonders. Guided tours to 75-foot Gorman Falls and several of the park's 150 undeveloped caves are offered. For more information, phone (915) 628-3240.
Lake Brownwood State Park -- The craftsmanship of Civilian Conservation Corps workers is in evidence throughout this often overlooked dandy of a state park 16 miles north of Brownwood. Visitors can rent the native rock and wood Recreation Hall for the day, spend the night in a rustic cabin with a rock fireplace, cross stone bridges through oak woodlands down to the 7,300-acre lake to fish, swim or hike. A variety of flora and fauna abound in this sylvan paradise where three distinct ecological regions overlap. For more information, phone (915) 784-5223.
Lost Maples State Natural Area -- Known for its autumn display of reds, oranges and yellows when the foliage of relict stands of bigtooth maples change color, Lost Maples sees its crowds dwindle and its small, developed campgrounds little used much of the rest of the year. The picturesque Edwards Plateau park 5 miles north of Vanderpool invites springtime exploration on 10 miles of hiking trails through rocky canyons, along clear-running springs to mountain vistas decorated with blooming mountain laurel. For more information, phone (830) 966-3413.
South Texas Plains
Choke Canyon State Park (South Shore Unit) -- Less well known than its larger sister park near Calliham on the 26,000-acre Choke Canyon Reservoir, the 385-acre South Shore Unit west of Three Rivers offers many of the same amenities. Abundant wildflowers and wildlife, extensive equestrian trails, a six-lane boat ramp, fine fishing and plentiful picnic and camping sites make this South Texas park worth a visit. For more information, phone (361) 786-3538.
Falcon State Park -- Off the beaten path on the Texas-Mexico border between Roma and Zapata, this lakeside park welcomes spring early with a profusion of wildflowers, blooming desert plants and migrating tropical birds. A prolonged drought has reduced the size of the reservoir, but the park remains popular with bird watchers and anglers seeking trophy striper and largemouth bass. Overnight visitors this spring will find 12 screened shelters have been enclosed and air-conditioned. For more information, phone (956) 848-5327.
Goliad State Historical Site -- This often overlooked sanctuary on the San Antonio River combines the best of the state's cultural and natural resources within an easy drive from San Antonio and Corpus Christi. Riverside campgrounds, a large swimming pool and screened shelters make this an ideal overnight stop for springtime campers. History buffs can indulge their whims by visiting Mission Espiritu Santo, the state's longest-existing Spanish mission, as well as two nearby Republic of Texas historical sites dedicated to Texas Col. James Fannin. For more information, phone (361) 645-3405.
Prairies and Lakes
Fairfield Lake State Park -- This best-kept secret among bass anglers sits conveniently off Interstate 45 within 100 miles of Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco, Tyler and eight other metropolital areas. In addition to the power plant-warmed, 24,000-acre reservoir that draws water sport enthusiasts as early as April, the park boasts hardwood forests, rolling hills, a bird watching trail, plentiful wildlife and high-quality facilities. Visitors can bowfish for blue tilapia, mountain bike and enjoy showy displays of redbuds, dogwoods and wildflowers. For more information, phone (903) 389-4514.
Fanthorp Inn State Historical Site - In historic Anderson, return to the 1850s with a tour of this inn and stagecoach stop that was visited by Sam Houston, Zachary Taylor and Ulysses Grant. On the second Saturday of each month, hop aboard the brilliant red replica of a Concord stagecoach for a horse-drawn ride up Main Street and enjoy poets, musicians and cowboys in period clothing during Stagecoach Days. Weekend tours are $3 for adults, $1.50 for students. For more information, phone (936) 873-2633.
Fort Parker State Park -- This Central Texas park offers a quiet, wooded Navasota River setting popular with families for reunions and campouts. The 1,459-acre park was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which dammed the river to create the 750-acre Lake Fort Parker that attracts anglers, swimmers and canoeists. Overnight facilities, 25 campsites and 10 screened shelters, are best enjoyed mid-week. For more information, phone (254) 562-5751.
Lake Houston State Park -- Only 30 miles from Houston, this 4,900-acre park remains underutilized by equestrians. Eight miles of relatively new horseback trails dotted by equestrian campsites wind through the Pineywoods setting. In addition, the park provides 10 miles of wooded trails for hikers and cyclists. There is no lake access, but several creeks and rivers provide ideal spots for wading, canoeing and fishing. For more information, phone (281) 354-6881.
Sea Rim State Park -- This southeast Texas park not far from the Louisiana line mixes 5 miles of Gulf beach shoreline with 15,000 acres of marshland to create an environment teeming with wildlife. Stroll an elevated boardwalk along the Gambusia Trail, keeping an eye out for alligators and flocks of waterfowl that frequent the mudflats and ponds. Hop aboard an airboat for a guided tour of marshland "trails" or rent a canoe and get a close-up look at muskrat, otter and other water critters. Sunbathing and shelling on the beach is always an option. For more information, phone (409) 971-2559.
Varner-Hogg State Historical Site -- Spring wildflowers and songbirds embrace the grounds of early Texas settlers, plantation owners and laborers at Varner Hogg Plantation. Anchoring the antebellum plantation's 65-acres is a columned, two-story slave made brick manor remodeled by philanthropist Ima Hogg in a colonial revival style. Guided tours of the plantation home, barn and grounds shaded by pecan orchards, magnolias and moss draped oaks, are offered Wednesday through Saturday. A slice of Southern history encompassing the site's slavery, ranching and oil heritage awaits visitors to this West Columbia landmark 50 miles from Houston. For more information, phone (979) 345-4656.
Big Spring State Park -- The park named for a now-defunct spring that gave rise to the west Texas town of Big Spring might more appropriately bear the moniker "Big Bluff State Park" because of 200-foot rock Scenic Mountain that affords a sweeping view of the prairie. April is a good time to spot migrating sandhill cranes, geese and an occasional whooping crane. Indigenous wildlife includes burrowing owls, prairie dogs, jackrabbits and roadrunners. For more information, phone (915) 263-4931.
Copper Breaks State Park -- In what was once the home of famed Comanche chieftain Quanah Parker located 100 miles west of Wichita Falls, this park is one of only two "dark sky" stargazing sites in the state. Diverse wildlife is another attraction of this lightly visited park. The rare horned lizard is a common resident of the Comanche Campground, and park visitors often spot the endangered kangaroo rat, as well as roadrunners, bats, barn owls, bobcats and several varieties of turtles. All types of campers can be accommodated. For more information, phone (940) 839-4331.
Fort Griffin State Historical Site - Fort Griffin provides visitors a snapshot of frontier military life and insight into the great cattle drives through living history programs. The state longhorn herd resides here. Texas Rangers, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and other notable historic figures spent time at the fort. Modern camping facilities on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, fishing and almost five miles of hiking trails add to the park's appeal. For more information, phone (915) 762-3592.
Atlanta State Park -- Boaters love to glide across the surface of 20,000-acre Lake Wright Patman in the cool, green Pineywoods that anchor the far northeastern corner of the state. The park offers 1,475 acres to explore via miles of forested hiking and nature trails. Outdoor lovers can enjoy boating, fishing, water skiing, picnicking, camping and wildlife viewing. Special features include a large group pavilion, amphitheater, playground, volleyball courts and horseshoe pits. For more information, phone (903) 796-6476.
Lake Bob Sandlin State Park -- This wooded, lakeside park near the antiques center of Winnsboro attracts droves of anglers to cast for Florida bass and channel catfish in Lake Bob Sandlin and two nearby lakes. A boat ramp, lighted fishing pier and a long, winding shoreline provide easy access to the water. Springtime wildflowers abound in the open fields, and wildlife is plentiful in the mixed forest of loblolly pines, sweet gums and various oaks. An 1840s cemetery within the park adds an historical touch. For more information, phone (903) 572-5531.
Village Creek State Park -- Located in what remains of the biologically diverse Big Thicket in far Southeast Texas, Village Creek features an abundance of flora and fauna ranging from western desert species like prickly pear to water-dependent southern species such as tupelo, bald cypress, ferns and delicate orchids. The park boasts some of the state's best canoeing opportunities. Local outfitters can provide canoes and car shuttles. Picnicking, camping and fishing round out the 942-acre park's recreational draws. For more information, phone (409) 755-7322.