I can still smell the fires.
Much of my youth was spent hiking, swimming, camping, canoeing and other outdoor activities. What better way to entertain the six curious and rambunctious Barnes kids than to load us into a station wagon; tie the equipment to the trunk; and head to the nearest state park?
I spent the same amount of time in the Boy Scout camps, which introduced me to the Hill Country through the pristine El Rancho Sima, which soon became a Hayes County park, thanks in part to the efforts of the Texas Preserve.
My experience in this rugged landscape on the Blanco River played a key role in my constant journey from the coastal plains of the Gulf of Mexico to the crystal clear streams, limestone trails, and green hills of Central Texas.
State parks have brought me back to nature time and time again. And this year the park system turns 100 years old.
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In 1923, the state park’s board of directors met for the first time. Prior to this, Governor Pat Neff developed what became Mother Neff State Park, located on the Leon River southwest of Waco. His mother, Isabella Neff, donated the original six acres for the park in 1921.
Today, there are over 85 state parks to explore, as well as many state forests and natural areas.
Land for the new Palo Pinto Mountains State Park was released to the media last year in Palo Pinto and Stevens counties. It still needs some improvements before it opens to the public; construction is going on. We can thank the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation for this treat; this non-profit organization spearheaded the $9 rough diamond fundraiser.
Sad confession: I’ve never been to Mother Neff, the system’s first park. However, in honor of the centenary, I promise to visit as many of these jewels as I can as I continue to explore the state’s historical, cultural, and flavor wonders for Think, Texas.
Tell me your favorite state park
So what’s your favorite state park? It can be a place with a quiet swimming hole and good fishing. Or a picturesque outpost in a picturesque setting. State parks come in all shapes, sizes, and genres.
Please send your choice, along with a short review, to [email protected] To get started, let me suggest 10 state parks that have made a lasting impression on me.
Please note that these are not Best state parks. I haven’t tried them all. For example, I have never been to the huge Big Bend Ranch State Park, although I really like the nearby Big Bend National Park.
This year I have already visited the new for me Bucher State Park, near Texas 71, not far from Smithville, which is undergoing major renovations. So I have to come back as soon as the job is done.
This reminded me that it’s time to buy an annual pass to Texas State Parks. Don’t forget, if you are planning to camp or gather a large number of people, make reservations.
Huntsville State Park: The Wind Whistles Through the Pines
Where: Huntsville State Park, 565 Park Road 40 West, Huntsville; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/huntsville
Previously, I associated hiking around the country with winds whistling in coniferous trees – pines, spruces, sequoias, spruces. In Houston, we lived within a short drive of an East Texas pine forest. Many Boy Scout weekends put us at Camp Strake south of Conroe. Huntsville State Park in Walker County is deeper in the forest to the north.
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There is a beautiful Raven Lake for boating and many small campsites on 2,083 acres covered by the Sam Houston National Forest. The hikes here are short distances rather than high altitudes. Works best in dry, frosty weather.
Garner State Park: Dancing Under the Cliff
Where: Garner State Park, Rs 234,1050, Konkan; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/garner
This park along the Frio River has its roots in the distant past, as evidenced by its huts and public halls. Beneath the spectacular cliff, Frio is famous for its excellent and, as the river’s Spanish name suggests, cold swimming. My family sometimes stayed overnight at Garner in Uvalde County on their way to West Texas. It was a difficult place to leave.
The park fills up quickly during the hot months, but Frio has other overnight options before it slips underground into the recharge area south of the park. I remember as a child hearing the music of dances and parties given by older children and adults, and wishing that I could join in the festivities.
Palo Duro Canyon: big drama in a big setting
Where: Palo Duro Canyon State Park, 11450 Park Road 5, Canyon; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon
The second largest canyon in the country, at 121 miles long, deserves much more attention. Many visitors are known to approach this huge hole in the earth’s crust from the flat plains around the communities of Amarillo and Canyon. The first look into its colorful crevice can be a shock to the system.
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Many children were delighted with the street musical “Texas!” on the walls of the canyon as a background. I’m not sure if the historical aspects of the show stand the test of time, but you can’t beat the setting. The real story happened right here. Beware of flash floods; from the depths of the canyon there is no easy way out.
Enchanted Rock: Our Mythical Granite Dome
Where: Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 16710 RR 965, Fredericksburg; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/enchanted-rock
The Texas Conservancy was also involved in acquiring this striking 425-foot granite dome, or “batholith,” from the Llano Rise. In the late 1970s, I couldn’t be happier with this move. Climbing the main wall is only moderately difficult to fit. However, with each passing year, it scares me more and more. I have heard that climbing sites are attractive to those who are so inclined.
Many legends are associated with this place, which had spiritual significance for the indigenous peoples. This is our version of the Australian Uluru (Ayers Rock). Be prepared: it can be windy there.
Lost Maples: Flaming Autumn Leaves
Where: Lost Maples State Natural Area, 37221 RM 187, Vanderpool; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/lost-maples
As soon as this site in the upper reaches of the Sabinal River became available for primitive camping, I ended up there with bells. I don’t sleep on the ground anymore – on purpose. However, I’m still in awe of the natural beauty here, especially in autumn when the jagged maples, remnants of the Ice Age, ignite like flames.
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Find out in advance about fall foliage, which can change from year to year. However, it is a peak experience all year round. And the region abounds in other natural attractions.
Valley of the Dinosaurs: Scientific Evidence in a Peaceful Valley
Where: Dinosaur Valley State Park, 1629 Park Road 59, Glen Rose; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/dinosaur valley
As you make your way along the magnificent Paluxy River, you can actually run your hands along the tracks of extinct giant lizards. However, this is just one wonder for this park next to the wonderfully relaxing town of Glen Rose. Hiking is pretty easy for the most part, which is one of the reasons I try to stop there as often as possible, especially with dogs in tow.
Depending on the water level in the river, dinosaur footprints are not always visible. It’s up to you whether you stop on your way to or from the park at the stunning Dinosaur World Tourist Stop or the non-scientific Creation Evidence Museum.
Caddo Lake: Is this Texas? Confident.
Where: Caddo Lake State Park, 245 Park Road 2, Karnak; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/caddo-lake
I dreamed about this park growing up in Texas and Louisiana. Advertised as one of the few natural lakes in Texas, it has actually been significantly altered by man. The attraction for visitors is the opportunity to ride through lake marshes, bays and ponds inhabited by moss-covered trees.
The park is closely associated with the historic Jefferson River Port nearby, as well as Lady Bird Johnson’s family, who donated land for the park. Not ideal in the sweltering season.
Balmorhea: Dive right in, the water’s fine.
Where: Balmorea State Park, 9207 Texas 17, Toyahvale; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/balmorhea
Austin residents are justifiably proud of Barton Springs, but give credit to this spring pool – 25 feet deep – in a small park at the foot of the Davis Mountains. Wide and deep, it offers the swimmer the opportunity to get out of the water and be surrounded by endless arid landscapes.
Scuba diving reveals the bounty of wildlife below the surface. I try to stop along the way through the mountains to clear my mind and refresh my soul. Like Garner, my family used this park as a transfer station on their way to visit relatives in New Mexico. Be vigilant: nearby oil exploration makes Balmorea fans nervous.
Davis Mountains: Tough Trails and Indian Lodge
Where: Davis Mountains State Park, TX 118, Fort Davis; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/davis-mountains
Tucked away in a bend in the Davis Mountains outside of Fort Davis, this park offers some of the best hiking in the area. While technically not climbing, the trails in the park still kick my ass.
I never planned ahead to stay at the CCC-era Indian Lodge in the park, but have camped here or stayed at heritage hotels in Fort Davis or Martha. Don’t miss the old fort at the foot of the mountains, one of the best preserved in the American West.
Too much plaster, but still gorgeous views
Where: Copper Breaks State Park, 777 Park Road 62, Kuana; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/copper-breaks
I especially like this relatively remote state park because it sits above the Pease River, a half-forgotten creek known to some only as the site of one of the last clashes between Native Americans and Anglo-Texans. It’s a beautiful, uncrowded place.
For a long time I wondered why this picturesque river attracts so few people and settlements. This question was answered during the Think Texas trip, when a guide at Copper Breaks explained that the gypsum that naturally appears in the water makes it unpleasant to drink.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected] Sign up for the free weekly Think, Texas newsletter at Statesman.com/com or the USA Today Network Texas news site.