DURING SPRING BREAK, THE GULF COAST resort town of South Padre becomes similar to New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Anything goes and often does. The beach is crowded with college students (some high school kids make the trek too) geared up for the biggest party of the year. Not surprisingly, the smell of beer masks the Gulf’s salty breeze and the music blaring from boomboxes drowns out the sound of crashing waves. While some favor the partying on the beach, I prefer to avoid the inebriated masses. I jump in my car with some friends, a tent, a sleeping bag, and a backpack to cleave to Mother Nature for a few days of peace and quiet. There’s nothing like the sunset, some fresh air, and my journal to rejuvenate my soul for another round of deadlines and exams.
Whether you like to backpack, rock climb, camp, or commune, Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) (www.tpwd.state.tx.us) has the places and the facilities you need. With 122 parks, natural areas, and historical sites, TPW offers more than 600,000 acres for Texans to enjoy. Check out the free Park Information Guide (www.tpwd.state.tx.us), which provides a camper or visitor with everything he needs to know about any state park in Texas. Here is where to go to challenge your outdoor sensibilities for a week or a weekend.
ENCHANTED ROCK STATE NATURAL AREA
If you want adventure (and don’t have time to drive to Big Bend), this is the park for you. Designed for the more rugged individual, Enchanted Rock, which is eighteen miles north of Fredricksburg on Ranch Road 965, offers hiking trails in addition to one of the more challenging rock climbing adventures in Texas. You’ll find that the four-mile hiking trek that circles the Rock is not a walk in the park, but it’s definitely worth the extra effort because of the breathtaking view. Perched atop the pink granite dome, you stand 425 feet above the ground, and on a sunny day, Little Sandy Creek, a small stream at the south side of the base of the Rock, catches the clouds’ reflections, putting the sky at your feet. Rising from the rocky land like a sleeping turtle, the Rock has inherited a magical quality over the course of history. The Tonkawa Indians believed it was the dwelling of ghosts and thought they could hear the spirits’ fires crackling and groaning. While geology has dismissed the legend (the disturbing noises are the sounds of the Rock cooling after being heated by the sun), this natural area has a spell that draws you in with its rough beauty and magnificence.
Naturally, such splendor makes this a very popular state park in any season, so TPW encourages you to arrive before 10 a.m., at which time you can usually get a campsite for the night, or make reservations (it frequently closes on the weekends and during spring break because it reaches capacity). The park is open to daytime visitors from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily ($5 per adult per day, senior citizens $3 per person, children 12 and under free). To camp, reservations are recommended (call 512-389-8900); no RVs or motorized-vehicle camping allowed. Campers with reservations can get in before or after the hours listed above. Tent site fees are $9 per night with an eight-person limit. Camping facilities, including restrooms with showers, are available. Campers need to bring their own firewood. Backpackers may only use designated camping areas ($7 per night with a four-person limit). Rock climbers are required to check in at the headquarters. For more information, call 915/247-3903 or log on to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/enchantd/.
LAKE MINERAL WELLS STATE PARK AND TRAILWAY
This is my favorite state park because there is so much and so little to do. If you want to be rugged and rough, you can hike and rock climb until your muscles ache and your skin is sunburned. The climbs vary in difficulty, so both a novice like myself and experts like my best friend and her husband can be challenged (we sometimes resort to cursing when we find our contorted bodies in positions we never even thought possible, especially at eight hundred feet in the air). Just remember when you are at the top and your nose touches the carabiner to make your favorite animal noise. Fellow rock climbers will get a kick out of it.
If you have had enough of mountain man antics, pitch a tent and relax near the cool waves of Lake Mineral Wells. At an outfitter shop, you can rent a paddleboat or a canoe and do some exploring—or my favorite activity, revel in the surrounding scenery while soaking in some rays and catching up on some reading. Besides the lake, the park is known for its blossoming wildflowers every spring. Enjoy fields of Indian paintbrush, bluebonnets, Mexican Hats, and morning glories.
The park, which is located four miles east of the town of Mineral Wells, is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. ($3 entrance fee per person daily, senior citizens $1 per person, children 12 and under free). Note: The office doesn’t open until 8 a.m., so if you intend to rock climb and get there early to explore, you’ll have to return to the office to register. RVs and motorized camping welcome. Only eight people are allowed at one campsite, and there are restrooms with showers. No ground fires allowed; you can build fires in designated areas. There is an extra camping fee of $6 for primitive sites, $8 for water only, $11 for water and electricity, or $20 for screened shelters (great for large groups). The park usually reaches capacity on weekends beginning in March through November, so reservations are recommended. Don’t worry about the park being too crowded, though. There is enough acreage, 3,282.5 acres to be exact, to go around. Rock climbers and rappelers are required to check in at the headquarters. For more information, call 940/328-1171 or log on to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lakemine/”
RUSK AND PALESTINE STATE PARKS AND THE TEXAS STATE RAILROAD STATE HISTORICAL PARK
While the Rusk and Palestine state parks offer the traditional camping and fishing experience, the real reason to travel out to the Piney Woods is for the turn-of-the-century Texas State Railroad depots located in each park. Don’t get me wrong. The parks are beautiful, but the sight of a steam-powered train was enough to make me forget about my natural surroundings and focus on the steel and smoke—at least for a little while.
In 1893 the State Prison System began construction on the Texas State Railroad, which was to be used to transport iron ore and wood from the Piney Woods to the iron-smelting furnace at Rusk’s East Texas State Penitentiary. The 32-mile railroad was completed when it reached Palestine in 1906. Prison crews worked on the trains until 1921, when the state discontinued the train service. On July 4, 1976, in honor of the nation’s bicentennial, the Texas State Railroad State Historical Park opened. Now the public can ride one of eight steam- or diesel-powered locomotives from Rusk or Palestine state parks and get a taste of the Age of Steam.
Every weekend after March 9, passengers can buy their tickets ($15 per adult, children 3—12 $9, children under 3 free) and board at Rusk State Park (reservations are recommended, call 903-683-2561). The first train leaves from the Rusk depot at 11 a.m. and returns from the Palestine depot at 3 p.m. The 25-mile ride takes you across 24 bridges and through the scenic East Texas woods. The train itself is worth investigating, so be sure to visualize life in the twenties as you roam from compartment to compartment. About an hour and a half later, you’ll reach the other station, where you can picnic and explore until you board the train to go back to Rusk depot.
In case you are returning to either state park, Rusk, which is three miles west of the town of Rusk on U.S. 84, offers water and electricity hookups ($10 a night) at its campsites, as well as a fifteen-acre lake. For the more daring campers, Palestine, three miles east of the town of Palestine on U.S. 84, has water-only campsites and restrooms without showers. The parks are open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (daily fee for both parks is $2 per adult, children 12 and under free). RVs and motorized camping allowed. For more information, call 903/683-5126 or 800-442-8951 or log on to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/rusk/.
WASHINGTON-ON-THE-BRAZOS STATE HISTORICAL PARK
The closest thing to adventure you will find at Washington-on-the-Brazos is the drive there. While the rustic scenery is beautiful, the series of skinny farm-to-market roads proved intimidating for my Toyota Camry. But once you arrive at this small unassuming state park, time stands still. Washington, where you can see the birthplace of Texas, is a day’s delight for the avid state historian. The historic trail begins at Independence Hall, where municipal delegates gathered to declare Texas independent from Mexico in March 1836. Continuing down the trails through the extinct town of Washington, you walk down what was once Ferry Street, which is now surrounded by mesquite, brush, and weeds. Looking out at the wild environment, posted signs tell you where homes and businesses stood 150 years ago. It is strangely eerie as you walk down to the Brazos overlook where a ferry used to take travelers across the river. Back then, Washington was a commercial boomtown for the cotton industry. But in the late 1850’s, the railroads bypassed the town, sentencing it to a slow death. Washington-on-the-Brazos got an extra boost as a state park when the Star of the Republic Museum opened in 1970, soon followed by the establishment of the Barrington Living History Farm. The visitors’ center offers a trail tour at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. every day ($4 per adult, students $2, children 6 and under free), or you can be your own guide. The Star of the Republic Museum takes you through the Republic’s history, from Indians and Spanish missions to the Texas Rangers. A twenty-minute film narrated by adopted- Texan Bill Moyers focuses on the battle for the Republic and life after independence from Mexico. The interactive wing is more for the little ones, but between the brand stamps and the colonial toys, my friend and I had a blast despite our age. Also, don’t forget to cast your vote for or against the annexation of Texas into the United States. You don’t have to be registered to vote. Check out the bathroom walls for some instruction on how to be a proper lady and gentleman in the 1800’s. The second floor of the museum will open March 1, with a new exhibit, “A Social and Cultural Interpretation of the Republic of Texas.” The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily ($2 per adult, students $1, children 6 and under free).
Just down the road is a visual guide to life during the Texas Republic. The Barrington Farm was the residence of Anson Jones, the last president of Texas. The slaves’ quarters, barn, pigpen, smokehouse, and kitchen were replicated on the farm, and the authentic home was moved to the portion of the property called the Living Farm. Experience everyday life in the 1850’s as you chase piglets and the yard chickens chase you. If you run into a farmer’s wife quilting on the front porch or cooking cobbler in the kitchen, you are not hallucinating. She is a park employee and in charge of the house and the kitchen. The men are in charge of the livestock and the planting. They will answer any questions you have, or they may share a recipe, show you how to make candles and soap (they perform demonstrations every day but call ahead to get a list of scheduled events), or reveal how they do their nineteenth century laundry. All of these activities and more are guaranteed on March 2, Texas Independence Day, when the farm really comes alive. Barrington Farm is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $4 per adult, students $2, and children under 6 free. For more information, call 936/878-2214 or log on to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/washingt or starmuseum.org.
Here are some helpful tips from Texas Parks and Wildlife to make your trip more enjoyable:
1. Make reservations now. Call 512-389-8900 or book online at www.tpwd.state.tx.us. The first night’s facility fee is required as a deposit.
2. Take sunscreen and bug repellent as well as sweaters and coats. Always be prepared for inclement weather.
3. Bring firewood. You are not allowed to collect wood from the parks.
4. Take a map. In the parks and sometimes on the way to them, it is easy to get lost and even harder to be found.
5. If you go to the parks often, get a Texas Conservation passport ($50 for a year). It waives the daily fees for a carload of people.
6. Public consumption and display of alcohol are prohibited. The park determines how strictly it is enforced. A good rule to follow is, Don’t be obvious or obnoxious.
7. Don’t take boomboxes. It defeats the purpose of being outdoors and can disturb other campers.