Texas boasts more varieties of native ferns and lycophytes (“ferny plants” for nonbotanists) than any other state in the continental U.S. As you might expect, you can find them in wetter regions such as the Gulf Coast and the Piney Woods, but they also live in places that seem too harsh for such lush organisms, including the edge of the semiarid Llano Estacado in the Panhandle. There, tucked away in the upper western corner of Caprock Canyons State Park, in Quitaque (about 95 miles northeast of Lubbock), Fern Cave beckons hikers off two of the more challenging trails. A rugged landscape of hoodoos, burnt orange cliffs and mesas, and short-grass prairie (where the park’s famous bison graze) gives way to a shady, verdant sanctuary. Spring water seeps through a craggy overhang, feeding the delicate maidenhair ferns that blanket the walls. This spot acts as both a cooling station for the hardy visitors who come to tackle some of the park’s nearly ninety miles of trail and a reminder that in Texas, a short scramble down a rocky path can lead to a whole new world.
This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Green Means Go.” Subscribe today.