Along U.S. 377, a few minutes north of the traffic and minutes-old strip malls and residential developments along the northern edge of the Metroplex—Frisco, Little Elm, Denton—all that falls away and the little city of Pilot Point, population less than five thousand, comes into view. For visitors who drive up from Dallas–Fort Worth, it’s a pleasure to be plunged into a stretch of small-town quiet with a real sense of spaciousness. Pilot Point is surrounded by premium North Texas horse country, the world of ranchers, breeders, and trainers. The property names fly by before you reach town: Simons Show Horses, Tommy Manion Ranch, Wolfcamp Equine Center. Paddocks and arenas are visible from the main road; a small yard sign advertises for a ranch hand, full-time.
For many travelers, Pilot Point is a gateway to Ray Roberts Lake State Park—reason enough to visit. But the strong horsey vibe is part of the appeal too, even though the facilities are mostly not open to day-trippers. Expert, high-dollar breeding and training is going on here, serving clients from around the nation and the world (some ranches offer summer camps, and North Texans can enroll in lessons to learn top riding skills—many national and international champions have emerged from this scene). You’ll rub shoulders with these skilled folk in Pilot Point’s eateries, at businesses on the modest town square, and around the lake. And there are a couple of places for visitors to rent horses and ply their equestrian skills on trails in the state park, just west of downtown.
Pilot Point was founded in 1854 near a high point in the landscape that had become known as Pilot’s Point, a landmark for the Ouachita and Caddo peoples and for wagon train pilots. Situated along the line where the Cross Timbers belt meets fertile blackland prairie, the town boomed for a few decades—cattle drives came through here, and in the 1880s there were nine saloons around the town square, with occasional Wild West shoot-outs. Major changes came again in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Lake Ray Roberts was created and the state park established. The nineteenth-century buildings that have survived around the tiny square—Denton, the county seat, got the more glorious one a few decades later—are lately filling up once more, in anticipation of a population boom after the expansion of the Dallas North Tollway is completed.
Spend any time here and you’ll notice something else: the names Bonnie and Clyde on people’s lips. All over greater Dallas–Fort Worth, the outlaws Bonnie Parker (who had family in Pilot Point) and Clyde Barrow (born outside Dallas) held up banks and led law enforcement on dusty high-speed chases that may or may not have included bluegrass music in the background. Pilot Point celebrates with the award-winning Bonnie & Clyde Days festival, held annually on the second Saturday in October. Crowds gather on the square for a bank-robbery reenactment, complete with thirties costumes, faux gunfire, and a vintage getaway car peeling out. Then they eat Dippin’ Dots and throw a pie-eating contest, among other festival fun. It’s a huge deal around here.
It’s important to note one fact: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow never robbed any bank in Pilot Point. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty did. The festival commemorates not so much the terrible outlaws (who killed two state troopers in nearby Southlake) but the Time When Hollywood Came to Pilot Point, to film a scene for the revolutionary 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. An 1896 building on the square is where the characters played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (in that cute beret), along with Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard, hold up their first bank as the Barrow Gang. Disappointingly, you can’t go inside it—it closed during the Depression and never reopened as a bank. Yet it holds down a corner of the square, and tourists ask locals about Bonnie and Clyde all the time, I’m told. (I sure did.)
Read on to learn how to enjoy Pilot Point any time of the year.
See + Do
Lake Ray Roberts is 23 miles long, and Ray Roberts Lake State Park has multiple separate units that allow access to the water and shoreline attractions. On the eastern end, Pilot Point is the gateway to the most popular recreation area, the Isle du Bois unit (the name is a nod to French pioneers in the area), with a sandy beach, campsites, boat ramps, a playground, and miles of equestrian, bike, and paved and unpaved pedestrian trails. From the fishing pier, you can catch largemouth bass, catfish, crappie, and sunfish. Black Mustang Ranch, which offers horse rentals (for riders with low-intermediate to advanced skills), is a short drive away, near the Jordan unit, also close to downtown Pilot Point.
A five-minute drive from the square, Sharkarosa Zoo, twenty years old this year, is a place with a different feel from that of slick metropolitan zoos. It has a winsome homespun vibe along with some serious animal exhibits and a mission to educate about rare, endangered, and exotic wildlife. The name—a mash-up of the old street name, Sharkey’s, and Ponderosa; this is a ranch of sorts—fits in with a certain lakeside-town funkiness you see here and there in Pilot Point. We were greeted at the entrance by a young zookeeper who introduced us to Elvis the skunk (scent glands removed), and we watched Elvis eat a meal from a puzzle-type food dispenser. More than 180 animals live here, some rescued from bad situations. Kids seemed enchanted by the more than a dozen lemurs frolicking with their gymnastic moves in tall, shady habitats, and there are plenty of petting and feeding opportunities—you can buy kibble at the entrance. Look for an impressive white tiger and the rescued American black bears Barnaby and Bailey in their large enclosures, but no, there’ll be no close encounters with them.
Pilot Point has a tiny but growing number of independent shops. Martin General Store, a contemporary throwback to the square’s former dry goods stores, opened five years ago in a corner spot. Gunshot holes are still visible on the facade, near where the town’s last Old West gunfight took place around 1905. The shop has a house-label line of jams, bins of old-fashioned candy, Beth Marie’s ice cream from Denton, modern-farmhouse home decor items, and gifts.
The square also is home to a couple of women’s clothing boutiques with youthful, attitudinal styles, including Southern Junkiez, in the grand old barbershop space where the owner’s grandfather was the barber—some styling stations remain in the back. The Sterling, which opened on the same block in December, is an events space with a small but well-chosen retail selection in the front, including fresh flowers and food: house-baked breads, fancy sweets including macarons, and grab-and-go lunch fare. Events so far include Pilates sessions and flower-arranging and bread-making classes.
Eat + Drink
Just off the square, two doors down from the Bonnie and Clyde bank, the counter-service Powerhouse Burger makes seriously good burgers using Angus beef. A small outdoor seating area reminds you that you’re near a lake: you walk up a ramp onto a pontoon boat repurposed as a deck. Pilot Point Coffee House, a gathering spot on the square, offers house-made baked goodies for breakfast, including danishes filled with Martin General Store jams, and sandwiches for lunch. Two diners popular with locals, both out on U.S. 377, serve comfort food basics. Signature items at Corner Cafe, open for breakfast and lunch only, include a carrot cake biscuit with pineapple butter. Bebo’s has vintage cars on the roof, a kitsch-stuffed interior, and live music some evenings to enjoy with your CFS or catfish platter.
Western Son Distillery, a craft-vodka producer known for Texas-flavored varieties like Hill Country Peach and South Texas Prickly Pear, is headquartered downtown. Its 30,000-square-foot main building—once home to a women’s undergarments company and long known to locals as the “old panty factory”—is open for tours on Saturdays ($15), with $5 vodka cocktails. Two wine-tasting rooms are coming to the downtown area too. Bella Mia Family Winery has signage up in the square and has been making appearances at local events for a while; some bottles are for sale now on the website.
For proximity to the lake, the best choice is the Lone Star Lodge and Marina, in the Jordan unit of the state park. A couple of miles west of downtown Pilot Point, it overlooks the water across some treetops, with stairs down to the shore (a short, easy walk) and extensive decking on the water side where you can sit and listen to waves lapping as you sip your morning coffee. The small lobby nods toward swankier hunting lodges with a huge bison head and antler chandeliers, but rooms are state-park basic—clean and comfortable. There’s a boat launch here, and you can bring your own (or just rent) kayaks, jet skis, tubes—or horses, from down the street at Black Mustang Ranch.
Nearby Slye Ranch has two lodging choices, set on seven acres of pasture dotted with oak trees: a rustic A-frame cabin suitable for families and—for couples only—a 53-foot shipping container tricked out with fun, modern decor and a rooftop deck. Waggin’ Tail Ranch RV Resort is aimed at dog lovers, with small, fenced yards surrounding many slots; communal dog parks for small and large pups; and a dog swimming pond. As you come and go along the little side road to the property, you’ll pass several of the horse farms—it’s a fitting place to settle in for a stay in this animal-mad little corner of Texas.