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Gems for Learning

Knowledge leads to wonder at the dozens of classes offered in state parks.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Brand a Texas longhorn. Meet an alligator face to face. Beachcomb with an expert. See thousands of bats in flight. Cool!

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offers hundreds of interpretive programs and tours throughout the state park system. Covering everything from star gazing and bird watching to canoeing and historical hikes, they are designed to help visitors have fun and get a deeper understanding of nature.

Julie Martenson, TPWD's statewide interpretive coordinator explains: "At the Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area, for example, we want people to learn about the sinkhole's significance, its geology and the bat colony that lives there during a portion of the year. We want to make sure they get a unique experience at each park site. We also want to help the younger generation become land stewards and constituents so these sites remain protected."

Because all the cool interpretive programs offered across the state can't be covered in just a few pages, here's a sampling, categorized by regions. For a more complete calendar listing by date, region, activity and site, go to TPWD calendar.

Panhandle Plains

"Star Walk," Copper Breaks State Park

An isolated location and dark skies make this park a perfect place for star gazing. Using laser pointers, knowledgeable volunteers identify the planets and constellations. Binoculars and telescopes are available on-site.

  • When: Starts at dusk. May 24, June 21, July 19, Aug. 23, Sept. 27, Oct. 18.
  • For information: Regular park fees apply, (940) 839-4331. Bonus: park officials will reserve sites for visitors planning to camp after a Star Walk.
  • Directions: The park is located between Quanah and Crowell off State Highway 6.

"Fort Griffin Annual Calf Branding," Fort Griffin State Park and Historic Site

Every year in February or March, staff at Fort Griffin round up the calves from the official Texas longhorn herd, move them into cattle pens, and brand their hips with three numbers and the state's registered brand, a five-pointed star. In this hands-on program, visitors get in the pens and help with the branding. The day also includes breakfast, lunch and an afternoon program.

  • When: Call for next year's date.
  • For information: (325) 762-3592, $10 per person.
  • Directions: To reach the park, travel 15 miles north of Albany on U.S. 283.
  • Other cool programs:
    "Bison Seminar," June 7, San Angelo State Park, (325) 949-4757.
    "Canyon Critters," June 18, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, (806) 488-2227.

Prairies & Lakes

"Palmetto Summer Camp," Palmetto State Park

Palmetto State Park hosts a day camp that teaches outdoor skills to children ages 8 to 12. Children will learn how to pitch a tent, cook over an open fire, shoot a bow and arrow and angle for fish. "Every day is something different," says park manager Todd Imboden. Camp leaders even bring in a rock-climbing wall so kids can safely experience the thrill of scaling a sheer surface.

  • When: June 2-5, June 9-12
  • Reservations / information: Call (830) 672-3266 for reservations; packet will be mailed. Per child, $69 one week; $119 two weeks.
  • Directions: To reach the park, travel 10 miles northwest of Gonzales on U.S. 183 to FM 1586, then west on FM 1586 for two miles to Ottine, then south on Park Road 11.
  • Other cool programs:
    "Wildflower Bicycle Tour," May 10, Lake Mineral Wells State Park, (940) 328-1171.
    "Stagecoach Days," May 10, Fanthorp Inn State Historic Site, (936) 873-2633.
    "Snakes, Our Scaly Skinned Friends," June 7, Cedar Hill State Park, (972) 291-5490.
    "Creatures of the Night," June 21, Cooper Lake State Park South Sulphur Unit, (903) 945-5256.

Pineywoods

"Pioneer Woodworking Skills," Mission Tejas State Park

From the cradle to the grave, wood played a big part in pioneers' lives in the 1820s. Exhibit technician John Tatum demonstrates the tools people used in the 19th century to build houses, furniture, eating utensils and toys. Using a poll axe, broad axe, froe and club (a shingle-making tool) and other antique tools, Tatum shows how pioneers squared logs, made pegs and crafted tables and benches. The program also includes a tour of the Joseph Redmond Rice Family Log home, built from 1828-1838.

  • When: Call for dates.
  • For information: Regular park fees apply, (936) 687-2394.
  • Directions: The park is located 21 miles northeast of Crockett and 12 miles west of Alto. The entrance to the park is in Weches, where Park Road 44 intersects with State Highway 21.

"Floating the Forks," Martin Dies, Jr. State Park

Join park ranger Terry Lamon on an easy half-day canoe trip down the heavily wooded Angelina River. The nine-mile trip, for both novice and experienced canoeists, starts at historic Bevilport and ends at the park's Walnut Ridge Unit. Along the way, paddlers will see an abundance of wildlife and birds, possibly including alligators, deer, herons, hawks and feral hogs. Canoeists have even spotted a bald eagle.

  • When: May 17, June 21; call for more upcoming trips.
  • Reservations / information: Fees $30 per two-person canoe; $25 per two-person canoe, if bringing your own canoe; $5 for additional third person in canoe. Reservations required, (409) 384-5231.
  • Directions: To reach the park from Houston, take U.S. 59 north to Livingston, then travel east on U.S. 190 for 65 miles to the park.
  • Other cool programs:
    "Take a Kid Fishing," June 7, Tyler State Park, (903) 597-5338.
    "Steam Engine Shop Tours," June 14, Texas State Railroad State Park, (800) 442-8951 or (903) 683-2561.

Gulf Coast

"Beachcombing and Shelling Tour," Matagorda Island State Park

Lightning whelks, knobbed whelks, Scotch bonnets and sand dollars are just a few of the treasures people will find when beachcombing with an expert. Participants should bring a bucket, a sack lunch, a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water for this six-hour program. A four-wheel-drive truck takes beachcombers to an isolated Matagorda Island beach. Then, while everyone hunts, an interpreter talks about the different shells, marine invertebrates, tropical drift seeds and the sandy shore environment.

  • When: 9 a.m.-2 p.m, May 17 and 25, June 8 and 26.
  • Reservations / information: $8 adult, $4 with TCP; $4 children, $2 with TCP. Reservations required, (361) 983-2215.
  • Directions: Park headquarters is in Port O'Connor at the intersection of 16th Street and Maples. Only access to island is by boat or the Matagorda Ferry. Call the park to make arrangements for getting to the island. Fees vary.
  • Other cool programs:
    Photo Walks, May 10 (bird photography), June 14 (close-up photography), July 12 (close-up), Sept. 13 (amphibians and reptiles), Oct. 11 (birds) Nov. 8 (landscapes), Dec. 13 (surprise!), Brazos Bend State Park, (979) 553-5101.
    "Fishing with a Ranger," June 7, Lake Texana State Park, (361) 782-5718. "Candle Making Demon-stration," Sept. 20, Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site, (979) 345-4656.

South Texas Plains

"Alligators," Choke Canyon State Park, Calliham Unit

Is it an alligator or a crocodile? Park ranger Maile Chapa explains the differences and even handles a young alligator that was caught in the park's reservoir. Chapa also will describe the American alligator's biology and habitats. Male alligators, for instance, can live up to 40 years and weigh up to half a ton.

  • When: Call to schedule a program.
  • For information: Regular park fees apply, (361) 786-3868.
  • Directions: The Calliham Unit is located 12 miles west of Three Rivers on State Highway 72 to Tilden.

"Kiskadee Birding Tours," World Birding Center - Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

The Rio Grande Valley is one of the best regions in the state for birding. Buff-bellied hummingbirds, Audubon's orioles, green kingfishers and clay-colored robins are just a few of the birds visitors might see on a Kiskadee Birding Tour, hosted by Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Depending on the day, park rangers take participants to such prime birding spots as Falcon State Park. Participants should bring a sack lunch, binoculars, a bird book and comfortable walking shoes.

  • When: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
  • Reservations / information: Fees $25-$28 per person. Space limited, reservations recommended, (956) 585-1107.
  • Directions: From Mission, take U.S. 83; continue west on Loop 374 for 2.5 miles, then south on FM 2062 for 2.6 miles, and enter on Park Road 43.
  • Other cool programs:
    "Photographing Native Plants," Government Canyon State Natural Area, (210) 688-9055, call for dates.
    "Fishes of the Hill Country," June 7, Government Canyon State Natural Area, (210) 688-9055.
    Beginning Birding Tours, twice a month, World Birding Center - Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, (956) 585-1107.

Hill Country

"Bat Flight Tours," Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area

Visitors on the interpretive tour at Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area peer inside the sinkhole, the third-deepest cavern in the state. This collapsed limestone pit is 40 to 65 feet in diameter and more than 350 feet deep. It was discovered by Anglo settlers in 1867 and was made a registered National Natural Landmark in 1971.

At dusk, millions of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the cavern. Like a tornado, they spiral upward, disappear into the darkening skies and fly all night in search of insects.

  • When: April-November, Wednesday-Sunday. Tours depart from visitors center in Rocksprings 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., return 9 p.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Reservations / information: $12 adults, $10 senior citizens, $8 children. Reservations preferred. Call Devil's Sinkhole Society, (830) 683-2287 or (830) 683-3762.
  • Directions: To reach the park, travel on State Highway 55 to Rocksprings and go north six miles on U.S. 377. Devil's Sinkhole Visitors Center is in Rocksprings at 101 N. Sweeten St. All tours meet at the visitors center.
  • Other cool programs:
    "Concert in the Cave," May 10 and 24, Longhorn Cavern State Park, (877) 441-2283 or (512) 756-4680.
    "Crawling Wild Cave Tour," June 7, Colorado Bend State Park, (325) 628-3240.
    "Honey Creek Hike," every Saturday, Honey Creek State Natural Area, (830) 438-2656.

Big Bend Country

Rock art tours, Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site

Thousands of years ago, a prehistoric tribe lived beneath a huge cliff overhang and hunted the surrounding lands. They left behind more than 200 pictographs on the walls of their cliff dwelling, today called the Fate Bell Shelter. The pictures range from single paintings to murals hundreds of feet long. "The only way people can see the oldest rock art in North America is to go on a tour," says exhibit technician Billie Foster. Three special hikes, including a strenuous eight-hour tour, take visitors to closed areas of the canyon where they can see the rock art up close, accompanied with a thorough background on prehistoric life.

  • When: Presa Canyon Tour (eight hours), Oct. 25 and Nov. 15; VV 75 Tour (three hours), Oct. 18 and Nov. 29; Upper Canyon Tour (three hours), Oct. 26 and Nov. 16.
  • Reservations / information: Reservations required and will not be taken more than 30 days in advance; some restrictions apply; tours subject to cancellation, (432) 292-4464.
  • Directions: The park is located nine miles west of Comstock on U.S. 90, just east of the Pecos River bridge.
  • Other cool programs:
    "Spring Trail Ride," May 9-11, Big Bend Ranch State Park, (432) 229-3416.
    "Bouldering Tours," month of June, Hueco Tanks State Historic Site, (915) 849-6684 or (915) 857-1135.

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