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Lost Maples and Longhorns

Destination - Bandera

By Michael Berryhill

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 9 hours /
  • Austin - 2 hours /
  • Brownsville - 6.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 6 hours /
  • El Paso - 9 hours /
  • Houston - 5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 1 hour

We may be 200 miles from the coast, but a breeze damp with Gulf moisture is blowing through the valley at the Dixie Dude Ranch in Bandera County, and my daughter Elizabeth and I are wondering if we should have brought our slickers.

We’re sitting on upended, smoothly sawn oak logs and eating breakfast served from a chuck wagon. All around us, the limestone hills are green with juniper and oaks.

Elizabeth and I are out of our element here. As flatlanders from the coast, we’re not used to having the earth provide such big sights. Bandera County has the densest concentration of hills in the Hill Country. Millions of years of erosion have created this beautiful maze of limestone canyons, small rounded hills and stream-lined valleys.

Vacationers from Houston began boarding at Bandera ranches in the 1920s, battening on the country cooking and western hospitality. Local entrepreneurs soon figured out that city visitors brought more money than raising cattle or goats. Today, 13 dude ranches are registered with the local chamber of commerce. Some are more luxurious than others; some cater to people who bring their own horses. Most offer an “American” plan that includes two or three meals a day and two trail rides. There are campfires every night and on Saturday nights someone in a big hat will sing and play the guitar. (For those who don’t care for ranch life, more than 50 bed and breakfasts and guest cottages also operate in the county.)

Dixie Dude Ranch, the oldest continuously running ranch in the area, was started in 1937. The barns are funky, the dogs are sleepy and the décor seems to have been fixed in about 1948. If you’re a certain age, you half expect Dale and Roy to come riding up.

After our cowboy breakfast, Elizabeth and I visit Maudeen Marks, a legendary breeder of longhorn cattle, on her ranch, the LH7. All kinds of people visit Marks at her ranch, which has 10 cottages and 14 hookups. The lakes are stocked with fish for catch-and-release angling. Birders sometimes come and arrange tours. Some people bring their horses. Others arrive in tour buses. Marks recently welcomed 44 beekeepers from Germany.

As Marks shows us some of her towering, tame longhorns, she describes how they became wild animals. Originally brought to Mexico from Spain to pull carts, enough of them escaped to create breeding herds, and nature culled out the losers. The winners had long tails that helped them swat off insects. Their ears sit beneath their horns, which protect these vulnerable organs from thorns and infections. Besides helping the cows fight off predators, their horns are useful to dig in the earth for water, and to knock down moss from trees if forage is scarce.

Now Marks raises a few of these cattle on a dude ranch of their own, and the cattle are the dudes, pampered and doctored, their blood and DNA registered, their traits recorded, their feed calculated and their treats delivered by hand. It’s a lot better life than having to pitch coyotes over your head to protect your calf.

From the LH7 we head to one of the best-loved places in Texas, Lost Maples State Natural Area. In late October and early November, depending on rain, the bigtooth maples here set the limestone hills ablaze with scarlet, orange and gold. This leaf show is the state’s closest rival to New England. The crowds can be daunting on the weekends, though.

On the way to Lost Maples we stop for lunch at Adams’ Apples, a restaurant and tree nursery near the village of Vanderpool on FM 187. Baxter Adams, a Houston oil geologist, began growing apples in the valley in the early 1980s. He says he had so many “ugly apples” that he started baking them in pies. His restaurant has a big room full of picnic tables and the aromas of apple pie and apple cobbler. Elizabeth and I are delighted to discover cinnamon-and-apple frozen custard.

The grounds surrounding the restaurant are covered with Adams’ true horticultural success: not apples, but several thousand bigtooth maples, Acer grandidentatum, set out in five-gallon containers. Adams says he sells all he can raise, and some have been planted at Lost Maples Natural Area. Like whooping cranes, these maples are a relict species, left over from the last ice age 10,000 years ago. As the weather warmed and dried, only the maples left in the remote, well-shaded canyons near Bandera survived.

We arrive at Lost Maples State Natural Area and meet our guide, Lee Haile, a competitive storyteller with a degree in entomology from Texas A&M University. The Hill Country is an ecological crossroads, he explains. This is where western species such as piñon and madrone make their farthest eastern appearance, and also where the black cherry and walnut of the Appalachian Mountains make their farthest western appearance. Huisache also creeps up from the south. The cool, north-facing canyons harbor hardwoods, while the hot, south-facing ones host cactus and juniper.

The Sabinal River runs through the park, providing a cool place and beautiful views of the bigtooth maples that grow along its banks. With 11 miles of hiking trails, and both primitive and developed campsites, this nearly 2,200-acre natural area draws 200,000 visitors a year for hiking, camping and leaf-watching.

Haile points out a screech owl in a gully and shows us where the red-tailed hawks nest on the side of a cliff. He whistles back to a black-crested titmouse, and gets us to listen to the buzzing of an endangered golden-cheeked warbler that we never see. He points out the bowl-shaped nest of a blue-gray gnatcatcher on the high limb of an oak tree, a beautiful thing created of lichen and spider webs. On the way out he stops at a cherry tree and shows us the empty cocoons of cecropia moths, hanging like big dried leaves. This moth, the largest in North America, can grow as big as your hand, but because it’s night-flying, it is seldom seen.

On Saturday morning, it’s time for a trail ride. At age 9, Elizabeth will have nothing to do with riding alone, although the wrangler has a perfectly safe horse picked out for her. But she will ride with me. So I climb on and the wrangler swings her up. A trail ride is a quiet affair. The horses ease steadily along in single file. We clop across a creek bed and through a hardwood thicket, then climb an easy hill. The beauty of riding is just to look at the view from the height of the horse, taking an easy, gently rocking view of things. My eyes wander along the paths of dry streambeds, noting the layers of rock cut through by wind and water, and soon I’m carried back in time.

We play in the swimming pool with some French families from Houston who come back to the Dixie Dude Ranch every year. We stroll around the bustling town of Bandera, and check out the eccentric little Frontier Times Museum, which is filled with such curiosities as a stuffed, two-headed lamb and a collection of bells from around the world. There is also a 19th-century shaving shingle horse used by one of the early settlers here. The cypress trees that grow along the Medina provided the raw material for shingles that were shipped by wagon to San Antonio, the logs being too big to float down the shallow river. That afternoon, Elizabeth insists on another ride, although she firmly refuses her own horse. I think she likes riding this way because it means an hour of being hugged on horseback.

Sunday morning, we tour the Flying A, a 10,000-acre ranch owned by the Alkek family of the old Sinclair Oil Company. Along with guided hunts, the ranch management is planning for ecotourism. To this end, management has redirected water from its streams, sometimes running a mile or more of pipe to water troughs that can be used by small mammals such as ringtails, rabbits, foxes and the like. Black-bellied whistling ducks use a deep hole on one of the ranch’s creeks. The invasive young juniper is being sheared away with hydraulic cutters and controlled by burning. Enough old-growth junipers are preserved for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, which strips the shaggy bark for nesting material.

There’s not much left of Sunday but to go down to the Medina River in the Bandera city park and have a picnic. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Bandera’s three major paddling concessionaires run shuttle services and rent kayaks and canoes. We’ve come too early in the spring for them to be open, and I think longingly of my canoe back on the coast.

Elizabeth is entranced by the shiners plainly visible near the bank, and tosses a bit of bread to them, which they quickly gobble. I lean against a cypress and close my eyes for a moment. Soon Elizabeth shakes me. Her eyes are wide. There’s a fish, she says, a big fish. How big? I ask, and she holds her hands far apart. Sure enough, a bass maybe a foot long is suspended in the green water. I should take her fishing here, I think. We could take a float trip in the fall, and she could learn to sight cast, and we would look for the little green kingfishers that are found here sometimes, and then we’ll go see those famous maples in their autumn splendor, those maples that have not been lost at all.

Exploring Bandera

  • Bandera County Texas Chamber of Commerce, (800) 364-3833. www.banderatex.com
  • Dixie Dude Ranch, (800) 375-9255, www.dixieduderanch.com
  • Love Creek Orchards, (800) 449-0882, www.lovecreekorchards.com
  • Flying A Ranch, (830) 796-4750 www.flyingaranch.net
  • Frontier Times Museum, (830) 796-3864, www.texasguides.com/frontiertimes.html
  • Lee Haile, nature guide, (830) 562-3612
  • LH7 Ranch (Maudeen Marks), (830) 796-4314
  • Lost Maples State Natural Area, (830) 966-3413

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