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Escape to Wonderland

Venture down the trails — watch out for the rabbit holes — at San Angelo State Park.

By E. Dan Klepper

“Curiouser and Curiouser!” cried Alice…

Alice was right. Things aren’t always what they seem to suggest. Take, for instance, the O. C. Fisher Reservoir dam at San Angelo State Park. It appears to have been built to hold back water, in particular the floodwaters of the North Concho River, thereby creating a 5,400-acre recreational lake. Or ponder the shallow depressions patterning the dry creekbed of the state park’s Little Foot Draw: simply scour spots in the creek bottom, of course. Or, for another example, consider Pat Bales. He appears to be a sane, gregarious and extremely knowledgeable assistant park manager. So it all seems.

But scrutiny reveals that, because of long-term drought, the lake has been reduced to a 400-acre paddle-and-splash. The dam, rather than curbing the flow of water, now keeps the growing city of San Angelo at bay and shields the river wilds from urban intrusion. The scooped-out impressions in the bedrock of the aforementioned draw are actually the footprints of 250 million-year-old swamp dwellers. And Bales? Down-to-earth and friendly and informative, but put him on a mountain bike and he turns into both the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.

“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess, “and the moral of that is - ‘Be what you would seem to be’ - or, if you’d like it put more simply - ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’”

Following a bike-mounted Pat Bales down San Angelo State Park’s own special version of Alice’s rabbit hole will definitely drive you mad - mad for more, that is. And it’s a good thing too, a very good thing for mountain biking enthusiasts, because San Angelo State Park offers some of the finest single-track in Texas.

“Fifty miles of trails!” Bales shouts across his backside as his front tire explodes off a mesquite log. “Level one through level three riding. Not only do recreational bikers use the park but also racing clubs. And competitive events love it. The park’s got it all.”

Bales is right. Challenging or smooth sailing — take your pick. Mountain bike through mesquite shadows, negotiate curvaceous turns or hydroplane across spongy red sand. Pump up bluffs of limestone chop or cruise through thickets of prickly pear so dense that all other vegetation has been squeezed and shut out. Badlands, creekbeds, river bottoms and grass-whipped pastures crosshatch with washouts and ruts. Ride the edges or run straight up through the middle and then — BAM! — you’re out on park pavement again wondering “Where on earth have I just been?”

With trail names such as Lanky Lackey, Horny Toad, Strawberry, Roller Coaster, Flintstone, Ghost Camp, Red Dam, Talley Valley and Kneeknocker, these trails can take you into all kinds of wild and wooly places. But fortunately for Texans, these trails begin and terminate in the 7,677-acre state park. Best yet, the park is approximately three driving hours from Lubbock, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Midland and Odessa and, of course, only a minute or two from San Angelo.

Who knew? Well, for starters, many avid Texas mountain bikers have begun to figure it out.

“It’s got a good variety of hills, flats and sand and enough ups and downs to keep it interesting,” says Michael Anglin, a mountain bike veteran of 12 years. Anglin, along with his fellow San Angelans Nicole Brambila, Susie Seward, Ed Seward and John Grove, ride the single track almost every weekend.

“I like all the curves,” Grove offers.

“It’s always different,” says Brambila, “because the nature of the trails never stays exactly the same, especially after it rains. When you come out here you can expect something new every time.”

The trail system follows recently designed routes as well as old cow trails and remnant motorized dirt bike tracks. Members of the Friends of San Angelo State Park — also devoted cyclists — have taken on the responsibilities of cutting new trails and maintaining the entire system, including repairing eroded surfaces and installing erosion-control devices. The trails are meticulously marked and, at strategic intersections, even offer water fountains.

“You can ride year-round pretty much, too,” Susie Seward adds, “and sometimes you get the trails all to yourself!”

“There’s a really good spread of challenges for all riding levels,” says Ed Seward. “When you come out here for the first time you see these little hills and you don’t think there is much to it. But there is.”

The park’s varied riding terrain includes woodlands of pecan, oak and river bottom to the north and upland rolling slopes, jagged buttes, mesquite and lots of prickly pear to the south.

“Some of it’s not for the faint of heart,” Grove warns.

Brambila advises riders to bring tweezers.

“Watch for birdlife, too!” Bales yells as his bike flies through a motte of shin-slapping tasajillo and overhanging mesquite.

Uh, did he say Duck?

As with all wonderlands, San Angelo State Park offers multiple realities. For example, companion horseback riding trails travel adjacent and perpendicular to the mountain biking tracks, and all of them cross occasionally at water stations that provide troughs for horses and a faucet or fountain for people. Hikers, on the other hand, may choose to travel any of the trails. It is all part of the park’s charm — something for the rock hoppers and stump jumpers and a whole lot of quiet for the pleasure seekers.

The park is home to a herd of livestock that loves to travel and a family of ranging mammals content to stay put rather than roam cross-country. These creatures are members of the official Texas State Longhorn and Texas State Bison herds. The longhorns, with pedigrees as long as those of racehorses, participate in periodic round-ups and take trailer trips to a variety of promotional programs. But the bison remain year-round in an 800-acre pasture on the park and enjoy it all to themselves.

Bison, the proper name for the ancient American ox, are the heaviest animals in North America. They can weigh up to 1 ton and can reach 6 feet at the shoulders. The park provides superb viewing opportunities — always from either the safe side of the bison-proof fencing or under the guidance of park personnel. But, more often than not, the bison are available for observation at the pleasure of Little Chief, the alpha male who may or may not decide to mosey up to the viewing pen. Once Little Chief makes a decision, all other members of the herd follow suit, including a few of his offspring. Gangly bison calves, of which the park’s herd averages about two a year, are hard to beat for cute and cuddly. Enjoy the cute but avoid the cuddle.

“Bison are capable of causing severe bodily harm!” Bales calls out from his bike, his voice rising above the thwapping of bee brush and cenizo. (So might any attempt to out-ride Bales.)

“Bison can stand flat-footed and jump a 6-foot fence,” he continues as he and his bike speed down a muddy bank of river drainage. “They can run between 30 and 35 miles an hour and maintain that for 15 to 20 minutes, or they can run at a lope for just about 24 hours.”

Bales pops up on the opposite side of the river bottom and into a swale of noggin-swatting Johnson grass. “You can’t outrun ’em and you can’t outmaneuver ’em,” he shouts and then disappears. Is he talking about the bison or is he talking about Pat Bales? Hey, wait a minute!

“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

Before the German immigrant farmers and Spanish explorers and the tattooed, pumpkin-growing Jumano Indians came here, San Angelo State Park harbored a primeval past, one that has revealed its mark despite a span of unfathomable time. Peel back the tranquil rolling plains of the 21st century by about 150 million years and uncover San Angelo’s own Jurassic Park. Now scrape away another 100 million years and step into the ancient life of the park’s Permian period. But tread gingerly. You will want, at all costs, to avoid disturbing traces of the San Angelo Swamp Things. These creatures inhabited the park long before bikers or bison did and were far larger, moved much more slowly and definitely ate more. The Pelycosaurs, meaning “basin lizards,” were early Synapsids that evolved into super-sized, lumbering beasts munching a lazy path through meat or potatoes, whichever they happened to be partial to and got in their way. More than a dozen of them crossed the park’s Little Foot Draw, leaving 26 fossilized trackways in the bed of the draw. Covered and preserved for millions of years, the trackways were exposed by natural erosion perhaps 2,000 to 10,000 years ago, finally coming to the attention of mammals (descendants of those tracklaying Synapsids) in the 20th century. One of those descendants, now an agile assistant park manager brimming with facts, will be happy to leave his mountain bike at home and take you and your entire family to view the trackways, where he can fill you in on more details.

Just at this moment Alice felt a very curious sensation, which puzzled her a good deal until she made out what it was: she was beginning to grow larger again, and she thought at first she would get up and leave the court; but on second thought she decided to remain where she was as long as there was room for her.

Thanks to its sizable acreage, the park’s opportunities beyond mountain biking and monster imagining include picnicking, fishing, orienteering, hunting and birding. There are stargazing parties and organized tours to see the dinosaur trackway, the bison and longhorn herds and the Indian petroglyphs. The facilities include group pavilions, a trailer dump station, showers, boat ramps and horse pens.

Accommodations range from shaded “primitive” campsites along the North Concho River to six simple air-conditioned and heated cabins. Many of the campsites include water and electricity and even the walk-in sites have picnic tables, grills, water and restrooms in the area. But, above all, the greatest feature is the park’s dual nature — a tranquil respite alongside an attendant and thriving metropolis.

“‘Twinkle, twinkle little bat! How I wonder what you’re at!’” “…It goes on you know,” the Hatter continued, “in this way: - ‘Up above the world you fly, Like a teatray in the sky.’”

A special brand of leisure comes about while relaxing in the park on a San Angelo twilit evening. A metronome for repose manifests in the ring of distant radio towers that embrace the park’s horizon and signals the surrounding urban gentility. The towers’ red lights beat lazily like palpitation points along the arteries — half-hearted yet composed and asynchronized with the pulse of the stars. Civilization sleeps soundly, and irrevocably, somewhere nearby, but never quite close enough to prevent the busy wild from going about its wildness. Every city should be so lucky.

For More Information

San Angelo State Park is located at 3900-2 Mercedes, San Angelo, Texas 76901. The telephone number is (325) 949-4757 and email is sasp@wcc.net. To reserve a campsite call (512) 389-8900 or go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/ spdest/findadest/ and click on “Park Reservations.”

Preview all the park has to offer at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/ spdest/findadest/parks/san_angelo/. Don’t let the long Internet address or the Swamp Things deter you from planning a virtual or recreational visit!

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