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Adventures in Cowtown

Destination: Fort Worth

Travel time from:
Austin – 3 hours
Brownsville – 7.75 hours
Dallas – 0.5 hours
Houston – 4 hours
San Antonio – 4 hours
Lubbock – 4.5 hours
El Paso – 8.5 hours

Fort Worth offers a wealth of natural and cultural treasures.

By Lydia Saldaña

Exploring a new hometown can be quite an adventure, one I’ve not experienced for nearly 25 years. I’ve landed in Fort Worth after a life transition including early retirement from my job in Austin and a new marriage.

I worked in Fort Worth for a brief stint as a reporter in the late ’80s and have watched from afar as Cowtown has transformed itself since then into an ever-more-cosmopolitan destination. Meanwhile, my life experiences have taken me on a different path, transforming me from city girl to nature lover. So, for this three-day adventure with my husband (a resident for two decades), we focused on what the city has to offer in the way of parks, wildlife, nature-based recreation and cultural attractions.

Our hometown adventure started at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge with a guided canoe tour on the West Fork of the Trinity River. At 3,600 acres, it is the largest city-operated nature park in Texas. The last time my husband, Bill, visited was a dozen years ago when his sons were in the Boy Scouts. We met up with our tour guide, Chad Etheridge, and, along with a half-dozen paddlers, donned life jackets and listened to a quick how-to-paddle lesson.

Etheridge shared natural history facts with obvious passion for the outdoors. He says he hopes he can inspire others through these tours to get more involved in caring for the river.

“Tens of thousands of people drive across bridges over the Trinity River in North Texas and have no idea what is below,” Etheridge says. “I hope these experiences will help people look at the river differently and think about what it means to them.”

We saw an amazing array of wildlife. Bill is an avid backyard birder, and we were both entranced by the birds we spotted: ospreys, herons and wood ducks. We neared the finish of our six-mile paddle, and, as if on cue, some paddlers spotted a water snake and a small alligator, creating a stir among the group, especially 7-year-old Liam, who was on his very first paddling adventure. As we disembarked from the canoes and gathered up to leave, his eyes sparkled with excitement under a tousled mop of curly blond hair.

“I’ve never seen a snake or alligator in their natural habitat,” he exclaimed.

My husband, a teacher, had remarked earlier about the young boy’s impressive vocabulary.

“Where did you learn the word ‘habitat’?” I asked Liam.

“I went to camp [Fort Worth Zoo Camp] this summer and learned all about conservation and the habitat that wild animals live in,” he informed me.

With the Fort Worth Zoo next up on our itinerary, Liam’s words seemed like a good omen. We bade our newfound friends goodbye and made our way to a nearby picnic table for lunch under a canopy of trees. Bill told me how much he enjoyed the morning.

“As you are discovering Fort Worth, I’m rediscovering it,” he said.

Fort Worth Zoo

Visitors to the Fort Worth Zoo can see animals from around the world.

Ranked as one of the top zoos in the nation, the Fort Worth Zoo attracts more than 1 million guests each year. There are 12 permanent exhibits, including Texas Wild, an eight-acre exhibit featuring flora and fauna native to Texas. It’s a one-of-a-kind homage to indigenous wildlife; no other major zoo in the country has an exhibit that focuses so much attention on native plants and animals.

We headed next to one of Bill’s favorite restaurants, the upscale Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine. We had worked up a good appetite and enjoyed a hearty meal featuring wild game, an appropriate choice given our day’s adventures. Chef Jon Bonnell prides himself on creating his menus from local products, making this a Texas Wild adventure of a different, delicious sort.

Venison

Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine serves dishes with regional style such as Venison Carpaccio.

The next morning, we fueled up for a day of cultural attractions at the Paris Coffee Shop, one of the oldest family-owned restaurants in town and a venerable Fort Worth institution. The personable owner, Mike Smith, whose family has run the place since 1926, stopped by for a chat as we enjoyed breakfast and endless cups of coffee. Smith arrives at the coffee shop at 3:30 every morning (except Sunday) to make the shop’s famous pies. After our large breakfast, we promised a return visit soon to sample them.

The Amon Carter Museum is a focal point of Fort Worth’s famed cultural district, one of the largest art districts in the country. Featuring masterworks of American art, the museum was established as a result of the generosity of Amon Carter Sr., the legendary founder and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

We stopped in at two of the current exhibitions. “Color! American Photography Transformed” chronicles the advent of color processing in the art of photography. This newfangled development initially received only cautious acceptance, reminding me of the sometimes-heated discussions in the early ’90s about digital photography versus film photography.

Of particular interest to me was a small collection of paintings depicting Texas Regionalism. The exhibit captured a key moment in our state’s cultural history when a group of Texas artists in the 1930s gained renown for interpretations of their local environments. The exhibited paintings displayed a variety of beautiful Texas landscapes; it was easy to see how nature inspired this art.

For lunch, we opted for a picnic in a different kind of park, the Fort Worth Food Park, close to the cultural district. Bill’s son had highly recommended a visit, and we were not disappointed. Local chefs run the food trucks, and we selected a smorgasbord of dishes to sample while we visited with several of the chefs.

After a leisurely lunch, Bill and I ventured to the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens. We share a passion for gardening, so we were disappointed to miss a native plant sale. Instead, we stopped in at the Botanic Gardens Con­servatory. The conservatory boasts a collection of exotic flora from around the world, housed in a 10,000-square-foot glass-enclosed tropical rainforest. We marveled at the otherworldly nature of the exotic plants.

From there, we headed to Log Cabin Village, a living history museum with carefully restored structures that re-create life in North Texas from the mid- to late 1800s. The exhibits include a one-room schoolhouse, a gristmill, a blacksmith shop and several log homes furnished with authentic artifacts. Historical interpreters bring it all to life. The pioneer herb garden intrigued us, and we took home some ideas for the herb garden we’re planning for our backyard.

Venison

Log Cabin Village gives visitors a glimpse into life in 19th century Texas

For our evening’s entertainment, we took another twist on our wildlife- and outdoor-themed adventure: the Coyote Drive-In for a movie and dinner. The old-fashioned drive-in is downtown, adjacent to the Trinity River. We both enjoyed the retro experience but agreed that next time we probably should park a little closer to the screen!

We geared up for a bike ride on the Trinity Trails the next morning, an activity I had been happily anticipating. Bill hadn’t ridden his bike in a while and was bemused by my pre-ride fussing, making sure water, helmets and other necessities were loaded into the van with our bikes.

The Trinity Trails are part of a region-wide master plan for the 88 miles of the Trinity River that flow like spokes of a wheel throughout the city. The master plan is called the Trinity River Vision, and thanks to community leaders and volunteers and support from the city, the county and the Tarrant Regional Water District, the vision is coming to life with a goal of connecting every neighborhood in the city to the trail system and the river.

We started our ride in Trinity Park near downtown and headed toward the Stockyards for an easy 10- to 12-mile ride. Bill groused a bit about the hassle of getting two bikes in and out of the van, but once we got going, I could tell by his grin that he was enjoying the experience.

“This is fun!” he confirmed as we headed out on the trail.

We rode through the park and stopped at Panther Island to chat with a kayak vendor. Panther Island is the venue for many special events and now offers rentals for those who want to get on the water. We pedaled across a bridge and past the downtown skyline and rode by the Coyote Drive-In where we had been the night before. We turned around just shy of the Stockyards and headed back to the van.

As we packed up our bikes, we began planning our next Fort Worth adventure.

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