When you can’t resist those big eyes that say “Don’t leave me at home,” head for a park that welcomes pooches.
By Melissa Gaskill
Any outdoor experience is made better when it’s shared with the right company, and as many of us have discovered, dogs are great travel companions. According to the Travel Industry Association, some 29 million Americans now travel with their pets, primarily dogs. While no doubt some of those millions are simply carrying a pampered pooch in and out of fancy hotels, I’m sure that many are, like me, taking their dogs swimming at the lake, exploring at the beach, hiking in the woods or on some other outdoor adventure.
If you’re already one of these people, you know it isn’t always easy to include your four-legged friend. Dogs simply aren’t allowed some places, for good reasons, like protecting fragile ecosystems or endangered wildlife, or because it would be dangerous for the dog. Some places allow dogs but don’t actively welcome them, for the same or related reasons. That said, there are great spots for enjoying the outdoors with your dog.
First, a few words about responsible doghood. Dogs in public places are like kids: Not everyone wants them around, and even those who like them may be somewhat annoyed by the disruptions they can cause. People quietly wildlife-watching won’t be too happy if your barking dog scares the critters away, and someone floating Zen-like on the river probably doesn’t want to be joined by your wet, hairy friend. Do yourself, your dog and everyone else a favor and make that first trip to an obedience class. Train your pooch to come when called and stay when asked; you’ll be much more popular out there, and your dog will be safer, too (think snakes, alligators, cliffs and the like). Take your dog for a vet check-up (and updated shots) before inviting him along on a strenuous outdoor activity. Be aware that dogs can get sunburned and suffer heat stroke just as easily as people. Mosquito repellent may be a good idea, and all Texas dogs need heartworm preventive.
Carry plenty of water for everyone (not all sources of water are safe for your dog to drink) and snacks for your dog if you’ll be hiking or otherwise active. First-aid supplies are a good idea, and, in some thorny places, dog booties.
Follow the rules. When hiking, stay on trails. Most places — and all state parks — require dogs to be on a leash; use leashes where required, even if no one is looking. And only service dogs are allowed in public buildings. Most important rule: scoop the poop. Unlike the stuff that wild animals produce, dog-doo is not a natural part of the environment. It can contain harmful viruses and bacteria, which are carried by rain into streams and rivers. No one likes to step in it, and no one likes to look at it, either. Carry plastic bags — this is a great way to reuse the ones that envelop your newspaper or sub sandwich.
Okay, turn the page to read about the top 10 dog-friendly sites according to my personal opinion, without benefit of scientific analysis or public poll (well, the dogs had a vote). This list reflects a preference for beautiful views, refreshing water, nice facilities for humans and ample recreational possibilities for all. There are many more wonderful places that just wouldn’t fit; almost every Texas state park is worthy of a visit with your dog, for example. You may quibble with certain selections, depending, say, on your level of tolerance for a sand-covered dog, or perhaps a burning (pun intended) desire for shade. That’s okay. What’s important is getting up and out, breathing in that fresh air (even if it is laden with eau de wet dog) and appreciating this great gem of a state. So, don’t sit. Don’t stay. Go!
1. Matagorda County Beach
Dogs can run free on this wide, uncrowded beach that stretches 22 miles from the mouth of the Colorado River. The first half-mile is pedestrian beach, adjacent to the LCRA Matagorda Bay Nature Park, which has restrooms, showers for you and your dog and picnic shelters. Dogs are also allowed on the park’s nature trails and three fishing piers. Stop at Stanley’s, at the turnoff onto 2031 from Highway 60, and pick up a beach vehicle permit, $6 for the calendar year. On the beach, keep your dog out of the dunes and from chasing the birds (there will be plenty; Matagorda County has been number one for number of species counted in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count for four years). There is an RV park and camping is allowed on the beach.
Matagorda County (979) 863-7120; <www.lcra.org/community/matagorda.html>
Padre Island National Seashore
More than 60 miles of undeveloped beach — just you and your dog with lots of sand and surf. Malaquite Beach, a five-mile, vehicle-free stretch, has a visitor center with a place to wash off your dog (who isn’t allowed on the deck or in the buildings). Keep dogs on leash here and elsewhere around people, but let him swim loose in the Gulf. Campground at Malaquite Beach, primitive camping anywhere on the rest of the beaches.
(361) 949-8068; <www.nps.gov/pais>
2. Lake Georgetown
Jump into the blue water with your pup, then hit the Good Water Trail, a scenic 16.6-mile hiking route along the lake’s shore, named after what local lore suggests the native Tonkawa called this area: “land of good water.” Views, rugged terrain, wildlife spotting and solitude abound. Leashes are required on the trail and in developed recreation areas. Dogs are allowed to swim in the lake without a leash. In undeveloped areas, dogs are allowed off-leash (but must be under their owner's control) except during hunting season and nesting season for golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos. Check with the park for dates and locations of those restrictions.
(512) 930-5253; <www.swf-wc.usace.army.mil/Georgetown>
Lake Somerville State Park and Trailway
A 13-mile trail connects Birch Creek Unit (with camping and day-use facilities) on the north shore of the lake to Nails Creek Unit on the south, crossing Yegua Creek and skirting Flag Pond. Shelters along the way for resting and picnicking and four primitive campgrounds. All state parks require that dogs remain on leash at all times, and only service dogs are allowed in public buildings.
(979) 535-7763; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/lakesomerville>
3. Bastrop and Buescher State Parks
Dogs — and people — love the sandy, shady 8.5-mile Lost Pines Trail and 3.5 miles of other trails through this most westerly stand of loblolly pine in the United States. The park also has a small lake, picnic areas, campsites and, for humans only, cabins, lodges and a swimming pool with a CCC-built bathhouse. Roll the windows down and drive scenic Park Road 1C to Buescher State Park to enjoy another 7.5-mile trail plus multiuse and tent camping, picnic areas and fishing lake.
(512) 321-2101; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/bastrop>
4. Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park
Hang out at Lake Buchanan with your pup or explore (on leash) 14 miles of hiking trails roaming 940 wooded acres, from level shoreline to rugged hills. Look for a variety of wildlife and birds, including American bald eagles, black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers. Dark skies are conducive to star gazing, and the park’s observatory is open most Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. The park has a dog-friendly lodge, campgrounds and RV sites.
(800) 977-0081; <www.canyonoftheeagles.com>
Black Rock Park, an LCRA park on the southwest shore of Lake Buchanan, with boat ramp, sandy beaches, tent and RV sites. Dogs can play unleashed in the water if it isn’t crowded.
(512) 793-3138; <www.lcra.org/community/blackrock.html>
Inks Lake State Park, on Inks Lake just downstream from Buchanan, has camping, swimming, fishing and 7.5 miles of hiking trails, where dogs will find an endless supply of intriguing sights and smells.
(512) 793-2223; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/inks>
5. Davis Mountains State Park
Trails meander through part of the most extensive mountain range in Texas, including a 4.5-mile route that leads to Fort Davis National Historic Site (dogs allowed on leash, but not in the buildings). The aptly named Skyline Drive is popular with star gazers; let your dog’s inner coyote gaze at the moon, which seems larger here. Keep pups in the tent or RV at night.
(432) 426-3337; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/davis>
6. Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway
This is John Wayne country — rocky cliffs, deep canyons, dramatic skies, even bison — and almost 90 miles of trails beckon, including a 64-mile trailway along a former railroad bed, complete with a tunnel. Hike up to 3,100 feet, then down to wade in the sandy Red River. People and perhaps their dogs first settled 10,000 years ago. Be prepared to share some trails with horses and bicycles.
(806) 455-1492; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/caprock>
7. Sam Houston National Forest Lone Star Trail
Wander through woods of pine and magnolia, across creeks and through swamps on the 128-mile Lone Star Hiking Trail through Sam Houston National Forest. A section with National Recreation Trail status goes from a trailhead on FM 945 just south of State Highway 150 27 miles to another on FM 1725 just north of Cleveland, with several access points in between that allow you to shorten that distance. Double Lake Recreation Area, accessible from this route or by car, is on a 24-acre lake and has campsites, picnic sites, a swim beach and, in summer, a concession stand with canoe rentals. Dogs must be on leash but are allowed in the lake (and can ride in a canoe).
(936) 344-6205; <www.fs.fed.us/r8/texas/recreation/ sam_houston/samhouston_gen_info.shtml
8. Pace Bend Park
The 1,368-acre park on a Lake Travis peninsula, with rugged limestone cliffs and typical Hill Country terrain, welcomes dogs and allows them off leash as long as they are under the owner’s control. Hiking trails take you to the high ground, where you may see deer, fox and other wildlife, and swim beaches on the gentle north and east shores provide easy water access. Picnic areas, restrooms and campgrounds.
(512) 264-1482; <www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/pace_bend.asp>
9. Hill Country State Natural Area
Forty miles of multiuse trails crisscross more than 5,400 acres of grassy valleys, steep limestone hills and spring-fed streams on this former ranch, which the donors requested be kept natural and untouched. That means only basic facilities are provided, but it also means the park is wild and natural, just the way some of us like it. Primitive and improved campgrounds, as well as several equestrian campgrounds (you’ll often share trails with horses).
(830) 796-4413; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hillcountry>
10. Grapevine Lake
Several parks on the north shore of this Corps of Engineers lake smack-dab in the middle of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex offer varied recreational opportunities. Your best bet is Murrell Park in Flower Mound, open 24/7 and free, with boat ramps, picnic tables, camp sites, restrooms, fishing banks and a trailhead for the Northshore Trail, a challenging hike and bike route roughly nine miles long. Dogs must be on leash.
(817) 481-4541; <www.swf-wc.usace.army.mil/lewisville/grapevine_lake.htm>
When you don’t have time to travel far, tide yourself over at dog-friendly urban parks like leash-free Red Bud Isle or Bull Creek District Park in Austin and dog parks like George Bush Park’s Millie Bush Bark Park in Houston, Gateway Park’s Fort Woof dog park in Fort Worth and the Dallas Dog Park at White Rock Lake. Check with your local parks department or find a listing at <www.ecoanimal.com/dogfun/texas.html>. Just promise your dog, and yourself, that you’ll make time for a longer jaunt soon.