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March 2010 cover image 12 Great State Park Walks

Healing Waters

Destination: Mineral Wells

Travel time from:
Austin – 4 hours
Brownsville – 9.75 hours
Dallas – 1.5 hours
Houston – 5.2 hours
San Antonio – 5.25 hour
Lubbock – 4.75 hours
El Paso – 10 hours

Mineral Wells’ trails, wildlife and history prove as restorative as its famous water.

By Cynthia Walker Pickens

People have been journeying to Mineral Wells for more than 100 years, seeking to repair and rejuvenate body and soul. Originally a resort destination for partaking of the mineral waters, now the town offers outdoor activities and colorful history to those seeking a restorative weekend.

My friend and I arrive in Mineral Wells on a Friday afternoon, driving directly to the Lake Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway. The park encompasses more than 3,000 acres, with a 646-acre lake. Within park boundaries, visitors can fish, boat, hike, mountain bike, horseback ride, climb, swim, camp or picnic. Kayaks and canoes can be rented at the on-site store, but you must bring your own horse!

Photo by Laurence Parent

The park has one of the few climbing areas available in North Texas, Penitentiary Hollow. The hollow provides climbing opportunities for every skill level, with the longest ascent being 35 to 40 feet. Climbers must sign in at the office, agree to park rules and pay a small fee before hitting the ropes.

Visitors can also enjoy a wide variety of interpretive programs, many of which are led by David Owens, the park’s assistant superintendent. Programs include a cowboy campfire (during which Owens uses poetry and music to tell the history of the area), a kids’ wilderness survival program (complete with survival kit), nature programs, star parties and storytelling. Many of the programs take place at the park’s outdoor Lone Star Amphitheater.

After a rain, some of the park facilities may be closed to prevent damage. The day before we arrive, the park received a 3-inch gully-washer, so Penitentiary Hollow is closed to climbers, and the backcountry trails are off-limits, too. However, Owens directs us to the Lake Front Trail, which wanders through what he calls “ancient cross-timber woodlands.” He explains that because this area is on a slope, it was unsuitable for agriculture and today is in pristine condition, looking the same as it did for early settlers.

We take an hour to explore that short (less than a mile) trail, with frequent stops to identify plants, admire vistas both large and small, and take photos. The campsites across the lake are tucked out of sight, and we are the only hikers. We can envision early settlers traipsing through these woods; however, the lake, created in 1922, is a more recent addition to the landscape.

We also peek into Penitentiary Hollow, on this day quiet and bereft of its climbers. The hollow is narrow, surrounded by tall cliffs, with a few trees eagerly reaching skyward. I am reminded of countless Western movies in which unwary travelers are ambushed in canyons by bad guys. I am ambushed by a red wasp, but it is not feeling too ferocious and flies away when freed from my hair.

On Saturday, our first stop is the Old Jail Museum complex, a short drive west of Mineral Wells in its smaller, quieter neighbor, Palo Pinto. To get there, we take a lovely drive through the Palo Pinto Mountains, crossing the Brazos River and the John Graves Scenic Riverway. Graves is the author of Goodbye to a River, a nonfiction account of his 1957 canoe journey down the Brazos.

The museum enthralls us with its well-kept collection of memorabilia from the county’s early days. The centerpiece of the complex is the Old Jail, built on this site in 1880 to house inmates upstairs and the sheriff and his family downstairs. Docent Freeda Hose escorts us through the complex, regaling us with stories from the county’s history and the creation of the museum. Fixated on a mountain lion mount, I obliviously brush past the jail’s noose and trap door. A shiver of uneasiness passes through me when I turn and see my companions — through the noose! Other exhibits include three cabins and an old fort, all of which had been dismantled at original sites, then reassembled at the complex.

Two hours later, we return to Mineral Wells for a quick lunch and move on to the endurance portion of our trip: bicycling on the trailway.

First, we drop by the Famous Mineral Water Co. In the late 1800s, local residents discovered the curative powers of the mineral water that lay underground. As word spread, many people traveled to Mineral Wells to drink that water. Entrepreneurs soon followed. Mineral Wells became a resort destination, and people (some of them famous) spent summers here, drinking and bathing in the healing waters.

Photo by Lance Varnell

The Famous Mineral Water Co. was founded in 1904 by Ed Dismuke, a druggist from Waco. After doctors told him he would die from his stomach ailment, he traveled to Mineral Wells to drink the water, and was cured. He sold his pharmacy in Waco and opened the new company in Mineral Wells, devoted to dispensing the healing waters. We buy a few bottles to take home and taste.

Time to ride!

The trailway is a converted rail line, the same line people had used to travel to Mineral Wells. In 1998, the rail line was converted to the trailway, a 20-mile path from downtown Mineral Wells to Cartwright Park near Weatherford. Open for hiking and equestrian and bicycle use, the trail wanders from an urban setting, through rural neighborhoods and on into ranch country, with gentle grades and curves.

Photo by Cynthia Walker Pickens

We choose to begin at the state park trailhead. To get to the trailway, visitors must first negotiate a 2/3-mile downhill trail. On bicycle, whee! Upon reaching the trailway, we see that the trail to Mineral Wells, six miles to the west, is closed because of water damage. As it happens, we have planned to head east. The trail parallels a small road for much of the 3.4-mile distance to the Garner Trailhead. We pass a few groups of hikers, but have the trail mostly to ourselves.

Wildlife-friendly vegetation edges the trail, such as blackberries, snailseed and an unidentified small thorny tree that forms a dense thicket in places. Impassive cows watch us go by, but horses seem uninterested. We cross several small creeks, including one named Dry Creek that is not at all dry. The trail also traverses some driveways and roads, requiring caution.

After a leisurely ride, we reach the Garner Trailhead. We stop for a short celebration of our achievement (the trailhead has parking, a restroom and drinking water), then decide to push on. From there, the trailway diverges from the county road — and enters a more remote section that we are eager to experience. We are glad we did.

Without road noise, this part of the trail is more peaceful. A gusty wind blows the trees, hedges of cowpen daisies grow close by, and hayfields and pastures surround us. In the distance, we see farmhouses and ranch buildings, but no people or cars. After riding about 1.5 miles, my friend dismounts near a cluster of ranch buildings, pulls out her binoculars and adds some birds to her trip list: the eastern bluebird, eastern meadowlark, northern mockingbird, mourning dove and northern harrier.

Our legs and the sun dictate it is time to turn around. The trail is wide enough to ride two abreast, and we talk all the way back. We agree that if we had it to do again, we would begin at Garner and delve deeper into ranch country. We could have ridden the entire 10-mile distance to Weatherford and arranged a pickup there. As it is, we are very proud of our 11.5-mile ride. Not bad for two out-of-shape cyclists!

Sunday is our last day to see the rest of Mineral Wells. After a delicious breakfast, we say goodbye to our hosts and their little dog at the Silk Stocking Row Bed & Breakfast and drive a few blocks to our first stop, the Washing Machine Museum, located in … a laundry! We happily wander the aisles of the self-service laundry, experiencing the scent and humidity of wash day, as we examine artifacts such as washboards and early electric washers.

Next, we pause to snap photos of the decaying Baker Hotel. This old dame towers over downtown Mineral Wells with 14 stories of faded glory. The hotel opened in 1929, offering swank accommodations to tourists. It closed in 1972, but rumors of its reopening continue to swirl through town.

A quiet, gray Sunday morning is the perfect time to visit the National Vietnam War Museum. A Huey helicopter marks the entrance to the museum grounds, east of Mineral Wells. Also on the grounds is a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The museum is a work in progress, with an exhibit hall planned that will explore all aspects of the Vietnam War. The majority of the Vietnam War’s helicopter pilots were trained in Mineral Wells at Fort Wolters. Fort Wolters was originally a cavalry training post; during World War II, it housed German prisoners. After its final mission, helicopter pilot training, it was closed in 1973.

Our final destination is Clark Gardens Botanical Park. Max and Billie Clark began gardening here in 1972 and opened the 35-acre park to the public in 2000. For a small admission fee, visitors can wander at will, exploring a wide variety of gardens. The Clarks collect irises, daylilies, azaleas and roses. The park also features a garden built around miniature trains, island gardens with themes, water features and much more. We have two hours to wander, and we use every minute.

It is time to head home. We have missed some things in our mad weekend dash through town _ visiting the 77-acre Boudreau Herb Farm, touring past the beautiful old homes from the resort days, canoeing on the Brazos River, enjoying a program at the state park. Perhaps we can come back one day!

DETAILS
•    Lake Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway, 940-328-1171, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/lakemineralwells
•   Old Jail Museum, 940-659-2555
•   Famous Mineral Water Co., 940-325-8870, www.famouswater.com
•   Silk Stocking Row Bed & Breakfast, 940-325-4101,www.silkstockingbb.com
•   Wilson Coin Laundry, 940-328-1662 •Baker Hotel, www.bakerhotel.us
•   The National Vietnam War Museum, 940-664-3918,www.nationalvnwarmuseum.org/index.htm
•   Clark Gardens Botanical Park, 940-682-4856, www.clarkgardens.com
•   Boudreau Herb Farm, 940-325-8674
•   Rochelle’s Canoe Rental, 940-659-3341
•   Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce, www.mineralwellstx.com/HOME.2.0html

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