Best of Texas (Naturally) 2012
Bigger in Texas? Why, yes, everything is! Better in Texas? Of course!
By Louie Bond
Ask Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staffers what they love best about Texas and then sit down for a spell.
The one thing that unites biologists and educators, journalists and accountants across this agency is a love for the natural places that abound in this state. Our eyes start to sparkle when we talk about horned lizards, Palo Duro Canyon or kayak fishing. Love of nature and love of Texas — it’s in our DNA.
Last year, we brought you a selection of Texas’ natural favorites picked by our Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine staff. This year, we asked our colleagues across the agency for their picks. We hope you’ll join in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and tell us about your favorite Texas animals, places, plants and activities.
While all the nominees are clearly winners in their own right, I’d like to share one special nomination that resonated for me. You see, like Inland Fisheries specialist Larry D. Hodge (a frequent contributor to the magazine), I can’t decide on just one!
Best Ode to Beauty
Larry Hodge says: My favorite place in Texas? How about that bluff on our hunting lease overlooking the confluence of the Pecos and the Rio Grande, the perfect place to watch the sun set? Or the almost-mystical moss-draped parade of trees lining Government Ditch on Caddo Lake? Or a playa lake in the Panhandle at sunset with a thousand sandhill cranes spiraling down, calling across the ages? Or the dense thorn-scrub of a South Texas wildlife management area, its silence shredded by a raucous band of chachalacas? Or the Hill Country deer blind where I shot my best buck ever, a heavy 10-pointer who lingered just a second too long after I bumped the window getting my gun up? Or the sandbar at the mouth of San Francisco Canyon on the Rio Grande where sleep came swiftly after a hard day’s paddling against the wind, while thunder rolled in the distance, reminding me that the canyon once flashed 80 feet deep here and drove the Rio Grande backward for half a day? Or any of a thousand other places in this state, where I have explored every corner (and most of the rounded-off places, too)? No, none of these. My favorite place in Texas is one I have not yet seen. And there will always be another.
Best Cruise in an El Camino
El Camino Del Rio is the Spanish name (“River Road”) for FM 170’s circuitous path along the Rio Grande from Lajitas to Presidio. The 50-mile drive, a long, winding road across the Chihuahuan Desert along the bottom edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park, will take you an hour or so to traverse, if you don’t stop to look. “Perish the thought!” says David Lewis, an interpretive ranger at Fort Leaton State Historic Site. At the peak, La Cuesta, you’re 600 feet above the Rio Grande, but you’ll be back down to the river in less than a mile. Along the way, you’ll spy a movie set. On the west end is Fort Leaton, a Chihuahua Trail trading post and the largest adobe structure in Texas. The Barton Warnock Visitor Center, with a natural history museum and desert garden, is on the east end.
Best Place to Start a Revolution
“I am a huge history buff, and the Texas Revolution is my favorite period,” says TPWD contract and park revenue manager Shawn Riggs. Sometimes his wife and two kids grow weary of pursuing Riggs’ passion for historical sites and re-enactments. But one place they all enjoy is Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. “Let me tell you, they love it,” he says. The charming park’s Barrington Living History Farm is a favorite of the children. They learn how early pioneers made rope, washed clothes in a wooden tub with a washboard and carried water using a yoke; then the kids are given a chance to try their hand at it themselves. The entire family enjoys the star-shaped Star of the Republic Museum. Riggs’ favorite spot is Independence Hall, where, he says, “ordinary Texans did an extraordinary thing” when they birthed a nation.
Best Place to Sink a Ship
Texas Parks & Wildlife television producer Bruce Biermann, an expert diver, says the sunken Texas Clipper is the best day-trip scuba adventure off the Texas coast. After a colorful career dating back to World War II, the Texas Clipper was sunk in 2006 as part of the Ships-to-Reefs program. In the years since, she has become an enormous oasis for marine life. “I came around the davit arm once and had four of the largest red snapper I have ever seen staring at me,” Biermann says. “Manta ray, amberjacks, barracuda, queen angels, grouper — they all abound on the Clipper. Even shark and dolphin sightings are not unusual.”
Best Flip-Floppers Haven
A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery manager Rob Schmid describes the waters of the San Marcos River as “gin clear.” He should know. Schmid collects what he calls “derelict flip-flops,” lost by happy paddlers, tubers and swimmers at Rio Vista whitewater park. Not content to just throw the rubber shoes into the trash, Schmid creates works of eco-art with them, including three flip-flop trees the local paper cleverly dubbed “The Forest of Lost Soles.”
Best Place to Row, Row, Row Your Boat
With 35 established paddling trails across the state, and more opening every year, it’s hard to pick a favorite, though many were nominated by happily paddling TPWD staffers. Special project coordinator Paul Hammerschmidt, a member of the TPWD paddling trails team, particularly enjoys kayaking the trails at Lighthouse Lakes and Galveston Island State Park. The Lighthouse Lakes trail, near Port Aransas, was the first official Texas paddling trail, and it offers kayakers a mix of mangrove mazes and open flats, with excellent fishing and birding opportunities and views of the Lydia Ann Lighthouse. Observe shorebirds as you quietly paddle at Galveston, just as the Karankawa Indians did centuries ago.
Best Fish You’ll Never Catch
Sea Center Texas, located in Lake Jackson, is a wonderful place to learn about fascinating sea creatures for free, says visitor center manager Connie Stolte. Visitors flock to Sea Center to see the most diverse native fish aquarium displays in the state and huge replicas of state record fish. Kids can get up close and personal with smaller creatures like hermit crabs, sea anemones and snails at the touch tanks. “You will be amazed from the moment you walk in the front door,” says Stolte. “I enjoy watching kids’ faces light up and their eyes open wide with wonder.”
Best Forgotten Treasure
Game Warden Michael Mitchell says most Texans overlook the treasure that is Matagorda Island State Natural Area, probably because it is accessible only via boat. A 38-mile-long narrow stretch of barrier island and bayside marshes, Matagorda is guarded by an 1852 lighthouse at the north end. Enjoying the beautiful seclusion are a dazzling array of migratory birds, deer, alligators and other wildlife.
Best “Grandma” Christmas
Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm manager Eugene Bonds says that Christmas at the farm is like stepping into a Currier and Ives painting. While visitors can experience life circa 1900 on a typical German farmstead all year long at the farm inside the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, they may visit at night during the annual tree-lighting event, held the third Sunday in December. The farm comes to life with more than 30 costumed interpreters and musicians. Some are busy tending the livestock; others are making items from metal in the blacksmith shop. Inside the Victorian house, Mama is busily sewing a new doll dress and greeters welcome guests into the traditionally decorated parlor, complete with a freshly cut tree illuminated with actual burning candles. In the kitchen, guests are tempted to sample traditional German cakes and cookies.
Best Place to See a Primitive Picasso
When our ancestors inhabited the large limestone rock shelters at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site in the lower Pecos River country, they decorated their “living rooms” with some the most complex pictographs found anywhere in the country. Nominated by park interpreter Tanya Petruney, the area also contains archeological deposits from more than 6,000 years of human occupation.
Best Place to Make a New Best Friend
TPWD colleagues Dave Terre (Inland Fisheries chief of management and research) and Don Cash (Texas Parks & Wildlife television producer) forged a career-long friendship while working on a video promoting fishing for kids. After three unsuccessful trips to catch anything worth filming from a boat, the two, along with Terre’s 12-year-old son, Cory, tried a last-ditch effort off the pier at Purtis Creek Reservoir. In an hour Cory caught five bass averaging five pounds; the biggest was nearly seven pounds. Cash got all the footage he needed for that story, plus enough for countless other videos aired over the past decade. Cory was totally hooked on bass fishing and is an avid angler today at 22.
Best Place to Put Some Spice into Your Life
From the majesty of 60-foot-tall Gorman Falls, with its crystal waters and frothy ferns, to the 30 miles of hike/bike trails and the refreshing swimming holes, Robert Owen is crazy about Colorado Bend State Park — especially the Spicewood Springs area, a wonderland of travertine and waterfalls. “It’s the best-kept secret in the state, the perfect place to be alone with your thoughts for a short hike or a cool dip,” says Owen, who works with the Texas Outdoor Family program.
Best Place to Find the Bluebird of Happiness
Park ranger Dawn Capps’ favorite place to watch and take pictures of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) is at Lake Tawakoni State Park. The park is near Wills Point, the Bluebird Capital of Texas. In 1993, Bill Mack Kinney formed the Wills Point Wilderness Society, persuading area landowners to place bluebird boxes on their fences to save bluebirds from a potentially serious decline. The efforts were so successful that the National Audubon Society determined the community has hosted more bluebirds than any other area in Texas. There are 21 boxes at the park.
Best Cool Critter
TPWD wildlife biologist John Davis loves the prehistoric look of the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum). Like any grown-up little kid, he’s still amazed at its ability to shoot blood from its eyes when it feels threatened, an anti-predator mechanism. “The main reason I love this lizard so much is because it reminds me of my childhood,” Davis says. “Unfortunately, for the many ‘horny toads’ I carried in my pocket as a young ’un, they are not faster than little boys and they don’t bite. That made them easy, though likely unwilling, companions for this future biologist. They are not as plentiful now as they once were. Hopefully it’s not due to the harassment of little boys.”
Best Bark With No Bite
“I always had a great big time going to the Guadalupe Mountains or the Big Bend area and coming upon the Texas madrone trees,” says Deborah Burns, Wildlife Division administrative assistant in Canyon. “They have a beauty that is all their own. When you see one, especially for the first time, you have to run your hands over the smooth bark.” Arbutus xalapensis is found in the mountains of West Texas and the limestone slopes of the Hill Country. Each year, the bark of the madrone peels away to reveal a new pale layer that changes color progressively to peach, coral, red and chocolate before beginning the process again.
Best Place to Channel Your Inner Angelina
If you want to see East Texas as the Native Americans did, take a guided canoe trip down the Angelina and Neches Rivers from Martin Dies Jr. State Park, says naturalist interpreter Katherine Crippens. “This trip is the best way to see the backwater sloughs and bayou areas between the two rivers and enjoy the flora and fauna of the area.” Trips are offered the third Saturday of the month. Can’t get to East Texas? Take the trip on YouTube: http://youtu.be/RykfcEQBgC0
Best Place to See a Rainbow
McKittrick Canyon at Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of Inland Fisheries’ Ken Kurzawski’s favorite places to hike, and it offers possibly the most colorful hike in the state. In the fall, the bigtooth maples put on a dazzling display of autumn colors. Look down at the creek, and you’ll see the only reproducing, self-sustaining population of rainbow trout in Texas.
Best Place to Plant Yourself
Resaca de la Palma State Park in Brownsville offers a rare glimpse of the last remnants of the incredible biodiversity of the ebony-anaqua woodland, one of the most threatened plant communities in the country. “There are over 20 species of regionally rare plants at the site, including Bailey’s ball moss, Runyon’s water-willow, sabal palm, potato tree and Vasey’s adelia,” says park Superintendent Pablo de Yturbe.
Lee Ann Linam thinks readers should experience the wonder of prairie-chicken courtship displays — sights and sounds that occur both on the coastal prairie and the shortgrass prairies of the Panhandle. “You rise early in the morning to get to a blind on a prairie-chicken lek site and hear them display as the sun comes up,” says Linam, a TPWD biologist in the wildlife diversity program. “The sound of the booming and cackling in the pre-dawn light and the almost comical antics of the males as they try to attract females are things you’ll never forget.” Though declining populations of both species make these experiences more rare, enthusiasts can contact the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge or the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to find out what opportunities exist.
Best Place to Hail the Chief
It’s hard to imagine world leaders gathering to make monumental decisions in lawn chairs on a Texas afternoon, but that was a common occurrence at the “Texas White House” during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, says Katie Raney, a Bastrop/Beuscher naturalist interpreter who nominated LBJ’s place in the Hill Country near Johnson City. Originally the home of LBJ’s uncle, the native limestone house was used for large family gatherings during LBJ’s childhood and became a center of political activity for two decades during his political career. LBJ felt more comfortable and confident there, it is said, and used this advantage to twist more than a few arms. Lady Bird continued to live there part time until her death in 2007. The house was officially opened to the public in 2008.
Best Place to Hit the Trails
With nearly five miles of trails that cross three ecosystems, Mother Neff State Park offers great hiking and running, says park Superintendent Leah Huth. “Office manager Marianne Van Houtte runs the trails on a daily basis, and as a Boston Marathon finisher, she knows good trails when she sees them!” Huth says. Birders also enjoy the trails, as do many local residents who regularly hike for health.
Best Place to Hunt Fish
TPWD Wildlife Division’s Linda Campbell recommends beating the crowds to fish the backwater shallows of Port O’Connor from a kayak. “Stalking big redfish in one foot of water from a kayak is like hunting fish,” she says. “You can’t get bored because you can always watch birds between bites.”
Best Place to Pull Off the Road
Cedar Hill State Park, just minutes from the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas, offers a serpentine 18-mile trail system for urban dwellers to escape from everyday life. “It’s the best terrain a mountain biker or hiker could ask for,” says Mercy McBrayer, special events and volunteer coordinator. The trail is maintained through a partnership with DORBA (Dallas Off-Road Bicycle Association), a hard-working, all-volunteer, nonprofit group.
Best Place to Watch a War
Photographers flock to the San Jacinto Day Festival and Battle Re-enactment at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, says Beth Tragus, who serves as volunteer services coordinator there. Every year, hundreds of authentically clad enthusiasts demonstrate life in the Texas and Mexican army encampments circa 1836, then take to the field for a battle re-enactment. There are ample opportunities for wildlife photography as well, with more than 240 species of birds during spring/fall migrations and dozens of animals to be found on the 1,200-acre site.
Web Extras: More Best of Texas (Naturally)
Best Conversation Starter
“Did you know that Satan lives under San Antonio?” That’ll get their attention. Yes, says TPWD wildlife biologist Andy Gluesenkamp, the widemouth blindcat (Satan eurystomus) lives in the Edwards Aquifer 1,000 to 1,900 feet below San Antonio. It’s one of two blind catfish found in that ecosystem and it is thought to feed on bacteria that grow at the badwater/goodwater line. San Antonio is the largest city in the world that is entirely dependent on aquifer water.
Best Way to Scare Years Off Your Life
A few years ago, TPWD news intern Amber Conrad went climbing out at Sid Richardson Boy Scout ranch, near Lake Bridgeport. It’s a primitive area where visitors can scramble up the rough limestone rocks to see the exposed Cambrian-era fossils. Conrad was enjoying the climb when a tarantula ran across her hand. “Now, that’s a memory!”
Best Stairway to Heaven
Big Bend National Park received many nominations from TPWD staff, but Gerald Averill’s words touched our hearts. Averill noted his late father’s love for one particular spot there — the second bench along the trail at marker 8. His dad climbed to this point on the ridge for the view: the evergreen Pine Canyon to one side and the golden-brown grasses and Casa Grande to the other. Three years ago, Averill’s family memorialized his dad at this very spot, what they lovingly called his “Stairway to Heaven.”
Best Airport for a Layover
Each fall and spring, Texas is host to flocks of migrating birds looking for rest and a meal along the way. Estero Llano Grande State Park could just be the four-star hotel of birdland, says park Superintendent Martha Garcia. Estero Llano Grande is celebrating its fifth birthday this year, and the converted farmlands are now thriving wetlands that create a diversified habitat attractive to many species.