The Year of State Parks: Tyler State Park
Tyler State Park debunks the myth of ‘no fall color’ in Texas.
By Melissa Gaskill
Leaves decorate the sandy trail like seashells on a beach, in shades of yellow and red and shapes resembling stars, spear points, paw prints and candle flames, ranging in size from as small as my little finger to as big as my face. I’m walking the Lakeshore Trail at Tyler State Park, discovering the magic of fall here where East Texas Pineywoods meets Post Oak Savannah.
The park’s location at this intersection makes for noteworthy tree variety: shortleaf and loblolly pines and hardwoods including southern red, post, blackjack, black, bluejack and water oaks, as well as sweetgum, eastern red cedar, pecan, sassafras, black walnut, sugarberry and slippery elm.
These trees spend summer days turning sunlight into food through photosynthesis, a bit of alchemy performed by a substance called chlorophyll, which gives leaves their green color. When days grow shorter and temperatures colder in fall, many trees take this as a signal to prepare for winter. They stop producing chlorophyll, and, as it fades, we begin to see pigments already present in the leaves — orange carotene, yellow xanthophyll and red anthocyanin. The leaves of some trees simply turn brown, and evergreens, as the name implies, have green leaves all year. For leaves that do turn, the timing depends on arrival of the first cold snap, while intensity of color results from other weather factors, such as temperatures and the amount of rainfall throughout the year.
Tree type plays a big role in what specific shades result — red or russet for oaks and maples, for example, and yellow for cottonwood. At Tyler I encounter five-pointed leaves of sweetgum in both red and yellow, and bright golden-yellow, pointy leaves of the mockernut hickory. Lobed post oak leaves, like large ovals with bites taken out on both sides, sport rusty-red hues. The dark-green, wedge-shaped leaves of blackjack oak show deep red, and a Texas red oak’s narrow-fingered leaves burn crimson. Flame-leaf sumac — abundant throughout the park, especially on the northwest side of the lake — resembles giant feathers. They become brilliant orange or red, each leaf its own tiny flame.
The park offers 13 miles of trails, making it easy to enjoy this wealth of fall color. If walking isn’t your thing, you can even take in the foliage from the water, as trees march right up to the shore of the 64-acre, spring-fed lake. No boat? The park rents canoes, kayaks, johnboats, paddleboats and bike boats.
The hiking-only Lakeshore Trail circumnavigates the lake, offering picturesque views of fall color set off by the glassy water. I start at the park store, adjacent to the boat rental pavilion, swim beach and bathhouse. Traveling clockwise, I pass a picnic area and lighted fishing pier before reaching Beaver Pond, where a bridge crosses a stream lined by cattails and reeds. Then the trail skirts several camping areas and rises to a lookout point with excellent views of the entire lake. I hike through more woods to another fishing pier, then past trailer camping areas, an amphitheater and boat dock, yet another fishing pier and a playground before returning to my starting point. This one trail offers more to see and do than some entire parks, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
My next hike covers the B and C Loop Trails, routes open to both biking and hiking. I start at the parking area near the Blackjack camping area and head north on B Loop, which skirts the park boundary. The Blackjack camping area has 29 trailer sites, restrooms and a group pavilion — a great place for a family reunion or other big gathering. On the hike I startle a few deer in an open field, and then, along a part of the trail that follows an old road, send an armadillo shuffling off into the brush. In an area of open pine forest I hear woodpeckers high in the canopy. I turn onto C Loop, heading into higher hills and taller pines. At one point, I spy a rock dam built by the Civilian Conservation Corps through the trees; so skillfully did the workers blend it with the surroundings that I would have missed it without the telltale sound of falling water. The route circles back and returns to B Loop, which meanders through more woods with plenty of fall color, for a total hike of almost five miles.
In addition to fall foliage, the park sports spring color from the blooms of flowering dogwood, eastern redbud and Mexican plum, and winter color from berries of American beautyberry and yaupon holly. In other words, nature puts on a show any time of year here.
I finish up on the Whispering Pines Nature Trail, a route just under three-quarters of a mile rich in history as well as scenery. The CCC, created in 1933 to provide jobs and skills to young men during a time of economic hardship, built this park between 1935 and 1941. At the beginning of this trail, across from the park entrance, CCC workers built a picnic area, wading pool and waterfall around Beauchamp Springs. The springs form the park lake and from there flow into Saline Creek and, eventually, the Sabine River.
Much of this land had been logged or cleared for farming, so the CCC planted native trees and shrubs, which they raised in a nursery on the site. Crews also built roads and constructed dams to control erosion and to create the lake. Using designs from State Parks Board architects that featured a more modern style than most CCC parks, the Tyler workers also built a bathhouse, concession building, dance pavilion, boathouse and caretaker’s home. All but the caretaker’s home remain in use today.
Evidence suggests humans arrived in this area 12,000 years ago. We have no way of knowing whether fall foliage impressed those nomadic people, who traveled through hunting large, long-extinct mammals, or the Caddo who later cleared these forests to grow crops. But it certainly impressed this modern-day visitor.
Tyler State Park
789 Park Road 16
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