Visiting Texas on Your Next Road Trip
By Ann Emerson
Texas is big and brawny in every way, a state brimming with natural assets. Whether visiting rugged mountains, sandy beaches, wild canyons or pine tree forests, the “Lone Star State” pleases travelers in a million wonderful ways.
In the northwest panhandle plains, Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located in Canyon, Texas. Comanche and Apache people, Spanish explorers, modern day Texans, and tourists alike have all relished in the bounty of this high plains preserve. Palo Duro Canyon was gradually carved over the course of a million years by the relentless Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. The result is a canyon that presently measures 120 miles in length, 20 miles in width, and reaches a depth of approximately 800 feet, earning it the popular title “Grand Canyon of Texas.” The canyon’s subtle colors – the red, white, yellow, gray, and lavender- arise from the claystone, sandstone, gypsum and mudstone layered within its walls. Area plant life adds variety to the landscape too, with mesquite, cottonwood, and juniper trees, and Indian blanket and star thistle enlivening the scene. Animals such as the Palo Duro mouse, barbary sheep, roadrunner and longhorn steer may be viewed from the park’s auto routes or scores of hiking, biking and horse trails. Newcomers should stop by the visitor center on the canyon rim, a native stone structure designed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s. For guests who’d like to hear the compelling tale of the “Lone Star State’s” pioneer heritage, the popular “Texas Musical Drama” is performed seasonally at Palo Duro’s outdoor amphitheater.
Big Bend National Park, accessible from Marathon, Alpine, or Marfa/Presidio, is at the mountainous southwest tip of the “Lone Star State.” Aptly named “Big,” this national treasure is certainly vast and wild; it does take several days to truly explore these parklands and the far-flung towns within this region. Travelers should keep an eye (or two) on their gas gauges and fill up their tanks whenever the opportunity arises. Big Bend’s terrain is a contrasting combination of Chisos Mountain woodlands, canyons cut by the mighty Rio Grande, and an enormous expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert. An appealing mix of plants represents both American and Mexican varieties, and the park’s desert-dwelling animals come in all shapes and sizes. There are garden-variety types like skunks and jackrabbits and more ominous residents such as black bears, coyotes and mountain lions. The bird population is considerable, encompassing more than 450 species, offering the greatest collection of winged friends in the entire national park system. Fortunately for visitors, hundreds of miles of roadways and nature trails provide tried-and-true routes for exploring all of Big Bend’s interesting nooks and crannies.
On southeast Texas’ Gulf Coast, Padre Island National Seashore is located in the Gulf of Mexico, southeast of Corpus Christi. This seashore protects the world’s longest remaining undeveloped barrier island and attracts 800,000 visitors each year. For those who like waterworks, count such favorite pastimes here as saltwater fishing, windsurfing and beachcombing for seashells and driftwood. Many visitors seem to enjoy participating in the park’s special hatchling turtle release programs. At these sessions, baby sea turtles whose eggs were incubated at a park facility are carefully set free into Gulf waters. Landlubbers on Padre Island can go bird watching, hiking, biking or horseback riding. All the while, Padre’s rangers present interpretive deck talks and beach or birding walks designed both to entertain and educate guests.
In nearby Brownsville, Texas’ southernmost city, has been billed as “On the Border by the Sea,” offering the best of both worlds for the long- or short-term visitor. Cross the Rio Grande from Brownsville and spend a day in Matamoros, Mexico. Or, visit the Sabal Palm Grove Wildlife Sanctuary, nested on 172 acres. Owned by the Audubon Society, it’s one of the best-preserved Sabal Palm forests in the United States.
A short jaunt to the northeast brings you to Natural Bridge Caverns (located just north of San Antonio). This cavern is one of the world’s premier show caves. One way of entering the South Cavern is to be lowered down a 160-foot shaft on a winch. For those not quite so adventurous, there’s a walk-in tunnel to the bottom of the shaft entrance. Once there, you’ll be awed by stalactites in excess of 6 feet in length, and one that is 14 feet long – among the longest in North America. Above ground, guests enjoy the cave’s namesake, the 60-foot Natural Bridge that spans the sinkhole of the cavern.
Sam Houston National Forest is located 50 miles north of Houston in east Texas’ piney woods. Hiking, fishing, boating, and hunting are the plum activities at this national forest. The 128-mile Lone Star Trail, a designated National Recreation Trail, meanders through Sam Houston, passing a nice variety of woodlands, creeks, lakes and streams along the way. For visitors who’d rather ride than walk, horses and off-road vehicles are permitted in designated areas. The forest’s freshwater lakes provide swimming areas, sailing opportunities, launches for private watercraft, and canoe or paddleboat rentals. Black bass, catfish and bream are common catches for Sam Houston anglers and hunters bag deer, squirrels, ducks and quail. You should also catch glimpses of endangered woodpeckers and bald eagles if you’re diligent.
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