For "Travel Tuesday"
On the banks of Palo Pinto Creek near Strawn, 3,300 scenic acres make up Texas' newest state park. (Dec. 2, 2011) Video by Joyce Marshall.
STRAWN -- "Walking through a crunchy carpet of leaves in an old-growth stand of oak and pecan trees, four men were laughing and joking like kids turned loose in the woods on a perfect fall day.
After three years of "turning over every rock within 100 miles of Fort Worth" in the hunt for Texas' newest state park, Carter Smith and Brent Leisure of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Jeff Francell and David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy were enjoying a victory lap of sorts recently as they toured the newly purchased park in the scenic Palo Pinto Mountains just a few miles north of Interstate 20.
Known by some old-timers as Wild Canyon, the 3,333-acre park includes a 90-acre lake, 1,200-feet-elevation ridgelines dominated by juniper trees and two creeks meandering through a valley-floor forest of live oaks, post oaks, blackjack oaks, mesquite, sumacs, cedar elms and native pecan trees.
Think of the appealing landscape as where the Texas Hill Country bumps into the Cross Timbers region, said Smith, director of the parks and wildlife agency.
"I was hoping we could find some place with a little romance, and I think this park with a large lake, creeks, varied topography and big views captures that," he said. The $7.14 million purchase became the 94th Texas state park.
Funds for the as-yet-unnamed park, 75 miles west of Fort Worth, came from the $9.2 million netted through the 2008 sale of the former Eagle Mountain Lake State Park in Tarrant County. The 400-acre Eagle Mountain Park is now owned by the Tarrant Regional Water District.
That deal was done with the understanding that the money would be used to acquire a large regional state park within easy driving range of Fort Worth. The remaining $2 million from the Eagle Mountain sale will be held for future land acquisition or improvements at the new park.
In a daunting year when the parks department absorbed deep budget cuts and lost most of two state parks -- Bastrop and Possum Kingdom Lake -- to raging wildfires, Smith and Leisure, the aptly named state parks director, were clearly welcoming a positive turn.
"It's incredibly uplifting; you need these wins to keep you going. We had a lot of conversations about the pros and cons of proceeding with this in light of all that bad news, but overwhelmingly everyone felt this was too important. You have to remember we're thinking generationally, not in two-year budget cycles," Smith said.
Park officials were contemplating yet another setback last spring when wind-driven wildfires exploded around nearby Strawn, a tiny town of 765 that will serve as the gateway community to the new park. Flames licked the very edge of the new park.
"We were holding our breath," Smith said.
"I think what we've got is a phenomenal property. It has everything we were looking for -- it's rugged, it's remote and has a significant lake feature and Palo Pinto Creek," Francell said.
"I think the rugged hills are the main attraction. It has some steep canyons and valleys with creeks. It's wild country; we saw bald eagles on the lake," he said."
"Texas will soon have its second new state park in less than a year. The state approved plans to purchase a 3,300 acre site near Strawn, 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth."
"The above map details the Copeland and Parsons properties in far western Palo Pinto County and eastern Stephens County selected for development of a new state park."
Texas' newest state park will surround Tucker Lake
State park could draw visitors to area
"The small town of Strawn, nestled in the Palo Pinto Mountains halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene, soon will be home to Texas' newest state park.
The 3,300-acre park will surround Tucker Lake, located southwest of Strawn, and will occupy a region with tremendous ecological and topographical diversity, said Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"One of the many interesting things about the area is that it is located at the juxtaposition of the Hill Country and Cross Timbers areas, so this region has some very dramatic topography," Smith said. "It has wet and dry valleys, and live waters along Palo Pinto Creek and Tucker Lake. There are many unique plant and animal species in these regions."
Land acquisition costs totaled $7.6 million, Smith said.
The money to purchase the land came from the sale of Eagle Mountain Lake State Park property near Fort Worth in 2007.
Smith said that after the sale of the park, TPWD officials wanted to find a new location within a 100-mile radius of Fort Worth.
Smith said the new park will have a rustic feel, but remain conveniently located.
The park will be almost halfway between Abilene and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and a few miles north of Interstate 20.
"We're excited about the park's proximity to Abilene and Fort Worth," Smith said. "We think being halfway between them is important. We also think this park complements others in the area."
Smith said the new park will be in the top 10 to 20 percent of parks in the state in terms of size.
It will be more than six times the size of Abilene State Park, which covers 529.4 acres, according to TPWD.
"We wanted to have a park of sufficient size where visitors could come and have feelings of solitude," Smith said. "In the new site, they'll be thinking about this very rugged, almost mountainous terrain. There is something for every Texan and their family to enjoy."
Smith said the park is a combination of dramatic hills, bluffs and steep mesas. He said Palo Pinto Creek and Tucker Lake would serve outdoor enthusiasts who love to canoe and fish.
The park also may include a city-owned recreational area already present on Tucker Lake.
He said it will be several years before the park is up and running. He said TPWD would survey the site and develop a master plan for the park over the next few years.
However, despite the length of time before the park is fully operational, business owners in the area said they are excited about its potential impact.
"We have a lot of people that come here that like to get away from the traffic lights of the Metroplex. But something like the park could make all the difference in the world. Maybe double our business," Coe said. "To think of having these visitors brings tears to my eyes. I'm so excited."
Janis Mills, owner of New York Hill Restaurant in Thurber, said she thinks the new park could be just what the local economy needs.
"They have a good-sized lake there and it's going to be a great spot. It's halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene, where people want to get off the road for a while. It's pretty. There's a lot of green there," Mills said."
Lake Tucker Offers Nearby Sanctuary
by Jeff Clark, The Texas Tabernacle
“I need to disappear for a few hours.”
"Tough times create the need for nearby escapes. Just four miles west of Strawn, the hidden gem Lake Tucker beckons, boasting some of the best hiking and bird-watching in Texas.
Take Highway 2372 west from Strawn. The little two lane, no shoulder road betrays Strawn’s past as a coal mining, then oil field town to those with sharp eyes. The asphalt winds, being joined on the north by Union Pacific tracks gaining speed for the ascent up rugged Wile’s Canyon.
This morning there are bright red, green and blue shipping containers aback a train slicing through trees and rough cuts into mountains. The train’s brakes squeal as they near the canyon’s mouth, cutting away from this road and heading north, then west.
You’re in protected bottom land carved from these Palo Pinto Mountains into lush valleys that Comanche Natives would have liked. To the south rises Evensville Peak, the sky topping primeval altar landmark to the north-south Comanche Road, written about in the 1860s by Bill McGough.
Mirror-topped mountain lakes sparkle beneath overhanging trees, my imagination using “mountain” in flashback. This country stirs memories of Colorado highlands or Texas Hill Country vistas along similar winding road adventures.
Slow your car below the speed limit or you’ll miss the journey’s magic. No one will be tailgating, I promise. A hill, then mountain rises to your left, another to your right, making you think of Llano down south. Fallen rocks litter the road-cut shoulders.
A steep cut into a cliff face to your north, carved for Jay Gould’s 1880 train to pass, drops straight down to a creek-filled gorge, littered with huge concrete blocks from an abandoned trestle or bridge, too heavy for mule teams to salvage.
Finally, the road warns that its pavement’s about to end. Trees arch over the top of your car and you begin to slow. You enter the Land of No. A black and white sign announces: “no motor boats over 10 hp, no driving on dam, no swimming, no hunting, no glass containers. Please keep gate closed”. This was easy the day I was there, it being locked. Don’t let the signs throw you. The land here is much kinder.
Park your car in this Strawn City Park. Here you have two choices – I recommend both. To your south, the earthen Lake Tucker dam rises ninety-seven feet into the sky. Walk west up the hill, behind the No Vehicles sign.
To your right hides a treacherous gorge dropping ninety-plus feet to the rock-strewn creek. This road will take you to the dam, beneath which tumbles a spillway. The carved flat shale floor below the spillway will remind some of Pedernales Falls State Park, west of Austin.
Fog hung heavy on the lake and its encircling mountains the morning I visited. You might see migrating geese or herons along the shore. If your balance is good, you can walk across the lip of the low dam to the southern shore.
Look up the western hillside when you get there. You’ll see the remains of old vacation cottages built in the 1930s and 1940s. Supplies to build these cabins were hauled to the site in boats from the eastern shore. These hideaways were leased to families for the weekends, way back when.
Lake Tucker was built by the WPA in 1937, to supply dammed up Russell Creek water to Strawn. It was named after J. M. Tucker, then mayor of Strawn, though originally called Strawn Lake. When full, its waters cover eighty-one surface acres. Russell Creek is one of the few creeks in these parts that flow south to north. Strawn owns the lake.
J. R. Hunt remembers Tom Brown and his family living in a house built atop this dam back then, collecting fishing permit fees and seeing to things out here. Hunt would come to fish in his boat, or just to enjoy the quiet that still haunts this place.
Retracing my steps to my car, large graceful garden spiders have constructed wide hopeful webs high in the trees to catch unwary prey. I see a Keystone Lite beer can littering the trail to my right. As the sun begins to light the sky, cardinals playfully flit back and forth.
Across the road, north from your car through the gate, the Texas Parks and Wildlife “Prairies and Pineywoods Wildlife Trail” awaits. Arrows carved into round tree bark signs mark the way. Again, you have choices – straight down toward the creek, or east toward the open field.
I chose the open field my first time, angering a momma hawk high in an ancient cottonwood, spooking three younger deer hiding in tall grass, but eventually uncovering a sheltered bite-sized lake nestled among giant boulders that would’ve provided sanctuary and sustenance to ancestors of every flavor. Clear water reveals small fish and turtles. Animal tracks may lie at your feet.
This area traces bottom land, then rises to follow the rail bed west. Another train lumbers slowly past, crossing a timbered trestle before it attempts the elevation ahead.
If you instead walk forward (north) from the entry gate, you’ll travel down an oak-leaf carpeted cut in the creek bank, to a rock-lined bottom. Tall willow fronds and mounds of drift wood lean away from now-receded flood waters. Deer tracks lead to narrow water here.
Squirrels scamper between cedar, pecan, and oak. After you cross this mostly-dry creek, make a hairpin turn to your left, to the south, and a crooked Trail sign will get you started. Take water and energy bars, as surprises await.
I’m no expert birdwatcher, but there’s plenty to see here. The Texas Parks and Wildlife website (www.tpwd.state.tx.us) reports Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Eastern Bluebirds, Lark Sparrows, and Red-tailed Hawks. Bald Eagles may be visible from time to time, they say.
As you enter the forest, hidden in the woods to your right lurks a giant rusted hook, as tall as a man – a pipe or zip line back in the day? This trail ascends slowly, and you start thinking “hey, no big deal”, admiring beautiful rocks and trees and finches teasing from tree to tree.
Someone with a sense of humor placed (read: hid) the trail marking arrows, so keep an eye peeled. Take a break when you come to the wooden bench, if you know what’s good for you.
Shortly, the trail swings north and starts up the side of a mountain. Friends from Washington State smile at my use of “mountain” for a climb less than Everest in height, but straight up is straight up, even in Texas.
You walk between fallen boulders and caved off slabs of limestone, similar to those in Mineral Wells State Park’s Penitentiary Hollow. This is a highland path, arching further up with each labored footfall.
“I’m going pretty much straight up now,” I had wheezed into my recorder. These huge rocks could hide rattlesnake heaven up here – be careful where you place your feet and hands. At one point I hear a rapid drum beat, then realize it’s my heart. The spiders up here are big enough you can hear 'em walk.
The opening strains of cricket songs and rattlesnake rattles are surprisingly similar to those of us with active imaginations, suffering exercise-induced light headedness. Ferns, moss, and lichen blanket these ancient rocks. I’ve been hiking about thirty hard minutes and notice another Keystone Lite can way up here – its drinkers must be a tough lot.
A few small meadows yield yellow broom weed and colorful flat field stones. Pale red, not-yet-burst blooms lie in waiting atop cactus along the trail.
When winter trees are leafless, one hears the roar of Interstate 20 to the south, though it fades quickly into the background. This morning I’m hearing crickets, an occasional bird, one Cessna flying overhead – then silence.
That’s really the joy of this place – peaceful nothingness surrounded by hill country beauty.
As I return to my car, a man arrives to cut down a fallen oak tree. His chain saw would’ve hurt my sojourn, so I’m leaving at the right time. There are six picnic tables in this well-kept park. One could have a reunion, a peaceful lunch or a quiet conversation here.
Heading back to Strawn you’ll be hungry. Mary’s Cafe in town or Thurber’s New York Hill Restaurant can fix that.
You’ll see the world clearly, after your journey to these woods – at least for a few hours. It’s tough to schedule “nothing”. Yet in that peaceful nothing, one begins to see everything clearly again."
Ray has been busy either doing Shay's jobs for her, or helping her, as her back is so bad. She is awaiting surgery on it.
Jay had a doctor's appointment, and his mother was going to take him when she returned from her doctor's appointment.
It was time for me to groom my dog, Misty. I brushed her out, bathed her, and put her in the dog dryer for a while to get her partly dry before I brushed-dried her. While I was waiting, I searched and found a way to move the Live Writer Drafts from one computer to another.
But then Jay called, his mother's doctor in the Medical Center in Houston wanted to have more tests done on her, so she couldn't make it back in time to take him for his appointment.
You know who was 'volunteered' to take him. I quickly brush-dried Misty, so she looks all fluffy and pretty, but there was no time to finish grooming her, or have any lunch.
Last time I took Jay to his doctor I had to wait 2¾ hours. I told him that next time he needed to make sure he had an early morning appointment, so the wait time might be less. But his appointment was for 12.45PM, and I still had to wait 2¼ hours. What a way to run a business!
After a brief stop at Lowe's to get a new faucet pigtail for the plant sink, we went to Walmart for Jay to drop off his prescriptions. But they didn't carry one of his medicines, so he transferred to the new big Kroger in our town, and left them there. My doctor had called in a prescription for me, so I picked it up. It was a non-statin drug for my cholesterol, we will see if I can tolerate this one.
So it was another busy, but 'not much accomplished' day.