Top 5 Natural Places to Visit in Texas
Anyone who knows me understands that I wear my love of Texas on my sleeve. As a born and bred Austin, Texas girl, my best memories are from the halcyon days of summer–annual road trips in the back of the family station wagon, with a camper hitched to the back and a map unfolded across my mother’s lap. Each year my parents, four siblings and I would pile into the car and explore a different part of the country. By the time I was in my teens, I’d camped under majestic redwood trees, watched the eerie dance of nature during a tumbleweed storm and recognized the unique scent that emanates from a gushing geyser.
Given the way I was raised, it should come as no surprise that I love to explore. And as state director of The Nature Conservancy in Texas, I’d had the pleasure of exploring some of the most magnificent places the Lone Star State has to offer. I wanted to share my five favorites with you.
Top photo credit © Ian Shive
Thirty minutes from the closest town and a solid three hours from the nearest airport, the Conservancy’s 33,075-acre Davis Mountains Preserve offers up some of the most breathtaking views in Texas. But don’t let the beautiful landscape fool you–the phrase “roughing it” takes on an entirely new meaning in the rugged Davis Mountains of West Texas.
Sure, there is backpacking, bird watching, mountain biking and stargazing–and the work we do in the area helps keep those desert skies so clear the stars practically jump out at you. But for those wanting a challenge, there’s Mt. Livermore. At 8,378 feet, Mt. Livermore is the second highest mountain in Texas and one of the most difficult hikes I’ve personally ever encountered. But once you’ve conquered it, you can sign a ledger the Conservancy maintains at the mountain’s peak–then stand tall and survey the breathtaking beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert.
photo: Davis Mountains © Chris Pipes
A little bit of danger is good for the soul, right? Incredibly picturesque but wildly remote, the spring-fed Devils River comes with a warning label. Take a look at what the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has to say about it: “Despite the beautiful setting, a trip down the 47.7-mile stretch of the Devils River… can be difficult and challenging to plan, exhausting to navigate, and life-threatening if not prepared, even for the most seasoned paddlers.” In spite of the caveat, kayakers, paddlers and adventurists alike are always eager to set up camp at the Devils River State Natural Area and embark on a rugged, three-day trip down the most pristine river in the state.
Admittedly, I’m not yet prepared to hunker down at the 29 mile Paddler Camp–dubbed Big Satan–but I do admit to getting lost in the beauty of Dolan Falls, one of the Conservancy’s brightest jewels. Our Dolan Falls Preserve safeguards more than 162,000 acres in and around the area and the unspoiled Devils River flows through the preserve’s canyons. I also love the history of the region, which is literally written on the canyon walls; unique Native American rock art is prevalent throughout the area and several local businesses offer guided tours.
photo: Dolan Falls © Ian Shive
If you asked me to describe what the Earth looked like in its infancy, I’d show you a picture of Caddo Lake. It has the mysterious quality of a surrealist painting–a maze of freshwater bayous and ponds shrouded by ancient bald cypress trees whose branches are covered by moss so thick it literally blocks out the sunlight in some places. But its uniqueness runs deep–it is one of the few natural lakes in Texas and the second largest in the South. It’s also an internationally protected wetland, one of just 27 in the United States. And those ancient bald cypress trees? They comprise the largest cypress forest in the world.
All of those things combine to make Caddo Lake a magical place to drop a canoe in the water or try your luck with a fishing pole. The Conservancy has had a presence there since 1990, and we stepped up our work in 1997 by creating the Fred and Loucille Dahmer Caddo Lake Preserve. The name honors the late Fred and Loucille Dahmer, who lived at Taylor Island on Caddo Lake and spent much of their lives photographing the lake and working tirelessly to protect its fragile wetlands.
photo: Caddo Lake-Cypress © Jay Carriker/flickr
Most people can immediately equate Galveston and South Padre islands to Texas–the sand, sun and surf attract millions of tourists and locals each year. A little harder to place is Matagorda Island, an uninhabited barrier island accessible only by private boat or ferry. Making a day trip to the 56,000-acre Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area requires a little bit of preparation, but it is well worth the effort. Once you arrange transportation, the island is your proverbial oyster (but please, leave your shucking knife at home). You can go saltwater fishing, picnic, bird watch or simply relax amid the dunes, digging your toes in the sand and listening to the lap of the ocean.
No matter what you do, keep in mind the good things the Conservancy is doing in the area. Nearby Matagorda Bay is home to Half Moon Reef, a historic oyster reef we recently restored. Once mature, the 45-acre reef will provide a home not only for oysters but for all sorts of fish and sea life, creating a fully functioning marine habitat. Oyster reefs are also critical in filtering pollution from the millions of gallons of freshwater that flow into the Gulf of Mexico each second–and if that weren’t enough, they also help buffer our coastlines against rising sea levels and more intense storms.
photo: Matagorda Bay at sunrise © Jerod Foster
When I say “salt dunes,” what comes to mind? For most people, the likely answer is “absolutely nothing.” But if you’ve spent any time in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, you know just what I’m talking about. The park is home to Gypsum Dunes, a 177-acre nature preserve that is part of the second largest salt dune field in the continental United States. One glimpse of these ancient basins transports you back to a time before time–millions of miniscule gypsum grains form bright white sand dunes that cover 2,000 acres and rise as high as 60 feet into the air. There is literally no other place like this in Texas and very few places on Earth can even compare.
In 2011, the Conservancy donated Gypsum Dunes to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is one of America’s best-kept secrets. The landscapes within the park span from starkly beautiful gypsum dunes and salt flats to clear freshwater streams, lush woodlands, rocky canyons and mountain forests. Not only is the park home to more than 400 different animal species, but it encompasses Guadalupe Peak, the highest natural point in the Lone Star State.
photo: Guadalupe Mountains © Leaflet/Wikimedia Commons
Now that you’ve read about my five favorite spots in my own home state, what are yours? Reach out to me on Twitter (@laurajhuffman) and let me know some of the places your treasure most!
By Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy