Amazing in Autumn
Backpacking in Lost Maples State Natural Area
By Melissa Gaskill
From my shady perch on a high, breezy ridge, I scanned wooded slopes and rocky ledges fading to blue in the distance underneath a cloudless sky. It’s somehow comforting to know that hundreds of years ago, explorers sitting in this spot would have taken in roughly the same view of the rugged Balcones Escarpment landscape, now within the boundaries of Lost Maples State Natural Area.
Most people see only a tiny fraction of this park. That fraction—a concentrated stand of Uvalde Bigtooth Maples lining the Sabinal River on the park’s East Trail, not far from the parking lot—certainly warrants a visit. But don’t stop there.
The other 2,000-plus acres contain rocky slopes, wind-swept plateaus, rugged canyons, springs, streams, and ponds, shaded by maple, walnut, oak, pecan, sycamore, juniper, and rarer trees such as madrone and buckeye, all populated by a variety of birds and wildlife. The best way to experience them is on foot, and overnight, in one of eight primitive camping areas along 11 miles of trails. So, I dusted off my backpack, called my niece, Riley Tiller, and we hit the trail.
The park offers about 70 campsites, ranging from sites with electricity, water, and nearby restrooms and showers to remote “primitive” sites that require carrying your gear a mile or more from the parking lots. With the idea of escaping the crowds that flock here each autumn to witness the park’s famous display of fall color, we chose Primitive Area G and prepared to get a workout.
We left our vehicle at the west parking area and headed down the dirt-and-gravel East Trail through patches of woods and open areas sprinkled with cactus and fall wildflowers. A hawk circled far overhead. At about three-tenths of a mile, we bore left onto the West Trail, stepping on stones to cross clear, shallow Can Creek, then followed Dry Can Creek along limestone bluffs adorned with beards of green ferns. The trail summited a 2,200-foot-high plateau, where we soaked up the view.
Shouldering our packs again, we passed the turnoff to Primitive Area E and plunged 400 feet down a steep slope into Mystic Canyon. Its rocky walls threw the trail into shade and brought the temperature down; canyons such as this one allowed the ancestors of the park’s rare “lost maples” to survive an eons-past warming trend. When the maples aren’t displaying their fall color, they can be hard to distinguish from sycamores, but displays at the park entrance reveal the secret: Maples have paired leaves on opposite sides of the stem, while the sycamore’s are offset.
At the next fork, about 2 1/2 miles from our start, we turned left onto West Loop Trail and climbed a short distance to our home for the night. Thick trees surrounded the small meadow where we pitched our tent. Then, carrying just a few essentials in our packs, we completed the West Loop, roughly two miles, circumventing another plateau and passing a spring that had attracted a crowd of dragonflies. Back at camp, we watched for gray foxes, white-tailed deer, armadillos, javelinas, and other residents of the park as dusk arrived. While we didn’t spot any, the starry night was sufficient reward.
The next day, we hiked back to the West Trail and turned left, following Can Creek a little more than a mile to a swimming and fishing area called the Ponds, where we spotted a shimmery green kingfisher. It wasn’t warm enough to swim, but we dangled our feet in the water and enjoyed a snack in the shade. That left us sufficiently rested for the 350-foot scramble up a steep slope to the top of another ridge, overlooking the water below. Half a mile later, we took a detour to a scenic overlook with even better views of West Canyon and Can Creek. Back at the main trail, we continued across cactus- and juniper-studded open and sunny terrain. On the backside of the ridge, the trail descended by way of loose rock and steps to denser, taller woods at mile nine.
Here, Lane Creek joins the Sabinal River, whose headwaters emerge just a short distance upstream. We followed the river as it weaves around and tumbles over the rocky floor of Sabinal Canyon—the green water, white limestone, and riot of red, yellow, and orange trees creating a stunning tableau. At mile 10, the trail traverses the day-use area, a good place for lunch.
A short trail crosses the river, and we took it back to our car. On the way home, we rewarded ourselves for our effort with a thick slab of pie at The Apple Store in Medina and discussed plans to return in spring, when birds migrating north along the Central Flyway set the park aflutter.
From the November 2013 issue.