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4 for Fall: The Autumn Trails

“It’s all in the Lord’s hands what kind of color we get in any particular year. If we get cold nights and sunny days, that makes the best color. Warm nights and rain, cloudy days, the worst color.”

The trails through McKittrick Canyon are relatively easy and wind among a range of brilliant fall colors. (Photo by Laurence Parent)

By Melissa Gaskill

The coming of fall lights certain swaths of the Texas landscape with bursts of flame-colored leaves painted red, gold, and yellow, creating the image of a blazing sunset before the long night of winter. Many plants, in fact, spend that wintry night slumbering in a hibernation of sorts, with autumn’s impressive display a visual side effect of their preparation for sleep.

This year’s drought caused most plants in many parts of Texas to lose their leaves or change color early, says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department botanist Jackie Poole. But we found four areas that, thanks to consistent moisture, should still offer an impressive show of color this fall.

Milton Reimers Ranch Park

This former ranch, now a Travis County park, tucks into a bend of the Pedernales River with almost three miles of river frontage.

Fall color at Reimers Ranch starts with cedar elm, which turn from yellow to orange then red before dropping its leaves. More color comes from vines such as poison ivy and Virginia creeper, which can sport orange and a red nearer to deep maroon.

Timing of peak color depends on weather, of course, but Reimers Ranch typically bursts into color after a few cool fronts. For 2009, predictions suggest that an El Niño event building in the Pacific during late summer is likely to bring Central Texas a cool and wet fall, and should generate a photo-worthy display of colorful foliage.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, McKittrick Canyon

Stands of bigtooth maple weave a fabric of bright reds, yellows, and orange, which are particularly vivid along two-and-one-half miles of this popular canyon’s hiking trail. In addition to its high concentration of bigtooth maples, says Ranger William Leggett, the canyon also sports gray oak, gold chinkapin oak,  and rosy desert sumac shrubs. 

McKittrick Canyon’s color usually peaks around the end of October or the early part of November.

“To get a good impression, you need to walk into the canyon,” Leggett says. “The best area is about two-and-a-half miles up to Pratt Cabin. The next mile, up to the Grotto, has the biggest concentration of maples. From that point, you start to climb up McKittrick Ridge and it becomes strenuous. But it takes you up for amazing views of the canyon, real panoramas of color.” The trail is well marked and well maintained, and hikers will find a convenient picnic area at the Grotto.  McKittrick Canyon is a day-use area, and the gate on the highway is locked after 6 p.m. through Nov. 1 and 4:30 p.m. starting Nov. 2. If you don’t get back by closing time, you could face a seven-mile walk back to the campground.

Lost Maples State Natural Area

The typical Edwards Plateau flora of this remote park includes large, isolated stands of relatively rare Uvalde bigtooth maples. A half-mile nature trail and some 11 miles of hiking trails offer excellent viewing, as does the one-mile drive into the park. Little walnut, sycamore, Texas oaks, and lacey oaks all contribute to Lost Maples’ well-known fall display.

Walnut and sycamore trees turn around early October, says John Stuart, park superintendent, with maples starting to follow as nights get cooler later in the month. The maples typically peak in early November and last about two weeks, then start to drop their leaves by mid-November, ending up mostly bare by Thanksgiving. Note that for autumn of 2009, the combination of heat stress and drought has caused some maples to start turning earlier than usual.  The oaks turn in late November or early December, typically after a freeze. The greatest concentrations of maples occur on the East Trail, with red and lacey oaks more common on the West Trail. Stuart writes a foliage report on the park Web site, updated every Wednesday or Thursday from October through November.

Stuart expected average or below average color at Lost Maples this year. “The big maples made a lot of seed after a four-inch rain back in spring. When they do that, they don’t make as much color,” he said. “It’s all in the Lord’s hands what kind of color we get in any particular year. If we get cold nights and sunny days, that makes the best color. Warm nights and rain, cloudy days, the worst color.” On weekends during fall, park visitors wait in line for two to three hours just to get into the park, Stuart warns. Weekdays are much less crowded.

Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area

Woods of mixed pine and hardwood surround this 45-acre, man-made lake in East Texas’ Davy Crockett National Forest. Fall color around Ratcliff Lake comes from sweetgum and red maples, set off nicely by a backdrop of bald cypress, which typically lose their leaves later and are common around the lake.
The one-and-one-half-mile Tall Pines hiking trail, marked with blue tags, or three-quarter-mile accessible trail, marked with yellow tags, both begin in the picnic area and provide all visitors a way to wander among the fall colors. The 20-mile Four C National Hiking Trail, marked with white tags, also originates in the Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area.

From the November 2009 issue.

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