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Four for Fall: 2011

The autumn landscape invites a closer look

A painterly take on Daingerfield State Park. (Photo by Joe Lowery)

By Melissa Gaskill

Many a Texan can wax eloquent about the benefits of our great outdoors. Turns out it isn’t just bragging: Scientific studies suggest that spending time in nature can make us smarter, more creative, healthier, and even more caring and generous. 

A 2010 analysis of 10 separate studies on the effects of various activities on participants’ mental states, for example, showed positive changes when people exercised outdoors, even for just five minutes. The National Wildlife Federation reported that time outside helps children score higher on standardized tests. One study even correlated the presence of large trees with reduced crime. Who knows, hanging out in the outdoors could even promote world peace.

Is it the fresh air? Beneficial UV rays? Our primal connection with nature? You can decide for yourself, because fall in Texas offers a great chance to conduct real-time research. The weather cools off, crowds disperse, and, where conditions are right, those crime-preventing trees dress in photoworthy colors.

Check out our recommendations for locations to visit this year. It bears repeating, of course, that fall color and intensity depend on just the right combination of temperatures, timing of freezes, spring and autumn rainfall—and the right species of trees, too. We’ve got you covered on that last requirement, but the rest is up to Mother Nature. The effects of this year’s drought are impossible to calculate. No guarantees on how much color you’ll see, but we’ve included plenty of activities to choose from, and places to stay, so you can reap the full benefits of a nature experience.

Canadian River Area

Grab breakfast at the KNT in Miami (Mi-am-uh). The town’s claim to fame, the National Cow Calling Contest, takes place in June, but an abundance of trees makes it worth a look in the fall.

A few miles north on US 60 in Canadian, the circa-1915 Canadian River Walking Bridge crosses the river and wetlands on the north end of town, its six-tenths-of-a-mile span offering a great place to spy wildlife as well as foliage. Then treat yourself to an old-fashioned float, ice-cream cone, or shake at City Drug Soda Fountain, which also offers more modern selections like smoothies, espresso, and frappés. Or stick around for dinner at the Cattle Exchange restaurant in the historic Moody Hotel Building downtown, which serves mesquite-grilled steaks and barbecue.

Hiking trails encircle Lake Marvin, part of 576 acres of pristine native habitat in the Texas unit of Black Kettle National Grasslands. Cotton-wood, soapberry, elm, and sumac along the shore “look pretty darn good” in fall, says ranger Tom Smeltzer, and other than a fee for RV hook-up, it’s free to enjoy the park and the foliage.

At the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area, hike, bike, or check out the prairie dog town, where you’ll also see burrowing owls. Primitive camping is available (bring your own water). The best color here comes from western rough-leaf dogwood, persimmon trees, and sumac.

The third weekend of October, Canadian’s Fall Festival includes an arts and crafts fair in town and a variety of activities (including guided nature tours) at Lake Marvin, but the highlight remains driving the scenic 12 miles from town to the lake on FM 2266. The road parallels the river, says resident Tamara Julian, and is painted with lots of fall color from cottonwood, hackberry, mesquite, sumac, and even poison ivy (look, but don’t touch). Keep an eye out for deer and wild turkey in the wheat fields.

If you want to linger, book a room at the IV Lodge and Vineyard on Lake Marvin Road, or at the Arrington Ranch House Lodge, which you might recognize from the end of the 2000 movie Cast Away. Originally built in 1919 from a catalog kit, the house has five guest rooms. When you’re ready for an outdoor experience, try one of the walking trails along the Washita River.

Winnsboro Area and Daingerfield State Park

Trees abound in this northeast corner of Texas. Start in historic downtown Winnsboro with lunch at Brewbaker’s Restaurant and Pub, which serves a wide selection of salads and deli sandwiches, or try an Angus steak or barbecue dinner at Double C Steakhouse & Saloon (as I always say, save room for pie). Stop by the Chamber of Commerce on Broadway for maps of three driving routes likely to serve up good fall color, courtesy of the local Autumn Trails Committee. Or just drive out to Lake Winnsboro along Big Sandy Creek, a tributary of the Sabine River, and pick up a bucket of chicken at the Lake Store Marina Grill. Drop a line in the lake and enjoy fall color while you nibble and wait for largemouth bass and catfish to do the same.

Just west of Daingerfield, Eva and Sid Greer preserved the hardwood trees on their working guest farm and added several varieties of maples and tulip poplars, members of the magnolia family. These, Sid says, turn “the brightest yellow you ever saw in your life,” and along with the maples, red oaks, white oaks, and cottonwoods, can set up quite an impressive fall show at the farm.

By request, Chef Eva, a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston’s Culinary Arts program, serves gourmet cuisine that reflects her upbringing in Belize, European parents, and the Greers’ own world travels. Sid and Eva teach “Farm to Fork” cooking classes as well. Guests can hike one of several forest trails on the farm, or just sit and soak up the fall color from the porch of one of four log cabins overlooking a stocked lake. If you want to explore the area, nearby Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards offers tours and wine tastings, and features live jazz in the dining room on weekend nights.

Daingerfield State Park, two miles east of town on Texas 49, includes an 80-acre lake lined with colorful sweetgum, southern red oak, water oak, buckeye, hickory, and red maple set against always-green northeast Texas pines. On calm days, the lake reflects the color, making for unforgettable photographs. The park offers picnicking, camping, swimming, fishing, hiking, and boating, and rents pedal boats and canoes. Rustling Leaves Nature Trail circles two-and-one-half miles around the CCC-built lake—look for squirrel, fox, armadillo, rabbit, deer, and beaver. The CCC also constructed the five-bedroom Bass Lodge, which overlooks the water and sleeps 12.

Humans first settled in this area in prehistoric times. Then, in 1542, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition passed through. Two hundred years later, the French established a trading post, and during the Civil War, the region became an iron industrial center, exporting guns and other items. Forests depleted by sawmills before World War II have recovered some of their grandeur, for which fall foliage enthusiasts can be grateful.

Copper Breaks State Park

This secluded, crowd-free park tucks into the southeastern corner of the Panhandle, 12 miles south of Quanah. It served as home to Native Americans beginning 10,000 years ago, and more recently was the specific realm of Kiowa and Comanche. Cynthia Ann Parker, captured by the Comanche at Fort Parker (near Waco) as a child, was recaptured as an adult at the nearby Pease River Battle Site. She did not readjust well and reportedly died a few years after being reunited with her relatives, but her half-Comanche son, Quanah Parker, became the tribe’s last great war chief.

The park’s many diversions include camping, picnicking, almost 10 miles of mountain-bike trails, a 3.5-mile equestrian trail, hiking, and monthly star walks from April to October. Swim, boat, and fish on Lake Copper Breaks; you can also fish in a small, spring-fed pond. Nine members of the official Texas Longhorn herd reside here, including one that reaches right through the fence to give visitors a kiss, according to lead ranger Wendell Barberee.

Grass- and mesquite-covered mesas, juniper breaks, and rust-colored mini-canyons and arroyos, some sporting visible gray-green streaks of raw copper, enliven the park’s rugged terrain. Colorful soapberry, chinaberry, hackberry, and cottonwoods, which concentrate at the Cottonwood Grove picnic area and near the swimming beach, provide a fall palette dominated by yellow. Color typically peaks around the first of November, de-pending, as always, on weather conditions. Many birds, including meadowlarks, quail, owls, flickers, kites, hawks, great blue herons, and ducks, live in the park. You might also spot bobcats, porcupines, coyotes, and the occasional horned toad.

McKittrick Canyon

This iconic canyon is one of the best-known spots in Guadalupe Mountains National Park for unique and reliable fall foliage. McKittrick’s most famous residents—stands of bigtooth maple—create splashes of bright red, yellow, and orange. Velvet ash also colors the canyon, along with flameleaf sumac.

Foliage color in McKittrick Canyon typically peaks around the end of October or the early part of November. Generally mild weather—temperatures in the 60s during the day—make this a great time to visit no matter what the reason.

Walk the canyon trail, which is well-marked and maintained and, for the first few miles, a relatively moderate and flat hike. The best area for color, says ranger Michael Haynie, lies about two and a half miles in, and you’ll find the best concentration of maples from there to the Grotto, a picnic area featuring an alcove with dripstone formations. Haynie encourages folks to hike among the brilliant hues all the way to the Grotto and back, a seven-mile round trip. Farther on, the trail starts to climb McKittrick Ridge, and the hike becomes more strenuous (always carry plenty of water). Those who make the investment, though, are rewarded with views of amazing color in the canyon.

From the November 2011 issue.

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