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Trips to Bountiful 2010: Llano Estacado

Written by Melissa Gaskill.

The Canadian River winds through the windswept Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains, in the Texas Panhandle north of Amarillo. Cottonwoods, soapberry, and willows grow along its banks, while mesquite, prickly pear, yucca, grasses—and during the spring, wildflowers—blanket the higher ground.

Start in Amarillo, and head north on Texas 136 for about 30 miles. Turn west onto Cas Johnson Road, the turnoff for Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, part of Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. For 13,000 years, native people used the high-quality flint they found here for tool-making and trading. Tours of the quarries have to be arranged in advance, but flora-seekers can drive the winding, hilly road about five miles to the locked gate anytime. Glorious displays of yellow—sunflowers, scrambled eggs (Corydalis aurea), tansy-mustard, and Gordon’s bladderpod—as well as winecups, bigtop prairie clover, stiff flax, and blazing stars await. On the way back to Texas 136, turn south at the “Y” onto the McBride Canyon road, and follow it to McBride Canyon, an area three miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide with unpaved roads, where 

wild grapes, gayfeather, sunflowers, daisies, yucca, and many types of grasses grow. Pleasant picnic and camping areas here make it easy to linger.

Continue north on Texas 136 to Fritch, and stop at the Lake Meredith Aquatic and Wildlife Museum to see life-size dioramas of hawks, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and other local wildlife, as well as two large aquariums occupied by bass, catfish, and other species found in the lake. Admission is free. Just past town, turn north on Farm-to-Market Road 687 to Sanford, then go west on Ranch Road 1319 across Sanford Dam. Go about one mile, and turn west on FM 3395, which takes you through Bugbee and past the Three Falls Cove bed and breakfast. When you reach RR 1913, turn south to Lake Meredith NRA’s Blue Creek area. Willows, cottonwoods, and cattails grow along the creek and higher up, more typical dryland vegetation, including yucca. When RR 1913 reaches US 87/287, turn south toward Amarillo, then take Loop 335 west to Wildcat Bluff Nature Center. Miles of trails, open sunrise to sunset, meander through rolling prairie and along a high bluff with classic Panhandle views. On the Prairie Dog Trail, three types of daisies—chocolate, flea--bane, and Engelmann—bloom, along with lemon-yellow puccoon, delicate yet toxic antelope horns, prairie verbena, and silver-leaf nightshade, or horse nettle. Prickly poppy, purple coneflower, dotted gayfeather, wild onion, and buckwheat grow along the bluff trails, blue flax in the windmill area, and penstemon, fennel, and butterfly bush around the visitor center. Yucca also blooms throughout the center.

Continue on Loop 335 to Ninth Avenue. Hang a left, and follow a sharp jog to Sixth Avenue, aka Historic Route 66. Pop into Cowboy Gelato, decorated in a spaghetti Western theme and serving “cowboy comfort food” (stuffed hamburgers, barbecue pulled pork sandwiches) and gelato. Or try heapin’ helpings of Tex-Mex at Acapulco Restaurant’s 1920s building downtown, on Polk Street. Keep your eyes peeled for 90 decorated fiberglass horses, and faux traffic signs spouting bits of country-western songs, poems, and pithy quotes selected by eccentric artist and philanthropist Stanley Marsh 3.

Back to: Trip to Bountiful 2010

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