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Trip to Bountiful: Texas Highways Wildflower Drives

Written by Melissa Gaskill.

Wildflowers along Texas 71 near Ellinger. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

For the enlightened and adventurous traveler, serendipity transforms every trip: Hiking a new trail and rounding a bend to encounter an unexpected vista, journeying to a destination you’ve heard about—or visiting a familiar place with someone who’s never been—without an agenda. Or, in the case of pursuing Texas wildflowers, finding yourself surprised with the splashes and brushstrokes of red, blue, orange, and purple that appear in the landscape.

From year to year, nature’s wildflower displays vary dramatically. Rainfall (or lack there--of), the timing of the first freeze, the length of warm spells-—all these weather-related factors determine the palette in each spring’s bloom. And human actions, such as mowing, irrigation, and development, also play a role.

In any given year, wildflowers will bloom—some time, some place—in Texas. When, where, and in exactly what types and quantities—well, finding the answer to that question creates the thrill of the chase. We’ve selected four driving routes that, based on the predictions of experts at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, should offer some of this year’s best wildflower viewing (we selected for variety, too).

See the print edition for additional information on compelling roadside stops, places to stay, and other attractions, so you’ll have fun on your road trip no matter what.

Brenham/Chappell Hill

Set aside a few hours to enjoy this 90-mile drive that scrawls a rough figure-8 around the Brenham area in Washington County. Start from Brenham and head northeast on Texas 105 through rolling hills, pastures, stands of oaks, and blooming flowers such as purple coneflower, verbena, beardtongue, coral bean, skullcaps, and prairie parsley. A few miles from the city limits, look off to the right for the Monastery Miniature Horse Farm, where the Franciscan Poor Clare nuns maintain a herd of cute, waist-high horses.

If you’re in no hurry, visit Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, home of the Star of the Republic Museum and Barrington Living History Farm. However, be forewarned. You’d need an entire day to do it justice. Because wildflowers rule this excursion, hustle back to scenic, flower-lined FM 1155.

Drive slowly down the single street that passes through Chappell Hill’s quaint business district. Turn right at US 290 and take the Austin exit in Brenham to remain on 290 roughly 14 miles to the turn-off for Burton, FM 1697. Pay attention, because this stretch of highway often provides some of the lushest bluebonnet spreads in the entire state. Also look for Indian paintbrush, yellow wild indigo, thistles, blue-eyed grass, rattlesnake flower, blanket flower, and rosinweed.

In Independence, stop in Old Baylor Park on the side of the road. Site of the original Baylor University, the park now boasts excellent bluebonnet photo ops. Other usual suspects rounded up here include primroses, lyre leaf sage, prairie Brazos mint, and mayhaw trees. Turn right on FM 50, which takes you back to Texas 105 and Brenham.

Big Bend

This rough and winding route puts many miles on your vehicle, but the visual treats will prove more than enough reward. In the morning, take RM 170 west to the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, a source of information on points of interest along the scenic River Road, including Big Bend Ranch State Park. The Center’s herbarium houses 1,100 plant specimens discovered by noted Texas botanist Barton Warnock, plus exhibits on area geology, natural history, and a 2 ½-acre desert garden.

Armed with know-ledge, continue west toward Presidio. Look for blooming cacti, Big Bend bluebonnets, blind cactus, rainbow cactus, cat claw, strawberry pitaya, nama or fiddleleaf, bicolor fan mustard, ocotillo, cenizo, desert marigolds, and rock nettles. Stop to hike Closed Canyon, a narrow slot canyon, where you may spy hechtia, and the Rancherias Canyon Trail to observe unique riparian denizens, including marsh centaury.

In addition to wildflowers, look for herds of pronghorn antelope. The drive on US 90 east to Alpine is dominated by grasslands where yucca and sotol bloom in the spring. In Alpine, have lunch or dinner at La Trattoria, celebrated for authentic Italian fare. Then turn on Texas 118 South back toward Terlingua. Along this scenic road, look for Mexican buckeyes and more wildflowers in the mid-elevations, and flowering desert scrub in lower areas.

Northeast Texas, Caddo Lake State Park, Cass County

You’ll begin and end this wildflower drive in Marshall, which offers numerous accommodations on US 59, including a handful of B&Bs. Head north along Texas 43 from Marshall to Karnack, and you may see bull thistle, coreopsis, and, at the edge of the woods, beardtongue. In low-lying areas, keep your eyes peeled for common rose mallow and giant coneflower, the latter with yellow blooms that can soar six feet high. Take FM 2198 to Uncertain, where crimson clover and coreopsis often bloom, along with partridge pea, downy phlox, bluebonnets, Mexican hats, and wild indigo.

Heavily wooded Caddo Lake State Park curves around Saw Mill Pond and connects to Lake Caddo. On park trails, look for blooming Spanish moss; rent a canoe or kayak and paddle past floating bladderwort, blooming cabomba, fragrant water lily, and American lotus among the moss-shrouded bald cypress trees.

Make your way back to Texas 43 and continue north to Atlanta, then take US 59 to Linden. Along the way, look for coreopsis, crimson clover, spiderwort, phlox, and bachelor buttons gracing the landscape. Continue on Texas 155 to the tiny town of Avinger, then Texas 49 to Jefferson. A bustling port in the 1840s, Jefferson faded when the railroad arrived in Marshall, but you’ll find plenty of mansions turned B&Bs, as well as the historic Excelsior House and Jefferson Hotels, both famously haunted. Consider a bayou boat tour or a ride on a paddlewheel steamer on Caddo Lake, then treat yourself to French cuisine at the Stillwater Inn Restaurant. Or, to keep the pie theme going, visit House of Pies, then take US 59 back to Marshall. Other flowers likely to show themselves along this route include Indian paintbrush, larkspur, red buckeye, butterfly weed, and black-eyed Susans.

Franklin Mountains

This route follows Loop 375, or the Trans-Mountain Road, through Franklin Mountains State Park, at 37 square miles, the nation’s largest urban park—all of it within El Paso’s city limits.

West of El Paso on Interstate 10, take the Canutillo/Trans-Mountain Road (Loop 375) exit and drive 3.8 miles to the park entrance. The Northern Chihuahuan Desert vegetation here includes lechuguilla, sotol, ocotillo, several types of yucca, and many cactus species. Some plant species found here, such as the Southwest barrel cactus, grow nowhere else in Texas. The Trans-Mountain Road reaches 5,120 feet elevation and passes the Ron Coleman Trail, a hike that affords up-close looks at blooming cacti. Fields of bright yellow mountain poppies, one of the park’s most spectacular sights, can best be seen on the eastern slope of the Franklins at the El Paso Museum of Archeology—providing, of course, the weather co-operates. Hike the short Sneed’s Cory trail in the Tom Mays Unit to see pineapple cactus, Chihuahuan fishhook cactus, and agave. This area offers additional trails, picnic sites, and primitive camping; the park also has RV sites. And, remember to visit the store located at park headquarters in McKelligon Canyon on the east side of the park.

For more dramatic and sweeping vistas, consider a ride on the Wyler Aerial Tramway. Take in the view of El Paso from here at 4,692 feet, and check out the cactus garden. An observation platform at the top affords 360-degree views of the park you just traversed, plus glimpses of three states and two countries.

Many more amazing photos are featured in the print edition.

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