A Hiker’s Paradise at Mission Tejas

A Hiker’s Paradise at Mission Tejas

Mission Tejas is one of the more modest Texas state parks I’ve visited so far–there’s a mere 17 camp sites huddled together in one small area (except for two water-only sites a short stroll away), and the only water feature is one little muddy pond–no swimming allowed.

I heard from park regulars that it’s usually quiet and attracts few of the weekend and holiday day-users that you might find at a larger, lake-adjacent park. The bathrooms are clean, the headquarters building is beautiful and new and there is a generous playground for the kids (I overheard two little girls talking about a playground ghost, and I kind of wish I had followed up on that). But Mission Tejas’ real charm lies in its rich Texas history and–to my delight–its extensive and varied network of hiking trails.

Living History

I chose this particular weekend to camp at Mission Tejas as I had joined an outdoor adventure Meetup group and a hike was scheduled for Saturday morning. It was only after plans were in place that we realized this was also the weekend of the 14th Annual Folk Festival, where costumed presenters demonstrated their crafts and trades and explained everyday life of frontier Texans (see photos below). So quiet little Mission Tejas was actually pretty busy, but the crowd was handled well by the friendly park staff and a busy shuttle van.

The festival was an unexpected treat, and complemented the other historical elements at the park such as the CCC-constructed replica of the Mission San Francisco de los Tejas building (available for weddings!), a restored log home (one of the oldest structures in the area), the remnants of a fire watchtower and a piece of the El Camino Real de los Tejas trail.

The Trails, The Trails, The Trails!

But my favorite part of the park was, by far, the hiking trails–Mission Tejas has a positive hairball of hiking trails. Some are as narrow as a single person, some are as wide as a road. Some are old and historical (you can always spot a CCC-built trail by the presence of old wood or stone stairs), some are much newer (the official park map is missing at least four, although you can get a more accurate trails map at headquarters). Some are steep and twisty and dramatic, while others are flat and straight and relaxed.

I got turned around more than once when I went hiking by myself on the first day, although the most confusing trail bits are also the shortest and I’d soon stumble onto a sign-marked crossroads and get myself righted again.

As there are so many trails I won’t go over every single one: as a general rule the trails in the middle of the cluster are the older ones, ducking in and out of thin valleys and crisscrossed with streams–these are narrower, shorter and very steep in places (so definitely the most fun!) I enjoyed the challenge of the Steep Steps and the narrow, wandering Olen Matchett; I was completely charmed by the rickety old stairs at the end of the Big Pine that led up to the historic log home. I savored the nature trail looping around the CCC-constructed pond first in the morning, when the muddy water turned still and reflective and beautiful.

The outer, wider trails were just as enjoyable–especially the Steep Ravine, which surges upwards for a long, sweaty time before sending you through several switchbacks, then tumbles back down again–and the Chimney Loop, which has its own quiet rest area in the middle of nowhere, where I dozed off on a bench until a pileated woodpecker startled me awake.

The only trail that put a dent in my fun was a victim of recent weather–the Nabadache Loop’s entire northern section was all mud and standing water, and I just kept pressing forward (and sinking down) thinking that, surely, it would get better. (It did, eventually, after getting a lot worse.) But even that mucky trail had some beautiful views of the San Pedro Creek.

After two full days of hiking these wonderful trails I returned home thoroughly exhausted, but already looking forward to my next trip. Five stars for Mission Tejas!

Chasing Pelicans at Fairfield Lake

Chasing Pelicans at Fairfield Lake

The last state park I chose to camp at was a bit of an impulse–I saw a bunch of pelicans on the Fairfield Lake State Park Instagram feed and two days later I was there, chasing enormous flocks of migrating birds around the cold and windy lake shore and learning some hard lessons about wildlife photography. 

I never quite got the pelican shots I wanted, although the cormorants were much more accommodating (the friendly park rangers told me they spread their wings out like that to get dry because their feathers aren’t waterproof). I was also surprised to see large groups vultures (a “kettle” of vultures refers to a group of them in flight, and a “committee” is a bunch of them in a tree–and I saw both!)

I also chose this trip to test out my new backpack with a hike into the park’s primitive camping area. I haven’t hiked into a site or done primitive camping in about a decade (and never by myself) so this was a fun–if exhausting–trip for me. I enjoyed sleeping in the dark and lonely woods, quiet except for an occasionally nearby pack of coyotes, although I most likely will only do it again when the campsite isn’t so far in the woods (see my notes on the long trail below.)

Fairfield Lake State Park is long, linear and spread out. If you stay in the regular camping areas you’d be close enough walk to one of the day use areas, but if you’re staying in the primitive sites like I was expect to drive around to visit the rest of the park. 

The first picnic area I visited (where the pelicans kept shifting around the lake to avoid me) was especially charming. It was empty while I was there, but I could easily imagine how accommodating the large picnic space and easy access to the lake must be for families in the summer and over holidays. It’s also beautiful in December, but even when the sun is out the wind coming off the water cuts right to the bone (and pulled my hat off my head and tossed it into the lake–pretty sure the pelicans enjoyed that.)

On the same peninsula is a boat ramp, fish-cleaning station and a nice-looking dining hall where I spent some time experimenting with taking back-lit photos of trees in the afternoon sun.

For the rest of my day out I explored the small Birdwatching trail (see below) and the other, smaller day use area and boat ramp–this one is about 4 miles in–where I snapped pictures of committees of vultures and the now-quiet power plant across the lake.

I turned in early, due to the short day and the long hike back to my tent, stopping by headquarters first to borrow a book from the little lending library just outside their doors (I love this and wish all parks had it!) and hiked the remaining trails the following morning.

The Trails at Fairfield Lake State Park

I know the Big Brown Creek trail the best because I hiked the darn thing four times. It’s length is just long enough to be infuriating (the map says 3 miles but the park rangers told me it was 3.5 to the primitive camping area–whatever it is, it felt longer.) I don’t mind the walking, but the time really got to me. I would take nearly an hour to get back to my car, losing a chunk of short and precious daylight that I would have liked to spend photographing things instead, and I felt compelled to return to camp sort of early to avoid tripping over the trail in the dark.

Half of Big Brown Creek trail is comfortably flat, and the other half is drainage ditch. It’s easy enough to follow (although on my first trip back I twice wondered up the wrong ditch for a bit) and would likely be very comfortable terrain during drier parts of the year. As for me, I slipped and slurped through the mud and gingerly forded small streams–I somehow managed not to fall or lose my boots and did enjoy seeing all the deep animal tracks (raccoons, deer, wild hogs and horses) pressed into the goo.

Big Brown Creek is a very utilitarian trail. True to the name there’s a big brown creek, a handful of brown streams and a small brown pond. I spotted two armadillos and a rusted-out old car (eventually identified as a 1945 Buick Roadmaster, also brown) but didn’t bother with any nature photography until I went to the very end of the trail, where you can see the lake and lots of evidence of wild hogs.

I had high hopes for the short Birdwatching trail on the other side of the park (it was birds that got me to this park, after all!) but I didn’t spot much in the woods–partially because I didn’t bother to sit quietly on one of the many benches along this trail, I assume, and probably also because of the time of year. Not really any good lake views, although there’s a bit of an uphill hike to a little lookout point where you can just make out some of the water and I caught a glimpse of, I think, a duck.

There was also a neat little spur off this trail that was covered, tunnel-like, with welded-wire fence. Due to the high water line I couldn’t get very far into it, but I’m betting it’s normally a good place to watch wildlife.

I was also looking forward to the small Scenic Loop trail as one of the park rangers told me bald eagles had been spotted in the area. It’s a short and easy half-mile walk with a couple of pretty views (and also probably looks better at other times of the year.) No eagles for me, unfortunately–more vultures though!

I’m saving the best for last: the Nature trail was a freaking storybook of a trail. Imagine how Disney would design a hike: lightly wooded with only the gentlest of elevations and lazy, charming curves that wind around a small peninsula, and open up here and there to the lake for very pretty and unobstructed views. Airy, a little windy, lined with soft grasses–I even saw a few wildflowers that had survived the winter–and everywhere titmice and other small and adorable birds flitting about in the branches above.

And it’s only about 2 miles long–the perfect, feelgood trail when you just want to take a weekend stroll and remember why you like being outside. 

There’s one last trail–the Dockery trail, wrapping around most of one side of the park–but it’s 5.25 miles long one way and my legs didn’t have another 10 miles in them. I’d love to come back when it’s a little drier and try that baby out on my bike.

Fairfield Lake State Park was a gorgeous, five-star experience–even in the off-season–with some pleasant hikes, nice recreational accommodations and friendly staff, but when I return I’ll stay in one of the regular campsites in order to make the most of my time there.

Wide Trails, Tall Bluffs at Atlanta State Park

Wide Trails, Tall Bluffs at Atlanta State Park

Atlanta State Park is a lovely spot for fall campers who like a serene view of the lake (like me, I’m nuts for lakes!) A friend and I spent a night there last weekend and, even though most of the campsites were taken, were usually secluded on the quiet, empty lake shores or all alone in the woods on the trails.

The park sits on high bluffs overlooking the south shore of Lake Wright Patman; the bluffs are made of clay and sand and crumbling away in places (there’s a closed asphalt road near the western boat ramp that looks like something took a bite out of it) with lots of interesting roots and waterlines and textures to explore. 

Atlanta State Park is divided into two sections, with a generous day use area, boat ramp and camping sites on the west side, and two more camping areas and a smaller boat ramp on the east. The road between the east and west sections is long enough that we didn’t bother trying to hoof it. I prefer my parks walk-able, but there’s currently a trail undergoing construction that, when finished, will connect both sides of the park (in a meandering sort of way.)

We camped in the White Oak Ridge camping area (on the east side) on a tall bluff that had a bit of a view of the lake through the woods. I was told at checkout that this area can get windy, although we were lucky and only had to put up with a little rain early the next morning. A new horseshoes playing field (court? turf?) was half-constructed in the middle of our camping loop, and we saw a finished set-up at the western day use area along with sand volleyball and a playground. But, our main recreation was the trails.

The Trails at Atlanta State Park

The White Oak Ridge and Hickory Hollow trails were a quiet and woody walk before lunch. White Oak Ridge had gentle, shady slopes and comes out at the lake on its north end, where there’s a little peninsula with grasshoppers and a bald cypress or two. On the map it looks like you should be able to get on this trail from the campsites just above it, but there weren’t any side paths leading to it that I could find near our site (51) so we entered via the trailhead by the bathrooms.

White Oak Ridge led to Hickory Hollow, which is marked as “moderate to challenging” on the official trail map, however I didn’t find it especially difficult. There are elevation changes, yes, but nothing too steep or crazy, and the hardest part was navigating a large puddle of water. The only trail markers we saw on these two trails were rectangles of paint on the trees, but there was large signage marking off-ramps to the camp sites and parking lot.

After lunch we drove to the west side of the park and walked the Volksmarch trail–an easy walk with a couple of blinds where you can sit and watch for wildlife–and the Arrowhead trail, a small loop (less than a mile) that gets out into some sunny prairie-like areas with a northern spur that goes up to the lake.

Something that stood out to me about these trails (other than the Hickory Hollow nature trail) was just how wide they were. As I was hiking with a friend I appreciated how we could usually walk side-by-side and chat as we went along. The paths were flat and grassy and not rutted into the dirt, but the grass was kept short. I imagine trail maintenance and tree removal must be a dream, as a mower or ATV would fit easily.

Our campsite and the park overall was clean and mostly litter-free; our bathrooms were old (and in desperate need of more wall hooks) but not dirty. The park ranger who checked me in (like all Texas State Park staff I’ve interacted with, so far) was friendly. Cut firewood is available via donation at the headquarters.

I give Atlanta State Park five stars and am looking forward to appreciating its East Texas beauty at other times of the year.

Walking the D Loop Trail

Walking the D Loop Trail

Of all the trails at Tyler State Park the D Loop is my favorite. At just over 2 miles it’s not the longest trail in the park, but the fun lies in all the elevation changes–lots of steep slopes where the tree roots stick out like natural staircases. It’s very satisfying to get a running start and charge uphill, and I’m looking forward to the day when I’ve had a little more trail riding experience and can attempt those hills on my bike.

D Loop is a shady trail almost entirely in the woods; in the summer it’s hot and stuffy and still, but in the fall (as seen in the photos below) it’s more than nice, especially when it’s been raining a lot and the sluggish streams the trail crosses here and there turn into pleasantly babbling brooks.

It’s an easy trail to follow–there aren’t a lot of markers, but it’s mostly straightforward. There’s one “off ramp” leading to the Cedar Point camping area, and one place in the middle where it intersects with C Loop. A quick glance of the trail map should clear up any confusion, but I personally like bundling D and C together for one healthy 3.5-mile hike.

D Loop is well maintained, in part by the park staff but also with the help of volunteers such as the East Texas Trail Advocacy non-profit group. It’s a modern trail that follows the contours of the land in curves and switchbacks, like all the trails at Tyler State park–except for the Whispering Pines trail near the park entrance. (Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 30s/early 40s, Whispering Pine features a very long, very straight hike uphill with actual wooden stairs built in, and is a good example of how far trail construction has come along, although it’s currently undergoing development and is already a lot more interesting.)

D Loop is popular with hikers and bikers for good reason, and if you’re looking for a well-maintained trail that will really work your leg muscles then this one’s for you.