September 2007 Park of the Month
Lost Maples State Natural Area
Portal to Texas' Past Awaits at Lost Maples State Natural Area
Lost Maples State Natural Area exists as a portal to Texas' primordial past where bigtooth maples and other relict species from the Ice Age have adapted to climate change over the ages and thrive in special riparian and woodland habitats of the Texas Hill Country.
The Sabinal River and its several tributaries have carved limestone canyons through the 2,200-acre park straddling Bandera and Real counties at the western fringes of the Edwards Plateau. Here, the canyons' moist, cool microclimates support a remarkable diversity of plant life found few other places in Texas.
The bigtooth maple tree ranks as the park's marquee species. In late autumn most years, the stands of old-growth maples set the canyons ablaze in a riot of red, orange and gold foliage, drawing upwards of 50,000 leaf-peepers to the state natural area. The western cousin of the eastern sugar maple retained a foothold in the Hill Country canyons after vast sheets of ice advanced southward across North America almost to present-day Texas, and then retreated. (For an explanation of the park's geological history and information about the bigtooth maple and other indigenous plant species, visit the exhibit hall in the park headquarters.)
The park is home to the state's largest known species of the bigtooth, also known as the Uvalde bigtooth maple and canyon maple. The 40-foot tall maple with a 45-foot crown spread stands at the head of the park's most popular trail, the .8-mile Maple Trail, just a few steps from the day-use area parking lot. However, to really appreciate this wondrous arboretum, visitors should park their vehicle and stroll the wooded canyon trails that traverse the upland canyons of the Sabinal River, as well as Can, Hale Hollow and Lane creeks.
But no matter the time of year, Lost Maples SNA - about an hour's drive southwest of Kerrville -- makes a worthwhile destination that will not disappoint. Visitors hoping to enjoy the park under less crowded conditions of late October and early November when the maples' color peaks should consider an early fall visit. Nights tend to cool off and during warm, sunny days, the waters of the Sabinal and spring-fed swimming holes prove tempting spots to take a soothing splash.
"This place, for no more than the amount of acreage we have here, is a true showcase of natural beauty," Rubio says. "I'd like to think it's Nature at its best. There's always something to see that will capture your attention."
Almost 11 miles of well-marked trails lead to scenic overlooks, spring-fed ponds populated by Texas' state fish, the Guadalupe bass, prime birding habitat and 40 primitive backpack camping sites. Composting toilets near several backcountry campsites make the wilderness experience a bit more pleasant.
The Maple Trail provides the easiest access to the park's natural wonders, traversing mostly flat terrain through a moist, shaded Sabinal River canyon. Mature bigtooths share fertile canyon habitat with monstrous chinkapin and Lacey's oaks, Florida basswood, pecan, black willow, green ash and American sycamore. Boulders the size of a subcompact car sit in the middle of the river and at the base of soaring limestone cliffs.
Few people know the state natural area as well as park ranger Jesus Rubio, who grew up in nearby Leakey and has worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for 20 years. During a recent hike up the canyon, Rubio pointed out patches of green maidenhair fern and small openings in the canyon walls that leach moisture and cool air.
"You can walk into some of these canyons," Rubio says, "when it's 100 degrees up on the flats and immediately feel the drop in temperature. The maples are very adaptable and prolific.
Because of the canyonlands' microclimate effect, the park contains numerous species of plants and animals of both eastern and western affinity, as well as rare species endemic to the Balcones Escarpment. Found here are the unusual Texas madrone tree, three kinds of buckeye, witch hazel (common in Mississippi), six different kinds of oaks, Texas mock orange and sycamore-leaf snowbell whose white clusters of flowers bloom in late September.
The park's birdlife reflects Lost Maples' location in the North America's central flyway, as well as its diversity of habitat that includes grasslands and scrublands; mixed evergreen and deciduous escarpment woodlands; and streamside woodlands. Birders from around the world visit the park to catch a glimpse of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo, as well as specialty birds such as the green kingfisher and zone-tailed hawk.
Water-and-electric campsites are at a premium at Lost Maples SNA. The 30 campsites, which also feature in-ground barbecue pits and shaded picnic tables, book up 11 months in advance for the peak fall foliage period. Other times of the year, booking reservations early is recommended.
In keeping with Lost Maples' state natural area designation, the park has limited development and facilities. However, young and old alike can enjoy nature photography, hiking, camping, bird watching, backpacking, fishing and swimming.
The day use-only park entry fees for persons 13 and older are: $5 from December through September and $6 for October and November. Those staying overnight, pay a $3 entry fee. Hike-in campsites are $8 a night and water-electric sites are $15.
Other things to do while visiting the canyon country near Lost Maples State Natural Area include: tour the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum (open Friday-Sunday); drive scenic FM 337 between Vanderpool and Medina and stop at overlooks; visit the Love Creek Cider Mill Store in Medina; eat at the Lost Maples Café in Utopia; and stop at Bandera County's more than 20 wildlife viewing sites along the western branch of the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail.
Lost Maples State Natural Area is located about an hour's drive southwest of Kerrville and five miles north of Vanderpool on Ranch Road 187. It is one of 112 state parks that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information about the park visit the Lost Maples State Natural Area web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle