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July 29, 2011

State Parks Seeing Plenty of Action Despite Ongoing Drought

AUSTIN – With only a few weeks left until kids are back in school, the chance for a summertime visit to a Texas state park is dwindling. And, while some state parks report slowing visitation, dropping lake levels, trickling rivers and parched vegetation and wildlife due to the persistent drought and heat, others are faring quite well and are continuing to draw crowds seeking recreational opportunities in the great outdoors.

State parks with steady lake levels, such as Inks Lake and Cedar Hill, beach parks and those with swimming pools, continue to see high usage as sweltering visitors look for a place to cool off and kick back. Inks Lake saw visitation over the recent four-day July 4th holiday weekend increase 25 percent over last year, most likely because of the fairly constant level of the lake drawing legions of day users seeking a cool swimming spot. Balmorhea State Park in West Texas is hopping, as well.

“This is the busiest season I’ve ever seen,” says Tom Johnson, superintendent of Balmorhea State Park in West Texas. “On July 3, we sold more than $11,000 worth of daily entrance permits. The springs that fill our pool are still flowing clear, cool and strong, attracting huge crowds.”

State parks on the water or with swimming pools are proving to be some of the most popular places this summer. There are 50 state parks on lakes, rivers and creeks, four on the Gulf of Mexico and eight with swimming pools.

The large, L-shaped swimming pool at Lyndon B. Johnson State Historic Site in Stonewall welcomed more than 5,000 guests from June 1 through mid-July, a 43 percent uptick in pool use compared to the same period last year. Vending machine and merchandise sales were up, as well.

Sweltering denizens of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex flocked to Cedar Hill State Park on the Joe Pool Reservoir, whose water level was faring much better than many other area lakes, to swim, boat and fish. Anglers have been catching plenty of fish and higher-than-normal day use boosted June’s visitation numbers 9.1 percent compared to June 2010 numbers The lack of mountain biking trail closures due to scant rainfall has brought a good response from local bikers, as well.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials caution that the downside of dropping reservoir levels at some state park lakes are closed boat ramps, heightened safety concerns due to more crowding and exposed hazards, and the possibility of compromised water quality. Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, for example, has seen the lake drop from full capacity a year ago to being 63 percent full in mid-July. Park officials have received several complaints from boaters who say they have struck exposed sand bars.

Another major danger for park-goers during this torrid summer is heat exhaustion or heat stroke, as a recent incident at Palo Duro Canyon State Park reminds us.

 Acting park superintendent Nathan Londenberg says that earlier this week a 20-year-old woman attempting the six-mile round-trip hike with a friend to The Lighthouse formation ran out of drinking water and died from apparent heat stroke.

Londenberg warns people engaging in outdoor activities in the daytime should drink plenty of water, wear hats and other protective clothing, stay on designated trails, hike with a buddy and be aware of symptoms of heat exhaustion that can lead to fatal heat stroke: pale, cool moist skin; profuse sweating; muscle cramps or pain; dizziness, light-headedness or headache; and weakness or nausea.

State parks throughout much of Texas are operating under county burn bans due to the ongoing exceptional drought and limiting the types of fires permitted in picnic and camping areas in most cases to charcoal and containerized fuel stoves. A notice on the Inks Lake State Park web page, however, proclaims that not even charcoal fires are allowed. Sea Rim State Park near Sabine Pass is once again allowing beach-goers to build campfires on the beach, now that Jefferson County has lifted its burn ban due to recent rains. For a rundown on burn bans and campfire regulations affecting Texas state parks, visit Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website’s frequently-asked questions page, or visit and check out information on the state park you wish to visit.

The state’s third worst drought of record means wildland fire fuel moisture is at an all-time low in many areas, prompting extra caution from Jeff Sparks, who oversees the Texas state parks fire program.

“It is important park visitors use common sense when it comes to outdoor cooking, and follow each respective park’s guidelines and bans on outdoor cooking and campfires,” Sparks says. “Never leave any open flame unattended and always use extreme caution when smoking in a wildland environment, making sure cigarettes are fully extinguished and safely discarded.”

Some of the state’s most popular parks, such as Lake Somerville’s Nails Creek unit and Fort Richardson State Historic Site, report significant drops in visitation numbers this summer because of the extreme heat and drought conditions. Low water levels forced Nails Creek to close its boat ramp and swimming area. Fort Richardson’s tiny lake, popular with anglers, has almost dried up.

Other state parks, however, are holding their own in summer visitation. Ray Roberts Lake State Park near Denton reports visitation has been about the same as last year because the lake is only a couple of feet lower than the average. Day use has been busy and the water and electric campsites continue to be full on most weekends.

At Garner State Park, superintendent Rick Meyers says it’s been a busy summer despite the lower river flow, with visitors thronging to the popular weekend dances. “Nobody around here has water, but we have a dam in the day use area, so we have a deep swimming area. We’re swamped on weekends. We’ve had to shut down park entry by 11 or 11:30 a.m. every weekend. I would recommend that people wanting to visit during the weekend, come early.”

Near Junction in the otherwise parched Texas Hill Country, South Llano River State Park continues to draw big numbers due to the still-flowing, clear, spring-fed waters of the South Llano River offering relief from the summer heat. The same can’t be said of places such as Guadalupe River and Pedernales Falls state parks, where rivers have stopped flowing.

The prolonged drought continues to impact wildlife inhabiting Texas state parks as well. The iconic bison herd at Caprock Canyons State Park no longer has prairie grass to graze, so are being fed about half a ton of range cubes and hay each week. Shaggy-haired bison at San Angelo State Park are finding the going rough, too, because of the high temperatures. However, the park’s resilient longhorns are holding up fine so far. At Sea Rim, the marsh that typically flows under the Gambusia Boardwalk has dried up, killing a fish and crabs and forcing the alligators to move further inland into the wetlands, making them less visible to park-goers.

But there is some silver lining in the otherwise dark weather conditions. At some state parks, wildlife is moving around more to find water and food, making it easier for park visitors to spot deer, turkey, birds and other critters. The Clarity Tunnel bats on the Caprock Canyons State Park Trailway are leaving their shelter earlier than normal each evening this summer to travel farther to find sufficient food resources, providing excellent photo opportunities. Elsewhere, pesky mosquitoes and snakes seem diminished. And, at Possum Kingdom State Park, the drought seems to have taken its toll, at least temporarily, on the feral hog population.

All things considered in this summer of drought discontent, Texas state parks for the most part are holding their own, providing special places for families and nature-lovers to pursue a variety of recreational activities and enjoy the outdoors. And, with cooler weather and increased potential for rain right around the corner, it’s not too early to plan a fall visit to a Texas state park.

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RM 2011-07-29

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