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Bluebonnet Fields Forever

Roadsides and fields drenched in celestial blue make it easy to imagine, as one legend goes, that chunks of the blue Texas sky fell to earth and created bluebonnets.

By Mary-Love Bigony

Destination: Ennis

Travel time from:

AMARILLO - 7 hours / AUSTIN - 3 hours / BROWNSVILLE - 9 hours / DALLAS - .5 hours / EL PASO - 10 hours / HOUSTON - 3 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 4.5 hours

My destination on this vibrant April day is Ennis, a town of 18,000 people just half an hour south of Dallas. The Texas Legislature named Ennis Texas’ official Bluebonnet City in 1997, but the folks in Ennis have been celebrating their bluebonnets a lot longer than that. Ennis’ bluebonnet trails were mapped for the first time in 1951.

It’s midafternoon when I arrive, so instead of starting out on the bluebonnet trails this late, I check out the Railroad and Cultural Heritage Museum on Main Street. Ennis got its start as a railroad town when the Houston and Texas Central Railway reached here in 1871. The town was established the following year and named for Cornelius Ennis, a director of the railroad. Czech immigrants started arriving in 1873, and the town still has a strong Czech influence, hosting the National Polka Festival each May.

Ennis received its second railroad in 1894, the Texas Midland, and the Houston and Texas chose Ennis as its northern division headquarters. As an example of how important the railroad was to 19th-century Texas communities, the citizens of Burnham, a small town to the south of Ennis, were so outraged at being bypassed by the Houston and Texas, they attacked Ennis in 1872, killing one man and wounding several.

The building that houses the museum dates back to 1915. It was the Van Noy restaurant, located next to the train station. As many as 10 passenger trains a day came through Ennis in the early 20th century, and passengers often got out to stretch their legs and get a bite to eat at the Van Noy. Bill Martz, dressed in a turn-of-the-century conductor’s hat and vest, shows me around. He tells me about the railroad, notable area residents and the cotton industry, which prospered here in the Blackland Prairie beginning in the late 19th century. Bill obligingly poses in a recreated railroad office complete with an old-fashioned telephone, manual typewriter and lantern. It’s such a realistic scene, I almost expect to hear the train whistle and see Dallas-bound passengers disembarking.

The next morning, map in hand, I set out. More than 40 miles of marked driving trails wind through the bucolic countryside east of town and the city park west of town. I start out along the Alma Trail, which winds through hills and alongside farms. Red barns, bales of hay and grazing cattle provide backdrops for the extravagant bluebonnets.

The Alma Trail connects with the Bristol Trail, and one sweeping view after another unfolds. Bluebonnets mixed with red-orange Indian paintbrushes give some fields a patriotic look. Moms and dads toting cameras and tripods position well-dressed children in thickets of roadside blooms. The fields of bluebonnets are, for the most part, on private land, so be careful not to trespass.

Bluebonnet Park, on the west side of town, is the final leg of Ennis’ bluebonnet trails for me. A picnic table overlooking Lake Bardwell provides a scenic spot for lunch. After lunch I drive along the wildflower-lined roads of the Bluebonnet City Park Trail, which crosses the lake. Highview Park, one of several lakeside parks, offers yet another resplendent view of bluebonnet fields. From there I go to Waxahachie Creek Park on the upper reaches of the lake. Huge oaks and pecan trees shade the picnic and camping areas, which have an expansive view of the lake. Either of these parks would be good choices for people who want to combine a camping trip with their wildflower-viewing excursions.

This weekend is Ennis’ annual Bluebonnet Trails Festival, so I go back downtown and visit the street market, which is filled with artwork, craft items — many of them bluebonnet-themed, of course — and food vendors. For the rest of the afternoon I browse the historical and charming downtown area. According to the convention and visitors bureau, Ennis has 60 historical houses and buildings that are listed with the Texas Historical Commission. I don’t bother to count them, but they do indeed give the town an Old World charm.

The next day, before leaving the area, I branch out to see what else I can find in this scenic pocket of North Texas. On the southern end of Lake Bardwell I take an early morning hike through the Buffalo Creek Wetlands. The trail leads me around Heron Lake, where I see one of the lake’s namesake birds, a great blue. The air is springtime fresh and the vegetation is that incredibly bright shade of green seen only at this time of year. A sign announces I’m at Beaver Slough, but I see no sign of the toothy rodent.

From the wetlands I go to Kachina Prairie, where the morning sun casts a glow over a tangle of grasses and flowers. Native grasslands such as this once stretched the length of the Blackland Prairies, from the Red River to San Antonio, and I imagine for a moment what it would have been like to cross Texas on horseback amid thick, tall grasses. But as the human population increased and land was cleared to accommodate those humans’ needs, native prairies became harder and harder to find. Today, more than 90 percent of Texas’ native Blackland Prairie has been cleared. This 30-acre plot is located within Ennis’ city limits, and the city manages it with annual prescribed burns and mowing to maintain the diversity of native plants, including big and little bluestem, Indiangrass, blue sage and gayfeather.

I leave Ennis heading northwest on U.S. 287 and after about half an hour, just 100 yards short of the Dallas City Limit sign on FM 1382, I turn into Cedar Hill State Park. Bluebonnets with a smattering of Indian paintbrushes cover the ground and bright spring leaves of the hardwoods seem to sparkle against the more sedate green of the junipers.

This hilly region — quite a contrast to flat-as-a-pancake Dallas just to the north — was known, in a bit of hyperbole, as the Cedar Mountains in the 19th century. John Anderson Penn came to this area from Illinois in 1854 and bought property here. In 1859 his son, John Wesley Penn, built the first structures for what would become an 1,100-acre farm. Members of the Penn family lived here and operated the farm until 1970. Visitors may take a guided tour on the last Saturday of every month or a self-guided tour any day of the week. I stroll through the farm, feeling hundreds of miles decades away from Texas’ second-largest city.

Leaving Penn Farm, I follow the signs to Joe Pool Marina on the shore of Joe Pool Reservoir. The 7,470-acre lake, impounded in 1986, is popular for fishing, boating, sailing and wind surfing. The park has eight miles of shoreline and the marina rents ski boats, bass boats, jet skis and pontoon boats. Anglers can use one of two lighted fishing jetties.

After a quick picnic lunch I hike Talala Trail, which takes me back into the secluded primitive camping area. The hiking trails are separate from the mountain biking trails. Cedar Hill is one of the top mountain biking sites in North Texas and members of the Dallas Off-Road Biking Association built 12 miles of trails in the park covering some 1,200 acres. After my hike I drive past some of the wooded campsites. This park has an impressive 355 campsites, many of them on the lake.

Cedar Hill State Park offers activities throughout the year to teach visitors about nature. You can learn about snakes and the various mammals in the park, the park’s five native tallgrass prairies, wildflowers and how to track wildlife. Nighttime activities include campfire sing-alongs, a hike explaining how humans and animals use their senses in the dark and nighttime birding. Call the park or check the TPWD Web site for a complete list of activities.

Daylight is almost gone, so I stop at a lakeside picnic table and watch a lone sailboat coming in for the evening. The city lights sparkle across the lake at night, I’m told. That sight would astonish those 19th-century settlers, as would the lake itself. Twenty-first century Dallasites might be equally astonished to know that primitive camping, a 19th-century farm and native tallgrass prairies are just down the road from them.

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