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Nuts for the Nueces

Destination: Camp Wood

By Rob McCorkle

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 3.75 hours /
  • Brownsville - 7 hours /
  • Dallas - 6.5 hours /
  • El Paso - 7.5 hours /
  • Houston - 5.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 2.5 hours
  • Lubbock - 7.75 hours

Enjoy a crystal-clear river and dramatic Hill Country scenery without the tourist hordes.

Not really discovered in a modern sense until the Roaring Twenties, Camp Wood still remains largely unknown by travelers who have ventured no farther west than the Sabinal and Frio river canyons for a Hill Country escape.

This picturesque town of 800-plus lies in the Nueces River Canyon at the westernmost edge of the Balcones Escarpment and southernmost fringe of the Edwards Plateau. Camp Wood was founded in 1920 by Uvalde Cedar Company employees. Workers harvested large mountain junipers for local sawmills and the timber was exported to distant markets by way of the Uvalde and Northern Railroad. The town was incorporated in 1936.

Located some 40 miles north of Uvalde and about an hour south of Junction, Camp Wood is the kind of place you don’t just happen across. But half the fun of visiting the Real County town is getting there.

After lunch in Kerrville, I decide to drive Highway 41 out of Mountain Home to Rocksprings where I’ll pick up Highway 55 south to Camp Wood. State Highway 41 dips and rolls through thorny ranch country, passing by such legendary Texas spreads as the Y.O. Ranch. Just shy of Rock-springs, I opt for a road less traveled — Ranch Road 335 — that will dump me out in Barksdale just north of Camp Wood. It proves a fortuitous decision.

The ranch road snakes along the east prong of the Nueces River, providing breathtaking views of river bottom lands, soaring canyon walls and distant mountains. The scenery reminds me of an old western movie.

Fact is, 150 years ago, I might have seen the Comanche or Lipan Apache, who lived in the bountiful Nueces Canyon country. Mid 19th-century settlers in the area certainly encountered them. To protect those settlers as well as travelers along the San Antonio – El Paso Road, the United States established a military outpost from which the town of Camp Wood derived its name. Troops remained at the hillside camp from 1857 to 1861, withdrawing at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Spanish explorers who had preceded the U.S. military almost a century before found the going rough in this beautiful but remote land. Franciscan friars established the San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz Mission (1761-1762) for the Lipan Apaches at the same spot on what today is the northern edge of Camp Wood, but abandoned the mission in 1769.

I am looking forward to getting the lay of the land, and I have plans to meet with the mayor of Camp Wood before checking in with Terri Maner at Big Oak River Camp, where I’ll be bunking.

Mayor Ben Cox, 32, grew up in Camp Wood. He has seen visitation from urban Texas increase significantly. Some, he observes, bring their families on summer vacations, while others come seeking acreage for a vacation or retirement home.

“The city was dying, but new folks came in and leased the nursing home,” Cox says, “the chocolate factory opened, a new real estate office set up shop downtown, the library opened, and people are renovating the downtown area.”

The area has always drawn deer hunters and other outdoorsmen, but more and more people are finding their way to Camp Wood to camp out, enjoy a river resort, fish the gin-clear river, kayak, watch wildlife or just relax.

With the mayor’s observations under my belt, I drive south about five miles to Big Oak River Camp. Terri and her husband have operated this Uvalde County camp for five years. Initially opened for guests to picnic, enjoy the river and stay overnight in a tent or RV, the resort has added a two-bedroom river house and 16 fully equipped, air-conditioned log cabins within easy walking distance of the Nueces River. Each cabin has a picnic table, front porch swing, fire ring and barbecue grill. Cabins rent during high season (May 15 – Sept. 14) for $115 a night.

You’ll find few restaurants in Camp Wood, but the ones I tried are good. On my first night, I head to BJ’s and its much- touted chicken-fried steak. Served with mashed potatoes, gravy and grilled veggies, then followed by cherry cobbler, the dinner proves tasty and filling.

Owner Barbara Jean, a schoolteacher who grew up in nearby Vance, decided about two years ago to open a restaurant. Business has been so good that she recently expanded to accommodate the locals and tourists who pack the diner most nights for country fare, killer hamburgers, fried fish and her homemade pies.

Bed comes early, and I awake refreshed. I grab my camera and stroll the short distance to the Nueces River. Walking down the riverbank, I scare up a great blue heron, the B-52 of avifauna, which soars away nonchalantly. I snap a few photos of the sun-bleached river rocks and drought-impacted ribbon of river.

A quick bite and coffee at the cabin, and I’m on my way to meet Bill and Mimi Eppler. The recently retired Harris County deputy sheriff and his wife are turning part of Grandpa Eppler’s 3,000-acre spread overlooking Nueces Lake into an eco-river retreat. Nueces River Resort, formerly known as Shoe Peg, offers a quiet, secluded retreat for RVers and guests who prefer to stay in one of the eight spacious “green” cabins built with recycled steel, straw bales and rammed earth. Plans call for a riverside bar and grill accessible by boat and by car.

The nature resort is located just off Highway 55 overlooking the shimmering, turquoise waters of what is called Nueces Lake — an impounded portion of the river. Nueces River Resort is designed to appeal to travelers wishing to escape typical summer crowds that pack Hill Country rivers such as the Sabinal and Frio.

“What we’re offering here along with the eco approach,” explains Eppler, “is a little seclusion. The cabins aren’t built on top of one another, and there’s plenty of room for horseback riding, hiking, mountain climbing and kayaking.”

I decide on lunch at Casa Falcon, one of two Mexican restaurants in town. On the way, I decide to stop by Wes Cooksey Park, run by Charles and Bobbie Neumann. Located just across the river from the Nueces River Resort, the well-kempt Uvalde County park and oak-shaded campground has been welcoming several generations of families who come to camp, swim, fish and boat. It is one of the few public facilities with boat ramps to access Nueces Lake.

I rendezvous back in town that afternoon with Tom and Marilyn Stoner. The Stoners operate Clear Creek Outfitters out of an antiques shop on Camp Wood’s main street (Highway 55). I am told the Stoners know the Nueces River better than almost anybody in the county.

The Handbook of Texas explains that the double-forked Nueces drains 16,800 square miles, carrying an annual runoff of 620,000 acre-feet. Its headwaters are located not too far north of Camp Wood, making for a clear-running stream greatly impacted by occasional flash floods that alter the river’s main course, making knowledgeable folks like the Stoners indispensable to the casual river runner. But most of the time, the river, named by Spanish explorer Alonso De Leon in the late 1600s for the plethora of pecan trees growing along its banks, is a mellow, mostly shallow-running, spring-fed river conducive to leisurely paddling.

The Stoners say a new law restricting motorized access to streambeds has improved the river’s fish breeding pools. Anglers are catching more bass, catfish and perch. An annual fly-fishing tournament each May draws upward of 100 people.

Clear Creek Outfitters caters to all types, and the Stoners fix me up with an Ocean Kayak model called the Big Yak, which they have found to be ideal for the Nueces.

Equipped with a light spinning rod and small jig, I put in at Cooksey Park and paddle upriver for several hundred yards to try my luck at hooking a largemouth bass I am told might be lurking beneath the base limestone shelves at the far side of the river.

An hour later, I haven’t had a bite, nor even seen a fish. But I enjoy the antics of two coal-black rock squirrels scurrying in and out of crevices in the limestone wall, as well as the splashing of ducks and geese plying the waters near Cooksey Park.

I’ve saved my last morning for exploring the town of Camp Wood and a talk with its resident historian and former mayor, octogenarian L. J. Dean.

Camp Wood isn’t exactly Fredericksburg, or even Kerrville or Bandera, when it comes to shopping. Nonetheless, there are several stores worth checking out.

One is Bear Creek Fudge and Chocolate run by Phil and Fran Williams. Chocoholics will find handmade fudge and white-chocolate Deer Munch hard to resist.

Just a few stores down, at Delores’ Unique Designs, Delores Vernor designs and hand-sews mohair jackets, coats, scarves and other apparel for celebrities around the world. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and the Queen of England are among Delores’ clientele.

Several Camp Wood craftsmen continue to turn out fine furniture made from the evergreen trees that cover the hillsides and ranchlands throughout the area. One is Juan Alvarez, who crafts rustic cedar and pine furniture for Texas Hill Country Furniture. Visit the showroom at 106 South Nueces to view his handiwork.

To wrap up my trip, I join L. J. Dean for a hamburger at BJ’s. He regales me with stories of the old days when the town was little more than a glorified cedar camp on the Uvalde and Northern Railroad.

Among Dean’s favorite tales is the one about aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh. It seems that one day in 1924, “Slim,” as Lindbergh was known in those days, took a wrong turn while flying through Texas. Running low on fuel, Lindbergh landed his single-prop plane in a field north of town.

The next day in Camp Wood, while taxiing to take off between two telephone poles, Lindbergh’s wheel hit a hole that swung the prop-driven Canuck aircraft into Warren Pruett’s hardware store, knocking over paint cans and other merchandise and breaking the propeller. The aviators waited for a new propeller to be sent, spending several days at the now-defunct Fitzgerald Hotel, and mingling with the townspeople. The celebrated barnstormers gave rides to some of the Camp Wood residents before finally taking off for the West Coast. Three years later, Lindbergh would make the first solo flight from New York to Paris.

A state historical marker in front of Lindbergh Park pays homage to the aviation star. The airplane’s broken wooden propeller is preserved for all to see in a museum inside the AHMATA Building, a 100-year-old former mohair warehouse, which also hosts plays and other performances.

Fortunately, unlike Lindbergh, my departure from Camp Wood proves uneventful. Also unlike the aviation hero, I will definitely return to this Hill Country sanctuary.

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