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San Angelo State Park

Explore brushy slopes to find remnants of ancient civilizations and tracks made by animals that lived before the time of the dinosaurs.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Grasshoppers whir in the grass and an enthusiastic mockingbird chortles in a mesquite tree as we carefully hike down a rocky trail at San Angelo State Park. Suddenly, our intrepid leader veers off the path, picks a yellow-green leaf from an overgrown shrub and offers us a taste.

“It’s a prickly-ash, commonly called a toothache tree,” explains Pat Bales, assistant park manager. “The leaves and stems contain an anesthetic. If you chew it for a few minutes, you’ll get a buzz on your tongue.”

We’re skeptical, so Bales pops a leaf into his own mouth. Then we do, too. He’s right — our tongues definitely start to tingle. But now what? Bales happily swallows his prickly-ash and reaches for more; politely, we eject ours.

This morning, we’re headed to see two petroglyphs, primitive drawings carved into sandstone some 600 to 1,200 years ago. Along the way, we pause to learn about other vegetation, including ephedra (Mormon tea), bear grass, littleleaf sumac and stinging cervallia. A pile of furry scat on the trail indicates that a local bobcat probably snagged a rabbit for dinner recently.

It’s not long before we reach our destination, a sandstone ledge littered with small rocks. Bales gently brushes dirt away from a crude star-shaped mark deeply chiseled into the stone. Little remains of a nearby “zoomorph,” which likely depicted a horse or deer.

“There could have been other petroglyphs here that together told a story, but they’re gone,” says Bales, who’s squatting for a closer look at the star. “What’s interesting is if you lay a compass on this point of the star, it’s just a few degrees off from north.”

Bales tells us that archeologists believe a prehistoric people called the Jumanos carved the drawings. They lived not far from this site in a village close to a stream (Potts Creek). After we finish our hike, Bales leads us on another short walk to see the boulders that still retain scooped-out places — bedrock metates — where the villagers ground their berries and dried meats.

Throughout the year, Bales also guides visitors on a two-mile hike to view the park’s prehistoric Permian tracks located in a dry creekbed. The fossilized trackway contains 26 sets of tracks made by different animals that existed 250 to 270 million years ago, a time that predates dinosaurs by at least 100 million years.

Year round, there are plenty of other outdoor activities to enjoy at San Angelo State Park. More than 50 miles of trails — hike, bike and equestrian — crisscross the 7,700-acre facility, which bounds O.C. Fisher Lake.

Within the park, Bales has counted more than 150 wildflower species, including bluebells and chocolate daisies. The park also boasts more than 300 bird species and more than 50 mammal species.

Speaking of mammals, ask for directions to the park’s two prairie dog towns. Passing vehicles don’t faze those chubby, knobby-tailed critters one bit. They’re too busy sunning and schmoozing to be scared — unless you happen to be a hawk.

The park is located one mile north of San Angelo on FM 2288. For more information about San Angelo State Park, call (325) 949-4759, or visit San Angelo State Park on the Web.

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