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February 2009 cover image of Davis Mountains State Park

Primo Picnic Spots

Scenic sites for every month of the year.

By Mary O. Parker

When you live in Texas, it’s easy to take Henry David Thoreau’s advice to “live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” And in a state with such prodigious diversity, there’s a seasonal nuance for every taste and a taste to every season.

What better way to sample the delicacies of Texas’ seasons than an old-fashioned picnic? Spread the blanket and sit still long enough to relish details you’ve never before noticed. Find yourself falling in love with the subtlety of the flora and fauna that surround you. Yes, as a non-harried outdoor diner, you’ll take in the small wonders that unfold in our state’s parks like you never have before. Here are our seasonally adjusted suggestions for great picnic spots throughout the year.

January

Estero Llano Grande, Wetlands Life

While much of the world is indoors hibernating, the wetlands of Estero Llano Grande are teeming with treasures. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the few places where the words “picnic” and “January” go perfectly together. Grab your grub and head toward Alligator Lake. After a short walk you’ll find yourself at a pavilion with tables underneath an uncommon South Texas canopy of trees. Arrange yourself so that you’re looking out across the waters toward a heron and egret rookery. Even though the park closes before dusk, you’ll still get to see lots of action as the wading birds continue coming and going throughout the day. As you munch, marvel also at the vibrancy of dragonflies, butterflies and a family of American alligators. Not long ago, the alligator family consisted only of two adults, but last year two babies were born. Park staff is quite proud of this fact, since this was a restoration project; the area was turned back into wetlands and the alligators chose to come on their own. Tip: Stop at one of the fruit stands just outside the park entrance and pick up some Valley-grown citrus for your feast. (956-565-3919, www.worldbirdingcenter.org/sites/weslaco/)

February

Buescher, Mexican Plum

Late February presents picnickers at Buescher State Park with the copious and fragrantly flowered Mexican plum, providing a wonderful sensory backdrop for your meal. This small tree shares its white blossoms for only a few weeks each year from mid-February to early March. Your site is located at the back of the CCC-built rec hall overlooking the lake. There, with the beautiful rockwork of the hall’s patio wall behind you and a view of the water below you, delight in dining amid Mexican plum and live oaks adorned in Spanish moss. This particular spot is off the beaten path so there’s lots of privacy. The vegetation lining the lake’s bank does a great job of filtering the afternoon sun as it reflects off the water so that it’s not harsh on the eyes. The Mexican plum’s blossoms are hard to miss amid the dark green of the pine, live oak and post oak foliage that fills the forest. Tip: For an added treat, drive the 14 miles on Park Road 1C to Bastrop State Park just in case that park’s dogwoods are blooming early. While pickier about conditions than the Mexican plum, they sometimes flower as early as late February. (512-237-2241, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/buescher)

March

Colorado Bend, Mountain Laurel

It’s the fragrant aroma of mountain laurel that greets you as you near the end of the road leading into Colorado Bend State Park. In fact, you can consider the native shrub an official member of the park’s March welcome wagon. Further greeting your senses is the plethora of purple that illuminates the bulk of the bluff across the river. That’s the source of that nectarous nose candy, and your eyes will have no trouble spotting it. As its scent blankets the air, you’ll put your blanket down along the river on the grass across the road from the office. Place it to the right (catty-corner to the office) because most folks head to the left after checking in. If you want a more active experience, hike to Gorman Falls and you’ll find individual mountain laurel bushes along the rocky banks on the upper portion of the trail. Tip: Call first to make sure the flowers are still in bloom. It’s tough to predict how long their show will last. (325-628-3240, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/coloradobend)

April

Big Bend Ranch, Desert Blooms

April in the Chihuahuan Desert conjures up Alexander Pope’s statement, “Hope springs eternal in the human heart.” The presentation that arrives each April on the desert floor reminds us that such hope is rewarded and Big Bend Ranch State Park certainly has its share of rewards. Bright life is vibrantly present in all directions this time of year as the cacti strut their stuff. The claret cup cactus is the first to share its seasonal surprise, and its brilliant red flowers are a dazzling sight well worth seeing. Picnic near the Papalote Llano Nuevo campsite, where you’ll spread your blanket in a slight depression surrounded by east-west running ridges. You’ll see a myriad assortment of cactus blooms, but which ones will depend on when you visit and how much rain there’s been. If it’s the Spanish dagger blossoms you’re most interested in seeing and smelling, come near the end of the month, when the succulent is taking its turn on stage. Tip: Bring the binoculars, as April is also the time when several species of migrating neotropical birds pass through the park. (432-358-4444, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/BigBendRanch)

May

Caddo Lake, Spatterdock

You may have never thought of having a picnic at breakfast time, but the fishing dock overlooking Saw Mill Pond and Big Cypress Bayou at Caddo Lake State Park begs for one. The drama of the morning light as it unfolds over the bayou makes sitting on a blanket with a morning meal the perfect way to start the day. From your place above the water, gaze across a yellow sea of newly arrived spatterdock flowers. While the spatterdock will continue to produce teacup-sized blossoms for nearly six months, May is the first time Saw Mill Pond will have seen them since they exited in mid-fall. Be on the lookout for leopard frogs jumping from backlit cypress knees, herons feeding knee-deep at water’s edge and fish splashing. Between bites, hang your head over the dock and watch turtles gliding below the surface. Tip: Picnic on the arm of the “T” to the right, as mor-ning anglers tend to prefer the side to the left. (903-679-3351, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/caddolake)

June

Caprock Canyons, Mexican Free-Tailed Bats

Plan on this being a picnic dinner and make sure to get to your venue before dusk. Hike the trail to Clarity Tunnel (about 5 miles, but completely worth it!) and set up your blanket at the southwest side of the tunnel. There you’ll see a wide and flat grassy area just outside the tunnel’s entrance. Get your menu readied for munching so that when the sun begins to set you’re ready to experience how its light animates the red rocks above you. As the light wanes, you won’t want to miss a minute of the action as nearly half a million Mexican free-tailed bats begin venturing out in search of their own evening edibles. Each spring, this colony of bats returns to the tunnel to have their babies. By June the babies will also be emerging nightly from the tunnel. However, they fly so quickly that you’ll have a tough time discerning them from the adults. Tip: Since we humans can’t rely on sonar to find our way, be sure to bring a flashlight for the hike back to your vehicle. Pack some red cellophane and cover your flashlight with it so that your night vision stays keener for critter watching. (806-455-1492, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/caprockcanyons)

July

Mustang Island, Morning Glory

When most of Texas is drugged into sluggishness by the July heat, nature’s vim in the dunes at Mustang Island is full of vigor. On this barrier island you’ll find the ingredients that make for a unique ecosystem that includes the entertaining spotted ground squirrel, lively shorebirds, sea oats and ghost crabs. The latter are so named because the elusive crustaceans are often barely seen from the corner of your eye, causing you to wonder, “Did I or didn’t I see one?” But the real star of the July show is a special type of salt-resistant morning glory that crawls with its purple and white blooms all along the face of the dunes. Unlike other types of morning glory, this one blooms throughout the day. Your space in the sand waits along the beach to the south, and the further south you go the less crowded it will be. And the earlier in the day you go, the cooler it will be. Be sure to bring a beach umbrella because the ocean’s spray stunts trees and shrubbery, leaving the gulf side without shade. Tip: On days when the wind makes the water rough and choppy, look for sea turtles coming ashore to nest. (361-749-5246, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/mustangisland)

August

Davis Mountains, Hummingbirds

For this very special picnic you’ll be packing a little something extra: a hummingbird feeder and some hummingbird food. Park superintendent David Bischofhausen says it’s perfectly okay to do so as long as deer or other mammals can’t get to it and you’re sure to take it with you when you go. Head toward one of the CCC-built picnic sites just off the trail going to Fort Davis National Historic Site. You’ll know it’s the right one when you find stone steps sneaking down to it as they wind around a large rock. This site has a huge picnic table and one of the most incredible views in the entire state. Let your eyes feast upon the sight of Limpia Canyon and its rare West Texas collection of green. After spending a bit of time gazing and grazing, chances are the hummingbirds will have found the feeder you’ve hung nearby. You’ll likely find yourself so mesmerized by their antics that you may forget to chew. Tip: To add some extra fun, wear something red and discover that not only are you watching the hummingbirds, but they’re checking you out as well! (432-426-3337, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/davismountains)

September

Brazos Bend, Golden Silk Orbweavers

While you sit and relax during your Brazos Bend picnic, the colorful golden silk orbweaver spiders will be busy working. Everywhere you look up, especially amid the live oaks garnished with Spanish moss, you’ll spot one of these arachnid beauties. Their fantastic handiwork can be seen in abundance here until the end of September. Oblivious to your presence, the eight-legged critters will go about their business while you begin the business of picnicking along the spillway trail between Elm and 40-Acre Lake. The exact spot you’re looking for is a bench about halfway down the trail on the north side (one clue is the interpretive sign about alligator nesting that’s nearby). Here, you’ll get a comfortable view of the spiders in addition to the plethora of life in the wetlands around you. Gallinules with babies, alligators, dragonflies, cottontails, wading birds, armadillos and raccoons are all frequent visitors here. Tip: The sun plays beautifully on the water at this locale, but it can also be really bright. Bring sunglasses! (979-553-5102, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/brazosbend)

October

Falcon, Butterflies

In October, Falcon State Park is thick with the beauty of butterflies, and there’s no better way to enjoy them than sitting and dining outdoors in their tranquil company. Park at the day-use area and walk the 1/4 mile to the covered picnic tables. But don’t stop just yet! There’s a blanket-worthy spot perfect for quiet appreciation a few minutes past the official picnic area. There, you’ll find yourself able to experience the pleasant peace of a perfect October afternoon while you watch the butterflies dance through the air around you. Tip: Make up some homemade butterfly bait to bring along. You can find the recipe online. But, be warned, it can be rather stinky, so you won’t want to pack it with your own meal. (956-848-5327, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/falcon)

November

Choke Canyon, Big Bucks

If it’s wildlife you like to watch, then this is your picnic. Because of special proteins found in South Texas Brush Country food sources, this area is famous for growing buck antlers big, and November is when they’re known to be at their finest. Since deer are most active at dusk, make it a dinner deal. The best place to catch the most excitement is in the area the staff refers to as the “sports complex,” a field in front of the gymnasium that’s mowed only twice a year. Such grassy lushness attracts a bounty of bucks, as well as the gentle javelina. Be extra quiet as you sit and sup and you’ll increase the odds of sighting bucks as they stand and sup. Tip: No matter how pitifully they look your way, never feed deer or other mammals. (361-786-3868, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/chokecanyon)

December

Goose Island, Wading Birds

Goose Island is known for the “Big Tree,” but with its pleasant winter clime it’s also a great pick for a December picnic. This time of year the park is a haven for great blue herons, great egrets, white ibis, snowy egrets, and white and brown pelicans. One of their favorite feeding spots is in the marsh grasses near the day-use area. Your feeding spot is at the day-use area on a blanket next to the picnic tables. Why use a blanket instead of a table? Not only is the soft ground more comfy (especially if you bring two or three blankets and some pillows) but your view of the birds at work is better when you’re at ground level. From here, not only will you have a bird’s-eye view of the birds, but you’ll also have a great view of Aransas Bay, with Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the distance. Since the refuge is home to about 240 endangered whooping cranes from mid-October through March, there’s a slim chance you might see one. On rare occasions they feed in the bay by the park. Tip: This picnic site has a barbecue grill, so plan your cuisine accordingly. (361-729-2858, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/gooseisland)

 

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