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Park Pick: Tiny Mighty Oaks

Unique oak colony and abundant wildlife add to the fun at Monahans Sandhills.

By Linda Hedges

Visitors clamber up vast, pristine sand dunes, some as tall as 70 feet. At the top, they position themselves on plastic disks, skateboards with wheels removed and other homemade “sandboards” to push off for a slip and slide down to the bottom.

While this best-known activity is reason enough to visit Monahans Sandhills State Park, there’s so much more to enjoy. By taking the time to dig a little deeper, you can uncover the story beneath the sand.

The park’s dramatic natural beauty lures artists and photographers.

“So much is said about the interplay between the white sand and the blue sky, and the nearly perfect light,” Superintendent Michael Smith says. “The park is sublimely beautiful.”

The stunning landscape, with its miniature oak colonies, inspired Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek to write in Adventures with a Texas Naturalist: “This Lilliputian Jungle is as much a natural curiosity as the Painted Desert or the wonder areas of Yellowstone.”

The comment caught the eye of the State Parks Board, and ultimately Monahans Sandhills State Park was born.

oak



Havard oak (also called shin oak or shinnery) forms large colonies through an extensive system of underground stems called rhizomes. These oak colonies have been called “miniature forests,” but technically the plants are thicket-forming shrubs. Mature individuals commonly attain a maximum height of about 3 feet; a truly gargantuan specimen might be only 6 feet tall.

Havard oaks are diminutive in stature but robust in other ways. The old proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow” is reversed here, because these little oaks arise from proportionally huge acorns an inch long and as big around as a quarter. Roots can extend up to 90 feet — the distance between home plate and first base on a baseball diamond. Plant biologists believe Havard oaks are particularly long-lived as well: hundreds to thousands of years. Imagine an ancient “mighty oak” that is shorter than a toddler.

Dunes stabilized by oak colonies and the wet areas that may arise among them are great places to experience the park’s tremendous biological diversity. Sand-loving grasses like big sand reed and sand drop seed abound here, along with bluestems representative of the Great Plains and gramas typical of desert grasslands. After rains, the dunes erupt with a proliferation of wildflowers; the sand holds water like a sponge. Favorites include pink plains penstemon, Engelmann’s evening primrose and spectacle pod.

Water sources are particularly attractive to the park’s diverse bird life.

Songbirds and birds of prey, as well as roadrunners, owls, doves and quail, are plentiful at the park. There are healthy deer, rodent, reptile and insect populations as well.

“You’ll see tracks of all kinds everywhere in the sand, particularly when it’s wet,” Smith says. “You’d be amazed at the amount of animal activity that takes place behind the scenes.”

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Monahans Sandhills State Park is in West Texas between Odessa and Pecos. To reach the park, travel Interstate 20 and exit mile marker 86 to Park Road 41. For information, call (432) 943-2092 or go to www.tpwd.texas.gov/monahanssandhills.

 

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