Wild About Big D
Travel time from:
Austin – 3 hours
Brownsville - 7.5 hours
El Paso – 8.5 hours
Houston – 3.25 hours
San Antonio – 4 hours
Lubbock – 4.75 hours
You don't have to travel far from downtown to find nature experiences in Dallas.
By Naima J. Montacer
I sometimes chat with friends from across the country who scoff at my suggestion that an outdoor lover can enjoy a visit to a big city like Dallas. It’s as if they’ve lost their sense of adventure. There are natural treasures to uncover and explore in every city, and Dallas offers a tantalizing combination of outdoor adventure and big city amenities (translation: eating great food).
Our first foray into urban recreation was paddling whitewater kayaks on the Trinity River, a mere stone’s throw from downtown. The skyline provided a beautiful backdrop for our kayak adventure. My fiancé, David, and I met the team from Kayak Instruction Inc. at the head of the Santa Fe Trail, a paved pathway along the Trinity south of downtown. They hopped out of their trucks loaded down with gear and immediately started getting us familiar with the area. Dave Holl told us about the history of the Dallas Wave, the $4 million whitewater park that opened in 2011 and was created by excavating and walling a segment of the river. We happened to come on a perfect water day, with just enough flow (425 cubic feet per second) to give us some fun but not dump this beginner overboard, or so I hoped.
We spent some time on the river acclimating to our tippy kayaks by practicing strokes, tossing a ball, looking for wildlife and then executing the dreaded “wet exit” test. Before we entered the whitewater park, David and I had to demonstrate the ability to exit our kayaks safely. I giggled nervously, held my nose and tilted my kayak over, dumping myself into the cold water. I swam toward another kayak to be mock-rescued, proving I was ready for the rapids. We spent the afternoon playing in the two main rapids and learning more techniques, such as “eddying up,” a move kayakers use to paddle out of the rapid and rest in the calm water that forms right next to the strong flow. Happily, no more wet exits were needed.
By the time we reached our campsite Friday night at Cedar Hill State Park, southwest of Dallas, it was dark and cold. David started the fire and got a tasty grilled dinner ready while I made camp. After hearing from the park rangers that ants were on the prowl, we decided against setting up a tent and resorted to our normal camping spot, the back of the truck. Bedded down with every blanket we own on top of our sleeping pads, we turned the truck bed into a dreamy under-the-stars resort. This Friday just happened to be the first frost of the year, so I spread a rain tarp over us to catch the frost. Seemed smart, but we learned a valuable lesson about water vapor and fabric. Water vapor released from your body while sleeping usually exits your sleeping bag, but ours was trapped under that nonbreathable tarp, resulting in unpleasant wetness. We’ll know better next time.
The Children's Park at Klyde Warren Park is an imaginative place with playgrounds, interactive fountains and an amphitheater.
Damp but excited about our Saturday adventures, we rose early, stopped for a quick coffee and headed into South Dallas, about 30 minutes away. We arrived at Texas Horse Park at the Trinity with enough time to check out the new Equest facilities and wander around the woods looking for wildlife. In its state-of-the-art barn and arena facilities, Equest provides therapeutic horsemanship activities for children and adults with disabilities. We watched riding lessons, stalked some waterfowl too far away to identify, introduced ourselves to the resident farm pig and gave the mini-horses some love as we waited for our trail guide from River Ranch, the other resident organization at the park.
When Shane arrived, I chose a big gray horse that looked easygoing, while David chose a spirited sorrel. We were off on our hour-plus ride through the pastures and the Great Trinity Forest, one of the largest urban forests in the country. Along the way, Shane told us stories and pointed out feral hog signs along the trail. Besides a few chickadees calling, we didn’t see or hear much other wildlife, maybe due to the recent rains that left our horses trudging through multiple muddy messes.
After horseback riding, we headed into the city with dinner on our minds. To lessen the impact of the smells of campfire and horses emanating from our clothes, we chose an outdoor venue. We parked downtown and walked over to Klyde Warren Park (opened in 2012), which sits on the overpass of Woodall Rogers Freeway. This outdoor park is filled with open green space, a large stage, a playground and a dog park, and also offers mini-golf, foosball and (our choice) ping-pong. An intense three-game series kept us engaged for the next hour as we battled for bragging rights.
Cedar Hill State Park.
I lost, but I was able to drown my sorrows in some great street food. Lining the edge of the park are food trucks of various cuisines, everything from sushi to sandwiches, and we settled on Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe, offering “gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches made fresh-to-order.” I inhaled the Turkey Trot sandwich with turkey, cheddar cheese and some deliciousness called “slob sauce” on sourdough bread, while David ordered an Italian Hippy — chicken, mozzarella, grilled tomatoes and pesto on whole grain wheat.
We headed back to Cedar Hill State Park to explore the Penn Farm Agricultural History Center before sunset. Settled by John Anderson Penn in 1854, the farm features reconstructed and historical buildings and old farm remnants from times long ago in Dallas County. Visiting families snapped photos in front of the old barn, in the lush green grass and underneath the windmill. We bounced around the fascinating structures and took the opportunity to run free in the open fields.
In perfect weather, Cedar Hill is an ideal getaway — close to Dallas, yet filled with the experience of the great outdoors. The next morning, though, the water in Joe Pool Lake at the park had high waves that rivaled ocean crests. In this rough weather, we decided to forgo a morning fire and instead headed to town for hot coffee and a big breakfast. We arrived at Garden Cafe, located in a neighborhood near the popular Lower Greenville area, before the crowd hit. I ordered a veggie omelet that came with a huge homemade biscuit, while David gorged on a traditional Texas breakfast of pancakes, eggs, hashbrowns and toast. Garden Cafe has a huge outdoor patio with gardens and a fire pit.
Kayakers take on the Dallas Wave whitewater area on the Trinity River.
Our bellies full, we took off on our last outdoor adventure. Pulling into a lot at White Rock Lake near the heart of Dallas, we dodged the cyclists, runners and rollerbladers who were enjoying the 9-mile lake trail. We met Robert and Lillian Hunt, members of the White Rock Boat Club, to embark on our first sailing experience.
After a few lessons, Robert would yell out, “Tacking!” and David, Lillian and I would scramble to pull ropes into place. The wind may not have been strong that day, but the views of the lake and the perspective from inside the boat were inspiring and thought-provoking. We chatted about beaver sightings, careers and life outdoors in Dallas until almost sunset, just as we drifted back to the dock.
We took advantage of outdoor adventure in Dallas but didn’t even experience all that’s offered there. If you’ve not experienced the “life’s better outside” aspect of city life, just dig a little deeper. You never know what you’ll uncover.
» Like this story? If you enjoy reading articles like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.
See more travel stories on TP&W magazine's Travel page