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Past and Present

Fort Parker State Park offers deep history and stunning sunsets.

By Eva Frederick

April 2024 Issue

Great blue herons

Overview

Great blue herons stalk the shorelines of multiple lakes and streams, chickadees chatter in the brush, and lush vegetation provides a peaceful escape at Fort Parker State Park. Most Texans have heard of Fort Parker for its rich history — but it's also a beautiful place to enjoy the present day.

“People consistently say this place is a hidden gem,” says State Park Police Officer Kyle Ware.

Located between Mexia and Groesbeck in Limestone County, the park encompasses over a thousand acres of East Texas woodlands, two lakes, a river and a natural spring. From the park's landscape, it's easy to see where Limestone County gets its name - limestone cliffs jut from the water, and funky, water-sculpted limestone boulders mark parking spots throughout the park. The water bodies abound with fishing opportunities (68-pound catfish, anyone?), and birders will find plenty of local species to keep them busy.

Where the park sits now was once the bustling town of Springfield, the Limestone County seat in the mid-1800s. Springfield faded away in the 1870s after a railroad bypassed the town and the courthouse burned. All that remains of the town is the Springfield Cemetery, an idyllic spot with graves of many East Texans, including an American Revolutionary War veteran and two veterans of the Battle of San Jacinto.

Nearby is Old Fort Parker, a re-creation of the Parker family's fort, the site of a Comanche raid in 1836 in which 12-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was captured. Raised as a member of the tribe, she grew up to be the mother of the last great Comanche chief, Quanah Parker.

Whether your interest lies in fishing, hiking, swimming, taking photos or absorbing Texas history, Fort Parker has something for everyone.

By the Numbers

Size: 1,459 acres
Closest Town: Groesbeck 5 miles to the south, Mexia 7 miles north
Year Opened: 1941
Busy Season: Spring and fall, especially spring break
Tip: The park offers firewood for sale.
History: The park as we know it wouldn't exist without Black men working with the Civilian Conservation Corps Company 3807C; they completed a dam across the Navasota River in 1939, creating Fort Parker Lake, and built the park from 1935 to 1942. In a cruel irony, after spending years painstakingly crafting the park's amenities, the men weren't allowed in when it had its grand opening on May 1, 1941. The park was integrated in the 1960s and is now a welcoming place for everyone.
Deer in Eisenhower State Park

Wildlife Encounters

Birds abound at the park, from showy great blue herons to flocks of thousands of migrating pelicans. The office offers a park-specific birding checklist. In addition to the birds, the usual Texas crew of mammals — deer, raccoons and squirrels — are common. Park employees see a bobcat from time to time, and a pair of bald eagles nests near the lake. Check out the wildlife log at headquarters to see what others have been observing.

Three Hikes

Fort Parker trails map Fort Parker waterfall

Easy: Springfield Trail (1.8-mile loop)

The Springfield Trail packs in the sights. Along this wooded path you'll see two lakes, a dam and a river. A short detour takes you to a natural spring, which cascades down a limestone embankment in a sparkly, mossy waterfall. Along the trail, interpretive signs provide a window into the lives of the Black men who built the park with the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Fort Parker River Loop Trail

Moderate: River Loop Trail (0.9 miles)

On the north side of the park, the River Loop Trail is more heavily forested, with some beautiful overlooks of the Navasota River. The trail leads up and down gently rolling hills, fringed with green grass and mossy trees. In fall and winter, keep an eye out for the Texas Star, our state mushroom!

Fort Parker Baines Creek Trail

Challenging: Baines Creek Trail (2.5 miles one way)

While the map marks this trail as moderate, a few steep hills may bump it to challenging for some hikers. It's long, too — 2.5 miles one way - and you'll likely encounter few people as you traverse its hills and valleys. Passing through the forest and skirting the edge of Fort Parker Lake and Polecat Slough, the trail provides a pleasantly challenging foray into a lesser-visited side of the park.


Mix and match itineraries

Fish in two different lakes and the Navasota River

The park's 750-acre lake is home to some huge catfish. “The biggest one that we've had someone tell us about was 68 pounds, and I'm sure there's been bigger ones caught in there,” says Tiffani Baker, the park's office manager. A smaller, spring-fed lake, which hikers can reach along the Springfield Trail, offers a chance at a good-sized bass. Most bass and crappie fishermen head to the Navasota River, where the waters run much deeper than in the lake.

Hiker in Fort Parker State Park

Take a hike

If you're looking for wetlands, woodlands or prairie, there's a trail to suit you. The Creekfield Lake and Woodlands trails (half a mile each) provide a perfect short introduction to the park and are right across from the Nature Center.

Take a dip at the swimming area

Set alongside a grassy peninsula full of picnic tables (and bathrooms), Fort Parker's swimming area is one of the best lake swimming spots you can find. There is no muddy “beach” - instead, pool-style ladders invite visitors to clamber straight into the lake.

Paddlers in Fort Parker State Park

Paddle the Navasota

This 5.4-mile Limestone Bluffs Paddling Trail leads up the river to the Confederate Reunion Grounds, passing the park's impressive limestone bluffs. Rent a kayak from the park headquarters or bring your own.

Visit Old Fort Parker

The Civilian Conservation Corps built a replica of the fort, now known as Old Fort Parker, as a 1936 centennial project. Although the reconstruction is not part of the state park, it's only a short drive down the road and worth a visit.

Fort Parker State Park Cemetery

Explore the Springfield Cemetery

All that remains of the former town of Springfield, this cemetery lies close to the park entrance. “There's people back from the Civil War through the time that Springfield was here,” Baker says. For an engaging activity, pick up a “CSI” (Cemetery of Springfield Investigators) brochure at the office for a cemetery scavenger hunt.

See the great blue heron rookery

Head to the wildlife viewing area on the Bur Oak Nature Trail for a glimpse of the great blue heron rookery. They make for great photography subjects.


Overnight Stays

Campsites

The park offers 25 campsites with electricity, and many of these have a lake view. Four sites have pull-through areas, and one, site No. 6, is tent-only. Site 18 offers a prime view of the water, and site 20 is next to the fishing pier.

Screened shelters

Eight screened shelters provide some protection from the elements. From November through March, they're winterized with wooden panels to keep out the wind. Pets are not allowed in the shelters.

Cabins

Two cabins are set higher on the hillside than the tent and RV spots, so they're perfect for watching the sun set over the lake. The cabins don't have beds or bathrooms, although there are community bathrooms nearby. Bring a cot or sleeping pad. Pets are not allowed in the cabins, either.

Primitive sites

The park offers 10 primitive sites with water nearby. These sites lie near the lake on the more heavily forested side of the park.

Group barracks

The group barracks area offers ample space for family reunions, youth church groups and other large gatherings. It consists of five dormitories which sleep up to 86 people, a dining hall with commercial type kitchen, two bathhouses, a game room and a private fishing pier. All buildings have heat and AC except the game room, which has heat only.


Selfie Spots

pier in Fort Parker State Park

Sunset and sunrise on the fishing dock

Fort Parker is known for stunning sunsets; standing on the end of the fishing dock, you'll feel immersed in sunlight and surrounded by sparkling water.

Baines Creek Trail Overlook

Set high on a bluff, this overlook gives hikers a wide view of Fort Parker Lake and the rest of the park across the water.

Golden hour at the picnic area

As the sun draws low over the picnic area - set on a finger of land surrounded by water on both sides - you'll find plenty of opportunities for glowing photos.


Pro Packing List

Aside from the necessities, these items can make your trip to Fort Parker State Park even more enjoyable.

Lunatec Insulated Hydration Spray Bottle

Lunatec

Insulated Hydration Spray Bottle

Mister, shower, bidet and water bottle meet in this insulated container.
MSRP $25-$45
lunatecgear.com

Land Scout 20-60x80mm Spotting Scope

Celestron

Land Scout 20-60x80mm Spotting Scope

The LandScout 80mm spotting scope features a 45° viewing angle, multi-coated optics and a 20-60x zoom. Attach your smartphone via the included adapter for close-up nature photography.
MSRP: $199.95
celestron.com


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