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Making a Grand Entrance

Park roads serve as a portal to a wild and wonderful world.

By Brandon Weaver

April 2024 Issue

Cedar Hill State Park
Photo by Chase Fountain

I've seen a lot of brown state park signs in the last 43 years, most by pickup, some by motorcycle and a few by bicycle. No matter the form of locomotion, I know the sign's reflective arrow will guide me to a state park entrance, the portal to a wild and wonderful world.

I love the drive in almost as much as the destination. It's where the anticipation builds and the promise of adventure percolates. Sometimes the transition from urban sprawl to protected nature is abrupt, like at Cedar Hill State Park (southwest of Dallas) or Huntsville State Park (bordered by a bustling Interstate 45). On the other hand, the drive into the far-flung Big Bend Ranch State Park is part of the adventure. The journey into the park's interior Sauceda Visitor Center is a two-hour drive along an undulating rough-and-tumble gravel road.

JJ Fleury is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's program director for park planning and geospatial resources. He works with a team of more than 50 people who plan all aspects of a shiny new park, from RV spots to multiuse trails. And it all begins with planning the entrance. “We are initially looking for that road connection to the county road and how it relates to the park boundary,” Fleury says. “We'll be thinking about views we want to highlight or don't want to highlight, including intimate views for people when they initially get out of their car.”

The nuts and bolts of road design must balance the aesthetic with the functional aspect of moving people and their machines through the park. RVs and travel trailers take some special considerations. “They have caused our roads to grow in size, and that's the one thing that's causing a strain in our road planning,” Fleury says. “You have to think about turning a vehicle around in an area that's tight where you wish it could be narrower to maintain the experience.”

Fleury also pointed out they try not use curbs in planning park roads. “It's a subtle thing, but something that stands out over time when you don't see curbs in a park,” Fleury explains. “We will use the natural contours to avoid a big culvert or drainage ditch to have a lower impact on the landscape.”

image by Jerod Foster
Photo by Jerod Foster

One of Fleury's most anticipated park entrances is the access point for Chinati Mountains State Natural Area in far West Texas. The park is several years away from any type of construction, but Fleury is looking forward to the challenge. “We have the opportunity with that large acreage for an entrance road of five to 10 miles,” Fleury says. “It does have some real park road planning opportunities that In'll be excited to see come together.”

Fleury supported the planning effort for Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, the next Texas state park to open. “With Palo Pinto we want a functional headquarters that moves people through for day or overnight use and into scenic areas,” he says.

Currently, construction is well underway. The new park is about an hour from my house, so I dropped by this past fall to see the progress. Park Superintendent James Adams gave me a tour of the property in his Texas Parks and Wildlife Chevy pickup. The site was abuzz with machinery. Workers were setting forms for the new headquarters, and backhoes and graders were busy moving earth for Fleury's curb-free roads.

Adams showed me the RV campgrounds and pointed out how the road narrows just a bit to slow traffic down. We drove past the multiuse trailhead where crews had cleared a path through the cedars for the initial 12 miles of the planned 25-mile trail system. Adams has been on the property since 2017. I asked him if it was tough to see construction on the pristine land. “It was more sweet than bitter,” Adams says. “It was the first big tangible step towards getting open and getting folks to this place to show it off. It was pure excitement.”

As we exited the park interior, I made my final request of Adams. “Can we go to the actual point of entry?” I asked. “Sure thing,” Adams obliged.

The new road was still just a caliche base waiting for asphalt. The planning team had eased the new routen's trajectory off FM 2372 and curved it gently to the left where vehicles will officially enter the park. When I spoke to Fleury the day before, he described this as the point of decompression, where the beauty and flow of the road can make visitors feel the stresses of everyday life lift away. “I like to move the road to point out a tree or a hill,” he says.

I stood in the road at that point of decompression and scanned the horizon. I realized I was in a small basin cradled by the surrounding cedar- and oak-covered hills. There was a cacophony of sounds: backup beepers on equipment, workers shouting about misplaced footings and the hum of diesel engines. Despite all that, I felt completely connected to the wildness of this place.

Just wait until all the equipment is gone, the trails built and the buildings finished. Palo Pinto Mountains State Park will be our next grand nature sanctuary — with a perfectly planned entrance.


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