Bold plans in works for state park in Palo Pinto Mountains

Posted Saturday, Sep. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Seventy-five miles west of Fort Worth, and just a quick step north of Interstate 20, rests some of the most picturesque landscapes in North Central Texas. Technically, it is in the cross timber region of the state and it ranges from the flat, cactus-laced pastures near the interstate to the rolling hills of the Palo Pinto Mountains.

A few weeks from now, there will be caravans of cars and drivers traveling the small roadways from the tiny town of Palo Pinto, southward through the draws and canyons toward Santo and Mingus and Strawn. The fall foliage will be on brilliant display.

What most people won’t realize is that in that scenic patch of land there is a 4,000-acre state park that belongs to the people of Texas. It is a remote area, still primitive ranch land, and even under the best of circumstances it won’t likely be open to the public for another six years, maybe more.

Even that is an optimistic goal, but one that park superintendent John Ferguson believes can happen.

“This park is here for a reason,” he said. “Several years ago there was a study to determine where the best places were to put a state park. It was determined that future parks needed to be within driving distances from large population areas.

“We’re 75 miles from Fort Worth and 75 miles from Abilene, and we’re only six miles off the interstate. You can’t get lost getting here.”

The state purchased the land in 2007 with the proceeds from the sale of Eagle Mountain State Park, near Fort Worth. A few years later, several hundred acres were added and now the total property exceeds 4,000 acres. There is one home on the entire park; that’s where Ferguson and his family live, and one small cabin that is not suitable for use right now.

There are no paved roads on the former ranch land, and no utilities.

Ferguson cautions that while the six-year estimate is one he’d like to see come to fruition, it is not set in stone. There is an enormous amount of work to be done and little money and hardly any manpower available to do it.

Ferguson is the only full-time state employee assigned to the park. He has been given the equivalent of one three-quarter-time position to use for help and he has divided that among two workers.

The park has received some funding from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, but that money is used primarily for planning and designs for future additions. The operating budget for Palo Pinto Mountain State Park is about the size of a yearly household grocery budget. Still, the plans are bold.

“This is going to be a full-service state park,” Ferguson said. “We will have RV sites, primitive camp sites, equestrian sites and cabins for rent. We’ll offer hiking, biking and fishing on our 90-acre lake.”

The state is working on a management agreement to take over operation of nearby Tucker Lake from the city of Strawn. The lake is open for fishing, and allows small motors, but under the state control, it will probably be restricted to canoes and kayaks only, Ferguson said.

The project seems to be a Herculean task; roads, utilities, buildings, all done on a shoestring budget in a tight economy and under a state Legislature that has an abysmal record of funding its state parks. Yet, Ferguson seems undaunted by his task.

He came to Palo Pinto from Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, and then from San Jacinto State Park and Mission Tejas, in East Texas. This is his biggest challenge, but he sees the value of the effort.

“This is a beautiful park,” he said. “It has hills, ravines, prairies, creek beds and a full topography of nature. There are birds of all kinds, turkey, deer and way too many wild hogs.”

The park is beginning to slowly unfold to the public. There have been a few “exploratory” equestrian trail rides and several rider groups have come back on “work days” to help clear trails and map out future paths. Also, the Texas Astronomical Society of Dallas and the Fort Worth Astronomical Society have held “Star Parties” at the park.

The groups bring telescopes for visitors to use and generally there are sandwiches available. Donations are always welcomed. There is a Star Party planned for Nov. 2.

Ferguson said he hopes to establish a “Friends of the Park” organization soon, but for now, the best way to stay abreast of the park’s progress, to help on work days, or make any contribution at all, is on the Palo Pinto Mountain State Park Facebook page.

“We want to spread the word that we’re here,” he said. “We’ve already been involved in some archaeology research and we have a lot of natural resources. It’s going to take some time, but we’re coming.”

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