Fort Worth

Palo Pinto Mountains State Park near Strawn still needs funding to open

Newest State Park Near Tarrant County

The newest state park is being built near Strawn in Palo Pinto county. It is only 75 miles west of Fort Worth. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)
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The newest state park is being built near Strawn in Palo Pinto county. It is only 75 miles west of Fort Worth. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)

From the top of Raptor Ridge’s 1,400-foot peak, the Palo Pinto Mountains State Park spreads out across the valley.

A canopy of trees, stock tanks and creeks can be seen for miles with no humans in sight.

But until more funding is secured, the 4,395-acre park, which stretches across Palo Pinto and Stephens counties, is mostly off-limits to the public.

It needs an infusion of money from legislators next year to construct the roads and facilities at the park.

If all goes as planned, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park could open as early as the fall of 2020. If it takes longer to get funding, that timeline could be pushed back.

Though Texas Parks and Wildlife officials haven’t put a final price tag to finish the park, it will take millions to build the park.

“We’re probably looking in the ballpark of $30 million,” said Brent Leisure, Texas Parks and Wildlife’s director of state parks. “We really won’t know until the design work is done and the bids go out.”

But Leisure said the park is at the front of the line for state parks that have yet to open. With 8.8 million people within 150 miles, the park shouldn’t have difficulty attracting patrons.

$30million expected final price tag for Palo Pinto Mountains State Park.

By next year’s legislative session, officials will be ready to seek funding to finish the park so that Dallas-Fort Worth residents will have a new place to fish, hunt, hike, ride horses and even gaze at the stars.

“I’m very optimistic,” said John Ferguson, the park superintendent. “We’re going to need our friends in the Metroplex to get their legislators to vote. This park is designed to be the Metroplex’s playground so I think there will be support for it.”

In the nearby town of Strawn, population 653, officials are waiting for the day Palo Pinto Mountains State Park will open.

Home to Mary’s Cafe and the state’s best chicken-fried steak, according to Texas Highways, Strawn hopes the park will lead to the town being recognized for far more.

“We’re this sleepy little town,” City Secretary Danny Miller said. “Our biggest import is chicken-fried steak. But we also want to be known one day as the gateway to the park.”

Besides several 1,400-foot peaks, the park includes a lake and two creeks surrounded by a forest of trees, including everything from live oaks to mesquite to cedar elms and native pecan.

It’s really something special.

Danny Miller, Strawn City Secretary

“I grew roaming around that land as a kid and I can’t wait for people to see it,” Miller said. “It’s really something special.”

Park’s opening tied to funding

The land for the park was bought with the help of the $9.6 million sale of 400 acres that is now the Tarrant Regional Water District’s Eagle Mountain Park. So far, Parks and Wildlife has spent $10.6 million to acquire 4,395 acres. Other funding has come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is designed to safeguard natural areas along with some private donations.

Last year, legislators allocated the final $2.7 million from the Eagle Mountain sale, which will go toward designing the park.

Parks and Wildlife officials from Austin and Waco were at the park last week trying to identify where facilities like cabins, roads and boat ramps will be built.

I would like to see it done as promptly as possible.

Ralph Duggins, vice chairman Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission

Opening the park will take time, said Fort Worth attorney Ralph Duggins, vice chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. He has asked for an update on the park’s progress at the commission’s March board meeting.

“I can tell you the commission is committed to doing this right,” Duggins said. “I would like to see it done as promptly as possible.”

Palo Pinto Mountains isn’t the only park waiting to open.

Four other Texas Parks and Wildlife parks haven’t been completed.

▪ The 3,700-acre Albert and Bessie Kronkosky State Natural Area in Bandera County, northwest of San Antonio, needs funding to build roads and other infrastructure.

▪ The 1,700-acre Davis Hill State Park in Liberty County, which was acquired in 1983, also needs funding from legislators.

▪ The 17,000-acre Dan A. Hughes Unit of The Devils River State Natural Area near Del Rio has some limited access for paddlers and hunters but has yet to officially open.

▪ The Chinati Mountains State Natural Area in southern Presidio County was landlocked until land was purchased in 2014, which is now allowing planning to go forward on the 38,000-acre property.

A fifth property, the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch near Port O’Connor on Matagorda Bay, isn’t expected to placed under Parks and Wildlife ownership until 2017. Long-term plans call for a 2,000-acre park and the rest of the land being managed as a wildlife management area, Leisure said.

Stargazing on the horizon

Ferguson hopes the park’s dark skies will become a big attraction. The park installed a sky quality meter to measure nighttime darkness, and Ferguson hopes to receive an International Dark Sky Association rating within several months.

“It is quite dark,” Ferguson said. “When you are standing on a hill, you can see the lights of Weatherford, about 45 miles away, over in one direction and Ranger in the other, but overhead, it is absolutely dark skies.”

Strawn has covered about 100 lights in town with shields to protect the area’s dark skies.

The dark skies are helped by Strawn shielding about 100 streetlights to reduce light pollution, similar to what has been done near the McDonald Observatory in far West Texas. Miller, the Strawn city secretary, said there are fewer than 10 lights on private property that aren’t covered.

Strawn received a $5,000 grant from its electric provider, Texas-New Mexico Power, for the light shields.

It’s not unusual for someone to show up at the park with a recreational vehicle or horse trailer, assuming that the park is already open.

The park’s Tucker Lake is open to the public, but the rest of the land cannot be accessed except for special events, including an equestrian trail ride on March 18-20 and a star party on April 2.

As part of the park’s agreement with Strawn for the use of 100 acres around Tucker Lake, the city’s primary water supply, visitors will drive through the small town to reach the park entrance.

The land would revert to Strawn if a park isn’t open by 2024.

With oil prices plunging, Miller is worried about the impact on the state budget but he remains hopeful the park will get the funds to build out the park.

“The clock is ticking,” Miller said. “We gave them that land with the understanding a park would be open within 10 years. We’re still optimistic that will happen.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

Upcoming events

Trail Ride

Palo Pinto Mountains State Park will be hosting a Spring Equestrian Trail Ride on March 18-20. The event is limited to 60 riders.

Reservations: Janis Janes at 817-734-1249.

Star Party

Palo Pinto Mountains State Park will be host a Star Party on April 2. Admission is free.

More information: John Ferguson at 254-210-3015

Directions: Exit Interstate 20 at exit 361, go north on Texas 16 four miles, turn west on Farm Road 2372 for two miles and then follow the signs.