In the 1690’s The King’s Highway (AKA El Camino Real) connected diverse cultures—it still does! State Highway 21 roughly traces the old El Camino Real that ran between Guerreo, Mexico and Natchitoches (pronounced “knack-a-dish”), Louisiana. If you pick up SH 21 East of Bastrop today and just follow your nose for 3 hours, it will take you back to the earliest days of Texas.
En route, Crockett is the largest nearby city but just 12 miles outside Alto, Texas you’ll miss the park if you’re not careful. Unceremoniously tucked away into the East Texas forest lies Mission Tejas State Park. For a small facility (only 660 acres) it offers stunning scenery with a most memorable entrance. Coming into the park one is immediately overcome by a sense of sanctuary. Cleared of undergrowth and protected by towering pines on both sides of the road, the sun shafts through the tree trunks and sparkles the cropped emerald green grass—it is the richest light I ever beheld. It’s like discovering a secret biome lost in time.
As state parks go, this one is a relative late comer (opened to the public in 1957), yet was built by Civilian Conservation Corps Company 888 in 1934. You see, the citizens of Houston County purchased the land and erected a marker to commemorate the first Spanish mission in the province of Texas. The federal government later chose the site for a CCC project.
After Company 888 was disbanded in 1935, the Texas Forest Service continued to manage the park. In fact, it served as one of the lookout stations surveying more than 160,000 acres of the Davy Crockett National Forest contained within the Neches and Trinity River basins. Today, atop Fire Tower Hill on the Karl Lovett Trail, a monument remains in the form of concrete footings of the old tower and some interpretative signage.
The area is deceptively remote and hidden from civilization—but has a rich history that predates the arrival of European settlers.
Not five miles down the road from Mission Tejas is the Caddoan Mounds State Historic Site, the ceremonial center for the great mound builder culture of Caddo Indians. It offers an excellent museum which extols the achievements of this 1,200 year old civilization, contains two ingenious Caddo grass houses and, most importantly, preserves two earthen mounds (one ceremonial, the other a burial mound) which rise from the lush landscape. In October each year, a day-long festival and celebration is open to the public, complete with archeological lectures, guided hikes, vendors and lots of Texas home-cooking.
Mission Tejas itself also boasts a rich history.
Today there is a replica of Mission San Francisco de los Tejas sitting serenely on a hilltop overlooking the campgrounds, it’s open doors and windows inviting all who pass by to stop and spend some quiet time. You can rent it for weddings and family events. The original Spanish mission was built in 1690 among a village of Nabedache Indians (a Caddo tribe derivative) in an effort to spread Spanish influence and promote Christianity. Neither goal was achieved—life on the frontier was severe. The mission was abandoned twice; once in 1719 and finally in 1721.
The park is home to a more modern historical structure—an authentic log cabin that served not only as shelter for the family that owned it but also as a sort of inn for travelers—a place to stop for a meal or spend the night.
The cabin started out as a single room for Joseph Rice and his bride in 1821. The Rice family added to the structure over the years, expanding the number of rooms to keep the family under one roof. It could have passed for the first motel. As the
building grew in size, it attracted wayfarers, adventurers and pioneers. The cabin was in use through 1919. Descendants donated the old log home to the State of Texas and, later, TPWD moved it 16 miles from its original location to the protection of Mission Tejas State Park.
Mission Tejas is an intimate experience.
There are, for example, only five campsites with full hookups and less than 20 partial hookups throughout; yet, there is a group campsite for large gatherings, a group pavilion for large day groups, an amphitheater, a small fishing pond, cabins and breathtaking trails. If you are a birder, a photographer or a hiker you will delight in quiet privacy—no scout troops or noisy spring-breakers here! If you are into geocaching, you are also in luck. But, OMG—the trails!
The architecture of the trails is thoughtful and comprehensive. With a branch of the San Pedro Creek wandering through the park and elevation changes reflecting ancient geological activity, there are no less than eight bridges on the property—all worthy of a Bridge Maniac genuflect!
A particularly intriguing bit of CCC lore can be found on the Glen Machett Trail as it defines the high ground before sliding into a gaping valley via the Steep Step Trail.
Lined up along a sharp incline are three smooth rock indentations engineered into the earth, aligned in single file. These are the CCC Bathtubs: one marked “spring;” another marked “bathe;” and the final one marked “rinse.” This was the solution for being grubby, sweat-soaked, comprehensively bushed and rank enough to turn heads. Gravity being the operative mechanism, this spring-fed flow washed away the day’s grime and braced constitutions for another hard day’s work among the pines.
I love loblolly pines. Towering over me, peppering the understory in mottled sunlight, an early morning walk renews my faith in life.
The place is teeming with new growth. Far from the fire ravaged struggling forests of Bastrop County, new pine seedlings are virtually exploding from the ground here. American beautyberry, flowering dogwood, sweetgum—the landscape is fertile and bursting with vigor. The sun through the trees bathes me in gold sifted light, the autumn air is fresh and cool. I feel privileged to be here!
Surrounded by a dark coniferous forest, the treetops’ pointy black silhouettes stand out against the pale blue evening. At night the sky is so clear that the stars punch through the blackness to light up a moon as perfect and bright as a dime. I know it’s real but it’s hard to process.
Small town East Texas will beat anyone’s low expectations. There is a richness and vibrancy in the towns and cities surrounding Mission Tejas; I would be remiss not to encourage you to explore them. Crockett, for example, boasts an ornate courthouse containing a unique historical museum and pays tribute to the unifying power of the railroad via the Texas & Pacific Railroad Museum. Either is worth the trip.
Lufkin, the immediate area’s largest city, has much to offer. The Ellen Trout Zoo is set on a tranquil and enchanting lake and displays more than 850 species of animals from around the world. One of the most pleasant surprises in Lufkin is the Texas Forestry Museum. In it, you can find displays and interactive exhibits which showcase the importance of the paper industry to the people of East Texas. It is arguably the most productive forest land in the country.
Up for a closer look at the Piney Woods ecosystem? You can catch the Texas State Railroad—an old fashioned steam train—in nearby Rusk, a former state park.
The train dates back to 1863 and takes you on a 1 ½ hour ride each way through pine forests and Victorian-style depots to Palestine, Texas. There is a 1-hour layover in Palestine, so this is a half-day excursion. If you go, take your own lunch, as there are oddly no restaurants to take advantage of the captive audience created by the layover. The train ride is not recommended if you want to be alone—you will be put at a table with strangers—with 4 hours together.
With over 95 state parks to manage, TPWD’s real product is diversity. Mission Tejas is an exceptional property and well worth the travel to experience its singular personality. The park is small but very popular. Reserve well ahead or plan to stay in a nearby city. Whatever you do, make the effort to go see it . . . this kind of beauty doesn’t ask for attention; you have to discover it. You have to seek it out.