Looking for a place to break the cabin fever this winter? Just 2 miles west of Mathis, Texas, off FM 1068 lies Lake Corpus Christi State Park. Separate from Corpus Christi proper (20 miles to the northwest), this 365-acre refuge is a memorable winter getaway with mild temperatures and gentle breezes. Despite plenty of other reasons to enjoy the place, it’s the water that attracts people like flies on weekends. Though inland, the 18,256 acre lake dominates the horizon, offering up the sights, sounds and rich smells of coastal life. Throw in the occasional palm tree and it’s time to break out the six-string and a pitcher of margaritas.
While the park was commissioned in 1934, the lake has had several iterations. The current one was created in 1958 from the Nueces River watershed in San Patricio, Live Oak and Jim Wells counties. The lake is like candy to fishermen and boaters everywhere. And why not? It’s immense, well-stocked with fish, features two lighted fishing piers (especially beautiful at night in the pooled light of the overhead lamps), covered fish cleaning stations, a public swimming area and regular fishing clinics throughout the year for kiddos. It’s a waterman’s paradise.
You should, however, be warned that the park is a major destination for another avid group of outdoor enthusiasts: birders. That’s because the marshy margins of the lake are situated along a major migration flyway that provides a popular stopover for Neotropical birds.
Snowy egrets and willets hunt in the shallows; grebes swim and dive in the open water and songbirds mass in the foliage. Surrounded by mesquite grassland and one of the few remaining stands of Tamaulipan thorn scrub (AKA chaparral), some 200 different species have been spotted throughout the year. During my visit, there seemed to be as many migrant birders as birds. At an organized event, I met birders from as far away as Canada, Wyoming, Connecticut and points between. It didn’t take long for me to realize the difference between my casual interest in birds and the all-consuming passion those addicts possessed! I soon left the group so my head could stop hurting.
Being neither a birder nor a fisherman, I struck out for the trails. The trail system at Lake Corpus Christi State Park is not extensive; however, it does provide a good introduction to the geography of the coastal plains. This is not someplace you would want to go walking around alone at night. Flat, scruffy brushland punctuated with yuccas and old growth mesquite trees, the landscape provides sanctuary to white tail deer, javelina and alligators.
During my walks, I noticed an unusual grass I had never seen before, virtually overwhelming everything—as thick and coarse as a doormat. It had grown over mottes of mesquite and other plants, in some cases reaching up 10 ft. or more. It was also dry and brittle, clearly past its growing season. Stumped, I asked the Park Superintendent.
Turns out, what passed for perfect roof-thatching material was actually known as Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus), an exotic invasive grass from Africa, Palestine and Yemen that is quite common to south Texas. “We have a burn ban in place during the winter because some unusually cold temperatures killed the grass for the first time in 3 years. It’s really quite a fire hazard,” the superintendent said.
“Do you think it will come back,” I asked. The superintendent, a powerfully built guy with the face of an Aztec warrior, flashed a coyote smile that suggested “Duh!” as the only answer to such a dumb question.
There’s a lot of history in this part of Texas. The Kawakawa and Lipan Apaches once roamed the area on a regular basis until being pushed out by westward expansion. Then, of course, there was the later conflicts with Mexico, inflamed by the fact that the Nueces River was a disputed boundary after the Texas Revolution. The Rio Grande eventually became the boundary after the war between the two nations. What is now the state park officially became part of Texas in 1848.
Later park history was also not without controversy. To be sure, there was a lake before there was a park. It was the failure of that first dam which led to the creation of the park. The initial dam (Lake Lovenskiold) gave way in 1929. President Roosevelt’s New Deal paid to rebuild the dam in 1935 and the reservoir was renamed Lake Corpus Christi. The state of Texas leased the property from the city of Corpus Christi in 1934 (good through 2032) and Civilian Conservation Corps Company 886 developed the park on a cove of the lake over the next two years. As the reservoir eventually filled up with silt over time, landowner lawsuits delayed construction of a new dam and reservoir. Finally the local water district won a favorable court decision, clearing the way for the current dam to be built in 1958.
The CCC in those two years built a number of structures, including a bathhouse, park residence and a refectory. Today only the refectory remains—but it’s a doozy! It’s situated on a large outcropping of rock, surrounded by water on three sides and is constructed of cast caliche blocks, made in various sizes and then laid to resemble cut limestone. Built in an architectural style unlike any other refectory found in the Texas state park system, this grand open-air Mediterranean style building offers up a large terrace, a pavilion, a stage and graceful arches.
An expansive view of the water can be enjoyed from the lookout tower. If you’re looking for someplace to unload a pile of stress, arrive just before sunset and put your feet up . . . then wait to be rewarded with your own strip of blood orange sky!
If you leave the park to tour the area, choose your excursions well. For instance, nearby Beeville is what a ghost town looks like before it finally dies! Vacant lots with hard-packed dirt and weeds, old shops boarded up, peppered with a plethora of cheap little finance companies. Yet further south you will find history dripping from every pore of Kingsville. Visit the famous K.R. Saddle Shop and other fine shopping venues in this vibrant city of 25,000—you can easily spend a day in the shops and restaurants. If you go at the right time of the year (summer), you can take in the Blue Angels military air show and other seasonal celebrations. But the real draw: The King Ranch, just outside Kingsville.
The King Ranch began in 1853, when Richard King, a steamboat captain on the Rio Grande, purchased the 15,500 acre Rincon de Santa Gertrudis land grant. He acquired other tracts over the years and recruited cowboys from Mexico, who came to be known as Kinenios, or King’s men, to work his burgeoning empire. Today this working ranch is larger than the state of Rhode Island and contains operations in other locations besides Texas. Many different tours are offered to the public—so pick and choose carefully. The basic tour covers what is known as “the wild horse prairie” and takes 1 ½ hour by air-conditioned bus. Before you book, study what is available and decide how long you plan to stay—there is a lot to see and do there!
Our state park system understands the importance of preserving wild spaces for its patrons, even if you don’t get to go as often as you’d like. So, given all the busyness of Thanksgiving—and before the other holidays dominate your life—make some time to get away, even if just a few days. You know you deserve it. Go someplace grand, rejuvenating, quiet and wild. Visit Lake Corpus Christi State Park! It’s not far away and the climate is always pleasant. Environmentalist and American author Edward Abbey said it best; “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot on it. I may never get to Alaska, but I’m glad it’s there. We need the possibility of escape.” Amen.