Cooler days and nights, swirling red and gold leaves, pumpkins, scarecrows and corn mazes are signs that autumn is here. But you don’t have to trek to New England to enjoy a breathtaking palette of fall colors. Right here in Texas—nestled along the Sabinal River about three hours southwest of Bastrop—is the state’s largest stand of Canadian bigtooth maple trees east of the Guadalupe Mountains. It is, of course, Lost Maples State Natural Area, a beloved weekend trip for many Texans and a popular tourist destination for interstate travelers alike. Small town Texas is also on display from the apple pies of Medina to the old-time country breakfasts in Utopia. The road from Leaky to Lost Maples is hilly and winding, uniquely memorable and serves up some of the rawest beauty of the Texas Hill Country.
A natural area differs from a state park because the primary focus is maintenance and protection of the property’s natural state. Accordingly, access and recreational activities may be restricted if the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) deems it necessary to protect the sensitive environment. TPWD began acquiring the privately owned 2,906 acres which comprise the sanctuary from Bandera and Real counties between 1973 and 1974. The natural area was finally opened to the public on September 1, 1979. In 1980 the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service made it a national natural landmark; it’s been a famous destination ever since.
Lost Maples is Edwards Plateau countryside in top hat and tails, offering steep and rugged limestone canyons, springs, plateau grasslands, wooded slopes and clear streams. But the fall foliage season is what puts this place on the map. Leafage updates to an online website are provided weekly throughout the season (the first report for 2018 will be posted October 17th). The draw is so strong that lines of cars spill out from the entrance gates on weekends during peak season. Since the refuge doesn’t take reservations, when internal parking lots are full the gates close for the day. This means you need to watch the weekly fall foliage report (https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/lost-maples/foliage-reports ), try to go on a weekday if possible and have a plan ‘B’ just in case.
Weather plays a fickle role in the cocktail that produces this seasonal display. Some years are dazzling—others, not so much. If the color disappoints, the acreage won’t. The park still has plenty of beauty in the mist and fog of fall mornings—even cold bright blue afternoon skies can bring calm to a busy life. There are over ten miles of integrated walking trails, including a loop that takes you along the top of a 2,200-foot cliff. The Sabinal River, with its tributaries, keeps the preserve wet even in severe draught. There are six primitive campsites available to backpackers as well as 30 developed RV sites (no sewers). In fact, if you like walks in the woods, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful place than Lost Maples.
Hikers have a good selection of trails: some along the river, which branches into several smaller creeks, and others that climb up the side of the canyons and across the flat plateau above. The trails are as easy, mostly flat and well-worn like old pub furniture. The lower elevations take you through pretty glades filled with shadows and much greenery. The paths draw the attentive hiker into a complex series of natural surprises. Sparkling streams pool around thousand year-old granite boulders standing as quiet as shipwrecks while pockets of wild grapes, ferns and grasses are strewn about like sparklers. Somewhat higher up, the trails take you through long dark sections of overhead canopy which frame distant hillsides in sun-filled panorama. In the open areas, two natural lakes and a unique ox-bow pond attracts hikers, fishermen, sun bathers and occasional swimmers.
Bigtooth maples are rare in Texas but they thrive in this preserve. Perfect soil conditions and a moist microclimate among the sheltered canyons combine to protect the species. Essentially, the maples are considered antiques: remnants surviving from colder, wetter times during the last glacial period. Although the primary draw is bigtooth maple, you will also encounter sycamore, Texas persimmon, Texas madrone, redbud and different species of oak (Texas red oaks are gorgeous in fall plumage). Mesquite and Texas mountain-laurel are also common. Typical Texas wildlife abound but there are a few notable ones too. Black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers nest here during the spring. Javelina run the hollows. Mountain lions are special but infrequent visitors to the canyons.
Within the preserve the natural beauty is so total that time stands still. Along the pathway the whimsical hiker could easily envision a Lipan Apache hunting party silhouetted against the distant hilltop. And why not? The recorded history of the area, beginning with Spanish explorations in the 17th century, shows that Indians inhabited this part of the Texas Hill Country over the years. Apache and Comanche have both hunted and foraged these rolling hills, keeping settlers out well into the 19th century. Fact is, man has inhabited this area since prehistoric times.
TPWD manages six natural areas in Texas. Not all are open to the public and some are still being developed. It would be a mistake to think of them as state parks. If you’re looking for a state park, Garner State Park is only 25 minutes away from Lost Maples and it makes for a great plan ‘B.’ State natural areas, on the other hand, are nature parks. Lost Maples is less park and more nature. If you like tubing, basketball, volleyball, concessions, screen shelters and other amenities, go to Garner. If you respond to plants, animals, water, landscape and peaceful silence, go to Lost Maples. You’ll find the entrance along the little used Ranch Road 187 between Vanderpool and the only slightly busier Texas 39 that links Kerrville with U.S. 83.
Remember that Lost Maples is beautiful year round—don’t be put off if you can’t make it for the fall season or if the weather gods provide a tepid showing. Perfection is a difficult standard and our fast-paced lives often obscure it anyway. It’s there. You must be patient. But if you visit in autumn and you’re lucky enough to glimpse the colors melt into one another, blend, unite and combine into one magnificent harmony, prepare to be chastened. It’s nothing less than your mother smiling back at you!