Back Roads Nature–Possum Kingdom State Park

In Spanish it means “The River of the Arms of God.” Emerging from New Mexico, the Brazos River rambles for 1,280 miles across Texas, empting itself into the Gulf of Mexico. It cuts a wide arc and serves as the informal dividing line between east Texas and the rest of the state. It’s dammed in only three places.  The first of these, just north of Waco, forms Possum Kingdom Lake, a basin that spreads like 20,000 acres of liquid metal over 300 miles of endless shoreline. Among the cliffs, sheer breaks and scenic coves lies Possum Kingdom State Park, a favorite haunt for weekend campers, boaters and fishermen. While the greater Possum Kingdom area is developed real estate, the state park itself is nicely isolated deep in the heart of Texas . . . where the stars at night certainly are big and bright.

This park is lo­ca­ted west of Mineral Wells in the rugged can­yon coun­try of the Palo Pinto Mountains and Brazos River Valley. It’s a good day’s drive from Bastrop. After check-in at park headquarters the steep road down to the water winds through rock formations and rattling cicadas in grass burnt by the summer sun. And then it unfolds: a flat crescent of land dotted with RV’s and boats, fishing pier, marina and general store, all buzzing with activity.

It’s a scene right out of umpteen childhood summer camps. Volleyball, horseshoes, lawn darts, people running around everywhere. The tincture of wood smoke fills the air as frenetic campers nurse daytime fires—as if to help atone for their disconnected urban lifestyles. This is the main recreation area—during the daytime it’s like an amusement park! Water sports are big here, as Jet Skis spout arcing rooster tails and the whine of power boats keep the shoreline in a constant state of churn. Young people lounge and romp along the shoreline like a colony of sea lions. More primitive campsites are nestled among the scrub and cedars up in the surrounding hillside.

While cruising down the highway en route to the park, given the curious name, I envisioned a magical place in my head. Spoiler alert: there are no thrones, castles or fairy tale “possum kings” to be found anywhere in the park. I looked. Apparently, the memorable name comes from an errant salesman/fur trader from the early 1920’s—one Ike Sablosky—who relied on the boys of Possum Kingdom to provide him a reliable supply of pelts for sale. Sablonsky’s nickname grew more and more popular . . . until it stuck. Mr. Sablosky eventually moved to Dallas and became a millionaire in the insurance business.

So how did the park come to be? Texas acquired the land from the Brazos River Authority in 1940. Civilian Conservation Corps Company 2888 was working at Tyler State Park at the time when plans were drawn up to develop Possum Kingdom State Park. Company 2888 was selected to build it out. Unfortunately, the lake was suddenly filled to capacity in April 1941—a month before the company actually arrived. Enter stage left: Plan B. Designers had to abandon the scheme for development along both shorelines and, instead, focus only on the west shore. The priority was to providing utilities and basic services. This was done:  campsites, picnic tables, and more than seven miles of roads and culverts. By summer of 1942 World War II was looming and additional work had to be set aside as the national focus shifted.  In fact, CCC Company 2888 was the very last to leave Texas, culminating a nine year history of excellence in the state.

Today, the park is a popular getaway for the crush of people looking for fun on the water. As the weekend gets into full swing, the primary campground is invaded by tent campers and blaring rap music. Boats are strewn everywhere; it’s easy to tell who the target population is: the park store rents canoes, boat slips, wakeboards, kneeboards, water skis and tubes. It also sells groceries, camping and fishing supplies—and marine gas for all the watercraft. It’s a mecca for migrating sun seekers!

Simply put, I found the park was not my cup of tea. It’s not just the ‘collegiate’ atmosphere; there are other discouragements. For example, water in the park is not fit for drinking; its salt content is too high. This means non-potable water is available for showers and dish-washing only. Boaters & revelers can survive on beer but other visitors need to come with an alternative water source. When I was there, restrooms had no soap and low water pressure. The main campground was nearly barren of trees—the summer sun was relentless. As noted, limited supplies were sold by the park store but major resupply required a 40-mile trip to Breckinridge. I was also disappointed by the hiking prospects within the park; there are only about 3 ½ miles of uninspiring trails to be found on the entire 1,529 acre park! Hiking is not why people come here.

2011 was a devastating year for Texas and Possum Kingdom State Park experienced its share of problems. That year, the Possum Kingdom Complex fires burned over 100,000 acres, more than a hundred homes and about 90 percent of the park. Those of us who love Bastrop State Park know what such a fire can do to fracture an otherwise beautiful connection with nature.

Hence, if you are looking for a hideaway to laze away the weekend, catch up on your reading or just contemplate your navel, this place is not it . . . at least not in my opinion. You must wait until darkness falls and the trees move closer. Ah, that’s the time this community quiets down. For me, it’s when the stars glimmer with needles of ultraviolet, golden and crimson light. In the cool of the evening, people are huddled around their fires and campsites are filled with a sort of reverential hush. Dusk and dawn are also special times of the day—offering rich colors and escape from the steady smash of the summer sun. Clearly, mine are quiet pleasures requiring little external equipment or toys to enjoy.

The truth is, I’m old and more than a little crusty. The joy of youth and the stoicism of the over-the-hill gang does not often mix. I must learn to be more patient, for I too was once young. You see, a walk around the shoreline of Possum Kingdom State Park in the early morning hours makes evident one important truth: people of all ages and backgrounds need the outdoors. It’s what binds us to each other; our past, our future, our heritage. Even though we may not enjoy the same things, we all can relate to the beauty of our own source. It’s reflected in the fresh air we breathe and everything we see outdoors—things as delicate and colorful as a butterfly’s wing. The nine-to-five families with mortgages and mouths to feed also need to get away. So, in the end, all those nearby suburban lawns with uncollected morning newspapers are really a good omen. Welcome to the park!

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