Back Roads Nature–Copper Breaks State Park

As morning came around, the clouds lifted to reveal a coral dawn. I looked closely at the arroyos and gullies of Copper Breaks State Park—I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who would ever think to make a public park of such broken badlands and mesas, peppered with copses of cedar trees?  Shouldn’t they call it “cedar breaks?”  But upon closer examination (and a little reading) it all came clear.  Among these eroded channels, all barren and lunar, you can clearly make out the gray-green streaks of raw copper running through the earth. It’s a chemical green, the color of bread mold.

And there’s more. I also learned this is a place where some major Texas history happened.  Here’s the thing about Texas state parks . . . they all showcase something different, something that sets them apart.   Copper Breaks State Park does, after all, belong in the portfolio.  So come on along—let’s explore this unlikely place in more detail.

Notable among the park’s primary assets is its sweet isolation. No TV, no phone service, no Internet. Situated in Hardeman County, 12 miles south of the town of Quanah and 9 miles north of Crowell, Copper Breaks is just down the road from Caprock Canyons State Park—this means it’s hidden among endless sweeping plains, far from any major population center. Not only does it receive fewer visitors, but it’s 1 of just 4 locations in Texas known to be an International Dark Sky sanctuary (Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Big Bend National Park and the City of Dripping Springs complete the list).

To visit the park and not spend the night is to risk missing precious moments of profound intimacy—the sky, when pristine clear, virtually hums with starlight! You can stare directly into the face of eternity and with a little help you can clearly see constellations, planets, stars and even satellites. For many years, the park has conducted regular star-gazing programs to educate people about the importance of preserving night skies against the ravages of light pollution.

Copper Breaks is one of the homes of the Official State of Texas Longhorn herd, a responsibility shared with San Angelo, Palo Duro Canyon and Lyndon B. Johnson State Parks. These magnificent animals were originally wild cattle—cross-breeds between Spanish and Mexican strains—left to fend for themselves in the early 1800’s. The herds grew until the feral beasts populated most of Texas. The free-range giants were eventually rounded up and herded north to beef-starved markets through iconic overland cattle drives. By the end of the Civil War, longhorns were no longer in vogue as ranchers then favored more profitable breeds of cattle.   Recognizing the decline and wishing to preserve the breed, Western writer J. Frank Dobie, businessman Sid Richardson and rancher Graves Peeler procured a herd and donated the animals to the Texas Parks Board in 1941. Today, they are as much a symbol of our state as the Texas bluebonnet.

The terrain provides ideal habitat for other North Texas wildlife: mule deer, coyotes, rabbits, raccoons, armadillos—for them, this is home. It feels good to know these animals are happy and in their element. You can tell the time of day by late night or early morning coyote serenades.  An abundance of water and thick vegetation contributes to a profusion of birds, from ubiquitous roadrunners to blue herons, ducks, quail and others. Birdsong is everywhere. Even if you can’t always see it, each day is a festival of diversity.

This place is also a hiker’s dream. There are 10 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. The landscape morphs, offering unusual variety for this vast and silent region of Texas. Juniper, mesquite scrub and low rolling hillsides stretch throughout much of the park where the washes and parched ground are striated by minerals left behind from a colossal ancient sea bed.  If not for the trail markers, hikers could easily get swallowed up by the indiscriminate repetition of this desert-like snarl. Another portion of the park is dominated by rocks and deep chasms filled with trees and vegetation, some of which give way to a 13-acre pond on one end and a sprawling lake on the other.  An intermittent branch of the Pease River also runs through the park. Hikers should plan their foray carefully—the territory can be tricky, challenging and seemingly endless.

The park offers spacious sites for tent, RV, equestrian and group camping. When we arrived at our campsite, the undersides of the clouds were already pink with the approaching sundown.  In the lengthening shadows, what appeared as ghostly Indian tee pees were actually creative protection from the daytime sun for each site’s picnic area. I later learned how effective these structures were—they really make a difference in the midday swelter. After a good night’s rest, we awoke to the sun burning a low orange through the eastern morning mist.

This region was once a sanctum of Indian culture, homeland to generations of Kiowa and Comanche before the white settlers came. For over 10,000 years, the area was rich with buffalo and other game while providing protection to Native Americans.  Even today, Comanche ceremonial burial mounds can be found 10 miles from the park on private land.

Nearby state highway 6, which descends from the original Mackenzie Trail, was a major route used by almost everyone who ever lived in the area for eons. Like many other famous old trails, it’s humbling to realize that Comanche and Kiowa, cowboys and settlers all traveled and camped in the very same places park visitors camp and hike today. There’s a sense of connection here.

The Pease River is historically significant. The year was 1860 and it became known as the Pease River Battle. It was along this river—3 miles east of the park—that one Cynthia Ann Parker was recaptured from the Comanche after being taken prisoner as a little girl years before. She was raised by the Comanche and later became a chief’s wife. Cynthia Ann’s son was Quanah Parker—the renowned last great Comanche war chief. But, alas, poor Cynthia Ann longed for the freedom of the Comanche ways.  Despite extensive efforts to reacquaint her to the white man’s civilization, she died shortly after being reunited with her relatives.

This land has been a popular recreation area from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. The owner at the time (the Gosage family) invited friends and family to enjoy the natural beauty and abundant recreation opportunities, so its reputation grew.  A local initiative in the 1970’s set the stage for eventual creation of the park.  It was opened as a state park in stages by TPWD between 1972 and 1974. Today’s park contains almost 1,900 acres. When first entering the park, I was struck by the elongated entrance road.  With open grasslands on either side of the fence, it stretches and snakes its way past the longhorn herd to the headquarters building.  Inside the headquarters is one of best museums I’ve ever seen in the TPWD system.

The nearest seed of civilization (and Internet lifeline) is found in the town of Quanah, named for the famous Comanche leader. If—like me—you are a fan of small town Texas, brimming with a colorful history, you won’t want to miss this! There are only two tourist attractions in town:  the QA & P Depot Museum and the Hardeman County Jail Museum. The depot museum is always open, the jail museum is by appointment only; however they are co-located and, if you show sufficient interest, the matronly lady in the floral print dress will make you tour through both.  It was a given—as iron-clad as my grandmother expecting I clean my plate!

The jail comes with all the accumulated juicy stories you can imagine from the 1890’s through its de-commissioning in the 1930’s. The depot museum was a veritable treasure trove of community history ranging from everything Quanah Parker through the recent past. There were rooms dedicated to memorabilia from the old train line, high school collectables from the town and old uniforms of local veterans from each of our modern military escapades. A thoroughly entertaining and informative experience!

In these days of social media we spend so much of our time trying to fit in, to be part of a group. This park is a refreshing change, not merely more of the same.  Located among panhandle vistas far from urban complexities, antelope still dance and coyotes still run free in an ocean of mixed grass prairie, abraded slopes and rocky bluffs.  With sublime connections to a deeper truth, it’s one of the few places on earth where a stunning nighttime spectacle eclipses the mysterious dawn or a radiant sunset.  Put this one in your bucket . . . and then check it off.

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