One of my favorite parts of Texas is the northeastern piney woods. Of all 254 counties in the state, Morris County is perhaps the most beautiful. It’s tall forest sanctuary and offers the full expression of four distinct seasons. It’s like finding a little piece of Vermont in Texas—that’s because it’s a geographical cross-section. Were it not for one county north and east of it, Morris County would butt up against Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Daingerfield is the county’s largest town (~2,500) and serves as the county seat. It is 295 miles from Bastrop, 50 miles from Texarkana, and is home to nearby Daingerfield State Park.
At only 570 total acres, Daingerfield State Park seems to always be bursting at the seams, teeming with visitors. Spring and fall draws crowds for the brilliant diversity and color of the mixed forest foliage. During the long days of summer, people swim or paddle in the cool waters of an 80-acre lake or lounge on the grassy banks—it’s the gathering place of choice for the young people of surrounding communities. Sturdy CCC concrete picnic tables shaded under dense trees and clipped green grass quickly fill with day trippers. Of course, fishermen are drawn to the water for the plentiful supply of bass, crappie, chain pickerel and catfish. Adding to the sense of overcrowding, there are only 3 cabins and a limited number of campsites in the park for those looking to spend the night. It just doesn’t seem there’s enough park to go around.
The small park is deceptive at first. From state highway 49, the entrance seems to wind onward endlessly before side roads appear. The first (a left-hander) takes you to the RV camping area and the second (a right-hander) takes you to the tent camping area. Pushing on straight ahead takes you through picturesque picnic grounds and into the heart of the park. This is where the action is. Here the road curves around a peninsula that contains the main draw—the public swimming area, boat rental and park store. All facilities hug the waterline of Little Pine Lake. A fishing pier, boat ramp and the Little Pine Interpretative Center are also clustered around the point of the cape. Parking is difficult to find when the summer sun is high in the sky.
Little Pine General store sells camping supplies and food from April through October. There’s a popular swim platform located just off the main swimming area, and it’s a hotbed of activity and noise. Boaters can bring their own boat (speed limit 5 mph) or rent one dockside. There are accommodations for larger groups in the form of Bass Lodge, which sleeps up to 15 people, and a nearby dining hall. All cabins come with bathrooms and kitchens.
Despite the hubbub that normally haunts the swimming area, a degree of solitude can be secured if you can snag a picnic table under the trees. The sites are large, well-spaced from one another, and offer easy access to the bank line and water. If you need running around room or places to set up a bad mitten net, an expansive public area spills out from the parking lot with rolling hills and neatly barbered grass. At the bottom of the hill is nestled a shaded little cove that serves as a nursery for an impressive collection of water lilies.
For hikers, birders and photographers, the trail system winds through 100-foot-tall pine trees intermixed with oaks, maples and sweetgums. It’s reminiscent of the old growth forests of yesteryear, dank and dark in the late winter months, sparkling with wisteria, honeysuckle, white dogwoods, and redbuds in springtime. In the fall, the forest becomes a wonderland of reds, oranges and yellows, rivaling some of the most popular scenic regions of the state. There are over 3 miles of hiking trails in the park. Mountain View Trail is a tad over a mile long but is known for its upland pines (both loblolly and short leaf) and challenging termination at the highest point in the park. From here you can look down on most of the rest of the park. On parts of the hike, the rock and soil have a reddish color from nearby iron ore which was once mined and smelted into steel. A little lower down you will find the enjoyable Rustling Leaves Trail amid a mix of pines and hardwoods. It winds for 2.4 miles through wetter areas around Little Pine Lake and provides multiple views of the park including an old CCC picnic area, secluded bridge, and CCC dam.
Typical Texas critters share the forest with you, the water making it a particularly welcome place to live. Around the lake beavers continually develop their community. As you approach the bank, it’s easy to glimpse a soft-shelled turtle or a red-eared slider break the water’s surface for a quick breath before heading back down to the clear spring-fed water. White-tailed deer forage and drink at dawn or dusk while the raccoons come out at night. Cottontail rabbits are almost as common as squirrels. In terms of feathered friends, look for the striking plumage of pileated woodpeckers and the occasional painted bunting. The park also serves as a refuge for the cousin of the pileated woodpecker—the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Of course, there is always a contingent of ducks on the water, graceful herons fishing the shoreline, a pair of gliding egrets, and an ever-watchful red-tailed hawk cruising above it all. You can spend a whole afternoon just appreciating the animals going about their business.
This part of Texas was probably inhabited by Paleoindian peoples first, followed by Spanish explorers, and then French traders interested in connecting to New Orleans. It is believed that Caddo Indians lived here for centuries before the arrival of European settlers. The Shawnee, Delaware and Kickapoo tribes were dominant for the decade of the 1820’s, and conflicts between the Indians and westward-moving settlers eventually left what was to become Morris County in the hands of white European farmers. But it didn’t take long for the settlers to discover the rich natural resources of lumber and iron.
Of course, it was just a matter of time before the white man exploited these resources. By the mid-1930’s most of the native lumber had been depleted and crude iron mining had continued from pre-Civil War days. Land that would become the future Daingerfield State Park was donated by private landowners in 1935, the same year that two companies of CCC arrived to begin work. They started by replanting much of the pine forest and building the centerpiece 80-acre spring-fed lake. This body of water and its earthen dam has endured all these years and remains the primary attraction in the park. The CCC also built the road system, Bass Lodge, the trail system, various retaining walls, culverts, steps, and parking curbs. Chairs, tables and benches were also hand-crafted, many of which survive to this day.
Iron mining in the area gathered momentum during the World War II years, so the federal government built and operated a blast furnace in 1943. Steel production and mining continued off and on through the 1980’s when financial problems for the county’s largest employer, Lone Star Steel Company, began to take a toll. In August 1982 the company suspended operations for good.
From the park, the nearby small town of Daingerfield is the closest source of food & fuel. Mount Pleasant is a bit further away but is almost three times the size of Daingerfield. Country music is big in the area. Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe honored the tiny town by naming his instrumental “Old Dangerfield” and one of the most famous residents of Mount Pleasant was country crooner Ray Price. The historic pre-Civil War town of Jefferson is 30 miles to the southeast of the park while Caddo Lake State Park and Atlanta State Park are both within easy driving distance.
Daingerfield State Park is unquestionably a long drive from Bastrop, so practicality requires an overnight stay—and that requires reservations. In fact, if you can do a weekend or several sequential days, a joint visit to nearby Caddo Lake and Atlanta is guaranteed to leave you with treasured memories. The scenery in this part of Texas is extraordinary in all seasons. Nothing hurries in northeast Texas; you can feel the stress leaking out as you take in the towering pines, feel the softness underfoot, and smell the earthy aroma of the forest, like the ripeness at the center of a fruit. Your life melts into the fabric of the outdoors, and you quickly become one with your surroundings. No matter where you are in life, you still have an interval of time to use wisely—how’s that for a Valentine!
By Larry Gfeller