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July 31, 2009
Texas State Parks Coping with Summer Heat, Drought
AUSTIN, Texas — Visitation to more than 90 Texas state parks, up significantly in June compared to last year, remains steady this summer, even as much of central and south Texas suffers with above-normal temperatures and severe drought conditions that have negatively impacted river flows and lake levels, and sent all but the hardiest campers indoors.
In the more than a dozen parched state parks in the Hill Country and South Texas Plains regions, visitors are flocking to the sites blessed with steady lake levels and still-flowing rivers — places such as Inks Lake State Park near Burnet and South Llano River State Park in Junction — and parks like Bastrop and LBJ that have swimming pools.
"The drought’s effect on state parks is being felt most acutely in the central and southern parts of the state," Walt Dabney, Texas state parks director, said. "Many parks report being busy and people having fun outdoors, but water-related activities, especially on Hill Country rivers, are more limited until we get some significant rainfall. East, north and west Texas parks are in pretty good shape for normal, water-based recreation."
It’s been raining steadily the past few weeks in Texas Panhandle parks such as Palo Duro Canyon, and in the Piney Woods, Tyler State Park Superintendent Bill Smart says there’s been plenty of rain in East Texas parks and more is predicted over the next two weeks.
"We’re sitting pretty good up here," Smart said. "The only park in our region with a burn ban is Mission Tejas down in Houston County. "Business is steady as far as traffic goes, considering after July 4, visitation generally slows down."
Burn bans are common in many of state parks in counties suffering from drought. Some park managers report that they still are allowing campers to have small cooking fires in ground pits as long as they are supervised.
Cabins at Bastrop, Brownwood, Possum Kingdom and other state parks that offer air-conditioned accommodations report reservations are going strong, especially on weekends. Recreational vehicle campers are still filling the campgrounds at parks such as South Llano River, which continues to see plenty of visitors seeking refuge from the heat in the cool, spring-fed waters that flow through the park. The clerk there reported renting all 100 of the park’s tubes during the past weekend.
A few intrepid campers are braving the heat in tents, keeping cool by using fans and taking an occasional dip in a nearby lake or river.
At Blanco State Park, where office manager Jim Cook reports the park campground has been full every weekend. He says that although the river is lower than normal, visitors are still finding relief from the heat with a soak in a deeper part of the river behind one of the dams.
At several state parks, rangers report that hiking trails are still being utilized, though use has dipped in recent weeks due to the summer swelter. Heat-related incidents are possible, prompting words of caution.
"You need to take plenty of water, wear proper clothing and hike early in the morning or late in the evening," said ranger Christine Clopton of Colorado Bend State Park, which has had some instances of hiker struggling with heat exhaustion.
Clopton says the park’s boat ramp has been closed down due to a significant drop in the river level, but creeks are still flowing and the Spicewood Springs swimming hole is seeing plenty of action. Many of the campsites are still busy despite the heat as families try to get in last-minute summer campouts.
Office manager Lisa Fitzsimmons has been amazed by the tenacity of campers at Garner State Park in recent weeks in the face of soaring temperatures.
"People are still enjoying the park and we’ve had as many tent campers as we’ve ever had," Fitzsimmons said. "Mostly it’s the water level and condition of the river that they ask about. The river is low, but still flowing and cool."
Inks Lake State Park in Burnet County is actually busier than normal because boaters who can’t launch at nearby Lake Buchanan due to low water levels are finding the smaller flow-through reservoir still accessible. The park’s air-conditioned, limited-use cabins are booked up on weekends until Aug. 22-23. Ranger-led interpretive tours, however, have been limited to canoe tours, moonlight hikes and owl prowls to avoid the heat.
It’s been so dry along Texas’ mid-coast that the Lamar Volunteer Fire Department has been watering the state champion live oak in Goose Island State Park that’s known as The Big Tree. The volunteer community effort is making an extra effort to assure the survival of the massive coastal live oak that has survived countless hurricanes and other natural calamities over the centuries.
In the adjacent county, San Patricio, pumpers can’t help Lake Corpus Christi, which is at 37 percent of capacity, leaving the state park’s boat ramp and fishing pier totally out of the water, negatively affecting park use. Other lake parks, such as Birch Creek and Nails Creek state parks on Lake Somerville southwest of College Station, haven’t suffered as big a drop, but are still feeling the impact. Though the lake level is down only three feet from normal pool elevation, it’s been enough to make all but one double-lane boat ramp at Birch Creek unusable.
Meanwhile, out in the Davis Mountains, normal late summer rains have fallen, greening up the hillsides and filling mountain creeks.
"In some places," said far West Texas parks regional director Mike Hill, "we’ve even had too much rain in too short a time, washing out some roads. And on parts of the Rio Grande, they recently got eight inches of rain in a six-mile stretch in just two hours. That’s a year’s worth of rain for some of us out here."
So, depending on which part of the state you’re traveling and what your outdoor interests are, plenty of recreational opportunities in Texas state parks remain. To book a cabin or campsite, call (512) 389-8900 or visit the Texas state parks Web site. For general state park information, call 1-800-792-1112.
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