When many Texans think of fall color, many imagine the burnt orange, deep maroon, and yellow and green associated with their favorite college football teams! But for others, fall colors bring to mind a wistful image of the brightly colored foliage that has been a harbinger of autumn since childhood and almost non-existent in the Lone Star State.
What many Texans do not know, is that it is not necessary to travel north or east to view Mother Nature’s colorful magic act. Spectacular fall color can be found at many Texas state parks, but most reliably and dramatically at the Lost Maples State Natural Area (SNA) that annually draws tens of thousands of “leaf peepers.” Located about an hour north of San Antonio on Ranch Road 187 near Vanderpool, the nearly 3,000-acre park opened to the public in 1979.
Over a span of about six weeks, each October and November, the park’s Uvalde bigtooth maples burst into vivid reds, golds, and oranges as they prepare to make their final journey to the ground. Lost Maples was the first park in Texas dubbed a “state natural area,” which designates state-owned lands open to the public where there is a concerted effort to preserve the unique resources and to minimize the impact on the pristine setting.
The Maple Trees
“Lost Maples” refers to the bigtooth maples (Acer grandidentatum), descendants whose ancestors thrived in the area as far back as the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. At the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, when the continent’s ice sheets retreated northward, the climate warmed and dried up. Scattered strands of the maples were left in the cool, moist, sheltered canyons of the Sabinal and Frio Rivers in Bandera, Real, and Uvalde Counties, in the mountains of West Texas, and in a few other scattered locations around the state.
Given Texas’s notoriously fickle weather, the timing and brilliance of each year’s color show varies greatly. However, a crisp cold snap or two is the best insurance for a blazing foliage display! Autumn’s shorter days and cooler temperatures spur the manufacture of sugar in maples and a movement of the chlorophyll from the tree’s leaves to its branches, trunk, and roots.
“Depending on the weather, the maples usually begin to color in late October and peak in mid to late November,” Lost Maples SNA Park Ranger Richard Treece said. Beginning in about mid-October, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife publishes an online Lost Maples foliage page with photos as well as a hotline where people can check to see how the tree colors are progressing at the park.
Taking in the Fall Color
One of the best ways to view the colorful trees and other spectacular scenery at Lost Maples is to take a hike on some of the park’s eleven and a half miles of trails. The trails feature diverse ecosystems ranging from sheltered forest settings to steep canyon cuts and dramatic overlooks. The Maple Trail and a portion of the East Trail are both popular choices for viewing the foliage.
The Maple Trail follows one bank of the Sabinal River and the East Trail, the other. At the head of the Maple Trail is the “champion” bigtooth maple measuring seven feet four inches in circumference. The Maple Trail also features hand-hewn rustic stairs and well-placed railings while cutting through thick stands of maples in a varied terrain studded with large boulders. Wooden benches placed along the trail are perfect to take a break from the hike in the secluded, quiet setting. Hikers can contemplate the sounds of birds, insects, and the burbling of the adjacent river.
The East Trail has some of the most dramatic views in the park with several scenic overlooks into the canyons. Both trails are fairly rugged with some steep inclines, so good hiking shoes and a hearty constitution are recommended. (There are no ADA accommodations on these trails.)
Park Ranger Treece offered two personal recommendations to fall visitors. The first is ,“Don’t forget to look down!” Many visitors are so intent on looking at the colorful trees that they miss one of the most beautiful sights in the park. He explained that over the weeks the leaves fall from the trees, and an amazing quilt of color emerges from the forest floor that dazzles the senses and warms the soul.
Treece also cited a second, lesser known “color event” that occurs each year at Lost Maples. “In late November or early December, after the maple leaves have fallen, the Texas red oaks in the park take on a deep red, almost maroon hue,” Treece said. “When viewed along the canyon walls mixed in with the deep green ash junipers (what most Texans called cedars), the red oaks look like bright red ornaments in a huge Christmas wreath. It is breathtakingly beautiful.”
Autumn is unquestionably the most popular season to visit Lost Maples State Natural Area, and consequently, the park is very crowded at this time of year, especially on weekends and holidays. It is strongly recommended that visits be made during the week if possible, or if visiting on weekends, arrive by 8 a.m. Although the designated parking lot only has room for 250 cars, the park staff and volunteers work very hard to accommodate the crowds during the peak season. Sometimes, they can park as many as 500 cars. Visitors also have the option to drive their vehicles about a mile into the park to view the foliage.
Many visitors try to get a jump on the fall crowds by staying at the park or nearby. There are 30 developed and eight primitive campsites at Lost Maples State Natural Area. The developed sites are usually reserved a year in advance, but, the primitive sites occasionally have openings in the fall. The primitive sites are “walk-in” only so all supplies must be carried to the camp location deep in the park. There are also a number of lodging opportunities near Lost Maples and in neighboring small towns including bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, and cabins. Guests can also reserve a campsite at nearby Garner State Park (30 miles away), which has about 500 developed sites, and then come by Lost Maples State Natural Area for a visit.
At Other Times of the Year
Fall, however, is not the only good time to visit Lost Maples. More than 200,000 people annually visit the park due to its abundant year-round recreational opportunities including birding, camping, fishing, hiking, nature study, paddle sports, photography, picnicking, rock climbing, and swimming.
Wildlife is everywhere with a plethora of small mammals and birds. Birding tours are featured each spring with nearly a hundred documented species such as the Carolina chickadee, western scrub-jay, hummingbirds, red-tailed hawk, green kingfisher, and two endangered species: the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo.
Fishing is popular at Lost Maples, especially in “The Pond,” which is stocked each January with rainbow trout. Anglers can also hook catfish, bluegill, and small bass, though the better are catch-and-release only). One unique amphibian in the park is the “barking frog.” Ranger Treece said he had been informed more than once by campers that they heard a pack of wild dogs barking in the night, only to be informed to their chagrin that it was the local frogs at play.
If you plan to visit Lost Maples State Natural Area this autumn, be sure to take your time and enjoy the spectacular Texas Hill Country scenery along the way! Also, take advantage of all the fun and interesting things to do in the neighboring small towns such as Utopia, Medina, Bandera, and Kerrville. There is a motorcycle museum near Vanderpool, staged gunfights and wagon rides each Saturday at Bandera, and many picturesque shops and cafes around almost every bend in the road. One popular attraction in Medina, off Highway 16, is The Apple Store. It does not sell iPads, but rather huge apple pies, apple ice cream with hot cider sauce, and a mean jalapeño hamburger at its adjacent cafe.
Location and Contact Information
Lost Maples State Natural Area
37221 FM 187, Vanderpool, TX 78885
Park Telephone: (830) 966-3413
Daily Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Amarillo: 7 hours
Austin: 2 hours
Corpus Christi: 3.5 hours
Dallas: 6 hours
El Paso: 7 hours
Houston: 5 hours
Lubbock: 5 hours
Midland: 4 hours
San Antonio: 2 hours