By: Malcolm Mayhew
Less than an hour’s drive west of Fort Worth, the nearly 5,000-acre Palo Pinto Mountains State Park is projected to be one of Texas’ busiest outdoor playgrounds.
As the men and women of the local workforce suit up each week in corporate uniforms and head to sterile windowless cubicles, they dream of being transported to a respite where the flickering of fluorescent lights overhead is replaced with vast starry skies, people are gathered around campfires instead of conference tables, and the grinding sound of car horns and tapping keyboards are exchanged for a songbird’s melody. North Texas is spoiled with several stellar state parks, but the soon-to-open Palo Pinto Mountains State Park (PPMSP) will be larger with more topographically diverse features than many of the others in the area. Awaiting funding from the Texas Legislature, PPMSP will provide an escape from exhaust, traffic, meetings and reports and insist on a slower pace with no cell reception, where the air is fresh, and there’s time to read a book, catch dinner or explore the wilderness with family.
If These Hills Could Talk
William “Bigfoot” Wallace, a famous Texas Ranger, was the first white man to see the area as he surveyed the frontier of Texas in 1837. Original settlers in the area, including the likes of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, were establishing cattle ranches during the mid-to-late 1850s. Also among the early ranchers was Stephen Bethel Strawn, for whom the city is named.
While relations between the early settlers and the Native Americans along the Brazos River were peaceful for a time, as more whites moved into the area, tensions increased. Texas Rangers moved the natives to reservations in Young and Throckmorton counties.
Palo Pinto County was established in 1856 by the Texas Legislature. From the beginning, the county had an agriculture-based economy. The Texas and Pacific Railroad came through the area in 1880 and carried the area’s agricultural products to markets to the east. Strawn was one of many communities established along the railroad, and discoveries of coal and oil skyrocketed the economy of the area.
Skip ahead to December of 2008, where the Wild West was apparently still alive and well. At the Mule Lip Bar, which takes up space near the intersection of Texas 108 and Texas 193 in Mingus, the bartender was closing up for the night. Will Copeland, a bar regular, was there with his daughter and didn’t want to leave his former girlfriend there with another bar guest, Kevin Parsons.
Copeland lived on a ranch outside the neighboring town of Strawn and suggested to Parsons that it was time to leave. When Parsons refused, Copeland went out and grabbed a shotgun from his truck. When he walked back inside the bar, his shotgun fired and killed Parsons. Copeland told investigators that Parsons grabbed the shotgun, jerked the barrel upward and it went off, killing him on the spot.
Parsons’ death was ruled a homicide, and Copeland was indicted in 2009 by a Palo Pinto grand jury on four charges including murder and criminally negligent homicide. This violent encounter began a path to a wrongful death suit against Copeland, who settled out of court and agreed to sign over 1,330 acres to the Parsons family. The land would eventually be sold to the state of Texas to start the PPMSP.
Originally the state had earmarked 400 acres it owned along Eagle Mountain Lake for a new park but later determined that it didn’t meet all of their parameters, including size.
Today the PPMSP acreage is composed of more than 4,500 acres of former ranch land straddling the Palo Pinto/Stephens county line plus 120 acres surrounding the lake, donated by the City of Strawn. After picking up a few more parcels in the near future, the park’s footprint will be estimated at 5,000 acres.
A Park in Progress
The PPSM, which lies roughly 70 miles west of Fort Worth, will draw swarms of area campers, swimmers, anglers, hikers, bikers and horseback riders. A diverse topography on this Cross Timbers region property includes small areas of prairie, mountains, steep slopes, stunning hilltop views, canyons, meadows, pecan bottoms, streamside forests and an 80-acre lake.
Palo Pinto Creek, which runs along the northern edge of the park, affords a few pools along its winding path that are good for swimming or fishing. The centerpiece of the park, however, is unarguably Tucker Lake, which is set in a box canyon surrounded by lush green hills.
Cabins and cottages are planned along the ridge overlooking Tucker Lake, and two large campgrounds, an equestrian camping area, recreation hall, park headquarters, day-use picnicking areas and 32 miles of backcountry trails with primitive camping are also included in the projected plan. (See sidebar for specific details.)
Presently there is limited use of the park. Astronomy groups participate in monthly Star Watching Parties, and birders, equestrians, anglers and hikers also have access. In 2015 a group of local residents founded an organization, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park Partners, to host groups of visitors, build trails within the park and help raise general awareness.
The road to opening celebrations at PPMSP is a long and bumpy one. Likened to building a small town, the process of creating, funding and developing a new state park requires time and planning. In a recent interview for Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith says, “We need to think in terms of a longer-term framework — in generational terms…Instead of a park opening being two years out, or four or six years, we need to see the land acquisitions as a way to preserve the resources for the opportunity to develop parks later. When we get a site opened, we want to make sure we have had the appropriate level of public participation in the process.”
The park planning timeline begins with a baseline inventory of the property’s existing conditions, including biological and cultural resources as well as physical attributes. This enables planners to determine which places should be protected because of archeological and environmental reasons and what areas will be used for public recreation. Based on those findings, a public use plan is created to guide development of infrastructure like campgrounds, trails, roads, utilities and other structures.
Next the TPWD must secure funding for the design phase of the project. Typically this happens through legislative appropriations. PPMSP has a price tag of around $50 million. TPWD provides half of that, and the other monies will come from private funding.
The park is surveyed and mapped, recording topography, soil conditions, existing structures and pipelines so that construction documents and architectural plans can be prepared. Usually the small-scale development is handled in-house, and larger-scale projects requiring construction of numerous buildings may require some outsourcing.
Park design alone can take up to two years, which is followed by the construction phase. Depending on the complexity of the facilities being built, this phase can take another two years to complete. Among the final steps before the park can open to the public, a comprehensive general management plan must be completed that includes the public use plan, a resource management plan, an interpretive plan and an operational plan that guides the actions, strategies and role of the specific park in the Texas State Parks system.
As it sits now, the projected completion date is late 2020. A precise date for official opening is uncertain as it depends upon funding appropriated from the Texas Legislature.
In 2023 Texas will celebrate 100 years of state parks. In honor of that milestone, TPWD has unveiled the Texas State Parks Centennial Plan with several lofty goals it hopes to accomplish. “For generations, state parks have brought families together on the land and around the water, helping Texans experience the natural and cultural history of our great state,” says Smith.
High Stakes for Strawn
Located in southwestern Palo Pinto County, Strawn, population 653, is looking to the park as a potential boon for the local economy. Just decades ago, the town was a thriving ranch community, but the younger generation has since left for jobs in larger cities.
As part of an agreement with TPWD to include the city-owned Lake Tucker in the state park’s footprint, all visitors will travel through Strawn on FM 2372 to reach the main entrance, creating opportunities to stop and shop in town en route to or from the park.
Jeff Hinkson, whose family has been in Strawn for seven generations and is a founder and past president of the Strawn Chamber of Commerce, says, “The park will obviously have a direct impact on Strawn’s economy. When you look at other parks and their proximity to large urban populations, they draw 150,000-200,000 visitors each year. All of those people must go through Strawn to get to the entrance of the new park.”
Hinkson, along with a few others, has taken the lead in trying to start a grassroots effort to bring together different groups both locally and within the Metroplex to put a spotlight on this state park.
There have been some concerns expressed about the state park using too much of the drinking water during a possible time of drought. According to TPWD and city representatives, the park would adhere to the same guidelines as businesses if water restrictions were put in place.
Any concerns, however, are heavily outweighed by the positive effects the park will have on the area. For the sleepy city of Strawn, the new park is like hitting the jackpot in regard to the job generation and drawing in visitors.
While campers may have a few years before they can visit Palo Pinto Mountains State Park in an official capacity, Texas offers more than 90 state parks, with 15 of them located here in North Texas. So in the meantime, nature lovers can get out and support the Texas State Park system as they ascend giant boulders in Penitentiary Hollow at Lake Mineral Wells, motorboat to Hell’s Gate at Possum Kingdom, track the footsteps of the long-lost Dimetrodon at Dinosaur Valley, or just drop a line in any of our impressive lakes.
What Locals Are Saying About PPMSP:
I like the wildlife in the area. I’ve enjoyed watching and photographing several bird species, numerous deer, squirrels and rabbits. I’ve also seen skunks, a not-too-common hog nose and lots of raccoons.
Thank you to the forest service for providing another gorgeous park near Strawn.
On what date is the next Star Watching Party? I took my grandson to the last one, and it was amazing.
—Elizabeth Maxwell Soontornvat
I want to hike/backpack and explore the area! So looking forward to seeing the place.
I had a cabin here as a child. I love seeing these pics!
—Sherri Newton Fossett
Looking forward to training on the equestrian trails.
—Mary Sikes Fields
My kid hunted here in December. Over a two-day period, we saw tons of great deer, some turkey. The boy got a big ol’ boar. John Ferguson as well as his staff ranger and biologist were about the nicest folks on earth.
Fund it now! Politicians need to pay attention to what voters want. Texas has the money, and it’s a total win. Parks bring jobs and opportunities for the public to enjoy our great state.
My little dog and I have been visiting this park for over a year…Tucker Lake is very pretty. The access roads are pretty rough. My dog and I hope the improvements won’t destroy the appeal it has now.
Looking forward to nice hiking trails in what some call the Northern Texas Hill Country before heading to Mary's Café for the best chicken fried steak in the state.
By: Malcolm Mayhew