Lost Maples State Natural Area
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
As camping has become much more popular, getting a good campsite in a State park has become more difficult. Among the 100+ beautiful State parks, natural areas, and historic sites, managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, there are a few jewels in Texas' crown that are at the top of most people's to-see list. Due to a cancellation, I was fortunate to snag a site for several days during the week at one of those locations, the beautiful Lost Maples State Natural Area (SNA). I must say that my "luck" was due to someone thoughtfully alerting me and others in a Facebook camping group to their need to release their reservation. If you can't keep your reservations, please do cancel them...and let others know if possible. It's the kind thing to do!
Lost Maples SNA, located just about 4 miles north of Vanderpool, is often incorrectly classified as a state park. The difference between the designations is that a "state park" focuses more on recreation. Whereas a "state natural area" focuses more on the area's preservation which may result in more restrictions and less development. Personally, I view them as the same. Both are worthy of equal conservation efforts and respect. Which is why I get rather annoyed when I see folks, as I did this trip, gathering firewood and throwing trash on the ground. It's ironic that people travel to natural places to enjoy the beauty only to turn around disrespect or destroy it. I hurts me even more when I see kids do it, most of whom, are just following their parent's direction or example. Lots of teachable moments. We still have a long way to go.
During autumn, this particular "park" becomes especially popular. Each year, people flock to it hoping to catch a glimpse of some colorful fall foliage. As a matter of fact, the TPWD provides a foliage report webpage to assist visitors in planning their trips to the area. The webpage also contains historical foliage reports showing color displays since 2005! Unfortunately, the color display is pretty picky and subject to the flighty whims of the Texas weather. This year, I was a bit early for the color. But, hey, I was camping in the gorgeous Lost Maples SNA! I'll take it.
Lost Maples SNA is comprised of about 2900 acres and was opened to the public in 1980. As the terrain varies from riparian to high limestone canyon walls, there are many ecosystems represented within the park's boundaries. The beautiful Sabinal River runs through the canyon, giving life to the Uvalde Bigtooth Maples known for their fall color and for which the area is named. Actually, the trees aren't lost, but are relics that survived the Ice Age due to their location. Besides assorted native grasses and flowering plants, additional tree species add to the fall color palette like American Sycamore, Chinquapin and Lacey Oaks, Texas Persimmon, Redbud, and the Texas Madrone. There are also more "recent" additions to the landscape like Ashe Junipers and Mountain Laurels as well as the Prickly Pear Cactus.
In addition to 8 primitive campsites sprinkled throughout the trail system, the main campground has 30 tent/RV sites with water and 30 amp electric hookups, each containing a fire ring, covered picnic table, and an area for a tent. Each site also has a paved area of varying size that accommodates vehicles or RVs. If you have a larger RV, I recommend contacting the park directly to ask about the size of your prospective site's paved area before reserving online. Additionally, weather greatly affects the area. Trails are closed, prescribed burns scheduled, and fire bans enacted depending on weather conditions. It's always a good idea to check the SNA's website or Facebook page just before heading out to ensure you don't have any surprises when you arrive. Many of the TPWD's high-traffic parks, like this one, require day-use passes, especially during peak leaf-peeping times. There are no exceptions. You will be turned away at the gate without a reservation.
Lost Maples SNA is about 65 highway miles west of my home base just north of Boerne. By Texas standards, it's practically in my back yard! Google Maps suggested three different routes with, of course, a faster one. However, I chose to take the longer and less congested route which increased my travel time just a bit. For me, it's better to allow for some extra time...just in case. In late morning, Luna and I headed out going north briefly on IH-10 from Boerne to Comfort and then cutting west across country through Camp Verde and Medina on smaller farm-to-market roads. I actually prefer that route because it's so scenic. I arrived at Lost Maples just after noon, and, after a quick stop at the ranger's station to check in, I headed to my site (#2).
When I arrived, I noticed there were already many campers in the park. Most of them were located farther in and closer to the restrooms. The campsites across and adjacent to me began to fill slower and had a greater number of resident changes during my time there. I felt fortunate that I didn't have a large audience to watch me back into my site. I'm happy to report that it went better than my Daingerfield experience. I only had to move forward once to realign Luna for a successful "docking." Yeah! At least I wouldn't be the campground's entertainment for the afternoon this time! I took my time setting up since I wasn't in a hurry, and about an hour later, Luna was settled in nicely. After a quick bite to eat, I was ready to go exploring!
Lost Maples SNA has over 10 miles of hiking trails. That may not seem like a great distance when compared to some of our other parks. However, a large portion of the trails are rather challenging as they twist and turn through riverbed rocks and climb up steeply to several overlooks with one perched above a 2,200 foot cliff. This trip, I planned to stay at the lower elevations. On my first afternoon's outing, I wandered along the paved park road between the first river crossing and the bird-blind area. Unfortunately, there is no pedestrian path along a large stretch of the road, so you walk it at your own risk. Vehicular traffic doesn't always keep to the posted speed limit. Perhaps someday the park might create a designated path for those people who want to walk from the campground to the trailheads. It would allow walkers to more safely appreciate the beauty along the park road. I kept a careful watch for cars while also doing my best to avoid stepping on several tarantulas when the autos forced me into the grassy areas. By the way, if you've ever been charged by a tarantula, you'll never forget it. I'm just saying.
I spent the morning of my first full day being lazy and just hanging around camp. By that afternoon, the park had become quite busy. As I walked to the parking lot for the East Trail, I saw that it was full. I reasoned by the crowds in the day-use area that the East Trail would be crowded too. So, I changed course and chose to hike the short one-mile East-West Trail that begins near the bird blind and overflow parking area. It leads to the day-use pond area and from which the more challenging East or West Trail loops are accessed. The East-West Trail is a leisurely hike that runs along one of the tributaries that feeds the Sabinal River and is filled with beautiful grasses and shade trees along the way. There are a couple of water crossings with helpful stepping stones and a nice shaded bench about halfway in. The elevation changes aren't too dramatic, but the trail does have a bit of loose rocks in some areas forcing hikers to pay closer attention. After meandering along, I finally arrived at the pond and day-use area. One side of the pond has a scattering of picnic tables with plenty of shade. However, most of the area was roped off to reduce negative ecosystem impact from foot traffic. I managed to score a nice table in a less-populated area at the beginning of the West Trail intersection. I offloaded my backpack and climbed up on the table top and sat looking out over the water. I spent the the better part of an hour just watching several red-eared slider turtles glide through and under the water.
The opposite side of the pond had a layer of thick algae, and I could see the trails left by the turtles as they swam through it. My perch, however, was just above a very clear area, allowing me to see to the rocky bottom. That's when I noticed something staring intently at me from under the water. It was a large alligator snapping turtle! The bank was a little steep, so I cautiously sat on the ground and scooted closer to the water's edge. The snapping turtle and I stared at each other for a good 15 minutes. I tried to get some photos, but the water's reflection and ripples prevented me from getting any good ones. So, I eventually gave up and just enjoyed his company. I swear he stared at me as if I was a tasty morsel about to drop into the water for him. When I didn't cooperate, he lost interest and moved away slowly. I've read they can stay underwater for at least an hour. Obviously, he still had air reserves. No matter how hard I wished, he didn't surface for a good photo op. So sad. Reluctantly, I picked up my backpack and set out for the return hike back to camp. Of course a one-mile hike doesn't take most folks very long. I'm not most folks, however. So, I managed to burn about four hours of daylight round-trip from my constant stop and starts investigating the local flora and fauna along the way! The day had been blustery with some wind gusts up to 20 mph. However, by evening the winds had calmed somewhat making it a little easier for dinner prep. I finished my dinner to a stunning pink-orange sunset. The full moon rose hazily on the opposite horizon while I settled down to enjoy a brief fire before turning in. Unfortunately, clouds soon arrived after dark making the anticipated Orion meteor shower unobservable.
The next day, I spent the early hours hanging out at camp. Later that afternoon, I finally ventured out in the opposite direction, taking the East Trail with my sights set on making it to Monkey Rock and the Grotto. The East and Maple trailheads originate at the same point. However, the very short Maple Trail climbs up from the Sabinal River bed and closely hugs the sides of the steep canyon. Its "natural" rock staircases with hand-crafted wooden handrails lift hikers up and provides some wonderful scenic overlooks for the river. Springs seep from the cliff sides and, along with the dense tree canopy, make the trail a cool respite from the Texas heat. Eventually, it descends and intersects with the East Trail which continues on. From the beginning, East Trail stays low and follows the gentle curves of the Sabinal River and at times crosses it with the help of some strategically placed rocks. It's a beautiful trail and hikers have many opportunities to cool off in the clear Sabinal waters along the way. As the East Trail gets closer to Monkey Rock, it follows the very rocky riverbed and then gives way to a long, smooth path shaded with Ashe Junipers and various hardwoods.
I didn't make it to the Grotto. I only made it as far as Monkey Rock. A late start and too much socializing with Nature and with people on the trail ate up the daylight. On the way back and despite the impending nightfall, I took the Maple Trail and took a few extra moments just to stop and celebrate the quiet solitude offered by the cool, lengthening shadows from the cliffs and trees. I managed to get back to the parking lot with less than an hour of daylight left. I had planned to make my favorite Cheesy Burrito dish for dinner, and I was starving. I'm not a fan of picking flying critters attracted to artificial light out of my food. So, I like to have my meals done and the dishes washed before losing the daylight. Needless to say, I was washing dishes in the dark. I can't say if I picked any critters out of my food, but the dish did seem a bit crunchier. Hmmm.
My final full day started with a little road trip to visit my old motorcycle haunt...the hilltop overlook on Ranch Road 337 from Vanderpool to Leakey. It's a favorite stopping place for riders traveling in both directions to meet up to discuss the excitement of the ride or just to catch up with old friends. It has been many years since my husband and I have ridden our motorcycles on that road. It brought back lots of wonderful memories, and I must admit that I miss riding my CanAm Spyder. I walked along the parking area and noticed that a couple of small crosses have been erected to honor the riders who've died on the road. Highway 337 is one of three sections of ranch roads that form what's known as the Three Sisters or Twisted Sisters - a loop of very scenic and challenging roads that delight thrill seekers. The hairpin and blind curves and drop offs aren't to be taken lightly, and, to date, thirteen people have lost their lives on the journey. Unfortunately, I also noticed that the bottom of the hill just below the rest stop picnic table has become a favorite dumping site. Sadly, some folks have no problem messing with Texas.
The litter soured my mood so I decided against traveling on to Leakey. I just wanted to return to the quiet comfort of the campground. Once back, I decided to hike again along the park road from one river crossing to another. I switched back and forth to each side of the road looking for critters and interesting plants along the way. At one point, I saw a flash of red on a cactus. I went closer to investigate. It was the cutest little jumping spider. He jumped from cactus to cactus while I tracked him with my camera cooing to him all the while. I called him Little Buddy. Unbeknownst to us both, someone else was tracking him. In an instant, a much larger jumping spider was upon him. Neither of us saw it lurking there. The larger spider made quick work of capturing the smaller spider and, soon, he was dangling from its mouth. I gasped out loud. My Little Buddy! That rather cast a shadow on the moment, so I decided to move on losing interest in photographing any more little critters along the way.
The day was warmer than expected, and I ended up at the Sabinal River crossing not far from the ranger station. Just off the road, I noticed a large rock under a nice area of shade near the bank. The water was shallow and that rock had my name on it, so off I went. I'm happy to say that the hiking shoes are, indeed, waterproof as advertised. Once I reached the rock, I pulled off my shoes and socks and sat with my feet in the shallow water. It was heaven. The algae on the rocks was slippery and tickled my toes. As motorists passed by on the bridge, we'd exchange waves. I could see they wanted to be where I was. After I was thoroughly cooled, I donned my shoes, ran back through the water towards the road, and walked back to camp.
One of the delights of hiking and camping is meeting new people and hearing their stories. I always learn something fascinating from them. At times, my inner park ranger/tour guide emerges, and I share my knowledge of the local area's flora and fauna or alert them to other outing opportunities. I've met some pretty amazing folks during my camping/hiking trips, and this outing was no different. As campsites #1 and #3 are quite close, it didn't take long before I met my neighbors. My neighbor for a short time in site #1 was a lovely woman from Austin named Nicole. She arrived Monday afternoon and traveled light with a tent and a sweet black Lab named Jazz. She made quick work of setting up her tent. I actually "met" her first on the East Trail the next day as she and Jazz passed by me at one of the water crossings. Later that evening, she ventured over to barter for some salt with a cookie. I got the better end of that trade. Our longest conversation occurred as she was preparing to leave the next day. Unfortunate for me because she was super fascinating. I learned that she was a long-time hiker and camper and a very accomplished artist. I took the opportunity to tell her about the Texas Parks and Wildlife's Becoming an Outdoors Woman program. Besides enjoying the experience, I think she would be able to contribute to it. I hope to meet her again.
My neighbors in site #3 were a delightful couple from Houston, Barbara and Rick. They've retired and are enjoying their time with their little camper and riding their Harley around the Texas Hill Country. I met them early on as they were trying to figure out how to take a selfie that included their camper and bike when I offered to help out. Of course, a nice conversation ensued during which we exchanged names of some favorite camping/travel vlogs. Mine being Grand Adventurer and Dome Life. Theirs being Kara and Nate and Long Long Honeymoon. I found a new favorite in their suggested cooking vlog, Cowboy Kent! I was fortunate to have another opportunity to chat with Barbara between our campers on my last evening there. We chatted about camping, families, COVID, etc. She told me a wonderful story about her first date with her husband of thirty-eight years. We chatting as the sun set, making her late for dinner and me late for clean-up and pre-departure prepping. It was worth it.
Late afternoon on my final day, a couple with a Bohemian vibe and a German Shepherd arrived in site #30 across from us. They were rather animated and went about filming their activities, which included the female climbing onto the top of their car for a different viewing angle. My neighbors and I watched in amusement as the female repeatedly repositioned the blanket the male had so artfully placed in front of their little tent. The stage was set for their production. They plopped down and began talking to the camera as if addressing old friends. I could overhear snippets and gathered that they had a vlog. I later saw their "camping" vlog on YouTube and learned they have quite a following. I have to admit that I was somewhat annoyed with them because, as soon as they arrived, the female disappeared several feet into the trees to use the restroom. The next morning, the male chose to relieve himself facing the tree line just behind their little tent in full view of his fellow campers. We weren't boondocking, mind you. The campground's facilities were less than a football field's distance away from them. They were obviously able to walk the short distance to the restrooms. I had to repeatedly remind myself, "Not my circus. Not my monkeys."
The previous day's hike had been pretty socially productive as well. During that hike, I met and chatted with several folks along the way. My longest conversation was with Jess who was finishing up her hike. We had lots to talk about since she was prior Air Force. She just finished her master's degree in social work and has great ideas about integrating art into mental health therapy for veterans. She was genuine and the conversation came easy. While we were chatting, two other women passed by. One was wearing a Camper Girl t-shirt, so I had to approach her about that! I forgot her name, but she had just relocated to Texas from Minnesota. She and her friend were good ambassadors for the Girl Camper organization.
After leaving Jess, I continued making my way towards Monkey Rock. The trail was beautiful, but I began to worry about the remaining daylight. I considered turning around when I saw the sign pointing towards the rock formation. The climb down to the river for the full view was a little steep. While I was contemplating my course, a sweet, young couple arrived to make their way down the path. At the bottom, I learned they were from College Station and were new to hiking. I began telling them about the other camping and hiking opportunities in the area when another couple joined us below the rock formation. He was from San Antonio and she was from Austin. Their little dog, Bella, was coddled in a nice, comfy backpack. We all took the customary pictures and visited for a few minutes before going our separate ways. I had a nice hike back to camp reflecting on our conversations.
As is usual on these trips, I had sleepless nights. Sometimes, it's the sounds that keep me up, but this time it was just my curiosity as I found myself constantly sitting up just to peer out into the darkness. I kept hoping to catch a glimpse of a meteor, but clouds continued to dominate the sky. The full moon would periodically peek through the clouds illuminating the campground in a ghostly glow. I wanted to get up and go out, but thought against it. I was surprised at the lack of wildlife around the campground at night. I expected to see some trickster racoons trying to make off with another camper's food supplies that had been absent-mindedly left out. But, the grounds were pretty quiet. There was, of course, the normal artificial light shows from the larger RVs. But, for the most part, the area was dark. Lost Maples SNA is a great place for stargazing and they offer resources on their website. Unfortunately, they don't appear to have a Dark Sky designation. I'll have to ask about that next time I go there. I think it would be a great candidate.
On my final morning there, I was up at 6:00 a.m., raring to get started on my trip home. Since quiet hours were still in effect, I chose to sit quietly with my coffee watching the moon set behind the tree line just as it broke free of the light clouds. I finally got a clear view of Orion, but, still, no meteors. Bummer. Once the sun rose, it was time to get packing! It took a couple of hours to get everything packed and Luna hooked up to go. But soon I was on the road after a brief stop at the dump station. I was pleased with myself as I managed to get it all done without any mishaps. I could still hear Darling Husband's (DH) voice in my head telling me "You've got this!"
I made a quick stop at the little store a few miles down the road to let DH know that I was on my way. Unfortunately, there is zero cell phone service within the park. Also, I discovered that my weather-band radio was unable to pick up any signals. So, during my time there, I made a couple of quick morning trips to the little store's parking lot to make contact with DH and to check the weather. The lack of internet or cell phone signal is actually a positive thing as it forces you to focus on the beauty and immerse yourself in the nature around you. By the end of my time there, I found I no longer wanted to make the trip out to connect. I just wanted to stay and enjoy my surroundings. When that happens, you know your trip is a success.
The trip home was relatively uneventful and rather quick. I knew I was tired as I passed up several photo opportunities along the way, especially one of some amazing white buffaloes in Camp Verde. Although I had fun, I missed my DH and the girls terribly. I could tell that my DH missed me as well since he was waiting for me when I arrived at the storage barn. A wonderful surprise. More words of praise and encouragement followed when I successfully made quick work of backing Luna into the storage unit. About 45 minutes later, I was home and snuggling with Maddie and Abby. Unpacking the car would have to wait.
Although the colors weren't yet on full display and the campground was quite full and busy, I still enjoyed the trip. It was just another step in bolstering my self confidence as well as providing some much-needed distraction from some recent stressors. I think we could all use some of that right now!
I hear that Lost Maples will be in peak color this week! If you can make it out that way, I highly encourage it. As autumn progresses, however, there will be plenty of opportunities to leaf peep along the beautiful Texas Hill Country backroads. I do hope you'll make the time to GET OUTSIDE and continue to join me on my adventures. I'll save a place by the campfire for you.