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Texas: Even the outdoors is bigger

Courtesy Amarillo CVC

From Palo Duro Canyon to the bayous in Beaumont, the Lone Star State boasts a diverse array of landscapes and ecosystems.

Groups traveling on tour can take some time off the motorcoach to stretch and see some of the great natural sites in these Texas destinations.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the Grand Canyon of Texas, lies 25 miles southeast of Amarillo. At 800 to 1,000 feet deep, the canyon stretches for 120 miles and is up to 20 miles wide in sections.

Today, a small stream, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, runs along the canyon bed.
With advance notice, the state park headquarters can provide a step-on guide for groups, offering an overview of the canyon and its history. The narrative can focus on special interests in botany, geology or history.

“The park is entirely accessible to motorcoaches, which means they can drive to the rim of the canyon as well as the floor, ” said Eric Miller, director of communications for the Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council. “The paved road on the canyon floor crosses the stream several times.”

The rustic stone visitors center on the canyon rim, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, features a museum and a gift shop.

From early June to mid-August, the outdoor musical “Texas” is performed in the canyon. Set on a traditional stage in a 1,700-seat amphitheater with the canyon walls as a backdrop, the professional production, with dazzling special effects, has been running for more than 40 years.

Two hours of musical drama loosely recount Panhandle history during the late 1800s, telling the saga of pioneer families, the railroad and the farmers and ranchers who settled the range land and clashed over its control. A fireworks finale celebrates Texas’ heritage.

“We give out an award every night for the person who has traveled the farthest to get here, and we’ve never given it to someone from the continental United States,” said executive director Vince Hernandez. “Everyone is astounded by the caliber of our production.”

The optional preshow steak dinner is served adjacent to the theater on picnic tables painted with the state flag. Guests enjoy a buffet and rib eyes grilled on the spot by Big Texan Steak Ranch of Amarillo.

With lower humidity than the rest of the state and misters to lower temperatures, summer evenings can be quite comfortable.

Gator Country
More than 300 alligators, several species of crocodiles, Caymans, snakes, tortoises and alligator snapping turtles make their home at Gator Country, a gator recue center and tourist attraction in Beaumont.

Visitors meet Big Al, an alligator weighing in at nearly 1,000 pounds and measuring more than 13 feet long. Big Al reigns as the largest alligator in captivity in the state, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife officials.

The park specializes in the rescue and preservation of alligators and serves to educate visitors. In 2010, a cable reality show, “Gator 911,” aired 10 episodes showing alligator rescues spearheaded by Gator Country.

In a 45-minute presentation, guests learn about the biology of reptiles in captivity. Alligators can be viewed at different stages of development at different ponds that separate them by size.

“Anyone who goes out there gets to hold a live alligator, if they choose,” said Ashley White, communications manager at the Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Usually, kids hold a baby, but adults can hold gators up to three and a half or four feet long, because the gator’s mouths are taped shut.”

On July Fourth, Big Al’s birthday, Big Al and Kong — with mouths taped shut, eyes covered to calm them and torsos secured — greet the public. Visitors can take photos right next to them.

“Everybody’s favorite is Big Al,” said Gary Saurage, Gator Country co-owner. “He’s 78 years old and, if he’s well taken care of, will live to be 100 in captivity.”

Groups can opt for a night reception with Cajun cooking and a live band at Gator Country’s restaurant overlooking the alligator pond.

Big Thicket National Preserve
Big Thicket National Preserve, the first preserve in the National Park System, spans more than 100,000 acres. Swampland with cypress trees meld into forests of pine and deciduous plants with plains areas in between. The preserve was designated by Congress because of its biological diversity. Four biomes converge on this land.

“Most places, you’re not going to find roadrunners with alligators and beech trees with palmettos,” said Paula Rivers, resource education specialist at Big Thicket National Preserve. “We like to call it America’s ark, because we have little bit of everything.”

Gray squirrels, armadillos, possums and feral hogs frequent the area. Raccoons, beavers and otters are found in the waterways, and alligators swim in the Neches River’s open waters.

Canoe outfitters take groups on four-hour trips down Village Creek, an official state paddling trail. The creek reigns as the nation’s seventh-most-paddled waterway due in part to its generous width and numerous sand bars.

The inner loop of the Kirby Nature trail, about 1.7 miles, takes walkers through four ecosystems. Hikers start out in the slope forest, with beech, magnolia and loblolly pine, and transition down into a bog and then to a cypress slew before they loop through a flood forest filled with inland sea oats.
The Pitcher Plant Trail and Sundew Trail, both handicapped-accessible, are popular due to the carnivorous plants growing along the way.

“We have four of the five species found in North America, and all have unique ways of trapping insects,” said Rivers. “I like to open up a pitcher plant and let people see the insects in various stages of decomposition.”

Augusta west?
Fuchsia, pink, red and white azaleas explode with color along Tyler’s 10-mile Azalea Trail from March 25 to April 10.

First introduced to the city in 1929 by a local nurseryman who shipped them by boxcar from Georgia, azaleas now grow profusely within three districts on the National Historic Register.

Step-on guides inform and entertain with stories of the city and homes along the trail, some dating to the early 1900s.

“One of our most popular events is the historic homes tour,” said Susan Travis, convention and tourism coordinator for the Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Each year five private homes along the trail are opened to the public.”

Other events during the celebration include quilt and flower shows, cookoffs, a living-history weekend at Camp Ford and an arts-and-crafts fair.

For more about Texas:

Even the outdoors is bigger
From pop art to Picasso
It’s high time for a Lone Star wine tasting

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.