Escape to Martin Dies Jr. State Park
We discover hidden beauty in East Texas
In Mission: Wanderlust, I write and podcast about our family’s travel adventures and the things that we have learned along the way.
We hadn’t been out in two months.
At least, not really.
When we were in the early stages of social distancing and not allowing our kids to leave the house at all, we took a quick weekend trip in April to Lake Livingston. Two days later, the governor closed all Texas state parks to camping for the foreseeable future. Over the next two months we stayed home, diligently wore our masks whenever we needed to get supplies, and worked on projects around our home.
June 1 the Texas state parks reopened for camping reservations and Jeff asked where I wanted to go.
Keep in mind that we live in Texas. Summer temperatures hit the state in mid-May and don’t leave until early October. Going camping in Texas in the summer is borderline crazy, but our family needed to escape. We needed to continue social distancing but do so away from our house. We needed to get away from construction projects and mess and work. We needed time together as a family that didn’t include television or tasks on a to-do list.
So we reserved a spot a Martin Dies Jr. State Park, about 120 miles northeast from Houston and decided that we would just deal with whatever weather came our way. While our upcoming summer vacation still looked like a go, our family needed time in nature and away from everything else and we were going to take the opportunity if we had it.
The weekend got a late start. I was teaching summer school so I didn’t get home until well after lunch, and Jeff still needed to put in a full work day. We finally pulled out of our street by 5:00, hoping that there might be a slight possibility that we would pull in before sunset. Instead, we took the long way north by stopping first at a Buc-ee’s and pulled into the state park after dark.
Martin Dies is a huge state park that sits on both sides of Highway 190 and along the shores of the B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir. We had stayed at the Army Corps of Engineers park near there during our first spring break in Texas when we had to cancel our plans to camp in Louisiana, so while we had visited the park, this would be our first stay in the park itself.
Since we faithfully followed Waze, we missed the first entrance to the park which would have taken us to the north side, where our camping spot was actually located. It was Texas rural dark, which means the moon was the only thing lighting our way as we worked our way around a loop on the south side and I looked at the map to figure out which direction we needed to go to get to the other half of the park. Jeff nearly got stuck on one corner and had to carefully maneuver around the edge of the loop, but he eventually avoided a dangerous ditch that could have derailed our weekend plans. It wasn’t the smoothest arrival we have ever had, but we managed to get parked, unpacked, and everyone to bed before it got ridiculously late. Honestly, it just felt good to be somewhere new with something to look forward to in the morning.
By the time I had walked the dogs and fed myself breakfast, our son was itching to set up the tent so that both kids could sleep outside for our second night. Unfortunately, at the same time that he was asking for help with the tent, I was nursing a fire ant bite that threatened to derail the entire weekend. (I am convinced that the Devil himself created fire ants and after one incident that sent me to an immediate care clinic, I am particularly careful with all things fire ant. Unfortunately, one tiny ant sneaked onto the dog’s tie out and bit me while I was detaching one dog to take him inside. Thankfully this time, Benadryl was enough to keep a severe reaction at bay.)
While I carefully nursed my bite and monitored the reaction threatening to spread up my arm. Jeff helped the kids set up the tent before we piled into the truck to see the whole park in the daylight. We wanted to get a scope for what was actually open and available before we braved the hot temperatures for outdoor activity.
The parks may be open, but the visitor centers, nature centers, and ranger programs are all closed, which meant we were on our own for park entertainment. Once we made it through lunch, a couple of games, and several chapters of our individual books, we filled our water bottles for a hike on one of the trails. Jeff loaded up the GPS so we could geo-cache, we hopped on our bikes, and we rode towards the Island Trail, which starts at the Walnut Slough day-use area.
The temperatures climbed into the mid-90s and the humidity clung to every inch of our bodies, but between the slight breeze and the shaded path, we managed to enjoy our family time hiking along the shoreline and looking for a couple of the geo-caches that still exist in the park.
Five years of living in Texas and I am still struck by the different kinds of beauty to be found all over the state. Sometimes it feels like we’re back in Indiana hiking in one of its many hidden gems, but then I look up and see moss hanging off of the trees and I’m reminded that I’m much further south and there’s a very real possibility of alligators somewhere off of the shoreline.
We biked back, hot and tired but content with our afternoon hike and finds. The skies opened up just as we returned and we rushed to add the rainfly to the tent so the kids’ stuff inside didn’t get wet. After such a hot afternoon, the cool rain was a welcome relief and Jeff and I both enjoyed preparing dinner outside.
We had just enough time after dinner to clean up and head to the south side of the park to watch the sunset over the reservoir, the kids stealing our cameras to take pictures of mom and dad with the setting sun as a backdrop. (I hate to watch them get older but having ready photographers is definitely a bonus.)
It was a really good weekend. Despite the late arrival, despite the heat, despite the rain, we had some much-needed outdoor therapy and unplugged time as a family. COVID-19 has affected all of us in different ways and for our family, there was this strong need to just do something and go somewhere. While we wait for our summer vacation plans (which still look promising), this gave us the brief respite that we needed.
And maybe we found a new park to visit a little more frequently.
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