Lake Jacksonville Campground has the look of a new penny. The wood-and-rock-screened shelters are polished and cleaned. The waterfront landscape is a well-maintained garden. But the towering pines and oak trees are reminders that this area has the history of a Lincoln-head one-cent piece.
Small in comparison to most state parks, this municipal retreat preserves an idyllic corner of East Texas favored by fishermen and vacationers. The park has 12 campsites and 10 screened shelters, most with water and electricity. There is plenty of room to play field games or hike around the jagged shoreline. A white sand swimming beach is tucked into a corner of the peninsula which juts out into the north end of the lake.
"We're a service," says BJ Nicholson, park manager for the Jacksonville Parks and Recreation Department. "We cater to a lot of family reunions." Fishing is also one of the most popular activities on the 1,457-acre lake, he says. The park has a new double boat ramp in a small protected lagoon with two docks.
On the southeastern edge of Jacksonville, the lake was built in 1957 as a municipal water supply and for flood control on Gum Creek. The city generates income by leasing most of the 25 miles of shoreline to home owners. Timber sales from the area also add to the city treasury.
The park area had become a popular party spot for local youth until the city reclaimed the site as a campground. The screened shelters and wheeled camper pads were added with other improvements in 1997. Instead of an eyesore, the scenic grounds are now an attraction to the city 27 miles south of Tyler. "Law enforcement has helped a lot to keep it quiet," Nicholson says with a laugh.
A couple of times a day, Nicholson drives through the park to collect the camping fees and check on things. Like in any good park, on most mornings the air is full of the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the chorus of hundreds of birds that filter through the canopy of treetops.
The park also attracts a lot of snowbirds -- retirees who migrate between the northern states and South Texas. "We get 'em going both ways," Nicholson says. The motor-home pads are often occupied by resting travelers. The peacefulness is only occasionally broken by the roar of a passing fishing boat or the hissing of one of the two white geese that are unhappy about the intrusion into their home.
Lake Jacksonville Campground might be only five miles from downtown, but it is a twisting five miles with hardly a sign to guide you. The locals will tell you that the park is at the end of College Road. Finding the end of College Road is not that easy.
From the intersection of US79 and US69 in Jacksonville, Larissa Street is one block east of US79. About three blocks south of US69, College Road dead ends into Larissa Street. There is a green sign that points to a recreation area, but the campground is never mentioned. Follow College Road past the soccer fields, where it becomes Old Byrd Road and gets a county road number. After a sharp right turn at the ball fields, stay to the left on the main road until it runs into the lake. This is not a place that is easy to find in the dark. There is definitely a need for more signs directing visitors, or maybe that is how they keep the park so quiet.
To make reservations or for directions, call 903/586-4160.
Nicholson says that the park is full for every holiday this summer. "We can usually fit in another camper," Nicholson says, "It all depends on what they need."
With a population around 10,000, Jacksonville is between the Piney Woods and the Post Oak Belt to the north in the Neches River Valley. Being the leading tomato shipper in the state, it is known as "The Tomato Capital of Texas." Among the industries in northern Cherokee County were producers of the first cap pistols and a local basket factory. The town also has two junior colleges and a seminary.
The campground is a good central point to use as a base camp to explore East Texas between Tyler and the Davy Crockett National Forest. The terminals for the Texas State Railroad at Rusk and Palestine are less than 30 miles south. The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens and the sites of old Nacogdoches are less than an hour's drive from Jacksonville.
About three miles north of downtown on US69 at the city limits is Love's Lookout -- a small rest area with a scenic view of the river valley. For more information, call the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce at 800/376-2217 or 903/586-2217.
Coming up this weekend ...
The Texas State Railroad runs Saturdays and Sundays Mar. 19-May 30, Thursdays-Sundays June 3-July 31, and Saturdays and Sundays Oct. 2-31 between Palestine and Rusk. 800/442-8951.
MayFair in Georgetown celebrates spring with art around the courthouse, music in San Gabriel Park, and an air show at the municipal airport,
May 1-2. 800/436-8696.
FolkFest in New Braunfels at Conservation Plaza off Loop 337 on the north side of town opens the historic buildings to tours with period artisans, games, and food, May 1-2. 830/629-2943.
Coming up ...
20th Anniversary of the Orange Show in Houston honors a postman's dream. Jeff McKissack, a retired postal worker, built the neighborhood theme park dedicated to his favorite fruit before Astroworld came to town. When the concrete maze opened in May 1979, six months before his death, McKissack expected thousands of people to come see his masterpiece. The Orange Show Foundation preserved the property and it has become a center for the study of folk art and the creative process. This year's opening day, May 9, will have the park as McKissack intended it to look with a pond with clapping monkeys, jumping frogs, and stuffed animals and other attractions like a woman in a sequined evening dress, on a turntable, playing the organ. You have to see it to believe it. The park opens on weekends, noon to 5pm. 713/926-6368 or http://www.orangeshow.org.
414th in a Series. Collect them all.