Three Canyons

The Southwest Edge of Texas' Hill Country -- Home to Lost Maples and Garner State Park -- Is Rich in Both Beauty and History

Lost Maples State Park
Lost Maples State Park

There's a beautiful place about 150 miles southwest of here. It looks a lot like what Austin looked like 150 years ago, before the trees and bushes were plucked off these hills and asphalt spread over most surfaces. At that time Austin was a minor paradise principally because fresh cool water rose from hundreds of springs and ran in scores of creeks all around the area. This place about 150 miles southwest of here is still like that today.

The place is the southwestern edge of the Hill Country, consisting of three large river valleys, the Sabinal, Frio, and Nueces, and the hills that separate them. No one name sums up this three-canyon region; the inhabitants identify themselves with whichever canyon they live in and with the Hill Country in general. It includes the counties of Real, Bandera, and parts of Edwards, Uvalde, and Kerr. It's some of Texas' most picturesque land, where large hills wooded with live oak, mesquite, and cedar divide grassy valleys, where clear streams run over broken limestone.

The three-canyon area includes two of Texas' major state parks, Garner State Park and Lost Maples. It also includes about 10 small towns, most with no more than 500 residents.


At one time the Hill Country, sometimes called the Edwards Plateau, was flat. Then a thing called the Llano Uplift occurred -- a huge chunk of Central Texas got shoved up as the Gulf Coast Plains were being pushed down.

At this point, so the natural history books tell us, the Hill Country was more elevated as a whole but still flat. However, the Central Texas water-bearing limestone was now twisted, exposed in some places, and 1,000 feet or higher than the surrounding land. So, just like in a gravity-feed water tower, the water flowed down, taking with it most of the area's soil and a lot of its rock. The Hill Country began to have hills.

Looking at these hills, it's clear the main component is limestone. Apart from scrubby trees and brush, water, and animals, that's all there is. These rocks explain two things about the area: why there is so little farming here (no dirt), and why the water is so pure.

In most other topographies, rivers drain mountains and land rich with soil and in the process become muddy. The concept is frankly repugnant to Central Texans. In the Hill Country, the water is disgorged by the pushed-up, broken limestone. While underground, this same limestone filters out dirt and most animals, and keeps the water cool. When it reaches the surface, it flows clean and cold.

The cool, fresh water is the perfect complement to our rather warm summers.

Early History

The town of Barksdale, about 10 miles north of Camp Wood, is home to one of the area's coolest State Historical Markers (certainly my favorite). It reads as follows:

Indians attacked goat camp of Nick Coalson on June 1, 1877; son Arthur, 10, was killed; Johnny, 14, wounded. Coalson escaped after 3 hours of hard fighting. One year later he lost his wife Alice, a daughter, Etta Elizabeth (twin of Arthur), and infant stepson in another Indian raid. Captains Pat Dolan and Dan Roberts with Texas Ranger units, S. D. Coalson (Nick's son), U.S. army scout Jim Hill, Jim and John Welch, and Henry and Sam Wells pursued but failed to find the Indians. The victims' graves are near old homesite, on Half-Moon Prairie. Coalson descendants are prominent in Texas history.

I suppose it's encouraging, from the settlers' perspective, that Coalson did indeed have descendants. They probably have something to do with this marker being here.

The marker is interesting because it demonstrates that there was real violence in this area. Although we are cautioned to be skeptical about such things, a lot of the action we see in old westerns really did happen in Texas. The three-canyon area, in particular, was dangerous late into the 1800s. Very few places in Texas, notably the Davis and Guadalupe mountains and the Big Bend, remained contested for so long.

Another marker, this one five miles outside Leakey, gives the date of the presumed last Indian raid in the area as April 1881. These canyons, with their abundant water, brush, and profusion of remote valleys, were known intimately to Native Americans and were ideal for guerrilla warfare.

Unlike modern-day New Mexico, there are almost no Native Americans here. But there should be. The principal inhabitants in historic times were the Lipan Apaches; Tonkawa and Comanche Indians also lived here. Before historic times -- that is, before the 1500s -- it is anyone's guess as to the cultural details of the area's inhabitants. Given that the people had no horses then, intertribal warfare was probably less destructive, and communication between different groups was probably more complicated, making for looser affiliations and more differentiation within the groups. This view seems to be supported by the first Spanish reports from the area, which describe dozens and dozens of Indian groups, most of which never show up again in the historical record.

Without horses, trade and communication were likely carried on by runners over ancient trails. It seems logical that trade and intertribal relationships were more stable. The arrival of the French in the north, Spanish in the south, and Anglos in the east disrupted the whole North American continent, displacing groups from their traditional homelands and creating war. Epidemics eventually killed 90% of all native peoples, striking the most settled and healthiest Indian cultures first. These deaths represent the largest known human holocaust to ever hit this planet.

The introduction and proliferation of the horse gave us the Indian groups we are familiar with in Central Texas. The Tonkawa had horses, the Lipan Apache had more horses, and the Comanche are regarded as the best horsepeople in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Although the origins of these three groups are disparate, their adoption of the Plains culture made their lifestyles similar. They hunted, ate, wore, and slept in buffalo, for example. They camped at different spots during the year. They harvested wild roots, fruits, and nuts. They organized into extended families of loosely affiliated bands of larger tribes, practicing a very direct democracy.

They enjoyed raiding and making war on each other. It is thought that the Tonkawa were a Plains group pushed into Central Texas by the Apache, who were in turn pushed here by the Comanche. By the 1700s all three were here at least part of the time, roving cyclically over the area, fighting each other, and increasingly coming into contact with the Spanish, who were pushing up from the south.

The Spanish

To us, the three canyons may seem remote. It is over 100 miles to the nearest large city (San Antonio), and the towns in the area are small. To the north and west of Leakey, the land is profoundly empty of people.

But to the Spanish, it was just off the highway. The highway, the Camino Real, ran from Northern Mexico, notably Monclova, Saltillo, and San Juan Bautista, through San Antonio, ending at Nacogdoches. This trail is ancient. The Spanish and in fact all European transplants to the Americas merely appropriated trails that had been in use for thousands of years by Native Americans.

The Camino Real passed by the three canyons because that's where the water was. Between the Rio Grande and Uvalde, water is scarce, but once you get to Uvalde there are regular waterholes all the way to San Antonio.

As everyone knows, the Spanish wanted gold, silver, and Indians for slaves and converts to Christianity. That is why they came to Texas, and they were extraordinarily ardent in their pursuit of these goals, despite the difficulties they encountered in hostile Indians, enormous distances, and intense weather. By 1750 they had traveled over every part of the state, from El Paso to Nacogdoches, from the Red River to the Gulf.

John Leakey, founder of Leakey, Texas, was infamous for his 13 prominent scars, the result of gunshot, arrow, and knife wounds.
John Leakey, founder of Leakey, Texas, was infamous for his 13 prominent scars, the result of gunshot, arrow, and knife wounds.

The pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of subjects went forward simultaneously and symbiotically, by means of the mission/ presidio system. The civilian officeholders would authorize missions in areas that looked good for mineral exploitation or farming and send soldiers (the presidio part) along with the padres to get the work under way. The newly Christianized Indians would do all the work. Since the Hill Country is poor farm land, it stands to reason that the search for silver lay behind the positioning of the area's missions.

The Spanish actually did mine silver in various places in the Hill Country. There are old mine shafts near Llano, the San Saba River, and in the three-canyon area near Concan, Camp Wood, and Utopia. Information about these establishments is sketchy, as the Spanish were secretive about their mining operations. There are legends of many more mines in this area (read Coronado's Children by J. Frank Dobie). It is said that the silver ore from these mines wasn't rich enough to warrant big operations and that each was quickly shut down.

At any rate, in 1762 the Spanish established two short-lived missions in the Upper Nueces: San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz, in what is now Camp Wood, and Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria del Canon, 10 miles south of there, near what is now Montell. Santa Cruz was named after and was a replacement for the failed mission of the same name 100 miles north on the San Saba River. This mission, created for the Lipan Apache, was destroyed by a force of 2,000 Comanche and allied tribes in 1758, one year after its establishment. The Comanche didn't like the fact that the Spanish were affiliating with the Lipans, their longtime archenemies. It is said that after storming into the San Saba mission, warriors ran the padres through as they knelt in prayer and then held them aloft on their lances. There is supposed to be a lost silver mine near the site. The presidio of San Saba, a stone fort built in 1760, still stands one mile outside Menard.

Likewise, Candelaria was named for a failed mission 200 miles northeast on the San Gabriel River. The namesake self-destructed when the military half of the enterprise clashed with the clerical half over the sexual appetites and mores of the soldiers. The Santa Cruz and Candelaria were essentially the same mission, and they were both, like practically all the Spanish missions, abject failures. As soon as the Lipan Apache realized they couldn't rely on the Spaniards for any real protection from the Comanche, or for food, they blew off the padres. The missions lasted only five years. With their demise, Spanish presence in the three canyons, tenuous at best, was reduced to the place names they had given the rivers and valleys, and the Hispanic families and communities that continued on the frontier.

The Anglos

Researching Anglo history, you get a lot of who-got-where-first. Henri Castro, Castroville, 1842; William Ware, Utopia, 1852; Reading W. Black, Uvalde, 1853; John and Nancy Leakey, Leakey (pronounced Lakey), 1856; Theophilus Watkins, Rio Frio, 1867; and so on.

All these white folks wanted was, if not to get rich, at least to get respectable. They were ambitious and reckless. They took their wives and children into an area where they could expect contact with groups who would, if the chance presented itself, rape and kill the wives and kill or kidnap the children. Then they left the wives and children alone at home as they worked the land or went to town.

These folks were equally good at killing people and animals and surviving the killing of their own people and animals. It is said that John Leakey, the founder of Leakey, had 13 prominent scars over the front of his body, the result of gunshot, arrow, and knife wounds. Another story about him relates that he survived a 100-foot fall from a cliff when escaping from Indians by grabbing a green cedar branch and riding it to the ground.

The women and children were also good at killing and being killed. Sarah Kincheloe, daughter of William Ware, was pierced by 12 arrows trying to defend her house during an Indian raid in the 1870s. She handed her gun to a Mrs. Bowlin and collapsed just as the Indians burst in and shot Mrs. Bowlin through the heart. After the Indians left, the children of the two women poured out of their hiding places, screaming over the bodies of their mothers. Mrs. Kincheloe's eight-year-old son started for the nearest help, Sarah's brother John Ware who lived two and a half miles distant. When Mr. Ware arrived at the scene, Sarah told him, "John, I think I can live."

The earliest pioneers came to farm or to manufacture shingles from the cypress trees on the riverbanks. Some benefited by locating themselves along trade routes. Land was of course ridiculously cheap, less than a dollar an acre. According to Bill Cofer, whose family first came into the area in the late 1880s, some of the land had been given to railroad companies under an agreement that gave them distant parcels of land for every tract they surveyed in building the railroad. "That's how the railroad companies came to own land even where there aren't any tracks," says Cofer. "When my great grandfather moved down here from San Antonio, he bought land from B & O Railroad."

At first, in the 1850s and 1860s, contact with Indians was commonplace, but any lingering Indian communities had been driven from the area by the 1880s. There are many interesting accounts of fights with Native Americans during this time, but one of the most interesting stories is a case of white-on-white violence. It is called the Battle of the Nueces or, more accurately, the Massacre of the Nueces.

It occurred when a group of German-Americans in and near Comfort refused to take loyalty oaths to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Feeling threatened by Confederate officials, 68 of the group decided in late July of 1862 to relocate temporarily to Mexico. Apparently expecting no more difficulty once they had made the decision to abandon the area, the Unionists made their way southwest in a leisurely fashion and camped on the West Fork of the Nueces on August 10. Unaware that they were being tailed, they did not select the location for strategic defense and did not post pickets.

They were attacked an hour before dawn by a group of 94 Confederates. Nineteen were killed outright. Another nine were wounded and then executed a few hours later. Forty escaped. Two weeks later another eight were killed trying to cross the Rio Grande. Of the Confederates, one was killed and several wounded. The bones of the dead left lying by the side of the river were retrieved by their families in 1866 and interred in Comfort.

After the war, Anglos continued to farm the bottomlands and manufacture shingles from the magnificent cypress trees. But ranching slowly came to dominate the three canyons as the soil was used up and folks learned how easily sheep and angora goats could thrive on this land. Kerrville, Leakey, and Camp Wood were initially shingle camps; now these are ranch centers. Some areas, like Rio Frio, continued small-scale farming.

Today there is an emergent tourism industry. In the words of Mary Anna Roosa of Neal's Lodges in Concan, a 74-year-old vacation spot, "In just the last 15 years, everybody's opening a bed and breakfast, whether they're on the river or not."

But even with booming tourism, the land is notable for an absence of people. Real and Edwards counties have a combined population of under 5,000. What settlements there are don't seem permanent.

Garner State Park

Garner State Park, stuck way out in the middle of nowhere, is Texas's most popular park for overnight camping. More than half a million people visited the park last year! This is the only argument for ignoring it.

The park's main attraction is its 10 acres of Frio River frontage. In summer the river is full of screaming kids and their screaming families. Hikers and bikers are also very much in evidence. The wide, flat campgrounds come to resemble tent cities. In fact, with the capacity of the park being 2,000-plus, it can be more populous than any town in the area other than Uvalde.

The park was opened in 1941, six years after the lands for it were acquired by John Nance Garner's wife, Mariette, Judge C.P. Spangler, and a group of Uvalde business people. According to Frank Roberts, interpretive specialist for Garner, the park became too popular and had to be enlarged. "In 1980, the state acquired 1,000 more acres, so we have what we call the Old Garner and the New Garner."

Mr. Roberts suggests taking a guided tour when visiting Garner. "We have interpretive guides that do a good job telling the history of the park," he says. He also notes that the park's infrastructure, which was mostly built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the late 1930s, and includes the outstanding Alsatian-style park headquarters, "is still holding up real well." Every Saturday night during the summer the stately limestone plaza of the headquarters is the scene of a jukebox dance. Some nights there are live bands. It's a sublime experience to see the young and old, especially the older couples, two-stepping to country music in the cool air under the stars.

Lost Maples

Of the attractions of Lost Maples State Park, Roy Heideman, park superintendent, enjoys the hiking trails the most. "I walked up on a bobcat early one morning here about two months ago," he says.

Lost Maples is one of the state's premier parks for hiking. The two main trails are 3.5 and 4.5 miles respectively, and you can connect them together and add another leg to the hike to get it up to 10 miles if you really like a challenge. The trails take you through three distinct ecosystems. The canyon areas are shady and moist and support the largest diversity of plants in the park, including ferns. Then there are the wooded slopes, which have the oaks and cedar and occasional Mountain Laurel. At the top is the plateau, with prairie grasses and Lacy Oak.

Although maybe the trails should get the most attention, Lost Maples is known for the fall colors produced by derelict stands of Bigtooth Maples. These trees are thought to have been more common in Texas during the last ice age and to have receded from the Hill Country as it got hotter and drier. They have stayed on in some isolated valleys like Lost Maples where it is wetter and there is better shade.

"The best color is the first two weeks of November," says Superintendent Heideman, but he warns, "We are extremely busy on the weekends at this time, so I urge people to try to visit on a weekday." He notes that the capacity of the park is 250 vehicles and people are often turned away on the weekends during the busy season.

Another of Lost Maples' attractions is primitive camping. One site you should visit is what the park rangers call "the Pond." It's a small glen beside a spring-fed pool surrounded by hills, lined by trees. It's a great place to swim. Valleys like this one are also excellent places for bird watching, especially from March through May, and photography.

Getting There

If you enjoy scenic drives, there is one last bit of information you need. In this country there are four stretches of road that are particularly arresting: southwest from Kerrville to Medina on highways 16 and 337, west from Vanderpool to Leakey on 337, west from Leakey to Camp Wood on 337, and north from Camp Wood to the northern boundary of Real County on highways 55 and 335. This last stretch, from Camp Wood north, is incredibly remote and beautiful. A two-lane road dips and soars over valleys and hills, crossing and recrossing the east prong of the Upper Nueces and finally ascending out of the canyon. Turn right on Highway 41 to head back to civilization. end story
If you are interested in seeing the trees, you should consult the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site for their "Fall Foliage Updates," at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lostmap/foliage.htm.

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