I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. —Henry David Thoreau
You don’t have to drive to Arkansas to have a walk in the woods. We have beautiful slices of nature right here. I started writing about these spots because I was tired of hearing people say there was no nature in our area. We have much more to explore than most people think.
North Texas was once part of a 12-million-acre Blackland Prairie. Most of that prairie disappeared under the plow. One of the best examples of a remnant prairie is at White Rock Lake (close to the Bath House Cultural Center). It is carpeted with wildflowers in the spring. We also have clear creeks flowing over limestone beds, beneath groves of towering old oaks. There are bits of the Hill Country, created by the White Rock Escarpment, covered in eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), shin oaks (Quercus havardii), and even flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). And we have the Great Trinity Forest, which, at more than 6,000 acres, is the largest urban hardwood bottomland forest in America. By exploring these gems of wilderness in and around the city, you’ll learn a bit about what the woods have to teach.
There are elements of wildness all around us. I’ve seen a coyote dash out of sight on a snow-covered dirt path. I’ve watched great blue herons glide by in prehistoric splendor. I’ve walked across meadows of little bluestem grass and prairie wildflowers such as firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella), basket flower (Centaurea americana), and horsemint (Monarda citriodora). In meadows, I’ve watched monarch butterflies on their 3,000-mile migration from Canada to Mexico. I’ve sat in the shade of towering chinquapin oaks, hearing the shriek of red-shouldered hawks as they catch a thermal and soar so high I lost sight of them. I’ve heard the chatter of chickadees, the cackle of red-bellied woodpeckers, and the rattle of belted kingfishers. I’ve watched the brilliant red and yellow of a painted bunting against the clear blue expanse of a Texas sky, greeting the day with its beautiful song.Following are my favorite spots to hike in the city. All are within a 30-minute drive of my house in East Dallas. These are natural surface trails, because that’s where you experience nature closest. (We also have some terrific paved hike and bike trails, most notably the Katy, Santa Fe, and White Rock trails.) But, like naturalist Edward Abbey once reminded us, you have to get out of your car and walk to see it.
Spring Creek Forest
This is a unique old bottomland Forest. There’s an impressive overstory of shumard, bur, and chinquapin oaks. Some of these trees appear to be 100 to 150 years old and reach heights of 100 feet on trunks 4 feet thick. Thankfully, early settlers in this area left this forest relatively untouched.
There are several trails that meander along Spring Creek. There is a short trail on the west side of Holford. But the best hike begins in a marked parking area on the east side of Holford Road. The short, paved trail leads to an overlook of Spring Creek. A dirt trail starts at the end of the pavement and eventually crosses under Garland Road. More than once I’ve seen red-shouldered hawks in the large trees along the creek here. On the other side of Garland Road, the trail passes the largest trees in the forest. The entire length of the trail is about 3 miles. On your return, you’ll find another dirt trail to the right, just before you return to the paved trail that leads through a remnant prairie, with some native grasses. This trail is not marked, but it’s easy to follow.
There are a number of guided hikes here over the course of a year, which is a great way to explore.
Cedar Ridge Nature Center
This is my favorite place to hike in the area. The preserve lies right on top of the White Rock Escarpment, an outcrop of the Austin Chalk geologic formation that runs along the southern part of our county. You’ll be pleased to find there are wooded hills among the 600 acres. It’s a real slice of the Hill Country right here in Dallas County.
All of the trails start in the main parking area. My favorite is the Cedar Break Trail. It’s about 1.7 miles. If you hike it clockwise, it drops down a hill, crosses a creek, and then climbs back on top of the escarpment. There’s lots of up and down on this trail as you meander through a thicket of eastern red cedar, and you really lose track of the fact that you are in the city limits of Dallas.
I usually add the Cattail Pond Hike, which continues just past where the Cedar Ridge Loop ends. Just before you get to the pond, there’s a great bench and a small waterfall if the water is running. If you combine this with the Fossil Valley Trail, you’ll get some nice hills to climb and add another couple miles. The overlook on the Cattail Pond Trail has a view of Joe Pool Lake in the distance. Kids will enjoy hiking to Cattail Pond to see the turtles and fish. In the spring, this is a great spot to see the painted bunting, which is one of the more colorful North American birds. I’ve also seen a coral snake winding through the brush. Don’t worry—snakes are actually more afraid of you than you are of them (possibly not true in my case). They are usually trying to get away from you.
There are several other trails of up to a mile or so each, all of which are worth exploring. There are frequent guided hikes here led by Master Naturalists. This is a wonderful introduction to just how much nature we have to explore.
Arbor Hills Nature Center
This 200-acre park has something for everyone: there are 2.3 miles of paved trails for strollers, bike riders, and walkers; 2-mile dirt loops for mountain bikers; and miles of natural surface trails for hikers. The park also showcases several of our local ecosystems: Riparian Forest of bur oak and pecan, Blackland Prairie, and Upland Forest of cedar elm, hackberry, and bois d’arc.
My favorite hike here is the 1.7-mile Outer Loop Trail that leads through a meadow and then follows a tributary of Indian Creek. The meadow is one of the places I’ve routinely seen painted buntings, which favor perching in tall trees at the edge of the woods. The tributary to Indian Creek is a clear creek. The prairie remnant has abundant wildflowers in the spring.
Trinity River Audubon Center
This 120-acre former dump has been completely transformed by the Audubon Society and the city of Dallas. They created wonderful wetlands that attract birds year round, and there are more than 4 miles of trails. One hike follows a boardwalk, with blinds to watch birds. Another trail leads over to an overlook of the Trinity. A new bridge over the Trinity connects to the Trinity River trails that begin off Simpson Stuart Road.
The Center features a great building, with informative displays about birds and mammals that live in the Trinity River bottomland. This is the best place to introduce kids to nature. The third Thursday of the month is free. Otherwise there’s a small fee.
Located just south of the entrance to Cedar Hill State Park on FM 1382, this new, 270-acre preserve is already one of best hikes in the area.
Dogwood Canyon was created when Kim and David Hurt, the founders of Wild Birds Unlimited, located this spot in the ’90s. Initially, they planned to build a house here. When they discovered a surprising stand of eastern flowering dogwood, however, they realized this was a special place. They began working with the Audubon Society and adjoining municipalities to preserve it. There are now miles of new trails, all built by volunteers.
The best feature of this area is displayed in the spring, when you can catch the flowering dogwoods along hill ridges and canyons. There’s a lot to see year round, though. You’ll walk in the shade of bur oaks, shumard red oaks, pecans, and shin oaks. And you’ll see lovely understory trees like rusty blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum) and eve’s necklace (Texas sophora).
Like Cedar Ridge Nature Center, the preserve is located along the White Rock Escarpment, so the terrain is quite hilly. The trails climb up on top of the escarpment. There are overlooks with great views. The hills are filled with older stands of eastern red cedar and ashe juniper. These trees are essential to the nesting of golden-cheeked warblers, an endangered species that is believed to live here. This is the only spot in America where you can see flowering dogwoods (an eastern tree) and black-chinned hummingbirds (from West Texas) together.
All told, there are about 4 miles of trails at Dogwood Canyon. And there’s also a new 6,500-square-foot visitors center, which features classrooms and lectures led by local naturalists.