written by elizabeth york| photos by michael lanty & mike erb
Lying at the crossroads of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Edwards Plateau, and the Hill Country, San Angelo State Park represents the best of Texas’ natural beauty. The park doesn’t announce itself with soaring peaks, rushing waterfalls, or dense forests. Instead, it greets visitors with an understated beauty that many have come to appreciate.
Park Superintendent Jim Cisneros gives the perfect example of a cactus, holding out its unforgiving thorns but producing lovely, bright flowers in the spring. Growing up in Muleshoe, Texas, traveling in the military, and then returning to West Texas, gave Cisneros a unique perspective.
“When I had the chance to see the world, I realized that where I grew up had some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “Every place has its own beauty – you may not see it at first glance, but when you’re out hiking a trail, you start to see the beauty in it.”
The more than 7,000-acre San Angelo State Park opened in 1995, and is filled with the animals and plants that are historically native to the region. The park is home to more than a dozen American bison; the breed once the roamed the region’s plains by the thousands. A herd of longhorn cattle graze throughout the park. Hundreds of bird species and dozens of mammals have been identified in the park. Pecan trees, oak trees, wildflowers, and native grasses provide a backdrop.
Visitors also find tracks from dinosaur-like animals of the Permian Era, making the park an even greater natural treasure. “It all comes together at this park, which is what makes it so unique,” Cisneros said.
The park is home to more than a dozen American bison; the breed once the roamed the region’s plains by the thousands. A herd of longhorn cattle graze throughout the park. Hundreds of bird species and dozens of mammals have been identified in the park. Pecan trees, oak trees, wildflowers, and native grasses provide a backdrop.
Around the time of the park’s opening, former herd manager for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Bill Guffey, was responsible for the health of the bison and longhorn that were introduced into the park.
“Bison were native here,” Guffey explained. “There were millions of them across the country. 200 years ago, this area was all prairie grass. You didn’t have the mesquite trees. A lot of animals like the bison migrated through here.”
Bison were an important food and materials resource for Native Americans. Mesquite trees, it turns out, resulted in more recent times from cattle being fed mesquite beans.
“They started bringing longhorns in the late 1400s and early 1500s from Spain. They turned a lot of them loose,” Guffey said. Unlike their heavily bred, domesticated cattle cousins, “longhorns are one of the only cattle Mother Nature built 100 percent,” he said. Visitors to the park can walk among the iconic longhorn cattle. Since bison are not as docile, they have their own, 800-acre area in which to roam. Sightseers can arrive early to watch the most avian activity, such as the golden-fronted woodpecker and the painted bunting. Park-goers can even witness the migrating monarch butterflies and hummingbirds.
“We get all kinds of things come through here you wouldn’t expect,” Cisneros said.
Fishing aficionados cast their lines in the Concho River or the O.C. Fisher Reservoir. Equestrian enthusiasts bring their horses for trail rides across miles of park trails. Hikers and mountain bicyclists make good use of the multitude of paths. Hunters and archers can utilize portions of the land and find game including quail. Drive-up and primitive campsites offer further ways to prolong enjoyment of the outdoors. Cabins and bunkhouses provide versatility in extended stays.
The combination of diverse wildlife, scenery, and land and water activities make San Angelo State Park one-of-a-kind.
“What we’re learning is everybody enjoys the park in a different way,” Cisneros said. “Some people prefer the solitude, other people come out and it’s a social thing, and that’s the way they enjoy the outdoors.”
Whether it’s an individual, a family, or a school or community group, the park has activities and programs like the javelina, buck, doe, and turkey hunts, stargazing programs, and fishing outings.
“Seeing mothers and sons and fathers and daughters come, and seeing the bonds that creates – the relationships and the memories – we are very thankful and honored to be able to be part of those memories,” Cisneros said. “I enjoy the park because it gives me an opportunity to reconnect with nature, re-center myself, reduce stress, and really concentrate on what’s important in life.”
Local groups such as Friends of San Angelo State Park help support the mission of the park to preserve the natural resource and provide an outlet for locals. While year-round usability is a goal, the park management sometimes employs maintenance methods including prescribed burns to keep the balance in the ecosystem.
The combination of diverse wildlife, scenery, and land and water activities make San Angelo State Park one-of-a-kind. “A lot of people come through San Angelo and miss what a gem this area is, and the park is an overall part of that crown of gems we have,” Cisneros said. “I would always encourage people to come and check it out.” †