As Houstonians, it’s sometimes hard to fathom being 2,200 feet above sea level, much less that you can get there in a morning’s drive.
But that’s exactly what the Lost Maples State Natural Area in Vanderpool—right in the heart of Texas Hill Country—offers. The closest things we have to actual hills in the bayous of south Texas are those massive highway ramps that connect one slab of concrete to the next. Sometimes, though, you just need real elevation—and you can find it right in our backyard, albeit the gigantic one that is Texas.
Located about 70 miles northwest of San Antonio, Lost Maples isn’t exactly a breeze to reach, but that’s half the fun. The drive gets more undulating with every mile and the hilly scenery is simply marvelous whether soaked in sun or shrouded in misty cover. The sun greeted our arrival and some foggy rain accompanied our departure. We left around dawn on a Friday morning in April, avoiding traffic in Houston and San Antonio and arriving at the park for late morning, so you could feasibly make a day trip out of it. There’s some classic Texas towns like Bandera along the way, with main streets that look straight out of old Westerns. These towns fulfill the specific kind of wanderlust you might have watching a John Wayne movie, meaning you're less likely to tire of the drive.
The park itself offers some of the most diverse hiking in Texas, not to mention some splendid views — and this wasn’t even peak season. The area, so named for its bigtooth maple trees, flourishes with color in the fall. The park gets fairly crowded during October and November for that reason, but the spring and summer months are green as can be and light on the crowds. While we were there, the temperatures held between 58 and 79 degrees. Pretty ideal, right?
That’s not completely typical of Vanderpool, however. Though it’s located on the Edwards Plateau and averages about 2,000 feet above sea level, the sweltering Texas heat doesn’t completely abate. The humidity is lower than Houston but the heat can still be searing, with average summer highs in the mid-90s. That doesn’t make camping impossible, though, with seasonal lows in the upper 60s. Outside of December and January, when the park can get cold and even see a little snow, Lost Maples will likely be an accommodating destination regardless of which month you visit.
We decided to camp at one of the park’s eight primitive camp sites, partly out of a desire to rough it and partly because we waited too late to reserve a drive-up site. The primitive sites all have outhouses and are generally no more than a mile or two from the entrance, eliminating too much stress to lug around camping gear. Once we had set up our camp at site A, the approximately 2,000 acres and 11 miles of trails awaited.
There are four distinct trails and each offers differing levels of hiking. The short-but-sweet Maple Trail is foliage-heavy but allows for a good break from the steep climbs and ever-present heat. The East Trail has a couple of observation areas ideal for looking out over the park while featuring perhaps the park’s most grueling climb. The East Trail is a good reminder that these trails are quite rocky and rarely the kind of smooth and flat hiking routes near town you might find at, say, Brazos Bend State Park.
The West Trail was our favorite and is especially beautiful. The Sabine River, which meanders through the entire park, crisscrosses this trail throughout. With the river beds mostly dried out due to the recent Texas drought, you feel like you’re marching downstream on nature’s abandoned property. There’s also a slew of forested areas, balancing steep climbs with breezy jaunts. The West Loop Trail was slightly disappointing for scenery, but it did offer a strenuous hike and the park’s highest elevation, making it better for exercise junkies.
There’s not just hiking, either. Lost Maples has a picnicking area for day visitors, several creeks for fishing, wildlife observation areas, and even some off-trail climbing opportunities. Wildlife was relatively sparse while we were there, but that could be due to the river’s low water levels. Birds of all kinds are in abundance, especially so for cardinals. Their beaming red feathers were everywhere. If watching vultures swoop high over the hills at sundown is your thing, Lost Maples is also a prime spot for that.
There are even a few hidden treasures. In the middle of the West Trail is the hidden Mystic Canyon, which is best seen from southwest corner of the park, where the trail juts north. There’s a spot along Can Creek, shared by the East and West trails, where you can sit atop a concrete irrigation wall, as a pipe funnels precious water toward the ponds. This is where you'll find the most popular campsite, a spot at which fishermen routinely set up camp. There’s even Monkey Rock, which was a stone's throw from our camping location. It’s aptly named, as you can see from the picture, and usually has a river flowing beneath it. Climbing it is possible but not recommended.
If you enjoy the outdoors, you certainly won’t be bored at Lost Maples. Between foliage, elevation, hiking and fishing, there’s a wide variety of active options. Even if you’re just looking to get some stargazing in or love the idea of camping in Hill Country, this place checks those boxes. Or maybe like me, you just want to see some rolling hills that aren’t full of traffic.