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100 Miles or Less: Onalaska

A picturesque peninsula on Lake Livingston offers a swift, simple retreat.

By Katharine Shilcutt January 5, 2016

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Destination: Onalaska
Distance: 88 miles
Driving time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

The first thing you need to know about Texas is that, despite its vast size and diverse array of landscapes, the state holds very few natural lakes. Caddo, in East Texas, is technically one, though it's now more of a reservoir than a lake thanks to a dam that was added in 1900. Green Lake, too, on the South Texas coast, is a true-blue lake (despite its thoroughly green hue, for which it's named). Lake Livingston, however, is an artificial lake, created by damming a portion of the Trinity River in the 1960s. And without that dam, the tiny town of Onalaska would probably no longer exist.

Though it was once a bustling town of 2,000 people, in proud possession of the largest sawmill in Texas, Onalaska fell on hard times once the mill was dismantled in 1924. Soon, its agricultural community decamped to other nearby towns with better trade opportunities. A century after its founding in 1840, the population had shrunk to only 80 people. Without intervention, it seemed as though Onalaska could disappear forever.

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The KOA campgrounds on Lake Livingston offer everything from swimming and fishing to fire-pits and horseshoes.

Onalaska's salvation came as a sort of baptism—specifically, the creation of Lake Livingston in 1968, the waters of which washed up on its newly-minted shores, bringing ample recreational opportunities with it. By the 1980s, the town was on the rebound, its population mostly recovered and its tourism industry booming.

A respite from the relatively busier and larger town of Livingston on the west side of the lake, Onalaska is located on a quiet, picturesque peninsula to the north. Though you can reach Onalaska on the Highway 190 causeway that extends north from Livingston via Highway 59, the more scenic route brings you there via I-45: Simply take the 190 spur through the dense pine thicket of the Sam Houston National Forest until you hit Lake Livingston. A short trip across the placid waters of the reservoir and you're there.

Onalaska's main tourist attractions are simple and straightforward: fishing, camping, golfing, birding, swimming, eating, and taking in the sunsets. Though the water is too cool to swim in this time of year, the fishing is excellent. The reservoir's clear waters are well-stocked with black and white and striped bass, blue and yellow catfish, crappie and sunfish. Five boat ramps dot the town, including the easily accessible Lake Livingston KOA, over which a bald eagle affectionately named "Eddie" is known to soar on clear days.

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Everything at the Farmhouse is made from scratch, even the views.

Though other accommodations can be found in the area, the KOA campgrounds offer three unique cabins, each with private bathrooms, cable TV, kitchens and stunning views of the lake. The largest sleeps eight people inside its cozy, log cabin-style walls. Just a few steps away is the Farmhouse on the Lake, easily the best restaurant in the area—though nearby Pontoons and its lakefront deck are starting to give the Farmhouse a run for its money, especially with live acts such as Doug Supernaw taking the small stage at night.

At the Farmhouse, you'll find fresh-baked pies, daily blue plate specials (we recommend the chicken fried steak or chicken, both hand-breaded) and an unusual cornbread variant loaded with broccoli and cheese, over which regulars will riot if the Farmhouse happens to run out at night. And you do want to go in the evening—specifically before the sun goes down—for a pastel-painted view of the lake, palm trees and pine trees blending together in the dusk, that puts our vibrant Houston sunsets to shame.

And if you choose not to tuck yourself into one of those KOA cabins after a full meal and fiery sunset at the Farmhouse, don't fret: Houston is only 88 miles away.

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