Lost in the beauty of Lost Maples

Bigtooth maple in Lost Maples State Natural Area

Leaf peeping can be a disappointing pursuit here in central Texas. Absent the flaming oranges, yellows, and reds of eastern hardwood forests, our trees either stay green all winter (live oaks and junipers) or their leaves color faintly before fading quickly to brown.

Some years, however, an Austin leaf-peeper’s dream can come true in Lost Maples State Natural Area, about 3 hours southwest of Austin.

Growing amid limestone canyons carved by the crystal-clear Sabinal River, bigtooth maples (Acer grandidentatum ) flourish in the protected microclimate of Lost Maples.

Bigtooth maple is the only maple recommended for central Texas because it grows well in alkaline soil, but even so, it isn’t common in Austin, requiring some protection from drought and heat to succeed. Here in Lost Maples’ cool, wet canyons, it thrives, creating a “lost” pocket of fall color that entices thousands of visitors in late October and early November.

For years I’d wanted to see Lost Maples, but fall ushers in a busy schedule, so we kept putting it off. This year we made it happen, leaving after a Saturday morning soccer game and arriving in time for an afternoon hike. We stayed overnight in Kerrville (about 45 minutes from Lost Maples) and returned to the park on Sunday morning for a long hike and picnic lunch. Afterward we drove home in time to get ready for the Monday schoolday. It was worth every minute of the longish drive and the trouble to fit the trip into the schedule.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia )

Although we were warned via the foliage report on the park’s website that only a few trees had started to turn, we were not disappointed. Along the canyon floor, the maples were clad in yellow and green, oaks were turning reddish bronze, and the undergrowth (Virginia creeper, maidenhair fern) offered up plenty of fall color too.

Even the tawny grasses glowed with autumnal beauty.

Up on the ridgeline overlooking the canyons, the maples retreated, and we walked through a savannah of junipers, grasses, and agarita. It was much warmer up here.

Below, in the canyons, we saw how the river had cut away at the limestone walls over the millennia.

In the shade, Eupatorium havanense (shrubby white boneset, or white mistflower) bloomed, reminding me of my own garden.

I was surprised to see that the bigtooth maple has small leaves. But of course the tree’s name refers not to the size of the leaves or the tree itself, which is relatively small, but to the size of the leaf’s “teeth.”

Another look

Even the lichen seemed to be sporting fall color.

We came across this tarantula on our first hike, as it crossed the trail in the fading, early-evening light. As soon as it sensed us, it stopped dead and refused to budge even as we crouched close for a better look. After a few minutes, we retreated and watched it pick up those long, hairy legs and start moving again, into the safety of tall grasses. This is one reason I’m not interested in camping anymore. However, the tarantula is a beautiful creature in its own way and, so I hear, non-aggressive. We wouldn’t have dreamed of harming it.

This scene seemed a composition of color blocks.

Some parts of Lost Maples look much like Austin’s greenbelt savannahs, especially those in St. Edwards Park.

But the bigtooth maples remind you that this is a unique place, with golden treasure.

13 Responses

  1. Wow! That’s a lot more color than when we were there a couple of weeks ago, even if it is still mostly yellows. How lovely! I was completely amazed at how clear the water in the creeks was. Which trail were you on? I wish we’d seen a tarantula! Wouldn’t that have impressed my visitor from England.

    On Saturday afternoon we followed the East Trail along the Sabinal River as far as the “A” primitive campground and then doubled back. Sunday morning we started on the other side of the East Trail, heading for the Ponds, and then decided to do the whole 4.6-mile loop. I wish you’d seen a tarantula too. Its size certainly impressed me. —Pam

  2. Kathy says:

    That sure was a lot of driving to see fall color. I understand better why you were so impressed with my porch view. The leaves are almost all down now, and for a moment or two there was some snow mixed with the wind blown rain.

    Driving distances of 3 hours or less seem quite manageable when you live in a state as big as Texas. You get used to driving, and the Hill Country scenery is always so pretty that the drive becomes part of any trip’s appeal. —Pam

  3. Priscilla says:

    Beautiful. It’s a shame we don’t get much color down here in southern texas. I come from new england so am used to all the beautiful fall colors. That looks like a wonderful area though to get some leaf peeping in. I like the carved rocks too.

    A move from New England to San Antonio must have created a little dissonance for you regarding seasonal expectations. San Antonio has such pretty gardens all year round though. Aren’t you glad for the trade-off? —Pam

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Thanks for taking us along on your trip. Love those big spiders. They don’t look real to me. I have only seen one in the wild before. The lichen is great too. It is amazing how many different hues lichen can be.

    This tarantula is the third I’ve seen in the wild, but they still fascinate me. Thanks for stopping by, Lisa. —Pam

  5. Carol says:

    I’m impressed by your efforts to find some fall leaf color. We have some stunning fall color here, and quite often take it all for granted. Beautiful pictures, as always.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

    Thanks, Carol. It’s easy to take for granted what is so familiar. Yet another nice thing about garden blogs, right? They remind us how different places can be, which makes us look anew at our own place. —Pam

  6. chuck b. says:

    Beautiful, interesting terrain that feels unique and special. Texas is such a big state, yet its geography doesn’t have the kind of familiar iconography that springs immediately to my mind like when I think of, say, New Mexico or Louisiana, states that border Texas. Thanks for helping to fill in the gaps. (I wouldn’t have guessed Texas even had maples.)

    You’re welcome, Chuck. I think that a lot of people visualize the open, arid, dramatic West Texas landscape when they think of my state. Anyway, I was happy to discover this little slice of central Texas myself. I’m glad that you enjoyed seeing it too. —Pam

  7. Layanee says:

    Pam: What a great eye you have for composition of color and form! Thanks for taking us on this walk!

    Thanks, Layanee! I’m glad you came along. —Pam

  8. Dee says:

    Pam, you really do take wonderful pictures. What type of camera do you use? I have a small Sony that I am using, but I’m thinking about buying a new camera for Christmas. Thank you for taking us on your trip. Makes me want to go there. We have a week at Thanksgiving this year. Do you think any foliage will remain?

    Thank you, Dee. Since late summer I’ve been using my new Canon Powershot S3 IS. Before then, I used a Canon Powershot A80 until it died on me. I’ve been happy with the Canons.

    I think Lost Maples would be beautiful at any time of year, but I doubt there’ll be much color left by Thanksgiving. However, you can check out their foliage report online, as well as look at last year’s color reports, to see whether it might last longer. —Pam

  9. Lee says:

    Lovely Pam! I haven’t been to Lost Maples in about a decade, but enjoyed some backcountry camping there at the time. It was March, and I’ve always hoped to get there for the color change. Your photo of the fence post with grass and junipers in the back is a keeper – nice composition.

    There were quite a few backcountry campers there this time of year, as you might imagine. Seemed like a nice place for it (except for the tarantulas). —Pam

  10. All I’ve seen of Lost Maples has been on Austin garden blogs – and the Bigtooth name had me confused, too. Japanese maples turn up occasionally on garden walks, but until a couple of weeks ago maples seemed unlikely to be found as “yard trees”. Philo and I were on our bikes, and I got the notion to loop through every cul-de-sac and no-outlet street we passed. It was less valuable for exercise, but we saw much more adventurous planting in some areas, including one small street with a scattering of large maples. If I can find it again a leaf will somehow fall into my pocket so I can see if they were bigtooth maples, an identity I had dismissed since the leaves were normal size.

    Thank you for the tour, Pam!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to be misled by the name, Annie. If they do turn out to be bigtooth maples, maybe you’ll post a photo of them so we can see whether they have nice fall color. —Pam

  11. David says:

    Enjoyed this, Pam. We’re going to Lost Maples this weekend (Nov 11). How were the crowds? From what I’ve read, I figured we needed to get there in the early morning to get a parking spot in the park. It sounds as though you may not have had too much trouble.

    Looks like another lovely weekend, and maybe you’ll catch the peak color. I was worried about the crowds, especially as we didn’t roll into Kerrville until around 2 pm on Saturday, where we checked into the hotel and ate lunch before making the drive to the park. By the time we got there, around 3:30, the crowd had thinned, so the rangers told us. The parking lot was crowded but not full, which was our biggest worry. And while the early part of the East Trail was overrun with hikers, the back section was less busy. However, Sunday morning was better for fewer crowds. Many of the backpackers were heading toward the parking lot as we came in, leaving fewer hikers on the trails. It was still busy, but we had a good time anyway. Enjoy your trip! —Pam

  12. Bonnie says:

    Thanks for the tour. We’ve been looking at Maples lately as we look to add some color to our trees. I’ve looked at the Silver and Shantung. We have a Red Maple on our property that is healthy. But the color in your pictures is stunning!

    Thanks, Bonnie. Cedar elm is also a good one for golden-yellow fall color in Austin. And flameleaf sumac. —Pam

  13. Pam says:

    What a fun surprise – a few years back, I camped for several days there, and thought it was just beautiful. What a place to find in the middle of Texas! Your images are great – I was there in the early summer, so it’s fun to see the colors of fall. What a wonderful tour.

    Thanks, Pam! —Pam