Summer Fun: As weather warms, lots of interesting activities available in East Texas


Warm weather and blue, sunny skies – summer has arrived.

It’s time to take a dip in a swimming hole, go camping with family, pick your own berries, indulge in a snow cone, learn about animals or visit a water park. It’s time to have fun with friends and family while reconnecting with nature.

East Texas is filled with many activities that are aimed at getting people outdoors. Aside from being a great way to create memories with friends and family, getting outdoors also has health benefits. Research has shown that spending time outdoors reduces stress, increases attentiveness, enhances learning and creativity, improves sleep and helps build life skills.

With that in mind, it’s time to break out the shorts and flip flips and take to the great outdoors.

Reconnect with nature

East Texas is filled with lakes and state parks that provide ample opportunity for getting outdoors.

Many of the area’s lakes and state parks offer walking trails, swimming destinations and campsites, but this summer, some also are offering numerous events to help bring people outside.

At Caddo Lake State Park, Park Interpreter Kelsey Johnson has a slew of activities planned that will allow people to do everything from painting to participating in a Sasquatch survival hike.

“These are just really fun ways to get out and explore Caddo in a different way,” Johnson said. “A lot of people come here to go boating or fishing, but don’t realize that we offer a lot more than that.”

With its cypress trees with sprawling Spanish moss, the 26,810-acre Caddo Lake offers opportunities for fishing, paddling, boating, hiking, picnicking and camping that many are familiar with.

The lake harbors more than 70 species of fish, and has a fishing pier and boat ramp for people to use. For those who want to get out on the lake, there are canoes available at the park to rent. For people who prefer to stay on land, there are several trails to explore.

But for those who want to do something beyond that, there are several upcoming activities. May activities kick off at 10 a.m. May 7 with watercolor painting outdoors. Other upcoming activities include the “Incredible Edible Hike,” nature journaling, birding, an owl prowl, a photography composition class, and the Sasquatch survival hike.

Johnson came on board at Caddo Lake State Park about six months ago and said she tries to offer activities at least three times each week, including at least one nighttime activity per week.

Since the activities have started, she said one of the most popular has been the “Incredible Edible Hike.”

“It’s a little over a half-mile hike. On the hike, we stop and look at different plants and how we can use them either in cooking or medicinally,” Johnson said. “A lot of them are plants that people will find in their backyards, but that they probably don’t know they can eat. Some look like weeds, but people can actually eat them instead of using a weed killer to try to get rid of them.”

Because more than 800 people expressed interest in the May 13 “Incredible Edible Hike,” the park will be offering it three times that day.

Night programs, Johnson added, also are very popular and May will see the park offer an activity that it only features twice a year: the Owl Prowl. At the May 26 event, there is a brief presentation about owls and then participants go outside and try to call owls that live at the lake’s boat ramp area.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the Sasquatch Survival Hike plays on folklore that Sasquatch lives at Caddo Lake. The activity, set for 3 p.m. May 27, will take participants on a one-mile hike in which they will learn how to find food, water and shelter in the wild.

Johnson’s hope is that by coming out to try a new activity, “people may find a new hobby they love or a new outdoor activity that they enjoy doing as a family.”

For those who want to make a weekend trip, Caddo Lake has 46 campsites to choose from as well as historic cabins that are available to rent.

Nearby Daingerfield State Park has a swimming area that is ideal for cooling off in the summer heat. The park also offers picnicking, camping, boating, fishing and hiking.

Additionally, the park has recently started offering dances every Friday night. In doing so, park officials said they are hoping to evoke an era reminiscent of the park’s past.

Daingerfield State Park opened to the public in 1938. Spanning through the early 1970s, community dances were a mainstay at the park.

Today, the dances are held weekly on Saturday nights at the park’s pavilion. The dances begin at 6 p.m. with a children’s sock hop, then a traditional dance begins at 7:30 p.m.

Other area lakes that offer opportunities for fishing, swimming and boating include Lake O’ the Pines, Lake Gladewater, Lake Gilmer and Martin Creek Lake.

Swimming and water parks

Nestled in the Piney Woods, there’s a place where you can go to take a dip in a cold, clear, spring-fed pond.

Camp Tonkawa Springs in Garrison offers historic charm with its beautiful pond that has been attracting visitors for more than 100 years.

Before it became an RV Park in 2001, the land had a varied history. According to history of Camp Tonkawa posted to its website, in the early 1900s it was called Acre Mill Pond. It was a grist mill and the spring powered the wheel.

In the 1930s, Boy Scouts leased the land from its owner and developed the natural rock walls around the spring. When the Boy Scouts left during the 1960s, the Texas State Fox and Wolf Hunters leased the property for their hunts. Then in the 1980s, Ozarka Water Co. leased the water rights on the property but moved out after a few years.

For several years the land sat vacant, but people kept finding the pond and trespassing to take a dip in the cold, clear water. On June 1, 2001, Camp Tonkawa reopened as an RV park and campground where people can visit and stay for a few days.

In addition to swimming in ice cold water, visitors also have the opportunity to picnic, play horseshoes and volleyball. The grounds also feature a covered pavilion.

If you want a little more water excitement, Splash Kingdom Waterpark in Canton and Shreveport may be for you. At each of its locations, Splash Kingdom features a variety of water activities. It has a wave pool, a lazy river, many tube slide rides and more.

But, as we all know, summer in Texas is hot and humid. So swimming outdoors may not be your thing. But you can still swim indoors at least at one East Texas location.

Waterpark at the Villages is an indoor water park in Flint that features a lazy river, wave pool, water slides and more. The indoor water park is located at a Holiday Inn Resort so visitors have the opportunity to stay overnight to enjoy more family fun. With 25,000-square-feet of space, the climate controlled water park bills itself as one of the largest in Texas.

Animal adventures

Nestled away in the tall pines of East Texas is a place where big cats are free to roam and roar as they please.

Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge in Tyler has provided a home to abused, neglected or displaced big cats since 1997. Open to the public Sunday through Saturday, the refuge is dedicated not only to providing a permanent home for the animals, but also on educating the public.

The refuge is home to a couple dozen big cats, who each have a personality and background of their own. Children and families who visit have the opportunity to learn more about them.

Also in Tyler, the Caldwell Zoo provides an opportunity for children to see a variety of animals. The zoo is home to tigers, cheetahs, elephants, zebras, flamingos, penguins and more.

The zoo also provides educational opportunities and has a petting zoo where children can interact with animals.

In Jacksonville, Cherokee Trace Drive-thru Safari is a wildlife park that is home to more than two dozen exotic and endangered species. Visitors can go at their own pace on their visit to this 300-acre preserve.

From the comfort of your own vehicle, you can observe, feed and photograph the animals that roam on the land.

Treat yourself

While out and about in the summer heat, you’re certain to need a way to cool off a bit. Why not indulge with homemade ice cream or a snow cone?

From Brian & Scott’s to Quenchies to The Tahiti Blue Sno-Ball Factory, snow cone stands in Longview offer a perfect way to cool down with a variety of syrups to create different flavors.

At Shivers Natural Snow, owners Chad and Rachael Reeves serve up snow cones of a different sort. The couple joined the food truck trend in 2015 when they opened Shivers. They opened in April for their 2017 season at their regular site adjacent to Bar K Ranch Store on U.S. 259.

Shivers features shaved ice that is served with all natural ingredients. Its syrups are made from scratch using real fruit; there are no dyes.

At Efurd Orchards in Pittsburg, ice cream is made much the same way – all natural.

Amy Efurd, whose family owns the orchards, said her family has been serving ice cream made from fruits in its orchard for about 15 years.

“We started with peaches and strawberries just to see how it would go,” she said.

Now they have ice cream of all different flavors, including blueberry, banana and blackberry when the fruits and berries are in season. Peach and strawberry continue to be popular flavors, and children prefer chocolate and vanilla, she said. They also offer watermelon and cantaloupe flavors as the produce allows.

In the fall, a new set of ice cream flavors will be available. During that season, Efurd said, the orchard features sweet potato and apple that are each popular sellers.

Pick your own berries

Speaking of fruits and veggies, there are many places in East Texas that allow people to connect with the past and get outdoors with Pick Your Own farms.

Efurd Orchards has an area for the public to pick their own berries when each type is in season. Strawberries will be in season until mid-May. When strawberry season ends, peach season begins. Efurd said her family doesn’t allow people to pick their own peaches, but they are available to sell then. Blackberries are ready in mid-June, she said.

“People come and pick them with buckets and then we weigh them and charge them by the pound,” she said.

Always looking to increase its offerings, Efurd Orchards is currently growing blueberries that people will be able to pick in coming years.

On any given weekend, it’s common to see hundreds of people at the orchard participating in the Pick Your Own area, Efurd said.

“People come out mostly for the experience. Kids today don’t know how things used to be done; they don’t know where produce comes from aside from the grocery store,” she said. “A lot of parents want their children to get that experience.”

Sid Greer, who owns The Greer Farm in Daingerfield, agrees that Pick Your Own locations allow families to reconnect with the past.

People have been able to pick their own berries at The Greer Farm since 2005. Greer said about 10 acres of land at the farm is dedicated to berries, and the farm features five varieties of blueberries and four varieties of blackberries. Blackberries are in season until around July 4 and blueberries are in season until late July.

Hundreds of people come out each week to pick their own berries, and Greer said some are intense pickers.

“We have some people who have picked for years, who will come out and pick anywhere from 200 to 800 pounds of berries. They’ll freeze them for the winter,” he said. “People come out from, say Dallas, rent a cabin and spend all weekend picking.”

The farm also sees more casual pickers who simply want to gather enough berries to bake a pie.

Between the casual pickers and the professional pickers, Greer said something he’s noticed is that the people who visit his farm are multi-generational.

“I think this is a great bonding experience for families,” he said. “We have grandparents who come, parents who bring their kids. It’s a really good way to bond.”