This post is the next in our series, Hidden Gems, where we visit places hidden in plain view, in and around Dallas, that we have explored this summer and in the past. You can access that series of posts here.
I have said it a lot while writing this series, and I will repeat it. How did I not know that such a wonderful place existed so close, and I had no clue about it??!! Here I was, traveling the world, seeking biodiversity, all the while ignoring what lay in my backyard! Terrible!!
Of all the places we have visited this summer/ fall, Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge takes the cake. A mere 45-minute drive from home, with little to no traffic both ways, very few people at the refuge, and with no entrance fee! Mr. JJ and I made a trip yesterday afternoon, a couple of hours before the refuge closed at sunset. The weather was perfect, enough golden sun for enjoying the area, a light breeze, and sufficient crispness in the air for a couple of brisk walks.
Hagerman Refuge is located in Sherman, TX, and is open all days of the year from sunrise to sunset. The Visitor Center is located on-site and has a different operating schedule, but is temporarily closed. The best way to get a feel for the refuge is to take the audio tour that starts right across from the visitor center. You can either download the audio file to your phone before you go or borrow audio device from the visitor center, when it opens again for service. The audio tour gives a brief rundown about the origins of the refuge, lay-out of the area, what to see, what to do, etc.
Once we reached the refuge, we stopped at the kiosk to pick up a map and admire the view. The visitor center was closed, but we used the port-a-potty before beginning the audio tour. We also stopped at the butterfly garden across from the center. It was buzzing with beautiful butterflies and bees that flew from flower to flower. This garden was very colorful and had a sense of tranquility associated with it.
once on the audio tour, we learned that a town by the name of Hagerman once existed very close to the refuge center. It is now submerged under the waters of Lake Texoma. In the late 1800s, the town started under the name of Steedman, and when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad came to this area in 1909, the town was renamed Hagerman, in honor of railroad attorney James P. Hagerman. By then, it was a flourishing town. By the 1930s, significant plans were afoot to acquire land to create Lake Texoma to manage the Red River’s flood risks. During what was the largest land clearing project in the country, the people of Hagerman realized their town would be inundated and therefore began to evacuate the town. Although Hagerman was submerged, the US Department of Interior preserved the nearby areas as a potential home for migrating birds and local wildlife under a public land order passed in 1946. It was converted into a national wildlife refuge, now under the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s auspices.
What we loved about the refuge was the vast openness. That’s one of the many qualities that first attracted us to Texas, all those years ago. Then there was the mix of wetlands, the open waters of the Big Mineral arm of Lake Texoma, prairie, forests, and the croplands that make it a perfect habitat for wildlife and birds. What was incongruent and more than a little puzzling were the oil wells we saw on the refuge lands. The oil and gas road divides the Muleshoe marsh from the Steedman marsh. The terms under which the government acquired the land for construction of Lake Texoma allowed the original owners to retain subsurface mineral and oil rights. Which now gives their families the right to subsurface extractions. The refuge as well as the oil and gas extractors have the right balance whereby each can achieve their goals while still supporting the other’s efforts.
The marshlands and the lake provide wintering grounds for birds migrating south from Canada like Canadian geese and northern gannets. The refuge grows winter wheat in the vast fields adjacent to the lake, which provides food for the thousands of geese and other birds. Other areas away from the lake grow wildlife/clover blend that allows white-tailed deer and turkeys to forage for food. Lake Texoma is home to a wide variety of fish like catfish, black bass, and the striped bass for which it is famous. Fishing is a big part of the activity at the refuge.
The refuge also works hard to remove non-native species that harm the ecosystem, whether feral hogs or invading plants like honey locust and Johnsongrass. But the refuge is also trying to restore the native prairie ecosystem to the area. It’s alarming to hear that less than one percent of the original 20 million acres of prairie land exists today.
There are five different trails spread out across the refuge, Meadow Pond Trail (the longest at 2.85 miles one way), Harris Creek Trail, Crow Hill Trail, Raasch Trail, and Haller’s Haven Trail. There are three different day-use areas scattered across the refuge: Big Mineral, Sandy, and Goode. Other than wildlife watching and hiking, fishing, hunting (refuge permit required), photography, birding, and boating (March 15 to Sept 30) are other available activities. A variety of educational programs are also available.
Back to our trip, we took the audio tour from start to finish. This trip, we carried a pair of binoculars, and that made all the difference. As we got closer to the wetlands, we could smell the wildflowers in the area. But more importantly, we saw several wading birds, egrets and herons, sitting on the banks or stalking spray or gracefully taking off in flight. We were like two kids in a candy store, so totally surprised and thoroughly delighted by our surroundings! There was hardly any traffic on the roads, so we took our time, to watch the birds from close quarters or use the binoculars to follow their paths. They swooped and dove and caught prey and called to each other. Grey, snowy white, black, there were birds of various colors, sizes and physical features. We watched as a large eagle took to the skies and rose higher and higher. We saw birds fly across the top of our car as we drove slowly along the area. The golden sun, the birds and the waterfowl seeking food, several birds sweeping across the skies en masse, the cattails along the banks swaying gently, everything worked together to create such an idyllic tapestry to stoke our senses.
We stopped by the Crow Hill and realized the trail was only about half to a three-quarter mile in length. So we parked our car and walked the loop. The path was completely forested, we were the only two people on it and we felt millions of miles away from any civilization. We could hear birds flying high above and twittering and chatting. It was hard to see through the canopy. This trail was another of the highlights for us. As we walked back to the car, we met a father and son walking their dogs. They lived close by and asked us to keep an eye open for deer, turkey, and other small animals.
Our next stop was the Big Mineral Day Use area. Close by was the Meadow Pond trail. The refuge closes at sunset, and we had about half an hour of daylight left. So we walked the half-mile along the track until we reached Deaver Pond. A bench at the edge of the pond allowed us to take in the surroundings silently. The only sounds we heard were our breathing, the crickets at times, and an occasional rustling of the leaves. I have never been in such a quiet area before. Or perhaps never sat still outside anywhere to enjoy the powerful silence of nature. The rustic beauty of the place, the earthy smells of the woods, the slight coolness on the skin, the cleansing breath of air we took in, the silence around us: we truly immersed ourselves in forest-bathing.
As we slowly walked back to our car and left the Hagerman wildlife refuge, we regretted not visiting this area while the children were young. What beautiful adventures they would have had here! What a hands-on way it would have been to create a lifelong love for nature, an appreciation for how nature works, and why we should strive to preserve and protect it. As we left the refuge, a large deer dashed across the road in front of us, quickly disappearing into the brush on the other side. The wonders of the refuge lifted our spirits. We will be back this winter to watch the migratory birds, to hike all the trails. And we will bring our younglings along for some nature lessons! Better late than never!
Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge is located at 6465 Refuge Road, Sherman, Texas 75092. Phone: (903) 786-2826. The refuge is open daily from sunrise to sunset. There are no entrance fees to access Hagerman wildlife refuge. We didn’t need to wear a mask since we were in the car a lot. And on the trails, we hardly came across anyone. Sturdy shoes, bottled water, sunscreen, insect repellant are all good ideas. A good pair of binoculars and an excellent camera are essential.