I feel like I’m wading through an ocean of reddish gold here at LBJ National Grasslands.
All around me, thigh-high stalks of little bluestem glint in the rays of the rising sun. As I part the sea of vegetation, grasshoppers spring out of my path.
This is what I imagined when I signed up for a weekend trip to this 20,300-acre swath of public land an hour’s drive northwest of Fort Worth, near Decatur. But what I didn’t expect was the diversity.
Besides meadows of grass, the LBJ National Grasslands includes sections bristling with swaying pine trees, and other areas featuring rolling hills, ponds and tall sycamores. As an avid camper, I’m not sure how this place flew under my radar for so long.
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I discovered it in October, when I signed up for a group trail riding event put on by the Texas Trail Challenge Club. Equestrians flock here to ride nearly 75 miles of multi-use trails. It’s also popular for hunting, birdwatching, hiking and mountain biking. (Please pull off the trail to allow equestrians to pass. You don’t want to spook a horse.) And bird dog clubs have developed a special training area, where they periodically hold trials and training sessions.
I explored about 8 miles of trail aboard Kobe, a sweet horse loaned to me by a member of the riding club. We moseyed along sandy paths that dipped in and out of thick brush, hugged the edge of some small ponds, and wound beneath breeze-ruffled trees.
History of LBJ National Grasslands
Native Americans –– first the Caddos, then the Apache and Comanche –– once hunted herds of bison, antelope, deer and elk here. European settlers moved in during the 1800s, followed by farmers in the early 1900s. The advent of barbed wire put an end to the cattle drives that rolled through the area.
Then, in the 1940s, the U.S. Congress established the Land Utilization Program to purchase sub-standard farmland from private owners and return it to public land status. The USDA Forest Service began managing that land in the 1950s. Once called Cross Timbers National Grasslands, this section was renamed after former President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1974.
Today, it’s a rare plot of public land within an hour’s drive of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex with enough trails to allow equestrians to get lost for a few hours.
Camping at LBJ National Grasslands
The Valley View Group Use Campground, where I stayed, has vault toilets, picnic tables and a group pavilion. Groups can reserve the space for weekend events, but individuals can camp here too. The sites are easy to pull in, even if you’re hauling a large horse trailer.
There’s also a campground with pull-through RV spots and parking spurs and vault toilets at TADRA Point, the primary access for the trail system. At Black Creek Lake you’ll find 11 more tent sites, plus picnic tables, fire pits, vault toilets and a boat launch. Other areas are available for dispersed camping. Camping is first-come, first-served, and no water or electric service is available.
The Grasslands includes other small lakes, too, including Cottonwood Lake, which is a good spot to drop a line for crappie, bass and catfish, take a dip or paddle a kayak. A license is required to hunt or fish; visitors must pack out everything they bring in.
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“Equestrian is our niche here,” says Marc Pons, natural resources specialist for the Forest Service, which oversees all national grasslands. “We don’t really see a lot of mountain bikes because there are some sandy sections. We’ve got lakes for fishing and camping, all those outdoor activities that people want to get away from a city to do.”
The land is best visited in spring or fall, not during the broiling heat of summer.
I felt like I’d stepped back a century or two in time during my visit. Clopping along the narrow trails aboard Kobe, I tried to imagine life as a cowgirl 150 years ago. It sounds romantic, but I know it was rough, too.
After six hours of riding, I was grateful that I got to plop down on a cushy fold-out bed inside my friend’s combination horse trailer and living quarters.
If You Go
LBJ National Grasslands is located at 1400 North US 81/287, just north of Decatur near Alvord. For more information, call 940-627-5475 or go here.
Camping is $10 per vehicle per night, first-come, first-served. Self-pay on site. Day use fee at Black Creek Lake is $2.
Ride horses, hike, hunt, fish, bird watch, camp, picnic or ride bikes. Pull off the trail If you encounter horses.
Eat & Drink:
Bring your own food, or zip over to the Grilled Biscuit Café, 8879 N. U.S. Highway 287 in nearby Alvord, for some old-fashioned home cooking.
Bring plenty of water for drinking and cleaning. There are no hookups or electricity at the campgrounds. Bug spray helps prevent chigger bites.