TRAVEL Springtime in Utopia

Utopia, Texas, (pop. 360) is an early to rise, early to bed kind of place. Boyce and Davenport’s, the only grocery and dry goods store, opens for business at 4:30 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m., supper time. The Lost Maples Cafe locks its doors at 8 p.m. and the new Canyon Restaurant, across the street from the post office, stays open until 10.

That’s about all the city life there is for travelers to Utopia. But that should be just about enough, because this country was made for hiking, bird watching and floating down the river.

Utopia’s river-the clear, languid Sabinal-rises from springs that have percolated through the limestone of the Edwards Plateau before emerging along the steep canyon walls of Lost Maples State Natural Area. With contributions from Hale Hollow, Lane and Can creeks, the Sabinal curves and flows like ribbon candy along Highway 187 until it finds its way to Utopia. It then meanders south for 50 miles to where the Frio picks it up and sweeps it away to Choke Canyon Lake. Unpolluted by industry or recreational overkill, the Sabinal appears, runs crystalline for a total of 58 miles, then vanishes.

Some would say that the best time to visit this rather remote area of the Hill Country is in late October, when the big-tooth Maples of Lost Maples park burst into fall flams, drawing wistful Texans like moths to this rare display of color. But for me, the time for Utopia is spring and summer, when the air above the bald cypress heats up and the river holds steady at a cool 70 degrees.

This time of year Utopia lures folks like me in search of slothful solitude. I’m probably a poor witness for tie natural wonders that birders and hikers vigorously seek. Given a hot day and a cool river, my most strenuous activity is to lie open-armed in my inner tube, face to the sky, drifting.

This vantage point has much to recommend it. Above me I can see through the branches of 100-year-old cypress up to where the hawks and buzzards ride the thermal drafts. Unlike other birds that quietly nest in these parts, my large raptors and scavengers unabashedly play for an appreciative audience.

Here in the river I can meditate on the Apaches and Comanches who enjoyed this coolness well before Captain William Ware, one of Sam Houston’s fighting men at San Jacinto, settled here and named the spot Wares-ville, which was of course before a schoolteacher named George Baker changed the name of the settlement to Utopia.

I share the river with small sunfish, bass, catfish and perch. I feel safe in a medium so clear I can always see the bottom and any other creatures who might be swimming my way. Few places in the river are more than chest-high on an adult, and water moccasins prefer warmer waters to cruise in. If afternoons were endless, I could float on this river forever. But that would be heaven, not merely Utopia.

One reason that the area around Utopia remains relatively secluded is that the only way to make a living on this rough land is to have a lot of it for raising sheep and goats. The ranches are big, the people are private, and the only visitors who used to come here were the deer and wild turkey hunters.

In 1986, Polly Smith created a place for river floaters, bird watchers, walkers, hikers and other dreamers looking for a retreat. She took her 640-acre part of the Tampke family ranch and turned it into Utopia on the River, a combination bed and breakfast lodge and camping area.

A room at the lodge comes with a country breakfast, a pool, Jacuzzi and dry sauna. The grounds that slope down to the river are shaded by cypress, the grandest of which is estimated to be 750 years old. Here beside the river, guests are encouraged to grill dinner in the cool of the evening.

The camping area is located away from the lodge on another fine stretch of the river. Families will find this area safe and quiet. Children can fish and swim in the river by day, then watch for the deer and armadillos that appear as the sun goes down, There is a nearby shower house and bathroom, so while some might call all tent camping “primitive,” this isn’t very.

Bird watchers and hikers will certainly find birds and trails aplenty on the grounds of Utopia on the River, but no one should come to this area and not make the trip 17 miles north to Lost Maples State Natural Area. Even unregenerate tube floaters will find the woods lovely, dark and deep in this ecological gem. Since the Pleistocene Ice Age the canyon has served as a natural refuge for the Uvalde bigtooth maples, colorful relics from a cooler time. The many springs are home to the Texas salamander, the barking frog and the Texas cliff frog.

At Lost Maples park, the month of May is one of the two prime nesting times for three birds special to Texas. One. the Golden-cheeked Warbler, is found no where else. The Black-capped Vireo and Green Kingfisher also inhabit the rivers and canyons of this unusual spot.

There may come a time when Utopia is more accessible. But for now, its seclusion is preserved in part because of its distance from major airports and interstate highways. However, if you have your own aircraft, Utopia on the River has a 3,400-foot airstrip. Tom Porter, manager and resident storyteller for the lodge, remembers the time one group of campers arrived in six separate planes. More commonly, families from Dallas arrive by car, having broken the six-hour drive with a stop in Fredericksburg to see the Nimitz museum or in San Marcos to see Ralph the Diving Pig.

For a quicker getaway, fly to San Antonio and rent a car for the two-hour drive along Highway 16 to Bandera. From Bandera, take 470 for a ride through some of the loveliest hills and valleys in the Hill Country. If you time it right, you can leave work early and be in Utopia pitching a tent along the Sabinal in time to watch the sun go down.

WHAT TO KNOW



Utopia on the River lodge and Comanche Cliff Camping, 210-966-2444, P.O. Box 14, Utopia, Texas, 78884. Lodge rates: $59 for the first person per room; $10 for each additional person; children under 6 years, free. Camping: $4 per person; $15 for an RV hookup. (Important note: No pets are allowed at the lodge or the camping area.)

Lost Maples State Natural Area: 210-966-3413, HCOl, Box 156, Vanderpool, Texas, 78885. Facilities: day use-24 picnic sites, parking spaces and restrooms; camping-30 campsites with electricity, water, shade shelter and a restroom with showers; primitive camping-8 designated primitive camping areas are accessible to hikers. The park has about 10.5 miles of hiking trails, some of which are steep. There is also a sanitary dump station available for campers.

For future reference: the toll-free number for fall color information operates after the first of October: 1-800-792-1112.

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