Photos by Scooter Smith
It’s difficult to fathom how a world-class natural site like the pristine, old growth Lennox Woods Preserve could be here. My husband Scooter and I are north of Clarksville in far northeast Texas. Heading up TX 37 toward the Red River, we pass one well-manicured farm and ranch after another.
Things change as we ease down into the bottomlands created by the broad, braided strands of Pecan Bayou, the largest undammed watershed in northeast Texas. The land becomes forested, though behind the illusory curtain of tall trees along the highway we can see logging.
We spy the county-road turnoff, marked by a faded metal sign for Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church that barely clings to the barbed wire fence. The dirt road proceeds past plots of forestland. Some have been clearcut and grew back in a useless monoculture tangle of opportunistic species like cedar. Other fields are pine plantations in clean regimented rows. Notably seldom are managed forests with large trees continually harvested, but the undergrowth allowed to flourish and sustain wildlife.
Up ahead, just as the road turns toward Pecan Bayou, a dark forest looms, far taller than the rest. Signs and a small parking area confirm we have found Lennox Woods Preserve. After a long drive from Dallas we are ready for a stretch.
Above, Pecan Bayou tributary. Below, super tall pine tree.
Into the Woods
Lennox Woods differs from these other plots in just one significant way: It has never been logged. Held by the Lennox family since 1863, it was preserved for four generations. In the late 1980s, Martha Lennox, along with her brothers, David and Bagby, ensured its future by allowing it to become an official preserve. It is maintained by Nature Conservancy with help from Texas Land Conservancy.
More than 350 acres of the 1,400-acre Lennox Woods Preserve are open to the public. The initial access is by way of the 1.5 mile Martha Lennox Memorial Nature Trail; its signs educate on significant plant species. The broad trail takes an easy meander through bottomlands and gentle ridges laced by rivulets and tributaries leading to Pecan Bayou. It is a lush land shaped by the pervasive presence of water.
Lennox Woods is a cathedral forest with majestic trunks soaring to more than 100 feet up in the sky. Imagine an eight-story building or one-third of a football field. Shortleaf and loblolly pine, white and red oak, shagbark and shellbark hickory, and red maple fill the upland areas. A sub-canopy beneath them boasts healthy populations of sweetgum and eastern hop hornbeam, sometimes known as ironwood, with its unique fluted trunk. One post oak has been verified at more than 300 years old.
The bottomland is dominated by oaks: bur, overcup, water and willow. A vigorous understory boasts small-trunked trees like Mexican plum and mulberry. On this day, dogwoods are in full bloom, creating bright clouds of white blossoms that seem to float in the dim forest light. Beneath the trees is a layer of shrubs. A subtle perfume exudes from inconspicuous blooms amid the graceful tall arcing branches of American beautyberry and the shorter coralberry. Clumps of inland sea oats sway with the gentle spring breeze. With their rough, thin leaves, low clumps of sedges dig in with a gritty grace.
Above, dogwood blooming. Below, Mabel frolicks in mayapples.
Swaths of exotic mayapple decorate the low-laying areas. Under the umbrella spray of leaves are beautiful small white blooms. It is the ground level where the true magic of Lennox Woods dwells. Delicate species that would have been trounced into oblivion by logging equipment or cattle still flourish here. There are fewer than 20 populations worldwide of the threatened Arkansas meadow rue and one of them is here. So is the hooked buttercup and Wildenow's sedge, which are rare in Texas, plus the critically imperiled Southern lady's slipper orchids. Far more prevalent is low-growing poison ivy.
On the Trail
The soft, slow, southern Lennox Woods is not for those who desire a vigorous hike to a vista destination. It is to be experienced. Amble slowly beneath the trees and stop often to absorb it all. Take pictures; take notes. Sit down and spend some time with the landscape at the animals’ level. Do the loop from both directions; it looks different each way. We use the Runmeter app to keep track of our walk. We average a whopping one mile per hour and the resulting trail map is full of crazy backtracks and tangents. If you go as a small group, split up and allow each person some alone time to experience the woods in their own way.
The first section of the trail follows the old Albion Road, a 1800s settlers’ wagon trail finally abandoned in the1930s. Tiny braided streams cross the beginning of the trail. Some have stepping stones, others boast little bridges, but often crossing here requires a muddy jump and hope for the best. Early on, the trail passes through a section of woods that looks logged. But the massive fallen limbs and felled trunks are damage from an ice storm so severe that it closed the trail. Volunteers from Clarksville and Red River Master Naturalists restored the area.
Above, stepping stones. Above right, fungus. Below, charred tree.
Lennox Woods is a multi-layered old-growth forest. We can hear the trilling call of buntings, but it takes binoculars to view them so high above in the upper canopy. Other birds call out from all strata of the trees; the sharp raps of woodpecker go up and down the trunks. Their combined calls cascade like musical waterfalls. The forested tiers beckon the eye upward to an unseen Sun whose rays filter through the tiers. Shadows are soft and everything glows with a golden green.
A towering pine a short distance from the trail is fascinating. Its five stories of trunk are topped by a chunky one-story block of pine branches. We venture in and discover its pointed top story on the ground, turned to charcoal by lightning.
Another tree nearby was not so lucky. Lightning set the whole thing a flame before it fell, now 30 linear yards of charred corpse on the forest floor. This is how the forest regenerates. Fallen trees allow light to shine on the forest floor, inspiring a new generation of trees to sprout and assert themselves.
The trail takes us through a slope covered in mayapples. Nearby are graceful thickets of beautyberry. We marvel at the folded flares at the base of a giant hop hornbeam and its thin scaly bark. Small pink and yellow flowers demand kneeling for a closer look. The trail curves next to a deep and silent moss-flanked tributary of Pecan Bayou. We stand next to the water and imagine the centuries these woods have seen.
Above, new blossoms. Below, hornbeam trunk.
The deeper you go into Lennox Woods, the more primal it feels. Humans and their busyness are not part of this place at all. The silence is awe inspiring. No nearby farms, no chain saws, no airplanes, no four-wheelers. Just the sounds of the forest itself: the wind in the canopy far overhead, the calls of unseen birds, and the occasional woodland creature rustling about. It is the perfect place, as John Burroughs said, to “go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.“
Lennox Woods inspired artist Deborah Paris to create over fifty paintings, drawings, etchings and drypoints of the landscape. Her project, underwritten and sponsored by Galerie Kornye West of Fort Worth, will be shown in multiple venues throughout the year. A documentary by Texas filmmaker Allen Phillips is in the works.
Lennox Woods Preserve
This is undeveloped land. There are no bathroom facilities, water, tables or shelter, but there is cell-phone reception. No camping; day use only. Dirt trails can be wet. Wear water-repellant hiking shoes, bug repellant (mosquitoes and chiggers) and poison-ivy barrier. Bring food and water, a hiking chair or mini-tarp to sit on and camera and notepad or recorder. Due to snakes and poison ivy, closed-toe shoes are essential and long pants are advised.
Getting There: Lennox Woods is located in Red River County north of Clarksville, a 2.5 hour drive from Dallas. Take I-30 east to TX 37 (Mount Vernon exit) and go north. At 10.7 miles north of Clarksville, turn west on FM 2118 and drive 1.6 miles. Look for the Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church and turn left on CR 2227. The gravel road turns to clay and can be impassable when wet. The entrance to the preserve is about a mile from the church, on the left with space for parking three cars.
On the web:
Stay up to date on everything green in North Texas, including the latest news and events! Sign up for the weekly Green Source DFW Newsletter! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Also check out our new podcast The Texas Green Report, available on your favorite podcast app.