Down by the Trinity, Searching for Dallas' Enchanted Forest

Even better than a cheap plan for Trinity River green space? A free one.

It's so strange. This city is a pane of glass in which we see only our own reflections dancing on the surface, but behind and beyond that mirror, a magical realm eludes us.

I think I just stepped through the pane. It's a little after 7 a.m. I just drove a quarter mile on a dusty lane off Harry Hines Boulevard, and now I'm up on the flood-control levee looking down into the Trinity River bottoms. On the way here this morning, my entire thought process was devoted to two things: chiggers and heat.

I assume there are lots of people so new to Dallas, so fresh from the airport that they've never experienced chiggers. Think tiny bugs with itching bites like something you might read about in the Bible.

Heat I don't have to tell you about. Heat is heat. Just walking around downtown at this time of year puts me in mind of another biblical reference—the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the boys committed to the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they would not bow down to his 90-foot-high golden statue. That story might have ended differently had he threatened to send them to Dallas.

But the world I've found on the levee is nothing like what I expected. Go ahead and roll your eyes, tap your temple and wink, do the round and round thing with your finger next to your head, but I'm telling you: I'm looking down on an enchanted forest.

It's right there. Right now. Well, wait three months for the Shadrach part of the year to subside. But when the first whispers of cool air blow back down into Dallas next fall, you should pack your water and your bike or your poles or whatever and come see what I'm talking about. It's enchanting, and it's right in front of our eyes, if we only look past the city's glossy surface.

I recently wrote about an idea that Dallas city council members Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs have to create quick, cheap trails between the flood-control levees along the Trinity. Their idea is that Dallas shouldn't wait for billion-dollar public works programs to make the river accessible. People should just get on their bikes and go. Spending a billion bucks to make a natural area accessible sounds too much like wrecking it, anyway.

Depending on how new you are to Dallas, it's perfectly acceptable if you didn't even know we have a river. They keep it hidden. For years people only talked about the river in whispers behind their hands. It was considered a dirty, threatening place. It runs between high, earthen berms or levees built almost a century ago to protect the city from flooding. Unfortunately, the levees also protect the river from view. When you look down on it from a freeway bridge at sixty miles an hour, the river bottom tends to look like a large area of cracked mud and sticker burs, possibly populated by dingoes and zombies.

I didn't find this place on my own. When I was working on the story about the Hunt/Griggs proposal, I happened to chat with Steve Payton, director of a non-profit called Groundwork Dallas that is devoted to forging bonds between under-served urban kids and the out-of-doors. Payton is 43, with a shiny bald pate and a chest the size of a refrigerator. He told me he thought the idea of making trails along the river was great. But he said there are already wonderful trails out there that people could just go use. And I confess: When he started talking, over the phone, about beautiful forested trails along the Trinity, I was doing the round and round thing with my finger next to my head.

Forested trails? Out there now? Come on. I've been writing about the Trinity River for 150 years. If there were any beautiful forested trails out there, I believe I would have been notified.

Payton said he would be running a volunteer levee clean-up the following week, right next to an area of trails. He invited us out to see. So here we are, myself and a photographer. A major hotel chain has brought a big truck out here. They are unloading tables and chairs for a hospitality area for their employees, all of whom have "volunteered" to come do community service.

Strange thing. It doesn't feel hot out here. A nice breeze sweeps up off the river bottom and brushes over our brows. Just north we can see and hear the grinding, roaring lanes of Interstate 35E, where traffic is backed up with cars trying to get downtown for the Mavs' victory parade. It feels like we're looking down on Dallas from another planet.

Payton greets us with a bear-trap handshake and points the way toward the trails—down the other side of the levee toward the river. We leave him and hike.

We walk steeply downhill and toward the expressway, which is elevated on bridges—a fact you might never guess if you were driving on the freeway, because the land below is largely hidden by guardrails. In minutes we're beneath the expressway in a cavernous expanse where a little creek runs from Bachman Lake, east of us, to the river, just west.

The water in the creek is low, so we cross without getting our feet wet. We hike uphill some, and suddenly we are here at the mysterious opening of a deeply shaded trail beneath a dense canopy of trees. In this dry weather, the soil is hard-packed and flat, an open invitation for hikers and bikers.

This trail head is beautifully formed. It beckons. Payton says these trails extend for miles. The photographer has to get downtown for parade duty, so we can't go exploring right now. But this place is firmly fixed in my mental GPS for later adventuring.

Back on top of the levee, Payton gestures toward the long reach of river running to the southern horizon. "It's awesome," he says. "It's already here. We don't need to build anything else. Everybody is so wrapped up in the hype of being in the big city, in the gung-ho of the Stars and the Mavericks. People drive by here, and nobody stops to smell the roses."

He is, in many ways, the perfect pied piper. An Oak Cliff kid with a degree in children's theater, he roamed Alaska on a motorcycle for years, working with Methodist youth groups and trail-riding on a mountain bike. He came back home a married father of two with a third on the way. To recruit him, a local environmentalist took him out and showed him Great Trinity Forest.

"I was blown away," he says. "I grew up here, and I had no idea we had a 7,000-acre forest here."

His organization, Groundwork Dallas, is part of an international non-profit chain of local trusts, supported by federal grants and private donations. Today's clean-up is part of an effort to turn this expanse of the river into an outdoor environmental classroom for a nearby charter school.

"Summer is a bit ridiculous out here," he says, "because it's 150 kabillion degrees, but spring and fall are just spectacular, when the birds are all migrating. You come out in the morning with a cup of coffee, and it will blow your mind."

I know that Hunt and Griggs believe their proposal for trails along the river will be non-controversial. This is in spite of the 14-year history of mistrust and recrimination associated with the city's Trinity River Project, a stalled multi-billion-dollar public works campaign that was to have included man-made lakes, a superhighway, a series of decorative suspension bridges and other man-made what-have-you.

They say that's the point. Do something like simple trails that can be accomplished quickly for very little money. Provide people with an important resource they can use right now. Don't put this vast natural asset behind an insurmountable pay-wall of money and politics.

Their idea is great. Compared to waiting 10 years and spending half a billion dollars for make-believe suspension bridges, their idea may even be brilliant. But what about Payton's idea? Why wait for anything? Get on your mountain bike. Go now. Take it over. Seize this land by using it. Save it by loving it.

Let's not pay less. Let's pay nothing. Let's not do something that's a lot faster. Let's do something that's right now.

People who understand natural areas, who are not afraid of sweat and bugs, who know how to get knocked off a bike and take a roll, can make more difference out here than all the planners and lawyers in the world. They can make history happen by not waiting for history to happen.

Access to the enchanted forest is open and legal from Crow Park at the Sylvan Avenue river crossing. That doesn't include motorized all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes, which are strictly illegal on this sensitive flood-control soil. People who are out there regularly, like Payton, watch, listen and sniff for ATVs, and they do call the cops, code enforcement and the levee district.

It stays quiet that way, so being out here is like stepping through the looking glass, out of the city and into a kingdom of herons and foxes, soft breezes and wildflowers. Why aren't we here? What ever kept us away?

For years people only talked about the river in whispers behind their hands. It was considered a dirty, threatening place.

Let's not pay less. Let's pay nothing. Let's not do something that's a lot faster. Let's do something that's right now.

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28 comments
Dawna Field
Dawna Field

Oh, this nice fella (park worker) also enlightened us as to what a money pit this project could become. They are building all this nice stuff between the two levees that were designed to protect the city from flooding. These plans are mapped out on a dried up river-bottom. When we do get that heavy rain that comes every x amount of years, it will wash away everything that we are spending all this money on.

Dawna Field
Dawna Field

I have read this multiple times and tried to map it out. I went down there this morning to try and find this place, camera in hand. However, after walking up and down, north and south, I was dripping with sweat, pounding with a headache and was unable to find any such place. I talked with a super nice fella (park worker) about it and even quoted the article's descriptive directions. He too had no clue as to where this location was. In fact, he denied it's existence. The suggestion we took him up on was to try the Santa Fe trail, still no luck. I don't even think I was able to find that very well because what he described was nowhere in site. At least not around the signs posted up saying "Santa Fe Trail Improvement Project". Mr. Schutze, could you please give me a more specific map to go on? I am really anxious to prove my husband wrong. He says the story you wrote is made up. I wondered if maybe it wasn't a ploy to drive more attention and support to the construction plans in progress. Sort of like in a reverse-psychology kind of way.

Jogiyo2002
Jogiyo2002

1. I like the reference to enchanted forest -that would be splendid indeed! But I'm not so sure it is an accurate description.2. A river and a creek are as different as a lake and a pond. 3. The Trinity river area is right next to some of the worst drug infested ghettos of dallas. I cant imagine that there would not be any safety issues5. Much like other natural areas in large metropolitan cities, it is essential to preserve the natural environment as much as possible, but to fuse that with modern architectual development. Dirt trails with rocks and bugs are nice for thrill seeking mountain bikers but I dont think that is the overall vision for that area. Much like one would landscape their front yard, it is possible to have an attractive manicured and functional public park, river, and nature preserve that is safe and accessible to all. Like you said yourself, it is hidden. From the poorly designed and dangerous highways around it and the plain bridges connecting some of the worst ghettos and highest crime areas, it looks like a dry overgrown mud creek at best. That could change with an investment in the area by the city. Look at Whiterock lake. What if that lake were overgrown with vegetation and only had dirt mountain bike paths around it? There are many families that would not enjoy that area. This is Dallas. It is a big metropolitan city. We can have our own version of a central park but better. If you want raw nature then maybe you should live in Montana, or Colorado. I fully support development of that area from what it is and has been for many many years: an eyesore for most, to a major public attraction available to all residents. Dont worry, the birds and bugs will not go away. I dont think anyone intends to make a 7000 acre parking lot.

texashistorian
texashistorian

I went to Crow Park & I biked the designated levee trail today with my 12 year old son (6.3 miles). I'm a woman, and I never felt remotely scared or threatened... it was a serene place. But I'm not sure where the forest was - it was all flat, grassy plain where I was. Is Schutze writing about biking northwest, past the Westmoreland Bridge? Because there's a huge forest just by Harry Hines & I35, but it seems inaccessible. So how do I get to this forest?!

Sgarmon
Sgarmon

GroundworkDallas needs lots of volunteers as well as financial aid. Peter and Kelley are working with this summer's Green Team to clear and maintain trails as well as learn other safety topics...such as CPR, handling of tools, etc. The Green Team are young people that are spending several weeks working in their community...wanna learn more? Sign up to help GWD further succeed. Item: Crawfish Boil, Tomorrow, Saturday the 25th at the Green Elephant on Dyer St. 2 to 6. Food, Beer and the music of Bryan Hughes, just 20 bucks.Watch for other events of GWD. Thanks for the article, Jim.Stephanie GarmonBoard Member, GWD

Beldar Conehead
Beldar Conehead

"Let's not pay less. Let's pay nothing."

Not allowed. In fact the current government of occupation considers it a terroristic threat.

"People who understand natural areas, who are not afraid of sweat and bugs, who know how to get knocked off a bike and take a roll, can make more difference out here than all the planners and lawyers in the world."

Seriously, that sort of *actual thinking* is a one way ticket to the no fly list here in the New Amerika. So, so dangerous. Get back to your tract home pod and wallow in your diabetes-inducing foodstuffs right now! YOU ARE FREE, TO DO AS WE TELL YOU! YOU ARE FREE, TO DO AS WE TELL YOU!

Scampbell
Scampbell

Please consider supporting Peter Payton's organization, Groundwork Dallas, by attending its first annual Crawfish Boil, Saturday, June 24 at the Green Elephant, 2-6. We would appreciate your support! The Groundwork Dallas Board.

Will
Will

So what would be the best way to get down there from White Rock Lake on a mountain bike?

Frenchthedogbutler
Frenchthedogbutler

Check out Chigger Block for the ticks and chiggers. Keeps them off of you for good and when you forget to wear it it gets rid of the bites in like 3 days without any scarring or scratching. Amazing really. I love it because it is all natural and actually works!

Ben
Ben

This is what the real Trinity River looks like:

http://img863.imageshack.us/im...

See the two folks walking the dog? That was Sunday evening.

It's a 10 minute drive from Downtown. A 20 minute bike ride from White Rock Lake.

That's the real river. Not the mess between the levees you see everyday. It has limestone bottom here and the water is clear enough to sight fish for the large alligator gar that sit off the bottom.

There are over a dozen such places that nice along the river, hardly anyone goes there. Much of the Trinity once looked like this. You can still see the old riverbed remains of cliffs like this behind the Sportatorium site between the parking lot and the levees near the River Cut Rate Liquor Store.

Rickde56
Rickde56

To : Mr. Jim Schutze, Good story very informative, but who are you trying to tell, Counsel members, Hunt,Briggsbecause the trails have been there for years. Who made the trails Bigfoot, No Fisherman,Bums,Homeless people. You just came across a poorman's playground.That little creek you talk about,yea they been peeing in for years. So bring the bike's and all that come it, Becausefor someone from north dallas, They may look down on another planet.

Johnny
Johnny

Isn't this the same river that Ft. Worth dumps it sewage into. The same river that you are advised to not eat anything caught out of it because the water is so contaminated. Why isn't some money spent on trying to keep the water a little cleaner? Its always going to be muddy, but try to keep the sewage and garbage out of it.

Mmballet
Mmballet

Jim, Went to the Wave a couple of days ago! There is a large tree stuck between the top and lower levels of the wave against the west back. I heard on the radio this morning that a guy killed a 14 foot Alligator in the trinity south of Dallas . Beathan

Kmurphy250
Kmurphy250

FYI..Groundwork Dallas' ED is PETER Payton, not Steve. Thanks.

TimCov
TimCov

Here is another great Trinity River hike/bike trail system just a litle farther north:http://www.dallasparks.org/Dow...

It is actually maintained by the Dallas Off Road Bicycle Association.

TRISHAKAY
TRISHAKAY

i dont see it.or should i say i have never seen anything but the dirty river.lived here all my life and sometimes the smell of the trinity will knock you down.i think there is better things to spend money on.like the streets of dallas that is full of pot holes and so torn up they need to be resurfaced.or clean up oak cliff .but the trinity is not worth the time or money....im tired of the spending on things like that bridge they are building from downtown to singleton.OH YEAH we needed that.lol.that is the biggest joke yet...clean up dallas first .by the way what is the big deal with the bridge?what in the he-- were they thinking.

Texas Twister
Texas Twister

The park at Sylan always has a soccer game going on, and several people fishing. It's a beautiful area in full view of downtown Dallas. I've always been confused as to why the city is looking for ways to "build" a trail system... it's already there. See http://dallastrinitytrails.blo...

Trinity Guy
Trinity Guy

I was down at the Sylvan Bridge Trinity today. It is a joyful place, and following Angela Hunt's lead, it could be made better and more accessible at very modest cost. Come on folks, let's do it now. Hug our river. We don't need no mo stinkin' monuments.

explore, enjoy, protect
explore, enjoy, protect

Great piece, Jim. I'd like to clarify that the name of the Director of Groundwork Dallas is Peter Payton.

GAA
GAA

Jim, are the trails you referring to in the article located at the northwest corner of Regal Row and Interstate 35?

Harvey
Harvey

Build the trails and manage the forest. Starting with the basics is the simple and most effective formula to success. It needs both aspects to be successful for the river's purpose as a great park. There doesn't seem much interest to do either - just build shiny things over it and concrete through it. You can over-plan things. The last fifteen years have proven that.

cp
cp

Follow Whit Rock Creek south and it will take you exactly to the spot that Ben posted above, that's the McCommus Bluff.

Balthazar
Balthazar

Because that would be intelligent, and you live in Dallas, so you're f---ed.

cp
cp

Did you read the very last paragraph of the article? Jim said that we should be spending nothing. And you're an idiot if you think that we should have less access to nature.

TimCov
TimCov

Part of the problem is that they sold bonds to do certain things. They can't use that money for other things (like road repairs). They are stuck doing things that fall within the bond package that the voters approved.

Bill Holston
Bill Holston

I walked down there last week, watched a scissor tail fly catcher and a yellow crowned night heron. Very tranquil spot.

lorlee
lorlee

Actually, your City went to Court to say they had the right to spend that Trinity money however they chose. Didn't matter what those fancy brochures with the water taxis said, according to the City -- those were just ideas. That is why I am leary of any bond proposal, they move the money wherever they want.

 
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