Mike Nowak is hiking the State and National Parks of Texas

This is the first in an ongoing weekly series of short interviews with Go Questing Community members. The goal here is to help introduce members to the rest of the community—a bit of a “get to know you” that helps make it easier to start conversations in the future. If you’re interested in participating, shoot me a quick note and we’ll get you on the list.

Mike Nowak

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Scott: So the first and most obvious first question to ask is: what quests are you currently pursuing?

Mike:  Well, I actually have two quests right now. The first one is to visit all the state parks in Texas, which is becoming more daunting than ever, but still very doable if I buckle down. And the second part is all the NPS [National Park Service] sites—so parks, historic sites, etc—that are in Texas. I think there are 14. And I think I’m am zero out of 14 so far. 

[note: I noticed that he’s changed that since we did this interview]

Scott:  How far do you think you are on the state parks quest? 

Mike: I just got to 19.

Scott: 19. And they are about 100 or so in total?

Mike:  I think there are 104. I’m not sure because the new one hasn’t been officially made a state park yet. It’s just some land that they’re working on a grant for. So I’m going to visit it anyway, kind of like you did with those [authorized but yet to be designated] NPS sites that weren’t quite official sites yet.

Scott:  Yeah, go get that pre-visit!

Mike:  Right! It’s not that far from here anyway, so it’s a pretty easy trek.

Scott:  And so why is that state park quest kind of daunting?

Mike:  Because Texas is HUGE! And there are a ton of state parks. So for example, I drove five hours west on I-20 and there are three state parks in a row. I stopped at all three of them. One was essentially a city park, a day use type of thing. One was a tiny little State Park and the other was basically a water reservoir with a park next to it. So I mean, the parks here don’t necessarily mean “beautiful nature.”

Scott:  Sure. So why did you pick the state parks quest to get started?

Mike:  I hadn’t really been many places—except you know, Big Bend or the Gulf Coast just briefly—so I wanted to see more of Texas and kind of see what Texas had to offer. I was starting to hate living here, because I live in the city and I live in a busy area. And I figured going to state parks would really kind of encourage adventure and make me appreciate the state more than I do.

Scott:  Has it started to do that yet?

Mike:  Yeah. Oh, for sure. There’s so much more out there and there’s so much to see. And just even researching alone has opened my eyes to the terrain, the different plants, and the areas—all within a weekend’s drive really, if you’re adventurous.

Scott:  [laughs] I definitely think you qualify as an adventurous weekend driver. 

Mike:  Yes, I’ll drive nine hours to go see something. Why not?

Scott:  Well, I’m right there with you!

Have you been surprised that the diversity of the parks? Not just the natural diversity, but also kind of, like you said, the types of use? Some are more like a city park and then others like Big Bend Ranch are a pretty big, more natural park, right?

Mike:  Yeah, and I haven’t actually been there yet; it’s on my list. But I was surprised actually, my most recent trip where the biggest shock was seeing this sort of city park. It’s a day use park that had no fee, which was also nice for people that live near that park, because it’s kind of in a desolate area. And there isn’t a lot to offer. It’s kind of an industrial oilfield type of area—but there was this park on top of a hill. So it served a great purpose for the town. 

And that’s just one example. You can visit other ones where you can go from desert stuff to tall pine trees to swamps to…almost every one of them as a river or water feature of some kind. So there has been some diversity, but there’s also a lot of similarities. It’s all the same kind of rocks and it’s all the same kind of bushes. So once you’ve seen one state park in this area, at least around DFW, you’ve seen them all.

Scott:  If you had one specific park that really surprised you? That you’re expecting something and then you arrived and it was a lot different than you expected?

Mike:  I’d have to say Palo Duro Canyon, which is up in the panhandle, near Amarillo. And that one, it’s like a mini Grand Canyon, as much as you can say that without being blasphemous about the real Grand Canyon. But in Texas, it’s flat over here or it’s forested when you get near Louisiana or down by the coast, but over there, it’s a huge canyon. The second you enter the park, you’re descending to the bottom of it to go to the campground, to go to the amphitheater, to go to the visitor center. So it was very shocking—very surprising in the best way possible.

Scott:  Awesome. Do you think that’s one of your favorites? So far, at least?

Mike:  That, and Caprock Canyons which is right next to it essentially. They’re both kind of centered around these canyon land formations. And they both offer the same kind of hiking that is diverse hills and they’re pretty flat without vegetation, but they’re they’re both very surprising and beautiful. And I almost think they could qualify “beyond” state parks, whatever that would be.

Scott:  Like national park quality?

Mike:  No, I wouldn’t go that far. Probably look like a National Preserve or Monument. Yeah, maybe…

Scott:  Okay. All right. So like a “lowercase” national park [aka, a national park unit].

Mike: I’d rather go there than Indiana Dunes! So yes.

Scott:  So those are two favorites of yours. Do you have to have a least favorite so far?

Mike:  Oh, yeah. I think one of the most recent ones I visited, Lake Colorado City State Park. I mean, it was okay. It was fine; if I lived near there, I’d go there—but I don’t and I’ve never going back!

It’s an Army of Corps Engineers water reservoir, which is most common in Texas. I mean, there’s one natural lake here, and I have yet to visit that state park. But these are all created for the city’s water supply. 

It’s got water treatment across the lake as you’re walking on this trail, the cactus cut trail. There’s only two trails, so it’s not a huge hiking destination. It’s probably a great wayside if you’re on I-20 and you need to camp somewhere really cheap and quick.

Scott:  Gotcha. Kinda if you arrived in the dark and leave at sunrise.

Mike:  Yeah, you’re not missing much.

Scott:  I’ve run into a few of those as well. So when you go to most of the state parks, hiking is your primary activity? That’s what you’re looking to do when you’re when you’re there?

Mike:  Right, and I set up my quest so that I have to—whether it’s on pavement or on dirt—just go at least a mile minimum in each park. Just to get a feel of it or because not every park like I said has long trails or whatever. So going whatever distance I can go, at least a mile, allows me to see some of the park. It allows me to maybe sample a trail if I don’t have a lot of time. And I think that that’s been the best part about it is making myself get out of the car and not just do a drive thru or not just do a quick stop at the visitor center. Go check out something.

Scott:  Yeah, I think that’s a great way to look at it. And obviously if you’re going to take the time to, you know, travel to these places, you might as well do what you can do experience them.

Mike:  Right, but there are so many parks and there’s a lot of them that are in groups within maybe 30-45 minutes of each other. So you can visit maybe four parks in one day, if you just do a mile or two at each of them…maybe the shortest trail or whatever. But hiking is my primary goal. And I love to camp. But in the dead of summer, a hike in the morning is better than camping at all.

Scott:  I hear you there. So most of your trips are primarily on the weekends to get to these places. And you’re trying to kind of batch several parks together when you do it?

Mike:  Yes, that’s the main goal. And my goal for December is every Sunday or Saturday-Sunday combo that I have, is just seeing as many as I can in one day. Trying to round out the year here with maybe 25 total, which would be great. It’s just efficient, because while some of them are pretty spectacular like Palo Duro, but others are just pretty common. And like I said, once you’ve seen them in this area, they all seem pretty similar. So unless it has something super special to offer, I don’t want to dwell on those.

Scott:  So it sounds like you have like a specific goal for [2019] of trying to get to about two dozen or so done. Did you set a specific time limit or goal for completing the entire quest? Or is this an open ended sort of an open ended one, like when you get done, you’re done?

Mike:  I’m gonna call it open ended, but I have a secret-in-my-head goal of about two to three years, because that’s all I want to be here in this state. I want to be out of the state by then. So I just want to have it done before we leave the state. Which means next year probably focus a lot harder on it.

Scott:  Do you have a “top of the list to visit” park that you’re really excited to visit soon?

Mike:  Yes. And it actually goes to my Texas National Park quest, too. There’s Huntsville State Park which is in the Sam Houston National Forest area, and then there’s Big Thicket National Preserve and they’re all in that same area. And those two are really high on my list right now because of the swampy, pine tree nature of them.

Scott:  Big Thicket was one of the National Parks I visited that I was very pleasantly surprised with. I had a much better time there than I expected to have. 

Mike:  That’s good to hear.

Scott:  What do you think the most like challenging aspect of doing this quest has been so far?

Mike:  Just finding the time—as with every other thing we do in life, it’s about cutting the time out of something else to make it happen. I’ve had other other goals and other bucket list items. Like I really wanted to go to North Cascades, and that took a weekend, and I wanted to do all these other things—but I just have to prioritize. It’ll be easier next year with this mindset going into it.

Scott:  And what do you think the most rewarding thing has been so far?

Mike:  Just seeing the state and learning about the different terrain and history so far and just seeing the strategic play of these state parks. They’re not just for recreation—the water supply for a whole area is in a reservoir next to one. So it’s seeing their various purposes and all that has been really rewarding. 

Overall, the numbers game isn’t as important to me. If I don’t get them all I’m not going to die. But of course, I’d love to!

Scott:  And the National Parks quest for Texas has taken a little bit of a backseat to the State Park one. It sounds like you’re going to try to do double duty this next year when you’re in the area right and to try and hit both?

Mike:  Yep, that’s the plan. That’s exactly the plan. Most of the NPS sites are near State Parks, simply because there are 100 state parks or more throughout the state. There are a bunch of NPS sites out towards El Paso or San Antonio or up in the very top near Amarillo. So they’ll be pretty easy to to hit both two at once, or maybe three in a weekend between state parks and NPS sites.

Big thanks to Mike Nowak for being the guinea pig for this first member spotlight!

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