Off-roading is usually a term which relates to vehicles and fun in the mud. But what if visitors and residents in the Upper East Side of Texas applied that mentality to their summer vacation? Sunshine and swimming kick off the season, but then too often, the “doldrums” set in. After years of doing relaxing but perhaps mundane traditions, adventures to spice up the hot weeks and get off the beaten path might be what is in order. There’s an abundance of memorable and safe outdoor activities at the fingertips of anyone venturing down the road.
Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours
East Texas can tout many titles and the wonder of its prehistoric past is one of the most intriguing. Step away from the hustle and bustle of the highway and into the open air and wonder of Caddo Lake, home to more than 250 bird species, alligators, Spanish moss, and cypress trees.
Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours provides a nice outdoor experience on a 28-foot-pontoon boat. Owner Jean Rhodes-Werneke says the tours are not only fun, but also informational. “It’s magical, mystical, unusual, and prehistoric,” she says.
Visitors can book a tour Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Adults can board for $25, while children are charged $15, and seniors $20. The tours last anywhere from 1 and ½ to 2 hours.
Guests board at the Big Pines Lodge Restaurant at 756 Pine Island Road and can stop in and grab a bite before or after the ride. The spot has been open for more than 50 years. Get more information on www.captronswamptours.com or call (903) 679-3020.
Caddo Outback Tours is another fun option in the area to check out; they offer personal private tours. Call (903) 789-3384 and visit www.caddolaketours.com.
New York, Texas Zipline Adventures
An airborne adventure might be the stuff of childhood dreams, but one popular spot has made it a reality. New York, Texas Zipline Adventures offers a heart-dropping but gorgeous view of the Piney Woods, all from the safety of a harness.
“This year, people are ready to get some fresh air,” says owner Connie Shultz. She added social distancing is in place. She and husband Charles opened the zipline in 2008, as the first course in North Texas.
The spot is just a few miles east of Athens, in Larue. Visitors must sign a waiver and make reservations prior to participating and can take a practice run before taking on the big tours. Prices differ depending on the tours, which last anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours. The 6 Line Zipline Tour is $60 per person while the 9 Line Zipline Tour is $95. To make a reservation, call (903) 681-3791 and go to www.goziptexas.com for more information.
If visitors find themselves in love with the sport, other fun spots to check out include Thomas Falls Event Center & Zip-line Challenge Course in Diana and Zip Nac in Nacogdoches.
Cherokee Trace Drive-Thru Safari
The city of Jacksonville might be famous for its tomatoes, but another gem just off the highway garners just as much attention.
Cherokee Trace Drive-thru Safari has the perks of a zoo, just with the option of driving. It offers both safari favorites and exotic species, all from the comfort of the car. The 300-acre park is home to alligators, bison, dromedary camel, several species of deer, miniature donkeys, kangaroos, and a host of others. Located off County Road 4405, it is just a few miles from Jacksonville.
Prices are $17.95 for adults, $12.95 for children, and $15.95 for seniors. Group rates depend on the amount of people. Guests must remain in their cars but can purchase food for the animals to feed on the drive.
Picnic areas grace the park as well. Reservations are not needed. Visit www.cherokeetrace.com or call (903) 683-3322 to get any questions answered.
Grapeland Safari, off Highway 287 North, is another park to add to the list to check out before summer is over. See more information on www.grapelandsafari.net.
Traveling one of the several “back ways” from Tyler to Lindale takes a driver past every horse lover’s dream. RH Equestrian has mastered the magic of the equine and has plenty to offer equine enthusiasts or anyone wanting to get in the saddle and enjoy the fresh air.
The horseback riding service is located just off County Road 43 near Mount Sylvan. Throughout the year, riders can sign up for private lessons, group lessons, or a monthly barn membership.
This summer, horsemanship camps are a specialty. Some are for the younger crowd, ages 5 through 11, and require no prior experience. Others are open to all ages, but riders need some horse knowledge. Each camp runs three days and are $275 per person. Half of the deposit is required to hold a spot. Gear is provided as well. The camps kick off at the end of May and are sprinkled through June.
Trail rides of 45 minutes are offered to those at least 7 years old. The cost is $35-$45 per person. Social distancing is enforced.
There is no shortage of horseback riding opportunities in East Texas. Other spots to check out include the Broken Spur Ranch in Jacksonville, Peirce Equestrian in Tyler or D&L Deer Valley Ranch Trail Rides in Hawkins.
Waldo Way Dairy Farm
In today’s food industry, the search for wholesome and real nourishment is on. And what better way to get back to the basics this summer than to check out an authentic dairy farm? The Waldo Way Dairy Farm in Mineola offers just that in the form of raw milk and milk products. Fresh milk is not pasteurized or homogenized, and it is produced and packaged on location. Shoppers can also browse for beauty products, fresh eggs and a variety of meats in their store.
The farm holds the title of first robotic dairy farm in the state and offers tours. Groups must meet a minimum before admittance. If customers feel like staying a little longer, The Gatehouse Inn in Mineola is available for the night. Reservations are required.
Check out the Mineola store at 395 County Road 2482, the Tyler location at 13325 Highway 69 North or call (903) 569-4210. Find their website at www.thewaldoway.com.
Trimble Farms in Big Sandy, Jersey Girls Dairy in Winnsboro, Southspoon Farm in Yantis and Full Quiver Farms in Kemp are other spots to check out for whole milk, milk products and good food.
Echo Springs Blueberry Farm
Berry-picking is a timeless pastime, enjoyed by young and old alike. At Echo Springs Blueberry Farm, the owners have the task down to a science. With 80 acres of blueberries and 12 acres of blackberries, there is plenty of room to spread out and fill baskets for the summer and stock up for the winter.
The farm is located in between Brownsboro and Murchison, just south of Highway 31. Owner Phyllis Vaseleniuck says they owe their success to the superb berry taste to the natural underground springs which run under the bushes.
The farm provides an eating area, baskets to pick berries or bags of picked produce, and a bake shop. Depending on the weather, Memorial Day is typically the soonest that visitors can start enjoying the fruit, but Vaseleniuck says the February freeze could play a factor in that time line this year.
Contact the farm at (903) 852-5277 and visit www.echospringsblueberryfarm.com to be sure the berries are ready.
Tyler Berry Farm on County Road 429 and Blueberry Ridge Farm in Mineola also offer plenty of berry-picking fun, as well as Blueberry Hill Farms in Edom.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of best kept secrets. With the wide open spaces in the Upper East Side of Texas, the options are essentially endless. Make this summer memorable and jump off the road into an adventure.