The Texas State Parks system marks its 100th anniversary this year. With 89 parks, natural areas, and historic sites to choose from, visitors can experience all kinds of outdoor activities. Each month, we’re highlighting one these activities based on the season and special occasions around the state.
It’s Friday afternoon at Copper Breaks State Park, and visitors wait for their turn to get up close and personal with a Texas Longhorn—that is, the breed of cattle that weighs 1,000-plus pounds and sports long pointy horns. The brave souls hold protein cubes between their lips as they lean in at the pen and wait for a beast to plant a “kiss” on the mouth.
Located 90 miles northwest of Wichita Falls, Copper Breaks State Park provides this unique opportunity during meet-and-greet events with the nine members of the official State of Texas Longhorn Herd that reside at the park. The events last from 30 minutes to an hour and include park staff talking about the history and significance of these animals followed by hand feeding (or “Longhorn kisses”) with protein cubes.
“Our Longhorns are like big puppy dogs at this point,” says park superintendent Will Speer. “They are so trained that they will take the cube out of your mouth. We call that a Longhorn kiss. The trick is to do it at the beginning of the program, because once some of those cubes are on the ground, you’ll get a muddy kiss.”
Once a popular breed of cattle in Texas, Longhorns fell out of favor in the early 1920s. Improved railroad access reduced the need for hardy animals that could withstand trail drives, while other breeds that yielded more meat grew more attractive. Western writer J. Frank Dobie, aided by Fort Worth businessman Sid Richardson and rancher Graves Peeler, assembled a herd and donated it to the Texas Parks Board in 1941. The animals lived at Lake Corpus Christi State Park, and some were moved to Lake Brownwood State Park in 1942. Neither of these sites were ideal for the rugged breed, though, and in 1948, the board established their permanent home at Fort Griffin State Park (now Fort Griffin State Historic Site) about 130 miles west of Fort Worth.
The Texas Historic Commission and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department jointly manage the herd, which now includes about 250 Longhorns. Most reside at Fort Griffin, but a few came to Copper Breaks in the 1970s; some others went to Palo Duro and San Angelo state parks and Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site.
“We keep a state Longhorn herd for two reasons: to show what these historic cattle looked like and to preserve the breed for many years to come,” says Will Cradduck, who has managed the herd since 2009.
“They are highly intelligent animals,” he adds. “They survived on their own for several hundred years in Texas with no human involvement. They’re a lot of fun and each one has its own personality. We have one big bull who walks up, sticks his head out, and people ask what he wants. I say, scratch him between the ears.”
Meet the Longhorns
Address: 777 Park Road 62, Quanah
Hours: Every Friday (weather permitting) at 2 p.m.
Park Admission: $3 for ages 13 and up, under 13 free
Copper Breaks is home to wilder residents, including a variety of birds (roadrunners, great blue herons, ducks, meadowlarks, owls, and hawks), mule deer, rabbits, armadillos, bobcats, porcupines, and coyotes. Speer advises looking for the mammals in early morning and late evening.
“Deer will walk right by your campsite,” he says. “It’s like a whitetail zoo around here at night.”
You can find animals at the park’s lake and pond, as well as numerous watering tanks along the trails and in the Longhorn pasture. “Where there is water, that is where animals gather,” Speers says. “We have a healthy population of horned lizards, along with numerous frogs, turtles, and other lizards.”
The park also has 11 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails—each one a little different. The longest, a 3.8-mile trail open to all three activities, crosses prairie, woodland, and wetland areas. The Thirsty Horse Trail is the shortest at three-tenths of a mile, perfect for families with young children. The Juniper Ridge Nature Trail climbs a steep and rocky slope to scenic overlooks.
The International Dark Sky Association designated Copper Breaks as an International Dark Sky Park in 2014, and Speer promises that the entire park is nice and dark at night. “The best spot to stargaze is anywhere in the park,” he says. “If you have a campsite, you can just stay there. All lighting, where there is lighting, is designed to keep light pollution down.”
Monthly star parties happen April through November and other night sky programs are held throughout the year. Find a schedule on the park’s events page.
Currently, water levels at Lake Copper Breaks are very low and the boat ramp and fishing pier are closed. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department normally stocks the lake each winter, and the park loans visitors fishing tackle. Whatever the water levels, families can borrow an Explorer Pack with binoculars, field guides, and other gear, or get a free Junior Ranger Activity Journal, which has tasks kids can complete to earn a badge.
Overnight options include 24 campsites with electricity, 11 sites with water, and six primitive campsites, as well as 14 equestrian sites and two group camping areas.
“This place is a little hidden gem, a small park that feels big,” Speers says. “We are 2,000 acres in the middle of nowhere, so even when the park is full, you can feel like you have the place to yourself.” Along with nine longhorns looking for a kiss, of course.