Childhood memories of roadside parks taste good in my mind: potato chips and sandwiches, ice-cold Dr Pepper and Big Red.
Four decades later, I can still see the family station wagon pulling into yet another tree-shaded picnic area along a Texas highway. I can feel those concrete picnic tables, cool to the touch. And I can hear the wind blowing through oaks and pecans.
My siblings and I grew up on a farm southeast of Lubbock, where the land is flat, trees are scarce and the rows of cotton are interminably long. Summer vacations—often spur-of-the-moment events when it rained an inch or more and my dad declared the fields too muddy to hoe or plow—were cause for great excitement.
So off we’d go, to Corpus Christi, to Palo Duro Canyon, to Cloudcroft, New Mexico. And on every trip across Texas, we stopped at roadside parks—commonly called picnic areas—to rest, play and soak up new scenery.
I still get excited about stopping at picnic areas—the genesis of Texas’ safety rest areas, which are now undergoing extravagant renovations (see page 10). And since 1933, when Texas opened its first roadside park in Fayette County between Smithville and West Point on Texas 71, the reason for building rest stops remains unchanged: providing a safe place for motorists to stop and relax, thus reducing accidents when they resume their travels.
State highway engineer Gibb Gilchrist and Jac Gubbels, the Texas Highway Department’s first landscape architect, stressed that roadside facilities should reflect their surroundings, including natural flora. By today’s standards, that first roadside park built on donated land was quite simple. But in 1933, its picturesque setting of tables and benches cloaked by live oak trees was considered advanced.
From that humble beginning, the marriage between safety and good looks took root. Early on, the Texas Highway Department built nearly 500 roadside parks.
Along the way, the program got a boost from Lyndon B. Johnson, then the administrator for the National Youth Administration for Texas, who proposed that unemployed young men go to work by improving the roadside facilities.
By the late 1940s, the number of roadside parks—including scenic overlooks—had swelled to more than 900. Travelers gasped at the views from the overlooks, such as above the Pecos River and the Rio Grande.
Then, in May 1963, a great evolution occurred: Texas dedicated its first safety rest area east of San Antonio, on Interstate 10. And in 1967, the state’s first rest area with restrooms, called a comfort station, opened on Interstate 35 north of Round Rock.
On Texas travel maps today, big green dots denote rest stops, and little green dots mark picnic areas. One stormy March afternoon, while driving home to Austin, I stopped at one of those little green dots—one of 665 picnic areas left in Texas—on U.S. 281, just south of Windthorst.
Even though I was tired, I couldn’t resist this roadside park—especially upon seeing its historical marker. So I stood in the rain, reading about Joseph Sterling Bridwell (1885-1966), an oilman and rancher who donated the land upon which I stood.
Satisfied, I climbed back in the car. Now I could rest.