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Amistad National Recreation Area

A beautiful spot for boating, fishing, water-skiing, scuba diving, and swimming, this is a rare international reservoir, created by the United States and Mexico with the construction of a 6-mile-long dam across the Rio Grande at the international border. Amistad Reservoir -- amistad is Spanish for friendship -- provides electric generation, water storage, flood control, and, most important to anglers and watersports enthusiasts, a huge lake as a U.S. National Recreation Area.

The water here is a beautiful blue color, caused by the lake bed's limestone character and lack of loose soil. The 67,000-acre lake is actually at the confluence of three rivers, and runs 74 miles up the Rio Grande, 24 miles up the Devils River, and 14 miles up the Pecos River. The shoreline measures 890 miles: 540 miles in Texas and the rest in Mexico.

There are about a dozen boat ramps spread throughout the recreation area, with three developed boat launching areas. Diablo East is 10 miles northwest of Del Rio via U.S. 90, Rough Canyon is 23 miles north of Del Rio via U.S. 90 and U.S. 277/377, and Pecos is 44 miles northwest of Del Rio via U.S. 90. Boat and slip rentals and sales of supplies are available at Diablo East and Rough Canyon. Motorized-boat use passes cost $4 per day or $40 per year.

At Diablo East, Lake Amistad Marina, HCR-3 U.S. 90, P.O. Box 420635, Del Rio, TX 78842 (tel. 800/255-5561 or 830/774-4157; www.lakeamistadresort.com), rents a variety of boats, ranging from fishing boats and runabouts costing $145 per 8-hour day to luxurious 70-foot houseboats that sleep 10 and rent for over $3,000 for a 3-day/2-night weekend in summer. Boat rentals are also available at Rough Canyon Marina, P.O. Box 420845, Del Rio, TX 78842 (tel. 830/775-8779).

There is a swimming area (no lifeguards) at Governors Island, and swimming is permitted in most undeveloped areas. Water temperatures range from a chilly 54°F (12°C) in winter to a pleasant 86°F (30°C) in summer. Water-skiing is permitted in open water (away from mooring areas, channels, and swimming beaches) during daylight hours only.

Forty-pound catfish have been pulled from the lake, as have record striped bass. Among other species caught are largemouth bass, yellowbelly and bluegill sunfish, white and black crappie, and alligator gar. Fishing is permitted from boats and from shore anywhere except in marinas, at boat ramps, and at designated swimming beaches. There are also fishing docks and fish-cleaning stations at several locations. A Texas fishing license (available at convenience stores and most shops along U.S. 90) is required on the U.S. side of the border, and a Mexican fishing license is required in Mexican waters. A list of licensed fishing guides is available at the headquarters.

Among the wildlife you're likely to see are white-tailed deer, javelina (also called collared peccaries), black-tailed jackrabbits, rock squirrels, and nine-banded armadillos. Campers might also see ringtails, which usually venture out only at night. The recreation area is also home to poisonous snakes including several species of rattlesnakes, plus poisonous scorpions, spiders, and stinging insects. Birds to watch for include white-winged doves, sandpipers, great blue herons, great egrets, American coots, killdeer, roadrunners, black vultures, ravens, and an occasional bald or golden eagle. One particularly good spot to bird-watch is the San Pedro Campground, where you're also likely to see a lot of butterflies. Rangers lead morning birding walks the third Saturday of the month from September to May; the group meets at the park visitor center at 8am.

American Indian peoples are believed to have come to this area about 12,000 years ago, but it was not until about 4,000 years ago, when a different group inhabited the area, that the creation of the spectacular rock art we can see today in several areas in and near the recreation area began. These pictographs -- designs painted on rocks using colors created from ground iron ore and other minerals mixed with animal fat -- are difficult to get to, but well worth the effort.

One of the best rock art sites is Panther Cave, at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Seminole Canyon, which is usually accessible by boat and a steep climb up stairs. It has numerous figures that resemble humans or animals, including what looks like a 9-foot panther. Another good site, accessible by boat at average lake levels and by a strenuous hike through tall brush at low-water levels, is Parida Cave, located on the Rio Grande.

The recreation area has four campgrounds, with a total of about 60 primitive sites. Campgrounds are generally open, with brush and some low trees, but little shade, and have vault toilets, covered picnic tables, and grills. Governors Landing Campground, with 15 sites overlooking the lake, is the only campground with drinking water (water is available along the Diablo East entrance road, where there is also an RV dump station). San Pedro Campground has 21 sites, and Spur 406 and 277 North campgrounds each have about a dozen sites. There is also a dispersed camping area at Spur 406 with rooms for about a dozen sites. Camping is first-come, first-served, and is limited to 14 consecutive days, or 60 days in a 12-month period. Backcountry camping from boats is permitted along the lakeshore, except at marinas and other developed areas. Camping costs $4 to $8 per night.

Rangers present a variety of programs, including evening programs at the amphitheater at the visitor center; and kiosks with displays on natural history, recreation, and water safety are scattered throughout the recreation area. Pets are permitted, but must be leashed at all times. Rangers warn that limestone, which is abundant along the shore, can cut the pads of dogs' feet, and they add that pets need to be protected from fleas, ticks, and heartworm (spread by mosquitoes) at the lake.

Facilities in the Mexican part of the lake include a swimming beach and a boat ramp near the west end of the dam. Boaters who touch land in Mexico are required to pass through U.S. Customs (in Del Rio) when they return to the United States.

Admission to the park, which is open 24 hours, is free. About 10 miles west of Del Rio off U.S. 90, the park visitor center, with information, a small bookstore, and a few displays, is open daily from 8am to 5pm, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. The first lake access is about 10 miles west of the visitor center. For information, contact Amistad National Recreation Area, 4121 Veterans Blvd., Del Rio, TX 78840 (tel. 830/775-7491; www.nps.gov/amis).

The Mouth of the Pecos -- On the east rim of the 300-foot cliffs above the Pecos River, there is an overlook before the U.S. 90 bridge over the Pecos that is one of the region's best photo opportunities. Heading west on the highway from Del Rio, take the left immediately before the bridge for the most scenic views of the vast surrounding badlands and the untamed Pecos snaking into the Rio Grande below.

Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site

Adjacent to Amistad National Recreation Area, about 45 miles northwest of Del Rio via U.S. 90, this state park provides opportunities to take guided hikes to see what many consider the best pictographs in North America, possibly 4,000 years old. In addition, Seminole Canyon offers a short nature trail, camping, hiking through a rugged limestone terrain, wildlife viewing and bird-watching, and a museum.

Although it is believed that humans lived in this area at the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago, they left few signs of their presence. Then, about 7,000 years ago, a different culture arrived, and within 3,000 years of their arrival they began to paint designs on sheltered rock walls. State park rangers lead hiking tours to several of the rock-art sites.

The Fate Bell Cave Dwelling Tour is offered Wednesday through Sunday at 10am and 3pm. Cost is $5 per person, $2 for children ages 6 to 12, and reservations are not required. This is a moderately rated 2-mile round-trip hike that leads into Seminole Canyon to a huge rock shelter where participants will see hundreds of pictographs. The state park also has two guided tours that are offered only about a half-dozen times a year, by advance reservation through the park office. The 1.75-mile round-trip Upper Canyon Tour, which costs $12 per person and takes 2 hours, leads to a normally closed area of the park in the upper section of the canyon to see pictographs and some railroad sites from 1882; and the 8-mile round-trip Presa Canyon Tour, which costs $25 per person, is an all-day hike into the lower canyon to see rock-art sites that are normally off-limits to the public. The Rock Art Foundation (tel. 888/525-9907; www.rockart.org) takes visitors on a 2-hour tour to the White Shaman site's hallucinogenic pictographs for $10, as well as other tours.

The park has a 6-mile round-trip hiking/biking trail along the top of the canyon that leads to a bluff from which you can see Panther Cave, and its namesake painted panther, across Lake Amistad. Bring your binoculars for a better view. The trail has little elevation change, but is rocky with little shade. No one is allowed to go down into the canyon except on guided tours.

The Windmill Nature Trail, just behind the visitor center/museum, is an easy, although not shaded and therefore hot, .7-mile loop. It meanders through a harsh environment of ocotillo, cactuses, yucca, juniper, Texas mountain laurel, and other desert plants to its namesake windmill -- actually the remains of two windmills, one from the 1890s and one from the 1920s.

The species of birds and animals to watch for in the park are much the same as at the adjacent Amistad National Recreation Area, and include birds such as great blue herons, black and turkey vultures, scaled quail, killdeer, white-winged and mourning doves, greater roadrunners, and northern mockingbirds. Also watch for great-tailed grackles, northern cardinals, pyrrhuloxia, ash-throated flycatchers, ladder-backed woodpeckers, and black-chinned hummingbirds. Mammals here include desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, coyotes, raccoons, white-tailed deer, striped skunks, and javelina.

The small campground, with 31 sites, sits on an open knoll covered with mesquite, creosote bush, yucca, cactuses, and other desert plants. There are hot showers and a dump station. Sites with water only cost $12 per night and those with water and electricity cost $17 per night.

The park is open 24 hours a day year-round, except for 1 week in November and 1 week in December when it is open only to properly licensed hunters. The visitor center, with its excellent museum containing exhibits on the area's ancient inhabitants as well as its more recent history, is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Admission to the park costs $3 adults, free for children 12 and under. For information, contact Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site, P.O. Box 820, Comstock, TX 78837 (tel. 432/292-4464; www.tpwd.state.tx.us).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.