17th annual Willacy County festival focuses on nature, history

RAYMONDVILLE — Nature buffs will tour Willacy County landmarks steeped in South Texas history when the 17th Annual Wild In Willacy Nature & Heritage Festival opens next week.

On Oct. 21 and 22, the festival will take visitors to an ancient salt lake, Raymondville founder Edward Burleson Raymond’s ranch and a lush botanical sanctuary.

East Salt Lake

On Oct. 21, the festival opens with a tour of East Lake, an ancient salt lake that’s become a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department refuge.

Known as La Sal Vieja, or the Old Salt, East Lake runs along 1,753 acres of brushland that is home to native wildlife, including bobcat, white-tailed deer and javelina.

Across swaths of flat brushland, La Sal Vieja’s shores glisten near Willacy County’s northwestern tip.

Dead trees rise like skeletons from the flooded banks, their mangled branches looming over the still water.

For centuries, the lake served as a vital source of salt.

From Mexico’s interior, the ancient Aztecs traveled to what is now South Texas to mine salt.

When Spanish explorers arrived, native tribes used salt as a valuable trading commodity.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy used camels to haul salt.

Hilltop Gardens

Since the festival’s founding in 1999, Willacy County’s ranches have drawn eco-tourists to Wild In Willacy, which celebrates the region’s Wild West flair.

The festival’s opening day also will take visitors to Hilltop Gardens, a botanical garden rising like an oasis from swaths of farmland in Lyford.

Tropical trees, shrubs and vines decorate three gardens next to an historic 500-acre aloe farm.

Founded in 1939, Hilltop Gardens was one of the first commercial aloe farms in the United States and the first to use aloe vera gel as an ingredient in cosmetics.

In 2012, the farm opened an educational and tourist center with a mission to promote mental and health wellness.

La Jarra Ranch

On Oct. 24, a tour will take visitors to La Jarra Ranch, the ranch Raymond founded atop Willacy County’s highest point.

“The folks who come to Wild In Willacy experience ranches that open their gates to them,” said Greg Storms, a master naturalist and photographer who will lead a tour of the ranch.

Ranch owner Joe Wetegrove, Raymond’s great-great-grandson, has restored the ranch house to its original condition.

“The ranch is a little island of wildlife refuge, so to speak,” Storms said.

Off State Highway 186, the ranch features two natural ponds that nurture the area’s wildlife and habitat.

“South Texas is unique to the rest of the state, with its proximity to the Gulf and its silty, sandy soil,” Storms said.

The ranch’s ponds turn into watering holes that lure wildlife to the area, Storms said.

The ranch also features morning and afternoon wildlife viewing areas, allowing photographers to capture images of wildlife, including bobcats and bird species such as olive sparrows, great kiskadees, and golden-fronted woodpeckers.

“When the lantana blooms, there are literally hundreds of butterflies,” Storms said.

Port Mansfield

On its closing day, the festival also will offer a scenic tour of Port Mansfield, the fishing village known as one of the hottest fishing spots on the Texas coast.

The area along the banks of Laguna Madre features a wide array of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, nilgai, javelina and bobcat along with hundreds of species of birds.

For years, white-tailed deer have become a tourist attraction in Port Mansfield, where large numbers of deer amble along the streets.

From Fred Stone Park to Laguna Point Park, shore birds line the coast, luring birders and photographers.