By STEVE KNIGHT
POSEY — Cooper Lake State Park is an enigma.
Is it one park? Two? Two and a boat ramp? Two and four boat ramps? A park geared to fishermen or one for horseback riders?
Last year, 107,000 visitors came to find out for themselves.
What they found was one park divided into two units — one on the north shore and one on the south shore of Cooper Lake, five boat ramps, a special campsite and trails geared to horse owners.
Opened in 1996, Cooper Lake State Park is the newest facility in Northeast Texas. It covers 3,025 acres, 2,310 in the South Sulphur Unit in Hopkins County and another 715 in the Doctors Creek Unit just outside the Delta County town of Cooper. And despite its draw last year, a count that was actually down about 10 percent, there is plenty of room for more.
“We are really underutilized,” said Greg Dillon, complex supervisor.
He said park visitors typically find a park they like and prefer that to return to year after year instead of trying someplace new like Cooper.
But in recent years the word has been getting out about the space and opportunities at the park and on the lake, and the crowds have been picking up. But with 119 water and electricity pads, 28 screened shelters and cottages, 14 cabins and 15 primitive campsites spread across the two units, there is plenty of room for more.
“We could handle 200,000 visitors a year,” Dillon said.
The two units are divided more than just by water. The South Sulphur unit is popular with visitors from the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as campers and day-use visitors from Paris, Sulphur Springs and even the Tyler area. The Doctors Creek area draws many of its 30,000-plus visitors from neighboring Cooper.
“They really like to come out on the weekend and stay,” Dillon explained.
The 19,000-acre Cooper Lake is the main attraction to visitors. It has excellent fisheries for hybrid striped bass, white bass, catfish and crappie. For those with boats there is one ramp at Doctors Creek and two at South Sulphur. The state also operates a ramp near the Tira community and another at Johns Creek at the adjacent Cooper Wildlife Management Area. Daily visitor entrance fees are required for launching for everyone not staying overnight in the park.
Swim beaches and swimming areas are also available.
While the Corps of Engineers lake is a draw, it can also be a deterrent to visitation. Designed as both a water supply reservoir for cities in the Dallas area and a flood control reservoir, the lake can drop far enough that ramps and swim areas are out of the water.
However, because it is a Corps lake there isn’t any shoreline development other than the parks.
“One of the things I really like is that you can get on this lake and there are no housing developments.
You are in nature all of the time and can enjoy the sights and sounds,” Dillon said.
While most visitation is seasonal like at other state parks, the Cooper units do attract an unusual winter crowd. The lake, which is managed as part of the wildlife management area, is popular with duck hunters. Some access the lake through the ramps as day visitors, others will take campsites and stay several days.
While fishing, boating, hunting and swimming are the big attraction, the South Sulphur Unit is one of only 15 state facilities with an equestrian trail.
Horseback riders, who are required to show a negative Coggins test on their animals to bring them in the park, are based in the Buggy Whip campsite. Each site has water and electricity and a hitch for tying horses. Visitors may bring portable pens.
Dillon said most of those using the trails are from East Texas, adding they attract both individuals and groups.
For those without horses, both parks have extensive hike and bike trails.
Fourteen modern cabins are also a popular attraction at South Sulphur.
“Of all of the state parks these are some of the most modern and well-equipped,” Dillon said.
Most of the cabins overlook the lake. They sleep six, and everything is included except cooking utensils. The cabins rent for $95 a night, and while they can be reserved in advance through the state’s reservation system, cabins are picked on a first-come first-served basis daily.
South Sulphur does have an interpretive ranger who puts on weekly programs on everything from Dutch oven cooking to nature sounds and birding programs. The park is excellent for bird watching, especially waterfowl in the winter. An aggressive prescribed burn program within the park not only improves watching abilities, but has also attracted Eastern wild turkeys onto the grounds.