Inspired by the 1933 book Lost Horizon, Texas timber baron and philanthropist Lutcher Stark had a vision of creating his own Shangri La — a place of beauty, peace and enlightenment — in his hometown of Orange, Texas. That vision became a reality in 1946 with a 252-acre oasis in the middle of Orange that featured breathtaking azaleas, a swamp and abundant wildlife. In 1958, a freak snowstorm in Southeast Texas destroyed most of the plants in Shangri La, including Stark’s beloved azaleas. Stark closed the gardens to the public and they remained that way for almost 50 years.
After decades of neglect, the foundation that bears the Stark name opened a revitalized and restored Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center in 2008. I recently experienced the magic that is Shangri La and spent a wonderful day strolling through colorful gardens, exploring the cyprus swamps along Adams Bayou and photographing nesting birds in the heronry.
Boat Tour of Adams Bayou
When we purchased our entrance tickets, we were assigned a time for the boat tour. We had plenty of time to tour the Visitor’s Center and watch a short film explaining the history of the gardens. TIP: Be sure to make the film your first stop at Shangri La – there is a surprise ending that you do NOT want to miss.
After the film, a boardwalk led us through the swamps to the breezy screened boat house. Along the way, we saw a snake, some colorful lizards and two rabbits. After a short wait, a guide fitted us with life jackets and welcomed us aboard a small pontoon. The hot sun on this day in early April made me wish I had remembered to bring a hat with me.
The boat tour, which lasted around one hour, included a stop at an area used as an educational facility. A narrow wooden boardwalk cut through a green algae-covered swamp full of Cypress trees to a wooden building powered by solar panels. NOTE: There are rest rooms in the facility.
Stay tuned for more about my magical visit to Shangri La Gardens.