A Great Egret guards her young in Shangri La's bird blind on Ruby Lake in Orange, Texas.
Himalayan trip not needed to visit Shangri La
By Chuck Cannon
April 19, 2019
Editor's Note: This story is intended to highlight events and activities that Soldiers, families and other members of the community can take advantage of while stationed at Fort Polk. No endorsement by the U.S. Army is given or implied.
ORANGE, Texas — In his 1933 novel “Lost Horizon,” British author James Hilton introduced readers to a mystical, harmonious valley, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlan Mountains in Himalaya, called Shangri-La.
Since that time, Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise isolated from the outside world. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed Hilton’s description of that modern day Eden so much that he named the presidential retreat— now known as Camp David— Shangri-La in 1942.
In April 1942, United States bombers secretly launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet to bomb Tokyo in a daring raid led by Col. Jimmy Doolittle. Since Tokyo was out of range of any American bomber base at the time, there was intense speculation as to where the bombers had come from. Roosevelt facetiously told a press conference that the bombers had flown from Shangri-La.
In 1937, Lutcher Stark, a prominent Texas philanthropist, started building his own Shangri-La in Orange, Texas. His version was a beautiful azalea garden situated along a cypress and tupelo swamp. By 1950, thousands of people were traveling to Orange to visit Shangri-La. Every major magazine dealing with gardens published photographs of the beautiful Shangri-La in Texas.
In 1958, a major snowstorm struck east Texas, destroying thousands of azaleas and closing the garden for 40 years. Shangri-La reopened in 2008, only to close again for nearly six months due to the damages sustained from Hurricane Ike that struck the area in September of that year.
It reopened to the public on March 7, 2009, sharing its beauty with visitors once again.
Shangri-La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center is nestled within 252 acres in the heart of Orange, Texas. It contains a mixed deciduous forest, cypress and tupelo swamp, wetlands and a large lake. Many of its trees were heavily damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Rita in September 2005.
The botanical gardens feature more than 300 plant species in five formal “rooms” as well as four sculpture “rooms.”
An historic color garden around the reflection pool known as The Pond of the Blue Moon pays tribute to the original Shangri-La, featuring 41 varieties of azaleas.
The nature center includes a hands-on exhibit called the Nature Discovery Center, a laboratory and three outdoor classrooms located deep in the swamp. Boardwalks lead visitors through wetlands filled with fish, reptiles and other wildlife. Boating excursions along Adams Bayou provide access to outdoor classrooms that include a swamp, upland forest and grassland.
The main pathway that encircles the botanical gardens is about one mile long and a full walking tour takes 45-60 minutes.
Adjacent to the botanical gardens is a bird blind which allows visitors to observe nesting birds in Shangri-La’s heronry on Ruby Lake. Included in the mix of birds are great egrets, roseate spoonbills, anhingas and cormorants.
Also situated within Shangri-La is “The Survivor,” a pond cypress tree estimated to be 1,235 years old. The tree, not normally found in Texas, has survived centuries of diseases, axes and storms, including Hurricane Rita. It was certified as a Champion Tree in 2003 through the Texas Big Tree Registry.
Visitors should be aware of the summer heat when visiting. Spring and fall are the best times. It can be very hot in the Texas summer, so it’s best to visit in the morning.
According to its website, www.shangrilagardens.org, Shangri-La’s primary mission is education.
Schools bring classrooms through Shangri La throughout the year on field trips.
Shangri-La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center is also the first project in Texas and the 50th project in the world to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Platinum certification for LEED-NC (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-New Construction), which verifies the design and construction of Shangri-La reached the highest green building and performance measures.
Active-duty Soldiers and their Family members get in free by showing their ID card.
Shangri-La is open year-round Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. It is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
To reach Shangri-La from Fort Polk, take U.S. Hwy 171 south to Interstate 10 in Lake Charles and head west to Orange, Texas. Take Exit 877 in Orange and follow the signs to Shangri-La.
For more information visit http://www.shangrilagardens.org/ or call (409) 670-9113.