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Roseate Spoonbills And Historic Beauty: Galveston, TX

Roseate Spoonbills And Historic Beauty: Galveston, TX

Posted by on May 13, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 30 comments

We’ve been planning to visit Galveston Island for years. In 2008, we made reservations for two weeks at the state park, but Hurricane Ike flattened the park just weeks before our arrival. “Sorry to inform you…”read the email telling us that the park would be closed indefinitely. So we rerouted ourselves south to Goose Island State Park in Rockport.

We fell in love with Goose Island, and were looking forward to revisiting in January. I made reservations far in advance. And then Hurricane Harvey slammed into Rockport last August. “Sorry to inform you…” read the email telling us that the park would be closed indefinitely. We rerouted ourselves north to Galveston Island State Park. And that’s how we finally got to Galveston.

I don’t believe in magical thinking (much), but I must admit I’m a bit hesitant now to make reservations for Texas coastal state parks.

One thing is for certain: although Galveston has suffered more than one devastating hurricane, it is an extraordinarily resilient community of both people and wildlife.

We settled into the state park, and this was our view. We could have chosen a beachfront site, but we preferred a site overlooking the marsh, where we could watch the shorebirds foraging and the pelicans floating by.

View from our campsite overlooking the marsh

There can be great rafts of American White Pelicans here

Several miles of trails lead through the marsh, and there’s always the possibility of seeing Roseate Spoonbills. That color! Those bills! I think these are my favorite birds (but don’t tell the others).

Roseate Spoonbills searching for food near the boardwalk

These flamboyant, colorful wading birds were common in southeast coastal areas until they were almost eradicated by plume hunters in the late 1800’s. It makes me sad and mad to think about.

How lucky we are that spoonbills still exist on this earth. We see them on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida—but their numbers are small, and they’re vulnerable to habitat degradation.

Spoonbills seem to always be searching for food

Spoonbills have an interesting feeding behavior, swinging their heads from side to side through shallow waters as they sift through the muck. Special sense receptors on their bills detect tasty morsels such as small fish, shrimp, crayfish, crabs, or aquatic insects.

The shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans provide pigments called carotenoids that give the birds their pretty pink feathers.

Ah, now it’s easy to see how the Roseate Spoonbill got its name!

Chilly day in January; the weather in coastal Texas in winter is unpredictable

A late afternoon walk on the marsh trails

A Great Blue Heron hangs out by the boardwalk, completely unfazed by our company

We were impressed with the historic district, which managed to survive not only the 2008 hurricane, but also weathered The Great Storm of 1900, a category 4 hurricane that holds the title as the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.

It’s astonishing that anything survived that storm. More than 8,000 people perished, and 3,600 buildings were destroyed. But the East End Historic District appears largely intact, with beautifully restored mansions, elaborate churches, and a large number of Victorian homes.

It’s obvious that Galveston was once a thriving port and the grandest city in Texas. We enjoyed walking around the historic district, admiring the homes and chatting with the locals. Sculptures carved from grand old oaks felled in the 2008 storm decorate the gardens. And apparently, Mardi Gras is a big deal here. We were visiting just as people were decorating their homes for the celebration to come.

Sacred Heart Church, an ornate Galveston landmark with Moorish/Romanesque/Byzantine influences. The original sanctuary was a victim of the Great Storm of 1900, but was re-built in 1904.

Bishop’s Palace, a Victorian castle built in 1892 in a style called “Chateausque.” The American Institute of Architects named it as one of the 100 most important buildings in America. Next time we’re in Galveston, I’m going inside for a tour.

A lovely Victorian home in the East End district

Sculptures from great oaks felled in the 2008 hurricane decorate the streets in the East End Historic District. Here, two herons peek through the foliage.

The Tin Man and Toto standing on a corner

An unusual two-story widow’s walk on a home in the historic district

The care and attention to detail is wonderful on the restored Victorian homes

Mardi Gras is a huge celebration in Galveston—it’s reputed to be one of the most festive outside of New Orleans.

Historic downtown Galveston (AKA “The Strand”) was once considered the “Wall Street of the Southwest” before the Great Storm of 1900 brought the town to its knees.

Winding up our Galveston adventures, we discovered Galveston Island Brewing. Started by a former tugboat captain, the craft brewery turns out delicious beer (true to form, I had a porter, and Eric an IPA). It’s a friendly, colorful atmosphere—and best of all, they have a resident brewery kitty, who made happy hour even better.

Happy hour with the cat at Galveston Island Brewing

About the campground:

We loved Galveston Island State Park. There are two parts to the park: beachfront sites, and sites arranged in a wagon-wheel formation on the bayside. If you choose a site backing up to the marsh, the birding and the sunsets are wonderful.

The bayside campground has water and electric hookups and good Verizon. It’s a convenient 15- minute drive into downtown Galveston and the historic area.

The campground fees are reasonable ($20 per night bayside) BUT Texas state parks charge a $5 per person day access fee in addition to your campsite fee (making it $30 per night for two people). When we’re in Texas for more than a week (and it ALWAYS takes more than a week to make our way through Texas), we buy an annual pass for $70, which eliminates the day use fees and includes four half-price nights of camping at the park of your choice.

Campsite Galveston Island State Park

Up Next: Hot Times In Cajun Country: Breaux Bridge, LA

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Beyond The River Walk: San Antonio, TX

Beyond The River Walk: San Antonio, TX

Posted by on May 5, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 32 comments

Mention San Antonio, and you’ll hear, “Don’t miss the River Walk!” It’s true. You really don’t want to miss the River Walk. It’s the centerpiece of the city and a lovely place for a stroll.

But there’s so much more to San Antonio. We were last in town 10 years ago, and only for two nights—just enough to explore the downtown stretch of the River Walk and to know that we wanted to return. This time we spent a week, which allowed us to venture beyond downtown to discover more of the charms of this historic, beautiful Texas city.

Beginning With The River Walk (Of Course!)

The second week of January was a good window to be there—the weather was pleasantly cool (low 40’s at night, mid-60’s during the day) and the town was remarkably peaceful and uncrowded.

Beginning our week in San Antonio on the River Walk, with plenty of elbow room

January was a wonderful time to visit. I doubt you could see the mosaic during high-tourist season.

Meandering the wide, winding path beside the river and exploring the interesting cafés, shops, and artwork along the way reminded me of being in Europe. Which was precisely the intention of  architect Robert H. H. Hugman, the visionary who saved the river from being paved over after a disastrous flood in 1921.

Hugman came up with a flood control plan for the river that included “a narrow, winding street barred to vehicular traffic…holding the best shops and cafés…with quaint atmosphere.”

With the help of the Works Progress Administration, the core of the River Walk was created in 1939. The result is a beautiful two-and-a-half mile stone path bordering both sides of the river, linked by a series of lovely stone arch bridges.

Late winter reflections on the San Antonio River

An intricate mosaic of San Antonio’s Missions and other historic buildings on the River Walk

The River Walk has been called the Venice of America (or at least, of Texas)—but the gondoliers in the river boats don’t sing opera arias; instead you’ll be serenaded by mariachi bands strolling the sidewalks. (Which I find delightful unless they make a beeline for us while we’re having lunch at a riverside café, and then I just want to pay them to go away.)

Enjoying a peaceful lunch at Las Canarias on the River Walk

A delicious shrimp salad, Nicoise style

There’s a lot of art to discover along the River Walk

North On The River Walk: The Pearl Brewery Complex

In the past few years, the River Walk has expanded to 15 miles, and is now the longest linear urban park in the country. Walking just a couple miles north on the section called Museum Reach took us through more landscaped beauty and artwork, ending at the restored historic Pearl Brewery. It’s a favorite spot for locals, and ended up being one of our favorites, too.

Strolling the River Walk in the Museum Reach area

Within the Pearl complex are cool boutiques, bookstores, curio shops, and a charming hotel. The food offerings at a dozen different restaurants are some of the best in town; there’s a big green space for hanging out and relaxing; there’s a farmers’ market on weekends; and a microbrewery turns out some fine beer. We visited the Pearl twice and could have happily spent more time there.

We enjoyed walking along the River Walk to get to the Pearl, but you can also catch a river taxi downtown that will take you there and back. Which looked like fun, but we seem to always be trying to walk or bike off whatever indulgences we have planned.

Fish art on the River Walk on the way to the Pearl Brewery complex

Cured restaurant in the Pearl District; originally an administrative office for the brewery, circa 1903. RVing friends Laura and Kevin told us about this little gem.

Lunch at Cured: Kale salad with dried cherries, toasted pumpkin seeds and watermelon radish. The second course was grass-fed beef chili with pumpkin. All accompanied by tasty local IPAs.

Dessert. We first had Lick Honest Ice Cream in Austin and were delighted to find it again at the Pearl Brewery complex.

Some unique flavor choices. Not so sure about the roasted beet ice cream, but I can vouch for the goat cheese ice cream with thyme and honey.

The Pearl Brewery Complex by night

Inside the renovated brewery, where we had an excellent dinner of grilled Gulf snapper at Southerleigh Fine Foods and Brewery. Good beer at the brewery, too.

South On The River Walk: Biking To The Missions

Heading south on the River Walk, we spent the better part of a day biking the Mission Reach, an eight-mile section (16 miles round-trip) that links four 18th century Spanish Colonial missions. It’s a beautiful ride along the river through wetlands and natural areas, with side trails that lead to the missions. And it’s mostly pretty flat. My favorite kind of biking.

Biking the Mission Trail on the south section of the River Walk (16 miles round-trip)

Mission Concepción, the most historically intact of the missions

Inside Mission Concepción

The Texas missions were established in the early to mid-1700’s, more for political than religious reasons. By converting the indigenous nomadic peoples to Catholicism and teaching them Spanish language and culture, the missions bolstered Spain’s presence on the Texas frontier. In return, the missions provided food and shelter to the wandering tribes (collectively known as the Coahuiltecans) and offered protection from their enemies, the Apache and Comanche.

The Franciscans recognized that perfect adherence to Catholic doctrine wasn’t going to fly with the natives, and wisely modified their goal to one of “Imperfect Conversion.”  Meanwhile, the Indians came up with their own creative take on Christianity, which included peyote ceremonies to help connect them to the spirit world.

Even the artwork in the missions incorporated the beliefs of the indigenous peoples. In Mission Concepción, the most well-preserved of all the missions, original frescoes still decorate the interior. In one of the rooms, I looked up to see a mustachioed face, surrounded by yellow rays, looking down at me.

Fresco in Mission Concepción

The sun was considered a face of God for the native peoples. So it’s pretty cool that this image is in the mission. Here’s the not so great part: Because the Spanish were considered the masters, God was depicted as a Spaniard.

At least the Spanish worked with the Indians and offered something in return instead of just killing them, as happened so many other places.

As of 2015, the San Antonio Missions were named a World Heritage Site, and all still serve as active Catholic parishes for the community.

Mission Concepción

Original interior frescoes

Mission San José

Inside Mission San José

The convento at Mission San José

Indian dwellings at Mission San José, with a traditional stone outdoor oven

Mission San Juan, currently being restored and not open for tours

Mission Espada, the fourth and last on our bike tour

The rustic and beautiful entrance to Mission Espada

Inside Mission Espada, a much simpler mission than the other three

One More Mission: The Most Famous Of All

There’s one more mission in San Antonio. And it’s the most important one, at least according to Texas lore and pride. (Remember the Alamo?) We didn’t realize that the Alamo was not just a fort, but was originally the first of the San Antonio missions.

The Alamo is right in the middle of downtown, just a short walk from the River Walk. It’s a huge tourist attraction with all of the tourists and touristy trinkets that come along with being a tourist magnet. It’s completely unlike the other four missions, all of which have retained their mission-like dignity, peace, and beauty.

Nonetheless, this is a sacred place for Texans. It’s here that a pivotal battle took place in 1836, where the Texians fought for their independence from Mexico. For 13 days, less than 200 Texians defended the Alamo against more than 1800 Mexican soldiers. Although the Texas rebels lost the battle and their lives (including the legendary folk hero Davy Crockett), their sacrifice fueled the rebellion and helped to win the war, carried forward by the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo!

The Alamo, right in the middle of downtown.

Exploring San Antonio’s Gardens

Getting ourselves entirely off the River Walk, we spent part of a day exploring the delightful San Antonio Botanical Garden. Enormous glass pyramids house ferns and tropical plants, and paths wind through all kinds of different gardens and Texas landscapes. One of the most unique areas is a demonstration garden for wise-water usage, with six themed gardens that include tiny houses designed in keeping with the theme.

January is spring gardening time at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens

In the Fern Grotto

Piney Woods cabin along the Texas Native Trail

A tiny house (Spanish courtyard style) in the Water Saver demonstration gardens

And a big purple chair

A fairy house in the children’s garden

We also paid a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden. This had been on my list since I saw it on our friends Lisa and Han’s blog a couple of years ago. It’s a lovely garden created in the 1920s in an abandoned limestone quarry. The name was changed to Chinese Sunken Garden during WW II, for obvious reasons. And then changed back in 1984—although the entrance gate still reads “Chinese Tea Garden.”

Japanese Tea Garden San Antonio

Stone pavilion in the tea garden

Overlooking the tea garden

We wrapped up our San Antonio adventures with a stroll through the King William Historic District, on the south bank of the San Antonio River. In the late 1800s, this was the most elegant residential area in the city and the homes have been beautifully preserved.

Beautiful home in the King William Historic District

Another beautiful home in the King William Historic District (but I don’t want one. Too much to keep up with).

About the RV Park

We stayed at the San Antonio KOA. It was fine, and our site backed up to a biking/walking path along a creek. It had all of the things you expect from a KOA—nice laundry, bathhouses, and a random assortment of activities, none of which we ever participate in. It was also quiet, dark at night, Verizon coverage is good, and it’s a 10-minute drive into the city (there’s also public bus transportation available).

Next time we visit San Antonio, we might try staying at Travelers World RV Resort. We biked past it on our way to the missions, and although the sites seemed close together, we were intrigued by the idea of staying right on the River Walk so that we can explore without driving at all in San Antonio.

Our site at the KOA San Antonio RV Park

Next Up: Birds, Historic Homes, and Beer: Galveston, TX

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Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

Posted by on Apr 23, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 47 comments

At the edge of the Texas Hill Country lies a place so unique “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by Texans.” That’s what Bill Stephenson, founder of the National Speleological Society said about the Caverns of Sonora.

Well, that piqued my interest. And when I read that the caverns are filled with a vast array of glittering crystal-like formations, that made it even more enticing. I love sparkly things. Stars, crystals, fireflies, fireworks, champagne…the sparklier, the better.

On the other hand, I really don’t like caves. I don’t like being underground, I don’t like pitch-black places, and being underground in the dark in a tight space does not bring out the best in me. Nonetheless, this cave was irresistible because it promised treasures. Sparkly treasures.

The Caverns of Sonora happened to be conveniently halfway on our route from the Big Bend area to San Antonio, off Interstate 10 about 15 miles southwest of Sonora. There’s not much around here—so it’s pretty sweet to not only have the caverns to visit, but to also have a place to stay the night.

The campground at Caverns of Sonora (there’s an RV area if you don’t want to stay in a teepee)

The welcoming committee

We pulled into the campground and chose our site for the night—$25 for water and electric hookups. The next morning, we walked over to the gift shop to purchase our tickets for the first tour of the day. The tours cost $20, are offered every two hours starting at 9:00 a.m., and are first-come, with each tour limited to 12 people. The small group makes for a great experience (we had only eight people on our tour).

The gift shop is where you buy your tickets for the tours, and also has a pretty spectacular array of gemstones and rocks for sale

We lucked out with an excellent tour guide, a college student with a passion for speleology who spends his summers and winter holidays guiding people through the caves. Raphael was patient, knowledgeable, and convinced me to leave my down vest behind. Trust me (and Raphael), you do not want to wear anything more than a lightweight shirt in the caves, even if it’s 35 degrees outdoors (as it was in January).

The caves are about 72 degrees year round and 98 percent humidity, which makes it feel like Florida on a hot summer evening. You are not allowed to remove your jacket and tie it around your waist because the formations are delicate, and many of the passageways narrow. The owners of the caves are doing their best to protect the cave, and the only thing you’re allowed to bring along is your camera.

As the story goes, the entrance to the cavern was first discovered in the early 1920s by a dog chasing a raccoon down a hole. Decades of exploration followed, hindered by a 50-foot pit just 500 feet in from the entrance. Those intrepid early explorers eventually fashioned a network of stairs, narrow pathways, and bridges. On our journey, we traveled 155 feet below the surface through two miles of spectacular formations. For two hours, I forgot my dislike of caves. It is truly an otherworldly experience.

Our guide Raphael at the entrance to the cavern

Descending into the cavern

The first little bit of the cavern is nothing to write home about. But as forewarned, it was warm and humid. Really, really humid. My camera immediately fogged up and I had to resort to using my phone for photos.

Things soon got really interesting. No wonder this cavern is regarded as one of the most highly decorated caves in the world.

Before too long, the formations start to get interesting

So fancy! These are reputed to be some of the finest cave formations in the world.

I think these were called toilet brush formations (not really, but that’s what they look like)

The passageways are narrow through the walls of cave coral. Kind of feels like walking underwater through a coral reef.

Paved pathways traverse what would otherwise be inaccessible parts of the cavern

Our wonderful guide pointed out formations along the way

A cave pool filled with pennies, sacrificed to the universal impulse for making wishes. The copper pennies turn the water green.

Descending into the Crystal Palace, the most intricately decorated room of the cave

Halo Lake; the green cast is from pennies tossed in long ago.

Enjoying the Crystal Palace. This is truly a remarkable cave.

Elaborate cave decorations are everywhere

Taking a close look at the formations

Cave bacon, always a favorite in any cave. Doesn’t that look delicious?

The Caverns at Sonora are known for their concentration of rare helictite formations. All caves have stalagmites and stalactites (stalagmites grow upward from the floor, stalactites grow downward from the ceiling—they “hang tight.”) But helictites grow outward from the walls of the cave. How the heck they do that, I have no idea. Apparently, scientists don’t even know for certain. But they’re very beautiful.

A rare helictite formation

I still don’t like caves. But this was a totally cool experience, and I’d do it again.

About the campground

The Caverns of Sonora offer electric and water hookups, with level gravel pull-through sites. There would be little privacy if the campground was full, but there was no one else in the campground while we were there. Bathrooms and showers are available (we didn’t use them). Weak Verizon connection. The best part is that you’re walking distance to some of the most unique caverns in the world. And it’s a great stopover should you be traveling between Big Bend National Park and San Antonio.

Pull-through sites at Caverns of Sonora

Next Up: Biking To The Missions (And So Much More): San Antonio, TX

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Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua & Marathon

Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua & Marathon

Posted by on Apr 15, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 36 comments

We like off-the-beaten-path towns. The smaller and quirkier, the better. At either end of Big Bend National Park lie two such gems: Terlingua and Marathon.

Both are in remote West Texas. Both have breathtaking night skies filled with shimmering stars that stretch to infinity. Both attract people who are happiest coloring outside the lines of conventional life. But despite their similarities, Terlingua and Marathon have distinct personalities.

Here’s what we discovered: Terlingua is the more unpolished of the two, and the best place to kick back with a beer and hang with the locals on the front porch of the rustic trading post. Marathon, on the other hand, is an excellent place to enjoy a superb prickly pear cactus margarita in an elegant 1927-era Western hotel.

Terlingua, Texas

Located just outside the far western border of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua flourished as a quicksilver mining town from the late 1800s until the mid-1940s. They even had their own movie theatre. But the demand for mercury diminished after WWI, the miners walked away, and Terlingua was left to fade into the desert.

Somewhere in the past couple of decades Terlingua was rediscovered by artists, loners, and eccentrics. Now it’s a ghost town with a population of 56. Make that 57, if you count Clay Henry, the taxidermied beer-drinking goat who was the former mayor of next-door Lajitas. (The actual human population may be closer to a couple hundred, no one knows for sure.)

Wandering the old mining cabins of Terlingua Ghost Town

A reclaimed miner’s cabin

At the entrance to town is the historic cemetery. There are no fancy monuments here; just simple stonework, Mexican style grottoes, and wood and filigree crosses. The Day of the Dead is reputed to be quite a festive celebration here.

Near the Terlingua cemetery

The rustic and historic Terlingua cemetery

The old wood and adobe church is still here, and still used. The former miners’ commissary is now the Terlingua Trading Post, offering a surprisingly excellent array of Native American and Mexican crafts—and an equally well-curated selection of craft beers. And the Starlight Theatre, formerly the movie theatre for the miners, offers dining, drinks, and live music.

We celebrated New Year’s at the Starlight and it was great fun. But a few days previously, sitting on the porch drinking a beer from the cooler at the trading post and listening to an impromptu music jam—that was every bit as good.

St. Agnes Church, circa 1914

The church has a rustic and colorful interior

A bug sculpture, just one of Terlingua’s many artistic offerings

Pegasus in the hills above Terlingua. You never know what you’re going to stumble across.

Locals gather each afternoon on the porch of the Starlight Theatre and the trading post next door. This is the place to enjoy some local color in the form of conversation, music, and a sunset over the Chisos Mountains.

The Starlight Theatre

An afternoon on the porch of the Terlingua Trading Post and Starlight Theatre

Music on the porch with really talented musicians and a music-appreciating dog

More reclaimed junk artwork, this time at the Starlight Theatre

Celebrating New Year’s at the the Starlight

Clay Henry, the cranky but beloved (and now stuffed) goat mayor. Legend has it that he could pound down 40 beers a day.

New Year’s at the Starlight Theatre. It was a pretty awesome way to ring in another year.

Marathon, Texas

Just 40 miles north of Big Bend National Park sits the tiny town of Marathon, population 470. The Chamber of Commerce proclaims “There’s nothing to do here.” Well, it’s a peaceful, beautiful place to do nothing. And that’s exactly what we did for two nights as we wrapped up our adventures in Big Bend.

Marathon is upscale compared to Terlingua—but there’s still an eccentric twist to the town

The wide main street invites exploring

The French Grocer, with just about everything you need

One of the most unusual places in Marathon is a colorful, fanciful hacienda sculpted of straw bales and paper crete made of recycled materials. The owner and builder invited us in for a tour—it’s a remarkable work of art, including the gardens and greenhouse filled with bougainvillea, banana trees, flowers, and herbs.

In the courtyard of Eve’s Garden B & B

It’s remarkable what you can build from paper crete and straw bales

A greenhouse paradise at Eve’s Garden B & B

The biggest attraction in town is the Spanish-Mission style Gage Hotel, built in 1927 for cattle baron Alfred S. Gage. (The architect was Henry Trost from El Paso, who also built El Paisano in Marfa.) Every inch of the hotel is exquisite, down to the gingerbread replica decorating the lobby (we were there just before they took down the holiday decorations).

To celebrate the beginning of another new year on the road, we planned a special dinner at the 12 Gage Restaurant in the hotel. After cocktails in the White Buffalo Bar, we settled into our black-and-white cowhide chairs for a Moroccan-inspired meal of spiced quail with basmati-apricot pilaf and charred tomato and green beans. Really tasty. But really skimpy on the stuffing. As it turns out, only a teaspoon of stuffing fits into a quail.

Those prickly pear cactus margaritas in the White Buffalo Bar, though. Those alone are worth the trip to Marathon.

The Gage Hotel, circa 1927

We caught the tail-end of the Gage Hotel decorated for the holidays, replete with a gingerbread Gage Hotel

The next day, all holiday decorations were cleared away. The decor of the hotel is understated classic Western elegance.

A tooled and silver embellished saddle is part of the decor

This is cattle ranching country

If you come to Marathon, don’t miss the White Buffalo Bar

Award winning prickly pear cactus margaritas

Just across the railroad tracks are the Gage Gardens, which would be even more beautiful in spring

A Golden-fronted Woodpecker in the gardens

About the RV Park

We visited Terlingua twice while staying in Study Butte during our week in Big Bend National Park.

To explore Marathon, we stayed two nights at Marathon Motel & RV Park. The sites are basically big open pull-throughs on dirt and gravel, but the park was quiet and the sunsets and dark night skies are spectacular. Plus, it’s an easy half-mile walk into town. Full hookups, good cell coverage, free wifi, and laundry (although there is only one washer and dryer).

There’s a lovely outdoor fireplace and courtyard where people gather most evenings, but it was so cold when we were there that no one ventured outdoors after dark. People also often set up telescopes for star gazing (but no one braved 17 degrees for a star party).

When you reserve, ask for a site in the back area away from the highway. The first two nights of your stay they honor Passport America, which makes it a great deal.

The Marathon Motel & RV Park

Pink afternoon glow at the RV Park

Dang, it was cold while we were there! The fountain was frozen in the courtyard of the RV Park.

A Marathon, Texas sunset

Next Up: Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

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Big, Beautiful, Big Bend National Park

Big, Beautiful, Big Bend National Park

Posted by on Apr 5, 2018 in Gallery, National Parks, Texas, Travel | 36 comments

Thank you, dear friends, for your compassionate, generous, and supportive comments in response to my last blog post. While this blog is primarily about our travels, everything that happens along the way is part of the journey. I don’t write about every flat tire or mosquito bite, but I do write about the big challenges. Your kindness buoys our spirits and helps us know we’re not alone as we navigate this epic adventure called life.

Flipping back through the calendar pages to the cusp of the New Year finds us in Big Bend National Park. According to Native American legend, after the Great Spirit created heaven and earth he dumped all the leftover rocks into a big pile, and the Big Bend was born. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? I assure you, that legend doesn’t tell the whole story.

This is not a place you just happen upon. We’ve come close numerous times in our travels across West Texas, but it wasn’t until the last of December that we turned onto the two-lane road that would take us seventy miles from the nearest town into that giant pile of rubble known as Big Bend National Park.

Big Bend National Park

It is remote, rugged, and wild. And far more beautiful than I imagined (truthfully, I didn’t imagine it would be beautiful. I imagined dry, rocky, and barren. I was wrong).

Even the National Park Service waxes poetic in describing the park: “There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone…this magical place is Big Bend.”

Painted hills on the road to Boquillas Canyon

We spent a week in the park, hiking as many of the trails as we could squeeze into short winter days, rafting a section of the Rio Grande, and best of all, sharing adventures with our good friends and fellow full-time travelers Beth and Perry. Our verdict: This truly is a magical place.

Big Bend National Park is enormous. Covering more than 1250 square miles of desert and mountainous terrain, it takes more than an hour to get from one side of the park to the other. But there’s no traffic. And the roads are peaceful and scenic.

We stayed in a private RV park just outside the entrance to the west side of the park. Upon arrival, I had one of those “Uh-oh, what have I gotten us into?” moments. The park is hard packed dirt, the sites are not well-defined, and scattered around the property is a random assortment of junk, most of which the owner intends to use for some project someday. Oh, and there’s an old cemetery for added ambiance.

Our view at Study Butte RV Park

Curiously, there’s a cemetery at Study Butte RV Park

As it turns out, it was a wonderful place to stay. The internet is free and fast, the owner is friendly and accommodating, and the park is quiet and has memorable sunsets and dark night skies filled with stars.

We started our explorations at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. The film about the park is excellent, and the map and list of hikes we picked up was invaluable in planning our time. While there, we decided to hike the Grapevine Hills Trail, which isn’t far from the visitor center. It turned out to be one of our favorite short hikes in the park.

First stop: Panther Junction Visitor Center

A VW camper caravan

The Grapevine Hills Trail on a cold, late December day

We happened to be at the park the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There were a couple of nights of unseasonably cold temperatures (dropping into the 30’s) and a couple of days of chilly hiking, especially when the wind was blowing. But we’ll take cold any day over hot, especially in Big Bend, where there’s not much shade to be found and the temperatures can soar to 95 degrees by late spring.

On the way to Balanced Rock, the big attraction on the Grapevine Hills Trail

It’s a short hike at less than two miles round-trip, but has some fun rock scrambling

Beneath the famous Balanced Rock

Surreal views from the top of the Grapevine Hills Trail

Adventures On The West Side

The 31-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (named for the first park superintendent, who helped design the route) is the highlight of the west side of the park. We set out bright and early on a chilly morning to drive the trail, stopping often to admire the views and  hiking a variety of short trails along the way. At the end of the day, we’d hiked about seven miles, and spent many more miles entranced by the mosaic of canyons, cliffs, desert, and clouds.

On the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Beginning our adventures in Big Bend with Perry and Beth

At the Sotol Vista Overlook

On the Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail; about one mile round-trip

Purple prickly pear provides a bit of color during the winter

Admiring the Burro Mesa Pouroff

On the Mule Ears Spring Trail; about 4 miles round trip

See the Mule Ears in the distance?

We finished up our day on the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which begins rather elaborately with paved switchbacks and stone retaining walls before descending to the river. The trail hugs the Rio Grande and offers a glimpse of the temple-like canyons carved from limestone promised by the national park.

Beginning the ascent into Santa Elena Canyon; about 1.6 miles round trip

The Rio Grande is the watery border between the U.S. and Mexico

Along the Santa Elena Canyon Trail

At the end of the trail in Santa Elena Canyon, overlooking the Rio Grande

Heading back down the concrete paved stairway

Curious to see the canyon from the water, we signed up for a half-day rafting expedition on the Rio Grande. Our guide was high-spirited and great fun and we learned a lot from her about the geology and history of the area. It’s not an inexpensive trip, though, and we realized in retrospect that we could have easily used our own kayaks and created our own shuttle.

Rafting on the Rio Grande with our very fun guide

It’s more of a float trip than a rafting trip

A great day for floating on the river

Adventures On The East Side

On the opposite side of the park from where we were staying, we explored the rocky desert-like terrain of Boquillas Canyon and the historic hot springs on the Rio Grande. This is one of the only places we encountered hordes of people (in Big Bend National Park, “horde” is a relative term. This is one of the least visited national parks in the country). Had we been there at any time other than Christmas break, we would have had the hot springs to ourselves.

On the road to Boquillas Canyon

Overlooking the Rio Grande on the Boquillas Canyon Trail

Trinkets made by craftspeople of Boquillas, Mexico

Jesus from Boquillas serenades hikers on the trail, sells trinkets, and makes a quick return to his home across the river if officials appear

The getaway canoe on the bank of the Rio Grande

Beth cooling off in the Rio Grande

A Mexican burro mama and baby come to drink from the river

On the Hot Springs Trail

Historic bathhouse on the trail

The hot spring was packed on this fine late December day

Adventures In The Chisos Basin

The Chisos Mountains are the crown jewel of the park. We chose two beautiful hikes here. The Window Trail is a 5.6 mile round-trip trek that descends 1,000 feet and ends abruptly at the pour-off for the basin. It’s a wonderful framed viewpoint with rocks worn to a glass-like smoothness by centuries of cascading water. You don’t want to get too close to the edge on this one.

The Window Trail

Heading down into the basin on the Window Trail

Stone walls along the trail; more of the handiwork of the CCC boys

A stone staircase, also created by the CCC, provides passage through the rocky chasm

Hiking up the carved stairs on the Window Trail

Admiring the view from The Window, the rock slick as glass from centuries of water cascading over the edge

Returning on the Window Trail

We saved the Lost Mine Trail for our last adventure in the park. The rugged, gorgeous trail climbs 1,100 feet over two and a half miles through a cool forest of pine, oak, juniper, and madrone with stunning views along the way of volcanic buttes rising from the desert floor. If we had to choose one not-to-be-missed hike, it would be this one. Or maybe the Window Trail. Or the Grapevine Hills Trail. I take it back—we don’t want to choose. We can’t choose.

Heading into the Chisos Canyon at daybreak

Views of the massive Casa Grande volcanic butte dominate the trail

A century plant (agave) dried bloom stalk on the beautiful trail

Stairs carved in pink granite, again thanks to the CCC

The pines and junipers on the trail look almost like bonsai

Nearing the end of the trail, with another view of Casa Grande

A volcanic pinnacle at the end of the Lost Mine Trail

About the campground

We were in Big Bend National Park the week between Christmas and New Year’s, one of the two busiest times at the park (March is the second busiest time). Even months ahead of time, there were no reservations available at Rio Grande Campground, the only RV campground within the park. All of the other campgrounds in the park are no hook-up, first-come first served, and most are unsuitable for anything but the smallest rig.

As it turns out, we were happy that we landed at Study Butte RV Park. The park has full hook-ups, the owner is great, and the internet is speedy and free. And it’s just a few miles from the town of Terlingua, which if you come to Big Bend, you do not want to miss.

Our site at Study Butte RV Park. It looks spacious in this photo because Beth and Perry had left. They were about three feet away, which is just the perfect distance with good friends! :-)

Next Up: Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua and Marathon, TX

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A Postcard From West Texas: Fort Davis, Marfa, & Alpine

A Postcard From West Texas: Fort Davis, Marfa, & Alpine

Posted by on Mar 12, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 32 comments

There was a time when we dreaded the 800-mile slog across Texas, especially the desolate 550-mile stretch between El Paso and someplace we considered worth visiting—say, Austin or San Antonio.

But that was before we unearthed the gems of West Texas. There is beauty and peace in these wide open spaces, quirky towns scattered about, and interesting characters who call this far-flung region home. We cross Texas almost yearly in our travels from Oregon to Florida, and I’m happy to say we no longer dread the journey—in fact, we’ve found much that entices us to return.

Cruising down the highway in the company of tumbleweeds

In late December, we parked ourselves for a few days at Davis Mountains State Park. We’ve been here before and had good memories of the park and the surrounding little towns of Fort Davis, Marfa, and Alpine. This time, we had some serious winter weather, with temperatures dipping into the 20’s at night. But the days were sunny and bright, and we had a good time hiking and exploring Fort Davis and the nearby towns of Alpine and Marfa.

There are miles of beautiful trails at Davis Mountains State Park, most of them steep and rocky

The CCC boys were busy at Davis Mountains State Park in the 1930’s, including building this shelter overlooking Fort Davis

On the old CCC Trail to Fort Davis

Built of handmade adobe bricks, the Indian Lodge was one of the projects of the CCC and is still used as lodging for park guests

A brand new luxurious birding pavilion is a great place for morning coffee and birdwatching

Early morning birding at Davis Mountains State Park

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet arrives for a peanut butter breakfast

Just a few miles from the state park is Fort Davis National Historic Site, considered one of the finest examples in the country of a frontier American Southwest military post. From the mid-to-late 1800’s, army personnel stationed here protected settlers, mail coaches, and traders en route between El Paso and San Antonio.

Many of the buildings have been restored (including a state-of-the-art frontier army hospital) and the excellent new visitor center presents stories of the settlers and the Apache and Comanche that called this land home.

On the trail overlooking Fort Davis

Fort Davis Officers Quarters

The newly renovated visitor center at Fort Davis

Apache Kiowa moccasins

Sunset in the Davis Mountains

Ten miles up a winding mountain road from the state park is the McDonald Observatory, one of the most highly regarded observatories in the world. The Davis Mountains boast some of the darkest, clearest night skies in the country.

Several years ago we attended a star program at the observatory; this time, we returned for a daytime tour that included seeing some of the enormous telescopes up close (including one of the most powerful telescopes in the world) and a real-time viewing of the sun.

Many of the scientific details from the tour have already escaped me, but I do remember the quote by Albert Einstein that was written in large script on the wall of one of the observatories: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science.”

(Book your tickets for observatory tours ahead and book online. The tours often sell out, and the tickets are cheaper online.)

The sundial at McDonald Observatory

Witnessing the birth of stars in a faraway star nursery

The original McDonald Observatory, built in the 1930s

Bright shiny new observatory containing the powerful Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Explaining the inside workings of an enormous research telescope

Marfa, Texas

Marfa has definitely been “discovered” since we first visited back in 2012. The vibe now seems more hip and less quirky, but it’s still an interesting place to visit for a few hours, especially if you enjoy wandering and photography.

Founded in the early 1880s as a railroad water stop in the middle of nowhere, Marfa has become a haven for artists and urban escapees.

We were happy to see the Food Shark still in operation. On our first visit to Marfa, we were delighted by the delicious gourmet Mediterranean food offerings of the funky silver food truck. Five years later, the truck looks even more decrepit. But our Greek salads were fresh and tasty, made with organic greens, fresh herbs, feta from a local goat dairy, and homemade hummus. Another lesson in “do not judge by appearances.”

Marfa, Texas

The Presidio County Courthouse, built in 1886

An adobe church against the always cobalt skies in Marfa

In the courtyard of the historic El Paisano Hotel, circa 1930 (paisano means roadrunner)

The lobby of El Paisano Hotel decked out for the holidays

Checking out Spare Parts in downtown Marfa (a vintage Western wear store)

Local designer clothing and local poetry on the walls of Communitie Marfa

The Food Shark

Lunch in the funky courtyard of the Food Shark. The big bus is a dining car—a new addition to the Food Shark compound.

Alpine, Texas

The biggest town in Far West Texas, Alpine (population 6,000) is the jumping off point for Big Bend National Park. We spent a day in town exploring and stocking up at the excellent Blue Water Natural Foods store for our upcoming week in the national park.

While we were at it, we paid a visit to the small, very good, and free Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University. And enjoyed an excellent lunch at Reata Cowboy Cuisine.

Downtown Alpine, Texas

Postcard murals in Alpine

Museum of the Big Bend on the campus of Sul Ross University

Inside the Museum of the Big Bend

A traveling shrine carried by Spanish missionaries

Reata Cowboy Cuisine in Alpine

Cowboy decor at Reata

Contender for the best Tortilla Chicken Soup we’ve ever had

About the campground:
Davis Mountains State Park was established as one of the first Texas State Parks, and it’s one of our favorites. The setting is beautiful, the night skies are wonderfully dark and star-filled, the sites are spacious, and there is a network of excellent hiking trails that range from easy to challenging. If you enjoy birding, you’ll appreciate this park. A couple of lovely birding pavilions provide a comfortable spot for watching the birds that come to the well-stocked feeders and water features.

Sites range from no-hookup to full-hookup, and there are bathhouses with hot showers and a dump station. There’s no cell service in the campground, but take the scenic drive to the top of the mountain overlooking Fort Davis and you’ll have excellent coverage (it’s also a great place for sunset).

A bonus is that Davis Mountains State Park is ideally located for exploring Fort Davis (a short trip down the mountain), the McDonald Observatory (about 10 miles up the mountain), Marfa (25 miles southwest) and Alpine (25 miles southeast).

Davis Mountains State Park Campground

Next Up: It’s Really Big, And Really Beautiful: Big Bend National Park

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