Birding in South Texas

Not fitting the stereotype of the avid birdwatcher who travels to the most exotic corners of the globe, many RVers simply want to be where the birds are.

A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest scopes, peering through the most expensive binoculars, and checking another bird off the official life list, we carry our mid-priced super-zoom cameras and take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color.

That’s what draws us and many other snowbirds to South Texas.

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this ecowonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S. Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay, black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured below), roseate spoonbill, and the Altamira oriole.

The Great Kiskadee has a bright yellow belly and looks a little like a kingbird on steroids but with it’s bold black and white striped head, and reddish brown upperparts it is stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, repeatedly calling out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Great Kiskadee has a bright yellow belly and looks a little like a kingbird on steroids but with it’s bold black and white striped head, and reddish brown upperparts it is stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, repeatedly calling out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After all, The Valley offers not just one but a total of nine World Birding Centers, and it’s located at the convergence of two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi.

Often referred to as The Texas Tropics, this area is very popular, too, with snowbirds from the Midwest and Central Canada. However, these winter tourists are not simply referred to as snowbirds but affectionately dubbed Winter Texans. After all, these birdwatchers and winter visitors are very important to the area’s economy, so they are, indeed, welcomed.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 325 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

green jay
The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.

As the trolley rounds the bend into the park visitors are frequently greeted by a sizable flock of the loud and raucous plain chachalaca, a brown, chicken-like species that’s found only in this part of the country.

To assist the casual birder Bentsen offers a series of bird blinds strategically placed near various feeding stations. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities.

Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. All you need to do is sit and watch the show as the birds keep coming to feed. We sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter repeatedly without disturbing the birds.

Yellow-breasted great kiskadees swooped down in front of us and drank from the small pool of water. This flycatcher has black and white stripes on its crown and sides, appears to be a kind of cross between a kingfisher and a meadowlark, and attracts attention by its incessant “kis-ka-dee” calls.

Green jays (pictured above) postured and fluttered at the feeders. This beautiful bird is, indeed, green-breasted (unlike our blue jay), with green wings, but there’s also some white, yellow, and blue plumage. This bird’s flashy coloring, boisterous nature, dry, throaty rattle, and frequent “cheh-chehcheh-cheh” call make it very easy to spot.

common pauraque
A widespread nightjar throughout the Americas, the Common Paraque reaches the United States only in the Rio Grande Valley. Its call is a loud burry whistle, “purr-WEEE-eer.” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A golden-fronted woodpecker fed at the peanut butter log. Barred with black and white above and buff below, the male has red restricted to the cap; nape orange; forecrown yellow; the female lacks red but has an orange nape. Its voice is a loud churrrr; the call a burry chuck-chuck-chuck.

Another World Birding Center located in McAllen, is at Quinta Mazatlan, a historic 1930s Spanish Revival adobe hacienda that’s surrounded by 15 acres of lush tropical landscape and several birding trails.

Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, and roseate spoonbill.

The warm winter climate and the awesome bird watching attract Winter Texans to The Valley and keep them returning year after year. We’ll be back, Hope to see you there.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Magnet For Birds & Snowbirds

They may be blue in the North Country, but in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the jays have bright green backs, purple-blue heads with black trim down to the chest, and yellowish-green underparts.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Valley, as it is affectionately called, is an area near the Mexican border that stretches from Brownsville and Harlingen in the east to Mission in the west—a distance of about 65 miles. Starting in the east and heading west, there’s Brownsville, Los Fresco, Rio Honda, San Benito, Harlingen, La Feria, Mercedes, Weslaco, Donna, Alamo, San Juan, Pharr, Edinburg, McAllen, and Mission.

The Valley is one of North America’s meccas for birders. And the green jay (pictured above) is the official bird of McAllen, the area’s largest city with 135,000 residents.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park—an area well known by both birders and the U.S. border patrol—is a great spot for bird watching.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

Dozens of green jays along with the raucous chachalacas (pictured below), great kiskadee (pictured below), and Altamira orioles (pictured below) congregate around a series of feeders a short distance from the roadway at the first stop on a tram ride from the visitors center.

The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

This is bird watching made easy in what is touted as one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the United States.

From an observation tower in the park’s south end, visitors catch a glimpse of the meandering slow-flowing Rio Grande and neighboring Mexico. Sharing the park with birders and cyclists, are numerous border patrol vehicles, keeping watch along irrigation canals for people trying to enter the US illegally.

The green jay, along with some 500 other species that stay in the Rio Grande Valley year-round, is one of many head-turning attractions for the tens of thousands of Winter Texans who flock to The Valley annually.

Those who like to combine birding with spectacular architecture do what we did and head to the city-owned Quinta Mazatlan, one of the largest adobe-style mansions in the US.

There, staff relate stories of Jason Matthews, the adventurer who is said to have fought the Turks with Lawrence of Arabia and who built the estate, including a rooftop “hooch” made of sticks.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The place was nearly demolished after being damaged by a hurricane in 1967 but a local couple bought it for a song and restored it to the point it was honored for its splendor by the State of Texas.

At the end of the ’90s, the property was once again up for sale and the city outbid developers seeking to raze the mansion and develop the site. Now Quinta Mazatlan, like the state park, is one of the region’s most important birding areas and one of the most photographed spots in McAllen.

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center sits on 40 acres within an Edinburg city park. Built on re-claimed farm fields adjacent to the city’s effluent and floodwater ponds, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands is a showcase for wildlife and a native habitat site set amidst an urban setting. Surrounding the Interpretive Center, the 3.5-acre native butterfly habitat offers some of the most diverse habitat in the region.

Waterfowl and shorebirds like the green kingfisher, black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, and American avocet have a home here, and can be easily viewed from platforms overlooking peaceful freshwater lagoons. At least 13 species of ducks flock here in winter months.

Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination. At the geographic center of the World Birding Center network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest.

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande shares some of the same specialty birds as Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, plain chacalaca, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques, green kingfishers, grebes, coots, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, roseate spoonbill, and long-billed dowitcher.

The many area RV parks are packed with Winter Texans who have for decades discovered Texas as a more economical alternative to Florida.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise

Hunting Island, the most popular state park in South Carolina, attracts more than a million visitors annually and was recently named a top 10 beach Trip Advisor.

Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the well-preserved, five-mile stretch of South Carolina coast you’ll find a maritime forest, the only publicly accessible lighthouse in the state, and the pristine sandy beach.

Hunting Island State Park is only 29 miles off Interstate 95, the main corridor between Florida and the Northeast, approximately halfway between Savannah and Charleston.

Approximately 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, the park encompasses 5,000 acres of sandy beach, maritime forest, and saltwater marsh. It is classified as a true semitropical island.

The island got its name because it was once used for hunting deer, raccoon, and other small game animals and waterfowl. Once used as the hunting preserve for wealthy planters’ families, Hunting Island was renowned for its hunting parties that lasted several days.

Hunting Island possesses the best developed slash pine-palmetto forest in the state and is one of the best sites to observe South Carolina’s state tree, the Cabbage Palmetto, in its native habitat.

Cabbage palmettos stretch out onto the sands of the magnificent beach, which is more than 400 feet wide in places at low tide.

Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful beach is not the only attraction at Hunting Island. The salt marsh is one of the most productive habitats in the world. Rich in nutrients, the salt marsh provides food and shelter for many different life forms. It is the home of waterfowl, small mammals, and many amphibians and reptiles.

Most marine life is also directly or indirectly dependent on the salt marsh. Some, such as the shrimp, live and spawn in the sea as adults but come into the shallow productive waters of the salt marsh to mature. Others, such as the fiddler crab, spawn in the marshes; then the young swim out to sea where they remain until nearly grown.

Many animals spend their entire lives in the marsh while others visit the marsh for food. There are few places on earth where plant and animal life are so varied, so abundant, so unusual, and so fascinating.

Probably the most spectacular feature of Hunting Island is its 19th-century lighthouse, which stands with three remaining original structures in the middle of the park.

Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Hunting Island Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in South Carolina that is publicly accessible. From the top of one of the most distinctive lighthouses in South Carolina, guests can stand 130 feet above the ground to take in the breathtaking, panoramic view of the Atlantic Coast and surrounding maritime forest.

The lighthouse tower is open for climbing; hours vary seasonally. For an admission of $2, visitors can climb the 167 steps and walk around the observation deck for a lofty view of the barrier island and surrounding seascape.

The lighthouse was closed for repairs in May 2003 when cracks were discovered in several of its cast-iron steps. In a renovation that spanned more than 18 months, construction crews not only repaired the cracks, but installed steel braces beneath them for reinforcement. Left unpainted, the silver-gray braces stand out in sharp contrast to the black cast-iron stairs. The contrast helps distinguish between the original structure and modern improvements, which protect the lighthouse’s historic integrity.

The original structure was built in 1859 and rebuilt in 1875 after it was destroyed during the Civil War. A unique feature of the lighthouse is that it was constructed of interchangeable cast-iron sections so it could be dismantled should it ever need to be moved. Severe beach erosion made it necessary to relocate the lighthouse 1.3 miles inland in 1889.

RV and tent camping is available at the northern end of the park near the ocean. Each of the 200 sites has water and electrical hookups; 102 sites offer 20/30/50-amp electric service. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet; other up to 28 feet. In addition 10 trail sites with access to water are available for tent campers. Camping reservations are available. Complimentary Wi-Fi is now available in the campground. Dump stations are located at the exit of each campground area.

Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To begin and end your day, be sure to catch the splendor of the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean and the sunset over the salt marsh.

Although plenty of activities can keep you occupied, the true beauty of Hunting Island is its atmosphere—a blend of sights and sounds that almost forces you to relax, to escape the rush of today’s life, to forget that the interstate is less than 30 minutes away.

The park is open year-round, and in the off season its solitude and charm are even more pronounced.

Details

Hunting Island State Park

Admission: $5; children ages 6-15, $3

Lighthouse admission: $2

RV Camping: $17-38

Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Address: 2555 Sea Island Parkway, Hunting Island, SC 29920

Phone: (843) 838-2011

Directions: If traveling north on I-95, take Exit 8 (SR-170); if you’re traveling south, take Exit 42 (US-21 south); both routes leads through Beaufort (state park is 16 miles east of Beaufort on US-21)

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

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Enchanted Rock: Sitting on Top of the World

The Texas Hill Country begins a little way west of I-35 between San Antonio and Austin, and from here extends a large area of rolling hills and valleys with limestone canyons, clear-water rivers, and a few scattered small towns.

Enchanted Rock is an impressive geological feature with an estimated age of one billion years, making it among the oldest exposed rock in North America
Enchanted Rock is an impressive geological feature with an estimated age of one billion years, making it among the oldest exposed rock in North America. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the area is quite densely wooded and can look rather featureless from a distance, with every hill covered with trees. One exception is Enchanted Rock, an enormous, pink granite dome located between Llano and Fredericksburg, about 90 miles north of San Antonio and 18 miles from Fredericksburg along ranch road 965.

Enchanted Rock rises 425 feet above ground, 1825 feet above sea level, and covers 640 acres.

It’s part of the Llano Uplift, a large region of granite bedrock that rises out of the surrounding limestone. Over the last several million years, erosion has exposed this billion-year-old dome and its smaller sister domes. It’s some of the oldest exposed rock in the world and is a prime destination for hikers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Boasting the best view in Texas, Enchanted Rock has long been a useful landmark for cross-country travelers. The rock is one of the largest batholiths (underground rock formation uncovered by erosion) formed from molten magma deep below the earth’s crust and part of an underground mass of 62 square miles, one of the largest such features in the US.

Although Enchanted Rock appears to be solid and durable, it continues to change and erode.

Visitors to Enchanted Rock enjoy numerous activities, including hiking, backpacking, technical and rock climbing, primitive camping, picnicking, birding, geological study, stargazing and nature study.
Visitors to Enchanted Rock enjoy numerous activities, including hiking, backpacking, technical and rock climbing, primitive camping, picnicking, birding, geological study, stargazing and nature study. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1970 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Enchanted Rock is part of the state park system, one of the most popular sites in Texas for several reasons—the scenery is unusual, the summit is easily reached and has fine views over the countryside, different habitats harbor varied wildflowers, cacti and other plants, and there are good hiking trails and rock climbing routes. Occasionally visitors are turned away if the carpark reaches maximum capacity. There are actually several different summits, and a few days could be spent exploring the area.

The park offers 7 miles of hiking trails, including the popular 6/10 mile Summit Trail which involves a 425-foot elevation gain hike to the top of Enchanted Rock.
The park offers 7 miles of hiking trails, including the popular 6/10 mile Summit Trail which involves a 425-foot elevation gain hike to the top of Enchanted Rock. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two main trails. The steep and heavily traveled Summit Trail leads directly to the summit of the main rock, while the Loop Trail makes a four-mile trek around the entire complex of domes.

A more relaxed and more scenic—but longer—hike, the Loop Trail presents a completely different aspect of the park. Along the way you’ll pass through a couple of different ecosystems—through woods and brush, by a pond, over exposed rock—and you’ll see several unusual eroded and lichen-encrusted rock formations that those who do climb the face of Enchanted Rock never get to see.

A good combination is to walk half the loop trail to the far side of the Enchanted Rock summit, use a short cut along a ravine (Echo Canyon) to link with the summit trail then take this up to the peak. The southern part of the loop trail climbs through pine woodland and past large granite boulders with many colorful wildflowers during spring. There is a short side trail to a viewpoint of distant lands to the west, while the main path continues past a primitive camping area and a large pond (Moss Lake) with fish and turtles, then meets the Echo Canyon junction. The trail through here passes one of the main rock climbing areas, then meets the summit trail half way to the top.

Details

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Elevation: 1,825 feet (high point)

Address: 16710 Ranch Road 965, Fredericksburg, TX 78624

Phone: (830) 685-3636

Directions: From Fredericksburg 18 miles north on Ranch Road 965; from Llano, 14 miles south on SR-16 and then west on Ranch Road 965

Entrance Fees: $7; children 12 years and younger, free

The 4-mile Loop Trail, a favorite among hikers and backpackers, winds around the base of Enchanted Rock.
The 4-mile Loop Trail, a favorite among hikers and backpackers, winds around the base of Enchanted Rock. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: Park closures are possible on weekends and holidays. The number of people in the park is limited to protect its fragile resources. When parking lots are full, the park will close for up to two hours. This can happen September through May, sometimes as early as 11 a.m.

Worth Pondering…

I am humbled by the forces of nature that continuously -mold our great state of Texas into a beautiful landscape complete with geological diversity, flora and fauna. It is my goal as a photographer to capture that natural beauty and share it with others.

—Chase A. Fountain

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Balmorhea State Park: An Oasis in the Desert

Plopped in the middle of the prickly, dry Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, the spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park is an oasis in the desert.

San Solomon Springs is home to varied species of waterfowl and two thumb-size species of endangered fish: the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos gambusia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
San Solomon Springs is home to varied species of waterfowl and two thumb-size species of endangered fish: the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos gambusia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And any time you have water in the desert it’s going to be a special place.

It’s a hot haul across I-10 from El Paso to San Antonio. Most RVers speed along in an air-conditioned hurry to the next big name destination. Little do they realize as they whiz past Exit 206 what they’re missing less than fifteen minutes off the freeway: 46 grassy acres with wetlands and towering cottonwoods that shade canals, an RV campground and motel-style retro lodging, and an immense enclosed spring-fed pool.

The pool is open daily. It is fed by San Solomon Springs; 22 to 28 million gallons of water flow through it each day. At 25 feet deep, and with a capacity of more than 3.5 million gallons, the pool has plenty of room for swimmers and offers a unique setting for scuba and skin diving.

The site has long attracted people: American Indians, Spanish explorers, Mexican farmers, and U.S. soldiers watered up here long before the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) turned a desert wetland into a spring-fed pool in the 1930s.

The CCC established a camp at the 1.75-acre swimming pool and built concession buildings and a park residence. They enclosed and sculpted the pool into a 200-foot circle over the spring and two long tangents (389 feet and 180 feet long) that form a “V.” At the end of one tangent, the depth is only three feet, making it an ideal area for swimmers and children. The entire area is lined with limestone and bordered with flagstone paving.

A 3-acre reconstructed desert wetlands and canals built at the park in 1995 provides habitat for migrating birds, and a refuge for indigenous aquatic, fowl, and amphibian life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A 3-acre reconstructed desert wetlands and canals built at the park in 1995 provides habitat for migrating birds, and a refuge for indigenous aquatic, fowl, and amphibian life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Private concessionaires operated the park until the 1960s, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took it over. Today visitors flock from around the state and far beyond to dip a toe or two or scuba dive into crystal-clear waters of the enormous V-shaped pool with a natural bottom. On hot summer weekends, the park fills to capacity by noon and vehicles are turned away.

Native reeds and bulrushes sway in the San Solomon Cienega, a 3-acre reconstructed desert wetlands and canals built at the park in 1995 to provide habitat for migrating birds, and a refuge for indigenous aquatic, fowl, and amphibian life.

Set amongst canals, San Solomon Springs Courts offer motel-style retro lodging built by the CCC in the 1930s with a Southwestern adobe look. There are 18 rooms and all are designated as non-smoking.

Birders flock to the Park for sightings of phoebes, rails, kingfishers, sparrows, quail, wrens, hawks, pigeons, hummingbirds, roadrunners, and many others.

To call Balmorhea State Park a popular dive site is an understatement. From Labor Day through Memorial Day, which is the park’s low season, each weekend as many as 10 different dive operations find the friendly waters of San Solomon Springs ideal for certifying divers from entry level (Open Water) to specialties such as Rescue, Photography, Videography, Naturalist, or Night. Each of them brings groups of 10 to 15 dive students.

Call it oasis or paradise; scuba divers call it fun!

One can swim, scuba dive, snorkel, sunbathe, bird watch, picnic, play in the playground, sit under a shade tree by the springs, camp, enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and motel or RV it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
One can swim, scuba dive, snorkel, sunbathe, bird watch, picnic, play in the playground, sit under a shade tree by the springs, camp, enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and motel or RV it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Solomon Springs may be the only dive site that provides entertainment for the whole family.  One can swim, scuba dive, snorkel, sunbathe, bird watch, picnic, play in the playground, sit under a shade tree by the springs, camp, enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and motel or RV it.

Details

Balmorhea State Park

Entrance Fee: $7/adult; children 12 years and under, free

Camping: 6 campsites with water, $11; 16 campsites with water and electric, $14; 12 campsites with water, electric, and cable TV, $17; all campsites + daily entrance fee

Elevation: 3,205 feet

Directions: From I-10 westbound, take Balmorhea Exit 206, FM 2903 south to Balmorhea, then Texas 17 east 4 miles to the Park; from I-10 eastbound, take Toyahvale/Ft. Davis Exit 192, Ranch Road 3078 east 12 miles to the park.

Address: P.O. Box 15, Toyahvale, TX 79786

Phone: (432) 375-2370

Website: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/balmorhea

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

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Dry Falls: World’s Largest Waterfall

As the name suggests, Dry Falls no longer carries water, but is the remnant of what was once the world’s largest (in water volume) waterfall known to have existed on earth, but that was during the Great Missoula Floods at the end of the last Ice Age.

Dry Falls: World's Largest Waterfall
Dry Falls: World’s Largest Waterfall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today the falls is a massive cirque of basalt: Dry Falls Lake. The site is designated a National Natural Landmark.

Viewing the 3.5 miles of sheer cliffs that drop 400 feet, it is easy to imagine the roar of water pouring over them. Niagara Falls by comparison, is one mile wide with a drop of 165 feet.

The falls were created following the catastrophic collapse of an enormous ice-dam holding back the waters of Glacier Lake Missoula. Water covering three thousand square miles of northwest Montana, about the volume of Lake Ontario, was locked behind this glacial dam until the rising lake penetrated, lifted, and then blew out the ice dam. This massive torrent known as the Missoula Flood ran wild through the Idaho panhandle, the Spokane River Valley, much of eastern Washington, and into Oregon, flooding the area that is now the city of Portland under 400 feet of water.

Reaching the Dry Falls area, this tremendous force swept away earth and rock from a precipice 15 miles south of the falls near Soap Lake, causing the falls to retreat to its present position, now known as Dry Falls. The falls is considered a spectacular example of “headward erosion”. If this is confusing, given the present topography, it also helps to know the falls are on an ancient course of the Columbia River. The river had been diverted this way by the encroaching glaciers. It returned to its present course as the ice retreated.

Dry Falls: World's Largest Waterfall
Dry Falls: World’s Largest Waterfall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the former waterfall overlooks a desert oasis filled with lakes and abundant wildlife. It is now dry as a bone but water is still present in the Sun Lakes, a haven for fishing, swimming, and boating in this otherwise arid desert landscape.

Dry water channels from the Banks Lake area slide south to the lip of the falls, and then the land falls away in great basaltic cliffs. What was once an ancient splash pool at the base of the falls is now a broad desert meadow dotted with lakes and ponds, swarming with birds and animals of all kinds, shapes, and sizes. This is a uniquely beautiful area to explore, both to delve into the geologic history of the area and to reach out and touch the native flora and fauna of the Washington desert.

Umatilla Rock towers like a giant fin in the middle of Grand Coulee in the basin below Dry Falls. This rock would have been an island in the midst of swirling waters during the great floods.

Today it offers a clear look at the multiple layers of geologic soils and rock that make up these lands. At the junction where the road splits (left to Dry Falls Lake, right to Camp Delany), head left along the gravel road at the southwestern base of Umatilla Rock. Stray off the road and hike cross-country through the open sage prairie and you might spot a few pheasant or quail. In the first mile or so, you’ll pass Perch Lake and climb a small rise for views of the lake basin.

Dry Falls: World's Largest Waterfall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Dry Falls: World’s Largest Waterfall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is very popular in the park, which offers over 150 campsites for RVs and tents. There are also boat rentals in the summer.

The best views of Dry Falls are from the Vista House Overlook. The Dry Falls visitor centre features displays about the geology and natural history of the area and tells the story of this amazing geological phenomenon. From lava flows to the Ice Age floods, and from the Native American legacy to the modern discovery of how Dry Falls was created, the Dry Falls story is revealed to tens of thousands of visitors each year.

A gift shop in the visitor center has a wide selection of books, maps, guides, videos, postcards, film, and other merchandise about Dry Falls and the surrounding area.

Now, that is really climate change. Man made? I don’t think so!

Details

Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park

Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park is a 4,027-acre camping park with 73,640 feet of freshwater shoreline at the foot of Dry Falls. The Dry Falls Interpretive Center is located two miles north of the main park on Highway 17.

Dry Falls: World's Largest Waterfall
Dry Falls: World’s Largest Waterfall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Location: 7 miles southwest of Coulee City in northeast Washington. It is a feature of Grand Coulee Canyon, which is itself part of the Channeled Scablands that cover three-quarters of eastern Washington.

Directions: South of US-2 onto WA-17, and drive to the visitor center which is in sight of the highway, on the east side.

Address: 34875 Park Lake Road NE, Coulee City, WA 99115

Phone: (509) 632-5583

Website: www.parks.wa.gov

Worth Pondering…

Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.

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Texas Gulf Coast Habitat Becomes State Park

A multi-partner coalition including the Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) Foundation has announced the purchase of the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch along the Texas Gulf Coast in Calhoun County.

Wetland Marsh Waterways at Powderhorn Lake
Wetland Marsh Waterways at Powderhorn Lake (Credit: Jerod Foster)

The acquisition will conserve a spectacular piece of property that is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled coastal prairie in the state. At $37.7 million it is the largest dollar amount ever raised for a conservation land purchase in the state and represents a new partnership model of achieving conservation goals in an era of rapidly rising land prices.

In years to come, Powderhorn Ranch is expected to become a state park and wildlife management area.

Safeguarding this natural treasure has been contemplated for more than 30 years by several conservation organizations and wildlife agencies including The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). Along with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), these organizations are playing a critical role in the acquisition and long-term conservation of this property.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation is spearheading the fundraising for the $50 million project, which includes the purchase of the property, habitat restoration and management, as well as a long-term endowment.

Aerial Photo of Fringe Marshes Along Powderhorn Lake
Aerial Photo of Fringe Marshes Along Powderhorn Lake (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

The real estate transaction has been more than two years in the making. Powderhorn Ranch was previously owned by Cumberland & Western Resources, LLC, whose primary investors are conservation-minded citizens who sold the property below its market value to ensure its permanent safekeeping.

A significant portion of the funding for the project is being provided by NFWF’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which was created with dollars paid by BP and Transocean in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. NFWF has committed $34.5 million over the next three years, making this the biggest land acquisition in the nation so far using BP spill restoration dollars.

The acquisition will protect in perpetuity unspoiled coastal land with forests of coastal live oak and intact wetlands. This range of habitats is perfect for public hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling, and bird watching. These nature tourism activities currently bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the Texas coast.

Cactus and Wetlands Along Powderhorn Lake
Cactus and Wetlands Along Powderhorn Lake (Credit: Jerod Foster)

The property also includes thousands of acres of freshwater wetlands and salt marshes that offer vital fish and wildlife habitat, provide natural filtering to improve water quality, and shield people and property from storm surges and sea level rise. The ranch includes more than eleven miles of tidal bay front on Matagorda Bay and provides habitat for hundreds of species of birds and animals, including the endangered whooping crane.

Details

Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation

Founded in 1991, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation is the non-profit funding partner of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Website: www.tpwf.org

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) protects and restores our nation’s wildlife and habitats. Chartered by Congress in 1984, the Foundation directs public conservation dollars to pressing environmental needs and matches those investments with private contributions.

Website: www.nfwf.org

The Conservation Fund

For nearly 30 years, The Conservation Fund has been saving special places across America. They have protected more than seven million acres nationwide including more than 193,000 acres of natural lands across Texas, including the Big Thicket National Preserve, Fort Davis National Historic Site, San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, and along the Neches River and the Gulf Coast.

Website: www.conservationfund.org

The Nature Conservancy 

Powderhorn Ranch Regional Context Map
Powderhorn Ranch Regional Context Map (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

The Nature Conservancy has been responsible for the protection of more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide and the operation of more than 100 marine projects globally. In the Lone Star State, The Nature Conservancy owns more than 30 nature preserves and conservation properties across Texas.

Website: www.nature.org/texas

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD)

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) operates 95 Texas state parks, natural areas and historic sites, 46 wildlife management areas, three saltwater fish hatcheries, and five freshwater hatcheries.

Website: www.tpwd.state.tx.us

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

What Texans can dream, Texans can do.

—George W. Bush

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Palo Pinto Mountains State Park: Newest State Park In Texas

In earlier reports in Vogel Talks RV, I reported that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) was proceeding with the acquisition of 3,331 acres in Palo Pinto and Stephens Counties for future development and operation as a new state park in north central Texas.

Palo Pinto Mountains State Park: Newest State Park In Texas. (Credit: strawntx.com)
Palo Pinto Mountains State Park: Newest State Park In Texas. (Credit: strawntx.com)

The newest state park, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, is a little more than an hour west of Fort Worth, in the rolling woodland near the picturesque community of Strawn, population 700.

The new park offers a great diversity of topography, as well as a great variety of plants and wildlife.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department acquired the property for the park in October 2011, using funds from the sale of Eagle Mountain Lake State Park in Fort Worth a few years earlier. Since the sale of that property the Parks & Wildlife Department had been looking for a suitable location within easy driving distance of Fort Worth, and was fortunate that this property became available.

It was acquired with assistance from the Nature Conservancy. The state purchased the property for the price of 7.14 million dollars, or about $2,142 per acre.

Texans have yet to see the new park.

A view from Raptor's Edge in Palo Pinto Mountains State Park
A view from Raptor’s Edge in Palo Pinto Mountains State Park. (Credit: Doualy Xaykaothao/KERA News)

The property is currently completely undeveloped. This site was formerly a ranch owned by the Copeland family, and will need extensive work before it can be formally opened to the public.

Texas Parks and Wildlife officials say they need more money to add trails, campsites, and other facilities before they can open the park.

The Palo Pinto park is one of four state parks bought but never opened for the lack of funding. Besides an estimated $30 million to finish all four parks, it also would take about $1.5 million each year to operate them.

The mountains are lined with a dense forest of live oaks, post oaks, blackjack oaks, mesquite, and cedar elms. The trails will draw hikers who currently go to the Hill Country or the Arbuckle Mountains in southwest Oklahoma.

The city of Strawn is also counting on the park, negotiating to locate the front gate just west of town and draw tourists to a region halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene now known mostly for the Thurber ghost town, chicken-fried steak cafes, and landmarks along the old Bankhead Highway cross-country motoring route.

A public hearing on the park last week attracted a big crowd, and locals had lots of questions about the 4,400-acre Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, reports KERA-TV.

John Ferguson is steward of Texas' newest state park, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park near Strawn, Texas
John Ferguson is steward of Texas’ newest state park, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park near Strawn, Texas. (Credit: Doualy Xaykaothao/KERA News)

After hearing two hours of questions from his neighbors and explanations by Texas Parks and Wildlife employees, 74-year-old Shawver Abbott was pretty enthusiastic.

“This might be the greatest thing in the state of Texas here,” Abbott said.

“I don’t have a clue, but it’ll take time. If people think it’s going to happen overnight, I think they’ll be disappointed. But in time, I think, I think it will be good.”

Good, not just for nature lovers and birders, but for the local economy too, says Strawn Mayor Tye Jackson.

“It’s going to force the town to grow,” Jackson said.

“And become maybe a little more modern than it has been.”

Decades ago, Strawn was a booming ranch community, but as in many rural Texas towns, its young people left for jobs in the bigger cities. Jeff Hinkson’s family has been here for a century and a half.

Palo Pinto Mountains State Park: Newest State Park In Texas
Palo Pinto Mountains State Park: Newest State Park In Texas (Credit: strawntx.com)

Hinkson, who founded the Strawn Chamber of Commerce, said a park of this size could draw up to 150,000 visitors annually, from Dallas/Fort Worth, Abilene, Brownwood, Wichita Falls, and beyond.

Out at the park itself, John Ferguson is in his element. He’s with the state Parks Division and lives in the park. We get to Raptors Ridge, a migratory route for falcons, hawks, and other birds. The smell of the ridge, the sight of the steep cliffs, the lake and rivers, the moving clouds overwhelm him.

The park won’t be open for a few years, but in the meantime, the public can already enjoy pre-approved star-gazing nights and the occasional chance to ride on a horse on new trails.

Details

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD)

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) manages and conserves the natural and cultural resources of Texas and provides hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

From mile-high mountains, canyons, and pine forests, to Hill Country rivers and the legendary Gulf Coast, Texas has over 90 state parks that offer hiking and biking trails, canoeing and kayaking, places to fish, nature centers, and much more.

Website: www.tpwd.state.tx.us

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
I am humbled by the forces of nature that continuously mold our great state of Texas into a beautiful landscape complete with geological diversity, flora and fauna. It is my goal as a photographer to capture that natural beauty and share it with others.

—Chase A. Fountain

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Top 100 Family-Friendly Fishing & Boating Spots

Getting out on the water to boat and fish is one of the best ways to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with your family.

TakeMeFishing
TakeMeFishing

But, finding the time and the right place to fish can be a challenge.

The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF) has made planning easy with its recently released list of the top 100 family-friendly fishing and boating spots in the U.S.

The RBFF released its Top 100 list to encourage Americans to get out on the water during National Fishing and Boating Week, June 1-8, 2014.

People are encouraged to visit their local parks and other fishing holes, perhaps one of the Top 100, during this week. Other ways to celebrate follow:

Free Fishing Days: Perfect for those who are new to the sport or who want to mentor others, most states offer free fishing days that allow the public to fish without having to purchase a fishing license.

Special Events: Sites all over the country will host events, such as fishing derbies, regattas, boating demonstrations, and festivals.

Kids Activities: Take Me Fishing Little Lunkers section offers games and information to learn before getting out on the water, and even certificates to commemorate their catch.

The RBFF Take Me Fishing campaign initiated a nationwide vote to provide families and outdoor enthusiasts with a recommended list of the best family-friendly places to experience the joys of boating and fishing as the weather warms up around the country.

“We enlisted the help of state fish and wildlife agencies to identify popular locations, and asked fishing and boating enthusiasts who belong to our communities to vote on their favorite spots that are easily accessible and where the fish are known to bite most often,” said RBFF President and CEO Frank Peterson.

The top 10 family-friendly places to boat and fish include state parks from Florida, Texas, California, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.

In total, park and recreation areas in 24 states are represented in the Top 100.

NBFWBannerGalveston Island State Park (6th) is accompanied by eight other Lone Star State fishing and boating spots in the Top 100. The states of Florida, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania each are represented six times on the Top 100. Georgia, Illinois, and Wisconsin have five placements in the Top 100. North Carolina, Michigan, Colorado, Minnesota, and Washington have four park and recreation areas on the Top 100 list.

Criteria for the top family-friendly places to boat and fish have some or all of the following qualities:

  • Within an hour’s drive of a major city or town, so they are easily accessible
  • Have a public body of water that is known for having plenty of common fish species such as bass, crappie, bluegill and trout; often times these public places are stocked with fish for all
  • Part of a park that also offers amenities families need like parking, restrooms, playgrounds, picnic areas, or campgrounds
  • Has plenty of places to cast a line, like a fishing pier or has boat ramps to allow you to reach other areas on your boat
  • Is recommended by other anglers

Who Hooked the Top 10 Spots?

The top fishing and boating spots for a memory-making adventure include:

Lake Berryessa, Napa Valley, California

Bahia Honda State Park, BigPine Key, Florida

Skyway Fishing Pier State Park,St. Petersburg, Florida

Everglades National Park, Homestead, Florida

Kissimmee State Park, Lake Wales, Florida

Galveston Island State Park, Galveston, Texas

Lake Chabot Regional Park, Castro Valley, California

Blue Springs State Park, Orange City, Florida

Table Rock State Park, Branson, Missouri

Presque Isle State Park, Erie, Pennsylvania

Details

Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF)

fishing_littlelunkersThe Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s (RBFF) mission is to increase participation in recreational angling and boating and thereby increase public awareness and appreciation of the need to protect, conserve, and restore this nation’s aquatic natural resources.

RBFF’s centerpiece, TakeMeFishing.org, is the key destination for individuals to learn, plan, and equip for a day on the water.

Address: 500 Montgomery Street, Suite 300, Alexandria, VA 22314

Phone: (703) 519-0013

Website: www.takemefishing.org

Worth Pondering…

Everyone should believe in something; I believe I’ll go fishing.

—Henry David  Thoreau

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State Parks Impact Alabama’s Economy

An earlier story detailed the economic benefits for communities located near national parks and other recreation and scenic hot spots.

Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service concluded that, nationwide, the country’s parks contributed more than $14.7 billion to gateway communities in 2012.

A recent study conducted in Alabama concluded the State Park System also makes significant contributions to local economies.

From the beaches of the Gulf Coast to the Appalachian foothills, Alabama’s 22 state parks offer a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities that include hiking, biking, swimming, camping, boating, fishing, horseback riding, lodging options, museums, cave tours, golf, dining, and relaxation.

With an economic impact of $375.2 million, Alabama’s state parks contribute far more than simply locations for outdoor recreation and family vacations.

According to the study in 2011 the statewide network of parks and nature preserves supported 5,340 jobs totaling $140.2 million in earnings adding an estimated visitor spending of $152.4 million.

From 2007 to 2011, the parks had $170.3 million in receipts; $127.5 million was collected at the parks. Expenditures totaled $167.8 million and generated statewide economic and fiscal impacts of $336.1 million in gross business sales, $203.4 million contribution to GDP, $125.6 million in earnings to Alabama households for 4,784 direct and indirect jobs, and $9.5 million in income and sales taxes ($4.7 million state income tax, $2.1 million state sales tax, and $2.7 million local sales tax).

Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail, DeSoto State Park
Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail, DeSoto State Park

Economists Samuel Addy and Ahmad Ijaz with the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce conducted the analysis.

The study confirms what anyone working in the system already knows: “State parks are valuable tools to promote the state’s economy,” stated Greg Lein, Alabama State Parks Director.

“But the study gave us real numbers for state parks’ overall economic impact and the many public and private jobs that depend on them.”

According to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which commissioned the study, the state parks division recorded more than 4.6 million visits in 2012.

Clearly, the study concludes, state funding for Alabama State Parks is an attractive investment as the parks system generates more in tax revenues, promotes tourism, attracts both in-state and out-of-state visitors, creates jobs, and provides numerous educational, recreational, and environmental benefits that are difficult to quantify.

And in 2014 the Alabama State Park System celebrates a milestone—its 75th anniversary.

Throughout the year, Alabama’s 22 state parks will host a variety of hikes, nature walks and programs, dining and camping specials, and various other events highlighting 75 years of service.

Alabama’s park system began in the 1920s with Cheaha State Park being the longest continually operating facility. There were 11 state parks in Alabama by 1933 including Bromley, Cheaha, Fort Toulouse, Geneva, Little River, Panther Creek, St. Stephens, Sumter, Talladega County, The Lagoons, and Weogufka.

Alabama State Parks
Alabama State Parks

So whether it is hiking or biking (roads or trails); camping (RV or tent); fishing (bank, pier, or in a boat); golfing (six courses across the state); horseback riding (available at several parks); swimming, water skiing, canoeing, or boating; lodging options; museums; cave tours; family friendly activities; restaurants (with fine dining at resort parks); wildlife and nature watching; or simply relaxing; Alabama State Parks have it all. State parks also provide numerous educational, recreational, and environmental benefits that are difficult to quantify.

Details

Alabama State Parks

The Alabama State Parks Division operates and maintains 22 state parks encompassing approximately 48,000 acres of land and water.

These Parks rely on visitor fees and the support of other Partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. Partners Pay the Way.

Visit the website for information about the Alabama State Parks 75th Anniversary Celebration and for lodging, camping, and dining specials and event announcements.

Phone: (800) ALAPARK (252-7275)

Website: alapark.com

Worth Pondering…

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet home Alabama
Lord, I’m coming home to you
Here I come, Alabama

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