Tropical Paradise: Palmetto State Park

Palmetto State Park offers a nature-filled getaway in Central Texas.

Dwarf palmettos and other beautiful tropical vegetation make Palmetto State Park a botanical wonderland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Dwarf palmettos and other beautiful tropical vegetation make Palmetto State Park a botanical wonderland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you were to blindfold a person and drive him into the lush undergrowth of the 270-acre park, it’s likely he’d be clueless as to his whereabouts. Studded with dense clusters of dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake plant species, shaded by a moss-draped canopy of ancient live oak trees, Palmetto State Park is Texas’ own version of a subtropical jungle. At the end of the park’s entrance road the landscape vividly plummets into the water-carved vista of the San Marcos River.

Back in the mid-30s, a small piece of that swamp 13 miles northwest of Gonzales—and nine miles southeast of Luling—became Palmetto State Park. The park abuts the San Marcos River and also has a four-acre oxbow lake.

The beautiful stone buildings in the park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s.

A tropical paradise, Palmetto is an unusual botanical area that resembles the tropics more than Central Texas. The ranges of eastern and western species merge, resulting in an astounding diversity of plant and animal life. Most notably, a stand of dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants is found around the park’s ephemeral swamp.

These ground-hugging, trunkless palms normally are found in the moist forests of East Texas and Louisiana, as well as much of the southeastern US. The extensive stand in Palmetto State Park was isolated thousands of years ago, considerably west of its natural range.

Wildlife frequently seen in the park includes white-tailed deer, armadillos, squirrels, raccoons, and over 200 species of birds including wild turkeys and several species of warblers.

The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River, where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River, where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s what you wouldn’t expect to see that makes this park special: a swampy wetlands. And it’s not just any old wetlands. The Ottine Swamp, named for the small town just outside the park’s gates, is a primeval wonderland of towering trees, peaty bogs, and warm springs.

Crouch at the edge of a lagoon, as the spring-fed ponds are called locally, and the sweet scent of wild onion wafts skyward. Spanish moss drips from elm, hackberry, and cottonwood trees. Trumpet vines and wild grape twist around gnarled trunks and climb toward the canopy.

Everywhere, palmetto palm fronds rustle in the breeze. These dwarf palmettos give the swamp an otherworldly atmosphere.

Activities include camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, birding, nature study, pedal boat and canoe rentals, swimming, tubing, and canoeing.

One of the first thing we look for at a state park is a trail to hike, and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive trails have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

The beautiful stone buildings in the park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The beautiful stone buildings in the park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We hiked the Palmetto Trail loop, careful—as a large sign warns—to watch for snakes. We marveled at the sheer greenness of the place, and the profusion of fan-shaped palm leaves.

The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River, where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. The Mesquite Flats Trail offers a look at the drier, savannah-like parts of the park, where prickly pear cactus finds a home.

When you’re finished exploring the park on land, enjoy the water. The always-fun Oxbow Lake offers calm water to cast a fishing line in search of catfish or sunfish. Try out a paddleboat, kayak, or canoe, or take a swim in the cool water. The San Marcos River low-water crossing is a great place to either splash around in the water or take a tube for a 20- to 30-minute float around the park.

Boaters can put in the river at Luling City Park and travel 14 miles to Palmetto, portaging around one dam along the way. Put-in and take-out points are limited, as the river is mostly bordered by private land. There are no rapids, but almost always a steady current. Check river conditions at the park. For this trip, bring your own canoe and prearrange your shuttles.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-constructed picnic shelter frames the park's botanical wonderland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-constructed picnic shelter frames the park’s botanical wonderland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers wishing to stay overnight or longer, the park provides great camping facilities. The campground is clean and quiet, and the stars at night are … well, you know the song.

Overnight stays are very reasonable with campsites rates ranging from $18-$20 plus the $3 per person park entrance fee. One campsite offering 30/50-amp electric service, water, and sewer is available for $20 nightly; 17 sites offering 30/50-amp electric service and water are available for $18. Weekly rates are available.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

As we explore America by RV, surprises await at every turn of the road. Natural beauty abounds when least expected.

Read More

Blanco: A State Park Comeback

Blanco, an unassuming small town in the Texas Hill Country, takes its name from the local river, which begins its journey in higher elevations west of town. From there, the Blanco meanders in an easterly direction past thriving lavender farms before pooling in town at Blanco State Park.

Blanco State Park reopened portions of the park to visitors August 1. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Blanco State Park reopened portions of the park to visitors August 1. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the park, swimmers, canoeists, and anglers enjoy the river’s spring-fed waters. Pecan, common bald cypress, sycamore, cottonwood, box-elder maple, and other trees growing along the river’s edge and in the campground provide shade and a comforting presence for families who rest, play, barbecue, hike, and camp within the park’s compact 105 acres.

When the Blanco River crested at 40 feet thanks to more than 12 inches of rain during Memorial Day weekend, several areas of Central Texas, including Blanco State Park, experienced severe flooding and damage.

But, this popular riverside state park has made a big comeback. After more than two months of closure for cleanup and repairs, Blanco State Park reopened portions of the park to visitors August 1.

As before, park visitors are allowed to camp and use the south side of the park for day use activities such as picnicking, fishing, hiking, and biking. All other parts of the park, including the north side day-use area near the dam, will remain closed to the public until the grounds can be made safe for visitors.

Blanco State Park reopened portions of the park to visitors August 1. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Blanco State Park reopened portions of the park to visitors August 1. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to damage to the dam the water level is very low, and is not flowing over the dam at this time.

“Although the park has been closed over the past couple of months, park staff and volunteers have been working hard to get the park back open at least partially,” said Ethan Belicek, Blanco State Park superintendent, in a TPWD State Parks Division news release.

“We’re excited to get visitors back in the park to enjoy for the remainder of the summer.”

Due to damaged check valves in the dam, which resulted in water loss in the swimming area, Belicek cautioned visitors to call the park to check water levels prior to arrival.

“We hope to make that repair within the next few weeks, which will allow the swimming area to resume normal levels,” he said.

Originally developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934, most of their creative work still exists in the form of an arched stone bridge, rock fences, native rock picnic tables, and stone couches. The shady rock seating is positioned among native pecan trees, providing a great spot for picnics.

The Old Blanco County Courthouse, a striking Second Empire-style structure, was  built in 1885. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Old Blanco County Courthouse, a striking Second Empire-style structure, was built in 1885. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers wishing to stay overnight or longer, the park provides great camping facilities. Overnight stays are very reasonable with campsites rates ranging from $17-$23 plus the $4 per person park entrance fee. Nine campsites offering 30-amp electric service, water, and sewer are available for $20 nightly; eight sites offering 50-amp electric service, water, and sewer are available for $23; and 12 sites offering electric service and water are available for $17. Weekly and monthly rates are available during the non-peak season (November through February).

Wi-Fi is also available within the park.

The Town Creek Nature Trail, a landscaped, quarter-mile walking path lined with native plants and large live-oak trees, connects the state park to Blanco’s downtown square. The Old Blanco County Courthouse, a striking Second Empire-style structure built in 1885, is the square’s most prominent building and anchors a historic district (listed in the National Register of Historic Places) that includes 46 properties. Many of the old buildings house restaurants, cafés, antique shops, outlets for locally-produced arts and crafts, and other enterprises.

Throughout the town, century-old limestone buildings are a testament to the German colony that settled in the river valley.

The baked products at Deutsch Apple embodies the home-baked taste everybody loves. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The baked products at Deutsch Apple embodies the home-baked taste everybody loves. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among my favorite downtown indulgences, the Deutsch Apple is about a mile southeast of Blanco’s courthouse square at the intersection of Loop 163 and RR 165. Items baked fresh daily include apple pie, pecan pie, apple-pecan cake, and apple-pecan muffins.

Meanwhile, looking at the statewide picture, only four Texas state parks remain closed out of more than 50 that were impacted during May flooding events; Cedar Hill State Park, Lake Somerville State Park (all units), Lake Whitney State Park, and Ray Roberts Lake State Park (all units). Damage assessments and repairs are under way at those sites.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

Read More

Beat The Heat At Balmorhea

Come August, Texas is a scorcher.

A 3-acre reconstructed ciénega or 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 ciénega or 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

But how to deal with the summer’s skyrocking temperatures?

Monstrous glasses of iced tea, squeezed with lemon. Frequent dips in the nearest swimming pool or swimming hole. Screened porches with ceiling fans which keep the mosquitoes and other buzzing nasties at bay while you listen to country music and search for fireflies.

Oh, yes—and a trip to West Texas, where you can escape the sun’s blaze in the most unlikely of places.

No, the mercury has not gone to my head, and, no I’m not confused brought on by excessive rays; nor am I crazy in the throes of a heat stroke. Just bear with me…

Balmorhea State Park, with the crystalline waters of San Solomon Springs hover between 72 and 76 degrees year round, is a most pleasant place to hang out in the anguish of a summer heat wave—or any other season, for that matter. Artesian springs like this gem in the Chihuahuan Desert are rare in the extreme. As an added bonus, the stars emerge big and bright and in the nearby Davis Mountains the temperatures dip into the 60s each night.

Kick back in Mother Nature’s cool West Texas backyard as you dip in these clear, blue-green waters, with tiny fish nipping harmlessly at you as you float.

No Chihuahuan Desert mirage, Balmorhea State Park’s aquamarine, spring-fed pool is nature’s answer to Texas’ summer sun. Set against the deep blue West Texas sky in the yucca-dotted foothills of the Davis Mountains, it feels a whole lot like paradise.

Dive into the crystal-clear water of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. Swim, scuba dive, or just relax under the trees at this historic park in arid West Texas.

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

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!

Balmorhea State Park, a 49-acre oasis of shimmering water, cottonwood trees, and adobe cottages was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. San Solomon Courts, an early expression of the modern-day motel, was constructed of adobe bricks. All of the CCC buildings are constructed in a Spanish Colonial style with stucco exteriors and tile roofs.

San Solomon Courts, an early expression of the modern-day motel, was constructed of adobe bricks by the CCC. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
San Solomon Courts, an early expression of the modern-day motel, was constructed of adobe bricks by the CCC. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park actually lies in Toyahvale, four miles south west of Balmorea proper.

Balhormea State Park’s enormous 1.75-acre pool, billed as the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, has a huge, underground aquifer system to thank for its clear and cool water. Rain falling on the nearby Davis Mountains seeps underground then flows through porous layers of limestone and emerges through at least nine springs in the middle of the pool at the rate of some 22 to 28 million gallons a day.

San Solomon Springs has provided water for travelers for thousands of years. Artifacts indicate Indians used the spring extensively before white men came to the area. In 1849, the springs were called Mescalero Springs for the Mescalero Apache Indians who watered their horses along its banks. The first settlers were Mexican farmers who used the water for their crops and hand-dug the first irrigation canals.

The park’s name comes from four men’s surnames:  E.D. Balcom, H.R. Morrow, Joe Rhea, and John Rhea: Bal-mor-hea. These men formed an irrigation company in the area in the early 20th century.

The springs and surrounding wetlands are considered a ciénega, or desert wetland. Much of the original desert ecosystem was altered years ago. Today, though, a three-acre, re-created wetlands at the park demonstrates the variety of plant and animal life that once flourished here. Rustling cattails and bulrushes harbor birds, butterflies, tiny pupfish, and other aquatic life.

Camping facilities include restrooms with showers and campsites with a shade shelter, water, electricity, and even cable TV hookups. 34 camp sites are available; six with water, 16 with water and electricity, and 12 with water, electricity, and cable TVs. Daily camping fees range from $11 to $17 plus park entrance fee of $7 per adult.

Birders flock to the Park for sightings of phoebes, rails, kingfishers, sparrows, quail, wrens, hawks, pigeons, hummingbirds, roadrunners, and many others. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Birders flock to the Park for sightings of phoebes, rails, kingfishers, sparrows, quail, wrens, hawks, pigeons, hummingbirds, roadrunners, and many others. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

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

—Elmer Kelto

Read More

Vogel State Park On My Mind

Sharing the same name I knew that fate would one day find us within driving distance of Vogel State Park and when that day arrived, the park did not disappoint.

Vogel State Park On My Mind © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Vogel State Park On My Mind © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we entered Vogel State Park from US Highways 19/129, 22-acre Lake Trahlyta opened to the right, a fitting memorial to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that both dammed the lake and built the park. Georgia’s poet laureate, Bryon Herbert Reece, was born in a cabin on the land where Lake Trahlyta now sits.

In 1929, Augustus Vogel and Fred Vogel Jr. donated nearly 259 acres to the state, much of it still encompassed within the 233-acres within Vogel State Park. At the start of the 20th century the Vogels set up a lumber mill on the site of present-day state park to harvest oak trees, a major source of tannic acid for their leather company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Vogel State Park is in the heart of north Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains, 11 miles south of Blairsville.

One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Driving from the south, visitors pass through Neel Gap, a beautiful mountain pass near Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia.

Vogel State Park On My Mind © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Vogel State Park On My Mind © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park has been an escape of families for generations. Returning soldiers following World War II found Vogel an ideal vacation spot to renew family relationships. Grandchildren of these early visitors have continued the tradition. Vogel offers a slower pace in these fast-paced times.

At 2,500 feet elevation Vogel State Park maintains a cool evening temperature even in the dog days of summer, making this a great stop for camping. The park provide a range of overnight accommodations including 56 campsites with electric service suitable for RVs up to 40 feet in length, 22 tent/pop-up campsites, 14 tent-only walk-in campsites, and 34 cottages. All accommodations are available for reservation.

A lake for swimming and boating, and miles of hiking trails adjacent to the famous Appalachian Trail offer something for everyone. The park’s 22-acre lake is open to non-motorized boats, and during summer, visitors can cool off at the mountain-view beach.

The park offers 17 miles of hiking trails from easy to strenuous. Hikers can choose from a variety of trails, including the popular 4-mile Bear Hair Gap loop, an easy lake loop that leads to Trahlyta Falls, and the challenging 13-mile Coosa Backcountry Trail.

Vogel State Park On My Mind © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Vogel State Park On My Mind © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An annual wildflower pilgrimage is a favorite time for those who want to see a variety of spring wildflowers. This mid-April event provides an ideal opportunity for wildflower lovers to enjoy a casual walk with a naturalist and search for the hidden beauty of the forest floor.

Constructed by the CCC during the depression years of the 1930s, Vogel’s park rustic architecture harkens back to a simpler time. The CCC history runs deep through the park. A museum recognizing the efforts of the greatest generation of natural resource workers.

The park hosts an annual CCC reunion of men who actually worked as President Roosevelt’s Tree Army soldiers. They have tales to tell of planting trees, fighting fire, building dams and parks, and other experiences that some say were the best days of their lives. This program is held in May. Everyone is welcome to attend this fascinating event.

Wildlife viewing at Vogel is a favorite pastime. There are deer, black bear, birds, and smaller creatures, but fishing is one of the more popular activities. The park hosts an annual Kids Fishing Rodeo the second Saturday of June. Youngsters 12 and under have the opportunity to fish for rainbow trout in Wolf Creek. Wildlife Resources Fisheries stock Wolf Creek with hundreds of trout which pretty much guarantees a catch for each child present.

Every Saturday evening during the summer, musicians and groups play on the theater over the lake. What better way to experience a summer evening than with a cool breeze on your face and beautiful music.

Vogel State Park On My Mind © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Vogel State Park On My Mind © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Appalachian Mountains wouldn’t have the character they do, were it not for the music that has emanated from the hollows. September 12 (2015) is when Vogel hosts its 12th annual Mountain Music Festival. This all-day event has bluegrass, country, gospel, and mountain musicians playing on the lake shore. Crafters will also display their handmade wares in much the same way they would have done in an earlier time. Concessions will be provided by Vogel volunteers.

Vogel is fun year round but particularly popular during the fall when the Blue Ridge Mountains transform into a rolling blanket of red, yellow, and gold leaves.

Worth Pondering…

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—words by Stuart Gorrell and music by Hoagy Carmichael

Read More

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

Read More

Alabama State Parks Celebrate 75 Years

From the beaches of the Gulf Coast to the Appalachian foothills, Alabama State Parks reflect every facet of the state’s rich natural landscape and in 2014 the state’s park system will celebrate a milestone—its 75th anniversary.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parks system preserves some of the most magical wonders of the state, such as Oak Mountain, Monte Sano, Cathedral Caverns, Guntersville, Wind Creek, DeSoto, and Gulf Coast.

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 State Parks recently launched a public relations campaign acknowledging the many partners we have in our parks,” said Greg Lein, Alabama State Parks Director.

“We hope the 75th anniversary celebration will strengthen our connection with all the visitors and other partners who make these parks possible. Alabama’s park system exists thanks to their support and we need it now more than ever.”

The acquisition of land for public use has deep roots. The National Forest System began in 1891. In 1916, the National Park Service was established to oversee a growing network of parks that included icons such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia National Park.

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.

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

Many of the original park structures and infrastructure were built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) and can still be seen when visiting a modern Alabama State Park.

The Division of State Parks, Monuments, and Historic Sites was created to oversee management of the park system in 1939.

Back in 1939 when the first state parks were opened in Alabama, they were not created to make money.

One hundred percent of the state park operational funds are now generated through visitors and the remaining maintenance funds decided by the Alabama Legislature. The revenue to operate and maintain the 22 state parks is generated by user fees (i.e., gate entry, lodging, boat launch access, RV and camp sites, etc.).

Today, one of Alabama’s 22 state parks is within an hour drive from most any community in the state and offers a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities including:

Five resort parks featuring lodge, restaurant, and convention facilities.

Ten parks with modern cottages and chalets.

Twenty-one parks with modern campgrounds.

Two parks with cave tours.

The Parks Path Golf Trail.

The Gulf State Park Fishing Pier and Gulf Adventure Center Hummingbird Zipline.

Three parks with marinas and many more fishing and boating opportunities.

Picnic pavilions perfect for any outdoor gathering.

Various museums highlighting the rich cultural and natural heritage of the local communities.

Buck's Pocket State Park
Buck’s Pocket State Park

More than 200 miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding, and walking trails.
Thousands of acres of water-based recreation ranging from mountain lakes and rushing streams to the sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s time to take an Alabama Road Trip.

Details

Alabama Tourism

Website: alabama.travel

Alabama State Parks

downloadThe 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

Read More

Want a Room with a View? Rent a Fire Tower

To call it a room with a view is an understatement.

Seneca State Forest fire tower is being converted into an overnight camping facility. (Source: wvgazette.com)
Seneca State Forest fire tower is being converted into an overnight camping facility. (Source: wvgazette.com)

The West Virginia state park system’s newest overnight accommodation was built to take in the most complete panorama possible of the Pocahontas County highlands and Greenbrier River Valley.

The Thorny Mountain Fire Tower, built in 1935 on a platform 55 feet above the top of a 3,415-foot peak in Seneca State Forest, is being renovated and refitted for a new life as a backcountry retreat, the Charleston Gazette reports.

“This is the only fire tower in the state that was built in the western style, with a large cab that let the observer live on top of the tower, instead of in a cabin at its base,” said Bob Beanblossom, regional administrator for the West Virginia State Park system.

Beanblossom, whose career with the state began as a Division of Forestry firefighter and included time as an observer in a Mingo County fire tower, came up with the idea of converting the tower into a lodging venue.

“Out West, a number of inactive fire towers and their cabins are available to the public” by paying fees to the U.S. Forest Service or other agencies,” he said.

“When work on the Thorny Mountain tower is complete, probably sometime in June, it will be one of a very few fire towers in the east that people can stay in.”

For several years, the fire tower observer’s cabin atop Bald Knob in Cass Scenic Railroad State Park has been available to rent for those seeking an off-the-grid, off-the-beaten-path wilderness getaway.

Rich Mountain Fire Tower, located on the highest peak of the Ouchita Mountains, Oklahoma (Source: adventuresofacouchsurfer.files.wordpress.com)
Rich Mountain Fire Tower, located on the highest peak of the Ouchita Mountains, Oklahoma (Source: adventuresofacouchsurfer.files.wordpress.com)

In addition to providing a unique experience for guests, renovation of the Thorny  Mountain tower for public use also assures its preservation and serves an educational role for those who visit it, reports the Charleston Gazette.

The tower cab will be equipped with a history of the tower, an account covering the daily routine of the observer, and a description of how the fire observer system worked.

The tower’s Osborne Fire Finder alidade, a device used by observers to pinpoint the locations of fires, is being restored in the Seneca State Forest shop and will be returned to the cab.

West Virginia’s first fire towers were erected in 1916, but they were two-story “Jenny Lind” style buildings with living quarters on the lower level and observation space on the top floor. Starting in the 1920s, observer towers perched several stories above the ground atop wooden or steel support beams began to appear on some of the higher peaks across the state.

In 1935, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crew built the Thorny Mountain Tower to replace a tower that had been built on nearby Michael Mountain during the 1920s. Seasonal observers lived and worked in the Thorny Mountain Tower until 1988, two years before the use of manned observation towers was completely phased out in the state.

More than 80 towers were built on peaks across the state on both state and federally managed land, but only about a dozen of them still stand, according to Beanblossom.

Observers at the Thorny Mountain Tower slept in cots, got heat from a wood stove, and used a rope and pulley system to bring food, firewood and water into the cab.

Beds, water, and firewood will be provided, along with a picnic table, grill, fire ring, and pit toilet at the base of the tower. A solar lighting and battery charging system will be installed.  Guests will be able to drive to the base of the tower, reports the Charleston Gazette.

“We’ll tell guests that it will be like rustic camping, only the tent will have really hard walls and a great view,” said Rob Sovine, superintendent of both Cass Scenic Railroad State Park and Seneca State Forest.

“The idea of coming up here and sitting on the deck and reading a book really appeals to me.”

A Seneca State Forest maintenance crew has replaced the wooden stair steps leading up to the cab, the catwalk surrounding it, and is working on the cab’s windows and window frames.

Beanblossom said the tower cab will be available to rent for $50 per night through the Seneca State Forest office at Dunmore. Seneca State Forest also rents eight off-the-grid “pioneer” cabins, with hand-pumped water, gas refrigerators, gaslights, and wood-burning cook stoves. Five are located along the shore of four-acre Seneca Lake, and come equipped with canoes, while the others overlook the Greenbrier River.

Seneca is West Virginia’s first state forest, created in 1924 to ensure timber and wildlife resources for the future in an era of heavy industrial logging. The state began operating a tree nursery at the forest in 1928. During the 1930s, Seneca State Forest was home to the largest and most varied populations of wildlife to be found anywhere in West Virginia, according to Sovine.

Details

Seneca State Forest

headerPhone: (304) 799-6213

Website: senecastateforest.com

Worth Pondering…

Keep your eyes on the horizon and blaze a trail.

Read More

Joys of a Texas Bucket List

Texas is big and brawny in every way, a state brimming with natural assets.

After leaving the pool, spring waters ebb slowly through the cattails, rushes and reeds of San Solomon Cienega. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
After leaving the pool, spring waters ebb slowly through the cattails, rushes and reeds of San Solomon Cienega. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether visiting rugged mountains, sandy beaches, wild canyons, or the piney woods, the “Lone Star State” pleases travelers in a million wonderful ways.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

Balmorhea State Park

Balmorhea State Park is located on less than 50 acres in the foothills of the Davis Mountains. For thousands of years SanSolomon Springs has provided a cool, wet respite for anyone who happened by this desert oasis.

The pool as it now stands was built in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and holds more than 3,500,000 gallons of clear spring water with a constant temperature of 72 to 76 degrees. The pool covers 1.75 acres and reaches depths of 25 feet, making it a mecca for desert-bound scuba divers. The huge pool is fed by the springs at a rate of up to 28 million gallons daily.

At historic San Solomon Springs, facilities include a motel, RV camping sites, rest rooms with hot showers, shaded picnic areas, and a playground.

For those inclined to recline, however, there are countless spots along the pool’s edge where you can plant a chair or a blanket and set up camp for the day. It is hard to imagine in the middle of this hot, desert land that such an oasis isn’t a mirage, but just one toe dipped in the cool waters will convince you to linger a while longer.

Fed by San Solomon Springs, 22 – 28 million gallons of water flow through the pool 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 and aquatic life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Fed by San Solomon Springs, 22 – 28 million gallons of water flow through the pool 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 and aquatic life. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Maples State Natural Area

Lost Maples State Natural Area is a combination of steep, rugged limestone canyons; springs; plateau grasslands; wooded slopes; and clear streams.

This natural area features a large, isolated stand of uncommon Uvalde bigtooth maple, which dons an amazing display of fall colors. Generally, the foliage changes the last two weeks of October through the first two weeks of November.

However, the park is a great year-round destination.

Visitors to Lost Maples State Natural Area enjoy Hiking, backpacking, birdwatching, swimming, picnicking, and fishing. The park has plenty of marked trails, and rugged terrain that provides excellent views of the natural beauty of the area, especially the maples.

Collin Street Bakery

Just like the gift exchange at work, fruitcakes are a part of the holiday season whether you like them or not. But how far would you travel for a fruitcake if it was one of the most famous Christmas cakes in the world? Would you travel over 2,950 miles? We did!

This company, one of America’s foremost mail-order food companies, ships over a million of their DeLuxe Fruitcakes around the world each year. Set aside your preconceived notions about fruitcake. This confection is incredible.

Each cake is 80 percent fruit and nuts with no artificial ingredients. To ensure they have the most luscious fruit and best pecans, the company owns an organic pineapple and papaya farm in Costa Rica and the world’s largest pecan sheller in Corsicana. Cherries are bought from Oregon and Washington, and the golden raisins come from California.

The 100,000-square-foot bakery on Seventh Avenue (formerly on Collin Street, where the business originated and got its name), operates quietly for nine months of the year, producing a variety of cookies, cakes, pies, and the occasional fruitcake. But from October through mid-December, the batter flies and the staff swells from 100 regular employees to 700 to produce over 30,000 fruitcakes (75,000 pounds) a day.

Don’t worry if fruitcake isn’t your thing. Collin Street Bakery makes plenty of other items that have attracted a devoted following. There’s a deep dish pecan pie, chocolate fudge pecan pie, white chocolate macadamia cheesecake, White House pumpkin cake, apricot pecan cake, and pecan coffee Bundt cake.

Would you travel over 2,950 miles for a Collin Street Bakery DeLuxe Fruitcakes? We did! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Would you travel over 2,950 miles for a Collin Street Bakery DeLuxe Fruitcakes? We did! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Collin Street Bakery, which has been selling its famous DeLuxe fruitcakes since 1896 from a downtown store, now has three locations. A branch store and cafe, opened in late 2006, occupy a gleaming white Southern-plantation-style building in the new Corsicana Crossing shopping area beside Interstate 45 about 55 miles south of Dallas.

Several years ago Collin Street Bakery opened a third location on Interstate 35 just north of Waco (exit 338A) and another is on the way in Tyler. It was the Waco location that we visited.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 5 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

I love Texas because Texas is future-oriented, because Texans think anything is possible. Texans think big.

—Phil Gramm

Read More

Vintage Trailer Transformed into Art Museum

Three artists based in Methow Valley, Washington, that span three generations are working together to revitalize their once-thriving logging community.

Reclaimed vintage Spartan travel trailer a new home for local Methow Valley artists. (Photo credit: Don Nelson)
Reclaimed vintage Spartan travel trailer a new home for local Methow Valley artists. (Photo credit: Don Nelson)

One of their projects involves restoring a 1951 Spartan Imperial Mansion travel trailer to display unique and experimental work from local, regional, and national artists.

The project started, as many ideas do, with some people sitting around talking and wondering if there might be a way to find some space with low or no overhead “an empty room somewhere” to display local artists’ work, free and open to the public on an “honor system” basis, according to a news release.

The artists—Matt Armbrust, Jeff Winslow, and Steve Ward—recalled hearing about an Airstream travel trailer that had been converted to a mobile art display.

Ward, an admitted Craigslist prowler, knew where to find it. Online browsing led him to Malaga, near Wenatchee where a 36-foot 1951 Spartan Imperial Mansion travel trailer was available. A top-of-the-line Spartan like this once cost about $6,000 new. This deteriorated hulk was going for $800.

Ward and Armbrust drove down to take a look. On first inspection, it didn’t look like much of a bargain.

Artists Jeff Winslow, left, Steve Ward and Matt Armbrust in the gutted interior of the Spartan travel trailer they are turning into a mobile art gallery. (Photo credit: Don Nelson)
Artists Jeff Winslow, left, Steve Ward and Matt Armbrust in the gutted interior of the Spartan travel trailer they are turning into a mobile art gallery. (Photo credit: Don Nelson)

“It was pretty grim,” Armbrust recalls.

“I looked at it and said, ‘no way.’ Then we got obsessed with it.”

Spartan Aircraft All-Aluminum Trailercoaches, which resemble Airstream trailers because of their smooth, shiny exterior, were manufactured from 1946 to 1960 by Spartan Aircraft Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma. At that time, the company was owned by legendary industrialist J. Paul Getty. Spartans were high-end travel trailers noted for their quality.

That was last summer. The Spartan is now on display—far from finished, but looking much better.

Deciding to buy it and getting it to the Methow Valley were separate challenges. That was resolved when valley resident Steve Morse agreed to tow the trailer back to the Methow, rolling on temporary tires Ward removed from a truck he owns.

So far, they have gutted the interior, stripped the paint, replaced the sub-flooring, and purchased an actual floor. They also reclaimed kiln slats that were once used for drying lumber and have invested a good deal of their own funding thus far.

Their home base is on the TwispWorks campus, a former U.S. Forest Service Ranger Station commissioned during the Great Depression and built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Located in downtown Twisp, TwispWorks is a community-driven project with the entire site comprising 17-buildings over 6.5-acres. Its board of directors has systematically restored and revitalized this historic area into spaces for artist studios, nonprofit organizations, and local businesses.

“We view this 36-foot classic camper as both an inspiring and challenging space for art installations,” they said in a news release.

“We want the Spartan to be a platform for experimental art, and a space for artists to take chances. From the viewer’s perspective, we want to engender excitement about art and engage them on a new level. ”

Despite numerous skilled artists in their region, show space for experimental/edgy art is limited and there are few ways for local artists to take their work on the road.

“We feel this is a crucial niche for engaging people in art and for encouraging artists to create works outside of a traditional gallery setting. We want to fill this gap through the creation of the Spartan Art Project,” they added.

Spartan Art Project (Photo credit: Don Nelson)
Spartan Art Project (Photo credit: Don Nelson)

In order to bring the Spartan up to form, the artists need to wire the interior, replace the windows, patch aluminum, install walls, put in a solar lighting system, and make a few upgrades that will make the Spartan officially roadworthy.

“We are working hard to use reclaimed, local products and accepting the donated time of the Methow Valley’s very skilled and generous community to finish the Spartan Art Project by spring 2013,” they added.

Worth Pondering…

Hold fast to your dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.

—Langston Hughes

Read More

Texas State Park Receives $10,000 from Coca-Cola

Bastrop State Parkwas awarded a $10,000 grant from Coca-Cola and will use the windfall to underwrite the continued building of new park trails.

Camping in the “lost pines” at Bastrop State Park prior to the fire. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fire-ravaged Texas State Park is received the grant in connection with Coca-Cola’s “America Is Your Park” campaign, in which parks nationwide competed to win the most votes for a top grant of $100,000 from Coca-Cola’s Live Positively initiative.

Bastrop State Park came in 12th with 661,565 votes. “America’s Favorite Park” is Pratt Park in Prattville, Alabama, with 28,734,539 votes.

Pratt Park receives a $100,000 grant from Coca-Cola’s Live Positively initiative.

“The tremendous support we received from people and companies for Bastrop State Park is testament to the special place this park holds in the minds and hearts of Texans,” said Brent Leisure, Texas State Parks director.

“We are very appreciative of Coca-Cola’s $10,000 donation that will allow us to hire America’s YouthWorks to complete new trails in the park.”

Bastrop and Buesher state parks are connected by Park Road 1. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since last year’s horrific Labor Day Weekend fire that hit 96 percent of the 6,500-acre state park, more than $200,000 in donations for Bastrop State Park recovery have come from a variety of sources.

The donations have helped Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) initiate a contract with American YouthWorks to assist with restoration efforts that include clearing downed trees and other debris, restoring park trails, and constructing hand-hewn pine log bridges.

Despite the destruction of much of its loblolly pine forests, Bastrop State Park is seeing the growth of some vegetation and the return of park customers who are coming to camp, rent a cabin, fish, play golf, and picnic. Visitors can stay at all four campgrounds and the 13 climate-controlled cabins, which are sporting new shingle roofs, and most of the park trails have been reopened.

Effects of 2011 Wildfire

In September 2011, Bastrop State Park and the surrounding loblolly pine forest were stricken by wildfire that affected 96 percent of the park. However, firefighters were able to save the historic cabins and facilities that were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corpsin the 1930s.

The park is recovering from the fire, and most trails, campsites, and facilities have reopened to the public. All areas of the park are open except the following, which will remain closed until further notice:

  • Area east of Harmon Road including that section of the Lost Pines Hiking Trail
  • Gotier Trace and areas north and south of the road
  • Primitive Camping

Campaign to Replace 4 Million Burned Trees

State parks officials have kicked off a campaign to raise money to replace millions of the loblolly pine trees that were lost during the wildfires. The campaign is intended to replace 4 million trees on 16,000 acres. Foresters say it will be at least 30 years before the loblolly pine seedlings grow to resemble a forest.

Two million trees will be planted in the park and another two million outside the park. The more than $4 million fundraising effort will be led by the Arbor Day Foundation.

Rediscover Bastrop State Park

Bastrop and Buesher (pictured above) state parks are connected by Park Road 1. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rediscover Bastrop State Park on Saturday, September 1

FREE park entry from 1-4 p.m.

One year ago, wildfire swept through Bastrop State Park. Find out what the future of the pines looks like through guided hikes, exhibits, and activities for all ages.

Meet firefighters who helped defend the park during last September’s wildfire, and learn how you can help the forest recover. Scheduled activities include:

  • Guided hikes at 2:00, 2:30, and 3:00 p.m.
  • See artifacts recovered from the fire
  • Meet ambassador Houston toads
  • Make your own toad abode
  • Meet a firefighter
  • See fire engines and equipment
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Demonstrations and much more!

Details

Bastrop State Park

Elevation: 374-600 feet

Entrance fee: $4/person

Camping fees: Campsites with water, $12; campsites with water and electric, $20; campsites with electric, water, and sewer, $20

Address: 3005 Hwy 21 East, PO Box 518, Bastrop TX 78602 (Note: Address does not show up in most mapping software)

Directions: 1 mile east of Bastrop on Texas 21, also accessible from the east on Texas 71 or by way of Buescher State Park along Park Road 1

Contact: (512) 321-2101

Website: tpwd.state.tx.us

Worth Pondering…

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

—Willa Cather

Read More