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

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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

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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

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4 Of The Best States for RV Travel & Camping

There are many great camping and outdoors destinations across the US―camping is abundant at national parks, state parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas.

Elephant Butte State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Elephant Butte State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each state has a unique appeal, but four stand out from the rest as great RV travel and camping destinations: New Mexico, Utah, South Carolina, and Georgia.

New Mexico

Artists Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe once made the landscapes of New Mexico famous, but New Mexico isn’t just for artists―there are great camping, recreational, and sightseeing opportunities.

New Mexico is home to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, numerous state parks, and historical parks. You can drive the historic US Route 66 or one of 25 scenic byways. In New Mexico, camping road trip possibilities are aplenty.

The camping possibilities are endless and quiet. The locals love their solitude and there is plenty of it. Famous for its beautiful skies, desserts, mountains, and grasslands, New Mexico offers an abundance of outdoor activities. You can hike, bike, ride ATVs and horses, hunt, fish, climb, and cave; in New Mexico, there is an outdoor adventure for everybody.

Utah

Arches National Park contains the world's largest concentration of natural sandstone arches. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Arches National Park contains the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its diverse landscapes, geology, and recreational opportunities, Utah is an intriguing destination. Home to five national parks and seven national monuments, Utah is a paradise for RVers who love the outdoors.  Elevations rise and fall dramatically in the shape of mountains, buttes, and plateaus, the highest reaching over 13,000 feet.

Camp in the comfort of your RV and explore the awe-inspiring geology of Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef national parks. A geological wonderland, Arches is one of Utah’s most accessible national parks. Towering spires, fins, petrified dunes, massive sandstone buttes, and balanced rocks complement the arches.

Scenic Byway 12 takes you to the heart of the American West. A journey like no other, this exceptional 124-mile route negotiates an isolated landscape of canyons, plateaus, and valleys.

South Carolina

Reedy River and Falls Park, Greenville, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Reedy River and Falls Park, Greenville, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Lowcountry to lakes and blackwater rivers to Upcountry whitewater and waterfalls, you’ll find an endless selection of places to RV in South Carolina. From the foothills of The Upcountry to the fun activities of Myrtle Beach and The Grand Strand, unlimited camping opportunities await the RV traveler.

A land of rugged forested mountains, scenic lakes, rushing whitewater rapids, and cascading waterfalls, the Upcountry is a favorite outdoor adventure and family vacation destination.

Each year millions enjoy Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand vacations—drawn here for the swimming, sun bathing, boating, shelling, incredible seafood, and golfing.

With fun family beaches, over 100 championship golf courses, outlet malls, specialty shops, live musical theatre, nightclubs, and a variety of family attractions, Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand is a the ultimate RV destination.

Georgia

Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Georgia offers RVers unlimited travel options from stunning mountain vistas to rushing rivers and waterfalls, charming towns to bustling cities and unspoiled Atlantic beaches. A variety of RV adventures can be experienced throughout the state.

Stunning vistas amid Northeast Georgia’s mountains make this region a natural paradise for RVers. Outdoor activities include boating, fishing, and hiking. At an elevation of 4,784 feet Brasstown Bald is Georgia’s highest mountain. The re-creation of a Bavarian village complete with cobblestone alleys and old-world towers, Helen offers shopping, restaurants, mountain scenery, Oktoberfest, Alpenfest, and other seasonal festivals.

The Coast offers miles of shoreline, windswept dunes, and historic ports and towns. Savannah’s stunning architecture, 21 historic squares, and Low Country landscape make the city a top RV destination. Nestled along the coast are the city of Brunswick and four barrier islands: St. Simons, Sea, Little St. Simons, and Jekyll. A ferry ride from St. Mary’s transports travelers to Cumberland Island National Seashore.

Worth Pondering…

What a life. Today, it’s New Mexico, yesterday it was Utah, and shortly before that we were in South Carolina. Soon it will be Georgia.

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Mining, Ranching, Birding & More In Patagonia, Arizona

Our narrative begins about 60 miles southeast of Tucson in a small historic mining town that still holds claim to a huge treasure—the birding kind.

On the road to Patagonia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
On the road to Patagonia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At an elevation of over 4,000 feet between the Santa Rita Mountains and the Patagonia Mountains, you arrive in the town of Patagonia. Here, the South Pacific Railroad once hummed with cattle ranchers and prospectors who worked the nearby silver mine. Ranches still dot the hills and historic ghost towns have replaced thriving mining outposts.

At first glance Patagonia is a town that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. However, a second glance will reveal some surprises about this historical former Spanish land grant. There is a growing community of artists and crafts people that have decided that this is a very desirable area to live and work.

Although the rail tracks were abandoned by 1970, the depot is now restored and adjoins a park in the center of town. McKeown Avenue is Patagonia’s authentic but small main street, housing the local saloon and shops.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia is home to several arts and multicultural festivals throughout the year and also has numerous galleries here you can browse local pottery and paintings as well as other contemporary and traditional arts.

Chances are you’re here for Patagonia’s other side—the one that draws thousands of birders each year. Look closely, because this is the time of year when butterflies linger and more than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy since 1966. Bird enthusiasts come thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of some of them. Of particular interest are the gray hawk, vermilion flycatcher, violet-crowned hummingbird, thick-billed kingbird, zone-tailed hawk, green kingfisher, white-throated sparrows (in winter), and black-bellied whistling duck.

You’re in luck: Now through September draws the greatest diversity of birds to what the Nature Conservancy dubs “the richest of the remaining riparian (or streamside) habitats in the region.”

Swimming and picnic area at Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights
Swimming and picnic area at Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights

The 850-acre sanctuary is where a cottonwood-willow canopy follows the ribbon of gentle Sonoita Creek, which runs year-long. You can opt for a guided tour of the preserve or you can head to the open-air ramada visitor center to study maps, peruse a list of the latest bird sightings, and get suggestions from the ranger to shape your own visit.

Three miles of easy walking trails take you along Sonoita Creek and through rare, 140-year old cottonwood willow forest.

A trip to Patagonia would not be complete without a visit to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Wally and Marion Paton first began inviting birders into their yard shortly after moving to Patagonia in 1973. They eventually put up a canopy and set out benches, bird books, and a chalkboard for people to record their sightings. The Patons had a special vision for supporting their backyard birds with an array of feeding stations—and supporting the wider birding community by sharing the riches of their yard. After Wally passed away in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build.

212 bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of the town of Patagonia, including violet-crowned hummingbirds, thick-billed kingbirds, gray hawks, and varied buntings. This amazing diversity results from its location in an ecologically rich and healthy corner of the state. Surrounding the Paton Center you will find: The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the Patagonia Mountains (one of Arizona’s newly declared Important Bird Areas), the San Rafael Grasslands, and the Sonoita Plain.

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights
Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights

Continuing south on Arizona Highway 82 is Patagonia Lake State Park, a small paradise for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts. Fishermen and beachcombers enjoy a man-made lake more than two miles in length. At an elevation of 3,750 feet and adjacent to the Sonoita Creek Natural Area, the park becomes a year-round haven with 105 campsites with a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, water, and 20/30/50-amp electric service; select sites also have a ramada. A dump station is centrally located in the park.

Patagonia Lake offers a 0.5-mile hiking trail that leads to Sonoita Creek, a popular birding area. Additional trails can be accessed through Sonoita Creek Natural Area.

Worth Pondering…
I only went for a walk, and finally concluded to stay till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
—John Muir

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Junction: Texas Hill Country Hospitality Starts Here

Watch some birds, take a leisurely stroll, tube down the river, enjoy a sunset—and relax.

Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Junction boasts first-class outdoor recreation, a big-rig friendly RV park with true Texas hospitality, and all the mouth-watering Texas BBQ you can eat.

I expected the fresh air and open sky. After all, Junction is located on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country, elevation ranging around 2,000 feet. The abundance of outdoor activities was no surprise, either—the town is named for the junction of the north and south forks of the Llano River. Junction is ideal for fishing, tubing, and related activities, and there are scores of low-traffic roads for biking and a sprawling state park and wildlife management area checkered with hiking and biking trails.

What I hadn’t planned on was great Texas BBQ. Junction is a good place to work up an appetite, and, as it turns out, to satisfy it, too.

Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we exited I-10 (Exit 465) for Junction North Llano River RV Park my heart skipped a beat as it jumped for joy! There to the back of a large parking lot was a huge BBQ pit surrounded by many, many, many cords of firewood piled higher than a man’s head like fortress walls. And an outdoor area with picnic tables under the spread of an enormous oak.

The food gods were really smiling on me. Heading west to Arizona with limited time and no hope of seeking out Texas BBQ, I lucked upon Cooper’s. Yes, Cooper’s Bar-B-Q & Grill is a happy accident food-wise on any road trip.

The Cooper family opened its original barbecue joint in Mason in the early 1950s, and Cooper sons later took the tradition to Llano—a location eventually sold outside the family—and here. Roy and Sheila Cooper, their son Mark and daughter-in-law Kim and their children all work at the restaurant, which has been in its current location for 16 years.

Texas Hill Country is the Lone Star State’s prime outdoor destination. But it’s not mountaintops and dramatic views that make this a vacation mecca—it’s water. More than 800 freshwater springs percolate to the surface in crystalline rivers and lakes, and the spot where the North and South Llano rivers meet spawned the town of Junction in 1876. One of the town’s first civic projects was a dam for power and irrigation, and Junction eventually became the commercial hub of Kimble County, named for an Alamo defender, George Kimble. But that has never meant many more than 2,500 people enjoying life in the county seat. Canoeing, kayaking, and tubing are the most popular ways to pass a day in Junction these days.

The dawn of another day along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The dawn of another day along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rolling hills and open spaces still define Junction. Wild turkeys also are a big part of the landscape. The largest concentration of Rio Grande Turkeys in the American Southwest gather in South Llano River State Park south of town. The gregarious birds winter in large flocks around the cottonwood riparian areas growing by the river. Turkeys can be spotted year-round, especially along the scrubby brush and open grasslands of the Fawn Trail that loops up open slopes for three miles.

The 524-acre park and adjacent 2,155-acre wildlife management area were donated to the state by cattle rancher Walter Buck Jr. Two miles of park front the river, but most folks congregate around the bridge near the entrance.

Activities include camping, picnicking, canoeing, tubing, swimming, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, bird-watching, and nature study.

The park offers approximately 20 miles of hiking/biking trails—15 of them prime for mountain biking—58 campsites with water and 30-amp electric service, six walk-in tent sites, and five hike-in primitive campsites.

Rest at one of the park’s top-notch bird blinds. These comfy shelters overlook water and feeding stations frequented by birds pretty much all day, although morning and evening are prime times. Common sightings are flycatchers, swallows, wrens, warblers, hawks, and hummingbirds.

Big-rig friendly North Llano River RV Park at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big-rig friendly North Llano River RV Park at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next door, the Walter Buck State Wildlife Area is a destination to hike, watch birds, and polish wildlife photography skills.

Planning a Visit? Experience true Texas hospitality with welcoming smiles at Junction North Llano River RV Park. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a clean, spacious site nestled in a natural pecan grove along the banks of the North Llano River. Big rig sites over 80-feet in length are available; spacious full hookup sites with 50/30-amp electric service, free cable, and Wi-Fi.

There’s something for everyone whether you’re staying for one night, a week, or more—water sports, birding, fishing, hunting, scenic hill country drives, restaurants, golf, shopping, and good Texas BBQ! We’d be back in a Texas minute!

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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Hopewell Furnace: Early American Iron Plantation

In the woods of southeastern Pennsylvania, a community of men, women, and children worked to supply iron for the growing nation during the 18th and 19th centuries. They created a village called Hopewell that was built around an iron-making furnace.

Located on top of a hill the modern Visitor Center overlooks the colonial and early-1800s iron plantation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Located on top of a hill the modern Visitor Center overlooks the colonial and early-1800s iron plantation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is the best preserved iron plantation in North America.

Hopewell Furnace consists of a mansion (the big house), spring and smoke houses, blacksmith shop, office store, charcoal house, and a schoolhouse.

From 1771 to 1883, Hopewell Furnace manufactured iron goods to fill the demands of growing eastern cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore. While the most profitable items were stoves, the furnace cast many other objects such as kettles, machinery, grates, and cannon shot and shells for patriot forces during the Revolutionary War.

As technology progressed, the furnace eventually became outdated. In 1883, it closed, and the furnace workers and their families left to make their living elsewhere. They left behind their homes, work buildings, tools, and other evidence of the iron-making community that once thrived.

The 15-minute introductory film shown in the visitors center focuses on many topics including how Ironmaster Mark Bird (a colonel and quartermaster in the Continental Army) supported Washington’s forces with cannon, shot, shell, and even flour.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The 15-minute introductory film shown in the visitors center focuses on many topics including how Ironmaster Mark Bird (a colonel and quartermaster in the Continental Army) supported Washington’s forces with cannon, shot, shell, and even flour.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today the remains of Hopewell Furnace represent an important time in America’s maturation as a nation. The production of iron in hundreds of small furnaces like Hopewell provided the key ingredient in America’s industrial revolution, enabling the United States to become an economic and technological leader worldwide.

Located on top of a hill the modern Visitor Center overlooks the colonial and early-1800s iron plantation that used slave and free labor.

The 15-minute introductory film focuses on many topics including how Ironmaster Mark Bird (a colonel and quartermaster in the Continental Army) supported Washington’s forces with cannon, shot, shell, and even flour. The furnace produced 115 big guns for the Continental Navy. Other items once produced at the site included plowshares, pots, stoves, and scale weights.

Hopewell Furnace consists of 14 restored structures in the core historic area, 52 features on the National Register of Historic Places, and a total of 848 mostly wooded acres. The park’s museum contains nearly 300,000 artifacts and archival items related to the site’s history.

Hopewell Furnace consists of 14 restored structures in the core historic area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hopewell Furnace consists of 14 restored structures in the core historic area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The impressive blast furnace and 30-foot water wheel, ironmaster’s mansion, workers’ quarters, a living farm, charcoal maker’s hut (otherwise known as a collier’s hut), and other structures illustrate the historic infrastructure typical of the charcoal-iron making process.

What today’s visitors will not find are the noise, heat, and pollution that were ever-present in the community during the heyday of iron production.

Hopewell Furnace lies at the center of 848-acre French Creek State Park and consists of 14 restored structures as well as the paths, fields, and meadows of the one-time working village. The buildings include a blast furnace, the ironmaster’s mansion, and auxiliary structures.

Today, the site is an interesting visit for the hikers, backpackers, and campers who are spending time at French Creek State Park. Bird-watchers and nature photographers as well as history buffs enjoy the tours, and picnics are encouraged.

Did You Know?

Cold blast charcoal-fired iron furnaces like Hopewell Furnace were in operation in Pennsylvania as early as 1720. Between 1832 and 1840, 32 such furnaces were built in the state. The U.S. census of 1840 recorded 212 charcoal-fired furnaces operating in Pennsylvania that year.

The park's museum contains nearly 300,000 artifacts and archival items related to the site's history. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The park’s museum contains nearly 300,000 artifacts and archival items related to the site’s history. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

Directions: 5 miles south of Birdsboro, PA, off of Route 345

Address: 2 Mark Bird Lane, Elverson, PA 19520

Phone: (610) 582-8773

Website: www.nps.gov/hofu

Entrance Fees: Free Admittance

Worth Pondering…

Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear. Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art.

—Freya Stark

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My Great American Road Trip

To Americans, there’s nothing that holds more appeal than the classic road trip.

Moody Mansion, Galveston, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Moody Mansion, Galveston, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the ’20s, the car was a symbol of freedom—a chance to escape your small town or rural America.

As the highway system was developed in the ’50s and ’60s, a wave of young people set out on the road to explore the country, giving new life to America’s car and road trip culture.

And to this today, Americans have an ongoing love affair with the car and great open road. And no road trip holds more mystery and allure than traveling cross-country. It’s the king of all road trips.

In 1986 on a working road trip across the U.S. we drove our truck and fifth wheel trailer across the U.S. from west to the east and back west again.

Leaving our home in the Northwest we spent over eight months traversing the country, getting as far east as Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks, Charleston, Savannah,  and Jacksonville, and as far south as Orlando, Miami, the Everglades, and Key West before turning back west, driving across the southern states with numerous stops along the way including Pensacola, Mobile, Pascagoula, Galveston, San Antonio, El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, and Phoenix. But we barely scratched the surface of what America offers. We saw and experienced a lot—from the Rocky Mountains, to the Black Hills, across the Great Plains.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights
Our Grand Circle tour included Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights

But you don’t realize just how vast the U.S. is until you’ve been driving for twelve hours and notice you’re still in Texas.

The U.S. is big and there is still so much more of it to see.

During the past 18 years, we’ve driven over 130,000 miles in varied RVs as we explored America from the Oregon Coast to the Charleston and from the Upper Peninsula to the Rio Grande Valley.

We have traversed the U.S. along varied interstates and scenic routes and byways further exploring the beauty and uniqueness of this vast country. There is prodigious variety in the cities and towns and scenic attractions and offerings in various regions, a country of many impressions.

From Memphis to Montana, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, Wine Country in California, Utah’s Grand Circle Tour, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mobile, and much more, we continue our exploration in our trusty and comfy motorhome.

“What’s your favorite place to go?”

Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course that’s what we’re asked. It’s the polite thing to ask, after all. People like to seem as if they’re interested in what you do. In this case, the question also always has a twinge of yearning.

I always give the same answer. I find something I like nearly everywhere I go, and it’s hard to pick just one or even two places.

People hate that answer.

“Come on. If you could pick just one place, where would you want to go again? Just one place.”

They all want to hear something exotic and bucket-listy. They want to hear the Key West or Santa Barbara, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, Sedona or Santa Fe, Charleston or Savannah. They don’t want the truth. Can they handle the truth?

The truth is, we have visited 34 states and 4 Canadian provinces in the past 18 years, and found something that we adored in every one of them.

Our decade and half of RV travel stoked a love affair with American and Canadian attractions and historic sites, local towns and cities, and national and state/provincial parks.

Historic Downtown Charleston has stood throughout Charleston’s history as the cultural capital of the South and is considered by many to be a living museum, with a wonderful variety of things to do and see. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Historic Downtown Charleston has stood throughout Charleston’s history as the cultural capital of the South and is considered by many to be a living museum, with a wonderful variety of things to do and see. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I did begin rereading John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley — an incredible rumination on the America that he experienced as he took a road trip around the country with his wife’s standard poodle as a companion. Steinbeck was 58 years old in 1960 when he began his journey, and he felt compelled to get out and really see the country for the first time in a long time. He said he felt like a criminal writing about a country that he didn’t know enough about anymore.

After all these miles and varied experiences, I still feel the same way.

The “Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise”, the best is yet to come as I have quite the long route in front of me. Please stay tuned!

Worth Pondering…

You’ve heard the old Willie Nelson country music song with the lyrics, “On the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again…” We’ll be singing this song for sure.

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5 Great State Parks

In an earlier post I detailed My 5 Favorite State Parks. With nearly 8,000 state park in America, there are hundreds of state parks worthy of a visit.

A short loop nature trails at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A short loop nature trail at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are 5 Great State Parks.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

The largest state park in the contiguous United States, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is flanked by rugged mountain on three sides and the Salton Sea to the east. Its 650,000 acres contain spectacular desert vistas, a variety of plant and animal life, and numerous archaeological, cultural, and historic sites.

Varying from stark dry desert mountains and canyons to lush palm-tree-lined oases, the park contains more than 100 miles of trails for hikers, backpackers, and mountain bikers, 500 miles of dirt roads to be explored by bicycle or motor vehicle, and steep paved roads for road cyclists who love a challenge.

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Dead Horse Point State Park features a dramatic overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park.
Dead Horse Point State Park features a dramatic overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parking lot at Dead Horse Point State Park, 30 miles from Moab, is a few steps from one of the most dramatic vistas in the desert Southwest—looking down 1,000 feet to the top of Dead Horse Mesa, which itself towers a thousand feet above the Colorado River doing a 180-degree turn and wrapping around its sandstone base.

From the overlook, canyon erosion may be viewed on a grand scale. This erosion process has taken approximately 150 million years. Much of it is caused by the river slicing down into the earth’s crust as land is forced upward. These powerful forces are still sculpting the fantastic shapes of the precipitous bluffs and towering spires.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas

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

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is 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.

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.

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

Palo Duro State Park, Texas

At 120 miles long, 20 miles wide in some places, and 800 feet deep, Palo Duro Canyon is the second-largest canyon in the country, behind the Grand Canyon. The Technicolor walls here make for high-desert scenery more commonly seen in southern Utah.

You can explore the 20,000-acre state park by hiking or horseback-riding, or even take a leisurely drive across the canyon floor. There’s tent, equestrian, RV camping, and three stone cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (since modernized), set on the rim with sweeping view of the canyon below.

From the end of May until mid-August, more than 60 actors, singers, and dancers take the stage at the park’s amphitheatre to perform Texas, a rousing musical that depicts the settling of the Texas Panhandle.

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

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

Approximately 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, Hunting Island State Park encompasses 5,000 acres of pristine sandy beach, maritime forest, the only publicly accessible lighthouse in the state, and saltwater marsh. It is classified as a true semitropical island. 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 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.

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.

Worth Pondering…

Remember that happiness is a way of travel, not a destination.

—Roy Goodman

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Report: More Camp Sites With Full Hookups Required

A recent review and analysis of Ohio State Parks recommends the creation of more camp sites with full hookups for recreational vehicles and the closing of 29 less profitable cabins.

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

The new performance audit by state Auditor Dave Yost indicates that the changes could generate more than $3.3 million in average annual returns and $3.8 million in one-time cost avoidance. This state park audit was one of a series conducted at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).

“Smarter planning and capital investment works just as well in the woods as it does in the city,” Yost said in a statement.

“Ohio has an opportunity to enhance the outdoor experience in our beautiful state parks for many years to come.”

Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer said, “We at ODNR appreciate the growing desire among Ohioans to have the opportunity to enjoy the state’s amazing open spaces and we are eager to provide them with the facilities that will enhance their experience while they are there.”

Ohio State Parks has four categories of overnight accommodations: campgrounds, cabins, “getaways”, and lodges. Campgrounds provide paved slabs for RVs; picnic areas; options for electric, water, and sewer hookups; and a variety of shared site amenities such as restrooms, shower houses, and retail convenience stores.

Holmes County  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Holmes County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most cabins are approximately 900 square feet with two bedrooms, a living room, and kitchen area. Cabins are generally heated and air conditioned and are equipped with furniture, linens, and cookware.

Getaways encompass a variety of structures from teepees to primitive cabins, and their inventory comprises a small percentage of the overall accommodation inventory at any given park.

Lodges are hotel operations which are managed by third-party operators.

Campgrounds and cabins make up the majority of Parks’ self-managed inventory as well as the self-generated revenue; 98.6 percent and 96.2 percent, respectively.

Concerns have been raised regarding an insufficient number of full hook-up campsites and an aged cabin inventory that is no longer sufficiently able to attract customers and meet their needs in an efficient and effective manner.

Ohio State Parks supplies 207 full hook-up campsites specifically targeted toward high-end RVs—the fastest growing segment within RV camping nationally—a relatively small number in comparison to ownership levels.

Despite strong demand and relatively high operating performance, only 12 park locations offer full hook-up sites, with a median of a dozen at each of those parks. By comparison electric sites are more widespread, with 48 park locations offering a median inventory of 98 sites. As such, Parks may have an opportunity to meet customer demand for full hook-up sites by increasing not only the total number of full hook-up sites, but also the park locations offering them.

Ohio State Capitol, Colunbus  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Ohio State Capitol, Colunbus © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio State Parks plans to install new full hook-up campsites as upgrades to its existing stock of electric campsites. By using existing electrical service and concrete pads wherever possible, costs and construction complexity can be reduced.

Campgrounds sites with full hook-ups are occupied a median of 40 percent of the time. Camp sites with electricity are occupied about 18 percent, and non-electric sites less than 6 percent. The park agency already has earmarked $15 million for cabin improvements—each will cost an estimated $132,100 to renovation—and $10 million for campgrounds improvements from capital money approved last year. A portion of these funds will be used for the addition of full hook-up sites and the renovation of cabins at several locations.

The full report is here.

Details

Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR)

Website: www.ohiodnr.gov

Historic Marietta  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Historic Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio State Parks

The Division of Parks was created as a division of ODNR in 1949 with the statutory obligation to create, supervise, operate, and maintain a system of state parks and to promote their use by the public. Through land acquisition and transfer, the park system has grown from the original 30 parks to 74 state parks in 59 counties with over 174,000 acres of land and water resources.

Facilities include eight resort lodges, two dining lodges, six golf courses, more than 9,000 campsites in 56 campgrounds, 518 cottages, 36 visitor/nature centers, 80 swimming beaches and 18 swimming pools, 188 boat ramps and 7,583 boat docks, 463 picnic areas, and 1,167 miles of trails.

Website: www.parks.ohiodnr.gov

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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