Eyes on Texas

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. Besides serving up quiet in big, Texas-size portions, Big Bend boasts geologic wonders, unique wildlife, and plenty of room for hikers and campers to spread out.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. The Indians thought this land was the Great Spirit’s rock storage facility; the Spaniards called it “El Despoblado,” or “the uninhabited land.” However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

Chihuahuan Desert vegetation—bunchgrasses, creosote bushes, cactuses, lechuguillas, yuccas, sotols, and more—covers most of the terrain. But the Rio Grande and its lush floodplains and steep, narrow canyons form almost a park of their own. So do the Chisos Mountains; up to 20 degrees cooler than the desert floor, they harbor pine, juniper, and oak, as well as deer, mountain lions, bears, and other wildlife.

The National Park Service operates three developed front-country campgrounds: Chisos Basin Campground, Cottonwood Campground (near Castolon), and Rio Grande Village Campground.

The concession-operated Rio Grande Village RV Campground (with full hook-ups) is also located at Rio Grande Village.

A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge's grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is special for many reasons. It is home to America’s tallest bird, the highly endangered whooping crane. One of the rarest creatures in North America, the whooping crane is making a comeback from a low of 16 birds in 1941.

Each winter the refuge plays host to huge wild flocks of whooping cranes whose bugle-like call echoes across the marsh. Productive tidal flats provide clams and crabs for the whoopers to eat. These cranes can often be seen from the observation tower from late October to mid-April.

With a spectacular wing span of 8 feet, the cranes reach speeds of 30 mph and travel 400 miles a day along their 2,600-mile migratory route between summer nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and wintering grounds at the Aransas refuge.

The refuge also provides an important resting, feeding, and wintering grounds for more than 390 migratory and native species including pelicans, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and many other birds.

A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through the refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Additional activities include hiking, birding, picnicking, and fishing. Six leisurely hiking trails totaling 4.3 miles are available.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chain of five missions that were established along the San Antonio River during the 18th century stands as a reminder of Spain’s most successful attempt to extend its New World influence and control. Representing both church and state, these missions were charged with converting the local Native Americans, collectively called Coahuiltecans, into devout Catholics and productive members of Spanish society.

More than just churches on the Spanish Colonial frontier, the missions also served as vocational and educational centers, economic enterprises involved in agricultural and ranching endeavors and regional trade.

Before the Spanish came, there were no horses in Texas and no gunfire, except for the raiding Apache. A vast frontier had never been touched by a wheel or felt the blade of an iron ax.

Among other contributions, the missions planted the roots of ranching in Texas. Indian vaqueros tended huge herds of cattle, goats, and sheep. They marked stock with branding irons like the ones used in Spain and Portugal as early as the 10th century.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 10 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.

—Davy Crockett

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A Texas State Of Mind

Texas is big, beautiful, and diverse.

Visitors are now able to tour the Ranch at their own pace in their private vehicle with the ability to stop at sites along the way such as the President's birthplace, Johnson family cemetery, and the Johnson's ranch house known as the Texas White House. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors are now able to tour the Ranch at their own pace in their private vehicle with the ability to stop at sites along the way such as the President’s birthplace, Johnson family cemetery, and the Johnson’s ranch house known as the Texas White House. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So much has been said about Texas—its sunny seacoast to mile-high mountains, dense forests to cactus-studded desert, great cities to small villages and towns, rich and diverse history, and the hallowed Shrine that represents her birthplace.

In a state as diverse as Texas, there’s always an adventure around every corner and unique attractions at every turn.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch. This entire “circle of life” gives the visitor a unique perspective into one of America’s most noteworthy citizens by providing the most complete picture of any American president.

President Johnson had a deep attachment for place and heritage. The LBJ Ranch was where he was born, lived, died, and was buried. After the President’s death in 1973, Mrs. Johnson continued to live at the Ranch part time until her death in 2007.

Visitors are now able to tour the Ranch at their own pace in their private vehicle with the ability to stop at sites along the way such as the President’s birthplace, Johnson family cemetery, and the Johnson’s ranch house known as the Texas White House.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park has two distinct visitor areas separated by 14 miles.

In Johnson City you will find the National Park Visitor Center, Boyhood Home in which President Johnson spent his childhood, and the Johnson Settlement where the President’s grandparents first settled in the 1860s.

Today, King Ranch is designated a National Historic Landmark and is historically recognized as the birthplace of the American ranching industry. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Today, King Ranch is designated a National Historic Landmark and is historically recognized as the birthplace of the American ranching industry. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

King Ranch

The name of Kingsville and King Ranch are thought of synonymously and with good reason. Kingsville is located on part of a Mexican land grant purchased by Captain Richard King in 1853. It was the beginning of a dream to tame the Wild Horse Desert. His widow, Henrietta, continued that pursuit for forty years following his death. Among her many achievements was the founding of Kingsville in 1904, a raw town site in the middle of the prairie, situated along the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico railway route.

The Santa Gertudis breed of cattle originated here, and the ranch was home to the first registered American quarter horse.

Today, King Ranch is designated a National Historic Landmark and is historically recognized as the birthplace of the American ranching industry. The four South Texas divisions sprawl across nearly a million acres of Gulf of Mexico coastal plains.

Santa Gertudis and King Ranch Santa Cruz breeds of cattle, Quarter horses, majestic Texas Longhorn cattle, and a rich diversity of native wildlife welcome visitors during one of the variety of tours offered to public. Tours originate from the Visitor Center on the Santa Gertudis Division, just minutes from downtown Kingsville.

Special interest tours that include wildlife, birding, and agriculture are available by reservation.

La Brisa Mexican Bar & Grill

When you’re in the Kemah/Seabrook area south of Houston and have a craving for excellent authentic Mexican food and great margaritas, try La Brisa. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
When you’re in the Kemah/Seabrook area south of Houston and have a craving for excellent authentic Mexican food and great margaritas, try La Brisa. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you’re in the Kemah/Seabrook area south of Houston and have a craving for excellent authentic Mexican food and great margaritas, try La Brisa. It’s a short drive just down Highway 146 south from Kemah, towards Bacliff.

The happy hour margaritas are only $2.00. You won’t find better food in the entire Clearlake area. It’s one of the best places to get the real thing. Great prices and prompt service! The food comes in huge portions.

The only drawback is the shortage of parking. Well, there’s actually a lot of parking, but there’s a lot of cars there all the time.

I love their red salsa as well as the green, guacamole salsa that they serve with warm chips at your table. I ordered their shrimp enchiladas, which was outstanding.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 9 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

I think Texans have more fun than the rest of the world.

—Choreographer (and Wichita Falls native) Tommy Tune

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RVing ’round Texas

Even those of us who visit Texas frequently and spend a big chunk of our time traversing it leave most of the Lone Star State untouched.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

Goliad

At Goliad State Park, tour the beautiful reconstructed Franciscan Mission Espíritu Santo, home of the largest ranching operation in Texas in the 18th century © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
At Goliad State Park, tour the beautiful reconstructed Franciscan Mission Espíritu Santo, home of the largest ranching operation in Texas in the 18th century © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goliad is one of the few places in North America where you can visit both an 18th-century Spanish-Colonial mission and presidio (fort) complex, to understand the roles of the Catholic Church and the Spanish military in settling the New World.

At Goliad State Park, tour the beautiful reconstructed Franciscan Mission Espíritu Santo, home of the largest ranching operation in Texas in the 18th century. Enjoy the serenity of this Spanish colonial church and view exhibits that explore the history and daily life of the missionaries and Indian converts—including some of the original artifacts they used.

Across the river, visit the Presidio La Bahía. Located ¼-mile south of Goliad State Park on U.S. Highway 183 and 77A and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Victoria. View exhibits, enjoy an interpretive program and exciting reenactments, and imagine life at the fort.

Originally built in 1749 to protect the Mission and the frontier, it later played a major role in the Texas Revolution. Here, Colonel Fannin and his ill-fated men were held prior to being executed at Santa Anna’s order, an act of infamy later recalled at the Battle of San Jacinto with the cry, “Remember Goliad! Remember the Alamo!”

Take in the unspoiled Victorian charm of downtown Goliad on a walking tour of the Courthouse Square and nearby historic district. Start your tour at the Market House Museum and Visitor Center to pick up a map and view artifacts from the early settlers’ home life and ranching days. Visit the 1894 courthouse and stroll through lovely vintage neighborhoods in the shade of centuries-old oak trees.

RV camping is available at Goliad State Park including full-hookup sites with 50-amp electric service.

Rockport-Fulton

The mile-long beach at Rockport beckons visitors for walks, beachcombing, or just watching the world and water traffic float by. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The mile-long beach at Rockport beckons visitors for walks, beachcombing, or just watching the world and water traffic float by. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fulton and Rockport are contiguous and share the same heritage, business, and recreational areas. The historic seaside town of Rockport, located 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, is bound by the waters of the St. Charles, Copano, and Aransas bays. Its funky waterfront lined with bait shops and fish stalls, has become quite the artists’ colony, and there’s a noted art center here, as well as the Texas Maritime Museum.

Rockport was established in 1867 as a shipping port for wool, hides, bones, and tallow. In the late 1920s, shrimping became an industry and caused a city boom in the 1940s. The local fishing fleet is one of the largest and most colorful in the region. Besides shrimp, other fishing opportunities include speckled trout, red fish, flounder, crab, and oysters.

The mile-long beach beckons visitors for walks, beachcombing, or just watching the world and water traffic float by.

Fulton is home to the ornate Fulton Mansion, a French Second Empire-style beauty, erected by cattleman George W. Fulton in 1877, nicely restored and operated by the Texas State Parks.

Twelve miles north is Goose Island State Park, a 314-acre coastal heaven. It is here that Big Tree is located, an immense Live Oak that is reported to be 1,000 years old and the largest in Texas.

Approximately 500 bird species have been recorded in the area, including the endangered whooping cranes that winter in the nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge marshes.

Texas Oysters

Texas may be best known for beef, but its bay oysters rank second to none. Texas oysters are impeccably fresh—whether served on the half shell with a kiss of salt air and Texas hot sauce or shucked for a sauté or creamy stew.

When in the Galveston area, a trip to Stingaree Marina and Restaurant in Crystal Beach is at the top of our list of “must-do” events. It is not just the food, it’s the whole experience.

Located on Bolivar Peninsula, this well-worn, roughhewn, two-story establishment stands next to the Intracoastal Canal, with an amazing view of tug boats and barges.

To get there from Galveston you ride the Boliver ferry—a free car ferry run by TXDot that crosses the Houston Ship Channel.

Located in a well-worn, roughhewn, two-story establishment, Stingaree stands next to the Intracoastal Canal. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Located in a well-worn, roughhewn, two-story establishment, Stingaree stands next to the Intracoastal Canal. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the Intracoastal Waterway on the bay side of Bolivar, the Stingaree is famous for many things: the beautiful sunsets seen from its deck, the giant tug boats and barges that pass within feet of its windows, and wonderful Gulf Coast seafood—barbecue crab, fried catfish, shrimp and oysters, Red Snapper Ponchartrain, Crabmeat Au Gratin, etouffee, and gumbo.

During the winter months the Stingaree has one of the best seasonal dishes you’ll find anywhere on the Gulf Coast—Oyster Jubilee (oyster season traditionally ends in April).

As its name suggests Oyster Jubilee is a celebration of everything oyster. A colossal dish of over 30 oysters prepared in every conceivable way.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 8 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

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

—Elmer Kelto

Read More

Happiness is a Texas Bucket List

From West Texas to the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast, El Paso to Texarkana to Brownsville, from outdoor enthusiasts to foodies to culture buffs, there’s always something to see and do in Texas.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Monahans Sandhills State Park is only a small portion of a dune field that extends about 200 miles from south of Monahans westward and north into New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Monahans Sandhills State Park is only a small portion of a dune field that extends about 200 miles from south of Monahans westward and north into New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park consists of 3,840 acres of wind-sculpted sand dunes, some up to 70 feet high, in Ward and Winkler Counties, about a half-hour’s drive west of Odessa.

These sand hills once presented an enormous problem for pioneers and their wagon trains as they moved through the state. The Native Americans of the area, however, frequently camped in the area after discovering that pure, fresh water could be obtained by digging a trench between dunes.

This water has also been the source of nourishment for one of the largest oak forests in the country. However, the Harvard Oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above 3 feet in height, even though their root structure may extend down 90 feet or more.

The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and RV camping and a favorite activity of many visitors, sand surfing.

At Monahans Sandhills State Park, the visitor will experience a dynamic landscape. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
At Monahans Sandhills State Park, the visitor will experience a dynamic landscape. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Painted Churches of Fayette County

Driving the back roads of southeast Fayette County, it’s easy to leave the 20th century behind. Head out into the rolling hills to view the beautifully painted historic churches of Ammannsville (St. John the Baptist Church, 1919); Dubina (Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, 1912); High Hill (St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 1906); and Praha (St. Mary’s Church, 1892). You’ll start your tour in historic downtown Schulenburg.

These churches have some of the most beautiful painted artwork and stained glass you will ever see. The term “Painted” comes from the elaborate faux-finished interiors. Gold-leafed, stone, and polished marble columns and ceilings are—upon closer examination—actually finely-fitted woodwork. The paint is still vibrant and bright, even after all these years.

In 1856, Dubina, (the Czech word for “land of oaks”) became the first Czech settlement in Texas. Soon more Czechs, Moravians, and Germans joined the settlers, traveling by ox cart and wagon, and established the villages of Ammannsville and High Hill nearby. In a few short years, Bohemian immigrant Mathias Novak helped transform the neighboring settlement of Hottentot into Praha, the Czech word for Prague, the capital of their homeland.

These newcomers were devout Catholics, as religious as they were hardworking. Small frame churches sprang up alongside cotton gins, sawmills, blacksmith shops, and saloons.

As soon as they could afford it, the settlers built more-permanent houses of worship. Nostalgic for home, they fashioned pointed arches and vaulted ceilings, imported stained glass and ornate statuary from Europe, and commissioned elaborate, religious murals for walls, alters, and ceilings.

City Market, Luling

One of the great joys of RVing is visiting new places and making interesting discoveries. Another is just the opposite—revisiting those places that demand a closer look. Sometimes that second chance leads to a third—and a fourth.

City Market in Luling, is such a place. The meat-market-turned-barbecue-restaurant started in 1958, and over the years has become a barbecue icon. This is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary.

City Market in Luling is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
City Market in Luling is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long before there was a giant watermelon to point the way, barbecue fans were heading to downtown Luling to satisfy their craving for City Market’s succulent brisket, hot links, and pork ribs. The meat-market-turned-barbecue-restaurant started in 1958, and over the years has become a barbecue icon.

Customers form two lines at this gastronomic heaven—one to select their meat and pick up pickles and white bread or crackers in the back room, and the other for drinks (this is Dr. Pepper country) and sides—be sure you try the beans. The meat is sold by the pound—except for sausage; it’s by the link—and then wrapped in butcher paper, which serves as a plate. You’ll find the spicy, mustard-laced sauce in bottles on the long, wooden tables.

This is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 7 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

There is a growing feeling that perhaps Texas is really another country, a place where the skies, the disasters, the diamonds, the politicians, the women, the fortunes, the football players and the murders are all bigger than anywhere else.

—Pete Hamill

Read More

RVing through Texas

In a state as diverse as Texas, there’s always an adventure around every corner and unique attractions at every turn.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

La Feria Nature Center

A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home at La Feria Nature Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home at La Feria Nature Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With the opening of the Rio Grande Valley’s newest park, the La Feria Nature Center located at 1800 South Rabb Road, the La Feria Parks System was expanded by an additional 88 acres for the enjoyment of all who love the outdoors.

The park consists of two walking trails surrounding three bodies of water, several butterfly gardens, many native plants, and a children’s playground. Bird watchers will find this a perfect place to spend the day. There are four observation decks, a fishing pier, and a large pavilion that is available for rent for special occasions.

The walking trail around the observation decks is one mile; the walking trail around the playground is ½ mile.

On our visit, we spotted great egret, snowy egret, great blue heron, white ibis, American coot, loggerhead shrike, American kestrel, Eastern meadowlark, and hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks.

Kloesel’s Steak House

Kloesel’s Steak House in Moulton makes a great lunch stop on the way to the “little brewery in Shiner”.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Kloesel’s Steak House in Moulton makes a great lunch stop on the way to the “little brewery in Shiner”.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blink and you’ll miss Moulton—but that would be a mistake.

On a recommendation we received while in Luling we made a lunch stop at this sidetrack town 10 miles north of Shiner on Texas 95.

Incidentally we were on our way to tour the “little brewery in Shiner”.

Turn west off Texas 95 onto Moore Avenue, and see what I mean.

Moulton (pronounced MOLE-ton) prospered in the 1880s as the railroad and Czech and German immigrants came to town. Today, the town of some 1,000 people quaintly blends Old World style and Old West flavor.

During the past 40 years, Harvey and Diana Kloesel have turned a former grocery-café into a popular eatery. The Kloesels charbroil choice steaks. Other fare ranges from fettuccine to blue-plate specials, plus luscious pies and cheesecakes. All steaks at Kloesel’s Steak House are USDA choice beef and are freshly cut in the Kloesel’s preparation room.

The salad dressings and sauces are family recipes prepared fresh each week. The Kloesels also feature their own private label of Steak Sauce which is served in their restaurant. The sauces, salad dressings, homemade pies, fresh bread and buns, and fresh steaks are available for purchase.

Caddo Lake State Park

Caddo Lake, which straddles the Texas-Louisiana border northwest of Shreveport, is the largest natural lake in the South, a sprawling maze of bayous, sloughs, ponds, and channels cut through dense, lush forests. Spanish moss dripping from towering bald cypress trees creates a sense of mystery.

A subtropical wading birds related to the herons but distinguished by a long slender downwardly curved bill, the white ibis is often seen at La Feria Nature Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A subtropical wading birds related to the herons but distinguished by a long slender downwardly curved bill, the white ibis is often seen at La Feria Nature Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around eight feet in the shallows, Caddo’s depth increases up to 20 feet in the bayous. A visit to the lake often begins at the state park where one finds Big Cypress Bayou, a major watershed for the lake. Just above the swamps are hardwood bottomlands and eventually piney woods. Both Texas and Louisiana share the Caddo Lake shoreline, where fishing guides, boat rentals, camping, lodging, and restaurants abound.

With more than 70 species of fish—including the prehistoric-looking paddlefish—the 26,810-acre lake has always lured fishermen. But large numbers of birders, naturalists, and paddlers flock here, too, drawn by Caddo’s diverse flora and fauna.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 6 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state of the mind.

Texas is an obsession.

Above all,

Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck

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

Texas Bucket List for the RVer

No matter how you size it up, Texas is a BIG friendly state that offers a wealth of experiences for all RVers.

The classic Shiner Bock is a God given blessing. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The classic Shiner Bock is a God given blessing. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A trek across Texas’ 267,000 square miles brings you face to face with all kinds of natural wonders—from tumbleweeds, wildflowers, deserts and cedar forests to angular canyons, rivers and sandy beaches with sea-green surf.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

No Finer Day in Shiner

In Texas, the mere mention of the word “Shiner” immediately brings to mind thoughts of a cold longneck and the distinctive brew within. However, before the beer, there was the town.

Not surprisingly, the best way to learn the history of Shiner is to learn the history of Shiner Beer, as the two have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. So, I headed to Spoetzl Brewery and joined a tour.

Shiner beer started in 1909 when the town’s thirsty German and Czech immigrants decided to start a brewery to make the traditional Bavarian brews of their homeland. In 1914, legendary brewmaster Kosmos Spoetzl took over and the rest is history.

The Spoetzl Brewery is now the oldest independent brewery in Texas and still brews every drop of Shiner Beer from its “little brewery” in Shiner.

As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tour gave me a firsthand look into the brewing process and, of course, a firsthand sampling of the final product, from flagstaff Shiner Boch to the 102 Double Wheat. The tour is the best way to sample the spectrum of Shiner, and it whet my curiosity as to what else the town had to offer.

Thirsty no more, but definitely hungry, I went to Friday’s Fried Chicken, a local spot that’s part fried-chicken-joint and part Czech bakery. My two-piece golden-fried-chicken plate with cold slaw and French fries hit the spot. Then I finished my lunch with a slice of homemade pecan pie and a whole pie to go.

While Shiner Beer put Shiner on the map, it isn’t the only thing keeping it there. And a day trip to Shiner goes down as smooth as the namesake beverage. As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!”

Valley Nature Center

The Valley Nature Center is a 5-acre thicket of native vegetations, primarily upland scrub forest, with a courtyard of identified native plants, a butterfly garden, elevated lily pond, cactus gardens, and self-guiding, interpretive trails winding its way through nature vegetation.

The center features a courtyard dedicated to the preservation of endangered plants and teaches how these plants can be used in wildscaping land in the Valley.

A trail guide identifies native plants and animals of special interest.

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

The Valley Nature Center is the oldest nature center in the Rio Grande Valley, and the only non-profit center fully dedicated to environmental education south of San Antonio and east of Eagle Pass. It has been in operation as a non-profit organization dedicated to its mission since 1984.

The park is a wonderful natural oasis in the middle of the city.

Native Plant Nursery open to the public—140 species of plants native to the Rio Grande Valley

Viva, Las Vegas Café

Las Vegas Café is a dining staple on West Harrison Avenue in Harlingen that serves breakfasts, lunches, and dinners Monday through Saturdays. The popular café began its operation with only three tables and eight stools and now has a seating capacity for 140 people.

The name has spicy origins and so do the recipes. The building was a go-go club in the early 1960s that went by the name of Las Vegas Lounge.

Las Vegas owners Julio Charles and his wife, Eloina, started the café in 1964. Today, their two daughters, Lori and Julie, primarily run the café.

The key to the eatery’s continued success is its consistency with good food, good service, and reasonable prices.

The specialties of the house include beef and cheese enchiladas that are prepared from a special recipe that is really their trademark. Plus they have several other quality Mexican dishes such as steak rancheros, fajitas, chicken fried steak, and chicken tenders.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 3 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

First buy a cowboy hat and boots. Then you’re on your way to being a Texan.

—James Michener

Read More

RV Around Texas

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

San Antonio River Walk

The River Walk has grown to a stunning eight miles and will stretch to 15 miles by 2013. Each part offers a unique look and feel. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The River Walk has grown to a stunning eight miles and will stretch to 15 miles by 2013. Each part offers a unique look and feel. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The famed San Antonio River Walk is 2½ miles of beautifully landscaped waterfront with hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and shopping and is one of the main tourist attractions in the state of Texas. Historically, the waterway was used by Spanish explorers to provide water to their missions. In 1929, Robert H.H. Hugman submitted his design plans to turn the area into a beautiful urban park with apartments, dining, shopping, and boat rides.

Since 1938 the River Walk has been a hub of culture for San Antonio. You can learn about San Antonio’s history aboard a river cruise, people watch as you enjoy delicious food on many of the restaurant’s outdoor patios and simply enjoy this beautiful piece of the Lone Star State.

The World Birding Center (WBC)

The World Birding Center (WBC) is a network of nine unique birding sites in the Lower Rio Grande Valley along a 120-mile corridor following the Rio Grande from Roma to South Padre Island.

The mission of the WBC is to protect native habitat, while increasing the understanding and appreciation of birds and wildlife.

Combining Birding and Photography with our life on the road is like enjoying pecan pie with Blue Bell ice cream for dessert following a turkey feast on Thanksgiving Day! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
In addition to nearly 30 bird species found nowhere else in the US, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is home to an astonishing concentration of more widespread birds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive through subtropical Texas to share the borderlands mix of Texan and Mexican heritage, and take time to look for any of the more than 500 bird species that have been documented in the region.

Three Texas state parks are part of the WBC. They contribute to the Valley’s reputation as a nature destination where visitors come from around the world. Like us, many stay for months at a time, to enjoy the climate, culture, and access to hundreds of species of winged creatures.

The WBC’s network of nine nature sites include Roma Bluffs, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Quinta Mazatlan, Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Harlingen Arroyo Colorado, Resaca de la Palma State Park, and South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

Galveston

The Bishop’s Palace is recognized as one of America’s finest examples of Victorian exuberance and Gilded-Age extravagance. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Bishop’s Palace is recognized as one of America’s finest examples of Victorian exuberance and Gilded-Age extravagance. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the oldest cities in Texas and a major port, Galveston sits on a barrier island two miles offshore, surrounded by 32 miles of sandy beaches, numerous attractions, and one of the largest and best-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the United States.

Once known as “the Wall Street of the Southwest,” Galveston later became the site of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

But the Hurricane of 1900 changed everything. Galveston’s prosperity suddenly came to a halt on September 8, 1900, when the deadliest natural disaster in United States history hit Galveston Island.

Centerpiece of today’s city is the Victorian restoration, in which many neighborhoods have been restored to their 19th-century splendor.

Galveston boasts four districts on the National Register of Historic Places: The Strand National Historic Landmark District, East End National Historic Landmark District, Silk Stocking District, and Central Business District. Galveston is home to three National Historic Landmarks: Tall Ship Elissa, East End, and The Strand. There are approximately 1,500 historic buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the most popular of these landmark districts is The Strand National Historic Landmark District, formerly known as “Wall Street of the Southwest” and now home to more than 100 shops, antique stores, restaurants, and art galleries. The Strand has one of the largest and best preserved concentrations of Victorian, iron-front commercial architecture in the United States.

Today, this barrier island city, situated approximately 40 miles southeast of Houston, is a living history adventure.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 2 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Read More

RV Across Texas

Texas is full of surprises. Few sections of the country are as influenced by Spanish, Mexican, and European residents as Texas. With one of the largest German, Czech, French, and Mexican populations in the U.S., Texas is diverse.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is a huge, pink granite exfoliation dome, that rises 425 feet above ground. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is a huge, pink granite exfoliation dome, that rises 425 feet above ground. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock is a huge, pink granite exfoliation dome that rises 425 feet above ground, 1,825 feet above sea level, and covers 640 acres. It is one of the largest batholiths (underground rock formation uncovered by erosion) in the United States.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area consists of 1,643 acres on Big Sandy Creek, 18 miles north of Fredericksburg, on the border between Gillespie and Llano counties.

Coupled with its impressive geologic history, Enchanted Rock also has an extensive archaeological history; the site figures prominently in several Indian legends.

Tonkawa Indians believed ghost fires flickered at the top, and they heard weird creaking and groaning, which geologists now say resulted from the rock’s heating by day and contracting in the cool night.

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

The park offers 7 miles of hiking trails, including the popular 6/10 mile Summit Trail which involves a 425-foot elevation gain hike to the top of Enchanted Rock. The 4-mile Loop Trail, a favorite among hikers and backpackers, winds around the base of Enchanted Rock.

Gladys Porter Zoo

Gladys Porter Zoo, rated among the top 10 zoological preserves in the United States, is an oasis nestled in the center of Brownsville. With 26 acres of lush tropical plants and over 1,600 animals, Gladys Porter Zoo is known for its successes in breeding endangered species of wildlife. Animals live in open exhibits surrounded by natural flowing waterways.

Brick pits that smoke the meats at Smitty's—brisket, pork ribs, and chops, shoulder clod, sausage, and prime rib. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Brick pits that smoke the meats at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart—brisket, pork ribs, and chops, shoulder clod, sausage, and prime rib. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The zoo is divided into sections. Tropical America is where visitors will see jaguars, Galapagos tortoises, macaws, Caribbean flamingos, spider monkeys, and Cuban crocodiles. Indo-Australia features orangutans, grey kangaroos, kookaburras, agile wallabys, and black swans. Asia has tigers, gaurs, Przewalski’s horse, pileated gibbons, Indian blue peafowl, and Bactrian camels. Africa includes reticulated giraffes, African elephants, Grant’s zebras, African lions, western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, and one of the rarest antelopes in the world—the Jentink’s duiker.

The Herpetarium and Aquatic Wing contains a large collection of lizards, turtles, snakes, gila monsters, and some rare crocodilians, along with both freshwater and saltwater fish from around the world, with an emphasis on the Texas Gulf Coast area.

Other exhibits include a free-flight aviary, bear grottos, and a California sea lion exhibit.

Lockhart, Barbecue Capital of Texas

Lockhart, the seat of Caldwell County, is located 28 miles southeast of Austin on U.S. Highway 183. This small Texas town exudes a rustic, slow-paced charm arising from its Western heritage, rooted in cattle and cotton.

Lockhart is blessed with small-town hospitality. The town also benefits from being historically located on three trails—El Camino Real, the Chisholm Trail, and the Texas Independence Trail.

Lockhart is the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Out-of-towners and locals flock to four smoked-meat emporiums—Black’s Barbecue, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, Kreuz Market, and Smitty’s Market.

Black's Barbecue is Texas' oldest and best major barbecue restaurant continuously owned and operated by the same family. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Black’s Barbecue is Texas’ oldest and best major barbecue restaurant continuously owned and operated by the same family. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several tons of barbecued beef, pork, chicken, and smoked sausage are served each day. It is estimated that over 5,000 people visit these establishments on a weekly basis—that’s roughly 250,000 people a year who eat BBQ in Lockhart.

Lockhart’s pit masters smolder native post oak logs, seasoned at least eight months, to provide the fragrant smoke and indirect heat that slowly roasts and flavors the meat. After that, secret recipes, cooking methods, and condiments separate the establishments.

Black’s and Chisholm Trail offer barbecue sauce to their customers; Smitty’s grudgingly provides it; and Kreuz Market bans sauce—and forks, too.

When Kreuz Market opened as a meat market and grocery store in 1900, customers dined off butcher paper with their fingers and used knives attached by chains to the wall to slice their meat.

It’s amazing that four barbecue establishments can stay packed all the time—and in a small town, too.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 4 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

If a man’s from Texas, he’ll tell you. If he’s not, why embarrass him by asking?

—John Gunther

Read More

Texas RV Travel Bucket List

Texas is big, beautiful, and diverse.

The first thing many visitors notice about the Alamo is its small size, especially when compared with the buildings of the surrounding city. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The first thing many visitors notice about the Alamo is its small size, especially when compared with the buildings of the surrounding city. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So much has been said about Texas—its sunny seacoast to mile-high mountains, dense forests to cactus-studded desert, great cities to small villages and towns, rich and diverse history, and the hallowed Shrine that represents her birthplace.

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

In a state as diverse as Texas, there’s always an adventure around every corner and unique attractions at every turn.

From West Texas to the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast, El Paso to Texarkana to Brownsville, from outdoor enthusiasts to foodies to culture buffs, there’s always something to see and do in Texas.

Even those of us who visit Texas frequently and spend a big chunk of our time traversing it leave most of the Lone Star State untouched.

The state overflows with awesomeness at every turn, places we find completely captivating.

These are the places on our Texas Bucket List: 10 things that every traveling Texan should do. Whittling the list to 10 was totally frustrating, so, at the end, we’re listing some other Texas travel spots we love. And, of course, because we haven’t yet been quite everywhere, we’ll keep exploring Texas — and keep letting you know about new finds.

Here, in the meantime, is our bucket list, in no particular order.

We’ll start at the hallowed Shrine that represents her birthplace.

The Alamo

 

You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.—David Crockett © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.—David Crockett © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Alamo is sacred to every Texan, and the state’s number one tourist attraction.

For 176 years, the words, “Remember the Alamo,” have inspired passions and politics. The 13-day siege resulting in a battle to the death for its defenders is truly the stuff of legends.

Entering the doors of this monumental artifact of Texas history, we couldn’t help but wonder how many truly know the saga that unfolded within the walls and under their feet? How many actually think about the struggle for freedom and liberty and the cost involved in the fight against tyranny and suppression?

The story of the birth of the Texas Republic is one of great drama and personal sacrifice.

The Alamo was defended by slightly fewer than 200 men. All were killed or executed.

The first thing many visitors notice about the Alamo is its small size, especially when compared with the buildings of the surrounding city.

Though the old Spanish mission may not be the biggest building on the block, it still casts a giant shadow across the Great State of Texas.

If you have never visited this sacred shrine, you haven’t really visited Texas. And even if you have made the pilgrimage, journey there again and walk the grounds and explore the many enclaves in reflection of the events that transpired there 176 years ago.

Remember the Alamo!

Brenham: Ice Cream Capital of Texas

What's your favorite flavor of Blue Bell ice cream? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
What’s your favorite flavor of Blue Bell ice cream? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brenham—Ice Cream Capital of Texas,” proclaims the giant sign at the corner of U.S. 290 and FM 577, which becomes Blue Bell Road, home to Blue Bell Creameries.

The tour begins in a small projection room with a brief, humorous video depicting the history of Blue Bell, founded in 1907 as the Brenham Creamery Company. Afterward, a guide leads visitors upstairs to watch cream transform into frozen confections. Tour-goers peer through large, glass windows that overlook the various processing areas, stainless steel vats and chutes crank out the chilly treats into paper tubs, which are loaded into boxes headed for the freezer.

Our guide mentions that less than half of Blue Bell’s 18 year-round and 24 rotating flavors are produced on a given day. On this day, we watch half-gallons of Pecan Praline, Milk Chocolate, and Rocky Road, pints of Moo-llennium Crunch, and three-gallon containers of Homemade Vanilla glide down the line, as well as the rapid assembly of ice cream sandwiches (120 made per minute).

Cravings can build, even in the quick half-hour watching workers operate vats and pack ice cream. Luckily, an ice cream parlor awaits downstairs at the end of the tour. Visitors receive a serving from their choice of 24 flavors, including the latest creations.

An extensive gift shop adjoining the parlor tempts with everything Blue Bell.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 1 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

Wasn’t Born in Texas, But Got Here as Fast as I Could

Read More