West Texas & Big Bend: The Mysterious Lands With Majestic Vistas

Nothing beats the West Texas sky when the clouds roll in. Or when the sun sets. Or when the stars come out. Take a tour of Big Bend National Park, Marathon, Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, and Balmorhea State Park.

Big Bend National Park with the Rio Grande River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park with the Rio Grande River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is Texas’ best-kept secret. The 800,000-acre park is a stunning mix of topography and ecosystems from the rugged Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert to the verdant banks of the Rio Grande River.

Marathon

Lying some 36 miles to the north, the tiny community of Marathon is dotted with adorable old-timey eateries and other super Texas-y things. Built in 1927 by acclaimed architect, Henry Trost, the legendary Gage Hotel offers authentic laid-back luxury and a first class dining experience. 12 Gage Restaurant is a sophisticated restaurant to satisfy even the most ardent foodies. The hotel’s famous White Buffalo Bar was selected by Texas Monthly Magazine as “Best Hotel Bar” in Texas.

Established in 1991 by Shirley Rooney, Shirley Burn’t Biscuit Bakery is a Marathon institution  providing fresh baked goods daily. Dine in, carry-out, or have any of the freshly baked goods, specialty fried pies, donuts, pastries, cookies, or cinnamon rolls shipped anywhere in the world.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alpine

Alpine is a gem. A remote, high-desert jewel nestled in the tall hills of West Texas at an elevation of 4,475 feet. It is a friendly, bustling community of a little over 5,000 people in a scenic valley with surrounding mountain peaks over a mile high. You’ll immediately take note of the natural beauty surrounding the city.

For more than 70 years the Museum of the Big Bend has been collecting and exhibiting artifacts of the vast Big Bend region. Located on the campus of Sul Ross State University, this is a great starting off point for visitors to the region.

Don’t Miss the Alpine Mural Project, a salute to the town’s ranch heritage.

Fort Davis

Fort Davis is pure Texas, as genuine as the working cattle ranches on the outskirts of town.

The area’s lively military history is preserved at Fort Davis National Historic Site. This 19th-century frontier fort has one of the best preserved “Buffalo Soldier” outposts.

Big Bend Country sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend Country sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another internationally known attraction is McDonald Observatory, a 17 mile drive up a pretty canyon north of Fort Davis.

The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens is located on 507 acres, four miles south of Fort Davis on Highway 118. The Center is in a marvelous setting, with views of Mt. Livermore to the north and Blue Mountain to the southwest. The Center is an interesting blend of informative exhibits and programs, a greenhouse and botanical center, and picturesque hikes featuring spectacular views of the Davis Mountains.

Marfa

Marfa has long been known for its art-world, off-beat cool factor, a mix of kitsch and bizarre.

The 1956 filming of “Giant” starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson first put Marfa on the cultural map. Then Donald Judd, the late minimalist artist, moved to this tiny town to escape New York’s art scene in the ’70s; instead he transported a little piece of it to West Texas. Today Marfa is home to the Judd and Chinati Foundations and Ballroom Marfa, a cultural arts center, as well as several galleries.

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

El Cosmico, hippie-chic hotel and campground offers accommodations in vintage trailers, teepees, tents, and an authentic Mongolian yurt. The 18-acre property also includes a communal bathhouse with showers and a tub, hammocks, and an outdoor kitchen area.

Accounts of strange and unexplained mystery lights just outside of Marfa began during the 19th century and continue to this day. The Marfa Ghost Lights are sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes white, and appear randomly throughout the night. The official Marfa Lights Viewing Area is located 9 miles east of town on Highway 90, towards Alpine. Bring an open mind. The Marfa Lights Festival kicks off on the Labor Day weekend (29th annual; September 4-6, 2015).

Balmorhea

Balmorhea State Park is an oasis in the desert north of Big Bend. The San Soloman Springs feed the swimming pool, keeping the water at a refreshing 74 degrees. The size (1.75 acres, 25 feet deep), temperature, and chlorine-free water make this a great scuba-diving spot.

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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Texas Hill Country: Gruene & Blanco

For another change of pace we continued through New Braunfels to neighboring Gruene (locals call it “Green”), a delightfully dilapidated 1870s German farming community that once boasted the area’s largest cotton gin. Today the town is a National Historic District.

The town's most famous attraction is Gruene Hall. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The town’s most famous attraction is Gruene Hall. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated on the banks of the Guadalupe River, the Gruene cotton gin processed crops raised by area farmers until the wooden structure burned to the ground in 1922.  All that remains of the water-powered mill today is the three story brick boiler room—now the Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar. Located in the historic district just beneath the famous Gruene water tower, the restaurant opened in 1977, serving steaks and hamburgers from a tiny kitchen in the corner of the building.
The menu still features thick steaks and large hamburgers, but the restaurant also serves up popular South Texas fare like chicken fried steak, fried catfish, grilled chicken, enormous sandwiches, fresh fish, and special dishes like tomatillo chicken and bronzed catfish. Fudge pie, an enormous strawberry shortcake, and their signature Jack Daniel’s Pecan Pie are famous desserts. A full bar with a good wine list and fresh squeezed lime margaritas are also big hits.

The town’s most famous attraction is Gruene Hall.

Gruene (locals call it "Green"), a delightfully dilapidated 1870s German farming community that once boasted the area's largest cotton gin. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Gruene (locals call it “Green”), a delightfully dilapidated 1870s German farming community that once boasted the area’s largest cotton gin. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built in 1878, Gruene Hall is Texas’ oldest continually operating and most famous dance hall. By design, not much has physically changed since the Hall was first built. The 6,000 square foot dance hall with a high pitched tin roof still has the original layout with side flaps for open air dancing, a bar in the front, a small lighted stage in the back, and a huge outdoor garden. Advertisement signs from the 1930s and ’40s still hang in the old hall and around the stage.

Gruene Hall has become internationally recognized as a destination tourist attraction and major music venue for up-and-coming as well as established artists. Since 1975, the Hall has played host to hundreds of celebrities whose pictures adorn the walls.

The Hall has served as a stage for many great blues and country singers, including Willie Nelson, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Bo Diddley, Aaron Neville, and BB King.

The owner’s focus on booking singer-songwriters and artists who play original material has provided a fertile proving ground for many former “new talents” such as George Strait, Hal Ketchum, and Lyle Lovett.

The Blanco River meanders past thriving lavender farms before pooling in town at Blanco State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Blanco River meanders past thriving lavender farms before pooling in town at Blanco State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 35-minute drive to the northwest, 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.

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.

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.

© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
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. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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.

On to Austin and San Antonio! One thing that makes the Texas Hill Country so appealing is the two great cities bordering the region: San Antonio to the south  and Austin to the north. But that’s for another day.

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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Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude

Big Bend National Park is well off the beaten path…and well worth exploring.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Welcome to a national park where you can actually revel in its silence and solitude. Remote, huge, and austere, this national park along the Rio Grande River is an uncrowded gem. One of the largest parks in the country, with more than 800,000 acres, Big Bend is also one of the least visited—thanks to, you guessed it, its remote location.

Big Bend National Park is a land of paradox, beauty, and above all, vastness. Even today, only three paved roads run south into Big Bend, but from those roads the view can astound.

The Rio Grande River squiggles its course across the harsh desert landscape, carving through limestone and shale. The river separates much of the state of Texas from the country of Mexico, and within the big bend formed by the river, sits a region that will appeal to RVers and other travelers who believe the best things in life require a little effort.

The nearest interstate highway access is 1-10 to the north; from Fort Stockton southbound on US 385 it is 125 miles to park headquarters at Panther Junction. Nearest town to the park is Marathon, 70 miles from Panther Junction.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In other words, Big Bend visitors must plan their trips. You can see and enjoy plenty on a day visit, but you won’t see nearly enough, and you will have burned a lot of fuel along the way. Big Bend rangers recommend three days, and depending on what you want to do, a week or more may be a better choice.

Prior to visiting the park, we spent several enjoyable days in Big Bend country at Marathon in a charming little place, Marathon Motel & RV Park.

The next day we headed for the heart of Big Bend down US Highway 385 making a stop at the visitor center at Panther Junction for orientation, maps, brochures, and hiking information. Before setting out on greater quests we, strolled Panther Path and checked out the vegetation found in the Chihuahuan Desert—yucas, lechuguillas, creosote brushes, and bunch grasses.

We then continued to the Rio Grande Village on the Rio Grande River to secure a full hookup site for the duration of our stay.

Big Bend is vast deserts, mountains, canyons and THE river—the Rio Grande—and along the river are several hot springs.

But the park touts more than a famous river: In the middle of Big Bend there’s a grand series of peaks known as the Chisos, accessible by dinghy and small RVs along a narrow and curved access road. Ponderosa and pinyon pine carpet the cool flanks of these hills, providing a haven for black bears and cougars.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park was officially created in 1944, but evidence of human habitation of the Big Bend area dates back roughly 12,000 years. The Mescalero Apache and Comanche tribes were on the long list of those who came to the area.

Each season is unique. Summer temperatures can soar to 120 degrees while mild winters allow RVers to explore fascinating geology. The spring months of March, April, and May bring especially good birdwatching with more than 450 species having been counted within the park—more than in any other national park.

There’s not a lot of water here. An average of just 18 inches falls annually in the heights of the Chisos Mountains that tower nearly 8,000 feet into the sky. And if you think that’s not a lot, these mountains get a deluge when compared to the rest of the park. It is a land that is lucky to see 10 inches of rain in a year. This is an arid landscape.

While touring the park in our dinghy we stopped in the Chisos Basin, a valley within a mountainous ring, and one of the park’s most popular areas, with a visitor center, RV park (not suitable for big rigs), and a lodge.

We take a short hike for a clear view of the Window Overlook, or V-Window, as it’s called since its mountainsides form a “V” shape with views of distant mountain ranges.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend has four campgrounds: Rio Grande Village RV Campground (25 full hookup sites), Rio Grande Village Campground (100 non-hookup sites), Chisos Basin Campground (60 non-hookup sites), and Cottonwood Campground (24 non-hookup sites).

Big Bend is filled with surprises, scenic beauty, native plants, wild­life, fantastic outdoor recreation, and the opportunity to enjoy them all in a rugged, majestic setting. A visit to this incredible place will provide wonderful memories for years to come.

If you’ve never been to Big Bend, take your RV, take your time, and go. Go. Just go!

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

After 7 days of trial and error,

God created Texas on the 8th day.

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A State of Mind: Texas Hill Country

The Hill Country rises out of south-central Texas like an island out of a vast ocean. A large area of rolling hills and valleys with limestone canyons, clear-water rivers, and a few scattered small towns, the Hill Country is quite densely wooded. Prepare to be amazed.

Hanger on LBJ Ranh with Air Force One. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hanger on LBJ Ranh with Air Force One. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ideally situated off I-10 near Kerrville, Buckhorn Lake RV Resort is a perfect base from which to explore this wonderland of scenic vistas, oak-covered hills, rocky outcroppings, and streams.

Located in the heart of Texas Hill Country, Buckhorn Lake Resort is just an hour drive from San Antonio. Each pad site is designed with large coaches in mind—they include widely paved pull-through sites and roads.

After arriving at Buckhorn Lake RV Resort we unhooked our dinghy and after setting up camp we ventured out.

In an earlier post on Vogel Talks RV, we explored Fredericksburg and the nearby Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park, Wildseed Farms, and Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. In today’s post, we return to Fredericksburg and explore further afield including a detour or two.

The most famous detour of all is Luckenbach, population 25, reached by driving six miles east of town on U.S. 290, then turning south (right) on Ranch Road 1376; continue on this little road about four miles till you see signs. If you cross the creek, you’ve gone too far—maybe it’s time to stop and ask directions, as signs to Luckenbach just don’t last long, thanks to souvenir hunters.

These days Luckenbach, Texas is, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, a “State of Mind”—A Texas state of mind, where you can kick back, relax, and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life—like a step back in time.

The Texas White House is open for public tours including the President's Office, living room, dining room, and the Johnsons' bedroom suites. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Texas White House is open for public tours including the President’s Office, living room, dining room, and the Johnsons’ bedroom suites. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1849, a general store opened in Luckenbach, a town made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s 1973 classic country hit, “Luckenbach Texas-Back to the Basics”. The store is still there with a bar, a dance hall for special events, and “prit near always” a jam session playing. Sometimes country stars make impromptu appearances, or there may be an armadillo race or horseshoe tournament going on.

Also nearby, east of Fredericksburg on Highway 290, is the not-to-be-missed Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The LBJ Ranch is in the heart of the Hill Country on the banks of the Pedernales River.

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.

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.

The park has four miles of river frontage and is located in the middle of a nine-mile stretch of the Guadalupe River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The park has four miles of river frontage and is located in the middle of a nine-mile stretch of the Guadalupe River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’d become so absorbed in history during our visit to Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park that we truly welcomed the natural serenity of Guadalupe River State Park.

The park has four miles of river frontage and is located in the middle of a nine-mile stretch of the Guadalupe River. Flanked by two steep pastel limestone bluffs and towering bald cypress trees, the setting couldn’t be more inviting for swimming, wading, or just relaxing.

Countless springs and tributaries feed the free-flowing Upper Guadalupe, and by the time the river carves a winding path through the state park, it carries ample water for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, tubing, swimming, and angling. The four sets of gentle rapids are especially popular with tubers.

The park is unique in the state park system in that it shares a boundary with a state natural area. Together, the 1,938-acre state park and adjoining 2,294-acre Honey Creek State Natural Area comprise more than 4,200 contiguous acres of Hill Country habitat. Access to the state natural area is by guided naturalist tour only.

There’s so much more to Guadalupe River State Park than just a good swimming hole. The state park abounds with hiking trails that traverse the park’s upland forests, grassland savannahs, and riparian zones. Hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrian riders have access to more than five miles of multiuse trails that crisscross the uplands in a looping, figure-8 pattern.

I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers wishing to stay overnight or longer, the park provides great camping facilities.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chase A. Fountain

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Head For the Hills: Texas Hill Country

Imagine hills, soft and scrubby, green valleys, and limestone cliffs.

Settled in the 1850s by immigrants from the Old Country, Fredericksburg retains much of its Germanic influence through shop and restaurant themes, seasonal festivals including the annual Oktoberfest with its oom-pahs, polkas, and bratwurst. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Settled in the 1850s by immigrants from the Old Country, Fredericksburg retains much of its Germanic influence through shop and restaurant themes, seasonal festivals including the annual Oktoberfest with its oom-pahs, polkas, and bratwurst. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conjure up ranches and communities of German heritage, wineries, fields of wildflowers, and sparkling rivers lined with cypress and oak.

Ah, the Texas Hill Country. To some it is the state’s greatest natural resource.

No big cities, no hustle and bustle. Just cafes with country cooking, water for fishing and inner tubing, and old places with timeworn comfort.

Yes, it’s easy to feel at home in the Texas Hill Country.

The Hill Country rises out of south-central Texas like an island out of a vast ocean. A large area of rolling hills and valleys with limestone canyons, clear-water rivers, and a few scattered small towns, the Hill Country is quite densely wooded. Prepare to be amazed.

Ideally situated off I-10 near Kerrville, Buckhorn Lake RV Resort is a perfect base from which to explore this wonderland of scenic vistas, oak-covered hills, rocky outcroppings, and streams.

Located in the heart of Texas Hill Country, Buckhorn Lake Resort is just an hour drive from San Antonio. Each pad site is designed with large coaches in mind—they include widely paved pull-through sites and roads.

History comes alive at the Admiral Nimitz State Historic Site and National Museum of the Pacific War. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
History comes alive at the Admiral Nimitz State Historic Site and National Museum of the Pacific War. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The resort also features an 8,000-square-foot red barn. The facility that not only hosts year-round activities sponsored by Buckhorn but also can be rented for other events. Other amenities include trash pick-up, a dog park, pools, and a fitness center.

Trading the customary Howdy! for Willkommen!, we headed to Fredericksburg, just 30 minutes northeast of Buckhorn Lake, a community that celebrates it German heritage. Settled in the 1850s by immigrants from the Old Country, the town retains much of its Germanic influence through shop and restaurant themes, seasonal festivals including the annual Oktoberfest with its oom-pahs, polkas, and bratwurst.

The Marktplatz in the center of town commemorates the peace treaty between the German settler and Comanche Nation. The treaty is thought to be the only one with Native Americans never broken.

Don’t leave Fredericksburg without a visit to the emotionally powerful Admiral Nimitz State Historic Site and National Museum of the Pacific War. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific during WWII, grew up in Fredericksburg. The museum covers eight acres and includes a Garden of Peace—a gift from the people of Japan.

Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park offers scenic paths, outdoor recreation, and 98 RV campsites. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park offers scenic paths, outdoor recreation, and 98 RV campsites. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Pioneer Museum Complex is also located in Fredericksburg, telling the story of the mid-1800s German settlers. Open year-round, a four-acre museum community complex includes a home, a store, a smokehouse, a log cabin, and a bathhouse.

On the southwest edge of Fredericksburg, 340-acre Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park offers scenic paths, outdoor recreation, and 98 RV campsites with 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and WiFi. The park’s Live Oak Wilderness Trail, a mile-long stretch on 10 creek-side acres, features a bird-watching station and a butterfly area.

Fredericksburg is also at the center of the Hill Country wildflower scene, best witnessed during the spring months of April and May, but there’s a nearly year-round floral bonanza to be found at Wildseed Farms, seven miles east of town. This the largest working wildflower farm in the world, where flowers are grown in endless rows for seed.

Sure, we love Fredericksburg, with its quaint Main Street and antique shops, biergartens, and bakeries. But after we’ve gorged on apfelstrudel to our heart’s content, it’s time to brush off the crumbs and open up our trail map.

Our enchantment with the area continued when we drove onto Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 20 miles north of Fredericksburg. This 1,643-acre park is dominated by a 70-acre dome of pink granite that rises 425 feet above the bed of Sandy Creek, 1825 feet above sea level. One of the largest batholiths (an underground rock formation uncovered by erosion) in the US, Enchanted Rock is surrounded by oak woodlands as far as the eye can see.

Wildseed Farms is the largest working wildflower farm in the world, where flowers are grown in endless rows for seed. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Wildseed Farms is the largest working wildflower farm in the world, where flowers are grown in endless rows for seed. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With two main trails from which to choose, this is a great place to stretch your legs. The view from the top is worth the climb.

The Hill Country offers many other getaway options. Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The towns of Boerne and Comfort, New Braunfels and Gruene, Dripping Springs and Marble Falls, and Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World”.

Oh yes, and Luckenbach.

And these my friends, are the subject of another post.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chase A. Fountain

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Taste a Texas Tradition: BBQ, Tex-Mex & More

There’s much more to Texas cuisine than just juicy, succulent steaks.

Taste a Texas Tradition: BBQ, Tex-Mex & More © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Taste a Texas Tradition: BBQ, Tex-Mex & More © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rich heritage of Mexican, German, and Czech influences have provided for a plethora of decadent Texas dishes that fill the bellies and warm the hearts of all who try them.

Taste the famous Texas BBQ, Tex-Mex, and European-influenced dishes for yourself.

In Texas, food is more than a meal. It’s their culture and way of life. Across the state you’ll find award-winning BBQ, the original Tex-Mex, truly astounding seafood and the best chili to ever grace a bowl.

From five-star restaurants and renowned chefs to undiscovered food joints manned by tomorrow’s culinary superstars, there is a flavor for every palate. So grab a fork and your taste for adventure and “come ‘n get it.”

BBQ

Yes sir! Yes ma’am! They do up some mighty fine BBQ in Texas. Texas barbecue means beef, and usually brisket. It means smoked brisket, and usually for a long time over low heat.

They slow cook some of the sauciest, savoriest barbeque the world has ever dreamed of.

Taste a Texas Tradition: BBQ, Tex-Mex & More © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Taste a Texas Tradition: BBQ, Tex-Mex & More © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Barbecue can be traced to Texas’ German immigrants, who brought their smoking and butchering culture with them when they arrived in the middle of the 19th century. And what did they butcher? Cattle, of which Texas already had millions. And how did they cook it? Over coals from native wood like oak, which was also plentiful. This is why Texas barbecue is so different from the pork-and-sauce style common elsewhere in the U.S.

The first barbecue joints were meat markets where the beef was smoked in the back and sold over the counter.

It’s like Texas is its own little country when it comes to barbecue. Beef is still king, and it’s the pride Texans take in their barbecue. Which anyone can see whenever they walk into a place like Smitty’s Market, Black’s Barbecue, and Kreuz Market in Lockhart—or any of the other hundreds of places in Texas that make up the Republic of Barbecue.

Even if you don’t remember the Alamo, you will surely remember licking your fingers clean in Texas.

Tex-Mex

All over the world, people enjoy Tex-Mex, but in the Lone Star State, this cuisine is king. Texans with Mexican roots created the delicious hybrid, so it’s no surprise that the most memorable—and authentic—plates hit tables close to the border. From tasty tacos to grilled steaks and cheese-filled tamales, Texas Tex-Mex will leave you feeling full and happy.

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

Although you often see them on Tex-Mex menus, tamales are not modern Tejano creations. In fact, tamales may have been consumed as early as 7000 B.C. Because they can be made in advance and stored for long stretches of time, tamales became essential for early Latin American communities—particularly those on the move or immersed in war.

Tex-Mex food dishes commonly use the ingredients of garlic, sour cream, cilantro, beans, avocado, cheese, and chorizo, a spicy Mexican sausage that originated from Spain.

Chiles are also important in Tex-Mex food dishes. Ranging from sweet and mild to mouth-on-fire hot, they are added to a variety of dishes. Chiles that are used in Tex-Mex food include ancho, jalapeno, and the hottest of them all, the habanero pepper.

If you haven’t tried the unique combination of Tex-Mex, you’re missing out, amigo! It’s the absolute best of Mexican cuisine with some Texas flair. When it comes to spice, you can get it a little bit country or a little bit rock n’ roll. Just ask your waiters for guidance. And more salsa, please!

Vineyards

You might not have guessed that Texas has developed into one of the biggest and best wine-producing states around. Their unique climate provides ideal growing conditions for a variety of wines, and they’ve been cultivating vines for centuries.

More than 275 wineries and 4,400 acres of grapes call Texas home, with many of the state’s best wines coming out of the Texas Hill Country. (Image courtesy Texas Department of Agriculture)
More than 275 wineries and 4,400 acres of grapes call Texas home, with many of the state’s best wines coming out of the Texas Hill Country. (Image courtesy Texas Department of Agriculture)

More than 275 wineries and 4,400 acres of grapes call Texas home, with many of the state’s best wines coming out of the Texas Hill Country, the second largest AVA in the United States. Surprising considering how under-the-radar these Mediterranean-styles wines have flown, despite the top-notch varietals coming from the region. Be sure to try Texas’ Viognier, Marsanne, and Albarino if you’re a white drinker; red lovers will revel in Texas’ Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Tannat.

Check out dozens of scenic, and seriously palatable, wine rails, tours, and tastings. Wine trails are an excellent way to experience multiple Texas wineries in one trip.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.

—from Legends of Texas BBQ

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What Is On Your Bucket List?

Actors Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the movie The Bucket List a few years ago made popular the bucket list.

What a place Charleston South Carolina is. It is beautiful and steeped in history. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
What a place Charleston South Carolina is. It is beautiful and steeped in history. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It centers about the idea of making a list of all the things you want like to do before you “kick the bucket.” Since then, lots of people have pulled together lists of practical and extravagant places to visit and things to do on their own bucket lists.

We all have things we want to do and places we want to see. For me, I got to cross two national parks and a California wine area off my bucket list during the past 12 month—Lassen Peak National Park, Pinnacles National Park, and Lodi Wine Country.

My bucket list of places to go and things to see during my RV travels is still extensive: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the Outer Banks, Acadia National Park, Memphis, Crater of Diamonds State Park (Arkansas), Natchez Trace Parkway, Yosemite National Park.

Also another list details the place and things I wish to revisit during my RVing lifetime: Mt Rushmore and the Black Hills, Napa and Sonoma, Charleston and Savannah, Nashville, Hocking Hills (Ohio), Lexington and the Kentucky Bluegrass Region, Monument Valley, Monterey, Virginia’s Historic Triangle (Jamestown, Yorktown, Williamsburg), Santa Fe, Big Bend National Park.

Bishop's Palace, Galveston, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Bishop’s Palace, Galveston, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Do you have a bucket list for your RV travels?

So let me ask you, what’s on your bucket list? You know, that list of all the things you want to do sometime soon.

A trip to the Grand Canyon, Grand Circle Tour of the national parks of Utah.

Possibly, the following four iconic destinations will whet your appetite to create or expand upon your personal bucket list.

Charleston, South Carolina

If you’re a history buff, you’ll love Charleston. Avid tourist? Charleston is the city for you. Lover of good food and charming scenery? Charleston has your number. Traveling through the south? Charleston is a must stop.

Charleston is home to one of America’s most intact historic districts. Nestled along a narrow peninsula—where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet and empty into the Atlantic Ocean—it exudes old South charm. With very few tall buildings, Charleston instead offers quaint cobblestone roads, colonial structures, a unique culture, and gobs of history.

Galveston, Texas

Located at the base of Oak Creek Canyon, another scenic destination, Sedona is renowned for its stunning rock formations such as Cathedral Rock. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Located at the base of Oak Creek Canyon, another scenic destination, Sedona is renowned for its stunning rock formations such as Cathedral Rock. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston is one of the oldest and most historic cities in Texas. From its time as a major 1800s-era shipping port, through the devastating Hurricane of 1900 and up until modern day, Galveston has played a major role in shaping Texas history.

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 US. From soft sandy beaches to famous 19th century architecture, the island is surrounded with incredible history and unique beauty.

Sedona, Arizona

Beautiful. Mysterious. Seductive. These words describe Sedona.

The massive red-orange buttes and spires surrounding Sedona carry imaginative names reflecting their curious shapes—names like Cathedral Rock, Courthouse Butte, Bell Rock, Coffee Pot, and Snoopy. Towering along the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, these monoliths lend an aura of mystery as well as incredible beauty to this landscape.

One of the most popular activities in Sedona is to take a Jeep tour out into the more remote parts of the Red Rock Country. Our favorite of these trips is up and over the primitive Schnebly Hill Road (FS 153) which zigzags east from State Route 179 in Sedona, 13 miles to I-17.

Scenic Byway 12

Scenic Byway 12 travels through some of the most diverse, remote and ruggedly beautiful landscapes in the country. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Scenic Byway 12 travels through some of the most diverse, remote and ruggedly beautiful landscapes in the country. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Highway 12 is a winding road that climbs to high elevations in spots. One section follows The Hogsback, a narrow ridge barely wider than the two-lane roadway, with cliffs falling away on either side.

Scenic wonders are visible in all directions from this 121-mile-long All American Road as it winds and climbs. Easily accessible on either side of Scenic Byway 12, major attractions include Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Grosvenor Arch, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Cottonwood Canyon, Burr Trail, and Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area

Worth Pondering…

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my (bucket) list.

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A Lovely Name For a Lovely River: Guadalupe River State Park

We’d become so absorbed in history during our visit to Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park that we truly welcomed the natural serenity of Guadalupe River State Park.

I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has four miles of river frontage and is located in the middle of a nine-mile stretch of the Guadalupe River. Flanked by two steep pastel limestone bluffs and towering bald cypress trees, the setting couldn’t be more inviting for swimming, wading, or just relaxing.

Guadalupe River State Park, owes its name and existence to one of the most scenic and popular recreational rivers in Texas. When Spanish explorer Alonso de Leon encountered the clear-flowing stream in 1689, he named it Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico). The Guadalupe: a lovely name for a lovely river.

Countless springs and tributaries feed the free-flowing Upper Guadalupe, and by the time the river carves a winding path through the state park, it carries ample water for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, tubing, swimming, and angling. The four sets of gentle rapids are especially popular with tubers.

I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River might be just another typical Hill Country state park were it not for the exceptional public access it provides to a river whose banks are mostly private property. The park is also unique in the state park system in that it shares a boundary with a state natural area. Together, the 1,938-acre state park and adjoining 2,294-acre Honey Creek State Natural Area comprise more than 4,200 contiguous acres of Hill Country habitat. Access to the state natural area is by guided naturalist tour only.

More than 98 percent of the park guests go straight to the river and never step foot on the trails. The river is what attracts people, and that’s why the park was established.

If some 98 percent of Guadalupe River State Park’s visitors flock to the swimming hole on the Guadalupe, we’re happy to be a “two-percenter” and explore the rest of the park.

There’s so much more to Guadalupe River State Park than just a good swimming hole. The state park abounds with hiking trails that traverse the park’s upland forests, grassland savannahs, and riparian zones. Hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrian riders have access to more than five miles of multiuse trails that crisscross the uplands in a looping, figure-8 pattern.

The park has four miles of river frontage and is located in the middle of a nine-mile stretch of the Guadalupe River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The park has four miles of river frontage and is located in the middle of a nine-mile stretch of the Guadalupe River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nationally recognized for birding, the state park harbors some 160 bird species. Depending on the season, expect to see—or hear—bluebirds, cardinals, canyon and Carolina wrens, white-eyed vireos, yellow-crested woodpeckers, kingfishers, wood ducks, wild turkeys, and red-shouldered hawks.

For a combination of good birdwatching and gorgeous scenery, try hiking along the river through riparian galleries of bald cypress, sycamore, elm, and pecan.

I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. Some of these arboreal monarchs are several centuries old and have weathered countless flash floods. The bald cypress is aptly named because it’s a deciduous conifer (most are evergreen), turning rust brown, dropping its feathery leaves, and “going bald” each fall.

For RVers wishing to stay overnight or longer, the park provides great camping facilities. Overnight stays are very reasonable with campsites rates ranging from $20-$24 plus the $7 per person park entrance fee. In the Cedar Sage Camping Area, 37 campsites offer 30-amp electric service and water for $20 nightly; in the Turkey Sink multiuse area 48 campsites offer 50-amp electric service and water for $24. Weekly rates are also available.

A Texas State Park Pass will allow you and your guests to enjoy unlimited visits for 1-year to more than 90 State Parks, without paying the daily entrance fee, in addition to other benefits. A Texas State Parks Pass is valid for one year and costs $70.

Flanked by two steep pastel limestone bluffs and towering bald cypress trees, the setting couldn't be more inviting for swimming, wading, or just relaxing. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Flanked by two steep pastel limestone bluffs and towering bald cypress trees, the setting couldn’t be more inviting for swimming, wading, or just relaxing. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park is located 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio. From US 281, travel 8 miles west on Texas 46 and then 3 miles north on Park Road 31.

The parkland along the Guadalupe River is indeed good country.

See it, believe it, for yourself.

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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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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