Wild Desert Hiking – Big Bend National Park, TX

rio grande village

We were wide-eyed as we drove down into Big Bend.  Neither of us had seen this part of the country.  We stayed our first few days at Rio Grande Village (in the valley shown above), which is the only place RVs can get electricity/water hookups.  We hiked the Nature Trail there, which goes right down to the Rio Grande itself.  The river was so narrow and low that we could easily have crossed into Mexico – there were signs about Mexicans illegally selling items (walking sticks and metal sculpture) by leaving them on the US side with a “donation jar” – which we saw a couple of times.

The next day we hiked from Daniels Farm to Hot Springs and back.  It was about 5.6 miles round trip, across hills and valleys within the desert.  Near the beginning of the trip Chris turned her ankle, but continued on.  When we reached the Hot Spring (beside the Rio Grande) there were around 10 hikers there already – and we noticed across the river there was a lean-to with a Mexican watching for opportunities to sell things.  On our return trip Chris turned her ankle twice more, and that is still healing.  That night was New Years Eve, and the winds were so strong we thought it was going to pick up the RV and take it to Oz.  We rested up the next day, Chris nursing her ankle and then slicing her thumb pretty well on a tuna can, and we left the day after.  Before we left we drove back to Daniels Farm and back, and got some good photos of a javelina.  They are ugly, run in packs of 10-25, and will snack on any loose pets or children if they’re left unguarded.  Here’s a closeup of a javelina:


We also took video of a coyote making his rounds through the RV campsite.  He eyed a road runner, but decided not to pursue it. 

We left Rio Grande Village and drove to Chisos Basin, which is a valley surrounded by mountains.  The highs there are lower (elevation around 5400 ft) but the lows are higher.  There were beautiful views along the hike we took – here’s the “Window” from the Basin out to the desert:


There were shrubs and rocks on either side of the trail, and I’ll admit that I was a bit spooked by the multiple mountain lion warnings:


The campsite in Chisos Basin had no electricity, and we learned that the propane that runs the RV refrigerator in the absence of electricity doesn’t work at that altitude, so after one night and a hike through mountain lion country that left Chris’ ankle sore again, we decided to do a few days of driving rather than press our luck. 

We drove west from the park to Presidio over the River Road (mentioned as one of the great drives in a book my sister Barb and bro-in-law Walt gave me for Christmas).  It is right beside the Rio Grande for many miles, with river access sites for people who want to float the river.  Here is a photo from the drive to Presidio:

river road

At Presidio we turned north and drove through Marfa to Fort Davis and Davis Mountains State Park, for a night.

Along several of the roads we traveled in Texas (and now, New Mexico) we went through four Border Patrol inspections – checking the nationality of travelers.   They were surprised to see Ohioans driving down in Texas over the holidays, but they didn’t give us too much trouble.


Prehistoric Pictographs – Seminole Canyon SP and Galloway White Shaman Preserve, TX


 After we left Austin we drove southwest toward Seminole Canyon State Park for a stopover before Big Bend National Park.  We hiked the trails there and enjoyed the guided tour of Fate Bell Shelter in the canyon where prehistoric pictographs are still in very good shape.  Seminole Canyon was named after runaway slaves, who initially mixed with the Seminole Indians from Florida and then migrated west to Texas.  The volunteer guide for the Seminole Canyon tour, Dean Mitchell, is pictured above describing the pictographs and some of the analyses of them to some other hikers.  We enjoyed Dean’s tour so much that when he invited members of the tour to go on another tour the same day, we knew we were in – even though that would delay Big Bend. 

When we hiked in Seminole Canyon State Park, we were surprised to see all the small shells over the desert floor, and the fossils imbedded in the rocks.  On the trip down to Fate Bell Shelter, we passed a very cool sculpture at the Seminole Canyon Visitors Center.


Dean is a member of the Rock Art Foundation, who provide volunteer tours of pictograph sites in the lower Pecos region in cooperation with the owners of the property.  We drove a mile down the highway to tour the Galloway White Shaman Preserve.  It includes a model village for the hunter-gatherers who created pictographs in the area, as well as a trail to a shelter  in the valley.  That shelter had clearer pictographs than those in the State Park.   Here’s a photo of Chris and me at the top of the trail down into the river valley – it was very windy and cool that day on the top – by the time we were in the valley coats and hats were off again!

lower pecos pose

When we drove to the White Shaman Preserve, those of us with RVs parked on the highway and rode into the site in Dean’s truck – after the hike he was kind enough to invite us to tour his cabin when he picked up his wife Susie.  The owner of the land gave him a life-long lease in return for building the cabin – and the site is beautiful.  Here’s a snapshot of their front porch view:
dean house

Austin, TX – Home Base during the Holidays


 We don’t have many photos of Austin itself, although we certainly explored and enjoyed being there.  The first day we landed, a weekday, we mistakenly ended up driving through downtown around 4:00 pm and once we escaped we were determined not to go back in until there was little traffic.  We finally took a scenic drive through town, including the beautiful campus of UT-Austin, on Christmas Day.

We stayed at a Wal-Mart south of the city most of the time, and took trips up to Eagle Canyon and Salado for one night and then exited the city via a stay at McKinney Falls State Park, which is just a bit farther south.  We picked our Wal-Mart by its proximity to a movie theater that was showing many of the new films we wanted to see.  Here’s our list and reaction:

Walk Hard, the Dewey Cox Story – a parody of Walk the Line, comparable in humor to Airplane.  We are embarrassed to have seen it – but we went because the primary actor (John C. Reilly) is someone we both like.  Stupid movie, not the type we normally enjoy anyway.

The Kite Runner – very well done.  I had read it, Chris not.  My son Matt’s favorite book.

Charlie Wilson’s War – well done and entertaining.

Sweeney Todd – well done and bloody.  Not for those who don’t realize it’s a bloody musical.

Juno – very fun.

The Golden Compass – well done, entertaining.  I had read it, Chris not.

As we were leaving, we ventured back into town to the ORIGINAL WHOLE FOODS store in Austin.  Chris went in while I circled and hovered in the RV (low clearance parking only, there).  Chris said that as a foodie it was a real treat – she wished she had spent more time to sample and check it out.  They have a cooking school there, and the store itself was 50% larger than the large store in Dublin, OH.  The day after Christmas it was absolutely packed.

We saw Zilker Park, but they were set up for a walk-through Christmas Light display so we didn’t spend any time there.  I saw several “Keep Austin Wierd” t-shirts.  We would consider moving here, if family were centrally nearby.

Christmas Glove 2007

christmas glove

 We decorated our Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve.  Our tree material was a dishwashing glove that we took from Chris’ Dad.  He lost the other one, somehow.  We went to a craft store with a budget of $10 for the rest of the decorations.

Canyon of the Eagles Nature Preserve – Lake Buchanan, TX


North of Austin we found a nature preserve that boasts Bald Eagles, Black-capped Vireos, and Golden-cheeked Warblers.  We had a great hike on a gorgeous day, but the most exotic things (to us) we saw were three armadillos.  There were crickets and other more common birds all over the place.


We also saw some mistletoe – I hadn’t realized how widespread it was.


Bastrop and Buescher State Parks – Biking south of Austin TX

We stopped at a pair of State Parks southeast of Austin that have a 12-mile park road between them: Bastrop and Buescher. After talking with the Park staff at Bastrop about how hilly the road was, we decided to drive it first in the RV and camp at the further park (Buescher) to ride. We made it 2-3 miles along the road, but after walking up a few of the hills we turned around. We have both felt “viral”, getting over colds and fighting reactions to cedar, mold, and other allergens we aren’t used to. We picnicked at the park and took some photos of the local flora.

These berries attract some very hungry birds.

December Stopover – San Antonio, Texas

river walk

San Antonio is a city most folks visit in the spring and fall, and the Riverwalk (above) is crowded with pedestrians.  In mid-December it was relatively empty, but still a pleasant walk for a break from the downtown streets.  There are still pansies blooming near river-level restaurants, with windows overlooking brightly lit trees.


We found musicians practicing for a Christmas Concert at the Arneson outdoor Theater:


We toured the old center of San Antonio, La Villita, and the Alamo.  Within the grounds of the Alamo were some beautiful flowers and trees, such as this Bird of Paradise:

bird of para 

Across from the Alamo was a beautiful old hotel, the Emily Morgan.   In downtown San Antonio we also toured the San Fernando Cathedral, the longest continuously open cathedral in America (270 years) which contains the longest standing structures in Texas (some of the original walls date from 1749) and also houses a replica of El Christo Negro from Esquipulas, Guatemala:

christo negro

In researching El Christo Negro we learned the meaning of Pluralism, which is religious engagement that goes way beyond tolerating diverse viewpoints.  If you’re interested, explore this website from Harvard.

Hill Country – Choke Canyon State Park, Texas



On our way north from Padre Island, we passed through a Border Check station and then past cattle and horse farms.  It was a blustery day with strong winds and heavy cloud cover.  We stopped for the night at a Texas State Park named Choke Canyon, about an hour south of San Antonio.  As we drove through the park there were half a dozen whitetailed deer grazing in the grassy areas and beside the road.  Choke Canyon is a large lake where Texas folks come to fish – the state park had several fish cleaning stations on its map.  The folks checking in before us were warned to watch for alligators if they were planning to fish.  Our campsite is in the photo above, with the lake in the background.  There was also a birding trail sporting lots of bird houses – we saw a “green jay” and caught a photo of a cardinal.


Above is a picture taken as we were leaving the next morning.  After we left the park and drove into San Antonio we could see hunting blinds (like little treehouses) above the tops of the trees, and we passed a father and son in the process of gutting a deer – and then passed an RV stopped by a dead deer on the road that happened to have a rack of antlers on it.  One Baptist church even had a special welcoming message to hunters:

note sign

All the campground pamphlets have plenty of advertisements for hunting stores and boot outlets.  So far we have avoided that shopping experience.

Cactus and Palm Trees – South Padre Island, Texas



We drove from Florida to South Padre Island (at the Southeast coast of Texas) in two long days, and settled into a bayfront campsite for a week.  This campground stay is our favorite so far on our extended trip – probably because we could leave the RV set up and ride our bikes wherever we wanted to go, for a week.  The photo above is a public access to the Gulf beach on South Padre, which we peeked at but didn’t really spend any time at (we are just NOT beach people).  Instead we did lots of reading – and started on some CD-guided Spanish lessons, for fun.

The island was pretty bare of vacationers, in the gap before the Christmas-to-Spring busy season, but that suited us just fine.


The photo above is sunset over the playground near our campsite.  The campground is on a reclaimed area on the island, just south of the bridge from the Texas mainland.  By the campground is a lighted fishing pier, a restaurant, gift shop, and deep sea fishing tour operator – and from there a bike lane on the main street through the business district – very fun place to explore.


South Padre Island has a constant strong breeze – we had highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s until our last day there, when a cold snap (50s and light rain) arrived.  We rode our bikes about 8 miles north (as far north as we dared since the sand dunes started creeping onto the car lanes, making it too slippery, and the wind riding south was pretty fierce), rode about 4 miles each way to the grocery shop twice (lugging back water, soy milk, and other groceries in our cool biking case/paniers), and visited “Dirty Al’s” biker bar and restaurant (a local haunt)  for lunch twice.

We toured a nature preserve/birding area on the island, with a few resident alligators, turtles, and lots of birds.  The serious birders chatted with Chris and identified a Rosette Spoonbill.  I focused on just taking pictures of pretty grasses and turtles.

Wakulla Springs, FL – Lagoon with Mastodon Bones

fem bird

We stayed over one day in Wakulla Springs, FL – just south of Tallahassee – to visit the State Park there.  They have discovered 4 mastodon skeletons in the bottom of the fresh water spring, which pumps over 250 million gallons of water per day into the pond.  The water flows down the river 5 mph just from the speed at which it leaves the spring under the lake.  Underwater caves continue to be explored and mapped every month or so.

It is the site of the filming of the original Tarzan movie and “The Creature of the Black Lagoon.”  Pictured above is a female prehistoric bird drying its wings.  It’s considered prehistoric because it has no oil glands to waterproof its feathers – and since it dives into the water to fish to eat (spearing the fish with its beak) it needs to dry out its feathers in order to be light enough to fly.  It takes 2 hours for this bird’s feathers to dry out.  Here’s a male doing the same thing:

male preh bird

We saw a few alligators – the largest in this area are 11-12 feet.  Here is one sharing a log with some turtles:


…and here is my “best alligator photo”:


The flora is just as interesting – ther are holly trees, wild rice, and these “cypress knees” (roots) everywhere:


We were able to bike just a bit on the roads through and around the park, but the side roads are sand – too soft for our bikes.