My schedule has evolved around our RV lifestyle and writing about it
My schedule has revolved around our RV lifestyle and preparing a daily article relating to the RV lifestyle. And now, here I am with 1,500 posts under my belt.
In the process my hair has gone from brown to gray and my energy level decreased by 30 percent―maybe more―due to my advancing age. No complaints, though.
If I were a race horse I’d be around the final curve, headed to the finish line.
When we began our RV snowbird lifestyle back in 1997, I had no idea that over 25 years later we would still be at it. Amazing!
I cannot express how wonderful the last 25 years have been.
I would love to be around for another 20 years but I’m not counting on it. But I vow that I won’t abandon this amazing online project until I’m no longer able to put intelligible words on a blank page.
Thank you for being such a loyal reader of rvingwithrex.com. I appreciate you very much!
You may not know this but I produce rvingwithrex.com with a staff of only one. Yes, just one! And that would be me. I work seven days a week to get everything done, not because I need to but because I want to. It’s a labor of love!
RVing with Rex is a dream, come true for me. Decades in the making but now being lived out like one giant movie, seen through the wide expanse of our RV windshield as North America rolls on by. We can stop anytime, and explore anywhere. And I share it all with you on this blog.
I have posted 1,500 articles on my website and each year I publish 365 RVing articles, one each day of the year including New Years, Christmas, and my birthday.
The goal then and now is to share our RV lifestyle. I have to admit, I am not very mechanical. This blog is only partially aimed at tinkerers and mechanics. It’s about the RV lifestyle and the great things to see and do out there on the open road—and how to stay safe.
By background, I’m an educator. I love learning and delving into history, and seeing new things, enjoying God’s awesome creation. Taking pictures and using said photos to tell a story. I’ve written for a Western Canadian-based RV magazine and Good Sam blog and annual North America Campground Directory.
Typically, we’re on the road six to seven months a year. We’re not fulltimers. We return to our Alberta home (Go Oilers Go) for the summer.
We also like to attend RV rallies and events. While Alberta directors of the Newmar Kountry Klub we hosted club rallies and caravan tours.
I truly enjoy being immersed in something I love. The blog is a labor of love. It is all my own work. No one tells me what to say or what not to say.
As I said, I love to travel and write about our experiences. It’s in my DNA, I guess.
The RVer in me is upset at all the bad information being published today about RVing by websites, blogs, videos, and on social media.
It’s bad because we have entered the era of writers who write to fill space strictly for money. The more sensational or controversial their story (click bait works great), the more valuable they become to publishers.
Some publishing experts predict that by 2025 more than 90 percent of the content on the Internet will be written using Artificial Intelligence (AI). It’s already happening (but not with me).
Keeping my content relevant is increasingly challenging. I do not hire content creators—freelance writers who crank out articles by formula. The best way I can set myself apart from such fluff is to write the most valuable, useful, informative, accurate, educational (and sometimes entertaining) articles available anywhere—written by a real RVer (that would be me!), not pretenders.
We should all be grateful that Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, and William Shakespeare didn’t aim so low.
And now, along come the robots—inexpensive online services where writers with only minimal talent and subject knowledge can crank out articles all day long. An article that once took a real writer a few hours to write can be written in a few minutes. The results are sometimes accurate but they are very often superficial and just plain wrong. Read my article, Ghost Wright: On the Future of AI and you will see what I mean.
I will NOT post articles written by AI!
My pledge is to provide readers with the very best, most accurate information available anywhere about RVing.
All that said, I hope you are safe and making the best of our challenging times. Be wise. Be careful. Don’t take needless chances. Be kind to others because right now that goes a long way to comforting people who are nervous, scared, or otherwise emotionally hurting over the dramatic upheaval in their lives. Design your life in a way you enjoy your days and you will have a good life.
And thank you for reading.
Be healthy. Be safe. Have fun. Enjoy the RV lifestyle. Keep reading.
Every February people all over the world come together for the love of birds and participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count
It’s time to prepare for The Great Backyard Bird Count! As its name implies, this grand event grew from simpler beginnings that included feeder counts but over the past quarter century the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) has expanded into a worldwide birding celebration that takes place over four days in February each year.
This year you can participate in the 26th annual GBBC anytime over President’s Day Weekend—birding as often and as long as you wish from February 17 to 20. It’s free, enjoyable, and easy for people from all walks of life to participate in identifying and counting birds to create a real time mid-winter snapshot of bird populations that provides valuable information for biologists, conservation leaders, and anyone interested in birds.
Last year, birders from 192 countries reported approximately ¾ of the world’s bird species including 7,099 species of birds identified by 384,641 estimated global participants in 192 participating countries who submitted 359,479 eBird checklists and shared 141,990 photos.
Of course, everyone is invited to get involved ranging from first-timers to expert birders. You can provide information about the birds you see at your feeding station or yard and it’s a great opportunity to join together with others including members of your household or a birding club. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds Canada, and the National Audubon Society, along with the founding sponsor, Wild Birds Unlimited.
Today, the Great Backyard Bird Count is a global four day event that is easy ands fun—you can participate for 15 minutes or as many hours and days you prefer. By birding during the GBBC you join the other birders worldwide with the common goal of documenting and better understanding winter bird populations, winter ranges, and changes over years.
Three ways to enter data: Options and step-by-step instructions
Merlin Bird ID
If you are NEW to bird watching and bird identification and have a smartphone, GBBC recommends you use the Merlin Bird ID app to enter your first bird. It is FREE and easy to use.
Using Merlin Bird ID: www.birdcount.org/merlin-bird-id-app
Merlin covers bird species from 7 continents and is available in 18 languages.
If you are already using eBird to track your birding activity or an experienced bird watcher, the FREE eBird Mobile app is a fast way to enter your bird lists right from the palm of your hand.
Using eBird Mobile: www.birdcount.org/ebird-mobile-app
Desktop or laptop
If you prefer to enter your sightings on a computer, perhaps after making a list while on a hike or watching your feeders, the app will walk you through how.
Using eBird on a Computer: www.birdcount.org/ebird-on-computer
Why is the count in February?
Originally the Great Backyard Bird Count was held in the U.S. and Canada each February to create a snapshot of the distribution of birds just before spring migrations ramped up in March. Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, Birds Canada, and elsewhere can combine this information with data from surveys conducted at different times of the year. In 2013, the count went global, creating snapshots of birds wherever they are in February, regardless of seasons across the hemispheres.
Where should I count birds?
You can count birds anywhere in the world from any location. Count in your backyard, at a local park, or wildlife refuge or wherever you like to watch birds.
Yes, both images and sound recordings can be included with your checklist. They will also be entered into the Macaulay Library archive at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Adding photos is especially helpful if you are reporting a rare or unusual species.
Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.
Arizona offers some of the very best bird watching in the United States
Blame it on the state’s remarkable diversity. Soaring mountains, warm deserts, deep canyons, and rolling grasslands provide welcoming habitats for a wide range of birds. Arizona’s species list of around 550 is the highest of any state without an ocean coastline.
Important Bird Areas, identified by the National Audubon Society, can be found throughout Arizona but there’s an especially high concentration amid the sky islands in the southeastern corner of the state. These forested mountaintop habitats are surrounded by seas of desert and grasslands creating tightly stacked ecosystems, distinct and isolated. This is the Arizona rainforest, a hotbed of life.
To enjoy an assortment of feathered friends grab your binoculars and cameras and hit some of Arizona’s best birding trails. And these are birding trails, not birding hikes. Birding is hiking interrupted. Finish the trail or don’t finish; it doesn’t matter. Birding is all about the pauses—the stopping and listening and, most importantly, the discovery.
Patagonia: Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
The Nature Conservancy protects a stretch of Sonoita Creek at the edge of Patagonia and the verdant floodplain adjacent to the stream as its first project in Arizona.
More than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in this rare and beautiful Fremont cottonwood-Goodding’s willow riparian forest where gray hawks like to nest. Over 20 species of flycatchers have been recorded in the preserve along with the thick-billed kingbird and Sinaloa wren.
There are several gentle paths including one along the old railroad grade, another that follows the creek, and a one-mile connector to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. If you want to stretch your legs a little more, the Geoffrey Platts Trail makes a 3.2-mile loop through mesquite-covered hills with views of the mountains and valley.
Details: Hours and hiking access points vary; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 150 Blue Heaven Road, Patagonia. $8, free for age 12 and younger.
Patagonia: Paton Center for Hummingbirds
The Paton family began welcoming strangers to their backyard feeders swarming with hummingbirds in the 1970s. After Marion Paton died, neighbors kept the feeders stocked until the Tucson Audubon Society took over.
Visitors travel from all over the world just to sit quietly in a small Arizona backyard and watch clouds of hummingbirds. It’s a lovely, small town way to spend an hour.
Details: Open dawn to dusk daily. 477 Pennsylvania Avenue, Patagonia. Free; donations are appreciated.
Sierra Vista: Ramsey Canyon Preserve
Almost 200 species of birds have been seen in high-walled Ramsey Canyon, a lush defile in the Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista that’s managed by the Nature Conservancy.
A single trail starts from the back of the visitor center past several hummingbird feeders buzzing with activity. After all, Sierra Vista is known as Arizona’s Hummingbird Capital where 15 species of small winged jewels have been sighted.
The path moseys alongside Ramsey Creek for about a mile beneath a canopy of shade. Big sycamore trees drape the stream with oaks and pines filling the canyon. Summer avian visitors include the painted redstart, black-headed grosbeak, and black-throated gray warbler. Surprise visitors like the flame-colored tanager and Aztec thrush are occasionally seen.
Past the small ponds that provide habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs, the trail turns into the woods and switchbacks up to an overlook with nice views.
Details: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays to Mondays from March 1 through October 31; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year; Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 27 E. Ramsey Canyon Road, Hereford. Parking is limited; try to arrive early. $8 per person, free for ages 12 and younger.
Sierra Vista: Brown Canyon Trail
If the small parking area at Ramsey Canyon is full, the trail to historic Brown Canyon Ranch makes a nice alternative. Meander through rolling grasslands dotted with manzanita and oak in this shallow canyon.
Resident birds include the Mexican jay, bridled titmouse, and Montezuma quail. Look for elegant trogon and Scott’s oriole in the summer. A small pond at the old ranch site attracts many water loving species. Trailhead is on the north side of Ramsey Canyon Road, two miles from State Route 92.
Sierra Vista: San Pedro River
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area protects a 40-mile stretch of the San Pedro River. This slender forest of cottonwood and willow trees creates some of the richest wildlife habitat in the Southwest.
Start at the historic San Pedro House and, as with all birding trails, go only as far as you like. Follow the path through the grassy meadow to the river.
A network of trails follows the bank of the San Pedro in both directions skirting oxbows and loops around a pond named for the elusive green kingfisher. Other sightings might include vermilion flycatchers, lesser goldfinch, summer tanagers, and yellow-breasted chats.
Details: San Pedro House, operated by The Friends of the San Pedro River, is nine miles east of Sierra Vista on SR 90. It will be open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Wilcox: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
A 1,500-acre wildlife habitat, Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is famous for the large population of sandhill cranes during the winter season of October through February. Whitewater Draw lies in the Chiricahua desert grassland habitat of the Sulphur Springs Valley.
The Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north, is great for bird watching. The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields. A wide variety of birds winter here alongside permanent residents.
Located in the southwestern part of the valley, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area lies within a desert grassland habitat. Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.
Whitewater Draw has a one-mile boardwalk trail that takes you around cattail marshes, shallow ponds, and eventually to several viewing platforms. Here you can use permanently-mounted spotting scopes to observe the wintering sandhill cranes and the flocks of snow geese and tundra swan that share the sky with the cranes. This is also a great place to see avocets, stilts, and yellowlegs. Wetland birds include egrets, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, ibis, soras, terns, and other shorebirds.
Overnight camping is allowed in designated areas only, for no more than three days within a seven day period. Camping is free; however, no utilities are available. There is a vault toilet on site. Open fires are allowed in designated areas only.
South of Tucson and west of Green Valley, Madera Canyon is carved from the Santa Rita Mountains. The road into the narrowing gorge climbs from desert grasslands to mixed woodlands shading a seasonal stream.
More than 250 species of bird have been documented in these varied habitats. Favorite sightings include elegant trogon, elf owl, sulphur-bellied flycatcher, and painted redstart.
The Madera Creek Trail follows the stream and has multiple access points. The Carrie Nation Trail branches off from Old Baldy Trail, tracing the creek bed deeper into the canyon. It’s a good place to see elegant trogons in April and May.
Non-hikers can enjoy the picnic areas and the free viewing area at the Santa Rita Lodge, filled with hummingbirds and other desert species.
Details: $8 day-use pass for Madera Canyon is sold on site.
Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails which wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.
Because of the high diversity of bird species, the National Audubon Society has designated the park as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The species count has reached 193 and includes several much sought-after birds such as Gilded Flicker, Rufous-winged Sparrow, and Varied Bunting.
The makeup of birds in the park varies with the seasons. Spring and summer birds include noisy Brown-crested Flycatchers, beautiful Blue Grosbeaks, and the tiny Lucy’s Warblers. In the early fall, waves of migrants pass through including Lazuli Buntings, Western Tanagers, and several kinds of warblers. Winter brings in a variety of birds that nest in the north such as Red-naped Sapsucker, Green-tailed Towhee, and several species of sparrows. Permanent residents include Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, and many other Sonoran Desert species.
The many trails in the park provide great opportunities to see birds. In addition, there are regular bird walks from October into April led by local experts. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area.
Red Rock State Park is located 5 miles west of Sedona off State Highway 89A on the lower Red Rock Loop Road. A bird list is available upon request. This park makes a great introduction for novice birders. Guided bird walks take place at 8 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The park has an abundance of resident and migratory birds that can be appreciated by park visitors. A five-mile network of trails loops through this park. The Kisva Trail and Smoke Trail are easy strolls along the banks of Oak Creek beneath the shade of cottonwood, sycamore, velvet ash, and alder trees where you might spot wood ducks and common mergansers.
Non-hikers can settle in on the patio beside the visitor center. It’s with hummingbird feeders.
Details: 4050 Red Rock Loop Road, Sedona. $7, $4 for ages 7-13. Pets are not allowed.
No matter if you’re new to bird watching or are an avid birder looking to check rare species off your life list, Arizona is your place. A day pack will help stow your creature’s comfort items: snacks, water, a sweater or light jacket, a birding field guide, binoculars, and camera. Bring enough gear to ensure your stay in the field is as comfortable as possible.
The last piece of the birding equation is totally up to you. Just get out there and enjoy nature. Hike around while peering into the brush, on the water, or in trees for Arizona’s diverse bird species.
Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.
The Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all but here are a few favorites to get you started
Tucson, Arizona, isn’t just a haven for snowbirds. It also is known as a birdwatcher’s and nature lover’s paradise.
Tucson is for the birds, or maybe better said, Tucson is for birders. With the area’s desert, mountains, forests, mild winters, and proximity to tropical Mexico, sightings of more than 500 species of birds have been recorded.
There’s a surprising diversity of birds here, thanks to what Tucson Audubon calls a perfect storm: varied elevations; generally mild climate; Sky Island ranges linking the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Madre; influences from Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan deserts; migratory flyways; and tropical areas south of the border.
I enjoy capturing photos of everything from butterflies and dragonflies to reptiles and mammals and that includes birds. As a person who likes being out in nature and one who appreciates observing and photographing wildlife, here are five of my favorite nature spotting and birding locations in and near Tucson.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is located in northeast Tucson at 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road. This picturesque canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, part of Coronado National Forest, is one of the premier natural areas in southern Arizona. Although no private vehicles are permitted in the canyon, a tram service is available. Visitors can take an enjoyable and educational 45-minute, 3.8-mile narrated tram ride through the canyon. Trams stop at several trailheads, providing access to 30 miles of trails throughout the canyon.
In addition to the wide variety of mammals in the canyon, birders might spot vermilion flycatchers, pyrrhuloxias, gray hawks, western tanagers, phainopeplas, and peregrine falcons.
Saguaro National Park
Many folks picture the saguaro cactus (the largest cactus in the United States) when they think of Tucson. One great place to see a vast collection of these majestic plants is another of my favorite spots, Saguaro National Park which actually is two parks in one. One district lies east of Tucson (Rincon Mountain District) and the other is to the west (Tucson Mountain District); approximately 30 miles separate them. Both have well-maintained roads and numerous hiking trails. Note that vehicles more than 8 feet wide and trailers longer than 35 feet are not permitted on Cactus Forest Drive (east park) or Bajada Loop Drive (west).
Each of the districts has distinctive characteristics. The west park has the greatest number of saguaro cacti, as well as an ancient petroglyph site. Visitors may spot birds and other wildlife in both parks. Keep your eyes open for the distinctive Gambel’s quail, Gila woodpecker, American kestrel, northern goshawk, and cactus wren, among many other species.
Catalina State Park
Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.
Catalina provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area and Saguaro National Park West. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
On my “must visit list” is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at 2021 N. Kinney Road in Tucson (adjacent to Saguaro National Park West and Tucson Mountain Park). The gardens at the museum have walking paths through a vibrant Sonoran Desert ecosystem that is home to native plants, butterflies, and birds. The museum also has natural enclosures (not traditional zoo enclosures) with mountain lions, bobcats, Mexican gray wolves, gray foxes, and other mammals native to the area, plus a free-flight bird aviary and a hummingbird aviary.
A highlight of this is the raptor free-flight demonstration which provides an up-close look at hawks, falcons, and owls native to this part of Arizona. It was such an amazing display and photo opportunity that you plan to return a second day to take more photos.
The fifth location is widely known among birders—Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest and the Santa Rita Lodge. Madera Canyon lies south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains. Santa Rita Lodge (located at 1218 S. Madera Canyon Road in Madera Canyon) offers overnight accommodations, as the name would suggest, but it also has a bird feeding area that is open to the public. Free parking is available for those visiting the viewing area which has limited seating and is wheelchair accessible.
Here, you can view and photograph a wide variety of birds in a natural setting. A telephoto lens in the 400mm to 500mm range works well. Among the wide variety of birds attracted to the area are the yellow-eyed junco, flame-colored tanager, painted redstart, Mexican jay, crescent-chested warbler, and 15 species of hummingbirds. You might also get a glimpse of an elegant trogon, a prized sighting for birders in southern Arizona.
Coronado National Forest offers several trails in the area with limited parking at the trailheads.
Tucson boasts a wide array of natural and man-made attractions with something to interest everyone, including those who enjoy getting outdoors in nature. It is a renowned birding destination for visitors from far and near. It also is popular among snowbirds and other RVers, and RV campgrounds and resorts abound in the area.
As mentioned earlier, the Tucson area has so many excellent bird-watching spots that I can’t list them all. In addition to the five birding locations listed above, you may wish to explore the following:
Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.
Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park welcoming hikers, runners, bikers, horseback riders, wildlife watchers, and casual strollers
Gilbert, Arizona is located 17 southeast of Phoenix and offers a wide variety of activities but one of its biggest attractions is also one of its most natural: the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch.
Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert was developed in 1999 to provide a combination of three functions: a recreational and educational area, a facility for water reclamation, and a wildlife habitat.
The Riparian Preserve is easy to access and enjoy with 4.5 miles of trails both paved and unpaved for walking, biking, hiking, or horseback riding. Plus, it’s pet-friendly so you can bring your beloved pooch along as long as it’s cool enough for them (tip: if you’re visiting Gilbert during the summer you’ll want to visit the preserve in the early morning or later at night to avoid dangerous levels of heat).
Recreational & Educational Area
The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert offers a multitude of recreational and educational opportunities for all ages. There are over four and a half miles of trails throughout with several interpretive education panels on vegetation and wildlife along the walkways. Other educational spaces include a hilltop outdoor classroom, dinosaur dig site, a state-of-the-art observatory, and hummingbird plus butterfly gardens, to name a few. The Gilbert Trail System connects with the Preserve’s trails which allows for hikers, casual walkers, leashed and behaved dogs, also horses on specific equestrian trails.
There are seating and viewing areas along the Preserve’s paths. Restrooms and drinking fountains are also onsite. Several ramadas and campsites for group gatherings are available by reservation.
Another huge recreational benefit offered is the Water Ranch Lake for fishing. As a part of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Community Fishing Program, those looking to fish for rainbow trout, sunfish, largemouth bass, and farm-raised channel catfish can do so with a proper fishing license.
Water Reclamation Facility
Seventy acres of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch’s 110 total acres comprises seven water recharge basins for 100 percent of Gilbert’s treated effluent water each filled on a rotating basis. For those of you, like me, who feel compelled to Google the word effluent to get a better understanding of its meaning this is for you. Per Wikipedia, “Effluent is an outflowing of water or gas to a natural body of water from a structure such as a wastewater treatment plant, sewer pipe, or industrial outfall.”
In addition to the seven percolating ponds there is also a recreational urban fishing lake filled with reclaimed water. Also, one of the ponds contains a unique, desert-like distribution stream. The Water Ranch in the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch combines the Town of Gilbert Drinking Water Treatment Plant, the Southeast Regional Library building, Fire Station, Nichols Park, and the Salt River Project Eastern Canal. The Water Ranch property stretches from Greenfield Road east to Higley Road containing most of the land between Guadalupe Road and the utility easement.
Arizona wildlife including birds, butterflies, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals call Gibert’s Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch home in its various vegetative zones of native riparian, marshlands, and upland vegetation areas. Let’s delve into the birds a little more; the Preserve is a bird watchers paradise with 298 species of birds identified. The National Audubon Society has also designated the Riparian Preserve as an Important Bird Area. Plus, there is a designated garden exclusively for hummingbirds and butterflies. For a close-up view of fish and ducks the urban recreational lake provides guests with a floating boardwalk that crosses the northern end.
There are a variety of programs from public, school to youth and Scout offered at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Public programs such as bird walks with Desert Rivers Audubon, The Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory’s Skywatch featuring a 16-inch Meade state-of-the-art telescope managed by the East Valley Astronomy Club, Naturalist Guided Preserve Tours, and the Outdoor Learning Project answering questions like “Can I Feed the Ducks?”.
The Preserve is an excellent field trip destination for surrounding schools to offer a multitude of fun engaging environmental studies of birds, insects, desert life, Arizona groundwater, pollination, fossils, solar energy, and plants. Scout and Youth Groups also enjoy the Riparian Preserve with nature hikes, overnight camping, scout badge work, dinosaur digs, astronomy viewings, and group lessons on wildlife, water, plants, ecology, and conservation.
The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch offers a fantastic place as a wildlife habitat, water reclamation facility, and community recreational go-to spot. Still, there are extra benefits to be enjoyed. The Preserve might be the place for you if you’re looking for the perfect backdrop for a family or special event portrait. Or perhaps you’re adding to your nature photography portfolio. It might be safe to say many are looking for ways to make their Instagram pop. Can you say fascinating wildlife, stunning sunsets, gorgeous waterways, tranquil colors, and light? Yes, yes, you can. The bottom line is that there are multiple dynamic photo opportunities for cell phone cameras as well as novice and professional photographers at Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve.
Hours & Parking
The Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department manages the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Hours are from 5:30 am to 10:00 pm with the habitat area open dawn to dusk. The Preserve is at the southeast corner of East Guadalupe Road and North Greenfield Road. The most available parking is on the north and west sides of Maricopa County’s Southeast Regional Library at the furthermost northwest corner of the park near the community fishing lake. Additional limited parking is located on the north side of the park off of E Guadalupe Road.
No matter what your interest is, Alabama has a trail for that
Take a journey back in time, explore Alabama’s rich cultural heritage, see the wonder of the spring or fall bird migration, or just enjoy a peaceful drive through a blend of brilliant autumn foliage. Alabama has great adventures for every interest on the many tours and trails just waiting to be discovered.
No matter what your interest is, Alabama has a trail for that. I’m not talking about hiking, biking, or walking trails. I’m talking about road trips that wind their way across the state and highlight the state’s diversity and history. There is a trail for every interest. Are you into art? There is a trail for that. History? There is a trail for that.
The Alabama Department of Tourism has established 19 different trails that take visitors to incredible history, natural wonders, dining, and more. Let me introduce you to the fabulous trails of exploration in Alabama.
We’ll begin with a collection of stops that highlight Alabama’s incredible beauty and wildlife.
1. A Circle of Colors Trail
As the greens of summer surrender to glittering yellow poplars, scarlet dogwoods, orange maples, and golden hickories, Alabama unfolds its patchwork quilt of color. Fall colors begin showing in the mountains of North Alabama in early October and then sweep across the region. Colors will be at their peak from late October to early November.
The Circle of Colors Trail is a winding circuitous route that takes you across the northern half of the state from Oak Mountain State Park in Birmingham to the Bankhead National Forest near Huntsville and points in between to experience glorious fall colors in the Southern Appalachians.
2. Alabama Birding Trail
Alabama is a birding paradise with forests, mountains, meadows, swamps, and beaches creating a plethora of avian habitats. Even if you aren’t a diehard birder, you will love visiting one of the 280 stops along the Alabama Birding Trail that takes you to some breathtaking landscapes and of course, opportunities to spot over 430 species of birds—bald eagles, osprey, a variety of tanagers, well, you get the idea.
The birding trail has been divided up into eight separate geologic regions: the Appalachian Highlands, Black Belt, Coastal, North Alabama, Piedmont Plateau, Piney Woods, West Alabama, and Wiregrass Regions.
Alabama is dotted with gorgeous botanical gardens that brighten every season with brilliantly colored and fragrant blooms. And there is a trail for that.
3. Alabama Garden Trail
Gorgeous, immaculately-maintained landscapes are on display all across the state, and thanks to the wide range of climates and types of soil in Alabama, you will find a variety of stunning settings as you travel.
The Alabama Garden Trail takes you to six spectacular gardens from Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile where over 300 species of azaleas light up the 35-acre estate and rows of live oak bring a Southern charm to the grounds of the Huntsville Botanical Garden in the north where limestone columns from the old historic courthouse act as the focal point for the expansive grounds.
The trail also makes stops at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Mobile Botanical Gardens, and Dothan Botanical Gardens as well as Aldridge Gardens in Hoover near Birmingham.
Art and Antique Trails
Whether you are looking to purchase antiques, collectibles, or an inspiring work of art, travel the backroads of Alabama on these aptly named trails.
4. Alabama Mural Trail
Towns and cities big and small across Alabama have embraced mural art to grace the sides of buildings and bring a sense of community to the town.
The Alabama Mural Trail leads you to a diverse set of detailed mural art that brings to life moving moments in the town’s history like a depiction of the Freedom Rider’s bus from the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Anniston, historical figures like the almost photo-like mural of the Temptations lead singer Eddie Kendricks who was born in Union Springs, or the dazzling nightlife of Mobile brought to life in the Bar Light mural along the city’s Dauphin Street.
5. Alabama Antique Trail
From upscale galleries to multivendor malls, the Alabama Antique Trail provides a mixture of antiques and vintage collectibles throughout the state. Discover items from Alabama family estates, original pieces from antebellum homes, and European and Oriental imports selected from abroad by antique dealers or brought by early settlers. The trail offers glassware, pottery, silver, porcelain, military items, books, art, signs, historical papers, and American, French, Japanese, Chinese and English furnishings from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.
Stop highlights include visits to the Antique Mall of Memories in Alexander City, rummaging through the aisles in the historic 1935 Bank of Dadeville at Old Bank Antiques, and Winter Valley Antiques in Cullman that spans two buildings, one of which was once a chicken coop.
Alabama’s many history trails lead to spectacular ornate antebellum homes, sites from the Civil Rights Movement, Native American historical sites, and more, all with helpful and knowledgeable guides.
6. April Walking Tours
Many of the towns across the state hold annual historic walking tours annually in April where you will visit historic antebellum mansions such as the Oakleigh and Conde-Charlotte mansions in Mobile, centuries-old cemeteries including the Florence City Cemetery that was established in 1819, and sites of the Civil Rights Movement such as the Rosa Parks bus stop and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery.
Community leaders will guide these free tours through the historic districts or courthouse square areas of their hometowns. The hour-long tours start at 10:00 a.m. on April 2, 9, 16, 23, and 30.
7. Civil War Trail
The Alabama Civil War Trail not only includes battlefields but also many other historic locations that bring the story of those tumultuous years to life.
Stops along the route include visits to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery where Jeff Davis was sworn in as the president of the Confederacy, the Winter Building (also in Montgomery) where the order to fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina was sent by telegraph thus beginning the war, and Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park in McCalla where the enormous stone furnace that once made munitions for the Confederacy has been completely rebuilt.
Along the coast, the Battle of Mobile Bay Civil War Trail spotlights Fort Morgan and historic Fort Gaines.
8. Native American Trail
For thousands of years before white settlement, the place that is today called Alabama was home to many different cultural groups of Native Americans.
The history of Native Americans in Alabama is bittersweet. The Native American Trail allows us to explore their bittersweet history in the state from its earliest residents 10,000 years ago at Russell Cave National Monument in Bridgeport and Mound Island in Mobile to the tragedies that led to the Creek Indian War at Fort Mims in Stockton and the eventual start of the Trail of Tears with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
9. Covered Bridge Trail
Along the dusty backroads of Alabama, you will be treated to a rare sight. The state once had many covered bridges that took horses and pedestrians across narrow gorges. Today, the number has dwindled but these bridges are still exciting pieces of history to view.
Some have been moved to historic locations like the oldest bridge, the 1850 Coldwater Creek Covered Bridge in Calhoun County while others remain in place where they have stood the test of time including the longest remaining in the state, the 324-foot Swann Bridge over the Black Warrior River in Blount County.
The Covered Bridge Trail takes you to these and several other bridges in the northern half of the state. Be sure to make plans to attend the annual Covered Bridge Festival (October 8, 2022) where the three bridges of Blount County are celebrated—Swann, Easily, and Old Horton—with a good old-fashioned fall festival featuring plenty of music, arts, and crafts, and food.
10. U.S. Civil Rights Trail
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail spans the country but is primarily centered in the Southeast where marchers and activists challenged segregation and social injustice in the 50s and 60s, often facing violence and death in the process as they tried to make the country live up to its promises.
11. Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail
The Alabama Civil Rights Trail is part of the larger, nationwide trail, leading you to a collection of historic sites from that period including the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the incredibly moving National Memorial for Peace and Justice that honors the over 4,000 blacks who were murdered across the South. The memorial features giant steel columns hanging from the ceiling with the names of victims listed by county.
There is more to sports in Alabama than football. These sport trails show you what I mean.
12. Alabama’s Hunting and Fishing Trail for People with Disabilities
The state has made it possible for people with physical disabilities to hunt and fish by joining together state and private landowners to establish this string of outdoor locations called the Alabama Hunting and Fishing Trail where they can enjoy their favorite sports just like everyone else.
Each location has special ramps and access points and when it comes to hunting, days are restricted to only allow those with disabilities to participate. Hunting and fishing licenses are required.
13. Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
A golf trail is just that—a collection of courses that together promote a certain state to the world as a golf destination. Just about every state has them from California to New York, from Wisconsin to Florida, and every state in between. But there had to be a first—the granddaddy of them all—Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail!
The trail features 26 courses and 468 incredible holes across the state with each course designed by the famous course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. to fit that particular region’s stunning landscape.
College football and barbecue are probably the first things that come to mind when Alabama is mentioned. But there’s so much more to the local food scene. In a state that is home to rich farmland and game hunting and is also bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, food and mealtime are a semi-sacred part of life.
14. Food and Wine Trail
Any way you slice it—be it the fried green tomatoes at the Irondale Cafe in Irondale, crawfish pie at Ca-John’s Bar and Grill in Faunsdale, or meatloaf at G’s in Huntsville—Alabama has culinary boasting rights to some of the most distinctive cuisine in the country.
Dreamland in Tuscaloosa and Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur top Alabama’s list of award-winning barbecue joints where you will never get tired of licking your fingers. When it comes to deliciously different you’ve got choices ranging from freshly squeezed lemonade at Toomer’s Drugs in Auburn, key-lime milkshakes from Stacey’s Old Tyme Soda Fountain in Foley, and orange rolls at All Steak in Cullman.
Fusing the sounds of Rock, Country, Blues, and other genres, Alabama possesses a distinctive musical identity all its own.
15. Hank Williams Trail
Hank Williams was born in Mount Olive on September 17, 1923. By the time of his death 29 years later, he had left behind a monumental legacy of such hits as “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “I Saw the Light,” “Jambalaya” and “Cold, Cold Heart.”
With his band the Drifting Cowboys, he played engagements across the South. Hank became country music’s first superstar selling 10 million records from 1947 to 1953.
A short starter list for those who long to put a name with a beak
Everyone is familiar with Texas icons like the Alamo and River Walk but how many of their feathered friends can you identify? Northern Cardinal, Grackle, Northern Mockingbird…those are pretty easy but there are so many more!
Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round thanks to its location and diverse eco-regions and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.
Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:
Far West Texas
Upper Texas Coast
Central Texas Coast
Lower Texas Coast
Heart of Texas West
Heart of Texas East
Prairies and Piney Woods West
Prairies and Piney Woods East
Whether you are a birder, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, or just want to see the wild side of Texas, these nine driving trail maps will lead you to the best spots to see birds, butterflies, bats, pronghorns, and more. What will you discover?
Learning to identify all of the state’s birds can be a daunting task, so here’s a list that’s been trimmed down to some of the more commonplace and easily seen species.
So, armed with this starter list and a helpful birding guidebook and a pair of binoculars and a camera head out and see how many you can spot and identify. Bring family and friends and turn it into a contest. You’ll find being bird-brained is fun for everyone.
Such a list, of course, has to begin with the state bird of Texas. This gray and white bird makes up for its drab appearance with a voice that could compete in any singing competition. The Latin name (Mimus polyglottos) which translates loosely to “the many-tongued mimic” really sums up this songster. Instead of singing its song, this bird performs like a tribute band playing an original band’s song note for note. A seasoned male Mockingbird can sing the songs of dozens of other species found nearby and make a variety of other vocalizations from frog sounds to car alarms.
No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird having a pink body red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or salt water, or flying in small groups overhead.
Unmistakably tropical, the brilliantly-colored Green Jay ranges south to Ecuador but enters the U.S. only in southernmost Texas where it is fairly common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Green Jays are colorful birds with a pale green back and underside, a black chest, a blue and blackhead and face, and yellow sides on their tail.
The Great Kiskadee is a treat for visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the under-parts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
When it comes to patience, no bird can outdo the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a short, stocky wading bird about 24 inches in length with a wingspan of a little under four feet. It has long yellow to orange legs, red eyes, a thick black bill, and a short neck. It has a slate-gray body, a dark bluish-black head with a white streak along the cheek, and a very pale yellow (sometimes so pale that it appears white) crown that extends back from the head in the form of a few wispy feathers. The wing feathers have a grey and black striped appearance.
Most flycatchers are drab but the male Vermilion Flycatcher is a brilliant exception. It is usually seen perched fairly low in open areas near water making periodic flights to nab insect prey. As if the male’s bright colors were not advertisement enough, he also displays by puffing up his feathers and fluttering high in the air while singing repeatedly. Fairly common in parts of the southwest and Texas, the vermilion flycatcher is also widespread in Central and South America.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
The Black-bellied Whistling Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican Tree Duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas, and, of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.
The Tricolored Heron is a medium-sized wading bird named for its three main colors: bluish-gray, purple, and white. Its head, back, and wings are a dark bluish-gray. The back of the neck is purple. The belly is white. The tri-color also has a narrow white streak with delicate rust-colored markings down the front of its neck. The tri-colored is more active than the larger herons. This bird does not patiently stand and wait when feeding. It walks through shallow water in a jerky fashion, crouching and darting as it moves along. It lunges and then shoots its bill into the water to catch a fish or an aquatic insect.
The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the U. S. makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. The Altamira has a black back, wings, bib, lores (the region between the eyes and nostril), a bill; orange head, nape, and underparts.
A stripe-backed woodpecker of eastern Mexico and northern Central America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker reaches the U. S. only in the brushlands and woodlands of Texas and southwest Oklahoma. Very noisy and conspicuous, the Golden-fronted has barred black and white back and upper wings, the rump is white, and the tail is usually black.
Related to falcons but very different in shape and habits, the crested caracara reach the U. S. only in Texas and Florida. A large, long-legged raptor, the Crested Caracara has a black cap with a short crest at back, pale sides of back and neck, bare red skin on the face, black body, white tail with wide black tip, white patches at ends of dark wings, and faint barring on upper back and breast.
A conspicuously long-legged, long-necked heron of shallow saltwater, the Reddish Egret is a very active forager. Often draws attention by its feeding behavior: running through shallows with long strides, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, raising one or both wings, and abruptly stabbing at fish.
Great Blue Heron
More old-timers refer to this species as a “blue crane” but this heron is not related to cranes. This tall wetland inhabitant will hunt for fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like in just about any creek, pond, lake, or roadside ditch. With an overall grayish color, this bird does have hints of blue-gray here and there. In flight, the Great Blue Heron might conjure up beliefs that pterodactyls still fly in our friendly skies. When waters freeze in winter, don’t expect these birds to chip away at the ice. Instead, watch them switch to dry upland settings in search of rodents. Who knows, maybe a switch from slimy fish to furry rats every now and then breaks the monotony!
The remarkable bill of the black skimmer sets it apart from all other American birds. The large orange and black bill are knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, snapping the bill shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal, Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches.
“Long” and “thin” are the best adjectives for describing this elegant black and white shorebird: long neck; thin, needle-like black bill; and long, pink legs. Black-necked Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to the bodies of any bird—only flamingoes are longer. The Black-necked stilt wades in shallow water as it feeds, probing with its long, thin bill for insects and crustaceans on or near the surface of the water. It finds most of its food visually, picking insects, small crustaceans, and tiny fish from the surface of the water or mud.
Great Horned Owl
With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fares such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America, equally at home in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.
A large, orange-billed tern, the royal tern is found only along ocean beaches. Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the royal tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast. It forages mostly by hovering over the water and plunging to catch prey just below the surface. Sometimes flies low, skimming the water with the bill; occasionally catches flying fish in the air, or dips to the water’s surface to pick up floating refuse.
A resident of dense brushy habitats, the Long-billed Thrasher is found only in southern Texas and eastern Mexico. There it is a common permanent resident of native woodland and thickets, foraging on the ground under dense cover, often singing from a hidden position within the brush. Uses its long bill to flip dead leaves aside as it rummages in the leaf litter for insects; also will use its bill to dig in soil within an inch of the surface. And it’s often seen perching in shrubs and trees to eat berries.
Early American settlers from Europe confused this carrion eater with the “buzzard” back home but the two aren’t alike. Though the name “buzzard” is used in other parts of the world for hawks, it refuses to be erased from our vocabulary for vultures. When soaring, this vulture has a silvery tinge to the trailing edge of the entire wing. When they’re feasting on roadkill, notice their milk chocolate coloration and, in adults, a red featherless head. Only a mother could love a face like that. There is another species of vulture in Texas: the black vulture. The black vulture sports a gray featherless head and is dark black. During the flight, black vultures also have a silvery tinge to their wings but only on the outer tips. If we didn’t have vultures, our roadways would soon be overrun with smelly, unsightly roadkill.
How great would it be if every bird were named for its vocalization, like this one? A resounding “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee” can be heard not only in natural settings but also in ball fields and parking lots. In flight, watch for the fiery orange rump and pointy wings and, when perched, watch for two distinctive black bands across the breast resembling wide necklaces. If you approach one and find it limping away with a drooped wing and loud cries, know that you’re being duped. This action — called feigning — is designed to lure you away from a nearby ground nest or nestlings, so tread lightly.
I don’t think it’s a compliment to be called an “old coot,” but it’s OK to spot some on a nearby lake or reservoir. Since this bird needs a running start to take off from the water, it doesn’t hang out in small bodies of water. If you find one there, it’s usually an indication that inclement weather grounded the bird and the runway is too short for it to take off again. Commonly occurring in rafts, or large floating flocks of birds, this all-dark bird has a pale white bill and feeds on aquatic organisms and vegetation. This species, no relation to ducks, pours into Texas during fall to spend the winter months where water doesn’t freeze, but watch for most to head north in spring. Some stick around throughout the year and raise a family. The young look similar in shape but have a whitish head that distinguishes them from mom and dad.
With a long, pointy tail and a small, beady head, this dove enjoys sunflower seeds whether the seeds are at the feeder, on a fresh sunflower stalk, or the ground. The best feeders for a flock of these are rural sunflower fields in late summer or early fall; their Columbidae relatives line up shoulder-to-shoulder on the power lines and fences, assessing the danger before dropping down into the field.
It’s fun to watch this feisty, crested bird feed on sunflower seeds. With one foot, they pin a seed to the limb they’re perched on and begin to hammer away to open it, using head and bill like an all-in-one hammer and chisel. After all that work, they gobble down a tasty seed that’s rich in fat, fiber, protein, several vitamins and minerals, and, most importantly, calories to get them through tough times until Mother Nature can again provide her buffet.
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
These islands are like the Florida Keys…but with more hee-haw
When most folks think of Texas in the summertime, visions of barbecue, Lone Star-shaped swimming pools, and the Alamo—but how about dolphins, rocket launches, and sandcastles the size of actual castles? The state’s barrier islands might surprise you.
What the keys are to Florida, the barrier islands are to Texas: a 234-mile string of islands that hug the Gulf of Mexico coast made primarily of sand built up over thousands of years from tidal movements. They range in size from four miles in length to the largest barrier island on Earth. There are seven main islands in total and each one has a distinct personality from the touristy trappings of Galveston to the utter solitude of San Jose.
No matter your summer fun, Texas’ barrier islands deliver. Want some R&R on a remote beach populated almost exclusively by seagulls? You got it. Want to go kayaking in a national park? That’s a distinct possibility. Want to eat foot-long corn dogs and “mermaid soup”? You can and you should—and rest assured no dogs or mermaids were harmed in the making of either of those delicacies. Here’s your guide to the Texas barrier islands.
The northernmost barrier island and by far the most popular with more than 7 million annual visitors, Galveston’s reputation as a summertime beach destination for Houstonians can largely be chalked up to its proximity. Although it has somewhat of a hokey reputation thanks to its Pleasure Pier boardwalk, eccentric mini golf courses, 50 colorful Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle statues around the island, and pyramid-shaped aquarium (Moody Gardens) giving it sort of an Atlantic City of the south look, Galveston has a lot going for it. As evidenced by those previously stated attractions, the 27-mile island is far and away Texas’ quirkiest barrier island teeming with historic architecture, and larger-than-life nautical lore. After all, a city with lofty nicknames like Playground of the South and Ellis Island of the West is bound to at least be intriguing.
A hard-to-miss attraction, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is a mammoth boardwalk lined with carnival games and enough rides to fill a theme park including the Iron Shark Rollercoaster and the Pirate’s Plunge flume ride.
For something a bit more subdued, The Grand 1894 Opera House is an ornate institution, home to popular productions like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The theater harkens to the island’s earliest days when Galveston first emerged as a primary shipping and immigration port in the 1800s.
Nearby is The Strand, Galveston’s historic, bayside district filled with Victorian and Greek Revival architecture. You’ll also find the tall ship Elissa, an 1877 vessel that now serves as a floating museum of maritime history.
Further south on the island, Jamaica Beach offers a quieter reprieve from the touristy clamor for those looking to soak up the sun.
Driving south from Jamaica Beach—and the antithesis of Galveston in terms of hustle and bustle—Follet’s Island is a smaller, 13-mile island that’s largely untouched and undeveloped except for some remote beach houses.
The entire island is one big beach, most of which is quiet and wide-open, providing ample opportunity for swimming, beach camping, fishing, and kayaking. Seeing as the beach is largely undeveloped and open, it’s entirely free to visit and horseback riding is also allowed on the beach.
If you thought Follet’s Island was quiet, just wait until you see what’s next. Further south, Matagorda Island is the most remote barrier island, a 38-mile stretch of solitude only accessible by boat. A far cry from the thrill rides of Galveston, Matagorda is largely comprised of the Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge and State Natural Area.
For visitors who have a private boat or can charter one the car-free island is a beachy escape for campers willing to forgo the niceties of electricity and running water. This is an undeveloped place preserved for bird watching, saltwater fishing, and hunting. The 20,000 acres of land are open to deer and waterfowl just as long as you keep in mind that the whooping cranes which occasionally flock to the area are endangered and protected.
At night, thanks to its remoteness and lack of light pollution, stargazing is a popular pastime too.
San Jose Island
Equally, as undeveloped as Matagorda yet easier to access, San Jose Island is the next barrier island down the line. It’s immediately north of populated Port Aransas on Mustang Island where a ferry takes visitors back and forth offering 21 miles of undeveloped beachfront, excellent fishing, and endless beach combing for seashells. Cars are also prohibited in San Jose which is entirely protected as a wildlife sanctuary. Due to the island’s history as a former ranch, wild cattle roam the island and it’s not uncommon to see their offspring on the beach.
As quiet and untouched as the island seems today, it’s rich with Texas history. This was the first site to fly the American flag on Texas soil when a lieutenant swam ashore from the USS Alabama and planted it in the sand in 1845. A short-lived town on the island called Aransas was razed by Union forces in the Civil War. In 1935, wealthy oil magnate Sid Richardson established a miles-long ranch and estate where he once wined and dined with the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The estate is long gone but riches may or may not remain—legend has it the island contains actual buried treasure from pirate Jean Lafitte.
While San Jose offers remote solitude and potential pirate riches, the island on the other side of Aransas Pass is a haven of seafood restaurants, margaritas, beachside festivals, and Easter egg-colored cottages. Mustang Island is a mecca for families, wintering snowbirds, and spring breakers alike, especially in the city of Port Aransas which comprises much of the 18-mile island.
The pirate Jean Lafitte used to frequent the island, arguably making him the original snowbird or spring breaker (take your choice). And while you likely won’t find buried treasure here, you’re sure to find treasures of other kinds including award-winning sand sculptures, adrenaline-pumping jet ski jaunts, and all the shrimp and redfish you can eat.
For a town with a year-round population of about 3,000, Port Aransas is surprisingly happening and delightfully quirky. For instance, Texas SandFest is an annual springtime attraction (April 15-16, 2023) that features carnival-style snacks, live music, and epic sand sculptures right on the beach. It’s an ideal place to scarf foot-long corn dogs and funnel cakes while marveling at giant sand castles.
Just about every place on the island offers top-tier fish and seafood, perhaps best exemplified by Isabella’s. The beachy-chic restaurant sits in a classy community called Cinnamon Shore (named for the fact that Port Aransas’ beaches look like they’re swirled with cinnamon). There you can pair espresso martinis with cheesy baked oysters, pancetta-wrapped shrimp, and something called Mermaid Soup: a curried medley of lobster-coconut broth and shrimp—and mercifully, no mermaids.
To fully immerse yourself in the action-packed island, though, you need to get out on the water, and by that we mean go on a guided jet ski romp. Gettin’ Salty Watersports takes visitors out into the bay and to a couple seashell-strewn islands with lots of thrilling dolphin sightings along the way.
The next island is not only the largest in Texas but also the largest barrier island in the world. Clocking in at 113 miles, Padre Island is bookended by Corpus Christi and Padre Island National Seashore on the north and beach bars and theme park ride on the south. Naturally, an island larger than the state of Delaware is bound to have a wide array of attractions and Padre Island is the kind of something-for-everyone that runs the gamut from urban outings to all-natural tranquility and nature preserves.
Divvied into North Padre Island and South Padre Island, separated by the Port Mansfield Channel, the top half starts with Corpus Christi, the most populated area in the region. From the Selena Museum and the Texas State Aquarium to beachside breweries and guided tours aboard the USS Lexington, there’s no shortage of sights to enjoy.
North Padre is also home to a national park site, Padre Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world and proof that the “everything’s bigger in Texas” slogan isn’t always a cliche. The 66-mile park protects sea turtles and hundreds of bird species and it’s an ideal haven for fishing, kayaking, windsurfing, and RV camping on the sand.
On the southern side of the channel, South Padre is known equally as a family-friendly getaway and a spring break staple. It’s swarming with beach bars (including Clayton’s, the largest beach bar in Texas, live music, carnival rides, an enormous water park (Beach Park at Isla Blanca), and Gravity Park, an adventure and amusement park with some seriously intense attractions including the Tallest Reverse-Bungee in the World (The Rocket).
A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.
Dune meadows, salt marsh, and intertidal flats along with thickets of native shrubs and trees are irresistible to migrating birds.
Of course, with this much mileage of coastline, there are plenty of beaches to choose from, too, like Isla Blanca Park and South Padre Bayside Beach.
The last barrier island is also the teeniest. Brazos Island is a diminutive four-mile island, home to 217 undeveloped acres of seaside wilderness. Located just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, it’s a peaceful retreat for swimming, fishing, bird watching, hopeful dolphin-spotting, and camping.
Aside from that, the main draw here nowadays is Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch facility which set up shop on the Boca Chita peninsula.
Texas Spoken Friendly
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.
Spending time in nature is the best way to refuel your body and your mind
The Great Outdoors became a top travel destination in 2020 for obvious reasons: endless social distance, campgrounds within driving distance, and dramatic settings for an existential crisis. Zoom ahead to summer 2022 and the world has reopened—so has camping fallen out of favor?
Turns out, instead of returning their REI equipment, many rookies are still adding camping reservations to their travel plans.
According to Campspot, a platform for reserving campsites, there are 49 percent more bookings for this summer compared to last year and a six times jump in new campers.
33 percent more people are shopping on Amazon for camping tents this year compared to 2019 and demand for other outdoor gear (lanterns, backpacks, camp stoves) has also risen by double digits, per data analytics company Pattern.
Glamping’s also holding onto its pandemic popularity: Getaway, which rents tiny, posh cabins you may have seen on Instagram had its most guests ever in Q1 2022.
Between inflation, the stock market, supply-chain issues, and recession fears, people have a strong desire to find ways to disconnect from the stress and spend time in nature to help them reconnect with themselves and their family and friends.
Relaxing nature activities will rejuvenate your mind, from the simple to the life-changing.
Savor the scenery
Movies beaming with CGI (computer-generated imagery) dazzle our imaginations but the most mind-blowing spectacles are not found on a screen. When was the last time you watched the sunrise or ventured to the nearest hilltop to watch it set? Or plied the back roads?
The back, back roads of South Carolina, for example, will present you with a gift basket of surprises. Looming magnolia trees and Spanish moss! Tiny, rural communities populated with folks who more than likely will be happy to spend the afternoon beguiling you with the stories of their lives. Makeshift farm stands and BBQ pits that you can sniff out a mile away. Ramshackle houses and dilapidated plantations evoking chapters from another world!
Skyline Drive is a beautiful Virginia byway that goes straight through Shenandoah National Park and the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret, but if you hit the road early enough to catch a misty sunrise, you might be able to beat some of the crowds. At just over 100 miles long, it makes for a great half-day drive.
Wander the wilderness
Walking is good for you, but not all walks are created equal. Cruising urban streets doesn’t provide the same mental boost as hiking a local trail or feeling the sandy beach between your toes. You don’t have to have a specific destination in mind, either—your goal isn’t to hike a particular number of miles but to aimlessly immerse yourself in the natural world around you. The Japanese call this “forest bathing” and it can rejuvenate a weary mind.
Short, sweet, and steep are the best descriptors of the flagship trail at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Characterized (and named for) a massive pink granite dome—the same unique Texas pink granite that was used to build the State Capitol building—this park is a popular outing for those visiting Central Texas. From the top of the steep Summit Trail, you’ll see unparalleled 360-degree views of untouched terrain. For more entertainment, Fredericksburg, a charming German-Texan small town, is only a 20-minutes drive away.
Meditate on the music
Not the music playing in your headphones. Leave your electronics behind and listen to the melodies nature has to offer: babbling brooks, bird songs, wind whistling through the trees, and the scurrying of animals through the canopy. It’s a lot more relaxing than the honking horns and text message alerts you’re all too used to and it offers the opportunity to practice some meditative mindfulness in your tranquil surroundings.
Pack a picnic
Load a basket with your favorite healthy goodies and have lunch among the flora and fauna. A picnic is a perfect way to spend quality time with friends and family without the distractions of the modern-day world. And nature makes socializing with others easier so it’s the perfect place to build stronger relationships with those you love.
Fishing puts you outside, near a body of water, and it rewards patience. All of those are good things. Even if you don’t catch (and release) anything, you’ll both forge a treasured, lifelong memory. With a little luck, you reel in a perch that will grow into a marlin after multiple retellings of the story at family events.
Look, up in the sky
Thousands of people who watch birds as a hobby are on to something: There’s a special thrill when you can recognize a bird by sight or by its sound. Odds are, a nearby Audubon location offers free birding walks that are open to the public. Or, turn to the internet for free resources to help you identify the birds in your area. Either way, bird watching gives you the perfect excuse to relax in nature with your head in the clouds. That’s a great way to fend off stress.
Sleep beneath the stars
Now you’re getting serious. Why not disconnect entirely for several days or more and make nature your home? Camping lets you get further away than a simple day trip allows. Or, if roughing it isn’t your style, consider glamping where you can maintain some of the creature comforts you love, but still be away from it all.
Located in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park protects 71,000 acres of terrain and a herd of some 1,300 bison who are known to stop traffic along the park’s Wildlife Loop Road from time to time. The park has nine campgrounds to choose from including the popular Sylvan Lake Campground. Many sites include electric hookups and dump stations.
If you take your phone, use it for that cool star-gazing app (or emergencies, of course) but not for scrolling social media 24/7. Forget the Fear of Missing Out and try the Joy of Missing Out instead. #JOMO!
Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, and the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.
Padre Island National Seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world
Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, a park with “the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.”
Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554.
In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, and tidal flats teeming with life. The National Seashore and surrounding waters provide important habitat for marine and terrestrial plants and animals including a number of rare, threatened, and endangered species.
Padre Island National Seashore and South Padre Island are two different places located over 100 miles apart. Sometimes Padre Island National Seashore is confused with South Padre Island but the two are very different destinations. Padre Island National Seashore is a National Park Service (NPS) site located just outside of Corpus Christi. South Padre Island is a resort community located near Brownsville with numerous hotels, clubs, and souvenir shops. The two destinations are at opposite ends of the long, barrier island named Padre Island and are about 100 miles apart.
Planning on putting the park address into a smart phone app or GPS? It most likely will NOT bring you to the park. For unknown reasons, many of those applications place the park’s physical address miles away from its actual location.
Fortunately, getting to the park is easy once you know that the road coming to the park—Park Road 22—actually dead ends into the National Seashore. The park entrance station is a booth that is located literally in the middle of the road. Once you’re on Park Road 22, just keep going until you reach the end and the park entrance station. Bring a paper map or use the above directions to locate the park.
Park entrance fees and passes can be purchased online before your visit or purchased in person at the entrance station upon your arrival. Your options include a 1-day pass ($10.00 per vehicle), a 7-day pass ($25.00 per vehicle), and a 1-year pass ($45.00 per vehicle). Those with federal interagency passes enter free.
Typical weather conditions. Weather on Padre Island varies widely and can change from sunny and warm to thunderstorms and heavy winds very quickly. Padre Island has long, hot summers and short, mild winters. Most rain falls near the beginning and end of hurricane and tropical storm season which lasts from June through October.
Daytime temperature in spring averages in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Summer daytime temperatures are usually in the mid-90s with very humid conditions. Lows are usually in the 70s. Afternoon and evening sea breezes help to moderate temperatures. In the fall, daytime temperature average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Winter high temperatures are usually between 50 degrees and 70 degrees but can occasionally drop into the upper 30s. Sudden, strong cold fronts can move through bringing gale force winds and dropping temperatures quickly.
Average rainfall for the southern portion of the park is 26 inches and 29 inches for the northern area of the park.
Take a drive along the seashore. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are only accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle. Don’t try it with a regular car if you intend to drive further than 5 miles.
To get to the portion of the park where you can drive on the beach and down to the remote parts of the island, continue on the main park paved road (Park Road 22) past Malaquite Visitor Center until the pavement ends (South Beach). From that point, the park has 60 miles of beach open to driving. South Beach (and driving) ends at the Port Mansfield Channel, a man-made waterway cut through the island.
It is not possible to drive all the way down to South Padre Island due to this waterway. You must turn around at that point and drive 60 miles back north to reach the park paved road.
Remember that Texas beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply including seat belt regulations. All vehicles on Padre Island National Seashore must be street legal and licensed.
Go camping. Padre Island National Seashore has two campgrounds and three areas for primitive camping. They are open year-round and are first-come, first-served. Campers must have a camping permit. There are no RV hook-ups on Padre Island but a dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the National Seashore.
Tucked in the dunes with a view of the Gulf of Mexico and a short distance north of the visitor center, Malaquite Campground features 48 semi-primitive designated sites. Located near the boat ramp on the waters of the Laguna Madre, Bird Island Basin Campground offers an opportunity for windsurfing, kayaking, boating, birding, and fishing. Both RV and tent camping sites are available but it is dry camping only.
If you’d rather stay in a full-service RV park, Corpus Christi, 10 miles away from the park entrance, has several choices. We stayed across the bay in Portland at Seabreeze RV Resort and would return in a heartbeat.
Since sunrises are spectacular along the seashore, plan to take a morning walk along the beach and bring your camera with you to capture the moment. During your early-morning walk, you might spot the elusive (and very fast) ghost crab peeking at you from its burrow.
Stick around after dark on a clear night for a little stargazing. Take a flashlight with you to spot ghost crabs as they move away from their burrows to seek a midnight snack.
Do some beachcombing. Have you ever gone to the beach with bucket in hand hoping to find treasures along the seashore? If so, then you have been beachcombing. Many of the currents that flow through the Gulf of Mexico bring endless curiosities onto the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. These items include seashells, beached jellyfish, sea beans (drift seeds), driftwood, lumber, plastics, and things that have been lost or discarded by seagoing vessels and other marine activities. The best time is immediately following a storm. You are allowed to keep a five-gallon bucket of treasures you might find but if an animal is still in its shell be sure to put it back where you found it.
Go fly a kite. Padre Island National Seashore has plenty of wind to fly a kite. The seashore has in the past hosted a kite festival in February filling the sky with all sorts of colorful kites including some intricate and creative Chinese kites. Be sure to check with the park before heading there with your kite.
Go swimming. Swimming at the National Seashore can be a lot of fun! You can swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. However, remember that safety is important and there are no lifeguards on duty. Use caution when swimming and never swim alone.
Go fishing. Fishing has been one of the biggest attractions to Padre Island, long before its designation as a National Seashore. Visitors may fish along the entire length of the Gulf of Mexico beach in the Laguna Madre and at Yarborough Pass and Bird Island Basin. Two currents, one from the north and one from the south converge at Big Shell beach near the middle of the park.
These currents bring an abundance of nutrients which, in turn, attract plenty of fish. To fish anywhere within the park requires a valid Texas fishing license and a saltwater stamp which are only sold outside of the park at any local gas station or tackle shop.
Go boating. Bird Island Basin offers a boat ramp to provide access to the excellent boating and fishing waters of the Laguna Madre. It’s one of the world’s best windsurfing sites and you can fish and birdwatch there, too. You can get a daily pass to Bird Island Basin at the Entrance Station for $5.00 or an annual pass for $30.00. Be aware that jet skis, kite surfing, and air boats are prohibited at the national seashore.
Hatching releases. During the summer Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings are released from nests that were laid in the park and along parts of the Texas coast. Hatchling releases typically occur from mid-June through August. Most releases that are open to the public take place at 6:45 a.m. on Malaquite Beach in front of the Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore. For information about public hatching releases, call the Hatchling Hotline at 361-949-7163. Because park rangers cannot predict exactly when a sea turtle nest will hatch, not all hatchling releases are public and hatchling releases do not occur daily or on a regular schedule.
Go bird watching. With more bird species that any other city in the U.S., Corpus Christi has won the competition for being the “Birdiest City in America” for the past 10 years in a row. Needless to say, Padre Island National Seashore, located on 130,000 acres of undeveloped land is an exceptional place for bird watching.
Situated along the Central Flyway, Padre Island is a globally important area for over 380 migratory, overwintering, and resident bird species (nearly half of all bird species documented in North America). You’ll catch sight of brown pelicans, egrets, herons, terns, gulls, hawks, ducks, teals, and crested caracaras and not just along the beach but inland as well. The best time to bird Padre Island National Seashore is either during early spring or during fall and winter when thousands of birds either migrate through the park or spend the winter there.
Interpretive programs. Attend a ranger program to learn about the seashore, the birds, and the things that wash up on the beach. Informal 30-45 minute Deck Talks on various aspects of the island’s natural and cultural history are held Thursdays to Sundays at 1 pm at the Malaquite Visitor Center.
Be a Junior Ranger. Padre Island National Seashore is just one national park that gives you a chance to earn an official Junior Ranger badge. Ask a ranger for a Junior Ranger booklet when you stop by the Malaquite Visitor Center. The Underwater Explorer Junior Ranger Program is available as well. For all those who are young or young-at-heart, come out and earn your badge. All ages are welcome to participate in the Junior Ranger program at Padre Island National Seashore.
Relax on the beach, build a sand castle, and play in the sand. Just remember the Leave No Trace principles. If you dig any holes or trenches while playing in the sand, cover them back up so they don’t create a hazard for vehicles, people, and animals.
Remember to check the park’s website for any alerts and closures due to construction or weather-related damage. Check the site also for other things to know before you head out to the park and whether or not pets are allowed.