Totally Texas

We rounded up as many “totally Texas” things to do, places to go, people to know, and sights to see

With COVID-19 (Coronavirus) everyone’s lives—yours and ours—were thrown into a scrambled state of flux. Someday, we’ll all be ready to pack the RV again and head out on our next adventure. In the meantime, here’s some inspiration for the future.

Texas is big, beautiful, and diverse. It’s not so exaggerated to think of Texas as a whole country—800 miles wide and nearly that far from north to south.

There is something for everyone is Texas, from sunny seacoast to mile-high mountains, dense forests to cactus-studded desert, and great cities to small villages and towns.

Texas is big and brawny in every way, a state brimming with natural assets.

Big Bend

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few national parks can match the scenic variety of Big Bend. A land graced with desert, mountain, and river environments makes for a compelling study in contrasts. The Chihuahuan Desert, with its vastness and stark beauty, is joined by the abrupt canyons of the Rio Grande and the forested peaks of the Chisos Mountains.

San Antonio

San Antonio Riverwalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of America’s most beautiful cities, San Antonio has a great deal to offer. Fantastic museums, the wonderful and unbelievably photogenic Riverwalk, HemisFair Park and, of course, The Alamo are but a few of its highlights. And if you like the Alamo, you’ll love the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a string of four 15th- and 16th-century Spanish missions in and around the city. Another impressive aspect of San Antonio is the food.

Hill Country

Guadalupe River at Kerrville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Call it kitsch appeal, call it hokey, but the Texas Hill Country is one fantastic region. There are the little German towns in the center, like Kerrville and Fredericksburg, and dozens of other small towns nestled in the rolling hills. There’s canoeing, rafting, tubing, and kayaking along the numerous rivers, and LBJ Ranch and Luckenbach.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When Waylon Jennings first sang about Luckenbach, the town in the Hill Country where folks “ain’t feelin’ no pain,” it instantly put this otherwise non-place on the map. The population is about 10, and all that’s here is the old General Store, a town hall, and a dance hall.

Galveston Island

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

Come to the island to stroll the beach or splash in the waves. Or come to the island to go fishing or look for coastal birds. No matter what brings you here, you’ll find a refuge at Galveston Island State Park. Just an hour from Houston, but an island apart!

Galveston Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas coast is on an hourglass-shaped migratory path called the Central Flyway that extends from Alaska to South America. This makes Galveston Island State Park a must-see birding spot, especially with its combination of beach, prairie, and marsh.

Shiner

The Little Brewery in Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shiner, Texas is home to 2,069 people, Friday’s Fried Chicken, and—most famously—the Spoetzal Brewery where every drop of Shiner beer is brewed. Tours are offered throughout the week, where visitors can see how their popular brews get made. Tours and samples are free. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Monahans Sandhills

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 4,000 acres of wind-sculpted sand dunes found at this Texas state park resemble a landscape straight out of the Sahara. The Harvard Oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above 3 feet in height, even though their root structure may extend down 90 feet or more. The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and camping…and many visitors’ favorite activity, sand surfing.

Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area, where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.    

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Davy Crockett

4 Small Texas Towns to Visit

Across the Lone Star State, these small towns brim with new energy and welcome retreat from the city

There was a time when most Texans lived over yonder. But over the past century, the percentage of Texans living in rural areas versus urban areas flipped. Today, 85 percent live in cities while only 15 percent live in the country according to the Texas Demographic Center. It’s an understandable trend. With booming job markets, diverse cultural offerings, and fast-paced living, Texas’ major cities project a magnetism that leads to ever-expanding urbanization.

Here we chronicle four such towns that are thriving—places to visit now for both escape and discovery.

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton

Pop. 10,759

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The quaint fishing village of Rockport-Fulton has been a favorite coastal hideaway and Winter Texan roost for years. The town’s recovery since Hurricane Harvey two years ago counts among the great feel-good stories in Texas history. Rebounding in stunning ways, this little art colony beloved by visitors since the 1950s for its fishing, bay setting, and festivals feels fresh again.

Fulton Mansion Historic State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Envision the life of an affluent Victorian family while exploring Fulton Mansion, built in 1877 with comforts not easily found: gas lights, central heat, and running water. At Goose Island State Park you’ll find the wintering grounds for whooping cranes and other migratory birds. It’s also home to the 1,000-year-old Big Tree, one of Texas’ largest live oak.

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Grange

Pop. 4,673

Fayette County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This might just be the “Best Little Day Trip in Texas.” I’m sure Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton would agree as it was the events of La Grange’s famous “Chicken Ranch” that inspired the classic musical “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” While the brothel is no longer around there’s still plenty to do in this town.

Kaloches at Weikel’s Bakery…um, delicious!! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For starters, “Czech” out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center. This museum gives visitors a feel for the culture and early days of Fayette County when thousands of Czech immigrants populated the area. Another must-see stop is the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! One of the best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery.

Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis

Pop. 1,201

Fort Davis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis started as a military post on the turbulent Texas frontier, but nowadays you’ll find a decidedly laid-back town. Some streets remain unpaved, cell phones tend to fall silent, and folks still wave to each other on the street.

McDonald Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s a quiet little town that doesn’t have a lot of tourist infrastructure. It has the essentials, though, and attractions such as the recently made-over Indian Lodge and the nearby McDonald Observatory, which last year overhauled the Hobby-Eberly Telescope and George T. Abell Gallery. Be sure to visit Fort Davis National Historic Site.

Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A bonus: 5,050 feet of elevation makes Fort Davis the highest town in Texas and, on summer nights, one of the coolest.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blanco

Pop. 2,012

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blanco calls itself the “Lavender Capital of Texas” as home of Hill Country Lavender farm and the annual Lavender Festival in June, complete with tours of lavender crops, growing tips, and music. If swimming or fishing’s your thing, head to Blanco State Park, where you can hook up your RV or pitch a tent and stretch your legs along the Blanco River.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Real Ale Brewing Company sip an unfiltered beer and toss washers. Each spring the brewery hosts the popular Real Ale Ride with Hill Country routes ranging from 15 to 80 miles and beer at the finish line.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Elmer Kelto

Absolutely Best Road Trips from Houston

Texas lends itself well to adventure

America’s fourth-largest city is a cosmopolitan destination filled with world-class dining, arts, entertainment, shopping, and outdoor recreation. Take a stroll through the historic Heights, spend the day exploring the Museum District, or head down to Space Center Houston.

Kemah Boardwalk south of Houston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We love Houston even for its bonkers weather. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like to get away from it all. With that in mind, we’ve put together a little road trip bucket list with mini itineraries for a variety of interest. Best of all, you won’t even need to be on the road that long: we’re talking six-hour drives, tops, which in Texas terms is basically a trip around the corner.

Best Outdoor Getaway: Guadalupe River State Park, Texas

Distance from Houston: 206 miles

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With Big Bend roughly 640 miles and 5 billion worlds away (qualifying it for more than just a short road trip), Guadalupe River State Park is a great spot for a scenic adventure in the Great Outdoors. Many folks come here to swim but the park is more than a great swimming hole with beautiful scenery and colorful history.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the river, you can swim, fish, tube, and canoe. In the dog days of summer, you’ll want to beat the heat and kayak or canoe the Guadalupe River which boasts the 5 mile Guadalupe River State Park Paddling Trail.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While on land, you can camp, hike, ride mountain bikes or horses, picnic, geocache, and bird watch. Explore 13 miles of hike and bike trails. Trails range from the 2.86-mile Painted Bunting Trail to the .26-mile Barred Owl Trail, which leads you to a scenic overlook of the river. Camping is the way to go, here with 85 campsites offering amenities like picnic tables, outdoor grills, fire pits, and water, and electricity.

Best Barbecue Getaway: Lockhart, Texas

Distance from Houston: 156 miles

Black’s Barbecue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations in the world. While you could make it a daytrip you’ll need several days or more to eat your way through it. Don’t forget to pack a cooler, though, because you’ll want to bring some meat home.

Smitty’s Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your Day One itinerary includes the bulk of your eating, as you tackle at least two of the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). You need to consume a lot of meat today, so be sure to stop for breaks. Proceed in any order you please. 

Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Black’s, third generation pitmaster Kent Black is slow smoking his barbecue with a simple rub and local Post Oak wood. Choose the behemoth beef rib, packing a 9-inch long bone with around 2 inches of fatty, marbled beef cocooning it; and don’t forget the hand-stuffed and -tied homemade sausage (original, garlic, or jalapeno-cheddar), made from an 80-year-old recipe that has stood the test of time.

Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The black soot covering Smitty’s foyer and pit room is a good sign—it means the place is alive and kickin’ after all these years. Go for the Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, fresh from the pit, and throw on a pork chop if you’re feeling wild. This is the kind of spot where asking for sauce is welcome and it’s a tasty sauce indeed. 

Lockhart State State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart has one more stop in store for you before the drive home: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978). There’s a drive-through and BBQ sandwiches if you so please, but you can also head inside for a full plate lunch packed with smoked turkey, sausage links, and moist brisket with sides like mac and cheese, hash browns, and broccoli salad… because you should probably get some greens in.

Best Getaway to Czech Out: La Grange

Distance from Houston: 100 miles

Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Etched in the eroded headstones in the city cemetery and the cemeteries at the nearby “painted churches”—quaint little chapels with exquisite, spangled interiors—are the names of German and Czech immigrants who flocked to the town starting in the 1840s. With its rich heritage, it’s no surprise that La Grange is the hub for celebrating the Czech culture in Texas. Over 80 percent of the Czech Moravian families that settled in Texas at some time lived in Fayette County before they spread out across the state.

Fayette County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For starters, Czech out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center. Vitáme Vás is the Czech equivalent of “howdy”, and you’ll certainly feel welcome.

La Grande from Monument Hill State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Hill State Park is 40-acres of land on a bluff overlooking La Grange. The state park is home to the site of Monument Hill, the grounds on which the war to keep Texas free was fought. Also housed in the park are the ruins of Kreische Brewery, one of Texas’ first commercial breweries.

Ruins of Kreische Brewery at Monument Hill State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Czech immigrants incorporated different aspects of their culture into the town, perhaps the most apparent being the architecture of the buildings standing in the town square. In the center of the Square sits the current Fayette County Courthouse, the fourth structure to house county business since 1838.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! The best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery. Don’t worry—you don’t have to squeeze every flavor into one trip… Weikel’s will ship these goodies anywhere in the country!

Best Island Getaway: Galveston Island, Texas

Distance from Houston: 50 miles

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

Come to the island to stroll the beach or splash in the waves. Or come to the island to go fishing or look for coastal birds. No matter what brings you here, you’ll find a refuge at Galveston Island State Park. Just an hour from Houston, but an island apart!

Galveston State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas coast is on an hourglass-shaped migratory path called the Central Flyway that extends from Alaska to South America. This makes Galveston Island State Park a must-see birding spot, especially with its combination of beach, prairie, and marsh.

The Strand, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Love it or hate it, Galveston is the closest beach to Houston (and we do love it). Here’s how you can love it, too: If it’s not a beach day, you’re spending the rest of the day exploring. Hit the historic Strand District, a 70-block jewel where you’ll find gorgeous Victorian buildings housing museums, boutiques, theaters, shops, and La King’s Confectionary, an old-timey sweets shop where you’ll be picking up some ice cream, dipped chocolates, and taffy. 

1877 Tall Ship Elissa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before you make the short trip back to H-town, get in some extra island time by hitting the 32-miles of sands, having some old school fun at the Pleasure Pier amusement park, checking out historically and architecturally significant spots like the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa and 1892 Bishop’s Palace, or at the very least, getting a beer at Galveston Island Brewing Company. 

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Well it’s lonesome in this old town
Everybody puts me down
I’m a face without a name
Just walking in the rain
Goin’ back to Houston, Houston, Houston 

—lyrics by Lee Hazelwood, recorded by Dean Martin (1965)

Historical Painted Churches of Central Texas

The Painted Churches tour is perfect for anyone interested in art, architecture, and small town Texas history

As German and Czech immigrants arrived in Central Texas seeking religious freedom and economic prosperity, they established a cluster of small communities that has one thing in common: their painted churches. As they settled into their new surroundings they built and decorated elaborate churches.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The churches look like plain white steeple buildings but step inside you and you’ll be in a jewel box of colors and detail. You will find a European styled painted church of high gothic windows, tall spires, elaborately painted interiors with brilliant colors and friezes created by the German and Czech settlers in America.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 20 painted churches in Central Texas. Four of these churches in Fayette County near Schulenburg can be toured Monday through Saturday. The others are either an active parish which you can visit on Sunday or no longer active with prior arrangements required for a visit.

Guided tours can be scheduled through the Schulenburg Visitor Center for $10 a person. Reservations are required at least two weeks in advance to ensure availability.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, like us, you can do a self-guided tour of the churches. If you do choose to do a self-guided tour, keep in mind that all the churches are active places of worship, so be respectful of services and events taking place. The painted churches are open to visitors from Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The four we visited are: St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill, Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Dubina, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha, and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville, known as “The Pink One.”

United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Swiss Alp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our self-guided tour also included other rural communities near Schulenburg having historical sites: United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Swiss Alp and United Methodist Church in Freyburg.

St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill

St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike several other churches in the area, St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill has a brick exterior with a wooden interior. Church leadership encouraged communities to build churches out of brick or stone when so many were destroyed by storms and fires.

St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Mary was the first church in the area designed by architect Leo Dielmann. He designed it using Gothic Revival style and relied heavily on decorative painting to create the illusion of Gothic ceilings.

St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hollow, wooden pillars spaced throughout the interior of the church are in typical Gothic Revival style supporting the vaulted ceilings of the church. They were painted with turkey feathers to give them the appearance of being made of stone. There are statues of many saints mounted on the pillars with the male on the right of the center aisle and the females on the left. This is also the manner in which the congregation divided up when attending services for many years; women sat in the pews on the left and men sat on the right.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in Dubina, Saints Cyril and Methodius Church is probably the most elaborate of the four. Today’s Sts. Cyril & Methodius Catholic Church was built in 1911 in a groove of ancient oaks; in fact, Dubina translates to “oak grove”. The original church was built in 1877 and in 1890 the church was expanded to serve over 600 families. Unfortunately, a tropical storm completely destroyed the original church and it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. This is why the plaque on the front of the church reads 1911.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The stunning architecture of Saints Cyril and Methodius is paired with beautiful interior paintings, stenciling, stained glass windows and statues.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Mary’s Catholic Church was dedicated under the name Assumption of the Blessed Mary and is located three miles east of Flatonia in Praha. St Mary’s Church in Praha is one of the oldest painted churches, built in 1895.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The plain stone facade does not prepare you for the ornate interior designed in the popular Gothic Revival style of the era. Almost every inch of the interior is adorned with stenciling, drawings, or paintings. The ceiling and walls were painted by fresco artist Gottfried Flurry, beautifully complementing the impressive hand-carved, white altar.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nicknamed the Pink Church, the current St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was built in 1917. This is the third church built on this site—the first two were destroyed by hurricane and fire, respectively. This structure, built with Gothic Revival-style architecture, is much simpler than the first two. Instead of embellishments and columns, a decorative painter was hired to give the interior its liveliness.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Latin inscription on the arch above the alter reads, “deliciae mease esse cum filiis hominum” and translates to “my delight is with the children of men” and comes from Proverbs 8:31. Inside the arch is a grapevine which is to remind attendees that He is the vine and the people are the branches. The altars at the front of the church are white and gold which is a Czech tradition.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to learn more about Central Texas’ rich history, enjoy the painted churches tour and see for yourself some of the most stunning art and architecture of the early 20th century.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

—Anita Desai

The Surfing Sands of Monohans

Amid an expanse of creosote bushes, the Monahans sand dunes are something you have to see to believe

A virtual island in a Permian Basin sea, the narrow strip of sand dunes runs for 200 miles from just south of Monahans north into New Mexico and creates a unique habitat that’s home to a variety of wildlife and supports one of the world’s largest oak forests—albeit the oaks themselves are of the diminutive variety.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of these dunes are stabilized by vegetation, but the park is one area where many dunes are still active. Active dunes grow and change shape in response to seasonal, prevailing winds. At Monahans Sandhills State Park, the visitor will experience a dynamic landscape.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fresh water occurs at shallow depths within the dune field and sometimes stands in shallow ponds in low areas between dunes. A quiet vigil near such ponds at dusk or dawn is the best way to observe wildlife such as mule deer, gray fox, coyote, bobcat, opossum, wild hog, porcupine, skunk, ground squirrel, jackrabbit, and cottontail.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once inside the state park, rent a sand saucer and head to the back of the park (1.8 miles from the visitor center) where you’ll find huge 30-foot-tall sand dunes reminiscent of the Sahara Desert. Your youngsters will have a blast surfing the big dunes and climbing the sand hills.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park consists of 3,840 acres of wind-sculpted sand dunes, some up to 70 feet high, in West Texas, 38 miles southwest of Odessa on Interstate 20.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 400 years ago, Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to report the vast hills of sand. These sand hills once presented an enormous problem for pioneers and their wagon trains as they moved through the state.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Native Americans were present in this area as far back as 12,000 years ago. Various Indian tribes used the area for temporary campgrounds and a meeting place, finding game, abundant fresh water beneath the sands, acorns, and mesquite beans for grinding into paste with their stone tools.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area remained a favorable environment for Indians until the 1880s, when the Texas and Pacific Railroad selected Monahans as a water stop between the Pecos River and the town of Big Spring. In the late 1920s, oil production began in the area, now commonly known as the Permian Basin, and today Monahans is a marketing center for more than 800 square miles of oil and cattle country.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This water has also been the source of nourishment for one of the largest oak forests in the country. However, the Harvard oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above three feet in height, even though their root structure may extend as deep as 70 to 90 feet in the silica dunes that gave Monohans Sandhills State Park its name.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name honors American botanist Valery Havard (1846-1927). The tallest Havard oaks makes it to only four feet, but even though short, it can live up to 300 years.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though most visitors come to the park to play on the Sahara-like dunes, the Harvard oak forest is readily accessible from the two-mile, paved roadway winding through the park. Though too small for climbing, swings, or a tree house, these little-known trees play a vital part in the park’s ecosystem, adding stability to the sand dunes that attract thousands of visitors annually.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and RV camping and a favorite activity of many visitors, sand surfing. The 26 campsites offer electric and water hookups, picnic table, and a shade shelter.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Dunagan Visitor Center features hands-on exhibits of the cultural and natural history of the Sandhills, including Dune Dynamics, Permian Basin Heritage, and Wildlife Habitat. Scenic windows offer spectacular viewing of birds and other wildlife as they come for food and water. Park orientation is available. Sand toboggans and disks, for “surfing” on the sand dunes, can be rented at park headquarters.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But, what really makes this park special and sets it apart is the fun you can have on sand.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

I Still Dream of Galveston

Galveston Island is home to some of the best attractions Texas has to offer including Moody Gardens, Schitterbahn Waterpark, the Historic Pleasure Pier, dazzling Victorian architecture, and 32 miles of sun-kissed beaches

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

Seawolf Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston sits on a barrier island two miles offshore surrounded by 32 miles of sandy beaches, numerous attractions, and one of the largest and best-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the US. From soft sandy beaches to famous 19th century architecture, the island is surrounded with incredible history and unique beauty.

Galveston State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Running parallel to Galveston Beach and the Gulf of Mexico is the island’s famous Seawall that stretches for more than 10 miles and rises 17 feet above mean sea level. The Seawall was built to protect Galveston from hurricanes, following the Hurricane of 1900 that devastated the island.

Galveston-Bolivar Island ferry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Seawall is as much a playground as it is a protective barrier for the City against the ever changing tides of the Gulf of Mexico. Whether you enjoy biking, strolling, or just people watching, the Seawall is the place to visit.

Ocean Star Drilling Rig Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A premier Texas destination, Galveston never disappoints with its unlimited attractions. Our favorites follow.

Ashton Villa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1859 Ashton Villa: The first of Galveston’s great Broadway “palaces”,  Ashton Villa set the standard for the magnificent homes that followed. It was the first brick house to be built in Texas.

Bishop’s Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1892 Bishop’s Palace: Galveston’s grandest and best-known building, is an ornate delight of colored stone, intricately carved ornaments, rare woods such as rosewood and white mahogany, stained-glass windows, massive sliding doors, bronze dragons and other sculptures, and impressive fireplaces from around the world—including one lined with pure silver.

Moody Mansion © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1885 Moody Mansion: A portrayal of early 20th century family life among Galveston’s elite.

Grand 1894 Opera House: Among the nation’s finest historical theaters, the Grand 1894 Opera House, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as “The Official Opera House of Texas”.

Tall Ship Elissa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Seaport Museum & 1877 Tall Ship Elissa: With two floors of exhibits, historic photos, and displays, the Texas Seaport Museum highlights the history of the Port of Galveston that includes its rich legacy of seaborne commerce and immigration. Elissa is a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland by Alexander Hall & Company.

Pier 21 Theater © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pier 21 Theater: The Pier 21 Theater features two theatrical presentations about Galveston’s historic past: The Great Storm and The Pirate Island of Jean Lafitte. The Great Storm documentary details the 1900 hurricane which killed 6,000 and changed the Island’s history.

Ocean Star Drilling Rig Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocean Star Drilling Rig & Museum: Three floors of models and interactive displays illustrate the story of offshore oil and gas from seismic technology to exploration and production. The Ocean Star was a Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit, and as such it was towed from place-to-place to drill test wells in the quest for oil and gas.

The Strand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Strand Historic District: Galveston’s Strand was the city’s primary commercial area during the second half of the 19th century, when its star was bright and full of great promise. A thriving, energetic, and prosperous district, the Strand developed alongside the shipping channel and port that helped make the city the largest metropolis in the state.

The Strand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston Railroad Museum: Located in the former Santa Fe Union Station, the Galveston Railroad Museum depicts the city’s rail heritage. One of the five largest in the country, the Railroad Museum features more than 20,000 railroad items, including three steam engines, three diesel engines, 15 passenger/business/ex­press cars, 14 freight cars, three cabooses, and the stream­lined Texas Limited passenger train.

The Strand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moody Gardens: The 242-acre Moody Gardens is part theme park, part educational and rehabilitative facility, part pleasure garden. Amidst the profusion of tropical plants gleam three glass pyramids—pink, blue, and white—housing a 10-story rainforest, one of the world’s largest aquariums, and an educational Discovery Museum. The complex also includes a 3D theater, 4D Special FX theater, and 3-D Ridefilm theater, Palm Beach with white sand and freshwater lagoons, 19th century style Colonel Paddlewheeler with one-hour narrative cruises, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and a luxury hotel.

The Strand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Galveston, oh Galveston, I still hear your sea waves crashing
While I watch the cannons flashing
I clean my gun and dream of Galveston.

—Glen Campbell

Padre Island National Seashore: World’s Longest Stretch of Undeveloped Barrier Island

Come explore the 70 miles of uninterrupted national seashore taking in the gulf’s breeze, sandy beaches, and marine wildlife

Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, a hypersaline (meaning saltier than the ocean) ecosystem unique to only six known lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline, dunes, prairies, and wind tidal flats teeming with life.  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.

South Beach at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Encompassing 130,434 acres, Padre Island National Seashore is the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier islands in the world. Visitors will find a variety of outdoor things to do including surf fishing, RV and tent camping, world class flat water windsurfing, wade fishing, surfing, birding, kayaking, and of course relaxing the beautiful white sand beaches of Malaquite Beach. The undeveloped, preserved beaches, coastal grasslands, and wetlands of the Padre Island National Seashore are one of the most scenic coastal areas of the sub-tropical Texas coast.

Bird Island Basin at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 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.

Grassland Nature Trail at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upon arrival to the Padre Island National Seashore be sure to take notice of current warnings, precautions, or bans at the Park Ranger check-in station. Visitors go through this station when entering the National Seashore. Additionally, more information may be obtained at the Visitors Center.

Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Malaquite Visitors Center houses a gift shop, small museum, educational auditorium, covered deck, two viewing platforms, and a small snack shop. Year round events, talks, and guided walks are held at the Malaquite Beach Pavilion.  Evening talks about the stars and constellations are held periodically along with Friday night viewings of the moon. Rangers are on hand at the Malaquite Pavilion to explain various aspects of the wildlife and dynamic beach system of North Padre Island.

Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Visitor Center is the entrance to Malaquite Beach, one of only a few beaches on North Padre Island that is closed to vehicles. A paved parking lot is available for visitors. A short walk down the Malaquite Visitors Center boardwalk or one of two paved walkways (north and south of the Visitor Center) puts you right on the white sand beach at Malaquite Beach.

Kemp Ridley’s turtle display, Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Malaquite Beach is 4-5 miles of unspoiled Padre Island beach. It is a great location to spend the entire day. Come prepared with chairs (or rent them on the beach in the summer), coolers, and sunscreen.

Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather conditions are constantly changing in the winter months as cold fronts move into the area. During summer months the heat of South Texas is ever present and visitors can be sure to have plenty of sun most of the time.

South Beach at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive down the beach until civilization fades away and camp along the shore. Padre Island National Seashore is one of the last undeveloped shorelines in the world and is one of the only beaches of its kind that is open to driving on 60 of the 70 miles that it protects.

South Beach at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue to the end of the paved road (Park Road 22) and you will be driving on the beach in no time. Remember that in Texas all beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply including seat belt regulations. All vehicles traveling on Padre Island National Seashore must be street legal and licensed. Please note that, with rare exception, Texas will not license all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) for use on highways (The National Seashore has one of the few exceptions because it uses ATVs to patrol for nesting sea turtles.).

Driving on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The driving conditions at the beach are constantly changing due to the currents, winds, and tides. To best prepare for your trip down island check with the Malaquite Visitor Center for current driving and weather conditions. Changing conditions and marine debris washed ashore by the currents can sometimes make for hazardous driving.

Camping at Malaquite Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Nature, it seems, has a way of returning things to how they should be.

— Fennel Hudson

Czech Out La Grange

We headed to Central Texas to Czech out the town of La Grande and discovered a fanciful cache of history and culture

Etched in the eroded headstones in the city cemetery and the cemeteries at the nearby “painted churches” — quaint little chapels with exquisite, spangled interiors—are the surnames of German and Czech immigrants who flocked to the town starting in the 1840s. The town began in 1826 as Moore’s Fort; it became the county seat of Fayette County in the Republic of Texas in 1837.

Fayette County Court House in La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its rich heritage, it’s no surprise that La Grange is the hub for celebrating the Czech culture in Texas. Over 80 percent of the Czech Moravian families that settled in Texas at some time lived in Fayette County before they spread out across the state. The Czech immigration to the Lone Star State began in 1853 and was largely over by 1912. The estimate is that there are roughly a million Texans who trace their roots back to Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and Slovkia.

Texas Heroes Museum at Old Fayette County Jail in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For starters, we Czeched out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center on Fairgrounds Road. Vitáme Vás is the Czech equivalent of “howdy”, and we certainly felt welcome. The Center serves both as a meeting place for organizations as well as a museum showcasing traditional wedding dresses, passenger lists, genealogies, and immigrants’ belongings. The Center gave us a feel for the culture and early days of Fayette County when thousands of Czech immigrants populated the area.

Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As wars were brewing in Europe, men were waging war in Texas — drawing us next to Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The park sits on a high sandstone bluff above the Colorado River. The expansive view from the bluff overlooks the town, dense forests, and the winding waters of the Colorado River. The two sites are connected by a scenic nature trail with each telling their own unique story.

Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our first stop was Monument Hill, towering memorial saluting the men who died in battles against Mexico in the 1840s. A tomb holds the remains of 52 Texas heroes who died in the Dawson Massacre and the Texan Santa Fe and Mier expeditions.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Park in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first of the battles took place in 1842, when Capt. Nicholas Dawson led 53 volunteers from La Grange against 500 Mexican troops in the fight for San Antonio; 36 Texans were killed. Their remains are entombed in a granite crypt with their names etched in stone.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Park in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the second incident, a year later, 176 Texans made a valiant escape during a prisoners’ march to Mexico City but were recaptured by Col. Domingo Huerta. As punishment, each drew a bean from an earthen jar; one out of every 10 was a black bean. Those unlucky enough to draw the condemning black frijoles were executed at dusk. Their remains are entombed in today’s monument.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Park in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short hike from the tomb led us to the ruins of the Kreische Brewery where German immigrant Heinrich Ludwig Kreische founded one of the first commercial breweries in Texas. The Kreische Brewery site consists of the Kreische house, outbuildings, which were built in 1855-1857, and the Kreische Brewery (which looks more like a medieval castle than a brewery), built in the 1860s.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Park in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kreische came to Texas in 1846 from Saxony, Germany, purchased 172 acres of land on the bluff in 1849 and began a successful career as a stonemason, brew master, and businessman. His was a story of early Texas family life, blue-collar work ethic, enterprising spirit, and business acumen that tells of German immigration into Texas. He built a three-story house and, in 1860, began building a brewery. By 1879, it was the third largest brewing operation in Texas.

Texas Quilt Museum in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a tour of the brewery ruins, we saw ample evidence of his ingenuity, including an aqueduct system he designed to channel water downhill from a spring to the brewing room. After the brewery tour, we admired the beautiful three-story stone house that Kreische built for his family—at a time when most settlers were still living in log cabins.

Historic La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state of the mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck

Rio Grande Valley: Birds, Birds, and More Birds

More than 500 bird species have been documented throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley offers the ultimate birder’s paradise.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower Rio Grande Valley — the ancient delta of the river from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico — contains resacas or oxbow lakes, Tamaulipan thorn woodlands, marshes, wetlands, and forest. Thanks to these diverse habitats and the Valley’s location on the Central Flyway of migrating birds, more than 500 bird species have been recorded in this area, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay (pictured above), black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured below), roseate spoonbill, and the Altamira oriole (pictured below).

Altamira Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Less than 5 percent of the area’s natural habitat remains, however. In the late 1990s, that alarming fact spurred the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, six local communities, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch the creation of the World Birding Center. Today, the World Birding Center consists of nine individual sites, including three state parks: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, Estero Llano Grande, and Resaca de la Palma.

Yellow-rumped Warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Together, the parks safeguard nearly 2,200 acres that are home to hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife — places for visitors to experience nature and the landscape of the Valley close to its original state.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 355 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies that have been recorded there, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

Tufted Titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These 798 acres once resembled the patchwork of many state parks, with tent and RV campers and day-trippers driving in and out. But its transformation to a World Birding Center site included elimination of all traffic except bicycles and a park tram that makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.

Fulvous-whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking into Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park we’re serenaded to a cacophony of calls from trees lining the road — the loud and raucous clatter of plain chachalacas (pictured below), squawks of woodpeckers, and cooing of doves.

Plain Chachalacas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To assist the casual birder Bentsen offers a series of bird blinds strategically placed near various feeding stations. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. All you need to do is sit and watch the show as the birds keep coming to feed. We sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter repeatedly without disturbing the birds.

Clay-colored Robin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout the park, bird feeders hang in open areas, mobbed by brilliantly colored green jays, golden-fronted woodpeckers, and great kiskadees with lemon-yellow bellies. Other birds sighted at the park include the eastern screech-owl and yellow-rumped warblers.

Great Kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Resaca Vieja Trail winds through trees and brush alive with cheeps, chirps, and squawks; the platform at Kingfisher Overlook surveys a large oxbow lake. On the far side of the park, the 1.8-mile Rio Grande Trail winds to the edge of the country, the Rio Grande, although it’s difficult to see through the thick brush.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the two-story-high Hawk Tower, though, there’s a bird’s-eye view (pun intended) of nearby Mexico and the tree canopy. In addition to resident raptors such as white-tailed kites and gray hawks, many other species migrate past the tower during spring and fall, including Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks.

Black-vented Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Come to Port Aransas and Mustang Island and discover the island life

Long a favorite with Winter Texans, Port Aransas offers many activities from walking the beach in search of seashells to taking a tour boat, a deep sea fishing charter, or a sunset dinner cruise.

Port Aransas ferry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s been said, “In a small town there ain’t much to see, but what you hear makes up for it.” Not so with “Port A,” as the locals call it. Sun, sky, sea, and sand best sum up this waterfront town.  A short drive from Corpus Christi, you can visit Port A via the JFK Causeway (South Padre Island Drive) or by traveling through Aransas Pass and taking the 24 hour ferry across to Mustang Island.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original island life destination, Port Aransas and Mustang Island is 18 miles of shoreline and wide, sandy beaches—with everything you need to plan the perfect beach vacation. But this is no ordinary island. Just ask the locals and visitors who’ve ranked it one of the best beaches in Texas.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This gulf coast island offers year-round outdoor activities from sport fishing and parasailing to birding, dolphin watching, kayaking—and the only seaside links-style golf course in Texas. Stroll through town on a rented golf cart, explore the shops, galleries, and enjoy an array of restaurants, from “cook your catch” to roadside taco stands to fine dining.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known as the “Fishing Capital of Texas”, Port Aransas boasts the best in all areas of the sport. Anglers can take an off-shore excursion, fish the bays and channels, and cast a line in the surf or from one of the lighted public piers. Fishing tournaments abound during the summer, with one nearly every weekend, ranging from kids to women only and billfish to redfish tournaments.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll find year-round festivals and events, including the annual BeachtoberFest, the Whooping Crane Festival (February 20-23, 20200, and Texas SandFest (April 17-19, 2020).

Watch for low flying birds! Located in the heart of the Central Flyway, Port Aransas and Mustang Island are a birder’s paradise. Hundreds of species of resident birds and thousands of migrants can be found here. Encounters with Coastal Bend species such as the roseate spoonbills, least grebes, reddish egrets, black-bellied whistling ducks, tri-colored herons, and stilts bring birding enthusiasts back to this island sanctuary time and time again.

With six sites along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail: the Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond, Port Aransas Nature Preserve, South Jetty, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, UTMSI Wetlands Education Center, and Mustang Island State Park, Port ‘A’ hosts many must-see lookouts for avid birders and wildlife photographers. Boardwalks and observation towers are built over wetlands with vegetation pockets specially designed to attract birds.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Birding Center, Wetlands Park, Paradise Pond, and the Nature Preserve were designed to give birders the “up-close” ability to observe hundreds of species in their natural habitats. From the natural wetlands, inlets, and 18 miles of natural beaches and dunes to the rock jetties, piers, and marinas, the island offers dozens of perfect vantage points to marvel at the magnificent migrating birds that consider Port ‘A’ the perfect rest stop.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the best ways to enjoy Port Aransas’ awesome natural beauty is the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. A long, well-maintained boardwalk with benches, free telescopes, and an observation tower makes for excellent up-close views of local wildlife including alligators, crabs, redfish, and a huge variety of birds.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Port Aransas Nature Preserve encompasses 1,217 acres of undeveloped land in an area formerly known as Charlie’s Pasture where early island residents once grazed their cattle. Features at the Nature Preserve include over three miles of hike and bike trails, a pavilion, boardwalks over algal flats, crushed granite trails on the uplands, covered seating sites, and two towers overlooking wetland areas around Salt Island.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover why Port Aransas and Mustang Island is ranked one of the top 10 best family beaches in the U.S. by Family Vacation Critic (TripAdvisor’s family travel site) and celebrated by Fodor’s Travel as one of America’s 25 favorite beach towns.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Elmer Kelto