The Complete Guide to Bird Watching in South Texas

Birders come to South Texas to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country

In the next few weeks, the South Texas countryside will come alive with the arrival of the spring migration made up of many colorful bird species. South Texas is an awesome birding area all year long but spring is one of the best times to go birding.

Not only will the summer birds start returning but many species of waterfowl, warblers, and other seldom seen birds can be spotted as they work their way to their breeding grounds in the northern latitudes.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the past, birding was a pastime for just a select group of people. It has gained so much popularity that it is a major tourism draw to many areas of the country with South Texas being a top destination.

Texas is one of the top three birding states in the country based on species. Up to 250 different species can be found along the Gulf Coast areas. Several businesses offer guided birding tours from Houston through the Coastal Bend region to the Rio Grande Valley.

Birding is a simple and enjoyable activity that ranges from passively hiking or driving through the countryside to attracting birds with feeders.

Several area guides use an interesting technique to lure in birds by concocting a peanut butter spread and applying it to a log or tree trunk. The spread is made with a mixture of lard, cornmeal, and peanut butter and it works great at drawing in a variety of birds.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding doesn’t require a huge investment as a beginner. To start, beginners will need an inexpensive pair of binoculars and a birding field guide book.

Experienced birders will usually invest in better optics or even a good camera with a telephoto lens. Some experts with years of experience can tell a species just by the sounds the birds make.

Whether you are a novice or an expert birder, you’ll want to have a bird checklist to keep track of how many species you have seen. A great place to find a checklist is any local state park or national wildlife refuge. They’ll have a list of species native to that particular area.

Local residents and Winter Texans that are used to seeing strikingly colored, year round birds such as Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, Cardinals, Altimira Orioles, and Pyrrhuloxias can expect many more migrating birds over the next month or two.

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Black-chinned Hummingbird is a summer resident of South Texas, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will soon be passing through on their way north and you might get a glimpse of rare visitors to the area such as Rufous, or Buff-bellied Hummingbirds.

Like the hummingbirds, orioles will be arriving soon. A few will spend the summer but five different species can be seen in the area: Orchard Oriole, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Audubon’s Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole. Use oranges or grape jelly at your feeders to increase the odds of attracting them.

Many species of waterfowl can be found as they migrate through the area. Watch around water holes, area lakes, ponds, and coastal marshes for colorful teals, redheads, canvasbacks, and many others in doning their spring breeding plumage.

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorful and beautiful sounding warblers are commonly sighted as they rest up for a few days along their journey north. Some are year round residents but most are migrating through.

There are many species of warblers and it can be challenging to spot them. Some will forage on the ground in thick brush but most prefer trees. Watch for warblers high in the treetops as they glean for insects. Some warblers can have varying colors such as blue, green, and orange but the predominant color in warbler species is yellow.

Several species of sparrows also migrate through the area this time of the year. They are perhaps the most difficult to identify. To make it easier sparrows are usually found in groups of the same species. A good bird book is a helpful tool for identification.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last but not least and perhaps the most colorful bird that actually nests in South Texas is the Painted Bunting. These beauties can be found along woodland edges and brushy roads but will come to backyard feeders. Millet is a great seed for attracting Painted Buntings to a feeder.

Expect to see many other species of shore birds, wading birds, birds of prey, woodpeckers, and upland birds in the region as spring arrives.

April and May allow birders to see South Texas specialties and neotropical migrants at the same time. It’s possible to tally up over 100 species along the coast in a single day.

Spring migration here peaks approximately April 15th through May 10th. Bird diversity in the Valley is at its annual peak during this three week window.

The closer you get to the coast, the more neotropical migrants you see like kites, hummingbirds, thrushes, vireos, grosbeaks, and warblers.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending a day birding at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (right on the coast) along with South Padre Island could easily net over 100 species. You’ll get plenty of classic south Texas specialties along with all the migrating songbirds hugging the coast on their way north.

April 19 to May 7 is historically the busiest window for spring passage among a group of Neotropical migratory songbird species including American Redstarts, Cana­da and Cape May Warblers, and Balti­more and Bullock’s Orioles.

In addition, early April also marks the peak of wildflower season in Texas with fields and roadsides often blanketed with bluebonnets, phlox, paintbrush, and Gaillardia.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the coast near Rockport target specialties such as Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbills, majestic Whooping Cranes, up to 30 species of shorebirds, and eight species of terns. Under certain weather conditions, this area can host sizable fallouts of migrant land birds as well though this is a more common sight further up the coast. In addition, you’ll likely find White-tailed Hawks, Crested Caracara, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers by the dozens, and possibly Audubon’s Oriole.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas with its numerous refuges, state parks, and birding centers, harbors most of the Valley specialties including Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Common Pauraque, Ringed and Green kingfishers, Aplomado Falcon, Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole. Many accidentals have appeared over the years here as well. In the vicinity of Falcon Dam, seek out Red-billed Pigeon.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

Big Bend National Park: Where the Mountains Meet the Desert in Texas

If you’re ready to see what the big deal is about Big Bend, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your trip

Picking a national park is all about setting: Do you want deserts, forests, mountains, or water? Since everything’s bigger in TexasBig Bend National Park has it all. Cacti-strewn deserts shift to the wooded slopes of imposing mountains before again changing to spectacular river canons where greenish water flows.

Tucked in a remote corner of southwest Texas, mountain peaks meet the Chihuahuan Desert in the vast wilderness of Big Bend National Park. Adventure comes in many forms in this 1,252-square-mile reserve. You can hike to the top of lofty peaks, go paddling on the Rio Grande, soak in hot springs, or look for wildlife amid the park’s diverse habitats. Beyond the park, there are ghost towns to visit, scenic drives, and magnificent night skies—the stargazing is so impressive that Big Bend was named an International Dark Sky Park back in 2012.

As is the standard way of getting places in Texas, arriving at this natural marvel requires a good amount of driving, so get those road trip snacks and playlists ready. Given the logistical challenges of getting here, you’ll want to stick around a while to make the most of your stay.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lay of the Land

The park has two main visitor centers: one at Panther Junction near the south end of Highway 385 and another at Chisos Basin where you’ll also find the Chisos Basin Campground and the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Three other visitor centers open seasonally from November to April.

There’s no public transport in the park, so you’ll need a car. If you plan to explore some of the backcountry roads, make it a high-clearance SUV.

Getting There

This park is far from everywhere which is part of Big Bend’s allure. Even if you live in Texas, you’ll be up for a serious drive: it’s over seven hours from San Antonio.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to Do

The national park has over 150 miles of trails from short jaunts to multi-day backpacking adventures. One of the best full-day hikes is the ascent up Emory Peak, a roughly 10.5-mile roundtrip hike that affords magnificent views from atop the park’s highest summit (7,825 feet).

For something shorter but no less rewarding, hike the 1.7-mile Santa Elena Canyon Trail which takes you through a steep-walled canyon along the edge of the Rio Grande.

Speaking of the Rio Grande, this life-giving river in the desert offers a wide range of aquatic adventures. If you’re not packing a canoe, sign up for a river trip with a park operator like Far Flung Outdoor Center based in Terlingua. Going strong since 1976, this outfitter offers river trips ranging from half a day to 3- or 4-day trips, camping in pristine spots along the way. For DIY (Do It Yourself) adventures, Far Flung also hires out gear including canoes and an open-topped Jeep Wrangler.

While you’re in the Big Bend area, be sure to pay a visit to Terlingua, a former mining town that went bust in the 1940s. You can check out a desert graveyard and the ruins of old buildings some of which have been revitalized into newer restaurant and lodging options.

Wherever you roam, be sure to leave some time at the end of the day for a soak in the park’s hot springs. Set along the Rio Grande on the southeast side of the park, the hot springs are reachable via an easy half-mile hike and the 105-degree waters offer a delightful cap to the day’s adventures.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in and around Big Bend

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to expect to find a campsite when you arrive; booking in advance is crucial if you plan on camping at Big Bend. Seriously, reservations for the developed campgrounds are required. These campgrounds are pretty much guaranteed to be full every night from November through April and there’s no first-come, first-serve situation here.

You definitely don’t want to be that person who just spent who knows how many hours driving to Big Bend to realize you’ll have to drive an hour or more back out to find somewhere to stay because there are no overflow campsites. And don’t even think about setting up camp in a parking lot or along the park roads because you will get in trouble—sorry ‘bout it.

So, on to the options! For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. You can book your site up to six months in advance, so get to planning now.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re someone who waits a little bit longer before making a move, there are a limited number of sites available for reservation up to 14 days in advance, but again—planning ahead pays big time with this out-of-the-way national park. There are also backcountry campsites and you’ll need a permit for those.

If there are no developed campsites within the park available during the time of your planned visit, don’t assume your big Big Bend camping adventure is dashed. There are still some camping options outside the park in nearby areas like Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

Chisos Basin Campground (elevation: 5,400 feet) is nestled in open woodland within a scenic mountain basin. Campers enjoy the views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. The sunset through the nearby “Window” is a Big Bend highlight. Some of the park’s most popular trails begin nearby. Chisos Basin offers 56 camping sites. Trailers over 20 feet and motorhomes over 24 feet are not recommended due to the narrow, winding road to the Basin and small campsites at this campground.

Rio Grande Village Campground (elevation: 1,850 feet) is set in a grove of cottonwoods and acacia trees near the Rio Grande River. Paved roads connect each campsite and grassy areas separate each site. Flush toilets, running water, picnic tables, grills, and some overhead shelters. Dump station nearby. Campers enjoy birdwatching, hiking, exploring. A camp store with showers and a park visitor center are nearby. Rio Grande Village offers 93 camping sites.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground (elevation: 2,169 feet) is a quiet oasis in the western corner of Big Bend National Park. Reservations are required. Conveniently located between the Castolon Historic District, the scenic Santa Elena Canyon, and the tail end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, this small 22-site campground is one of the least-known and quiet campgrounds in the park. There is one group campsite and 21 individual sites. This is a remote campground in a remote park. It is dry camping, no hook-ups, and no generators are permitted.

Rio Grande Village RV Campground (elevation: 1,800 feet) is operated by Forever Resorts and offers 25 back-in RV sites with full hookups. Adjacent to the Rio Grande Village camp store the campground features a paved lot with grassy, tree-lined edges. This campground has the only full hook-ups in the park. Periodically, a few sites may not be available for a 40 foot or longer RVs due to the size of the parking lot and orientation of the spaces.

Your best bet if you’re staying outside the park is in Terlingua about a 45-minute drive from the Chisos Basin. Terlingua Ranch Lodge RV Park offers 8 pull-through sites with electric, water, and sewer connections and 12 back-in sites with electric and water hookups and a dump station nearby.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maverick Ranch RV Park offers 100 full-service sites including 60 pull-through sites. Guests of the Maverick Ranch RV Park enjoy all of Lajitas Golf Resort amenities and activities including the Agave Spa, Black Jack’s Crossing Golf Club, horseback trail rides, and shooting activities including 5-Stand Sporting Clays, 3-Gun Combat Course, Cowboy Action Shoot, ziplining Quiet Canyon, mountain bike trails, and fitness center. Situated 12 miles southwest of Terlingua on FM 170, Lajitas Golf Resort is located between the Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Looking for the most unique place to stay in the Big Bend? Located in Terlingua just across the road from the Historic Terlingua Ghost Town, The Buzzard’s Roost is a collection of three, fully furnished, traditional Sioux-style tipis.

The summer heat is no joke here, so come prepared. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, use strong sunscreen, and bring four liters of water per person per day on full-day hikes. Be mindful of desert critters (scorpions, snakes, spiders): Shake your shoes out before putting them on your feet. Keep in mind that cellphone reception is poor in the park; help is a long way off (the nearest hospital is 100 miles away in Alpine) so don’t go beyond your limits.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Time to Visit

The summer is blazing hot with temperatures regularly above 100 degrees and even reaching 110. The most pleasant times for hiking, camping, and other activities is in the spring (March to April) and fall (October to November). Winter can be chilly, bringing occasional snowfall, but it’s rarely enough to prevent hiking. As long as you have adequate clothing, it can be a great time to visit without the crowds.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Far West Texas

Acreage: 801,163 acres

Highest peak: Emory Peak at 7,832 feet

Lowest point: Rio Grande Village at 1,850 feet

Miles of trails: 200

Main attraction: Hiking the trails

Entry fee: $30 per private vehicle (valid for 7 days)

Best way to see it: Day hikes

Best time to visit: In the cooler months, between November and April

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

The Ultimate RV Lifestyle Destinations Guide: RV Trip Ideas Based on Location

Looking for exciting RV trip ideas and travel suggestions?

This ultimate guide brings all of my destination resources to one place! Browse LOTS of RV road trip ideas based on location or interests.

We have been living the RV Snowbird Lifestyle for over two decades, cataloging our trips from year to year. I’ve shared countless articles and resources to help fellow RVers enjoy similar travels. Now, I’m bringing it all together in this ultimate destinations guide filled with many great RV trip ideas.

You can use this guide as an index to discover new ideas or dig deeper into places or things you’ve always wanted to see. I’ve organized it into two parts: location and activities/interests.

So, whether you’re interested in Arizona or scenic drives, Texas or birding, Georgia or hiking, you’ll find excellent resources to help with planning your next adventure!

RV trip ideas based on location

In this section, I organize my many location-based articles and resources into an easy-to-scan index. You’ll see helpful articles and links to useful resources.

When something catches your interest, click through to the links to learn more!

SOUTHWEST

The Southwest has stunning and unique landscapes you can’t see anywhere else in the world. We have fallen in love with the Southwest—Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California.  From red and orange rock formations in the desert to green and lush mountains, there’s so much to see in this one area of the country and hiking and birding that can’t be beat. Then there is the beautiful national parks, state parks, and regional/county parks—and, of course, the Grand Canyon.

Cathedral Rock, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona

Visit Arizona for the iconic red rock formations of Sedona to the majestic Grand Canyon. Or for the vibrant cities such as Phoenix and Tucson which offer a range of shopping, dining, and entertainment options.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico

New Mexico is a great destination for RVers due to its diverse landscapes and rich cultural heritage. From deserts to mountains, RVers can enjoy a range of scenic drives and outdoor activities. The state is also home to a number of historic Native American pueblos as well as Spanish colonial missions which provide a unique cultural experience.

New Mexican cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, Native American, and Mexican ingredients and techniques. While familiar items like corn, beans, and squash are often used, the defining ingredient is chile, a spicy chile pepper that is a staple in many New Mexican dishes. Chile comes in two varieties, red or green, depending on the stage of ripeness in which they were picked.

D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1928, pretty much summed it up: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.”

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah

Every state thinks its fun. Every state claims to have something for everyone. But not every state has five national parks (The Mighty Five), 46 state parks, five national historic sites and trails, and a dozen national monuments and recreation areas. While it’s mathematically impossible to finish your Utah bucket list, I’ll help you plan the trip you’ll be talking about forever!

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California

What is the quintessential wine experience in the Golden State? Where are the must-see natural wonders? Which beach is best? How do you decide which theme park to visit? Where best to spend the winter? Scroll through my favorite places to go and things to do and start dreaming about your next California adventure today. 

SOUTHEAST

Over the last decade, the United States’ southeastern portion has become the ultimate place to visit for people who love outdoor activities and sports. You will find plenty to do from whitewater rafting to camping and hiking the trails when you visit the area. The twelve states located in the Southeast include Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Kentucky.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Georgia

From the mountains down to the coast and everything in between, Georgia offers well-known and off-the-beaten-path experiences in cities both big and small. From ghost tours and island resorts to hidden gems here are a few can’t miss attractions, stays and towns when visiting Georgia.  

Edisto Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Carolina

South Carolina is a state of variety with beautiful beaches, remote islands, charming cities and towns, watery wilderness, great golf, interesting history, rolling hills and mountains, and much more. From the Upcountry mountains through the vibrant Midlands and to the Lowcountry coast, the Palmetto State amazes.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama

From the foothills of the Appalachians through countless river valleys to the sugar white beaches of the Gulf, natural wonders abound. The 22 state parks which encompass 48,000 acres of land and water provide opportunities to fish, camp, canoe, hike, and enjoy the great outdoors.

Bayou Teche at Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana

Break away from the Interstate and take a road trip down one of Louisiana’s 19 scenic byways. From historic treasures and music festivals, to country kitchens and coastal wetlands teeming with wildlife, each drive offers you an authentic taste of Louisiana food, music, culture, and natural beauty. Start planning your trip here.

Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kentucky

With everything from world-class horse racing to world-class bourbon, the list of things to do in the Bluegrass State seems almost endless. But with so many options, where do you even start? Here are a few experiences that stand above the rest.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Florida

The Sunshine State connects you to natural landscapes, vibrant wildlife, and a host of outdoor activities and interactions.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas

Mention Texas to someone from another state and they might picture cowboys herding longhorn cattle across the open range or scheming, wealthy oil barons a la TV’s Dallas. The Lone Star State which was admitted to the United States after winning its own independence from Mexico still sometimes seems—as the state tourism slogan goes—like a whole other country. And, boy, do we have a LOT of helpful articles on this popular RV destination!

MIDWEST

The Midwest, also known as America’s Heartland, lies midway between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains and north of the Ohio River. The Midwest is generally considered to comprise the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Holmes County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio

Ohio is home to a wide range of attractions from sprawling parks with stunning waterfalls to bustling cities and college towns. 

Shipshewanna © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indiana

Appreciate a slower pace of life in a state known for its rural charms, Amish communities, and architecturally impressive cities.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Dakota

North Dakota has uncrowded, wide-open spaces, and amazing vistas that take your breath away at must-see national and state parks, and recreational areas.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota

An often overlooked travel destination, South Dakota is a land of breathtaking scenic beauty.

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now!

Worth Pondering…

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

—Gandalf the Wizard, Lord of the Rings

Coastal Spine Barrier: Infrastructure Project to Limit Hurricane Devastation along Texas Gulf Coast

The Coastal Spine Barrier is a nearly $30 billion project that could soon be in place along the eastern coast of Texas

In 2008, Hurricane Ike devastated the island town of Galveston with head-high floodwaters and 110-mile-per-hour winds that caused billions of dollars of damage and killed dozens of people.

Protecting Galveston isn’t the only goal of a massive series of infrastructure projects meant to limit the devastation from extreme weather. Scientists have modeled worst-case scenario storms that also make clear the potential for devastation in nearby Houston.

Rockport, Texas following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Given that the state’s largest city is home to millions of people and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex the region’s vulnerability to deadly storm surges is seen as both a national security and economic issue.

Even though Hurricane Harvey made landfall much farther down the coast in 2017, its torrential rains put large swaths of Houston underwater and drove home the widespread damage a hurricane could inflict on the nation’s fourth-largest city.

“If you think about it, 42 percent of the specialty chemical feedstocks for the entire United States is produced here,” said Bob Mitchell, president at Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. “Twenty seven percent of the gas, 60 percent of the jet aviation fuel, 80 percent of the military-grade aviation fuel is all produced right in this region that the coastal spine will protect. Not including the 5.5 million people that live in this area.”

A coastal storm barrier has been a topic of discussion and debate for over a decade. Bill Merrell, a marine sciences professor at the Texas A&M University at Galveston began preaching the storm barrier gospel after Ike. In early 2009, just a few months after the storm, he introduced a concept dubbed the Ike Dike which mirrored a Dutch concept of stopping storm surges right at the coast. The Netherlands is a low-lying country that has become the world leader in flood control.

Rockport, Texas following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After centuries of fighting back water in a low-lying nation, the Dutch have become the world leaders in flood control. And their expertise is helping Texas design what would become the nation’s most ambitious and expensive coastal barrier.

The Delta Works later declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers surrounded a fifth of the country’s population with an ingenious combination of dams, dikes, locks, and first-of-their-kind storm surge barriers. It took decades to finish it all—much longer than expected.

After engineering what they tout as the safest delta in the world the Dutch have ramped up the export of their expertise; they have advised several U.S. states and other coastal areas around the world on protecting lives and property from storms and rising sea levels.

A preliminary design has been approved for a storm suppression system that would run along the Texas coast from Galveston to Corpus Christi but it could ultimately impact the entire country.

Goose Island State Park, Texas following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The project is the largest civil works project ever taken on by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Not only could it protect the lives of people on the Gulf Coast, it could also help eliminate supply-chain delays across the country by protecting two large ports during hurricanes.

Galveston Mayor Craig Brown said residents have become annoyed with frequent flooding.

“We have nuisance flooding now which means that that flooding occurs even without a flood or tropical storm or a hurricane here,” Brown said.

While flooding becomes worse with heavy rains or hurricanes, Dr. Kelly Burkes-Copes with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers believes a solution is underway.

“The idea and intent is to combine a series of gated structures—kind of what we consider gray infrastructure; you may think of it as concrete and water with natural and nature-based solutions like beaches and dunes and wetlands to basically improve resilience of the entire Texas coast,” Burkes-Copes said.

Goose Island State Park, Texas following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coastal Spine Barrier is a nearly $30 billion project that would allow the Gulf Coast to withstand, endure, and recover from storms quicker and it wouldn’t only protect the locals.

“The intent here is a national issue. For example, if the Houston Port which is the largest port in the nation shuts down as a result of a hurricane, the rest of the country will feel that impact,” Burkes-Copes said.

Rich Byrnes, the Chief Infrastructure Officer at the Port of Houston said the tonnage the port receives is steadily increasing. 

“The Port of Houston area moves about 270 million tons. And, to put that into perspective, that’s more than many large states,” Byrnes said. 

The Port of Houston and Galveston account for 12 percent of the total U.S. crude oil imports as of May 2018, the Energy Information Administration reports and the Port of Houston has seen a 13 percent increase of overall economic value since then.

“After Hurricane Harvey, the price of gas was elevated for six months nationwide because the time it took to start the refineries and so forth,” Byrnes said.

Goose Island State Park, Texas following Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the backing behind the project, one more obstacle stands in the way of the hurricane barrier or coastal spine project: matching federal funds.

“We have to have a local funding source to not only build the system, but to maintain it,” Brown said. 

One funding option available is adding a tax but officials must consider if Texas residents across the state would be okay with paying taxes for a barrier in Galveston.

Worth Pondering…

The only two good words that can be said for a hurricane are that it gives sufficient warning of its approach and that it blows from one point of the compass at a time.

—Gertrude Atherton

LOOK: These Are the Prettiest Small Towns in Texas for a Road Trip

There’s a world of hidden gems beyond the bustling metropolises of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio

Ever find yourself staring out the window and wishing you could hop in the RV and just drive away? Here are some ideas of where you might wanna go in Texas.

When you find yourself having moments like this, where do you imagine yourself driving? Do you envision a desert town or a beachfront campground? Or maybe it’s the drive itself you’re most jazzed about.

As John Steinbeck so eloquently put it, Texas is the obsession. And if you’ve traveled in Texas long enough, chances are that you’ve checked off all of the big cities on your Lone Star State bucket list that make you love it so much. But what about the small towns in Texas that are equally—if not more—unique?

By the way, I have a series of posts on RV travel in the Lone Star State:

There are so many beautiful places on this planet to visit. And for many of us, we’d like to visit most of them. At the same time, I’m thankful for the opportunity to travel in a state that offers so many diverse experience opportunities. Whatever you’ve got a hankering for, travel-wise, in many cases, you can find it in small-town Texas.

One of my favorite road trip destinations is traveling to pretty towns that offer a unique experience in a lovely setting without necessarily having to brave a gazillion people once I get there.

If that’s something to which you can relate, I’ve done a little research on some of the prettiest little towns in Texas. Let’s take a quick photographic tour. Cuz hey, even if we can’t head out on the open road immediately, we can at least make some travel plans so we’re ready to launch when we are.

And research shows that even just PLANNING a trip can be a mood booster. Isn’t that an encouraging thought? I think so! And while many others could be added to this list, let’s simply start with these.

OK, here are 23 of the prettiest little Texas towns you ever did see.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Fredericksburg, Texas

Located in the heart of Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is a heavily German-influenced town. Full of beauty and charm, it has a rich history and has long attracted visitors who are lured in by its popular Texas attractions, wildflower farm, and peach-picking opportunities when in season.

Meander down the historic downtown strip, indulge in wine tastings or appreciate artifacts at the National Museum of the Pacific War. Speaking of museums, the city’s German heritage is highlighted at the Pioneer Museum, as well. And the Marktplatz offers a replica of a 19th-century German church that was once a pillar in this pretty little city.

Speaking of that German culture, while you’re there, be sure and stop into one of the German restaurants. Der Lindenbaum is a perennial favorite but there are also many other food options as well.

Outdoor enthusiasts will find Fredericksburg convenient for exploring the vibrant landscapes at nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area where a short hike leads to rewarding views from a pink granite dome.

Rockport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Rockport

A coastal enclave flanked by Copano and Aransas bays, Rockport is a small town that offers the perfect location for a beach getaway. With pedestrian-friendly streets and a bustling downtown area, the popular Austin Street is lined with colorful shops and restaurants serving up fresh seafood to friendly locals.

Wander through the local galleries and shops in this 15-square-mile town as this emerging art town offers plenty of shopping opportunities. Rockport is a great place to relax and unwind, soak in the Texas sunshine, and dig your toes in the sand as you indulge in a day of sunbathing and swimming.

Blue Bell Creameries © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Brenham

About an hour outside of Houston is the pleasantly small Texas town of Brenham. It is the county seat of Washington County and is also home to the famous Blue Bell Creameries, one of the largest (and most delicious) ice cream producers in the country.

If you want a little more space away from the hustle and bustle of big-city life, then the suburban feel of Brenham is a great fit. Here in this part of Texas, you can enjoy Lake Somerville State Park, the fragrant Chappell Hill Lavender Farm, and nearby wineries. A quick jaunt to the Downtown Brenham Historic District will find you among art walks, antique carousels, boutiques, and even live theater.

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Schulenburg

Known as the town that’s halfway to everywhere, Schulenberg is a great small town between Houston and San Antonio. This quiet, cozy spot of just over 2,600 people is usually used as a stopover for those long road trips in Texas but it deserves more time on any itinerary.

Schulenberg was founded by Czech, Austrian, and German settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, making it the perfect home for the Texas Polka Museum and a great place to try Czech kolaches or German schnitzel (I recommend Kountry Bakery).

Downtown, you can dance the night away at Sengelmann Hall, a fully restored Texas dance hall that still has its original pinewood floors from 1894!

One of the local highlights is a stunning series of Painted Churches that some say rival the cathedrals of Europe.

Gruene © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Gruene

If you want to feel like you are living in a country song, head to this live music mecca for a day, night, or weekend of good times and tunes. Pronounced green, this dreamy little town is set on the Guadalupe River and is now actually a district within the city limits of New Braunfels. The highlight of the town is Gruene Hall which is known for its live music and the impressive artists that stop in to sing a few songs.

6. Luckenbach

…And everybody is together now. “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas with Waylon and Willie and the boys”. Sure, there aren’t exactly many sights to explore in this small community but what it lacks in attractions, it makes up for with charm. This is the quintessential Texas spot to pop open an ice-cold beer and relax while eating a hamburger from the feedlot and listening to some live music.

Interesting fact: A 2006 census tallied the official population of Luckenbach as three people strong.

Black’s Barbecue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Lockhart

This small town in Caldwell County holds a big claim to fame: It’s renowned as the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Famous for its mouthwatering barbecue with several legendary barbecue joints serving up delicious smoked meats, Lockhart also boasts a charming downtown area with historic buildings, boutique shops, and local restaurants. The nearby Lockhart State Park also offers camping, hiking, and swimming.

Moody Mansion, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Galveston

This vibrant coastal city is located on Galveston Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Known for its historic architecture, stunning beaches, and lively entertainment, Galveston offers plenty of things to do: Visitors can explore the Strand Historic District filled with Victorian-era buildings, relax on beautiful beaches, and enjoy attractions such as the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier and Moody Gardens.

Port Lavaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Port Lavaca

Port Lavaca is a coastal Texas town that offers a serene escape with its beautiful beaches and scenic waterfront. The town is especially popular for fishing and water sports but visitors can also relax on the sandy shores of Magnolia Beach or explore the nearby Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Fort Stockton

Fort Stockton is the county seat of Pecos County. This town is somewhat different than the others in that it’s not traditionally beautiful in the opinions of some. But its history is so compelling that it is lovely in its own way. At least, to me!

The town was named after Robert F. Stockton, a U.S. Commodore who aided the capture of California in the Mexican-American War. The town is also built around Comanche Springs, a major spring water source in Texas.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Port Aransas

The community of Port Aransas is small but mighty. Despite heavy damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the coastal town has kept its chin up and continued to bring in thousands of visitors each year. Tourists come for the top-notch fishing and 18 miles of beaches. They stay for the laidback salt life vibes that are evident in everything from Port Aransas’s divey beach bars to its lively arts district.

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Goliad

The site of one of the most infamous battles of the Texas Revolution, Goliad, is a top spot for history buffs traveling through Texas. Goliad is the third oldest municipality in Texas and is the County Seat of Goliad County which is one of the oldest counties in all of the state.

The original name for Goliad was Santa Dorotea, noted by the Spaniards in the 16th century. It was then changed to Goliad in 1829 with religious origins. Places to visit include the Goliad State Park and the General Ignacio Zaragoza state park and historic site.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Shiner

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 every last drop of their popular brews gets made. 

Tours and samples are available for a small fee. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer to states across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Sarita © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Sarita

You may have passed this county seat because you were too busy looking at your fuel gauge. It’s on Highway 77 en route to The Valley between Kingsville and Raymondville. Sarita was once part of the Kenedy Ranch and John G. Kenedy named the town after his daughter Sarita Kenedy East when it was established in 1904 as a center for the ranch and the Kenedy Pasture Company. Kenedy Ranch Museum is worth a visit.

Take a picture of the Courthouse as I did, nobody will bother you. Look for gophers in the courthouse lawn. There isn’t much more to do. Population is up from 185 in 1993.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Alamo

Alamo’s claim to fame as the Refuge to the Valley illustrates its symbiotic relationship with the adjacent Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally renowned birding destination. The subtropical thorn forest along with the resacas draw birds such as tropical green jays, Altamira orioles, great kiskadees, and chachalacas.

After exploring the refuge, check out the Mercadome Flea Market and Alamo Dance Hall which draws thousands of weekend visitors to shop, eat, and move their feet to the sound of accordion-driven conjunto and norteño music.

Kerrville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Kerrville

Nestled in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Kerrville stands as a gorgeous getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. From its many public parks to the picturesque Guadalupe River that runs right through downtown, Mother Nature is truly the star here. In short, finding enjoyable things to do in Kerrville is as simple as stepping outside. Visitors also travel to Kerrville for its music festivals, arts and crafts fairs, outdoor sports and activities, shopping, and world-class dining.

Port O’Connor © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Port O’Connor

Port O’Connor is a small fishing village on the Texas Coast. It is often known as the Best Kept Secret on the Gulf Coast for its relaxing, laid-back atmosphere and numerous fishing and boating venues. The most common activity in Port O’Connor is fishing followed by recreational boating and coastal sightseeing.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Luling

Located on the banks of the San Marcos River about 45 miles south of Austin, Luling has all the elements of the perfect Texan small town—historic buildings, great barbecue, quirky history, viable downtown, lively harvest festival, a noon whistle, vintage stop signs, and eclectic shopping. A friendly, quiet central Texas community, rich in history and Texas pride, Luling is renowned for its barbecue, rich oil history, decorated pump jacks, fresh produce and plants, abundant watermelons, and Texas’ first inland canoe paddling trail on the San Marcos River.

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. La Grange

Discover a fanciful cache of history and culture in the Central Texas community of La Grange, a town steeped in German and Czech culture. Though many of the original buildings in La Grange are more than a century old, a number of them have been renovated and serve as creative outlets, blending history and modern-day function. To taste Czech culture and a delectable kolache—gooey, fruit-filled Czech pastries—and other bakery goods head to Weikel’s Bakery. La Grange Czechs out as a perfect blend of history, culture, and natural beauty.

Aransas Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Aransas Pass

Aransas Pass offers cool breezes and unique, crystal clear waters, beautiful seagrass, and excellent bay fishing. There are many marinas and boat ramps available with the largest at the historic Conn Brown Harbor. This picturesque harbor setting is a favorite spot for photographers and a preferred location to buy fresh seafood right off the boat.

Nearly 500 species of birds pass through Aransas Pass. Some of the best birding is found in the Aransas Pass Nature Park within the 36-acre Aransas Pass Community Park bordering Redfish Bay. This area is a haven for migrating and regional birds. Another favorite site, Newberry Park is a 1.2-acre mall central city park landscaped to attract birds and butterflies.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Sonora

Locals tout the Caverns of Sonora, their subterranean National Natural Landmark, as the most beautiful show cave in Texas. They aren’t exaggerating. See for yourself on a 1-hour-and-45-minute nearly 2-mile tour of its crystal palace. Or sign up for a cavern tour featuring rappelling, unique underground workshops, or photography. Above ground, explore the little-known, 37-acre Eaton Hill Nature Center & Preserve, a living classroom that studies the flora and fauna of the landscape’s transition from the Hill Country to the Chihuahuan Desert.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Blanco

Blanco calls itself the Lavender Capital of Texas as the 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. 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.

Fort Davis National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Fort Davis

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.

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.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Here and there…not quite everywhere yet!

World Migratory Bird Day: My 12 Favorite Birding Sites in Texas

World Migratory Bird Day is officially celebrated on the second Saturday of May. However, every day is Bird Day and you can celebrate birds and host events any day of the year!

Legendarily vast, Texas spans habitats from southern bald-cypress swamps to the Chihuahuan Desert and from the subtropical lower Rio Grande Valley to the windswept plains of the Llano Estacado. Little wonder, then, that Texas’s bird list of nearly 650 ranks second among the states (behind only California).

The Lone Star state is home to some of the most famous birding sites in the country: High Island, Bolivar Flats, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Big Bend National Park. The list could go on and on.

In celebration of World Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday of May (May 13, 2023), here is a look at a dozen of my favorite birding sites in Texas which hosts more bird-watching festivals than any other state.

Plain chachalaca at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

World Birding Center

Not just one, but nine unique birding locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Each site of the World Birding Center has its own attractions. From a historic adobe hacienda to scenic bluffs high above the Rio Grande and pristine wilderness to teeming wetlands, the World Birding Center network offers visitors an array of birding adventures. These Rio Grande Valley locations coordinate more than 500 bird species between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Rio Grande Valley Communities, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center is a great place to begin a south Texas nature adventure. As a large remnant tract of Rio Grande floodplain forest, Bentsen is a magnet for the many regional bird species that make south Texas famous. Green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas congregate regularly at the bird feeding stations.  Other birds to look for include gray hawk, white-tipped dove, groove-billed ani, northern beardless-tyrannulet, clay-colored thrush, long-billed thrasher, and green heron.

Whimbrel at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

More species of birds have been recorded at Laguna Atascosa (417) than at any other national wildlife refuge in the nation. Laguna Atascosa covers 97,000 acres near the southern tip of Texas comprising thornscrub forest, freshwater wetlands, prairies, beaches, and mudflats. A quarter-million ducks winter in the area including Redhead, Grebes, American White Pelican, and Sandhill Crane also winter here. Around 30 species of shorebirds can be found here throughout much of the year.

Many birders visit the refuge to see some of the specialties of southern Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley such as Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tailed Kite, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Curve-billed Thrasher, Long-billed Thrasher, Botteri’s Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, Bronzed Cowbird, and Altamira Oriole.

Black-crested titmouse at Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park

A paradise for bird watchers in the Hill Country with 240 documented bird species, Guadalupe River State Park is located 30 miles north of San Antonio at the north end of Park Road 31, northwest of Bulverde. You’ll find the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, the goldfinch of Texas, and the only bird species with a breeding range limited to Texas. Thirteen miles of hiking trails include the 2.86-mile Painted Bunting Trail to spot one of these colorful birds.

Pro Tip: Reserve one of 85 hookup campsites here. Purchase an annual Texas State Park Pass for free entry to more than 80 state parks.

Curve-billed thrasher at Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations and if offers endless fascination for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, botanists, and people who enjoy dramatic, rugged landscapes. Situated on the Rio Grande in western Texas, the park doesn’t receive nearly the visitation its rewards truly merit.

Big Bend comprises three main ecosystems: Most of the park is Chihuahuan Desert, a terrain of cactus and shrubs. In the center, the Chisos Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet with oak canyons and ponderosa pine. Along the Rio Grande is a lush green strip of cottonwoods, willows, and other wetland vegetation. All this contributes to Big Bend’s great diversity of birds.

The park’s most sought-after species is Colima Warbler which nests in the Chisos Mountains, usually requiring a several-mile hike to find. More likely in lower elevations are such species as Scaled Quail, Gray Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Common Poorwill, Vermilion Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, Varied Bunting, and Scott’s Oriole.

Great kiskadee at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world with its woodlands and wetlands. Santa Ana has a fine visitor center with a log of recent bird sightings. From here, many trails wind into the woods. From November through April, the refuge operates a tram (fee) along the auto tour route which is closed to vehicles in that season, though it can be walked.

Many of the region’s specialties are seen here including Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole to name only a few of the most regular species.

Roseate spoonbills and an ibis at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

A superb all-around birding destination, Aransas occupies a large peninsula surrounded by coastal bays separated from the Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands. It boasts an astoundingly lengthy bird list of more than 400 species yet the refuge is known best for one bird—the Whooping Crane. Standing nearly five feet tall Whooping Cranes are sometimes seen from the observation tower located along the refuge’s 16-mile auto tour route. The best way to see them is to take a commercial tour from Rockport or Port Aransas in the season from November to April. 

Waterfowl, grebes, and rails are present in wetlands from fall through spring. Ponds, marshes, and bays are home year round to cormorants, pelicans, 14 or more species of wading birds including Roseate Spoonbill and around eight species of terns. The refuge’s location makes it possible to see a great diversity of migrant birds following the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.

Vermillion flycatcher on High Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

High Island

High Island has a salt dome and mineral spring at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and rises 32 feet above the surrounding marshes. For a few weeks each spring, this small town less than a mile from the Texas coast becomes a busy gathering place for birds and birders. Northbound migrant birds having crossed the Gulf of Mexico fly down to the woodland tracts here to rest and feed in the proper conditions creating a “fallout” with birds seemingly crowding every limb of every tree: flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and more.

The action starts in March and peaks in late April and early May. There’s no guarantee that any particular day will be a great one but the day after a storm or front with north winds is often the best. But in spring at High Island even an average day is really good.

Colma warbler at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Five species of geese winter on this refuge at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma on the route of the Central Flyway so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter.

Geese—Greater White-fronted, Snow, Ross’s, Cackling, and Canada—make up part of the waterfowl numbers with 15 or more species of ducks added. Bald Eagles winters here ready to make a meal of any injured birds. American White Pelican is present year round and Roseate Spoonbill can arrive as a post-breeding visitor.

Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands.

A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.

Black-necked stilt at Bolivar Flats © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bolivar Flats

An amazing congregation of shorebirds and wading birds is often on display at Bolivar Flats, a coastal spot on the Bolivar Peninsula across the channel from Galveston. It’s reached by turning south on Rettilon Road about 3.6 miles east of the ferry landing in Port Bolivar. (A town parking permit obtainable locally is required.)

Practically every species of cormorant, pelican, heron, egret, ibis, plover, sandpiper, gull, tern, and similar bird that ever ventured near the Texas coast has appeared here. Many other species stop in or pass overhead, too, which explains the bird list of more than 320 for this one small spot on the coast.

Whistling duck at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

One of the must-visit sites of American birding, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. Its richness of bird life makes it a place that can be explored over and over with something new seen every time.

Flocks of waterfowl from fall through spring, fifteen or more species of wading birds, rails and other marsh birds—these are just a few of the highlights of Anahuac. Roads lead from the visitor information station at the main entrance to East Bay, an arm of Galveston Bay accessing ponds, marshes, observation platforms, and trails. Though waterbirds are the highlight here, an area called The Willows, an isolated tract of trees just west of the entrance, can be a songbird magnet in migration.

A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Wood Stork (post-breeding visitor), Neotropic Cormorant, Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, Black Rail, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Seaside Sparrow, and Dickcissel.

Anhinga at Brazos Bend State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brazos Bend State Park

Sites on the Texas Gulf Coast get most of the publicity but this state park 30 miles southwest of Houston is well worth a visit for its attractive scenery as well as its birds. Here, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and other hardwoods such as elm, hackberry, sycamore, pecan, and cottonwood create a lush landscape along the Brazos River and its tributary Big Creek.

Look on park lakes and wetlands for Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and Roseate Spoonbill, and Purple Gallinule. Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Least Grebe are seen occasionally.

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge 25 miles southwest of Amarillo protects a 175-acre tract of native shortgrass prairie of such quality that it has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It’s a good place to see many open-country birds as well as seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.

The lake for which the refuge was named has dried up because of overuse of the local aquifer. However, the refuge manages other wetlands that act as a virtual magnet for birds in this arid region. From fall through spring, many ducks use these wetlands; some such as Cinnamon Teal and Redhead remain to nest.

Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet breed here and more than 25 species of shorebirds have been recorded in migration. Some of the nesting birds here are Wild Turkey, Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Say’s Phoebe, Chihuahuan Raven, and Rock Wren.

Ringed kingfisher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Texas Wildlife Trail 

This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Wildlife Trail offers good birding throughout the year but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings.

Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of Whooping Cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed Reddish Egrets, blazing pink Roseate Spoonbills, and beautifully patterned White-tailed Hawks.

The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico enlivening the American landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy Ringed Kingfishers like Belted Kingfishers on steroids, Great Kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family, and Green Jays which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue tones.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

Top 10 Reasons to Visit Fredericksburg

Don’t miss out on one of Texas Hill Country’s most getaway-worthy towns

John O. Meusebach couldn’t have imagined what would become of the settlement he established in 1846 on the Texas frontier. He found a tract of land 60 miles northwest of New Braunfels and bought 10,000 acres near the confluence of two streams about 4 miles above the Pedernales River. The first German immigrants arrived on May 8, 1846 to the new town which was named Fredericksburg after Prince Frederick of Prussia.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled in the heart of the Hill Country, Fredericksburg continues to thrive today. The town holds tight to its German heritage in various ways with its beloved Main Street, restaurants, and cultural traditions. A proliferation of vineyards, wineries, galleries, and shopping have also infused the town with new energy and made it one of Texas’ most popular tourist destinations.

This Texas Hill Country treasure seamlessly blends its German roots with Texas traditions. Grab a drink at a biergarten (including Altdorf Biergarten and The Auslander) or one of the local wineries and peruse the town’s bustling Main Street and museums.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re up for a challenge, hike to the top of Enchanted Rock, a pink granite mountain less than 20 miles north of town.

Fredericksburg is one of the most getaway-worthy small towns in the whole Lone Star State—and that’s saying something. Located between the popular destinations of San Antonio and Austin it’s not only easy to reach but it still feels a million miles away from city life. This tiny town is dripping with old-fashioned traditions and authentic German roots.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Present-day Fredericksburg’s charm attributes to many things: The picturesque Hill Country scenery, the town’s uncanny ability to maintain its dual German-Texan heritage, and its many impressive attractions. From over 100 wineries and tasting rooms to a Main Street bustling with shops, galleries, restaurants, and biergartens, discover this hidden gem and make the most of your trip to Fredericksburg.

ENJOY LOCAL CUISINE

German food © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indulge in authentic German food and biergartens

Of course, it wouldn’t be a trip to Fredericksburg without Tex-Mex cuisine, schnitzels, sauerbraten (German pot roast), and German beer gardens. Wondering where to eat in Fredericksburg? You can find delicious food and handcrafted spirits at more than 70 restaurants including upscale eatery Cabernet Grill and German specialty restaurant Der Lindenbaum. Head to Old German Bakery & Restaurant for a hearty breakfast but make sure to get there early to snag a table.

German food © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just off Main Street, you’ll stumble upon a novel culinary experience at Otto’s German Bistro. This restaurant makes the most locally grown and produced ingredients to dish up farm-to-table German cuisine in the heart of the American South. The menu is specially curated for each season to ensure that the meals are always as fresh as possible. With delicacies like duck schnitzel, truffle linguine, and their famous wurst platte on offer, you can’t go wrong.

Texas Wine Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sip your way along the wine trails

They don’t call this part of Texas wine country for nothing. Over 100 vineyards and tasting rooms are located in and around town providing the ultimate vino experience while learning about Texas grapes. Fredericksburg is one of the most-visited wine destinations in the country. Favorite recommendations include Grape Creek Vineyards, Messina Hof Hill Country Winery, and Barons Creek Vineyards. Book the 290 Wine Shuttle for safe all-day transportation between the wineries.

GET OUTSIDE

Looking for outdoor activities?

Wildseed Farms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop and smell the state’s flowers at Wildseed Farms

This gorgeous 200-acre space is the largest wildflower farm in the United States and home to not only magical sunflower fields but also to the iconic Texas bluebonnet as well as other state specialties like red corn poppies and phlox. The best time to visit is in spring when all of the showstoppers are on display but the farm is still filled with a large selection of summer blooms as well as a stockpile of pumpkins ready to be carved in fall. Visitors can even shop for their own seeds to plant at home. A half-mile of leisurely walking trails will get you up close and personal with the flowers and sitting areas throughout the farm are a great place to relax and enjoy the sights.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb Enchanted Rock

Not only does Fredericksburg boast the country’s biggest wildflower farm, it’s also only a 20-minute drive to America’s largest pink granite mountain. Perched on the Llano Uplift, the incredible Enchanted Rock is a pink granite dome that can be seen from many miles around. The rock is a massive granite dome that is part of the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

Enchanted Rock is a stunning natural area with 8.4 miles of hiking trails and some of the best night sky views in the state. The Tonkawa Indians believed that this site was inhabited by spirits that protected the land from unwelcome intruders and much of that magic is still felt today.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An incentive for reaching the peak of this pink granite dome is the breathtaking view of the Texas Hill Country that awaits you at the top.

Many visitors claim they’ve heard strange sounds and seen unnatural lights at night. If that’s not enough of an adrenaline rush for you, Enchanted Rock is home to some of the best rock climbing in the state with routes available for all skill levels. (The rolling hills and pasture views are incredible!)

TRAVEL BACK IN TIME

National Museum of the Pacific War © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember the Pacific

Probably the last place you’d expect to hear detailed accounts and witness bona fide relics of World War II in the Pacific is in this little central Texas town. But alas, history is waiting to be explored in Fredericksburg’s National Museum of the Pacific War. At the museum’s combat zone, you can immerse yourself in a staged reenactment of the events of the war that played out in the Pacific. In its vast gallery space, visitors can participate in interactive exhibits and view tanks and aircrafts used in the war.

National Museum of the Pacific War © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pioneer Museum Complex

For a calmer journey into the past, the Pioneer Museum Complex offers a unique look at the history of the area tracing the story of the first German settlers who arrived in Fredericksburg in the 1840s. All of that spread across a 3.5-acre museum complex which includes the Vereins Kirche Museum. The Vereins Kirche Museum is, among others, a reconstruction of the original building that served as a Town Hall and a piece of living history. The experience includes a self-guided stroll around the grounds where historic homesteads, a one-room schoolhouse, and a smokehouse spread out below towering Texas pecans.

Texas White House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Texas White House

The 36th president of the United States called Fredericksburg his home and visitors today can still visit the legendary LBJ Ranch, an incredible national historic site. Pick up a free driving permit that allows you to view the grounds from the comfort of your own car, stopping and sightseeing at their own pace. Among the unmissable lookout spots are the President’s birthplace, the family cemetery, and Johnson’s sprawling ranch house lovingly known as the Texas White House. You can also take a tour through LBJ’s childhood home or visit his grandfather’s cattle driving headquarters built in the 1860s and still standing today.

Wildseed Farms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

VISIT LIKE A LOCAL

Spend time on Main Street

Shops and tourist attractions may come and go but one aspect of Fredericksburg has stood the test of time: the historic storefronts up and down Main Street. In addition to stores, art galleries, and artisan gifts and treats, the epicenter of Main Street is the Marktplatz. You can even see Wilkommen (translation: welcome) signs on full display throughout town. For drinks and live music start the evening at 78624 Bar before heading to dinner at acclaimed Vaudeville, a French-style bistro on Main Street. Other recommended dinner spots include Hill & Vine and Otto’s German Bistro.

Wildseed Farms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rest your feet at Marktplatz

This square at the heart of Fredericksburg holds the old site of the town’s first church and school and the two main shopping districts stretch out on either side. The grounds are full of sprawling gardens, a gorgeous setting for many of Fredericksburg’s festivals, special events, and a popular destination for wedding ceremonies. It has excellent photo opportunities too.

Even if you go when there’s nothing on the schedule, wandering around Marktplatz is an event in and of itself. You’ll find historical sculptures, picnic areas, and plenty of green space to spread out on after a morning of shopping.

Wildseed Farms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Attend a Festival

Depending on the time of year you visit there is almost always a seasonal festival on the lineup. In spring, expect events surrounding the Texas bluebonnets in bloom. In the fall, the town is gearing up for Oktoberfest (which celebrates the town’s German heritage) and the Food & Wine Festival. Fredericksburg also gets decked out for the holiday season and is not to be missed.

Now, off to plan your next trip to Fredericksburg.

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, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Spring Road Trip: The Kolache Trail

Eat well! Adventure often!

Warm weather has arrived and so has the urge for adventure. This spring road takes you on two different routes to find the delicious Czech pastry.

For those who don’t know, a kolache or kolace is a square pastry with fruit or cream cheese filling that’s popular in Czech culture. The dough of a kolache is dense and sweet. This differs from a Danish which is lighter and flakier. 

Kolaches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Kolache Trail

Trip Mileage: About 250

Overall Vibe: Filling

Kolache, the Czech-inspired breakfast sweet is most everywhere in Texas. If a shop sells doughnuts odds are kolaches are also available filled with fruit, jellies, jams, cream cheese, and, in the case of the klobasnek, small sausages (aka pigs in a blanket).

Kolaches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive any main route inside the Texas urban triangle of Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Austin-San Antonio and you’ll find kolaches. Hope you’re hungry because this 200-plus-mile meander takes you away from the cities and the interstates to two dozen spots where the baked delicacy—along with the greeting Jak se mas!—rules.

You might as well start in West, located on Interstate 35 about 20 miles north of Waco—and you might just as well end there, too. This community of 2,860 has six bakeries that specialize in kolaches. The frontage-road establishments of Czech Stop/Little Czech and Kolache House Baking Company (northbound, located in the CEFCO convenience store) and Slovacek’s (southbound) get the highway traffic. Or drive a couple blocks east to Oak Street where the Oak Street Bakery, Gerik’s Ole’ Czech, and West Donuts and Kolaches are clustered.

Kolaches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve had your fill of kolaches in West, head about 13 miles south and then east on Heritage Parkway/Farm to Market Road 2311 through Leroy to State Highway 31 West. Then go 12 miles to the State Highway 340 loop around Waco picking up US 77 South for 27 miles to Lott. In town, turn onto State Highway 320 South to Miller’s Country Smokehouse, a destination deli and bakery that also happens to serve kolaches.

>> Related article: Along the Kolache Trail

Kolaches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue south on SH 320, then west on State Highway 53 for a half mile to the tiny town of Zabcikville named for the family of Czech immigrants that settled there. Here is where you’ll find Green’s Sausage House, a café, meat counter, and bakery established in 1946. Eight fruit varieties are offered daily along with eight different kinds of meat kolaches including the exotic knockwurst with jalapeños and cheese and boudin with jalapeño cheese.

Kolaches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head back east and south on Farm to Market Road 485 for 14 miles crossing US 77 and pick up Farm to Market Road 979 for 16 miles to Calvert and Pappy’s Bakery, a full-service bakery with six varieties of fruit kolaches and regular or jalapeño sausage klobasnek. Then, it’s about 30 miles south on State Highway 6 to one of three Kolache Rolf’s locations in College Station, the house specialties being an array of traditional kolaches along with four varieties of savory kolaches including bacon and cheese.

Leaving Aggieland, take State Highway 47 north to State Highway 21 West, a 27-mile jog to Caldwell—home of the Caldwell Kolache Festival held on the second Saturday in September. Tucked next to a convenience store is Nonnie’s Bakery where the handmade kolaches (including coconut) sell out early.

Weikel’s Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Caldwell, continue south on SH 21 for 10 miles then turn right and go west on Farm to Market Road 696 for 14 miles to Lexington. Cheese pigs are the top item on the breakfast menu at Herk’s Store and Grill. From here, it’s 37 miles south on US 77 to Weikel’s Bakery in La Grange (a second bakery is located in Brenham). This spot features at least 20 flavors of kolache and five kinds of what they call klobasniky—their term for pig-in-a-blanket. Another popular place for pigs is Lukas Bakery in downtown La Grange across from the courthouse.

>> Related article: Czech Please: We Gotcha Kolache!

Original Kountry Bakery in Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From La Grange, you have two options for a last stop on your kolache odyssey. Twelve miles east of LaGrange on SH 71 is Hruska’s Bakery in the small community of Ellinger. This is arguably the most popular kolache stop between Austin and Houston with the usual lineup of pigs, fruit kolaches, seven cream cheese varieties, and even cottage cheese kolache. Or go to downtown Schulenburg, 16 miles south of La Grange on US 77 for the home of the Besetsny family’s original Kountry Bakery (other locations can be found in Weimar, Victoria, Hallettsville, and Eagle Lake). Choose from 16 varieties of kolaches sold individually and by the box.

Kolaches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

East-West Alternate Kolache Trail

Trip Mileage: 168

You can’t name drop kolaches in Texas without involving the Houston area and US 90. For an alternative kolache route begin in the settlement of Danbury, a few miles northeast of Angleton, at the Two Czech Chicks Bakery. The owners, Jennifer Martin and Dawn Sykora, grew up in West but many of the recipes were passed down by the Czech grandmother of Sykora’s husband.

>> Related article: Best Getaway to Czech Out

From Angleton, take State Highway 288 South about 10 miles to Clute, where the Kolache Shop features a flavor of the month such as Italian Cream and Chocolate-Covered Cherry. Pick up State Highway 36 and head northwest for an hour to downtown Rosenberg, home of the Old Main Street Bakery. From Rosenburg, take US 90A and head west for 16 miles. Next stop is Vincek’s Smokehouse in East Bernard, a community that hosts the Kolache and Klobase Festival in June.

Kolaches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you continue on 18 miles west on Alt 90 to Eagle Lake, you can stop at one of the Besetsny family’s Kountry Bakery locations. Then it’s 38 miles to Hallettsville where the annual Hallettsville Kolache Festival in late September is the town’s big civic bash. Hallettsville has another Besetsny family Kountry Bakery. At this point, if you haven’t fallen into a kolache food coma, head to Shiner, another 15 miles west on US 90A, where Bea’s Place convenience store preps serious pigs in a blanket.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

I didn’t drive eleven hours across the state of Texas to watch my cholesterol.

―Robb Walsh

The Complete Guide to the Gorgeous Deserts and Canyons of Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is a long way from anywhere and that’s exactly why folks love it

Picking a national park is all about setting: Do you want deserts, forests, mountains, or water? Since everything’s bigger in TexasBig Bend National Park has it all. Cacti-strewn deserts shift to the wooded slopes of imposing mountains before again changing to spectacular river canons where greenish water flows.

You can find Big Bend right next to the border, close to the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Texas’s biggest (and bendiest) national park spans over 800,000 acres and holds the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the US. Which means it’s a journey to get to.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As is the standard way of getting places in Texas, arriving at the natural marvel requires good driving, so get those road trip snacks and playlists ready.

Big Bend’s remoteness is one of its main attractions. Isolated and vast, this park embodies what’s so captivating about West Texas: It’s a quiet place where you can easily find solitude and appreciate what it means to be such a small part of our big, beautiful universe.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the last couple of years, more and more people have been making the trip to experience Big Bend’s magic—a true testament to its wonders given the aforementioned distance that must be traversed to get there. In 2021, the park welcomed a record number of visitors: 581,221 to be exact. That’s quite something, considering that just 1,400 visitors came in 1944, the year the park first opened. And that number looks even better when you take into account the couple million that head to the most crowded national parks.

If you’re ready to see for yourself what the big deal is about Big Bend, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your trip.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know when not to go

Since Big Bend hugs a portion of the Texas-Mexico border, it should come as no surprise that summers here can get scorching. From June through August, the temperature can easily reach the 90s in some parts of the park. Some is worth specifying because temperatures by the river and in the park’s low desert areas can be around 10 to 20 degrees warmer than areas in the mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Factoring that in, the best time to visit the park is sometime between October and April when the weather is cooler and you can camp and hike without sweating buckets. Needless to say, the holiday weeks and weekends during this stretch (Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, etc.) are when people come in droves, so unless you want to deal with the crowds, it’s best to steer clear of those specific periods.

>> Read Next: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Speaking of crowds, timing your trip to avoid the park’s busiest periods isn’t just making your communing with nature as peaceful as possible—it affects logistics too. Since there’s limited parking at the most popular spots there are times when it becomes “one-in, one-out” to control the traffic. Who wants to wait for some people to finish their fun before you can have yours?

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose your own adventure through deserts, water, or mountains

Some people refer to Big Bend National Park as three parks in one because of its distinct environments: desert, mountain, and river. While the Chihuahuan Desert covers a majority of the park’s area, the dramatic mountain portion of the park (which would be the Chisos Mountains) runs right through its middle. The river environments, meanwhile, exist along the twisty Rio Grande which marks the park’s winding, southern border.

Fun fact: The Chios is the only mountain range in the US that’s completely contained within a single national park.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When tackling this wide-ranging landscape, you might be comforted to know that Big Bend has not one, not two, but five visitor centers. Northernmost is Persimmon Gap Visitor Center which is the first one you’ll hit if you’re driving into the park through the town of Marathon. Next is Panther Junction Visitor Center which is considered the main visitor center and functions as the park headquarters with a post office. Also at the heart of the park is the Chisos Basin Visitor Center which serves as a great starting point for some of Big Bend’s best hikes. Then there’s the Castolon Visitor Center in the west and the Rio Grande Village Visitor Center in the east.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must-do hikes amid towering rocks

So where should you even begin hiking when the park has over 150 miles of trails to explore? One way to narrow it down is to decide if you want to be in the desert, amid the mountains, or by the river.

For those who want to experience the enchantment of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Chimneys Trail is an essential option. This moderately difficult trail is 4.8 miles total, there and back, and delivers you to the aforementioned “chimneys,” a stretch of volcanic dike formations (if you want to get all technical about it) looking like strange, rocky pillars. One of the coolest things about this hike is not necessarily what you pass along the way but what you can see when you reach your destination: millennia-old pictographs and petroglyphs on the rock face of one of the chimneys.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the mountains are calling your name, then you’re in for a real treat with the South Rim trail. There’s no denying that this hike is a difficult one. It’s 12 to 14.5 miles round trip plus there’s a 2,000-feet elevation gain—but anyone who takes on the challenge will be rewarded with absolutely incredible views of the undulating peaks and valleys of the Chihuahuan Desert all the way to Mexico. Many would agree it’s the most scenic hike in the whole park. If you have enough energy tack on the side trip to Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains and you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.

>> Read Next: Road Trip from Austin to El Paso: 9 Stops along the Way

Anyone who is soothed by the tranquil sight and sound of water as they hike must do the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. Its low effort and high reward with this one, seeing as it’s just 1.7 miles round trip of relatively easy walking. The views are frankly stunning as you find yourself flanked by looming canyon walls and the river cuts its way through the impressive rock formations. If ever there was a classic Big Bend photo op, it’s here.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See miles of scenic roads and countless stars

Aside from hiking, another way to enjoy this massive park is just by driving its various scenic roads. For example, the 30-mile-long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive holds up to its name taking you by noteworthy spots like the Mules Ears viewpoint (where you can see two jagged rock formations that jut up resembling donkey’s ears), Sam Nail Ranch (a historic homestead built in 1916), and Santa Elena Canyon (get those cameras ready).

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle you can check out the most remote part of the already very remote Big Bend by driving the 51 miles of the River Road. Don’t get confused by the name—you won’t get to see the Rio Grande along the way but the rough road does generally follow its curves. Remember though, off-road driving isn’t allowed.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing is another must-do while visiting Big Bend. Not only is the park designated as an International Dark Sky Park but according to the NPS website it actually has the least light pollution of any national park in the continental United States. Basically, you won’t have to try very hard or go anywhere special to witness the dazzling display but one particularly lovely way to go about it is to spend an evening soaking in the warm water at the Hot Springs and looking up at all that beauty above.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in and around Big Bend

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to expect to find a campsite when you arrive; booking in advance is crucial if you plan on camping at Big Bend. Seriously, reservations for the developed campgrounds are required. These campgrounds are pretty much guaranteed to be full every night from November through April and there’s no first-come, first-serve situation here.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You definitely don’t want to be that person who just spent who knows how many hours driving to Big Bend to realize you’ll have to drive an hour or more back out to find somewhere to stay because there are no overflow campsites. And don’t even think about setting up camp in a parking lot or along the park roads, because you will get in trouble—sorry ‘bout it.

>> Read Next: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So, on to the options. For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. You can book your site up to six months in advance, so get to planning. If you’re someone who waits a little bit longer before making a move, there are a limited number of sites available for reservation up to 14 days in advance, but again—planning ahead pays big time with this out-of-the-way national park. There are also backcountry campsites, and you’ll need a permit for those.

If there are no developed campsites within the park available during the time of your planned visit, don’t assume your big Big Bend camping adventure is dashed. There are still some camping options outside the park in nearby areas like Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to be in the heart of the action but rather not rough it? Then check out the Chisos Mountains Lodge with its simple but comfortable rooms and cottages. It’s actually the only lodging available in the whole park so really it’s either that or staying somewhere outside the park. In terms of the latter, you can find some pretty cool accommodations in Terlingua like cute casitas, unique tipis, vintage trailers, and luxurious bubble domes.

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

Deep in the Heart: State Parks Celebrate 100 Years of Outdoors in Texas

Texas State Parks is turning 100. My favorite Lone Star escapes.

From mountains and canyons to forests and swamps, the vast scale of Texas provides so many natural wonders. Across the Lone Star State, there are 87 state parks, natural areas, and historic sites currently operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).

The first parks were opened to the public in the 1930s and the newest, Old Tunnel State Park, an old railroad tunnel that provides a seasonal home for 3 million bats, opened in 2012.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

TPWD also has plans to develop five sites into future state parks. The latest acquisition is the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch. This property is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled coastal prairie in the state. A coalition of conservation groups made this purchase possible in 2014. Most of this tract is part of the Powderhorn Wildlife Management Area but 2,253 acres will be developed as a state park. 

Other sites TPWD plan to develop into state parks includes:

  • Albert & Bessie Kronkosky State Natural Area (Hill Country southeast of Kerrville)
  • Chinati Mountains State Natural Area (northwest of Big Bend Ranch State Park)
  • Davis Hill State Natural Area (east of Houston)
  • Palo Pinto Mountains State Park (west of Fort Worth)
Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairfield Lake State Park, meanwhile, closed permanently closes at the end of February. Located 70 miles east of Waco, Vistra Energy owned the land and leased it to the state at no cost. The company sold the land to Todd Interests who plans to transform the park into an exclusive community with multi-million dollar homes and a private golf course.

TPWD splits the state into seven natural regions, each of which is home to several state parks. The Prairies & Lakes region is home to 22 parks, more than any other region. The South Texas Plains region is home to the fewest, with seven parks.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Across the system, state parks welcomed more than nine million visitors in 2022. The Prairies & Lakes region recorded the most visitors with more than 3.1 million across its 22 parks.

The Hill Country region welcomed more than 2.3 million visitors across 16 parks while the Pineywoods and Panhandle Plains regions each saw more than one million visitors.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks in the Big Bend Country region saw the fewest number of visitors with around 464,000. Those numbers do not include visitors to Big Bend National Park which alone saw more than half a million visitors in 2021, a record high for the park.

In 1923, the state park board of directors met for the first time. Before then, Gov. Pat Neff developed what became Mother Neff State Park perched on the Leon River southwest of Waco. His mother, Isabella Neff, had donated the original six acres for the park in 1921.

Below I showcase my favorite Tezas State Parks. Note that these are not the best state parks. I haven’t sampled them all. I’ve never, for instance, been to enormous Big Bend Ranch State Park as much as I love the nearby Big Bend National Park.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Established: 1978

Where: Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 16710 RR 965, Fredericksburg

The Nature Conservancy of Texas was involved in acquiring this striking 425-foot granite dome or batholith in the Llano Uplift region. The hike up the main face is moderately challenging for the fit. Each year that passes, though, climbs like this daunts me a bit more. The the rock climbing spots are alluring for those so inclined.

Numerous legends are associated with this spot that held spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples. This is our version of Australia’s Uluru (Ayers Rock). Be prepared: It can get windy up there.

>> Get more tips for visiting Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goose Island State Park

Established: 1935

Where: Goose Island State Park 202 S. Palmetto St., Rockport

Bounded by the waters of the St. Charles, Copano, and Aransas bays, 314-acre Goose Island State Park is a coastal delight. Popular with Winter Texans during winter months, birders during spring and fall migration, and campers year-round, Goose Island State Park is located 10 miles north of Rockport-Fulton, off State Highway 35.

The Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goose Island State Park is best known for two celebrated residents, one of which is the Big Tree—an enormous 1,000-year-old coastal live oak that has survived prairie fires, Civil War battles, and hurricanes. With a height of 44 feet, a circumference of 35 feet, and a crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) for more than 1,000 years.

The other resident is the rare endangered whooping crane that returns to the area every winter.

>> Get more tips for visiting Goose Island State Park

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Established: 1957

Where: Park Rd. 41, Monahans

You can surf on the Gulf Coast in Texas but you can also surf at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. A virtual island in a Permian Basin sea, the narrow strip of 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. 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 dunes.

The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and RV camping and a favorite activity of many visitors, sand surfing. Rent sand disks to surf the dunes or bring your horse and check out the 800-acre equestrian area. Just make sure you mark off “surfed in a desert” from your travel bucket list.

>> Get more tips for visiting Monohans Sandhills State Park

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park

Established: 1940

Where: Balmorhea State Park, 9207 Texas 17, Toyahvale

Before the Civilian Conservation Corps built the concrete swimming pool and cabins in the 1930s, the San Solomon Springs provided water for local wildlife and hunter gatherers who are believed to have first made their appearance in the area around 11,000 years ago. During the 1800s, cattle ranchers and railroad workers often used the springs.

Now, the pool is most commonly frequented by Texans looking to escape the oppressive summer heat in an appealing desert landscape. Visitors can swim, snorkel, and scuba dive at the pool which hosts two endangered species of fish: the Pecos gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish. Though Balmorhea State Park is a bit out of the way from any major city (the nearest one—Odessa, Texas—is 116 miles away), getting to take a dip in the turquoise gem of the west Texas desert is an experience not to be missed. 

Davis Mountains State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Davis Mountains State Park

Established: 1933

Where: Davis Mountains State Park, Texas 118, Fort Davis

If you ask any Texan what they think of when they hear the words West Texas, the first thing that probably comes to mind is Big Bend National Park (or, alternatively, the cool little art town in the middle of nowhere, Marfa). But about 140 miles north of Big Bend country are the Davis Mountains which are geologically classified as a sky island—an isolated mountain range connecting two very different regions.

Thanks to the state park’s proximity to the McDonald Observatory, the area enjoys mandatory dark skies making it an ideal spot for stargazing.
Davis Mountains State Park isn’t known only for its outdoor activities. One of the most distinctive hotel options in the area is the Indian Lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. The pueblo-style lodge functions as a full-service hotel and has 39 rooms and a dreamy swimming pool.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park

Established: 1974

Where: 3350 Park Road 31, Spring Branch

When the temperatures start to creep into the triple digits, there’s no better place to cool off than tubing along four miles of the Guadalupe River. Swimming, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing are also allowed. Another highlight is the Guadalupe River State Park Paddling Trail which begins in the park. During the cooler months, hike or bike the 13 miles of trails; geocaching and bird watching are also popular activities. There are over 90 campsites available. Guided tours are also offered for the Honey Creek Natural Area, a 1.5-mile spring-fed creek and natural area adjacent to the park.

>> Get more tips for visiting Guadalupe River State Park

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McKinney Falls State Park

Established: 1976

Where: 5808 McKinney Falls Parkway, Austin

This Austin-area state park is an adventure playground with ample opportunities to hike, bike, geocache, camp, or go bouldering. Many of the park’s historic attractions are along Onion Creek including the remains of an 1852 gristmill and horse trainer’s cabin. Don’t forget to take a photo with Old Baldy, one of the oldest bald cypress trees on public land in the state. At roughly 500 years old, Old Baldy clocks in at 103 feet tall.

The creek cascades over limestone ledges and volcanic ash at the upper and lower falls. The rushing water makes it easy to forget you’re only 13 miles from downtown Austin. In addition, there are nine miles of trails to explore inside the park. The hard-surfaced 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail is a must because it’s suitable for road bikes and strollers. There’s also an all-terrain wheelchair (that must be reserved in advance) available for visitors.

>> Get more tips for visiting McKinney Falls State Park

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blanco State Park

Established: 1933

Where: 101 Park Road 23. Blanco

Continuing with water spots, the Falls Dam area at Blanco State Park is the perfect location to beat the heat. This park is off Highway 281 in the city of Blanco and beyond camping and swimming you can also rent tubes here to enjoy the river in a different fashion.

This small park hugs a one-mile stretch of the river. On the water you can swim, fish, paddle, or boat. On land, you can picnic, hike, camp, watch for wildlife, and geocache.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the picnic pavilion with its stone walks and stairs to the river. CCC boys also built picnic tables and benches, stone dams and bridges, all during an 11-month period in 1933 and 1934. Reserve the CCC-built picnic area or pavilion for your next group gathering. 

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goliad State Park & Historic Site

Established: 1949

Where: 108 Park Road 6, Goliad

Follow the footsteps of Native Americans and Spanish explorers at the unique Goliad State Park & Historic Site. The centerpiece is the whitewashed Mission Espíritu, a 1749 Spanish mission restored in 1930 by the CCC. Explore the nearby ruins of Mission Nuestra Señora del Rosario, El Camino Real de los Tejas Visitors Center, and the birthplace of Gen­er­al Ig­nacio Zara­goza, a Mexican general famous for defeating the French in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, the origin of Cinco de Mayo.

Covering 276 acres along the San Antonio River, there is no shortage of recreation opportunities from paddling to fishing. The 6.6-mile Goliad Paddling Trail passes through the park which serves as a take-out point. Borrow some fishing gear from the park headquarters to try your luck catching catfish, bass, and sunfish. A series of short walking trails line the river providing an up-close view of the park’s sites. Camping is also available. Before leaving the town of Goliad, stop by the nearby ruins of Presidio La Bahía, a former Spanish fort.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palmetto State Park

Established: 1936

Where: 78 Park Road 11 South, Gonzales

If you’re looking for the perfect spot for a weekend getaway there’s no better place than the tropical oasis of Palmetto State Park. The ecosystems of both eastern and western species merge at this Central Texas Park resulting in a plethora of diverse animals and plants. The 270.3-acre park is named for the dwarf palmetto, a species of palm native to the eastern and southeastern regions of the state. Birders often flock to this park which is part of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Over 240 species of birds have been observed in the park.

The San Marcos River winds through the park with ample opportunities for paddling, swimming, and fishing. Other water features include an oxbow lake and swamps. Fishing gear is available for loan at the park while kayaks and paddleboards can be rented from Paddle EZ for use on the lake only.

>> Get more tips for visiting Palmetto State Park

LBJ Texas White House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site

Established: 1970

Where: 199 Park Road 52, Stonewall

Spend the day exploring this unique historical site. Visit the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Walk 1.2 miles of trails, passing bison, longhorns, wildflowers, creeks, and historic cabins. 

Tour the adjacent LBJ Ranch for an in-depth history lesson. Start with a self-guided driving tour of the ranch where he was born, lived, died, and was buried. In addition, visitors can stop at the family cemetery, ranch house, known as the Texas White House, and his former airplane hangar which now houses one of the park’s two visitor centers.

The expansive 1,570-acre property also includes the Johnson Settlement where his grandfather and great-uncle established a 1860s cattle operation. Several buildings are intact including their log cabin, barns, cooler house and a windmill. Before visiting, download the free National Park Service app for an audio tour of the drive.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart State Park

Established: 1936

Where: 2012 State Park Road, Lockhart

Come for the barbecue, camp at the state park. Yes, there’s a place to walk off all the brisket and sausage you devoured downtown in Lockhart. The state park has something for everyone—a pool and great hiking for the family and a 9-hole golf course built by the Works Progress Administration and the CCC over 80 years ago for the adults and, of course, great camping.

Bastrop State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bastrop State Park

Established: 1933

Where: 100 Park Road 1A, Bastrop

There’s a common misconception that because of 2011’s massive wildfire, Bastrop State Park is a dead park. It’s actually the total opposite. The park interpreter there, Kristen Williams, likes to describe it as a living laboratory. Where else can you see nature’s rebirth up close and personal? The glorious lost pines are growing back in bunches along the Red Trail and there’s plenty of other stuff for families at Bastrop—fishing, camping, a pool, and a new playground, to name a few.

Bike or drive scenic Park Road 1C between Bastrop and Buescher state parks. The hilly 12-mile road takes you through recovering and forested areas of the Lost Pines. Turn down the radio and enjoy this quiet drive. Share the road! The speed limit is 30 miles per hour.

Buescher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas State Parks Pass

Consider purchasing a Texas State Parks Pass. For those planning to visit multiple state parks near San Antonio, consider purchasing an annual Texas State Parks Pass for $70. The pass waives the entry fee for you and others in your vehicle at over 80 Texas state parks. Otherwise, an entry fee is charged per person. Additionally, the pass provides discount rates on camping and equipment rentals.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Elmer Kelto