The Sweetest Place in La Grange

There’s a real Katy behind KatySweet

KatySweet started—like so many food companies—in the founder’s home kitchen. Company founder Kay Carlton started KatySweet Confectioners in 1996 with a recipe passed down from her grandmother to her mother to her. Kay spent several years developing the recipe for the commercial market without sacrificing the homemade taste.

KatySweet pralines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

KatySweet Confectioners started in their founder’s home kitchen, like so many other food companies. Kay Carlton, the “Katy” behind KatySweet (and the little girl in their logo, created by her son), started the company with a candy recipe for Texas-style pecan pralines that was passed down from the grandmother.

KatySweet pralines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In her family, it was always called ‘Aunt Billie’s Brown Candy.” She came from a family of seven children so they didn’t buy anything that they could make themselves which is something that a lot of local families had in common back then. Kay suspects that this need to be self-supporting is part of the reason why so many local families had their versions of the pecan praline. On each special occasion and on holidays, Kay found herself making several batches of her family’s version of creamy pecan pralines for her friends and family members.

Related article: Pecan Pralines a Sweet Tradition

KatySweet pralines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mrs. Carlton and her husband already owned a successful printing and manufacturing business and finally, in 1995, Kay decided to combine her love of business with her love of candy and founded KatySweet.

In 2001, Kay built a new commercial kitchen at their current location at 4321 West State Highway 71 in La Grange designed from the ground up to produce the original family recipes using Kay’s time-tested methods. In 2016, they added a 24,000-square-foot facility to meet current and future production demands.

KatySweet pralines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The KatySweet distribution network includes retail and wholesale customers nationwide. The company’s national distribution is what they have been able to grow on. They deliver to nearly 5,000 locations throughout the United States.

KatySweet has big supporters in all the Southern states, Michigan, Wisconsin, Chicago, and even Hawaii and Alaska. Their maple walnut flavor is a hit in the New England areas like Vermont and New Hampshire. In 2018 alone, KatySweet sold over 300,000 pounds of candy, two ounces at a time. They’ve been fortunate to distribute their candy through Walgreens and CVS, which gives them a big footprint. They also distribute through regional grocery stores.

KatySweet pralines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kate and her team spent several years perfecting their recipes. Their proprietary manufacturing methods allow them to make their candy without losing the homemade taste and quality that got them started.

Related article: Czech Out La Grange

To master a large-scale version of the recipe, Kay attended numerous candy stores when she first started. It’s not simply ‘I need ten times a much so I’ll multiply everything by ten. It doesn’t work like that. KatySweet uses a two-part process which is quite common. The tricky part is the caramelization.

KatySweet pralines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They continue to use the best ingredients to make Kay’s recipes without losing the homemade taste and quality that got them started. And they do it all without using chemicals and preservatives. When customers bite into one of their Creamy Original Pralines or Chewy Pralines they taste the finest ingredients and the care that goes into making every piece.

Their candy is even gluten-free and “kosher.” A rabbi comes from Houston every three months to inspect the premises and process. They also have a “no sugar added” variety. KatySweet is always trying to create fresh, new products to appeal to a larger crowd.

KatySweet pralines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kay has learned after achieving so much success and having to expand and move into bigger facilities a few times, that it’s important to plan where she can.

Related article: Best Getaway to Czech Out

Her pralines are some of the few natural products on the candy market today. Using a two-kettle method to achieve a creamy praline, you’ll never get a dry, gritty taste when you bite into a KatySweet Praline. And, KatySweet candy is made to order, so it’s always fresh.

KatySweet pralines © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What a great ready-to-give treat! Choose your favorite flavor from the 2 oz. Original Creamy, Texas Style Chewy, or No Sugar Added Chewy Praline. Six candies in a see-through gift box.

Related article: Czech Please: We Gotcha Kolache!

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

I make a mean pecan pie and I have a great recipe for pralines—also using pecans. Pralines take a lot of patience, and patience is a must in the duck blind as well as in the kitchen. Good things come to those who wait.

—Phil Robertson

Explore Small-Town Texas from San Antonio

Certain times of year, wanderlust rises up and takes hold but it’s not always possible to plan a cross-country road trip

Are you looking for a fun getaway without leaving the Lone Star State? These 12 charming small towns are a perfect way to scratch that travel itch. Some are close to home in the Hill Country but more far-flung destinations also abound assuming you don’t mind a few hours behind the wheel.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shiner

About a 1.5 hour drive east of San Antonio

Head on out to Shiner and hit up K. Spoetzl Brewery, the home of Shiner Bock beer. The brewery itself is more than 100 years old making it the oldest independent brewery in the Lone Star State. Tours of the historic brewery are offered daily. And, of course, every tour concludes with free samples of Shiner.

Get more tips for visiting Shiner

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Grange

About a 1.5 hour drive northeast of San Antonio

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.

Get more tips for visiting La Grande

Near Alpine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alpine

About a 5.5 hour drive west of San Antonio

Way yonder, not too far from Big Bend National Park, lies the desert oasis of Alpine. Though secluded, those looking for an outdoorsy weekend getaway have limitless options from mountain biking to hiking and world-class campsites. Alpine is also home to a burgeoning art community. Art installations like the Tribute to Texas Musicians mural and the Sul Ross Desk can be found throughout the desert outpost.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg

About a 1.5 hour drive northwest of San Antonio

Fredericksburg is loved by tourists and locals alike and truly has something for everyone. History buffs will enjoy visiting the Vereins Kirche Museum which honors the German pioneers who initially settled this Hill Country town nearly two centuries ago. Shopaholics have plenty of locally-owned boutiques to choose from and there is a swath of wineries and breweries. With an endless supply of rustic bed and breakfasts and RV parks, Fredericksburg is the perfect weekend getaway for a couple or the whole family.

Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart

About a 1 hour drive northeast of San Antonio

When a town’s claim to fame is being the Barbecue Capital of Texas that is most definitely a place worth spending your time—and money. Four major meat joints have received national attention—Black’s Barbeque, Smitty’s Market, Kreuz Barbeque, and Chisholm Trail Barbeque. If you decide to stay for a night or two, there’s the Brock House which offers stunning views of Lockhart’s historic Caldwell County Courthouse. Conveniently located near town, Lockhart State park offers 20 serviced sites.

Get more tips for visiting Lockhart

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Port Aransas

About a 2.5 hour drive southeast of San Antonio

Long a favorite with Winter Texans, Port Aransas offers many activities from walking the beach in search of seashells to taking a tour boat, a deep sea fishing charter, or a sunset dinner cruise. This seaside town makes for a perfect family vacation with endless miles of sandy beaches, a “jersey shore” style boardwalk, and countless affordable resorts.

Gruene © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gruene

About a 45-minute drive northeast of San Antonio

Although it’s considered part of New Braunfels (which can’t be considered a small town these days), the Gruene Historic District should be a bucket list item for Texans. In addition to the legendary Gruene Hall, the district offers other live music venue options, the local general store, a prized antique shop, and the Gristmill Restaurant. This is the place to be for a good time packed with history.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blanco

About a 1 hour drive north of San Antonio

Blanco is known as the Lavender Capital of Texas and if you visit during the blooming season from May through July, you’ll know why. Home to the HIll Country Lavender Farm, the town even hosts an annual Lavender Festival each summer. In addition to being known for soothingly scented purple blooms, Blanco is home to other attractions including the Science Mill and Blanco State Park.

Kerrville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kerrville

About a 1 hour drive northwest of San Antonio

Enjoying the sights and getting a dose of small-town charm awaits you in Kerrville—dubbed the “Capital of the Hill Country.” From the Kerrville-Schreiner Park, home to attractions like a butterfly garden and amphitheater, to the Museum of Western Art, not to mention countless wineries, you’re sure to never run out of things to do in Kerrville.

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schulenburg

About a 1.5 hour drive east of San Antonio

Schulenburg, like many of the small central Texas towns, was settled by German and Czech settlers in the mid-nineteenth century. A major attraction in the Schulenburg area is the Painted Churches. The churches look like plain white steeple buildings but step inside you and you’ll be in a jewel box of colors and detail. Downtown on Schulenburg’s Main Street is the Texas Polka Museum. It’s full of instruments, pictures, outfits, and a map showing every polka band in the Lone Star State. Then, learn about their heritage and culture by visiting the Schulenburg Historical Museum. Originally opened in 1894, Sengelmann Hall features a big wooden bar and long family-style tables. 

Get more tips for visiting Schulenburg

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luling

About a 1 hour drive northeast of San Antonio

Located on the banks of the San Marcos River about 45 miles from San Antonio, 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.

Get more tips for visiting Luling

Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brenham

About a 2.5 hour drive northeast of San Antonio

The main attraction in Brenham is the Blue Bell Ice Cream factory which opened in 1907. Visitors can stop by the creamery’s Ice Cream Parlor for a generous scoop, learn about the history from the visitor’s center, shop the Country Store, and watch the production from the observation deck. Be sure to take a photo with the statue of the brand’s iconic logo, a little girl leading a cow on a rope. While the ice cream alone is worth the 150-mile road trip from San Antonio, the town is also the main hub of Washington County with a plethora of attractions within in a 12-mile radius.

Get more tips for visiting Brenham

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Elmer Kelto

Magical, Mystical, Enchanted: Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Climb the ancient dome for amazing Hill Country views

The massive pink granite dome rising above Central Texas has drawn people for thousands of years. But there’s more at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area than just the dome. The scenery, rock formations, and legends are magical, too!

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. Just a short 20-minute drive outside of Fredericksburg brings you to the enormous batholith that’s part of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area which was once Native American sacred grounds. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike, picnic, and camp overnight in the state park.

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

Short, sweet, and steep are the best descriptors of the flagship trail at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Characterized (and named for) a massive pink granite dome—the same unique Texas pink granite that was used to build the State Capitol building—this park is a popular outing for those visiting or residing around Central Texas. From the top of the Summit Trail, you’ll see unparalleled 360-degree views of untouched terrain.

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

For centuries, visitors have been going to the massive pink granite dome rising above Central Texas. They become entranced by the scenery and rock formations of the area. Over the years, the 425-foot batholith has given rise to myths and legends. Climbing Enchanted Rock is a Texan rite of passage where you’ll get once-in-a-lifetime Hill Country views. Hikers will find nearly 11 miles of trails including the iconic Summit Trail. Relax under the stars at this International Dark Sky Park which offers one of the best night sky views in Texas. Enjoy interpretive exhibits and cave exploration too.

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

Why is this giant dome here?

One billion years ago, this granite was part of a large pool of magma or hot liquid rock perhaps seven miles below the earth’s surface. It pushed up into the rock above in places, then cooled and hardened very slowly turning into granite. Over time, the surface rock and soil wore away.

Related article: Texas Hill Country Is the Ultimate Road Trip

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

Those pushed-up areas are the domes you see in the park―Enchanted Rock, Little Dome, Turkey Peak, and others.

Although Enchanted Rock appears to be solid and durable it continues to change and erode.

Enchanted Rock is an exfoliation dome (as are the other domes here). That means it has layers like an onion.

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

After the rock and soil on top wore away, the granite expanded slightly because there was less weight bearing down on it. That expansion caused the dome to split into curved sections. As the outer layer of rock breaks into smaller pieces and slides off, the next layer begins to peel away from the dome. This is a process that continues today.

Enchanted Rock rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- or 40-story building.

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

Vernal Pools

On more level portions of the dome, water collects in low spots or weathering pits. The granite in these pits wears away faster than the surrounding granite. Pits that hold water for several weeks are called vernal pools. Over time, these pools develop into microhabitats, home to a unique group of plants and animals.

The pools are very fragile. Enjoy them from a distance. Protect this special habitat by keeping pets and people out.

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

Tiny, translucent freshwater shrimp live in the vernal pools. These little fellows lay eggs that somehow survive the dry season. The eggs hatch when the pools refill with rainwater. The shrimp swim upside down, eating algae and plankton. In turn, they are eaten by birds providing an important link in the food chain. These creatures are an integral part of the fragile vernal pool habitat.

Related article: A State of Mind: Texas Hill Country

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

Hiking Enchanted Rock

There are 11 miles of hiking trails to explore when visiting Enchanted Rock.

Of the many hikes in the park, the most renowned is the Enchanted Rock Summit (Summit Trail), a 0.8-mile trail that winds to the top of the park’s namesake. The hike is short but is considered challenging due to the steep path and lack of shade along the entire way. At the top, you’ll have epic 360-degree views of the Hill Country. Look for rare vernal pools at the top (see above for details).

A more moderate hike, Turkey Pass Trail (0.7 miles) gives you excellent views of Enchanted Rock on one side and Turkey Peak and Freshman Mountain on the other.

From the intersection of Turkey Pass Trail or Echo Canyon Trail, take the Base Trail (0.9 miles) around the back side of the Rock for a different perspective.

From the Loop Trail via Moss Lake Trail, hike the Echo Canyon Trail (0.7 miles) around Moss Lake and into the saddle between Little Rock and Enchanted Rock. Stop and rest in the shade of massive boulders.

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

The short Scenic View Trail (0.1 miles) starts from the south end of the Loop Trail and brings you to a scenic view of the surrounding Hill Country landscape.

A short hike starting from the south end of the Loop Trail will bring you to a scenic view of the surrounding Hill Country landscape. The Interpretive Loop (0.5 miles) is a good choice for an easy, family-friendly trail. This short stroll is suitable for all ages and offers a glance at the many plants and animals in the park. A trail guide is available.

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

From the base of Enchanted Rock, take Fontside Trail (0.3 miles) through shaded oak trees and connect to Turkey Pass.

If you have time, head over to the Loop Trail (4.6 miles). This trail goes around the park’s limit and allows you to explore the entire area. Carry plenty of water with you on this trek around the perimeter of the park. The granite pathway leads you to incredible views of the natural area. This is the only trail open after sunset. Bring along a flashlight if you’re planning to stargaze. 

Related article: Head For the Hills: Texas Hill Country

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

Things to see near Enchanted Rock

From Enchanted Rock, you can visit Fredericksburg for a taste of German; explore downtown, grab a bite to eat at its many restaurants, join a wine tasting, or sip a coffee.

Learn about President Lyndon B. Johnson who was born and raised in the Texas Hill Country at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park and the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site.

And if you want to visit another Hill Country attraction, plan on visiting the Pedernales Falls State Park, another natural area in Texas.

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

Fact Box

Park elevation: 1,825 feet

Size: 1,644 acres

Date established: October 1978 

Location: Texas Hill Country

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

Address: 16710 Ranch Rd 965, Fredericksburg

Attractions: Hiking, backpacking, tent/car camping, rock climbing

Park hours: 6:30 am to 10 p.m. daily, gates closes at 8 pm.

Park entrance fee: $8/person daily. Reservations recommended online or by calling 512-389-8900. Paark closes for those without entry permits when the capacity is reached. Busy season is September to May.

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

Designation: Certified IDA International Dark Sky Park

Distance to the Park:

  • San Antonio: 90 miles
  • Austin: 100 miles
  • Houston: 250 miles
  • Dallas: 250 miles
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Enchanted Rock opened as a state natural area in October 1978.

More than 400 archeological sites have been discovered in the park of which about one-quarter are State Archeological Landmarks.

Related article: 7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

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

As temperatures fluctuate, particularly in the evening, the rock can be heard groaning and creaking—a once-mysterious trait that lends itself to legends of the “enchanted” nature of the park. We now know that these sounds are caused by the thick sheets of granite contracting and expanding across one another.

Translucent Fairy Shrimp are known to live in the dome’s vernal pools. The depressions are frequently dry but the eggs can survive without water, hatching after rain refills the pools.

The vernal pools also support rock quillwort—an endangered species of grass only found in Central Texas

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wyman Meinzer

Guess Who? 12 Texas Birds to Know

A short starter list for those who long to put a name with a beak

Everyone is familiar with Texas icons like the Alamo and River Walk but how many of their feathered friends can you identify? Northern Cardinal, Grackle, Northern Mockingbird…those are pretty easy but there are so many more!

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round thanks to its location and diverse eco-regions and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:

  • Far West Texas
  • Upper Texas Coast
  • Central Texas Coast
  • Lower Texas Coast
  • Heart of Texas West
  • Heart of Texas East
  • Panhandle Plains
  • Prairies and Piney Woods West
  • Prairies and Piney Woods East
Pied-billed grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you are a birder, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, or just want to see the wild side of Texas, these nine driving trail maps will lead you to the best spots to see birds, butterflies, bats, pronghorns, and more. What will you discover?

Learning to identify all of the state’s birds can be a daunting task, so here’s a list that’s been trimmed down to some of the more commonplace and easily seen species.

So, armed with this starter list and a helpful birding guidebook and a pair of binoculars and a camera head out and see how many you can spot and identify. Bring family and friends and turn it into a contest. You’ll find being bird-brained is fun for everyone.

Northern mockingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern Mockingbird

Such a list, of course, has to begin with the state bird of Texas. This gray and white bird makes up for its drab appearance with a voice that could compete in any singing competition. The Latin name (Mimus polyglottos) which translates loosely to “the many-tongued mimic” really sums up this songster. Instead of singing its song, this bird performs like a tribute band playing an original band’s song note for note. A seasoned male Mockingbird can sing the songs of dozens of other species found nearby and make a variety of other vocalizations from frog sounds to car alarms.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate Spoonbill

No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird having a pink body red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or salt water, or flying in small groups overhead.

Related article: What Is Birding?

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Jay

Unmistakably tropical, the brilliantly-colored Green Jay ranges south to Ecuador but enters the U.S. only in southernmost Texas where it is fairly common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Green Jays are colorful birds with a pale green back and underside, a black chest, a blue and blackhead and face, and yellow sides on their tail.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Kiskadee

The Great Kiskadee is a treat for visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the under-parts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

When it comes to patience, no bird can outdo the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a short, stocky wading bird about 24 inches in length with a wingspan of a little under four feet. It has long yellow to orange legs, red eyes, a thick black bill, and a short neck. It has a slate-gray body, a dark bluish-black head with a white streak along the cheek, and a very pale yellow (sometimes so pale that it appears white) crown that extends back from the head in the form of a few wispy feathers. The wing feathers have a grey and black striped appearance.

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vermilion Flycatcher

Most flycatchers are drab but the male Vermilion Flycatcher is a brilliant exception. It is usually seen perched fairly low in open areas near water making periodic flights to nab insect prey. As if the male’s bright colors were not advertisement enough, he also displays by puffing up his feathers and fluttering high in the air while singing repeatedly. Fairly common in parts of the southwest and Texas, the vermilion flycatcher is also widespread in Central and South America.

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

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

The Black-bellied Whistling Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican Tree Duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas, and, of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.

Related article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Tricolored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tricolored Heron

The Tricolored Heron is a medium-sized wading bird named for its three main colors: bluish-gray, purple, and white. Its head, back, and wings are a dark bluish-gray. The back of the neck is purple. The belly is white. The tri-color also has a narrow white streak with delicate rust-colored markings down the front of its neck. The tri-colored is more active than the larger herons. This bird does not patiently stand and wait when feeding. It walks through shallow water in a jerky fashion, crouching and darting as it moves along. It lunges and then shoots its bill into the water to catch a fish or an aquatic insect. 

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Altamira Oriole

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the U. S. makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. The Altamira has a black back, wings, bib, lores (the region between the eyes and nostril), a bill; orange head, nape, and underparts.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

A stripe-backed woodpecker of eastern Mexico and northern Central America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker reaches the U. S. only in the brushlands and woodlands of Texas and southwest Oklahoma. Very noisy and conspicuous, the Golden-fronted has barred black and white back and upper wings, the rump is white, and the tail is usually black.

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crested Caracara

Related to falcons but very different in shape and habits, the crested caracara reach the U. S. only in Texas and Florida. A large, long-legged raptor, the Crested Caracara has a black cap with a short crest at back, pale sides of back and neck, bare red skin on the face, black body, white tail with wide black tip, white patches at ends of dark wings, and faint barring on upper back and breast.

Related article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reddish Egret

A conspicuously long-legged, long-necked heron of shallow saltwater, the Reddish Egret is a very active forager. Often draws attention by its feeding behavior: running through shallows with long strides, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, raising one or both wings, and abruptly stabbing at fish.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Blue Heron

More old-timers refer to this species as a “blue crane” but this heron is not related to cranes. This tall wetland inhabitant will hunt for fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like in just about any creek, pond, lake, or roadside ditch. With an overall grayish color, this bird does have hints of blue-gray here and there. In flight, the Great Blue Heron might conjure up beliefs that pterodactyls still fly in our friendly skies. When waters freeze in winter, don’t expect these birds to chip away at the ice. Instead, watch them switch to dry upland settings in search of rodents. Who knows, maybe a switch from slimy fish to furry rats every now and then breaks the monotony!

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Skimmer

The remarkable bill of the black skimmer sets it apart from all other American birds. The large orange and black bill are knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, snapping the bill shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal, Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches. 

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-necked Stilt

“Long” and “thin” are the best adjectives for describing this elegant black and white shorebird: long neck; thin, needle-like black bill; and long, pink legs. Black-necked Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to the bodies of any bird—only flamingoes are longer. The Black-necked stilt wades in shallow water as it feeds, probing with its long, thin bill for insects and crustaceans on or near the surface of the water. It finds most of its food visually, picking insects, small crustaceans, and tiny fish from the surface of the water or mud.

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Horned Owl

With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fares such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America, equally at home in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Royal Tern

A large, orange-billed tern, the royal tern is found only along ocean beaches. Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the royal tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast. It forages mostly by hovering over the water and plunging to catch prey just below the surface. Sometimes flies low, skimming the water with the bill; occasionally catches flying fish in the air, or dips to the water’s surface to pick up floating refuse.

Long-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long-billed Thrasher

A resident of dense brushy habitats, the Long-billed Thrasher is found only in southern Texas and eastern Mexico. There it is a common permanent resident of native woodland and thickets, foraging on the ground under dense cover, often singing from a hidden position within the brush. Uses its long bill to flip dead leaves aside as it rummages in the leaf litter for insects; also will use its bill to dig in soil within an inch of the surface. And it’s often seen perching in shrubs and trees to eat berries.

Related article: World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turkey Vulture

Early American settlers from Europe confused this carrion eater with the “buzzard” back home but the two aren’t alike. Though the name “buzzard” is used in other parts of the world for hawks, it refuses to be erased from our vocabulary for vultures. When soaring, this vulture has a silvery tinge to the trailing edge of the entire wing. When they’re feasting on roadkill, notice their milk chocolate coloration and, in adults, a red featherless head. Only a mother could love a face like that. There is another species of vulture in Texas: the black vulture. The black vulture sports a gray featherless head and is dark black. During the flight, black vultures also have a silvery tinge to their wings but only on the outer tips. If we didn’t have vultures, our roadways would soon be overrun with smelly, unsightly roadkill.

Killdeer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Killdeer

How great would it be if every bird were named for its vocalization, like this one? A resounding “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee” can be heard not only in natural settings but also in ball fields and parking lots. In flight, watch for the fiery orange rump and pointy wings and, when perched, watch for two distinctive black bands across the breast resembling wide necklaces. If you approach one and find it limping away with a drooped wing and loud cries, know that you’re being duped. This action — called feigning — is designed to lure you away from a nearby ground nest or nestlings, so tread lightly.

American coot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

American Coot

I don’t think it’s a compliment to be called an “old coot,” but it’s OK to spot some on a nearby lake or reservoir. Since this bird needs a running start to take off from the water, it doesn’t hang out in small bodies of water. If you find one there, it’s usually an indication that inclement weather grounded the bird and the runway is too short for it to take off again. Commonly occurring in rafts, or large floating flocks of birds, this all-dark bird has a pale white bill and feeds on aquatic organisms and vegetation. This species, no relation to ducks, pours into Texas during fall to spend the winter months where water doesn’t freeze, but watch for most to head north in spring. Some stick around throughout the year and raise a family. The young look similar in shape but have a whitish head that distinguishes them from mom and dad.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mourning Dove

With a long, pointy tail and a small, beady head, this dove enjoys sunflower seeds whether the seeds are at the feeder, on a fresh sunflower stalk, or the ground. The best feeders for a flock of these are rural sunflower fields in late summer or early fall; their Columbidae relatives line up shoulder-to-shoulder on the power lines and fences, assessing the danger before dropping down into the field.

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tufted Titmouse

It’s fun to watch this feisty, crested bird feed on sunflower seeds. With one foot, they pin a seed to the limb they’re perched on and begin to hammer away to open it, using head and bill like an all-in-one hammer and chisel. After all that work, they gobble down a tasty seed that’s rich in fat, fiber, protein, several vitamins and minerals, and, most importantly, calories to get them through tough times until Mother Nature can again provide her buffet.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb

Texas Hill Country Is the Ultimate Road Trip

Texas Hill Country with its winding roads and hilly vistas of live oak trees and prickly pear is one of the most scenic places in the Lone Star State and offers some of the best wines east of California

With its scenic beauty, quaint towns, fascinating history, and varied attractions, the central part of the Lone Star State has all the makings of a fun-filled RV getaway.

For many folks, Texas evokes thoughts of flat cotton fields, desert, the humid eastern piney woods, the Gulf Coast, big cities such as Dallas and Houston, or a state so large it seems to take forever to drive across. Yes, Texas is all of these and more.

Blanco State Park in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas Hill Country at approximately 31,000 square miles is the fourth-largest region in Texas. This vast, rural region of south-central Texas is conveniently close to all major cities. Its rolling hills are only an hour-long drive from Austin and San Antonio and a four-hour jaunt from Dallas and Houston. 

The hills dotted with sprawling cypress and oak trees make for an idyllic road trip route that’s especially picturesque in spring and fall. Some of the lushest fields of bluebonnets bloom in spring and there’s nothing more Texan than a bluebonnet photograph.

Guadalupe River State Park in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Motorcyclists enjoy riding the hilly, curvy, and wooded byways and highways. Visitors may see deer and other wildlife as well as Texas Longhorns grazing in fields.

I will hit a few highlights of what this large, diverse region has to offer for travelers of all ages as we journey from east to west.

Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s start our trip across the Hill Country in New Braunfels located on I-35 a short distance northeast of San Antonio. New Braunfels and the Canyon Lake area just a few miles to the north are home to various RV parks. Many RVers, especially young families, make New Braunfels a destination.

Besides being close enough for day trips to San Antonio, New Braunfels and the surrounding area offer attractions for visitors of all ages. One hot spot for cooling off is the Schlitterbahn Water Park which boasts 51 attractions including rivers, rides, chutes, and slides that draw tens of thousands of visitors every year.

Texas Hill Country near Kerrville© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those looking for a natural water attraction might want to take a dip in the spring-fed Comal River in New Braunfels. At only 2.5 miles long it is one of the shortest navigable waterways in the United States. Tubing in the river is a fun way to cool off on a hot day. Another fun family destination is the Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo.

More on the Texas Hill Country: A State of Mind: Texas Hill Country

Gruene in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Braunfels isn’t just for kids. Settled by Germans in the mid-1800s, the Gruene Historic District within the city limits was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. The renovated historic buildings now serve as bed-and-breakfast inns, restaurants, art galleries, antique and gift shops, and a general store. You can enjoy live entertainment at Gruene Hall, Texas’s oldest continually operating dance hall. Gruene also is a popular launching place for kayaking and tubing on the Guadalupe River.

Greune in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One busy tourist destination a few miles up I-35 at exit 200 in San Marcos is the location of the Premium and Tanger outlet malls. With more than 200 stores combined at the malls, shoppers will find plenty to occupy their time.

A favorite German restaurant, the Alpine Haus is in New Braunfels at 251 S. Seguin Ave. It sits back off the road in a historic house built in the mid-1800s. The period décor is attractive, the food is deliciously cooked in Bavarian style, and the service is excellent.

Buesher State Park in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A block down Seguin Avenue from the Alpine Haus is the oldest continually operating bakery in Texas. Naegelin’s Bakery has been serving authentic German pastries and strudel since 1868.

Just a few miles north of New Braunfels are Canyon Lake and the Guadalupe River. Several RV parks in this area will appeal to those who desire a resting place away from the city and the highway. This also is a good area for those who enjoy nature. Boating and fishing are popular on Canyon Lake and the Guadalupe River attracts kayakers and tubers. Area outfitters rent tubes and provide transportation for those who glide down the gentle Guadalupe. A well-maintained nature trail awaits exploration below the Canyon Lake Dam

Guadalupe River at Kerrville in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With approximately 50 wineries and tasting rooms in Gillespie County, this is the most-visited wine region in Texas. And if you thought wine wasn’t a thing in Texas, the state has eight recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). In fact, Texas is the fifth-highest wine-producing state and is home to the fifth-highest number of wineries, according to data from WineAmerica.org. Texas wine isn’t new but it is rapidly growing and the quality is only getting better as growers perfect the grapes that do best in the rocky Texas soil.

More on the Texas Hill Country: Head For the Hills: Texas Hill Country

Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But wineries aren’t the only attraction. Tourists visit Fredericksburg to browse the art galleries, leather shops, boutiques, brew pubs, and other venues in its historic downtown. Lunch and dinner breaks find visitors in one of several German restaurants on the main street.

The city is a year-round destination: Oktoberfest is a no-brainer in the fall but the holidays make Fredericksburg look like a gingerbread village.

Fredericksburg Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a long history of German influence, Otto’s German Bistro is the best place in town for a Texas German dinner. For the brunch lovers, Hill & Vine offers a unique brunch menu with black-eyed pea hummus and peachy pecan pancakes. Short on time and need a bite to go? Hye Market and Deli has delicious sandwiches, perfect for lunch in between tastings. 

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

A visit to Fredericksburg isn’t complete without a stop at the National Museum of the Pacific War. The museum holds interest for visitors of all ages. Plan to spend several hours to see it all. The facility is open Wednesday through Sunday. Admission prices vary ranging up to $20 for adults.

Texas Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many Fredericksburg RV parks and campgrounds are within minutes of historic Main Street and major attractions while others are located in nearby municipal and state parks. Choose from Fredericksburg RV Park, The Vineyards of Fredericksburg RV Park, Texas Wine Country Jellystone Park Camp-Resort, Oakwood RV Resort, and Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After dark, nearby Lyndon B. Johnson State Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park while the one-of-a-kind Luckenbach General Store, Bar & Dancehall hosts a nightly picker’s circle.

More on the Texas Hill Country: “Howdy, y’all” to these Small Texas Towns

In the heart of the Texas Hill Country, the 36th president was born, reared, and died. Perhaps no other president is more closely identified with one parcel of real estate including his birthplace, boyhood home, and ranch as well as his ancestors’ pioneer settlement.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature enthusiasts can experience the nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. A billion years ago, the large pink granite dome known as Enchanted Rock was part of a big pool of magma miles under the earth’s surface. It pushed into the rock above in spots, then cooled and hardened, turning into the large granite dome it is today. The dome has drawn people here for thousands of years, and today, visitors can hike, backpack, rock climb, bird, and even stargaze, as the park is designated an International Dark Sky Park.

Lady Bird Johnson Regional Park near Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short drive west on Texas Highway 16 finds some visitors dreaming of their youth and days gone by. Street Dreams is an auto dealership that specializes in classic and collector cars and trucks as well as related memorabilia. The two showrooms are crowded with 30 to 35 vehicles, all ready to drive away. This mini museum is worth a visit. Yes, walking among and looking at these cars does cause one to dream.

Marcos in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby Bandera is known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” Here, you can attend rodeos, visit the Frontier Times Museum, hike in the 5,400-acre Hill Country State Natural Area or at the nearby Lost Maples State Natural Area, and listen to country music in the 11th Street Cowboy Bar. Kayaking on the Medina River and horseback riding are other favorite activities.

Schulenberg in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to all I have mentioned in our drive across the Hill Country, more than a dozen state parks and natural areas offer miles of hiking trails, bird-watching (including the rare yellow-cheeked warbler) locations, kayaking spots, and the opportunity to observe thousands of bats emerge from an old tunnel.

Being rural and dotted with small towns, this area also boasts dozens of fairs, festivals, and farmers’ markets throughout the year.

Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although I have highlighted just a little of what the Texas Hill Country has to offer, I hope I have sparked your interest in visiting this beautiful part of Texas which can satisfy diverse interests and promises fun for all ages.

Read Next: Texas Road Trip Playlist: Sing Your Way across Texas

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wyman Meinzer

Sand Surfer: Ride the Dunes at Monahans Sandhills State Park

Thousands of acres of dunes up to 70 feet tall make up Monahans Sandhills in West Texas

You can surf on the Gulf Coast in Texas but you can also surf at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. Essentially a giant, hilly sandbox, the park is a small part of a dune field that extends further into Texas and New Mexico. 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.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s never the same park twice. With an ever-shifting landscape that is always at the mercy of the West Texas winds, Monahans Sandhills State Park transforms itself almost daily. And that’s just the beginning of why one of the most unique geological areas of Texas is worth a visit. 

Monahans is a remarkable geographic formation dating back tens of thousands of years. Erosion from as far away as the Rocky Mountains was blown south and east eventually trapped by higher elevations surrounding the Permian Basin. It’s only a small fraction (although, at nearly 4,000 acres, small is relative) of a much larger dune field that stretches across state lines yet it is unique within Texas.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indigenous people lived—and thrived—on this land as far back as 12,000 years up until the late 1800s. That’s when the town of Monahans was created as a water stop for steam engines on the Texas and Pacific Railway. Not long after, the area’s oil boom began. The park was created in 1957 to preserve this stunning landscape and its unique and diverse ecosystem.

Related article: Totally Texas

Come out and join people of all ages who find serenity in this vast park and surf the dunes—you can rent a “sandboard” at the park. 

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to its ever-changing nature, the park does not have marked trails. And with hills that often look alike it can be easy to lose your way so take plenty of water when heading out. On the flip side, exploring most anywhere in the park offers the chance to encounter numerous plant and wildlife species that thrive in this tough environment. Explorations of active dunes can reveal all kinds of tracks from jackrabbits to lizards to snakes; it’s even exciting to explore the unique characteristics of insect tracks. 

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans is a great place to camp out under the stars. There are 26 campsites in the park, each with water and electricity. The surroundings are particularly serene at sunset when the sands glow golden-orange and the sparse vegetation creates long, delicate shadows across the surface. And come sunrise, the windswept dunes may even look slightly different than the afternoon before which allows eagle-eyed campers the opportunity to spot the changes.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some folks jog. Others play tennis, swim laps, or practice yoga. And others ride the dunes at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. Sand surfing is wonderful exercise. It’s very aerobic when you climb up the hills. Low impact, too, because of the sand! Kids of all ages love surfing, sliding, or tumbling down the sandhills and hiking back up to do it all over again.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to sand surf, too? Give it a try at Monahans Sandhills where you can rent sand disks for a mere buck an hour and boards for $2. Slopes range from gentle grades to steep inclines that reach 60 feet or higher. The park’s 3,840 acres of dunes—which peak at 70 feet high—lie within a massive dune field that stretches some 200 miles from south of Monahans and north into New Mexico.

Related article: 7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

Pro tip for newbies: Lean forward and stay low. Keep your weight forward. Otherwise, if you go too fast and get scared, you’re going to fall back. Wax your board and never goes barefoot (shoes and socks a must).

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shifting sand against blue skies and sunsets will call to your inner painter and photographer so bring along your gear. You’ll also find a surprising variety of wildlife including roadrunners—watch for tracks in the sand. 

Though most visitors come to check out the dunes the park offers other activities, too. For instance, horses are welcome in the 800-acre horseback riding section (hitching posts and water available). Campers can book a site with water, electricity, and a shade shelter. The brush is thicker in this area but you’ll love exploring on horseback.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the largest oak forests in the world is found here. Acorn-bearing Harvard shin oaks cover stabilized dunes (those that don’t change with the winds) across the park yet only grow 3-4 feet tall at maturity.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Numerous bird species including pyrrhuloxias, western meadowlarks, black-throated sparrows, Harris’s hawks, and curve-billed thrashers abound in the park. In early morning and late evening, watch for coyotes, javelin, and mule deer.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the Dunagan Visitor Center, interactive exhibits tell about the area’s oil production, native flora and fauna, and the constantly changing dunes. They’re spectacular when the sun is setting and the wind is blowing and you’re walking toward the sun. The sunlight reflecting off the sand looks like a silver river running over the dunes.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sandhills are located on the east side of Monahans, 30 miles from Odessa beside I-20 and they have a dedicated interstate exit (#86). The land on either side is also sandy but quite bushy and used for oil drilling—countless oil wells (pumpjacks) are scattered over the surrounding flat plains of the Permian Basin for several hundred miles in some directions.

Related article: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park truly is unlike any other destination in Texas. Its landscape may seem uninviting from the outside but its beauty, history, and diversity of life along with all the activities and excitement you can handle once you’re here, make it a Texas gem you don’t want to miss. So come see for yourself and surf the dunes at Monahans. 

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Elevation: 2,724 feet

Climate: January average low is 29 degrees. July average high is 96 degrees. Average rainfall is 12.3 inches.

Entrance fee: $4/person

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping facilities: 25 sites with electric and water hookups, picnic table, fire ring, shade shelter, waist-high grill, restrooms with showers nearby

Camping fee: $15 + entrance fee

Horse sites: 3 sites are next to each other in the same parking area designed for large vehicles and trailers to back in, only

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horse sites fee: $2/horse/day

Note: The Dunagan Visitor Center is currently closed for renovations. The park office is now at the Sandhills Picnic Pavilion. Contact the park for more information.

Related article: Road Trip from Austin to El Paso: 9 Stops along the Way

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chase A. Fountain

Barrier Islands Hopping

These islands are like the Florida Keys…but with more hee-haw

When most folks think of Texas in the summertime, visions of barbecue, Lone Star-shaped swimming pools, and the Alamo—but how about dolphins, rocket launches, and sandcastles the size of actual castles? The state’s barrier islands might surprise you.

What the keys are to Florida, the barrier islands are to Texas: a 234-mile string of islands that hug the Gulf of Mexico coast made primarily of sand built up over thousands of years from tidal movements. They range in size from four miles in length to the largest barrier island on Earth. There are seven main islands in total and each one has a distinct personality from the touristy trappings of Galveston to the utter solitude of San Jose.

Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No matter your summer fun, Texas’ barrier islands deliver. Want some R&R on a remote beach populated almost exclusively by seagulls? You got it. Want to go kayaking in a national park? That’s a distinct possibility. Want to eat foot-long corn dogs and “mermaid soup”? You can and you should—and rest assured no dogs or mermaids were harmed in the making of either of those delicacies. Here’s your guide to the Texas barrier islands.

Aston Villa, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston

The northernmost barrier island and by far the most popular with more than 7 million annual visitors, Galveston’s reputation as a summertime beach destination for Houstonians can largely be chalked up to its proximity. Although it has somewhat of a hokey reputation thanks to its Pleasure Pier boardwalk, eccentric mini golf courses, 50 colorful Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle statues around the island, and pyramid-shaped aquarium (Moody Gardens) giving it sort of an Atlantic City of the south look, Galveston has a lot going for it. As evidenced by those previously stated attractions, the 27-mile island is far and away Texas’ quirkiest barrier island teeming with historic architecture, and larger-than-life nautical lore. After all, a city with lofty nicknames like Playground of the South and Ellis Island of the West is bound to at least be intriguing.

Seawolf Park, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hard-to-miss attraction, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is a mammoth boardwalk lined with carnival games and enough rides to fill a theme park including the Iron Shark Rollercoaster and the Pirate’s Plunge flume ride.

Related article: Texas Road Trips Sampler

For something a bit more subdued, The Grand 1894 Opera House is an ornate institution, home to popular productions like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The theater harkens to the island’s earliest days when Galveston first emerged as a primary shipping and immigration port in the 1800s.

The Strand, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby is The Strand, Galveston’s historic, bayside district filled with Victorian and Greek Revival architecture. You’ll also find the tall ship Elissa, an 1877 vessel that now serves as a floating museum of maritime history.

Further south on the island, Jamaica Beach offers a quieter reprieve from the touristy clamor for those looking to soak up the sun.

Jamaica Beach RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follet’s Island

Driving south from Jamaica Beach—and the antithesis of Galveston in terms of hustle and bustle—Follet’s Island is a smaller, 13-mile island that’s largely untouched and undeveloped except for some remote beach houses.

The entire island is one big beach, most of which is quiet and wide-open, providing ample opportunity for swimming, beach camping, fishing, and kayaking. Seeing as the beach is largely undeveloped and open, it’s entirely free to visit and horseback riding is also allowed on the beach.

Birding on the island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Matagorda Island

If you thought Follet’s Island was quiet, just wait until you see what’s next. Further south, Matagorda Island is the most remote barrier island, a 38-mile stretch of solitude only accessible by boat. A far cry from the thrill rides of Galveston, Matagorda is largely comprised of the Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge and State Natural Area.

Private boat, a means of transportation between the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors who have a private boat or can charter one the car-free island is a beachy escape for campers willing to forgo the niceties of electricity and running water. This is an undeveloped place preserved for bird watching, saltwater fishing, and hunting. The 20,000 acres of land are open to deer and waterfowl just as long as you keep in mind that the whooping cranes which occasionally flock to the area are endangered and protected.

Related article: Visit SIX Iconic Texas Landmarks on One Road Trip

At night, thanks to its remoteness and lack of light pollution, stargazing is a popular pastime too.

A ferry connects the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Jose Island

Equally, as undeveloped as Matagorda yet easier to access, San Jose Island is the next barrier island down the line. It’s immediately north of populated Port Aransas on Mustang Island where a ferry takes visitors back and forth offering 21 miles of undeveloped beachfront, excellent fishing, and endless beach combing for seashells. Cars are also prohibited in San Jose which is entirely protected as a wildlife sanctuary. Due to the island’s history as a former ranch, wild cattle roam the island and it’s not uncommon to see their offspring on the beach.

Peace and solitude on the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As quiet and untouched as the island seems today, it’s rich with Texas history. This was the first site to fly the American flag on Texas soil when a lieutenant swam ashore from the USS Alabama and planted it in the sand in 1845. A short-lived town on the island called Aransas was razed by Union forces in the Civil War. In 1935, wealthy oil magnate Sid Richardson established a miles-long ranch and estate where he once wined and dined with the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The estate is long gone but riches may or may not remain—legend has it the island contains actual buried treasure from pirate Jean Lafitte.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mustang Island

While San Jose offers remote solitude and potential pirate riches, the island on the other side of Aransas Pass is a haven of seafood restaurants, margaritas, beachside festivals, and Easter egg-colored cottages. Mustang Island is a mecca for families, wintering snowbirds, and spring breakers alike, especially in the city of Port Aransas which comprises much of the 18-mile island.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pirate Jean Lafitte used to frequent the island, arguably making him the original snowbird or spring breaker (take your choice). And while you likely won’t find buried treasure here, you’re sure to find treasures of other kinds including award-winning sand sculptures, adrenaline-pumping jet ski jaunts, and all the shrimp and redfish you can eat.

Related article: Texas Road Trip Playlist: Sing Your Way across Texas

For a town with a year-round population of about 3,000, Port Aransas is surprisingly happening and delightfully quirky. For instance, Texas SandFest is an annual springtime attraction (April 15-16, 2023) that features carnival-style snacks, live music, and epic sand sculptures right on the beach. It’s an ideal place to scarf foot-long corn dogs and funnel cakes while marveling at giant sand castles.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Just about every place on the island offers top-tier fish and seafood, perhaps best exemplified by Isabella’s. The beachy-chic restaurant sits in a classy community called Cinnamon Shore (named for the fact that Port Aransas’ beaches look like they’re swirled with cinnamon). There you can pair espresso martinis with cheesy baked oysters, pancetta-wrapped shrimp, and something called Mermaid Soup: a curried medley of lobster-coconut broth and shrimp—and mercifully, no mermaids.

To fully immerse yourself in the action-packed island, though, you need to get out on the water, and by that we mean go on a guided jet ski romp. Gettin’ Salty Watersports takes visitors out into the bay and to a couple seashell-strewn islands with lots of thrilling dolphin sightings along the way.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island

The next island is not only the largest in Texas but also the largest barrier island in the world. Clocking in at 113 miles, Padre Island is bookended by Corpus Christi and Padre Island National Seashore on the north and beach bars and theme park ride on the south. Naturally, an island larger than the state of Delaware is bound to have a wide array of attractions and Padre Island is the kind of something-for-everyone that runs the gamut from urban outings to all-natural tranquility and nature preserves.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Divvied into North Padre Island and South Padre Island, separated by the Port Mansfield Channel, the top half starts with Corpus Christi, the most populated area in the region. From the Selena Museum and the Texas State Aquarium to beachside breweries and guided tours aboard the USS Lexington, there’s no shortage of sights to enjoy.

North Padre is also home to a national park site, Padre Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world and proof that the “everything’s bigger in Texas” slogan isn’t always a cliche. The 66-mile park protects sea turtles and hundreds of bird species and it’s an ideal haven for fishing, kayaking, windsurfing, and RV camping on the sand.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the southern side of the channel, South Padre is known equally as a family-friendly getaway and a spring break staple. It’s swarming with beach bars (including Clayton’s, the largest beach bar in Texas, live music, carnival rides, an enormous water park (Beach Park at Isla Blanca), and Gravity Park, an adventure and amusement park with some seriously intense attractions including the Tallest Reverse-Bungee in the World (The Rocket).

Padre Island World Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.

Dune meadows, salt marsh, and intertidal flats along with thickets of native shrubs and trees are irresistible to migrating birds.

Related article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

Of course, with this much mileage of coastline, there are plenty of beaches to choose from, too, like Isla Blanca Park and South Padre Bayside Beach.

Black skimmer along the Gulf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brazos Island

The last barrier island is also the teeniest. Brazos Island is a diminutive four-mile island, home to 217 undeveloped acres of seaside wilderness. Located just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, it’s a peaceful retreat for swimming, fishing, bird watching, hopeful dolphin-spotting, and camping.

Aside from that, the main draw here nowadays is Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch facility which set up shop on the Boca Chita peninsula.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wyman Meinzer

Best States for a Summer Road Trip

Summer is the perfect time to hit the open road: School’s out, the weather’s warm, and the possibilities are endless

Don’t you just love when you are driving and see those welcome signs into states? There’s nothing like a summer road trip to enjoy the outdoors with friends and family. Summer is the best time to hit the road and check some places off that bucket list. It’s your chance to feel that summer breeze, listen to good music, play fun road trip games, and watch road trip films. Sightsee across some of your favorite states both near and far!

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In their Summer Travel Survey 2022, The Vacationer determined that 42 percent plan to travel more than last summer with nearly 51 percent flying on a plane and 80 percent on road trips.

Deciding to take a trip is the easy part, though. Picking a destination and affording everything you want to pack into your itinerary is harder. Fuel prices might be one thing to worry about, for example. They’ve been increasing this year with the national gas average hovering around $5 per gallon now ($5.80 for diesel). On top of that, you’ll need to consider accommodations, activities, and dining. All of these certainly contribute to the more than $751 billion we spend on leisure travel each year.

Kemah Boardwalk, Kemah, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wallet Hub curated a list of the best and worst states to take a summer road trip this year. Of course, Texas made the list. I’m not surprised! Wallet Hub compared all 50 states and key factors to determine the most fun, scenic, and affordable states to visit on a road trip. After the pandemic and current inflation, road trips are still the best way to still experience an enjoyable vacation with your favorite people. So load up the RV and hit the road! It’s time to see what states fall into the top 15 best states for a summer road trip.

Whitehall, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To determine the best road-trip destinations for travel this summer, WalletHub compared the 50 states across three key dimensions: Costs, Safety, and Activities.

They evaluated those dimensions using 32 relevant metrics. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale with a score of 100 representing the most favorable conditions for summer road trips.

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina

Metrics used to determine Costs include:

  • Average gas prices
  • Lowest price of camping
  • Cost of Living Index

Metrics used to determine Safety include:

  • Quality of roads
  • Quality of bridges
  • Traffic-related fatalities
  • Car thefts per 1,000 residents
  • Violent crimes per 1,000 residents

Metrics used to determine Activities include:

  • Share of the total area designated as parkland
  • National parks recreation visitors per capita
  • Zoos and botanical gardens per capita
  • Number of attractions
  • Access to scenic byways
  • Historic sites per capita
Rayne mural, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The financial website then determined each state’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order their sample.

Taking the average gas prices metric, for example, Georgia came in with the lowest average prices followed by Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi. At the high end, California and Nevada came in with the highest prices followed by Washington and Oregon.

When the points were tallied, New York came in No. 1 with a score of 58.01 and Minnesota followed with 57.56.

Vanderbilt Estate, Hyde Park, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. New York

Not only is there the city to enjoy but many places outside the Big Apple. Visit Niagara Falls, mountain views, The Catskills, historical spots, and more!

2. Minnesota

Hit the road to Minnesota. I know, maybe you did not know it would be No. 2! Take a scenic drive and view beautiful byways, waterfalls, and more.

Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Texas

Texas is absolutely it! One of my favorite to explore in an RV! Head to Texas and you could spend days driving through the entire state all you want. Stop in Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and more. From the beach, to the cities, to the country side you will never run out of things to do and places to eat.

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Louisiana

Go to Louisiana and it’s time to have fun! Visit the swamp on a swamp tour, factory tours, historical tours, Cajun Country, and much more.

5. Maine

Now, maybe you would have never guessed it? I surely did not. But head to Maine and experience national parks, cool loop highways, beaches, and more.

Holmes County, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Ohio

Oh, Ohio! Drive up North and visit Cedar Point Amusement Park, Put-In-Bay, Columbus Zoo, hiking trails, and more!

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. North Carolina

You read that right! NC is in the No. 7 spot for best summer road trips. If you’ve toured the Tar Heel State, I am sure you know why. Drive through the mountains, on the beach, through the cities, eat good, hike, shop, relax, this state has it all!

Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Idaho

Hit the road in Idaho! Visit hiking trails, national recreation areas, and scenic byways while you’re there.

Mount Dora, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Florida

Hit the road and head to Florida. You might want to drive through the entire state but trust me; it will take you a while so you might as well pit stop while you’re there. Drop into Pensacola, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa area, Miami, Key West, and more!

10. Wyoming

If you drive to Wyoming for Yellowstone and Grand Teton, take some time to visit the Union Pass Monument, National Museum of Military Vehicles, Wild Horses, and more!

St. Marys, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Georgia

This is a good one, and another personal favorite! Visit the mountains, the lake, amusement parks, amazing shopping centers, state parks, great food, and more all throughout Georgia!

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Washington

Drive across the country and visit Washington State this summer. You’ll see plenty of sites on the way, but once you are there enjoy views of Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, Mount St. Helens, the Cascade Loop, San Juan Islands, and more!

Altavista, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Virginia

You’re on your way to Virginia this summer! Visit national parks, beaches, Colonial National Parkway, and more!

14. Nebraska

Hit the road to Nebraska! Visit Sandhills Journey, Loup Rivers Byway, Lewis & Clark Byway, Heritage Highway, and more!

15. Iowa

Take a drive through or to Iowa and see some of your new favorite views. Visit Iowa Great Lakes, The Amana Colonies, and more!

Worth Pondering…

Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think.

—Lawrence Durrell

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

The drive from Austin to El Paso is rich with history, adventure, and natural beauty

Bookended by the capital city of Austin and the West Texas border town of El Paso, a drive through West Texas takes in not just two of Texas’s most distinctive cities but also a host of cool small towns rich with frontier history, sweeping vistas, and delicious barbecue and Tex-Mex cuisine.

The drive from Austin to El Paso clocks in at about nine hours and at first glance it can look a bit daunting and devoid of major towns. But rest assured that there are plenty of fascinating attractions to break up the drive.

Types of barb wire used in West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, like us turn it into a multi-day journey. As with any road trip, it’s best to meander a bit, staying overnight for a few nights along the way and detouring from the main route now and then. In order to soak up the Texas hospitality and try plenty of regional cuisine along the way, I recommend taking 5 or 6 days on the road trip across West Texas.

Here are my seven favorite stops from Austin to El Paso.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center in Austin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin

From the world-famous barbecue to the non-stop live music to the quirky charm of South Congress Avenue, Austin is a fantastically fun place to start a Texas road trip.

Walk across the Congress Avenue Bridge just before sunset when the Mexican free-tailed bats that live under the bridge venture out to form dark clouds in the sky over Lady Bird Lake. It’s a sight to see and one that attracts hundreds of sightseers to the bridge each night.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center in Austin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a quick lunch, the Congress Avenue Torchy’s Tacos is a popular regional chain with a creative taco menu (try the Trailer Park with fried chicken, pico de gallo, and green chiles). For a decadent dessert, get in line at Amy’s Ice Creams where the Mexican vanilla and dark chocolate flavors are standouts.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center in Austin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with the stellar Tex-Mex cuisine, any trip to Austin should include a visit to at least one of the city’s famous barbecue spots. The Visit Austin website breaks it down in its Ultimate Guide to Austin Barbecue. Terry Black’s BBQ is a premiere destination for legendary Texas barbecue. You can’t go wrong with an assortment of brisket, sausage, and turkey (sold by the pound) and sides of mac and cheese, green beans, and cornbread muffins.

You could easily spend a week or two exploring Austin but on a road trip across West Texas, two or three days would allow you to take in a good assortment of the city’s attractions.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg

Heading west out of Austin on US Highway 290, a favorite first stop is Fredericksburg, a mid-sized town with an astonishing array of well-preserved rock buildings from the 1800s days of German settlers. Any visit to Fredericksburg should begin with a walk down Main Street to take in distinctive buildings like the Pioneer Memorial Library (built in 1882) and the Vereins Kirche Museum (built in 1847).

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop for lunch at the iconic Auslander Restaurant and Biergarten for authentic German fare like schnitzel and sauerkraut or the Altdorf Restaurant and Biergarten for bratwurst or knockwurst. For a beautiful look at the plants, seeds, and wines of the region take a quick drive east from town to Wild Seed Farms. To hike head a short distance to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

Wildseed Farms near Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus: Luckenbach, the tiny Texas outpost made famous by a 1977 hit song by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson is a 15-minute drive from Fredericksburg and makes a wonderful day trip.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caverns of Sonora

The founder of a National Speleological Society (read: a group of dudes who love exploring caves) once said “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by a Texan.” The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth form 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cavern is known for its stunning array of calcite crystal formations, extremely delicate formations, and the abundance and variety of formations. You’ll find helictites, soda straws stalactites, speleothems, stalagmites, and cave bacon. The cave is a constant 71 degrees with 98 percent humidity which makes it feel about 85 degrees.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daily guided tours of this remarkable cave system last just shy of two hours and take you 155 feet below the earth’s surface. Sonora is also a great halfway point between Austin (or San Antonio) and Big Bend. Their RV Park offers 48 sites complete with water and electricity, several of which are pull-through. Due to the presence of the cavern, a dump station is not available; however, there are clean restrooms with showers.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Stockton

Few Texas towns can claim a past as colorful or well preserved as Fort Stockton. The best way to experience these cultural treasures is to take a self-guided driving tour beginning at the Visitor Center inside the railway depot that was built in 1911.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the tour, you’ll pass more than a dozen legendary sites such as the Pecos County Courthouse, the Historic Old Jail of 1884, the “Oldest House” that is believed to have been built as early as 1855, and the Comanche Springs Pool. Following this route takes you to some of Fort Stockton’s most fascinating places, a great way to get acquainted with this exceptional West Texas town.

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Monahans Sandhills State Park

A mystical place where the wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys Mon­a­hans Sandhills offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages. These natural sand dunes are ever-changing and worth stomping around. An hour north of Fort Stockton on State Route 18, stop here for a picnic or sled down the swirling dunes on rentable plastic lids.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entry is $4. And spend the night at one of the 26 camping sites with water and electric hookups, a picnic table, and shelter. Camping is $15 nightly plus the entry fee.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park

It’s time to bust out your swimsuit. Near the crossroads of I-20 and I-10, you’ll find a literal oasis in the middle of the desert: the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world. Recharge in the cool, clear waters and get a glimpse of tiny endangered pupfish, found only in the San Soloman springs.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Open daily, entry costs $7; buy a day pass in advance to guarantee a spot especially on crowded weekends when the pool can reach capacity. Stay overnight at one of 34 campsites. Or reserve a room at the San Solomon Springs Courts, motel-style retro lodging built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa

Although staying on I-10 would be the quickest and most convenient way to continue west, consider heading southwest at the I-10 town of Fort Stockton toward Big Bend Country. Even if you’re not continuing on to the amazing Big Bend National Park, the row of little West Texas towns that are known as gateways to the park make a worthy detour off the interstate.

Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa are all within 30 minutes to an hour from one another. Visitors can take their pick among Marathon for its splendid night skies, Alpine for its bustling downtown and colorful murals, and Marfa for its movie, music, culinary, and art scenes.

I suggest choosing one of the towns to serve as a base for exploring the region for a day or two. In Marathon, Marathon Motel and RV Park offers 19 full hookups sites suitable for big rigs.

Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis

For another cool detour south of the interstate, consider the historic town of Fort Davis, a 35-minute drive from Balmorhea State Park on State Route 17. Located in the middle of the craggy Davis Mountains, Fort Davis is a self-contained community of about 1,100 people that boasts a surprisingly robust selection of restaurants and shops.

Fort Davis Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For authentic Mexican food, try Poco Mexico where orders are taken at a window to the busy kitchen or at Cueva de Leon which features a full menu of Mexican fare and a comfortable outdoor patio.

And while you’re in the area, be sure to check out the well-preserved frontier military post, Fort Davis National Historic Site, and the incredibly scenic Davis Mountains State Park.

McDonald Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargaze at McDonald Observatory. Northwest of Fort Davis on State Route 118, one of the darkest night skies in the country allows for spectacular stargazing. Gaze into the cosmos during one of their evening star parties. Otherwise, they’re open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday. 

Franklin State Park near El Paso © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Paso

Located along the Rio Grande on the border with Mexico, the far-west Texas city of El Paso offers a wonderful mix of Mexican and Old West cultures. The international culture is evident in everything from the city’s historic buildings to the Tex-Mex cuisine to the colorful art.

Any visit to El Paso should include an exploration of the Las Plazas Arts District, an area in the center of town that features the picturesque El Paso Street festooned with string lights and neon signs. The entire Arts District is a great place for a walk and the area features a host of trendy spots for taking in a cocktail or meal.

Franklin State Park near El Paso © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Paso also features numerous choices for authentic Mexican cuisine. The homey L&J Café offers a range of Tex-Mex specialties such as beef and chicken fajitas, chile con queso, and grilled steak. In the downtown area, the Kansas Street spot ELEMI sources heirloom varieties of native corn from sustainable farming communities in Mexico for its signature dishes such as deconstructed street corn.

El Paso is a great spot to either end or start a road trip across West Texas and a stay of several days would give visitors a good taste of the city.

For more on West Texas, check out these articles:

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

There is a growing feeling that perhaps Texas is really another country, a place where the skies, the disasters, the diamonds, the politicians, the women, the fortunes, the football players and the murders are all bigger than anywhere else.

—Pete Hamill

The Ultimate Guide to Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world

Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, a park with “the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.”

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, and tidal flats teeming with life. The National Seashore and surrounding waters provide important habitat for marine and terrestrial plants and animals including a number of rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore and South Padre Island are two different places located over 100 miles apart. Sometimes Padre Island National Seashore is confused with South Padre Island but the two are very different destinations. Padre Island National Seashore is a National Park Service (NPS) site located just outside of Corpus Christi. South Padre Island is a resort community located near Brownsville with numerous hotels, clubs, and souvenir shops. The two destinations are at opposite ends of the long, barrier island named Padre Island and are about 100 miles apart.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning on putting the park address into a smart phone app or GPS? It most likely will NOT bring you to the park. For unknown reasons, many of those applications place the park’s physical address miles away from its actual location.

Plan your trip: A Slice of Paradise: Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, getting to the park is easy once you know that the road coming to the park—Park Road 22—actually dead ends into the National Seashore. The park entrance station is a booth that is located literally in the middle of the road. Once you’re on Park Road 22, just keep going until you reach the end and the park entrance station. Bring a paper map or use the above directions to locate the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fees and passes can be purchased online before your visit or purchased in person at the entrance station upon your arrival. Your options include a 1-day pass ($10.00 per vehicle), a 7-day pass ($25.00 per vehicle), and a 1-year pass ($45.00 per vehicle). Those with federal interagency passes enter free.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typical weather conditions. Weather on Padre Island varies widely and can change from sunny and warm to thunderstorms and heavy winds very quickly. Padre Island has long, hot summers and short, mild winters. Most rain falls near the beginning and end of hurricane and tropical storm season which lasts from June through October.

Daytime temperature in spring averages in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Summer daytime temperatures are usually in the mid-90s with very humid conditions. Lows are usually in the 70s. Afternoon and evening sea breezes help to moderate temperatures. In the fall, daytime temperature average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Winter high temperatures are usually between 50 degrees and 70 degrees but can occasionally drop into the upper 30s. Sudden, strong cold fronts can move through bringing gale force winds and dropping temperatures quickly.

Average rainfall for the southern portion of the park is 26 inches and 29 inches for the northern area of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a drive along the seashore. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are only accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle. Don’t try it with a regular car if you intend to drive further than 5 miles.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to the portion of the park where you can drive on the beach and down to the remote parts of the island, continue on the main park paved road (Park Road 22) past Malaquite Visitor Center until the pavement ends (South Beach). From that point, the park has 60 miles of beach open to driving. South Beach (and driving) ends at the Port Mansfield Channel, a man-made waterway cut through the island.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is not possible to drive all the way down to South Padre Island due to this waterway. You must turn around at that point and drive 60 miles back north to reach the park paved road.

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

Remember that Texas beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply including seat belt regulations. All vehicles on Padre Island National Seashore must be street legal and licensed.

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

Go camping. Padre Island National Seashore has two campgrounds and three areas for primitive camping. They are open year-round and are first-come, first-served. Campers must have a camping permit. There are no RV hook-ups on Padre Island but a dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the National Seashore.

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

Tucked in the dunes with a view of the Gulf of Mexico and a short distance north of the visitor center, Malaquite Campground features 48 semi-primitive designated sites. Located near the boat ramp on the waters of the Laguna Madre, Bird Island Basin Campground offers an opportunity for windsurfing, kayaking, boating, birding, and fishing. Both RV and tent camping sites are available but it is dry camping only.

Sea Breeze RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’d rather stay in a full-service RV park, Corpus Christi, 10 miles away from the park entrance, has several choices. We stayed across the bay in Portland at Seabreeze RV Resort and would return in a heartbeat.

Since sunrises are spectacular along the seashore, plan to take a morning walk along the beach and bring your camera with you to capture the moment. During your early-morning walk, you might spot the elusive (and very fast) ghost crab peeking at you from its burrow.

Stick around after dark on a clear night for a little stargazing. Take a flashlight with you to spot ghost crabs as they move away from their burrows to seek a midnight snack.

Do some beachcombing. Have you ever gone to the beach with bucket in hand hoping to find treasures along the seashore? If so, then you have been beachcombing. Many of the currents that flow through the Gulf of Mexico bring endless curiosities onto the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. These items include seashells, beached jellyfish, sea beans (drift seeds), driftwood, lumber, plastics, and things that have been lost or discarded by seagoing vessels and other marine activities. The best time is immediately following a storm. You are allowed to keep a five-gallon bucket of treasures you might find but if an animal is still in its shell be sure to put it back where you found it.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fly a kite. Padre Island National Seashore has plenty of wind to fly a kite. The seashore has in the past hosted a kite festival in February filling the sky with all sorts of colorful kites including some intricate and creative Chinese kites. Be sure to check with the park before heading there with your kite. 

Plan your trip: Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Go swimming. Swimming at the National Seashore can be a lot of fun! You can swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. However, remember that safety is important and there are no lifeguards on duty. Use caution when swimming and never swim alone.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fishing. Fishing has been one of the biggest attractions to Padre Island, long before its designation as a National Seashore. Visitors may fish along the entire length of the Gulf of Mexico beach in the Laguna Madre and at Yarborough Pass and Bird Island Basin. Two currents, one from the north and one from the south converge at Big Shell beach near the middle of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These currents bring an abundance of nutrients which, in turn, attract plenty of fish. To fish anywhere within the park requires a valid Texas fishing license and a saltwater stamp which are only sold outside of the park at any local gas station or tackle shop.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go boating. Bird Island Basin offers a boat ramp to provide access to the excellent boating and fishing waters of the Laguna Madre. It’s one of the world’s best windsurfing sites and you can fish and birdwatch there, too. You can get a daily pass to Bird Island Basin at the Entrance Station for $5.00 or an annual pass for $30.00. Be aware that jet skis, kite surfing, and air boats are prohibited at the national seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatching releases. During the summer Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings are released from nests that were laid in the park and along parts of the Texas coast. Hatchling releases typically occur from mid-June through August. Most releases that are open to the public take place at 6:45 a.m. on Malaquite Beach in front of the Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore. For information about public hatching releases, call the Hatchling Hotline at 361-949-7163. Because park rangers cannot predict exactly when a sea turtle nest will hatch, not all hatchling releases are public and hatchling releases do not occur daily or on a regular schedule.

American avocet and Black-necked stilt, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go bird watching. With more bird species that any other city in the U.S., Corpus Christi has won the competition for being the “Birdiest City in America” for the past 10 years in a row. Needless to say, Padre Island National Seashore, located on 130,000 acres of undeveloped land is an exceptional place for bird watching.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated along the Central Flyway, Padre Island is a globally important area for over 380 migratory, overwintering, and resident bird species (nearly half of all bird species documented in North America). You’ll catch sight of brown pelicans, egrets, herons, terns, gulls, hawks, ducks, teals, and crested caracaras and not just along the beach but inland as well. The best time to bird Padre Island National Seashore is either during early spring or during fall and winter when thousands of birds either migrate through the park or spend the winter there.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interpretive programs. Attend a ranger program to learn about the seashore, the birds, and the things that wash up on the beach. Informal 30-45 minute Deck Talks on various aspects of the island’s natural and cultural history are held Thursdays to Sundays at 1 pm at the Malaquite Visitor Center.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be a Junior Ranger. Padre Island National Seashore is just one national park that gives you a chance to earn an official Junior Ranger badge. Ask a ranger for a Junior Ranger booklet when you stop by the Malaquite Visitor Center. The Underwater Explorer Junior Ranger Program is available as well. For all those who are young or young-at-heart, come out and earn your badge. All ages are welcome to participate in the Junior Ranger program at Padre Island National Seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Relax on the beach, build a sand castle, and play in the sand. Just remember the Leave No Trace principles. If you dig any holes or trenches while playing in the sand, cover them back up so they don’t create a hazard for vehicles, people, and animals.

Remember to check the park’s website for any alerts and closures due to construction or weather-related damage. Check the site also for other things to know before you head out to the park and whether or not pets are allowed.

Read Next: Where the Journey Is the Destination: Texas State Highway 35

Worth Pondering…

I must go down to the seas again,

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star

To steer her by.

—John Masefield