Texas is YUGE… and unexpected!
The last several weeks have been incredibly busy with work and in our free time, we have been spending time with my brother and his family and my dad here in Southern California. Lilya is loving hanging out with her California cousins! I’ve been trying to carve out some time to get an update to the blog and share our adventures through Texas… but just like Texas, it is so big you really need to sit and take some time to give it justice. So, here we go!
First of all, let me say that by no means does this even begin to cover Texas but I do think we covered a large amount of southwest Texas and hit some cool places off the beaten path that probably don’t get talked about much outside of Texas.
While you read this, you should hum the song Deep in the Heart of Texas.
“The stars at night, are big and bright…. deep in the heart of Texas.
The prairie sky, is wide and high…. deep in the heart of Texas.”
I think I had this song in my head for a month! Thank me later.
Honestly, I originally thought Texas would be a pass-through on our journey. I’ve visited Houston, Galveston, San Antonio, Lubbock, and a few other stops over the years and thought Texas was okay but it didn’t really make it to any kind of list of places I planned to explore. Having grown up in California and explaining to people how varied the entire state is, I obviously shouldn’t have underestimate Texas either, but I did. Boy, was I wrong and while we got to see some interesting things, we certainly came nowhere near covering everything and I can genuinely say, we plan to explore more.
Coming in from Arkansas, we traveled through to Fort Worth. This was a great stop along the way to stop and visit with my son Cody. He lives in downtown Fort Worth and took us to some great food and drink in the area. A great stop that was recommended to us from a friend in KC was the Lonesome Dove Bistro. We had a wonderful meal here with Cody and his friend. Don’t get mad KC friends but this was as good as any steak I have had back home!
Texas Hill Country – Austin, Inks Lake and Longhorn Caverns
We intended to visit Austin next and found a great little campground at Inks Lake State Park. This is really where I began to be pretty impressed with Texas. Driving into the area, you immediately start to notice a change in the landscape. Also, it seems cliche, but the sky really does seem bigger in Texas! We went from a fairly flat landscape to a much rockier terrain with cactus and trees. As they call it, Hill Country.
When we first arrived at Inks Lake, it rained for three days straight. As much as I love our Airstream when the weather isn’t nice outside, it can feel a little cramped pretty quick. After the third day, we had to get out and find something to explore so we went to Longhorn Caverns State Park. If you ever need some steady temps, go underground. While damp, the caves are warm and the Hall of Marble is particularly beautiful. During prohibition, they used to have big parties underground in the caves.
This image looks like one of the women still dancing in the hall. I can only imagine what these underground cave dance parties back in the ’20s would have been like!
The rain finally broke and we did a lot of hiking around Inks Lake. There is a beautiful waterfall that feeds into Devil’s Waterhole.
It was a bit cold so we didn’t venture into this little grotto but I imagine in the heat of summer in Texas, this place must be an amazing waterhole for swimming surrounded by the huge rocks. We also discovered geocaching in Hill Country. I had heard of it before but really didn’t know much. It’s essentially a scavenger using the GPS on your phone and a mobile app. It will take you to some places you might not discover on your own and a great way to get out and explore. Lilya loved geocaching so much we upgrade the app to the premium for a Christmas present since our focus for Christmas was experience and memories, not stuff.
Lilya also got to work on her Jr. Ranger badge at Inks Lake. If you go with kids, definitely ask for one of the Jr. Ranger backpacks. It is full of all kinds of great outdoor items including a compass, binoculars, bird identification guide and other activities. We had many opportunities to use this backpack on the miles of beautiful hiking trails in the area.
The closest town to Inks Lake is Burnet, TX who the locals seem to pronounce as “burnit”. For some great Texas hospitality and a great cup of joe, stop into Unshakeable Grounds coffee shop. It’s here that we learned of one of the biggest events that take place in Burnet every year. One of the local churches has set up a replica of the town of Bethlehem and volunteers dress up as townspeople creating a unique live experience of visiting the city of Bethlehem ending at the manger where Mary and Joseph are holding baby Jesus. People come from all over and the line wraps several blocks around the town square.
We chose Inks Lake as a great stop off point for visits to Austin. We spent a weekend exploring the area. One of Lenny’s coworkers Kevin Murphy and his wife Ruth were excellent hosts and invited us to their Church and then treated us to a wonderful brunch at a local cafe. We really appreciated the welcoming and their hospitality.
We didn’t spend as much time in Austin as we expected but we enjoyed checking out the State Capitol which they state is the largest state capitol in the US. It’s also seven feet taller than the nations capitol in Washington, D.C. Everything is bigger in Texas right? There are several statues on the grounds and you can walk straight from the capitol to some cool shops and restaurants. We went geocaching in the area which lead us to the Moonlight Towers. I don’t think I would have even noticed these landmarks if we didn’t geocache. Moonlight Towers were used in cities as street lighting back the late 19th century using 6 carbon arc lamps to illuminate a circle of 3000 feet. I had never heard of this lighting system before and Austin is now the only city where they still exist.
And of course we have to keep the captain of the ship happy so a trip to Austin would not have been complete without checking out some local brew.
On a recommendation from our friend Luke at home, we went to Pinthouse Pizza. Great spot with excellent pizza and some seriously good beer. Another great brewery that would be a must stop if visiting again is RedHorn Coffeehouse and Brewing Co. We spent the bulk of a day working there while enjoying some fantastic coffee and then enjoyed a beer at the end of the workday. The owners were super cool and sent us home with a bag of their coffee beans which were great for our morning pour over. If it’s available, try the Submarine Shark of Darkness and the Hardwood Series Bourbon Barrel Aged Suburban Ninja w/vanilla. Both are heavyweight beers so we were one and done but great sipping beer with tons of flavor.
Another place to visit in hill country is Enchanted Rock State Park. We spent a whole day here and hiked our tails off. There is rock climbing for the adventurous or you can easily hike to the very top of this cool pink granite rock which is a great place to stop and enjoy some lunch. Beware of the “devil squirrel”. A black squirrel on the top of the rock that has no fear and will come right up to you and try to steal your food! This guy was bold and not easily deterred. I was pretty sure he was going to walk right up Lenny’s leg and eat his sandwich right out of his hand.
While we didn’t get to go at night, Enchanted Rock is a designated dark space and would be an amazing place to camp for the night and practice some astrophotography. The camping there is all tent camping, no facilities and you have to hike your gear in but the campsites have a great view of the rock.
After a few weeks of hanging in the area, it was time to move on and start heading toward Big Bend for our Christmas break. Along the way, we stopped at San Angelo State Park where we saw our first Javalina, pronounce “hav-a-lean-ah” which looks like a pig but you will be quickly informed that they are NOT pigs. San Angelo State Park is also home to the official State of Texas Longhorn Herd. We spent an evening in town for Lenny’s birthday with, of course, you guessed it, a brewery visit to ZeroOne Brewery to celebrate wrapped up with a walk through a place called the Chicken Ranch to check out some local artists.
Next stop was Monahans State Park to check out the sand dunes. For a couple of bucks, you can get a disk and sled on the sand.
We had a blast doing this, but of course the bigger the hill the bigger the climb! The sand dunes were fun but there is nothing else to do nearby, restaurants are limited and honestly, opening the door to the not so sweet smell of petroleum every morning was a bit gross.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, we spent a LOT of time in the state park system. If you plan to spend much time in Texas, buy the State Parks Pass as it will save you a ton of money for camping fees because the campgrounds charge for camping and additional separate charges per person. Depending on your situation, the pass will pay for itself in less than a week.
So we found a lot of unexpected places along the way that were really surprising, our main destination was Big Bend National Park. Most people I’ve talked with have never heard of Big Bend and up until we started planning this trip, neither had I. In my upcoming post, we will cover our four-day itinerary of Big Bend along with our stop in Marfa and Valentine.