On the Road, Texas

Texas is YUGE – Part Two

Big-Bend-National-Park-Texas-56.jpgBig Bend National Park

Big Bend is a land of extremes. Highs and lows, hot and cold, dark and light.   After traveling from Fort Worth and enjoying several stops along the way, we arrived at Big Bend National Park the day the government shutdown was announced. 

Government Shutdown
Notification during Government Shutdown in Big Bend National Park

We weren’t sure what to expect, but luckily the park was open all four days we were there.  We heard they shut it down after we left, so we felt quite fortunate to have been able to freely explore the whole park.  Without any park services, the visitor center was closed, but we found an app called Just Ahead that turned out to be incredibly useful for our visit.  You need to download the app and the park program before you lose service, but once you have it on your phone, it uses your GPS signal to guide you to all the points of interest in the park along your drive.  There were many scenic areas we would have missed without this app and I’m sure I will download the guides for other parks we visit.

We stayed in Study Butte which we found to be an ideal launch point for both the park and some evening visits to Terlingua.  Our four-day itinerary at Big Bend consisted of the following.

Day One

  • Maxwell Scenic Drive – This is a winding drive that runs from the park entrance near Study Butte all the way down to Santa Elena Canyon.  We spent our first day just driving and getting out of our car to hike several trails and view the various stops along the way.
    Pink Cactus
    Pink Cactus overlooking Mexico from Big Bend National Park

    We arrived at Santa Elena near sunset but really wanted to explore the canyon further so decided it would be an excellent place to catch the sunrise and start the next day.  We headed back to our campsite and went into Terlingua for dinner.

  • Starlight Theatre – a local in the area suggested we check out Starlight Theatre in Terlingua.  Terlingua itself is a pretty funky little town.  It feels quite authentic and seems to exemplify the extreme in your face vibe of Big Bend.  Starlight Theater is one of those places where you sit and think if only the walls could talk.  We enjoyed a nice dinner, spicy margaritas, and live music.

Day Two

  • Back to Santa Elena Canyon – We headed out at dark to watch the sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon.  I had planned to photograph from the entry to the canyon as a full moon would set almost directly between Mexico and the US, sparkling on the Rio Grande.  Unfortunately, we miscalculated how long it would take to get there, so we ended up watching the sunrise from a point just overlooking the Rio Grande facing Mexico directly.  The park at dawn is eerily quiet.  From where we were sitting I could see a small house with goats just over the river in Mexico. At times the goats sounded like a crying baby.  After sunrise, we explored the Homestead Ruins and then hiked by the Rio Grande into the canyon.  This is a must see and if you go, my recommendation is to go early.  Since we were there for sunrise, we had the whole place to ourselves for quite a while but on our hike back, the crowds were definitely increasing.
    Border Wall
    Inside the Santa Elena Canyon along the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park

    Window to Chisos
    Looking through the window of an abandoned homestead in Big Bend National Park
  • Old Maverick Road – Maxwell Scenic Drive is the smoothest road to and from Santa Elena but since we opted to take Old Maverick Road back toward the park entrance.  Old Maverick Road is not paved and while it is a much shorter distance, it takes almost a long as the paved road.  I would recommend you have 4wd before heading out on Old Maverick Rd.  We saw a Prius pass us by but I suspect they either got stuck or turned around.  It’s definitely a different view than the paved roads so if you are inclined to offload, by all means, take this route but be prepared for a long bumpy ride.

    It's a Jeep Thing
    A Jeep Rubicon at the base of the Chisos Mountains
  • Boquillas Crossing – After covering most of the west side of the park, we decided to head east.  After you pass the entrance to the Chisos Mountains, the landscape becomes much flatter and open.  It’s a bit of a drive to go from one end of the park to the other but there is a lot to see along the way.  Near the southeast end of the park, you can find a small general store at the campground.  This is the only campground in the park that has hookups for RV’s.  We grabbed a couple of sandwiches for lunch and then headed to the border crossing.  We had our passports and planned to cross the border and visit the small town of Boquillas.  The crossing is only open Wednesday through Sunday during the winter.  Unfortunately, there was no way to know but even though it was during that window, the crossing was also closed due to the government shutdown.  So instead we hiked the other the Rio Grande on the other side of the park at the Boquillas Canyon trail. From there we were able to see the town of Boquillas along with the locals hanging out having a picnic near the river.

Day Three – Christmas Eve

  • Lost Mine Trail – If you plan to hike and have limited time, this is the one trail I would recommend.  It’s a substantial hike close to 5 miles climbing over 1000ft but there are several stops with incredible views along the way.  Once you reach the peak, you will be well rewarded with some of the most amazing views within the park.  The parking lot for the trailhead is small so arrive early to get a spot.  Take lots of water and some snacks to enjoy once you reach the peak, sit for a while then enjoy the downhill hike back to the trailhead.  If you have built up an appetite, stop in at the Chisos Mountain Lodge for some lunch.

    Lost Mine Trail
    The view from the summit at Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park
  • Balanced Rock – After lunch, we headed out for another hike at Balanced Rock. You will need to drive on an unpaved road to reach the trailhead. 
    Chisos Starburst
    Sun rewarding a winter hiker in Big Bend National Park

    This is an easy hike with a bit of mild bouldering toward the end and then an impressive view and some unique formations.

  • La Kiva – After a day of good hiking, we were ready for a nice dinner out for Christmas Eve.  La Kiva is a little subterranean restaurant in Terlingua.  The entrance is a large counter-weighted mine-shaft door.  After going down a set of stairs, you will enter a small cavern with tables and an area set up for a band and a smaller room to the side with various games and a sofa.  Along one of the walls, you will see some pictures of Glen Felts who had taken over the bar from his uncle.  We were told a story of a night of drinking gone wrong ending in the brutal murder of Glen Felts outside of this local hangout that shook the town.  

Day Four – Christmas

  • Christmas morning  This is our second year we have spent Christmas in a National Park and both times we have found it to be incredibly memorable.  This year, Lilya was insistent that we get up and have a Christmas morning breakfast before opening any presents.  I love that she is focused first on the meaning of Christmas and the time we spend together rather than just tearing through the wrapping paper to get to the ‘goods’.  Since we have moved into a tiny space, we think about gifts differently.  Our tree was small and our gifts were focused around experiences.  Things like binoculars for birdwatching, headlamps for exploring at night, upgraded geocache app, and rocks for painting and hiding.  After a relaxed morning, it was time to set out to enjoy our final day in the park.
  • The Window – This hike is almost tied with Lost Mine Trail for me.  Instead of starting on an incline, you descend between vertical rock walls ending at a waterfall that spills into the Chihuahuan desert below.  The last part of the trail is a little trickier to navigate.  When we were there, we were able to get very close to the edge of the waterfall right in the middle of the window.  The view is spectacular, but I wouldn’t suggest going too far as the rocks can be slippery.  The return is uphill but we were able to make it back in half the time we hiked down.

    The Window
    Valley view from the end of The Window trail in Big Bend National Park
  • Sunset at Sotol Overlook – We stumbled on this location our first day in the park and knew it would be a great place to watch the sunset.  Our view of the park during the day did not disappoint.  It’s a convenient location because you can just park your car and sit at the overlook vs. trying to hike back from somewhere in the dark.
    Sunset at Sotol
    Layered mountain sunset from Sotol Overlook in Big Bend National Park

    Ocotillo overlooking Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park
  • Stargazing – One of the most special things about Big Bend is the dark sky.  It is so remote and so large that you can see the headlights of cars driving on the road from about 20 miles away!  If someone were to stand across a peak in the park with a flashlight, you could easily spot them.  When we were there, the moon was full but the stars were still amazing and abundant.  We packed a dinner including egg nog and pecan pie and found a spot just off the road and sat on the tailgate of the truck eating under the bright starlit Texas sky.  It was the perfect way to celebrate and reflect on the meaning of Christmas.

    Night Drive
    Amazing sunset in Big Bend National Park

Marfa and Valentine

On our way west out of Big Bend, we decided to go through Marfa.  If you haven’t heard about Marfa, it’s a funky little town in the middle of nowhere that is a legitimate destination for foodies and art lovers.  Admittedly, we didn’t spend much time in Marfa and it feels a little like a place that is trying to hold on to its authenticity.  There are lots of people wandering the streets that are apparently looking to see and be seen. 

I was born in Laguna Beach, CA and as a teenager used to spend a lot of time north and south of Main Beach.  What I remember is a town that was home to artists and beach junkies and all the people in between.  Then along came a little show called ‘Laguna Beach’, and every time I go back home, I get the same vibe as I had in Marfa.  It’s great for local businesses but also a little sad to see the takeover.

Marfa Ghost Lights

It seems everyone that has been to Marfa will ask you if you have seen the Marfa Ghost Lights.  Right off the highway is an entire rest area dedicated to viewing them.  Of course, we couldn’t visit this town without at least giving the lights their due.  It was a frigid night, quite windy, but that didn’t stop tons of people from coming out for their chance to see the mysterious orbs that dance just outside of town.  Of course, I had to google what causes them, which immediately takes away from the folklore.  Either way, I think on a warmer night with a group of friends, it could be a fun place to chill and tell spooky stories.

Bourdain’s Parts Unknown

IMG_2893The first time I consciously recall hearing of Marfa was on an episode of Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain.  Lenny and I are huge fans of the show and always enjoyed Bourdain’s desire to go to any place the locals would hang out.  The Far West Texas episode was one of Bourdain’s last before his death so as our own little pilgrimage, we decided to pop into one of the local bars where Bourdain had a drink and visited with the owner.  It’s a typical small town bar, a couple of pool tables with torn felt, and not much distinction other than the large bright red neon sign reading ‘BEER’, and a parking lot paved entirely with beer bottle caps.

Prada Marfa

Type Marfa into Instagram and you will undoubtedly scroll through thousands of photos of the Marfa Prada art installation.  Strangely, it’s not really in Marfa but closer to Valentine.  It’s a little building right next to the two-lane highway complete with real Prada purses and shoes in the window.  Of course, you can’t shop there but people stop and take some pretty unique photos which are in themselves, their own forms of art.

Purple Prada
Prada Marfa art installation near Valentine Texas

Valentine and James Dean

A couple that we met in Terlingua suggested we drive a little further into the town of Valentine.  There is a small cafe off the road where a scene from the movie Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson was filmed.  IMG_2874We were told we could stop in and have a bite there but when we arrived the owner was just leaving the building.  We quickly explained why we were traveling through and with amazing Texas hospitality she opened the doors to let us in and served us a nice hot cup of coffee.  Kami, who is a petite woman who looks like she got it a fist fight with the Texas wind and won, explained to us that she bought the cafe a while back after it had been closed with hopes of opening it back up.  What she didn’t account for was that she would have to get everything in the kitchen back up to code and for such an old building, that was going to be a massive undertaking, so she is now in the process of turning it into a little boutique.  Kami still has lots of old memorabilia in the shop and told us that the town is slowly being deserted and she picks up items around town in abandoned buildings.  Kami’s personality is as big as Texas and if anyone can make a go of a shop in the middle of nowhere, it is her.  We wished her luck and headed back to the Airstream for dinner.James-Dean-Giant-Mural-Valentine-Texas-64

On the drive back home, as the sun was going down, you could hear faint music blowing in the wind.  We pulled over and on the side of the road is a scene from the movie Giant with James Dean looming large over the mountains in the distance. 

On West

These were our last few stops in Texas on our way west.  We had hoped to continue on the Guadalupe National Park, Carlsbad Caverns, and then White Sands but heard they were all closed.  There was winter weather chasing our tails, so we continued on.  We will have to make the trip back through to complete that area of Texas some other time.

Next stop, sunny (or rainy) California!

Texas, Uncategorized

Texas is YUGE – Part One

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

Inks Lake – Beautiful Glass Reflection

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. 

Sunset Hike

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.

Texas-45  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. 

Waterfall feeding 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?IMG_2255 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. 

Fringe stickering at Pinthouse in Austin!

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.


Enchanted Rock

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. 

Monahans Sandhills

Sunrise on the Sandhills

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. 

Lenny and Lilya searching for the biggest hill they can find!

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.

Walden peaking out from the sand

Texas-6If 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.

People get up pretty early to hike the hills

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.