Me: Aww, I’ll take a photo of Forest looking at the turtle. *Looks through camera* ahhhhhh, nooo, don’t touch the turtle! Kids are fast.
The eel was ‘spaghetti’ according to Forest!
Chris has been working in the Freeport area over the last week so last weekend Forest and I went down to visit him. My original plans were to go down on Friday night but I came down with some kind of stomach bug so the trip was delayed until Saturday morning. It has been several years since I went down to that area, I once went to the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory with Keely and went and saw the San Bernard Oak a different time. I made a list of various places that I could take Forest while we were waiting for Chris to get off work but due to the stomach bug we only made it to Sea Center Texas.
The center is a Texas Parks and Wildlife operated aquarium and education building with fish hatcheries and a boardwalk and wetland out back. The building is small but the admission is free so it was all well worth the hour of entertainment for Forest, and we walked ’round and ’round and ’round the exhibits. There’s a touch tank, too, with hermit crabs, blue crabs, anemones, and small fish. Outside, the weather was rather dismal with clouds and a chilly wind, so we kept our trip down the boardwalk fairly quick. There were a few ducks and a snowy egret but many other birds. The front part of the wetland area is freshwater and the back part transitions to salt marsh with several clumps of black mangroves along the boardwalk.
Forest had never seen those huge metal monocular lenses that are often on boardwalks for observing birds so I had to hold him up to the one they had and try to get him to shut one eye and look through. I’m not quite sure he got it but he had a lot of fun with me holding him up and I had to repeat the task a few times before I managed to convince him to move along.
For a free exhibit (donations accepted! and there’s a gift shop, too!) it was a great stop for entertaining a kid for a little while and definitely something worthwhile if you are in the Lake Jackson/Freeport area.
When we woke up Saturday morning we weren’t sure how Forest was going to be feeling but he started the morning cheerfully and seemed to have recovered from whatever had made him ill the night before. It was still dreary outside, though the rain seemed to not be threatening any longer. We moved slowly around the campsite that morning, waiting to see how Forest would be, and when it was evident he was doing ok we looked on the trail map for a hike to take before lunch. The West Canyon Loop Trail looked long enough to get our blood flowing but short enough and close enough to camp in case we needed to get back for a sick kid. It was about 2.4 miles plus about another half a mile in and out to the start of the loop via other trails.
As we were heading out we encountered a few other people leaving the trails that morning and saw no one else on the hike afterward. The vegetation was dominated by Ashe juniper with other oaks and mesquite mixed in. Hunting blinds were set up every so often—I’ve never understood why a lot of state parks allowing hunting here (well, I do…it’s Texas). The park was to be closed after Thanksgiving for deer hunting. The level trail eventually turned to the start of our loop where we climbed a gentle slope to the top of a ridge where we walked in peace. We reached the junction of another turn and saw deer and another small summit in the distance, just outside of the park boundary. The scene reminded me of walking from Dog Canyon to the Pine Top Campsite at Guadalupe National Park five years ago. Not quite so mountainous, of course, but the overall open hills and gloominess reminded me of that morning.
I had hoped by choosing this trail we would be closer to the creek as we descended back towards the trailhead but we were set off about 100-yards at first from the creek, slowly getting closer towards the end of the descent. Mostly I was wanting good plants or stream scenes to photograph but none were to be had. Forest had begun trying to nod off towards the end of the hike and he was still mopey looking. Hopefully a trip to down would cheer him up a little.
In town we found lunch at Lum’s BBQ which was fantastic! If you are even just driving down I-10 and need to stop in Junction for lunch, we recommend this place. There was a cute local shop next door and we checked out their wares and I found handmade soap—huge bars!—for $3/10. Being a soap junkie, of course I bought some and Chris picked up a jar of mustang grape jelly. Junction is not a big town, we didn’t even see a Walmart, so there wasn’t a ton to go and do but we found a thrift store and a general store to pop into. The thrift store was almost a junk store but I found an nice pair of khakis and Chris debated too long on an ax to refurbish and someone else bought it! The general store was part farm-hardware-clothing-book-houseware store and quite fun to browse.
Thinking Forest might take a nap on the drive back to camp, Chris continued past the state park entrance to find the river crossing further down the road in hopes of scouting a place to fish if the time and weather looked right. Forest and Chris jumped out for a few minutes to see the river and see if they could spot any fish. I wanted a few peaceful minutes to myself so I stayed in the car.
Back at camp we took a nap and mostly hung out at the campsite the rest of the day, except for the excursion to the bird blind right before bed. Sunday morning, the sky began clearing after we got up and going for breakfast. It was nice to see the sun after several dreary days and I was sad we weren’t leaving when the weather was turning for the better. Our drive home was long and tedious. Toddler meltdown had us stopping in Johnson City for lunch instead of Dripping Springs, where we found the East Main Grill. The food was delicious, and the toddler was tamed for a little while but he soon grew restless again. Forest’s afternoon nap didn’t get extended nearly as long as we’d hoped because we ended up in the continually worsening traffic on 21 in Bastrop. I swear it just keeps getting worse and it didn’t help that it was the Sunday after a holiday. Forest woke up and we managed to sit in traffic with a hysterical kid who just wanted to potty and get a snack. Luckily Buc-ees wasn’t far and the ride home was a little smoother but still tedious those last miles.
I love heading to the Hill Country but the drive home is the worst!
Aside from the plethora of Rio Grande turkey, deer were quite common in the state park as well. It was easy to spot them, especially in the evenings. We stopped at several of the bird blinds set up in the park and watched various cardinal, warblers, and other little brown jobbers feasting on the bird seed left for them and bathing in the bubbling water containers. We saw the western scrub jay and several of its friends and family members on our Saturday morning hike, where they were rowdy alongside the trail as they busted through the Ashe juniper scrub.
The highlight of the trip was actually the trip to one of the bird blinds we took before we settled into the tent for the night. The three of us hiked up in the dark, headlamp and flashlights leading the way, to see what might be coming to the bird blind while all the humans were gone. We saw patiently, well at least we adults did—the toddler got impatient, for about twenty minutes before we called it a night and began to head back to camp. We’d just left the blind and were a mere ten feet onto the trail when Chris saw something move in one of the juniper trees. A ringtail! We’ve seen multiple roadkill specimens before but never a live animal. Chris saw more of it than I did; I barely got a glimpse of a tiny, furry body scurrying down the tree. It was incredibly quiet! We looked around the tree for a minute or two after but our brief animal encounter had taken off for safer territory. A few seconds of a glimpse of an uncommon and secretive animal made Chris’ night!
The sunshine from Thanksgiving Day had disappeared when we woke up on Friday morning. It was cloudy and dreary outside and quite chilly. When I packed for the trip I overloaded on clothes for Forest and blankets for sleeping. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to convince Forest to wear a hat but in the end he managed to keep it on. I think he was actually cold and realized he was warm and cozy with the hat on.
After sleeping in for awhile and being a little lazy in the tent that morning we managed to get up and eat breakfast before deciding on our hiking adventures for the day. An interesting feature to this park is that the entire prairie area at the front of the park is only open for use during the hours of 10am-3pm to allow the Rio Grande turkey to safely roost the rest of the time. There was a slight buffer between the closed area and the campsite where visitors could walk to the bird blinds set up in that area, but otherwise it was off limits during off hours.
From our campsite that morning we were able to see turkey in the scrub/prairie behind our site. The turkey meandered through the campsites further down, too. Turkey are not common in our part of Texas and they are an animal I miss seeing that we often saw when we lived in Florida. So, encountering the turkey here was a bonus point to the trip. Because of the hour restrictions we decided to go for our hike that morning on the trails in the turkey roost area and possibly hike the backcountry trails later that afternoon or the following day. While the temperature was chilly and the sky overcast, the lighting for photos was perfect in my opinion.
Chris packed up his backpacking fishing rod so he could fish at Buck Lake and along the river when we got to it. Since we had no agenda we took our time walking the trails and I was able to poke around, looking for photo opportunities in the woods. There were quite a few people out hiking or riding their bikes that morning, which was nice to see, but it was a fairly quiet walk otherwise. Forest looked tired and in generally had an air of malaise about him but he would perk up whenever Chris caught a fish so I wasn’t too worried. I just figured his teeth were hurting (he’d been poking at them) or he was cold.
We came back to camp for lunch and Chris wanted to go back to the river to fish but Forest and I were ready for nap time. Our usual two hour nap turned into a 3-3.5 hour nap that afternoon followed by playtime in the tent afterward. There was no hiking that afternoon. That’s how I like some camping days though, to be relaxing and restful. And the cozy weather made it all that much easier to pile up under the covers for the afternoon.
It turned out, around midnight later that night, that there was something to that malaise with Forest. He ended up vomiting twice which we were able to clean up fairly well and get him back to sleep. Somehow he managed to at least put on the appearance that he was fine the next morning and we decided to stay instead of head home, which is what I’d tossed out as an idea in the middle of the night. Neither situation sounded fun: sick kid while camping or sick kid on 6 hour car ride home. Chris nor I ended up sick so I’m not quite sure if it was just a bug or something he’d eaten. All I can say is that I’m thankful I’d packed more towels than usual—I had them planned for potty training oopsies and not for this situation!
Thanksgiving, and our typical camping ritual, came as a much needed respite this year in the post-election angst and haze of the last few weeks. Weather is always the factor on if a camping trip will happen this time of year; last year we were rained out and changed our plans for a weekend in Galveston. It appeared that the weather was going to mostly cooperate so we headed off for South Llano River State Park which is west of San Antonio off of I-10 near the town of Junction. The drive out on Thursday went as smoothly as it could go with a stop at Buc-ees to pick up lunch to eat somewhere down the road since most restaurants were closed for the holiday. We stopped in Fredericksburg to eat lunch and despite most of the businesses in the historic downtown being closed, there were quite a few tourists out walking the streets. After our lunch and a playground pit stop, we kept heading west and arrived at the state park mid-afternoon to set up camp.
Sometimes when you get to a state park you aren’t quite sure how their campsites will be situated. Often you will find crammed together sites that were poorly planned or have a hard time finding a good place to situate your tent. Site 33 turned out to be spacious with lots of room for a toddler to roam and plenty of space between our neighbors. Honestly, most of the campsites here were well planned and I don’t think you could really go wrong when choosing a site.
The trail system in the state park was much more robust than I had thought but we only had a little time before dinner so Chris, Forest, and I opted for a short but semi-steep hike up to a Scenic Overlook. The sun was out and the air was warm and our out-of-shape selves had to take a few stops to catch our breath on the way up. The trail to the top was an old road; the property was formerly a homestead and ranch so some trails are really just former roadways.
Our legs stretched out from the car ride, we popped over to the river crossing for Chris to fish for a few minutes and Forest to play. There was new places to explore and the sun was perfect and I took photo after photo. It was truly the golden hour with the early evening sun shining on the changing foliage. Explorations over, it was dinner time. Chris had smoked a turkey the weekend before and whipped up some gravy to go with it. We kept our Thanksgiving feast fairly simple with yeast rolls and mac and cheese as our sides. I was missing the dressing but before we left I figured I’d just save it to make for Christmas.
Dusk settled in and we ate dinner by lantern light, something we rarely do while camping. I hurried to do the dishes by headlamp and we cleaned up camp to turn in for the night. More explorations were waiting for us the following day!
On our way up to Caddo Lake we passed a sign for Martin Creek Lake State Park. It looked enticing so when we were deciding what to do on Sunday morning, stay near Caddo and find something to do or head back towards home and do something in another park, we opted to check out this park before we hit up lunch in the town of Henderson. As we turned down the park road I saw that the lake had a power plant on the opposite shore. When we checked in at the park office the trees shielded most of the view so I put the idea of camping at the state park on my list, that is, until we got out of the car. While we couldn’t directly see the power plant from where we were hiking or where we parked at the trailhead, there was a constant low humming noise that really disrupted the natural setting.
Despite that, we did get out and hike the Old Henderson Loop which turned out to be pleasant despite the noise. The Old Henderson Loop is part of the Old Henderson to Shreveport road and it turns out there was quite a bit of interesting history in the area. I did like this park which makes it too bad about the low humming. I wonder if it is constant? If you are in the area or driving through the trails are worth getting out on for exploring!
There are just handful of trails at Caddo Lake State Park and it was easy to cover them all in a short amount of time. Surprisingly there was a good amount of terrain change on the trails, at least for this part of Texas. That’s because there are quite a bit of slope forests in the region associated with creek systems. We had to split our hiking time up between my parents so that one of them stayed back to watch their Boston terrier, Daisy. Mom hiked with us Friday afternoon after we’d set up camp and we promptly got lost on the trails because they weren’t labeled appropriately. Luckily we had the trail map and could guesstimate where we were in relation to the trailhead and we easily found our way back. It was overcast on Friday which gave off a cozy fall-like vibe in the forest.
On Saturday morning Dad hiked with us and the clouds broke and we got some sunshine through the canopy. It was beautiful to look up and see the changing colors on the trees and to look across the forest at the leaves littering the slopes that lead to the creeks. It reminded me somewhat of Sabine National Forest and our time in parts of that area six years ago. I wanted to take off cross-forest, exploring what might be lurking in the leaf litter or growing along the creeks but we never did get off to explore.
About five photos up you see me holding a big seed. There was one particular spot on the trail where there were many of them littering the area and I couldn’t figure out what kind of seed it was. Upon initial inspection before I picked it up I thought it was a fungus but once I looked it over a little more closely I was baffled. Now I think it might be a black walnut seed. Anyone else have an idea for that? I believe Chris called the toad a few more photos up an East Texas toad.
Overall, a great trail system in the park but I was left wishing the park was bigger so there would be more to explore!
Last weekend Chris and I met my parents at Caddo Lake State Park in northeast Texas. It is a 5ish hour haul from our house with stops for the toddler. And while it is about the same distance time-wise of other places we go to in the Hill Country, this just seems like a harder place to get to because of the need to take multiple smaller highways to navigate through east Texas. There’s not really a direct route.
We took Friday off to make it a more enjoyable weekend due to the distance and my parents came down on Friday as well. I really loved this state park for multiple reasons, one being that it happened to be pretty quiet. I’m not sure if it was because it is a smaller campground or because of its location but it seems we’ve had problems (my parents included) recently with loud campgrounds and campers turning the volume up at the sites once the sun set. The only noise that was a problem here was our campground was relatively near the road so we heard cars driving by quite often; the campers were pretty quiet. In fact, the toddler was probably the loudest person in our section!
With the abnormally (or hey, maybe it’s the new normal, especially now post-election) warm weather fall has seemed to show up much but we did find some semblance of the season and a bit of a cozy feeling at the state park. The forest was starting to turn various shades of brown, yellow, red, and orange and a cool front brought a chill for the evenings and mornings. It was perfect weather, honestly.
Having my parents at the campsite, though it was cut short due to illness from my mom, was wonderful. They got to play with Forest and we got to chat and hang out with them. I like this joint camping thing! It was quiet Sunday morning when we woke and they weren’t there.
I am definitely looking forward to returning to this state park in the future when Forest is more boat ready because paddling on the lake will be a lot of fun. There’s also a Wildlife Management Areas and National Wildlife Refuge nearby that would be worth checking out, too. Chris and I rented a small boat six years ago to tool around the lake and had a lot of fun; the area is ripe with exploration!
I’ll be back soon with a write-up about the hiking in the state park as well as hiking another trail at another state park in our way home last Sunday.
Finally we’ve returned to camping and hiking season around these parts! Just as a lot of people are storing their gear for colder months, we southerners are digging it out and are ready to get outside. Gone (mostly) are the days of standing outside for two minutes before dripping in sweat so now is the time to relish the cool weather and start exploring once again. We kicked off the season with a trip to the Texas Hill Country for Chris’ birthday weekend. We hit up Garner State Park, one of the most popular parks in Texas. While researching the area I found out about the Frio Bat Flight at a cave located on private property with 10-12 million Mexican free-tailed bats. We reserved a spot at the last tour of the season and headed out there after dinner on Friday evening.
This part of Texas is primarily privately owned, so there is quite a bit of open space that the public rarely gets to see. Sometimes you can find private ranches that do offer wildlife or birding tours but often they are much more expensive than visiting a public park. The fee for the bat flight wasn’t very expensive and I will tell you it was well worth it for the experience! The tour was very small; there was another family-group of about 10-12 people, including some other kids, and then the three of us. It made for a much nicer experience without a large crowd. I’m sure it gets busier during the summer but I suspect because it is on private land and there is a fee to see the bat flight, that it probably doesn’t get too crowded at the tour. *video at the end*
Pigeon berry (Rivina humilis) and prickly pear cactus.
We spent the first 20 minutes watching a plethora of hummingbird moths visiting the 4 o’clocks that swathed the opening to the cave entrance as we were waiting for dusk to come and the bats to emerge from the cave. That was as very cool experience unto itself because while we’ve seen sphinx/hummingbird moths before, never that many at one time.
The cave is to the left; I can’t remember what the guide said the metal thing was for. I think it was something from the Civil War, but don’t quote me on that.
At about 7:40 the bats began emerging. If it looks like we were close to the cave, we were. We weren’t but 50′ from the entrance, standing behind a rope barricade. I’ve only seen bats emerge from the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin and at the Old Tunnel State Park bridge, but neither time were we this close to the bats.
Forest loved it! (He didn’t love the 20 minutes of standing around!)
For our vacation, since we were on North Padre already, we opted to drive down to Padre Island National Seashore for all of our beach visits. I think this was mostly spurred because the first night we were there we drove down after dinner and it was quite peaceful with just a few cars on the beach. Even though we spent about 20 minutes driving down there, being able to drive on the beach eliminated the need to haul our gear across the street to the beach that was directly across from our hotel. There are definitely good and bad things about being able to drive on Texas beaches. One of them I later realized was not only did we need to keep a toddler from going surfing on his own but also keep him out of the beach roadway! The road issue wasn’t nearly as problematic during the weekdays but as the holiday weekend started the quiet beach quickly turned into a very busy affair, complete with people setting up camp in tents and RVs the first five miles of PINS. I knew from our experience last year on the beaches down on Mustang Island closer to Port Aransas, that those beaches were probably doubly packed with wall-to-wall people!
Being on the beach with a toddler versus a baby was completely different. While both had their ups and downs (baby: mom and dad get to play in surf while grandparents watch baby; toddler: no grandparents meant no playing in surf together but it meant playing in the sand and building sandcastles and oohing at the Coast Guard or pelicans flying by) it was definitely a great experience for Forest. It made me wish we had gone to Galveston at least once this summer but we never made the time. Next summer we need to go a few times at least. A funny thing was that we had a some beach toys from last summer but couldn’t really find many parts to them, only a bucket and shovel. Then, just about every single day we were out there we would find at least one shovel or rake to add to our collection. We now have a nice beach toy collection just from picking up stuff people left behind or got washed up!
Speaking of washing up, there were two items of note on the beach down there. One was very little sea life debris, ie: no sargassum, jellies/man-o-war, shells, etc. Sure there were some things here and there but not much. I’m not sure if it was the time of year or the beach location in relation to currents but I was surprised. While there wasn’t a lot of debris, there was a healthy amount of coquina, Donax variabilis, living in the intertidal zone which Forest loved to dig up and watch them rebury themselves. The second was that despite the lack of sea life debris there was plenty of plastic and trash debris. Some was left from campers and beach-goers but a lot was washed up. The oddest thing we found was a giant light bulb that had to have come from a ship. It must not have been in the water long because the metal was barely rusted and no barnacles had taken hold yet.