With October in full swing, I am reminiscing about the many fall trips we've taken. Utah, Colorado, New England, and, most recently, California. We spent about a week and half exploring some of California's National Parks shortly before COVID-19 became a thing. Our route took us in a big misshapen circle, hitting five parks (and spending Thanksgiving in Pasadena). Instead of heading back towards LA after Death Valley, you could easily pop over to Joshua Tree and then sub in Channel Island National Park for time spent in LA!
Nature has played a huge role in my mental health. As I finally sought help for my anxiety, I simultaneously became VERY intentional about our traveling. It was sporadic before - maybe going on a couple of weekend camping trips a year and one big trip. Now, I need a weekend of camping pretty much every month in order to feel sane, to feel productive, to feel restored. I've stopped feeling guilty about taking time off of work. It is my leave and I have earned it and, by using it, I end up being a better employee. Feeling rested and relaxed increases my productivity. It boosts my mood. It is now part of my arsenal of tools in my journey towards acceptance, love, dreams, and cultivating the life I want.
Nature has always been a place where I could go to be myself. Nature doesn't judge. Nature doesn't care if you're fat or thin or pretty or dumb or seriously un-funny or boring or the most amazing person in the world. Nature doesn't give a shit. It doesn't expect anything of you, nor does it care about your status. Out here, we are all equal. Nature is like an old friend who is always there to make you feel better, even if its just sitting with you while you process something. An old friend that, no matter how long it has been since you've spent time together, it feels like no time has passed at all and you pick right back up where you left off.
It's a pretty powerful thing to feel like you are truly embracing everything about yourself. You don't have to pretend, you don't need filters, you don't need perfection or flawlessness. You are raw. You are open. You are vulnerable. You are beautiful, magnificent, unabashedly YOU. It took me a really long time to feel okay with that. Nature led the way, along with Wellbutrin (heyoooo). With each step on each trail, my confidence climbed right there along with me. With every landscape I gazed on, I gained appreciation. Appreciation of every single one, each different from the others. Not less or more beautiful, not better or worse, just different. Just like us humans.
"Healing doesn't happen in a straight line" is a lyric that really struck a chord with me recently (thanks Kacey Musgraves). I felt it in my bones. To me, that wandering path of healing is a path I walk on every time I am out on a trail. Step by step, day by day. Walk your path and keep going, even if you fall and get mud all over yourself.
As the transition of the seasons loomed on the horizon, we wanted to get one final summer camping trip in. We headed just north of Waco to Meridian State Park. One of many CCC parks in the state, Meridian was opened to the public in 1935 and is a great place for outdoor recreation. On land, you can bike, hike, camp, picnic, and enjoy some beauuuutiful overlooks! On water, you can kayak, fish, and swim. Unfortunately, the lake was closed while we were there due to a toxic algae bloom, but despite not being able to swim, we had a fabulous time. We were able to get our fill of swimming just a hop, skip, and a jump away at Dinosaur Valley State Park.
Want to start getting outside but don't really know where to start or what to do or what you need or where to go?! Phwew. It's okay - take a deep breath. There are so many resources at your fingertips for you to get all the information that you need!
No one knows everything, especially not right when they are first starting. We are all beginners in the beginning, duh! There will be a learning curve, embrace it. Hell, laugh at it if you want! One time, we went camping at Inks Lake and the ground was too rocky for me to push in the tent stakes with my hand like I normally did. I didn't own a mallet yet so I tried to find anything I possibly could to get the damn stakes in the ground. Our tent had zero structure without being staked down - it was a one pole tent that didn't stand unless it was staked! We would have been sleeping in the car if I wasn't able to overcome this situation that I wasn't prepared for! I did finally get them in with a rock (after bending multiple cheap stakes) and proceeded to purchase some high quality stakes and a mallet as soon as we got home.
Point being, you're going to have snafus. It's inevitable. It's part of learning. Embrace them and know that they aren't the end of the world. To ease any hesitations you might have, here are some great ways to ease into making outdoor explorations a regular part of your family routine!
No need to go on a 10 mile hike or week long camping trip for your first attempt. A great way to start getting outside and exploring is to just do it in your neighborhood or at a local park! You can still find birds, bugs, plants, and more without going far or getting overwhelmed! You can find great local parks with a simple Google search of "local parks near _______" and include your location. Local parks are great for bike riding, walking, observing nature, playing sports, and more!
Another great way to get your feet wet in nature in a safe and controlled way is to attend a guided program! Most Texas State Parks offer some form of interpretive programming - you can look for events on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Event Calendar to find something near you that seems interesting! Many of the listings detail out what you need to bring, what kind of shoes to wear, etc so that you can come prepared appropriately! It's great to start learning about outdoor recreation by being with an experienced person that is literally there to show you what to do, help you, and answer all of your burning questions!
TEXAS OUTDOOR FAMILY
For a long time, working for Texas Outdoor Family was my dream job. Then, I became a parent and it wasn't feasible for me to be away so often, but I am still a huge supporter for this program and what it does! For anyone who isn't familiar with this program, it is a introductory workshop that takes people camping, often times for the first time! If you're sort of on the fence about whether or not you're going to even like camping, this is a great way to figure that out without having to invest in a bunch of gear. They provide the tent, cots, sleeping pads, lanterns, stoves, and cooking supplies! All you have to bring is bedding, any personal items, and food (and your sense of adventure of course!). You'll learn how to pitch a tent, build a fire, and cook outdoors, plus a wide variety of outdoor activities, including geocaching, kayaking, hiking, swimming, fishing.... the list goes on and on! Activities vary in each workshop. Workshops are offered all over the state and at $95 for up to six people it's a pretty affordable way to give the outdoors a try!
Wander Wheels is another great company that helps you get outside without having to invest in a ton of gear! They've got loads of information on their website AND they offer gear rental so you can get on the trails or out camping without having to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment! We are considering renting a backpacking tent from their for our first trip. Honestly, we should have rented packs, too, instead of buying them just so we could give backpacking a try without too much money on the line, but we had the REI gift card and felt pretty confident we'd enjoy it so we made the investment.
There are SO many amazing resources online that can help you learn more about nature and outdoor recreation! Some of my favorites are:
If you have any recommendations on excellent resources to add to this list, let me know!
Getting outside doesn't have to be scary or intense or overwhelming! It doesn't have to be extreme or expensive or exhausting. Experiment with some small activities and work your way up, keeping what works and what is enjoyable and nixing the stuff that isn't! And, as always, if you have any questions, my electronic door is always open!
We spent the last weekend of August checking another park off our list - Lake Somerville State Park. Less than 2 hours away from both Austin and Houston, this park is a great option for a weekend getaway! Lake Somerville State Park actually has more than one unit - there is the Birch Creek unit at the northern end of the lake, the Nails Creek unit at the south, and the Trailway which connects the two. There is also a public hunting unit nearby. We stayed at Nails Creek in the Bent Tree camping area.
For a summer weekend, the park was unbelievably quiet. There were only a handful of other campers and next to no traffic on the roads. That made it perfect for bike riding! Bike riding is especially great in this park because because the park is so small - you can get everywhere easily via bike. The helpful front desk clerk recommend the Rocky Creek Day Use Area for swimming. That was the first place we headed when we arrived on Friday. The swimming was okay. It was pretty shallow and the water was warm so I felt like I was taking a bath, but we sat in the water for a while until it started to thunder.
What the park lacked in quality swimming, it made up for in quality hiking. Between the units, there are more than 40 miles of trails! It was really beautiful. The trails are very well designed and many times we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, even though we weren't far from the developed areas. That was a really nice feature of the trail routes. The Somerville Trailway that connects the Birch Creek and Nails Creek units is about 13 miles long and has numerous backcountry camping sites along the way. We explored the trailway about three miles in and were very happy with our experience. We will absolutely be back to explore the backcountry more and do a couple of days of backpacking! I highly recommend hitting up this park for the excellent hiking.
Wildlife was abundant, which I am sure was aided by the fact that it was so quiet while we were there. We saw loads of White-tailed deer, bunnies, lots of birds, a couple of snakes, and a plethora of dragonflies and butterflies.This park is made for equestrian use and the campsites had very nice horse pens at them. Most of the trails in Nails Creek allow horses and they are allowed on the Trailway, as well. There is a small fishing pond located near the Cedar Creek camping area and you can borrow Loaner Tackle at Headquarters for free!
One thing to note is that the campground bathrooms are closed currently, but they have decent trailer restrooms/showers in place. The Bent Tree restroom trailer only offered toilets, but the Cedar Creek camping restroom set up also had showers. They weren't the best, but they did the job! Let's be real, we don't go camping expecting hotel-style bathrooms. Throw on a pair of flip flops and you'll be fine. The water is hot, the showers are private, and you'll be fresh and ready for your next adventure!
Overall, we really enjoyed our time at Lake Somerville! I hate to say that I was surprised, but I kind of was. I didn't go into the weekend thinking it was going to be crappy or anything, I just had never heard much about the park so I figured it'd just be average. It was definitely above average. We hiked pretty much all the trails + part of the trailway (putting in about 9 miles total for the weekend), rode bikes to our hearts' content, and lounged in the hammock enjoying the breeze and sunshine. Keep this park on your list - you won't regret it!
While we venture outside to disconnect from the busy world around us, sometimes there are pieces of that world that can help make our outdoor adventures more enjoyable and safer. Here are five apps for your phone that can help you plan your next excursion and have a great time outdoors!
Texas State Parks app
Offline capabilities: kind of
The official Texas State Parks app has all the park information you could need right at your finger tips. You can filter for whichever outdoor activity you're looking for to find a park that has what you want OR use the map to find parks that are located nearby! The app allows access to park maps, photos, operating information, and more! You can create a list of your favorite parks for easy access in the future, too. One of my favorite features is that you can see up-to-date park alerts like burn bans, closures, road conditions, etc.
Not all features are accessible offline so I always make sure to download park maps, trail maps, and any other things I may need or want ahead of time so I don't have to worry about having cell service to download them when I'm out on the trail or at a campsite with no signal!
Offline capabilities: yes
Similar to the Texas State Parks app, the National Park Service app offers information about all of the NPS sites in one place. While you cannot use it with no connectivity, you have the ability to save park information for offline use. You can save all of the parks that you are planning on visiting so that you don't have to worry about whether or not you can access them once you arrive! This app has great information for each park, including recommendations on things to do, trail information, amenities, nearby attractions, and in-app self-guided tours! If you have service, the app will automatically show you the closest parks to you, which is a handy feature, as well.
Cost: Free; Pro membership: $29.99 per year
Offline capabilities: yes
AllTrails has been a lifesaver when it comes to planning our trips! I can find hikes in the places that we are going and make our 'to hike' list based on trail ratings and distances. I also read reviews and check out the photos from fellow hikers. It's easy to create lists for separate trips so they are easily accessible once you arrive at your destination.I also love that it has categories for dog friendly areas, ADA accessibility, and biking.
When we are at a trailhead ready to go, I turn on the navigation feature so that I can log the hike in my account, too! It's not only a good way for me to track where we've been and what we've done, but I can also use it as a trail journal and share any insights about the trail that could help other people planning on making the hike. Aaaand, not going to lie, the navigation feature has helped prevent me from getting us too off course when I accidentally make a wrong turn somewhere.
The free version has all the features that we need, but if you want more, the Pro version includes downloadable maps, real time overlays to show weather, air quality, pollen, and more, and a feature that allows friends and family to track you in real time for safety purposes!
Offline capabilities: no
iNaturalist is a really cool app that can help you identify all the amazing things that you might find during your explorations! The best part is that with each observation you submit, you're contributing to a huge citizen science database! All you need to do is snap a photo of your specimen and iNaturalist will use the location info with the image to help you figure out what it could be! While you DO need internet connection to submit your observations and get identification suggestions, I usually will take photos along the trail and then upload them at a later time when connectivity is better. It's an excellent way to not only enjoy the beauty of nature, but also to learn more about it!
Red Cross First Aid
Offline capabilities: yes
No matter how well prepared you are, accidents do happen. While I always recommend having a basic first aid kit on hand, the Red Cross First Aid app can help guide you through some common emergency situations. It's always good to review some of the information ahead of time, too, so your memory is refreshed before heading out into nature. This app can come in handy for more than just outdoor exploration, too! Accidents can happen anywhere and having this app readily accessible can help you to deal with them as they come, even if you forget what to do in the moment.
I highly recommend downloading all of these apps and having them accessible when you need them! They all are free (or have free versions) so what are you waiting for?
Do you have any favorite apps that you love to use in the outdoors?
Lily and I ended the month of July with a visit to Bracken Cave Preserve in Garden Ridge, just outside of San Antonio. Bracken Cave is home to TWENTY MILLION Mexican free-tailed bats in the summer. Yes, you read that right. TWENTY. MILLION. It is the largest bat colony on the entire planet and the largest concentration of mammals in the world. It is a maternal colony, meaning the entire colony is made up of females (and later in the summer, their pups).
The preserve is privately owned by Bat Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy. In previous years, the only people that were able to access the site to see the bat emergences were members of BCI. This summer, they opened the preserve up a couple of times for non-members and I am so grateful they did. We booked two months in advance and the openings sold out relatively quickly. I appreciated the small crowd size due to their limited amount of reservations. It created a much better experience not being crowded in the relatively small viewing area (and we could social distance easily).
They will contact you a couple of days before the reserved day to give you an update on what time to arrive, depending on when the bats have been emerging. We arrived shortly before 7PM and had time to walk the trails, learn some really interesting stuff from the volunteers (uh - there are almost EIGHTY feet of guano on the cave floor WHAAAAT), and attend the pre-emergence bat talk. Then you move to the viewing area and wait.
The bats emerged just before 8:30PM. Before they started streaming out, you could see them swarming right at the mouth of the cave. I almost felt like I was hallucinating because the cave is dark and you can just kind of see blurs of movement and you wonder if you're even actually seeing that or if it's just the dark playing tricks on you. The stream starts thin but steadily grows until it is just a massive black cloud of swirling black blobs. The bats will circle up out of the cave in what the volunteers referred to as a bat-nado until they got enough lift and could head out to find food. We saw a Swainson's hawk picking a couple of them off mid-air. After the emergence had been going on for ten minutes or so, a volunteer led us to the overlook on the other side of the cave so we could experience the bats flying right over us. It was so damn cool to experience it from that different perspective.
We stayed until it was too dark to see anything else. The bats were still just pouring out and would continue to do so until around 11PM.
I highly recommend making a visit to Bracken Cave if you have the opportunity to. It's a once in a lifetime experience to see the world's largest bat colony in all of it's glory right here in Texas! If you do make a visit, here are a few small tips to help make your visit as amazing as possible.
- Wear closed toe shoes - for comfort and safety while walking along the trails and through the mostly undeveloped property in the dark
- Bring bug spray - there weren't mosquitoes but the gnats were pretty annoying!
- Bring plenty of water - Texas summers are hot and don't be fooled into thinking that because it is in the evening, it will be cool. There is no water on site so bring enough to last the duration of your visit!
- Take some amazing videos - videos are far superior to photos if you want to really capture the magic. Slow-mo videos are really amazing for this, too!
As an early birthday celebration trip, we spent a weekend at Lake Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway. It was phenomenal. We met up with our usual camping crew, ate a lot of steak, and had a great time.
Lake Mineral Wells is a 640 acre lake located in Mineral Wells. The town is aptly named for the mineral rich water. The most famous well was called the Crazy Well, which got its name from the myth that an older woman drank the water and her mental illness was cured. There could be some truth in that, as the water is high in lithium (which is used to treat various mood disorders). When you're in the area, it is a MUST to stop by Famous Mineral Water Company to taste the Crazy Water that helped shape the city.
Mineral Wells is currently in a revival stage. The Baker Hotel is in the process of being renovated, there are colorful murals splashed through the area, and there's quite a bit to do and see. I really loved the area and have been fantasizing about buying a house there...
Just outside of town, Lake Mineral Wells State Park has a LOT to offer. More than 100 campsites with a variety of amenities, swimming, hiking, boating, stand-up paddleboarding, fishing, stargazing, and more. You could never leave the park and you would stay entertained for days at a time. Our campsite was right on the water, but it didn't look great for swimming. We saw a number of other people with sites on the water that had kayaks - I highly recommend a site on the water if you've got kayaks. You can launch right from your site and it's very convenient. We also saw people fishing from their sites - if you want to do this, just check those photos on the reservation system to check out what the vegetation looks like. Some sites were clearer than others.
The designated swimming area was amazing, one of the best that I've seen. It's very beachy and the lake bottom was sandy and not mucky. They do a good job of separating the fishing from the swimming so you don't have to worry about getting hooked or stepping on lost tackle in the water. The fishing area is on the opposite side of the land from the swimming spot. The Park Store is conveniently located right between the two. Buy souvenirs, snacks, and affordable rental equipment all in one place. Some folks in our group rented a kayak and a SUP (stand-up paddle board, for anyone not familiar with the abbreviation) and the kids loved it. I tried SUPing for the first time and it was nowhere near as hard as I always imagined it would be! It was a great way to fill a couple of hours.
The camping loops all looked very nice. We stayed in the Plateau campground. Our site was very shady and, as I mentioned before, right on the water. It was fairly wooded, which offered some sense of privacy from the sites around us but you could still definitely see your neighbors. The ample amount of trees gave us plenty of spots to choose from to hang our hammock. Be forewarned if you camp here - the raccoons are ruthless. As soon as the sun goes down, put your food away or keep it right next to you if you're eating. Even with a big group of people awake and talking, the raccoons were trying to get to the trash bag that was in the galley of my teardrop. They gave zero fucks that we were right there.
One other must-see spot in the park is Penitentiary Hollow. Forboding name, really really cool spot. It is one of the few natural rock climbing spots in North Texas. There are just these huge rock faces that are all congregated around this one area. It reminded me of the Ledges trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Penitentiary Hollow can be accessed in a couple of ways. You can opt to pretty much drive right up to (you still have to hike a short way down to get to the bottom) or you can choose to access it on the Red Waterfront trail. We did both and I recommend both.
With so many different activities to choose from (we didn't even hit the Trailway at all!), Lake Mineral Wells State Park is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts of all types. At only one hour(ish) away from the Dallas Forth Worth metroplex, it can be an easy day trip or a fun-filled weekend getaway!
Have you ever been to Lake Mineral Wells State Park? What is your favorite thing to do there?
At the beginning of July, Lily had a doctor's appointment in Temple so we decided to make a camping weekend out of it. We picked Lake Whitney State Park, as it was only a little over an hour away from Temple and would be a relatively easy commute.
Lake Whitney is only about an hour away from DFW and is a 23,500 acre lake fed by the Brazos River. There are over 100 campsites in numerous camping loops the state park. We were in the Roadrunner Loop, which isn't really a loop at all but more just a road with a culdesac at the end. Our site was nice enough and actually had a shade shelter (something I have found a lot of sites don't have!). The shelter came in handy multiple times. First, there was pretty much zero other shade at our site. I found myself staring longingly at a site a couple sites down that had a huge oak tree and a ton of shade. Secondly, we ended up having a storm blow through and the shade came in handy to keep us somewhat dry. At least until we had to take cover from shitloads of lightning in a vehicle.
Since it is the middle of summer in Texas, we spent most of our weekend swimming. The first afternoon, we swam in the designated swimming area at the end of the park. The water was warm and felt like bathwater, but it was better than cooking in the sun. The next day, we decided to stay near our campsite and walk down to the lake area to give that a go. It was far superior to the swimming area. The water was cooler and clearer and it was more convenient. We stuck with this spot for the rest of the trip.
In addition to swimming, we also did a short hike on the Two Bridges trail. It was easy and gave us a chance to see the wooded areas of the park instead of just staying on the water. Of course, it ended up raining on us during the hike but we made the best of it!
Once we were back at the car, the rain was really coming down. We didn't want to pack up camp in the rain so we decided to participate in the scavenger hunt that the park had going on that weekend. We had a list of things that we had to locate and take our picture with. We found what we needed and went to HQ to receive our prize - Tootsie Pops. Womp womp. They are the worst type of candy in existence! But Lily enjoyed it.
Overall, I'd say our time at Lake Whitney was enjoyable, but I don't think we will be back anytime soon! The staff was great and the park is pretty, but in my opinion there is just better swimming in Texas, specifically even in the same area. No offense, Lake Whitney!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of my favorites from our trip. Straddling Tennessee and North Carolina, this stunning park spans over 500,000 acres and is the most biodiverse park in the entire National Park system! This means that there is more life here (both in quantity and in variety) than any other national park. That is pretty crazy. More than 19,000 species have been found and there are an estimated 80,000 - 100,000 ADDITIONAL species that may also call the park home. Holy shit.
We only spent two nights in the park, but we saw a fair amount. Our first night was spent camping in Cades Cove. The following day, we went for a horseback ride through the area (which was nice because on Wednesdays there is no vehicle traffic allowed on the Cades Cove Loop! Also, I was so tempted to write 'on Wednesdays we wear pink' as I was typing that). We hiked and explored and moved to our second campground - Elkmont. Now, every single thing we did in the park was awesome, but there is one thing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that should be on everyone's bucket list....
You guys, the fireflies. Oh my god, the fireflies.
Every summer at the end of May/early June, a species of firefly (Photinus carolinus for you nerdz) that synchronizes their flashes begin their mating season. Sounds good, right? Fireflies are always fun to see. Okay, well think about how cool it is to see random fireflies here and there on a summer evening and then multiply that by a gazillion.
The fireflies are found in the Elkmont Campground area. As dusk was settling in, we walked from our site to the trail where the most activity is seen. It's a long stretch of road/trail that leaves plenty of opportunity to space out and not be crowded with a bunch of other people. Most people brought camp chairs. We were dumb and did not so we just stood around while we waited. Then, as the dark really began to take over, a flash. Just one or two at first. Then more. And then more. And then before you know it, there are flashes of green everywhere lighting up together. Thousands of tiny lights, then as they go out, another group of thousands respond, almost as though they are conversing in some language that we can't understand but we know it's beautiful. My description can't even do it justice. I straight up shed a tear. It was really THE MOST magical thing I have ever seen in my entire life and I've seen a lot of cool stuff. I feel like the only thing that could maybe rival this would be seeing the Northern Lights.
These insects do this every year. It's just what they do. And we humans make a huge spectacle of it and I love it. I love that people have to sign up for a lottery to even try to get a parking pass to see it, that's how popular it is. And with good reason. I just can't say it enough..... it is incredible!
If you want to see this amazing natural event for yourself, you'll have to sign up on Recreation.gov for the lottery. Alternatively, you can book yourself a campsite in the campground. Forewarning, though - these sites fill up fast for the weeks right around the firefly event. We were lucky to get a night after lurking on the reservation system for a couple of weeks! Plan in advance and snatch a spot along the river for a most excellent experience!
Note: I have zero photographic or video evidence of how amazing the fireflies are because an iPhone is insufficient!