Meridian State Park | September 2021

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.

We wrote more about our visit in a guest post on the Wander Wheels TX blog! Check it out here!

Meridian | September 2021


Lake Somerville State Park | August 2021

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!

Lake Somerville State Park | August 2021


Bracken Cave Preserve | July 2021

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.

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!


Lake Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway | July 2021

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?

Lake Mineral Wells | July 2021


Lake Whitney State Park | July 2021

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!

Lake Whitney | July 2021


Caddo Lake State Park | June 2021

Our last, but absolutely not least, stop on our trip was Caddo Lake State Park in Karnack, Texas (home of Lady Bird Johnson!). Caddo Lake is the only natural lake in the state of Texas. That's crazy right? ALL the other lakes in Texas, ALL OF THEM, are man made. Blows my mind.

Caddo Lake has been on my must-see list for a long time because it just looks so magical and mystical in pictures. The Spanish moss hanging off of the bald cypress trees growing throughout this 26,000+ acre lake just looks like a dream.

We decided to end the trip with a splurge and stayed in one of the cabins. We stayed in Cabin 1 and it was really awesome. The CCC built the cabins, along with other structures in the park, in the 1930s. The cabin had a perfect front porch, complete with chairs and a bench. It's made of a combination of rock and log and is really beautiful. The inside is pretty plain - a small dining table, kitchen area, sofa, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. No linens or kitchenware are provided, which was fine because we had all that stuff with us anyways! Our only complaint was that there was no fire pit, but we ended up doing s'mores on the grill instead. Overall, I highly recommend these cabins!

Caddo Lake is pretty swampy and, at least in the state park, most people don't swim. We did some googling, though, and discovered that there was a local park right across the border in Louisiana that was more suitable for swimming. We made the short drive to Earl G. Williamson Park in Oil City, LA . It was still not great swimming, but it was enough to cool us off. It became pretty clear that the best way to see the lake would be on boat.

We quickly booked a sunset cruise with Big Cypress Tours, headed back to the cabin for a quick change of clothes, then headed to the boat. We toured the lake as the sun went down while our guide shared lots of information, history, and folklore about the area. It was just stunning. It really is a magical place.

The next day, we contacted a friend of a friend and were able to book a private boat tour with him for the entire morning. He brought us ALL over the lake, including to a cool little secret swimming spot where the kids got out and played. We covered a lot of ground (err.. water?) in the hours on the lake and it was all just incredible. It is just gorgeous. I can't say that enough!

If you're planning a visit to Caddo Lake, my best recommendation would be to get out on the water to really get the full experience. Do a boat tour, go kayaking or canoeing, whatever - you just don't get the full vibe from the shoreline. You HAVE to get out there into this magical water forest fairy-tale land.

Caddo Lake | June 2021


Two Week Travels | To Pennsylvania & back

Hard to believe our big summer road trip has already come and gone. We're still riding that natural high that a fantastic trip gives you. We went up to Pennsylvania for an old friend's wedding and made the most of the trip by stopping along the way at some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen! Here was our route to Pennsylvania and back! More to come about the fabulous places we visited!

Pennsylvania itinerary


Old Tunnel State Park | May 2021

We spent a recent Friday evening at Old Tunnel State Park. The park is the smallest park in the state, at only 16 acres, and is located outside of Fredericksburg. It has a really cool mixture of history and nature - the tunnel is an old railroad tunnel, part of a track that went from Fredericksburg to San Antonio. The track was built when Fredericksburg lost the competition for the hub for the larger railway system that was being built through the Hill Country (Kerrville got it instead - rumor has it that the Kerrville folks got the Fredericksburg folks drunk the night before they were arguing their cases and they ultimately bombed it). The train transported livestock and passengers and apparently wasn't run very well, as the company went bankrupt twice. When World War II hit, the railroad was shut down and the metal was all salvaged for use. Once the trains were gone, the bats moved in. The state acquired the property in 1990 as a Wildlife Management Area and in 2012 it became a state park!

If you're planning on visiting Old Tunnel, here are a few tips to have the best experience you can!

Wait 'til August

The tunnel is just under 1,000 feet long and is home to about 3 million Mexican Free-tailed bats from the summer months into the early fall. Even though the emergences start in may, don't make the mistake that we did and WAIT! It's better to go in August/September for a couple of reasons. One - May is generally wetter than the later summer months. When there has been a good amount of rain, there are more bugs and the bats don't have to travel as far to eat so they emerge later. They emerged at about 8:50PM when we were there and it was damn hard to see them. Second - right now the mother bats have not had their pups. That happens in June-ish and it takes 6-8 weeks for the pups to be able to fly. Once they are able to, the number of bats emerging increases significantly, up to that high end of 3 million. We had about 1 million at the time of our visit (which is still a lot, but less than half of the peak!).

Book the Lower Viewing Area

There are two ways to see the emergence - the Upper and Lower viewing areas. I recommend the lower area if you're able to coordinate that (you do need reservations for both - tickets can't be purchased on site). You're closer to the bats as they emerge and can see them better (especially if they emerge when it's really starting to get dark). You can even smell them!

If you reserve the lower viewing area, you'll also have access to the trails prior to the bat program. Lily and I got there about an hour and a half before the educational program was slated to start and we walked the short trail. It takes you down in front of the tunnel and then through the forested canyon area. It's nice, shaded, and it's actually a pretty good trail considering the park is so small and only has a staff of one (their volunteers are AMAAAZING and do a lot of maintenance and upkeep).

Be Patient

As with all things in nature, it can't be scheduled. You generally will have a good idea of about when the bats will emerge based on the times from previous days, but don't be surprised if they make you wait longer or if they come out early. They've come out when it's still broad daylight, when it's pitch black, in smaller groups, and in one big mass. Make your plans around the estimated time that is posted on the park's Facebook, but be prepared to possibly be twiddling your thumbs for a while. The educational program is great for passing the time and you can ask all of your burning bat questions while you wait.

Come Hungry

If you're able to, I highly recommend grabbing dinner at Alamo Springs Cafe beforehand! They've got some of the best burgers in Texas. Unfortunately, they have limited hours right now due to lack of staff, but typically they are open through the evenings and are located right down the road from the park!

 

Old Tunnel | May 2021

Have you seen any of the bat emergences in Texas before? Which is your favorite?


Mother Neff State Park | May 2021

At the beginning of the month, Ben and Rebekah were visiting from California. They spent a night with me in Stonewall and then I drove them up to Gatesville to see her parents the following day. In addition to getting loaded up with tons of plants from her mom, it also gave us an opportunity to spend the afternoon at Mother Neff State Park - the park that inspired the Texas State Parks system!

Mother Neff is named after Isabella Neff, a Virginian who relocated to Texas in 1852. Her youngest child, Pat Neff, was the governor of Texas from 1921 - 1925. When Isabella Neff died, she left six acres of land to the state. It was turned into a local park and officially opened as a state park in 1937. One of many Civilian Conservation Corps parks in Texas, this small park has a lot of history. That history doesn't start with Isabella Neff, though. For thousands of years, this area has been inhabited by Native Americans. It's no surprise that settlers displaced them - that's the foundation of our country, really...

These days, the park is 400 acres. One thing that I liked about the park was that it actually seems better to walk it than drive it. Trails connect pretty much all the open areas and, in my opinion, are superior to the road, which narrows and dead ends at a gate at the south end of the park. This gate blocks off the area of the park that is closed due to flood damage from 2015.

The size of the park makes it really easy to hit some of the most prominent features in the park in just a short 1.5 mile loop! Here's how:

TOWER TRAIL - 0.6 miles

When you enter the park, head to the camping loop and park right by the bathrooms. Pick up the Tower Trail and walk to the CCC Rock Tower, arguably the most iconic structure at the park. Go ahead, walk up it and enjoy the view!

When you're ready to move on, keep following the trail until you come to an old CCC stone picnic table. One of the things the CCC did was try to design structures in a way that allows them to blend in with the environment. This is a common theme among CCC parks - it's known as landscape architecture or organic architecture, a term coined by world-renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. This picnic table kind of looks like it's growing out of the ground.

CAVE TRAIL - 0.2 miles

Take a short detour from the picnic table to head to the Tonkawa Cave. It's not a "cave" per se, more-so a rock shelter. It's really neat to sit underneath it and think about all those that have come before and sat in it's shade, as well. This is a great place to sit and enjoy a snack, some water, and the quiet. When you're ready, head back the way you came.

WASH POND TRAIL - 0.5 miles

When you get back to the picnic table, briefly hop back onto the Tower Trail and then veer to the left to join the Wash Pond Trail. When the trail splits, take the left route to head to the Wash Pond. The pond has CCC history, as well as they expanded a natural dam to make the pond bigger. Back then, it was used for laundry and swimming, but nowadays I don't think I'd want to do either in it. It was really pretty when we were there, though, with the blue skies and trees reflecting off the surface of the pond!

Backtrack a smidge to get back on the main Wash Pond Trail and keep following that until it intersects back with the Tower Trail. From there, it's less than a tenth of mile back to the road!

 

If you've got limited time to visit this park, you can't go wrong with this itinerary! The hiking is easy, the trails are shady, the scenery is beautiful, and the history is abundant!

Mother Neff | May 2021


Huntsville State Park | January 2021

This past January, we ventured out to the piney woods of east Texas, a place we haven't explored much of honestly, and parked the teardrop in Huntsville State Park for two nights. It was extremely rejuvenating, especially because the park was pretty empty while we were there. It was overcast and grey for pretty much the whole time. In fact, we left just before the first snow of winter hit Texas (the second one being the snowpocalypse in February). A really great friend of mine works at the park so we had ulterior motives for going since I also really wanted to see her and meet her kiddo!

Huntsville State Park is a gorgeous 2,000 acre park built in a large part by the Civilian Conservation Corp (aka CCC) in the 1930s. Work on the park took a hiatus during World War II, but began again in the 50s, with the park opening in 1956. Lake Raven is the most prominent feature of the park, and is a 210 acre man-made lake that is popular for fishing, swimming, and canoeing/kayaking. The park was much bigger than I thought, with 160 campsites!

Our site was 143 in Prairie Branch and was right on the water. It was set away from most of the other sites, except for one site right next door. I was really hoping to not have a neighbor since the park was so empty, but alas, someone pulled in shortly after we arrived. They were a nice, quiet, older couple, though, and had a friendly dog that Lily enjoyed petting. While this site wasn't as close to the bathrooms and we usually prefer, it was RIGHT next to the Prairie Branch trailhead. After setting up camp, we did a short hike, connecting the Prairie Branch trail to the Dogwood trail and then looping back around to the site.

The next morning before breakfast (but after caffeine), we hiked the full Prairie Branch loop trail. It's a really easy, short hike, half of which is along the water. It was a nice way to start the day. Afterwards, we cooked breakfast and sat and enjoyed the morning bird songs. In fact, as I sat in my camp chair with my feet propped up on my cooler, a warbler landed on my damn foot! I felt like Snow White, y'all.

Our last day there, we awoke to temperatures hovering just above freezing and a gorgeous layer of steam coming off of the lake. It was absolutely gorgeous. We met up with my pal and did lap after lap on the short Loblolly Trail right behind the Nature Center. It was perfect to let the kiddos run some energy off and we could meander with them and chat. Lily played so well with her daughter, despite the 5 year age difference.The two of them were cracking us up. We also stopped inside the Nature Center so Lily could touch the baby alligators! They have a partnership with Brazos Bend State Park where the young gators are raised at the park then released back at Brazos Bend when they are older.

Overall, we really enjoyed the park. It was lovely, well maintained, and quiet (though it does get very busy on weekends so don't expect quiet if you camp on a Saturday night). We are looking forward to returning soon!

Huntsville | January 2021