Two Week Travels | Arizona Desert

We were SO excited to finally plan a trip to some more Arizona National Parks! I have been wanting to bring Lily to Saguaro National Park for quite some time and, after the busyness of work and the holidays, I was looking forward to spending a little over a week in the desert. I wish we could have spent more time in the area, but we had to get back to school and work (boooo hisssss). We hit some new West Texas state parks along the way and explored some of the most iconic Arizona parks! Stay tuned for more details, but here is the basic itinerary as part of our Two Week Travels series (okay, okay, so this is only one week but sshhhhhh)!

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Tips & Tricks | Lessons Learned from Our First Backpacking Trip

We took our very first backpacking trip right before Thanksgiving! We decided that the Good Water Loop around Lake Georgetown was a great first trip for a number of reasons. It is not super remote (so if we got into a bind, we wouldn't be out in the middle of nowhere), it was a reasonable distance (27 miles around the lake), and it wasn't too far away from us. After lots of research, purchasing packs (and proceeding to stuff them full of shit), and planning our route and daily mileage, we headed to our starting point of Cedar Breaks Park. Three days and like 100,000 steps later, we made it back with aching feet but a sense of pride and accomplishment. Was it a perfect trip? Absolutely not. But it was an adventure and there were a few key takeaways that we got from the experience.

WATER IS IMPORTANT

This should go without saying, but we stupidly did not appropriately plan for water. We packed about 7 liters into our water bladders. I was convinced I was overpacking and never considered the alternative. Well, on the second day, we ran out of water with about three miles left in our hike. This happened due to a number of different factors, but it doesn't really matter WHY because, really, it can be anything. It's not so much about the why but about the obstacle that it presented. Everything I read recommended two different methods of water - packing in, a water filter, boiling, iodine tablets, etc. All we did was pack in, thinking that we'd have plenty to get us from refill point to refill point. I had carefully planned out where we would be able to refill and when we'd get there. All that went out the window when we got on the trail. Without a back-up plan for water, we were left thirsty AF and had to ask some fellow hikers for a spare bottle (that we proceeded to chug the fuck out of). Luckily, there were plenty of other hikers on the trail with us, but I will never again not have a back-up way to obtain water.

STRATEGICALLY PLAN YOUR ROUTE

We didn't think much about our route besides mileage. I wish that I had done more research and considered the difficulty of each section of trail, as well. We did the hardest part of the trail on the very first day when our packs were at their heaviest. This then led to us stopping short of our daily goal, which had a ripple effect for the rest of the trip while we tried to catch back up. This won't always be possible if the trail has one very defined starting point, but for a loop like the Good Water Loop, there are so many different places you can start and, if and when we do it again, we will be starting from a different location next time!

DON'T OVERSHOOT

We were a little too optimistic about what we would be able to accomplish each day, I think. Especially considering that we did not do any training with our packs (lol oops don't judge). Our plan for each day was (in chronological order): 6.5 miles, 9 miles, 6 miles, and 5.5 miles. What we ended up actually doing was: 4.5 miles (that for real almost killed me - I totally puked), 6.5 miles, 10 miles (this was rough), and 5.5 miles. I wish I had been a little bit more realistic about what we would be able to do each day and planned accordingly. Because we had a finite amount of time, we had to push really hard on that third day to catch up from falling short the first two days. I'd probably throw an extra day in there if we do it again. There are absolutely people that can do the whole loop with only one night on the trail. We are NOT those people. And that's okay. 

TRUST THAT YOU CAN DO IT

For me, this was just as much a mental challenge as it was a physical challenge. After the first day, I was seriously considering giving up. We talked about maybe just staying at that first campsite the whole time, but then I realized we couldn't do that because we needed water (refer back to the first point haha). At the end of every day, our feet were hurting, we were tired, and every step was a feat (feet lol) of strength. But through the hurt, through the exhaustion, through the weight of the packs and the humidity and the puking and the blisters, we fucking did it. I needed that reminder. The reminder of how strong I am, how much I am capable of. A reminder of how fucking AWESOME my body is, the body that carried me slowly but surely over 27 miles of rocky trail with 40lbs of weight on my back (and, for a while, Lily's pack on my front to give her a break). It may be soft and squishy but it is also fucking strong. It had been a while since I had been challenged the way this challenged me and it was nice to feel it again. I feel different on the other side of the trip. The experience changed me in a way that I don't really know how to describe just yet. It wasn't life shattering or anything, but I feel renewed.

If you're considering going on your first backpacking trip, DO IT. Be prepared to be challenged and be prepared to leave it all out there. You can do it!


Copper Breaks State Park | October 2021

We spent Halloween weekend at Copper Breaks State Park, located up near the Oklahoma border in Quanah. It's a rugged, quiet park with a lot to offer! We did a ton of hiking, tried our hand at fishing, and marveled at the magnificent night skies that this International Dark Sky Park boasts. If you're into mountain biking, most of the trails allowed bikes, in addition to foot (and for some, equestrian) traffic. If you're planning a trip to visit Copper Breaks State Park, here's a little bit about our experience!

Hiking

We hiked six of the trails in Copper Breaks, which is more than half of them! We really liked that the trails offered a variety of views, terrain, and difficulty levels!

  • River Run + Rocky Ledges Trails - moderate to challenging, the River Run wasn't too bad but Rocky Ledges had a lot of rocky terrain, navigating between big rocks, etc. Worth it for the views, though!
  • Equestrian Trail - a longer hike for those that want it! We did this one Saturday morning. Easy terrain, very quiet. We didn't see a single other person on the trail!
  • Thirsty Horse trail - super easy for kids! Very short at only 0.3 miles. Leads you to a little lake.
  • Bull Canyon Homesteader + Short Loop Trails - moderate, really pretty as you go into Bull Canyon. Some areas had more difficult terrain than others!

I highly recommend all the trails that we did. With some long, some short, some difficult, some easy, you're pretty much guaranteed to find one that works for you and your family!

Fishing

We don't fish too often, but they were selling kid's fishing poles in the gift shop and Lily decided she wanted one so we gave it a go! There is a small fishing pier that we fished on. They were sold out of bait so we used grasshoppers that we caught and some deli turkey. We're nothing if not resourceful. We didn't have a whole lot of luck, only catching one fish, but I hiiiiiiiiighly recommend evening fishing and watching the sunset on the pier. It was absolutely stunning. The colors were so vibrant and they reflected off the surface of the still water. So lovely.

Camping

We camped in the Comanche loop. I love the shade shelters that they have! They're so cool looking. However, there were very few trees in this area, so no shade and nowhere to hang the hammock, which was tragic. We were in a site right by the playground and Lily made some friends and played Among Us on the monkey bars and slide. Some of the other campgrounds looked superior in terms of aesthetics, but Comanche is the only one with electric hook-ups.

Stargazing

I wish they had held some astronomy programs or something, but hooooooooooooooooooooooooooboy, Copper Breaks has some pretty amazing night skies. They rival the skies I had when I lived in Fort Davis. Night sky darkness is rated on what is called the Bortle scale. The scale runs from 1 (super, super dark) to 9 (cities). Copper Breaks has a Bortle rating of 2, so almost as good as it gets!

We would definitely consider going back to Copper Breaks! We had a lovely, relaxing time out in the rugged landscape of North Texas!


Ramblings | 3 Things This Park Ranger Wants You to Know

Please be nice to us! | We all work so hard and we are underpaid and it sucks when someone gets mad at you for things like the weather or bugs or that something is closed. 99% of the time, it is legitimately something that we have absolutely NO control over. It's not our fault! We are doing the best we can! I'm not saying don't complain or get sassy if a staff member is giving subpar customer service or something (which hopefully doesn't happen very often), but just don't do it for things that we can't control please!

Please visit a location's website before coming! | Look up what the hours of operation are. If you're not sure, call and ask! I know a lot of people come SO excited to explore and they show up at closing and then get upset with US. ALL of the essential information about where you are going can generally be found on the first page of the website. Taking a few minutes to read it through will prevent disappointment and frustration on your end (and ours!). We get it, last minute things happen and a lot of people just pull in off the highway out of curiosity, but please understand it's not our fault if we are closed when you arrive late in the day.

We are all still learning. | Yes, that includes us park rangers. I literally make a living working in the outdoor industry and there are sooooo many things that I have never done and things I know nothing about. Don't feel any pressure or think that you have to know everything before you go out on an adventure. We are all learning as we go (and hopefully having a fucking great time learning and growing... I sure am!). Literally yesterday evening before I wrote this, we went hiking at Enchanted Rock and I fell into a FUCKING CACTUS. I've been picking little spines out of my hands and arm all evening. Shit happens. Don't let it bother you, just laugh at yourself. I fall down in front of people out in parks more often than I'd like to admit. It is what it is. The moral of the story is - don't let that stop you!

Okay, that's all I can think of right now. Maybe there will be a second volume in the future.


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