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


Pedernales Falls State Park | April 2021

Since we don't have another camping trip scheduled for about two months, we are getting our outdoor fill by day trips and hikes instead. This past Friday after school, we packed up our gear and headed to Pedernales Falls State Park in Johnson City. We had our sights set on the best overlook in the park and hoped to catch it at the end of the day when the sun was low in the sky.

The trail starts on Trammell's Crossing, which - as the name suggests - crosses the Pedernales River. From the river, stick to the northern portion of the 5.5 Mile Loop trail. In just under 2 miles, you'll be rewarded with some beautiful views of the Texas Hill Country and the Pedernales River.

The trail is listed as moderate. You definitely want good shoes that can get wet (or be prepared to take them off to cross the river). I wore my Chacos and they were just fine for me. Immediately after the river crossing, there's a bit of a climb to get up, but once you've hit the top it's pretty flat the rest of the way. Coming back is easy because it's downhill, except the very end getting back to the parking area.

This was our first hike of the year where it was above 90 degrees. I regretted not bringing my hat - I would have dipped it in the river and plopped it on my head before heading up the trail. That is definitely one of my favorite forms of trail air conditioning. Getting your feet wet in the river post-hike is really satisfying, too! Take some time to wade around and cool off.

 I highly recommend this hike. The distance is doable if you're short on time and the views are well worth the effort on those steep areas!

Pedernales Falls | April 2021


Colorado Bend State Park | April 2021

After stalking the reservation system for a couple of days, I was able to snag a campsite for one night of Easter weekend in Colorado Bend State Park. It was the only campsite that was available so I wasn't expecting much, but hey - a campsite is really just a place to eat and sleep.

As it turns out, we had the best campsite in park (not just my opinion - my pal Debbie that works at the park told me when we checked in!). Site 25 - book it for a couple of days and thank me later. The site was pretty secluded - you're down a bank from the road and the drive-in campsites. On one end is a small trail to the river (only one person came through while we were in the site) and the next site over was a good distance away. The river is a really short walk so it's easy to go back and forth without any hassle. The only downside of the site is that hauling our gear up and down the bank was kind of a pain in the ass, but I would do it again (and I plan to soon). It was probably just sucky for me because I'm out of shape, though, so take that with a grain of salt!

Since we were only camping for one night, we obviously had a lot to pack in. Here's what we did during our 24 hours at Colorado Bend!

Skipped rocks in the Colorado River

It sounds simple and boring, but damn, we really enjoyed this. After setting up camp, we brought our camp chairs down to the river and placed them right on the bank with the legs in the water. We had soaked our feet in the cold water and hunted for flat rocks that we sent flying across the surface (and also straight in - we're not very good at skipping rocks). We watched black vultures soaring around above us and the fishermen dotting the river. Sometimes the simple things are the best things.

Hiked the Spicewood Springs trail

Before dinner, we wanted to hike to see Spicewood Springs. The trail starts in the Spicewood Day Use Area and is 1.3 miles long. That's a little misleading, though, because the trail is one way and can be connected with the Spicewood Canyon trail to make a loop. The area where people swim in the springs is right at the beginning so if you just want to swim, the walk is easy and short. We stupidly didn't bring bathing suits because I was convinced that the water would be too cold to swim it. It was cold (as was the river), but it was totally swimmable.

If you hike this trail, be aware that there are numerous creek crossings. The first one we came across, I fell on my ass in front of numerous people and got my pants soaking wet. For the rest of the hike, I looked like I had pissed myself. Oh well! Wear good shoes, though, because some crossings are deeper/more slippery than others and you can/will get wet. I had my Chacos on which were perfect for walking through the water, but not great for the rock scrambling. They did fine, though.

We hit the overlooks as the sun was lowering in the sky and the views looking down at the springs were really phenomenal.

Hiked to Gorman Falls

After a good night's sleep, we woke up around 7AM and got moving for the day. We put our hiking clothes on, packed up our backpack, and by 8AM we were hitting the Gorman Falls trail to see the iconic 70 foot waterfall. The trail is 1.5 miles one way and I'd classify it as fairly easy until the very end. There are cables strung between posts that you hang on to as you slide your way down slick rocks on a steep slope to get to the falls. Equally fun going up (no, that's not sarcasm, it really was fun!).

Gorman Falls looks like a cave on the outside of the Earth. The process that formed it is the same one that forms caves, so the comparison is appropriate. The water comes from an underground spring and through time has created the travertine formations that the site is known for. The area is home to Guadalupe bass and is a very sensitive and fragile environment. Please don't be a jerk and cross the barriers. Also, don't fucking leave your trash everywhere. Lily and I picked up a lot of trash from the area. It's not hard to bring a trash bag, y'all. Don't suck!

We were the first ones to the fall that day and didn't see another soul on the trail until the very end when we were almost back to the car.

 

So that's pretty much it. I know it doesn't sound like a whole lot of hiking, but damn my legs are sore. It was about six miles total. Both hikes were labeled as challenging and contained areas of scrambling/climbing up rocks. I worked muscles I haven't used too often lately. It was definitely a good enough amount for us considering we had very little time in the park. In the morning after the hike, we asked if there was availability for a second night and got an answer we didn't want but did expect - a big ol' NOPE. We begrudgingly packed up camp and headed out. We are definitely going to be back sooner rather than later! And next time, we WILL bring our bathing suits.

 

Colorado Bend | April 2021


Big Bend National Park | April 2019

Oh, Big Bend, my heart belongs to thee. Big Bend National Park, and the whole Big Bend area in general, is one of the most amazing places in the world. In the remotest corner of Texas, far from shopping malls, McDonald's, light pollution, traffic, and all the mundane bullshit in our lives that we allot too much space for, there is a place where the desert stretches across the vast land, the mountains jut out from the dry ground, an island amongst the sea of dirt and scrub, and the river powerfully carves it's way through the rock, engraving it's legacy slowly but surely. Even just thinking about it makes me feel dreamy.

Big Bend National Park | April 2019

Okay, back to reality. I brought Lily to the park for her first visit (of many) in 2019. We spent two nights in the Chisos Basin campground, the best of the three developed campgrounds in the park. Being up in the mountains offers more comfortable temperatures than down on the desert floor, there are amazing views, and some of the best hiking trails are up in the Chisos.

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a thread about Big Bend on some website and was surprised to see many people saying that it wasn't ideal to bring kids to the park. It's dangerous, it's wild, it's scary. It is indeed all those things, though only scary in its vastness in my opinion. Not a place you'd want to get lost. That being said, though, it is actually a great place for kids. It's dangerous, but then again so is driving. The possible hazards that may be encountered in Big Bend offer a great opportunity to teach kids about trail safety, awareness of your surroundings, wildlife, and leaving no trace. It's wild, a rugged landscape with boulders for climbing up and around and over, a place that cannot be tamed. It is a place where kids can experience dark skies and solitude, where they can test their boundaries and get dirty. Some things in the park are better suited to older kids/adults, but Lily was only five years old when we went and there was more than enough to keep us busy and she absolutely fucking loved it. Here are some of the child friendly activities that we did.

 

Hike to Balanced Rock

This hike is high reward for low effort. The most difficult part of hiking to Balanced Rock is getting to the trailhead. To get there, you have to drive down Grapevine Hills road, a dirt road that has potholes and big rocks and is slow going. It's certainly not 4WD level - we did it in my old Honda CRV - but it's a bumpy ride. It took us an hour to drive the six miles to the Grapevine Hills trailhead. Once on the trail, though, it's easy going. It's pretty flat up until about the last quarter of a mile, where you do a nice scramble up some boulders to get to Balanced Rock. Lily loved this part - anything that has to do with climbing she's on board with. You can get some fun photos at Balanced Rock before heading back to the parking lot.

There isn't much shade on this hike so plan ahead by wearing a hat and sunscreen. The hike is a little over 2 miles round trip so it's a great warm up for a day of hiking in the desert!

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Once you're back on the pavement from the Grapevine Hill road, it's easy to hop onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive route by taking a right onto the main road. This is a thirty mile scenic route that highlights some of the history of the area. Turn off the main road at Castolon (see more below). Keep going until you reach Santa Elena Canyon. There are a number of stopping points along the way to enjoy, including the Sam Nail Ranch, Mule Ears Viewpoint, and a number of overlooks. Be forewarned: the kid(s) may sleep through the drive, but that's okay because the nap will help energize them and prevent crankiness for the rest of the day! They'll need the energy for the next hike.

Visit Santa Elena Canyon

At the end of the scenic drive, try to find a parking spot and take the Santa Elena Canyon trail, a 1.7 mile round trip hike that takes you into the canyon until there is nothing but rock and water. There's a bit of a climb at the beginning of the trail, but it's very doable (and paved just about all the way if I remember correctly). Once you've entered the mouth of the canyon, there is some shade with the river cane and some trees, plus some rock overhangs that you can sit under. When we finally reached the water, there were groups of people wading around so we decided to join them. We rolled up our pant legs, took off our shoes, and in we went. Lily then proceeded to 'accidentally' fall in... yeah right. I am 99.9% sure that she just wanted to swim, but it's okay. It was a great way to cool off after the hike and the water felt amazing. You can't leave Big Bend without doing this hike and standing in the water of the Rio Grande River between two massive rock faces, one the United States, the other Mexico. Being sandwiched between two countries is pretty cool.

Stop by Castolon

On your way back from Santa Elena Canyon, you can stop at Castolon Historic District. Err... well... at least you used to be able to. Unfortunately, a wildfire severely damaged the area in 2019. The area housed historic buildings dating from the early 1900s. The Visitor Center and La Harmonia store were burned extensively, but they have a temporary visitor center set up now in a different building across the way. Stop by and learn about the history of the area, mourn the fire damage, and envision what lies ahead in the future for this part of Big Bend.

Visit the Hot Springs

Hot Springs Historic District houses a number of historic buildings, including a post office and the remnants of a bathhouse built by J.O. Langford. The drive to get to the parking area is narrow and unpaved, so drive cautiously! The sign in the parking lot warned to not leave valuables in your vehicle - I assume they have some issues with theft there but we had no problems. All of our important belongings went in our backpack anyways.

The hike to the hot springs is only about half a mile and is really easy. Explore the remnants of the stone buildings along the way and look for pictographs on the rock faces. When you reach the springs, you can soak in the water where you're in the foundation of the old bathhouse that was constructed. The area is usually fairly crowded so don't expect quiet or privacy. We dipped our feet in for a bit but didn't actually soak since we didn't bring appropriate attire. The river flows adjacent to the springs, with Mexico just across the way. You will likely see small trinkets, walking sticks, and other items for sale, set on the ground of the United States by Mexican artists/craftsmen. Anyone that purchases an item leaves their money and the person comes to collect it. Be aware that this is illegal. You can purchase legal crafts made by Mexican merchants in some of the camp stores in the park or if you cross into Boquillas. Note: as of the time of writing this, this area is currently closed due to COVID-19.

Visit any of the visitor centers

There are multiple visitor centers scattered through the park. They're all worth a visit. They provide information about the park, environment, and wildlife, are staffed by rangers so you can ask questions and get suggestions or recommendations, and they've got stores that sell souvenirs, books, and some of them sell grocery/camping items, as well. The Chisos Basin visitor center has a taxidermied mountain lion that Lily enjoyed.

 

There is no way to see all of Big Bend in two days, but we pretty much tracked to all the edges of the park. Be prepared to drive a lot - the park covers more than 800,000 acres. You can definitely get through a visit without leaving the pavement, but where's the fun in that? We can't wait to get back. Now that Lily is older, she is able to hike longer distances. The trails we've got on our list for next time are Lost Mine, Window, Mule Ears, Chimneys..... ugh, so much to explore, so little time.

Have you visited Big Bend with kiddos? What are your favorite things to do?