Written by Texas Highways
Roughly 110 miles from Freeport, I plunged six feet down from the M/V Fling, into the Gulf of Mexico to explore the Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Here, rays of sun stream through Jolly Rancher-blue waters, a setting unlike anything near the shore. A school of fish gathered under the boat and a torpedo-shaped barracuda hung motionless in the water 20 yards away. Admiring his buoyancy control, I swam down to the reef, clearly visible 80 feet below.
Under water, light behaves differently; colors sparkle, then fade. Sounds magnify and distort. Liquid cradles a body accustomed to mere air. Down and up become abstractions. Swimming equals flying. Water replaces atmosphere, and the sea floor or lake bottom might resemble a barren moon or the most riotous field of flora imaginable.
I first met the clear, bracing waters of Balmorhea’s swimming pool on a family vacation decades ago. Wading far into the shallow wing of a pool that stretched nearly the length of a football field, I imagined I stood in the middle of an ocean. Apparently other people had a similar reaction, because in the 1970s, scuba divers began frequenting this remarkable oasis in the desert.
See related: All the Right Notes
Texas’ spectacular show cave celebrates 50 years of tours
Even though the fantastic geological formations inside the Caverns of Sonora are the primary attraction, consider also that the cave is cool in the summer: a steady 71 degrees. And this year, the Caverns celebrate 50 years of public tours. As one expert, George Veni, Executive Director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, New Mexico, explains, these caverns, located in the southwest quadrant of the state, “are internationally recognized as the most beautiful show cave on the planet."
You’ll find the Caverns of Sonora 15 miles southwest of Sonora, off Interstate 10. The best driving route is to take Exit 392 south onto RR 1989 (Caverns of Sonora Rd.), and follow the road signs. The Caverns open daily, year-round, except Christmas Day; guided tours are offered throughout the day. Special “adventure tours,” photography tours, and large-group tours must be arranged in advance. The visitor center offers fossils, rocks, books, and jewelry, as well as snacks (including homemade fudge). RV and tent camping are available, along with potable water, electricity, and restrooms with showers.
Caverns of Sonora staff will host a public celebration in July to mark the 50th anniversary of the first public cave tours. For updates on the event or details about the Caverns, including admission fees, call 325/387-3105 or 325/387-6507; www.cavernsofsonora.com.
Black-chins, ruby-throats, painted buntings, and other wildlife delight guests at a B&B south of San Angelo
At the Hummer House B&B on the Brown Ranch, near Christoval, if you snooze, you lose. The main event at this secluded inn with a trio of cozy cottages takes place just after dawn, when scores of hummingbirds begin arriving at seven large feeders hung outside the observation room, just a few feet away from a 30-foot-long wall of windows. So even after a late night talking to owners Dan and Cathy Brown about their 1,200-acre wooded retreat, I wander into the viewing area around 6:45, ready to see the show.
And what a show it is! You don’t have to be a birder to appreciate the antics of these tiny creatures as they maneuver their way around other hummers to a feeder, where they hover in midair and lap sugar-water for a few seconds before flitting away and crowding into a cluster of birds at another station. These rowdy visitors seem to think the “breakfast” in B&B refers to their breakfast, and they’re determined to get their share.
“Try these,” says Dan, handing me a pair of binoculars. The room begins to fill with about a dozen people, all eager to watch the morning spectacle and hear Dan present a lecture on the fascinating behavior of hummingbirds. As I focus on the tiny features of an individual hummer—its bright, dark eyes, long bill, and exquisite, curved toes—I’m entranced. I glimpse one of the birds dart its long, forked tongue in and out of the feeder. “That tongue allows them to scoop up insects, pollen, and nectar from flowers,” explains Dan.
You don’t have to be a birder to appreciate the antics of these tiny creatures.
He points out a male ruby-throated hummingbird, easily identified by its iridescent, red gorget (throat). He then shows me another ruby-throat with a somewhat streaked gorget that he says could be a juvenile male; like the males in most bird species, the juveniles gradually display more color as they mature. Ruby-throats aren’t the only hummers feasting here, though. Dan points out a male rufous hummingbird, with feathers that look like burnished copper, and several black-chinned hummingbirds, the species for which the ranch is most famous.
“See that one over there?” asks Dan, motioning to a hummer with a purple throat and a black chin at one of the feeders. “That’s a male. We have about 3,000 black-chinned hummingbirds on the ranch every summer during the breeding season—April to August—the largest concentration in the state.”
Cathy reminds me that the Hummer House isn’t just about hummingbirds. “We have a lot of birds here—about 135 species. My favorite is the painted bunting,” she says, referring to the particularly colorful songbird. Although it’s native to Texas, it looks like it belongs in the tropics, especially the male, with its blue head and red, green, and yellow body.
“We’ve banded large numbers of both black-chinned hummingbirds and painted buntings at the ranch, most of them netted right around the B&B,” says Angelo State University chemistry professor and licensed bird-bander Ross Dawkins, who leads frequent banding efforts here. The process involves attaching a metal band to a wild bird’s leg, which allows scientists to track the population of a species in a given area.
“Of course, you can spot a variety of birds here, from red- shouldered hawks to moun-tain bluebirds,” adds Dawkins. “And it’s not unusual to see 40 white-tailed deer or more than 100 wild turkeys ga--thered in the backyard.”
Why such an abundance of wildlife? It’s partly because the Hummer House is what Dawkins calls a “mega feeding station.” Last year, the Browns put out 40 tons of corn and three tons of birdseed, and used 1,580 pounds of sugar—more than three-quarters of a ton—to mix up sugar-water for the hummers. “They also provide plenty of nesting material for the female hummers,” says Dawkins.
While Dan doesn’t have any formal training in ornithology—he’s actually a geologist and a practicing lapidary—his knowledge of hummers is encyclopedic, gleaned from decades of studying the tiny birds that frequent the ranch. His lecture spans topics from the weight of a black-chinned hummingbird (it takes eight of them to equal an ounce) to the mechanics of a hummingbird nest (the mother uses spider webs—which stretch—to build the nest so it can expand as the chicks grow).
Volunteer While Seeing the Sights
By Melissa Gaskill
The ferry bumped to a stop at the San José Island dock, and I filed off with 30 or so other passengers. We followed a line of low dunes to the beach, which stretched as far as I could see—all of it littered with plastic jugs and bottles, aluminum cans, buckets, and just about every other imaginable form of detritus. The vast majority of it travels here on currents that enter the Gulf of Mexico, much of it trash from ships originating in far-flung destinations. Our group of volunteers, including 23 science students from Eastfield College in Dallas, sprang into action and, within a few hours, cleaned about a mile-and-a-half of sand. We dragged, carried, and carted many thousands of pounds of trash, enough to fill the 38-foot boat three times. Total haul for the St. Jo and Port Aransas beaches that day: 12,075 pounds of trash.
The shore looked beautiful, the entire afternoon lay before me, and the sun shone on this now nearly spotless stretch of the Texas coast. Beach clean-up, I realized, offered a perfect way to combine volunteering with travel.
Vacations can present excellent opportunities to do good works—you’re likely to have some time on your hands, to be in a place you find worthy of assistance, and the work itself tends to be interesting and unexpected.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 3.7 million Americans volunteered more than 120 miles away from home in 2007, and a 2008 MSNBC poll reported that 95 percent of those who volunteered while on vacation indicated they’ll do so again.
What’s more, people who volunteer may benefit almost as much as the people or cause they serve. According to data from a National Institute on Aging study collected from 1986 through 2006, people who do community service enjoy better physical health and suffer less depression. Other research shows that volunteering triggers release of oxytocin and other feel-good brain chemicals, and can also lower the risk of illness, even decades later.
If cleaning beaches sounds like your cup of tea, several organizations spearhead events perfect for families with children of almost any age. The Texas General Land Office Adopt-A-Beach program holds cleanups all along the coast each fall and spring, including the one I joined on St. Jo. The Ocean Conservancy sponsors an annual international cleanup every fall, with a number of locations in Texas, and local coastal communities often organize trash pick-up days.
Opportunities abound in Texas to do good deeds while traveling. Just about anywhere you go, someone needs volunteers for a worthy cause. These examples can help get you started.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
The refuge provides volunteers with RV sites and kitchen, bathroom, and laundry facilities in exchange for working three or four days a week for at least three months (or shorter stints in times of need), says volunteer coordinator Bernice Jackson. These volunteers work in the visitors center, mow, and maintain trails. Jackson also plans day projects for groups (call ahead), and has local volunteers who come in regularly. She says. “We have a real need for people in spring, summer, and fall months.”
Give Back Getaways, Ritz-Carlton, Dallas
Guests at Ritz-Carlton hotels worldwide can volunteer with local organizations chosen by hotel employees through its Give Back Getaways program. The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas picked the North Texas Food Bank as its beneficiary. I spent a morning in its bustling kitchen, mixing ingredients for chicken casseroles, some of the 10,000 hot meals prepared weekly here. Participants age 10 and older also can sort and box food in the food bank’s cavernous warehouse, and a full-day experience includes serving after-school meals. Volunteers receive snacks upon arrival at the Ritz-Carlton and a Food Bank T-shirt, but those rewards paled next to the idea that my help meant someone had a meal that day who might not have otherwise.
Grand Hyatt San Antonio
Grand Hyatt San Antonio offers a volunteer program called Destination Humane. Visit the city’s Humane Society, where you can play with dogs and cats, and post your “vacation” photos on the organization’s adoption website.
Texas state parks rely heavily on volunteers, who provided nearly $7 million worth of labor in 2008. At Palo Duro Canyon State Park, volunteers help maintain the extensive trail network. Volunteers don’t need any specific skills, and there’s work appropriate for teens and adults.
State park volunteer hosts receive a free campsite in exchange for 24 hours of work each week (36 hours for couples) for at least 30 days. “Their primary task is to maintain the camping loop where they reside,” Londenberg says. “Hosts serve as the eyes and ears of the park in that loop, too.”
Nearly all state parks offer both short- and long-term volunteer opportunities.
Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery
This 160-acre federal facility near Burnet provides striped bass to restore populations in Gulf waters and major tributaries, and raises channel catfish and largemouth bass for freshwater sport fishing. Open daily, it includes a visitor pavilion, fishing site, and areas for observing abundant waterfowl and shorebirds.
Volunteers build and maintain trails, installs signs, help with construction and renovation of an interpretive center and builds bird blinds, coordinate events with schools, lead tours on the trails, landscape, clean, or help with office work.
Hatchery administrative assistant Cindy Fronk says, “We’ll take anyone who is interested, for the long term, a day, or even just a few hours,” says Fronk, who also welcomes families who want to help out.
National Public Lands Day
This annual late-September event mobilizes folks around the country for a variety of one-day projects benefiting our public lands. North of Fort Worth, one location, Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, provides habitat for 270 species of birds, and attracts kayakers, birders, and hikers. Lisa Cole, LLELA’s education coordinator, organizes Public Lands Day volunteers, and welcomes helpers year round for a variety of chores, including moving electric fencing for the resident bison herd.
Volunteer Diane Wetherbee plants trees and prairie species, helps build trails, and leads visitors on hikes through the property’s 2,000 acres of diverse habitat. “I like seeing prairie restoration in a major urban area,” she says. “I feel really good about playing some small part in that. People can see a difference even if they just work a day or two.
Lake Travis Parks Underwater Cleanup
Sponsored by Keep Austin Beautiful, Travis County Parks, and the Lower Colorado River Authority, this annual September event takes place at nine LCRA parks around Lake Travis. Shoreline volunteers remove and recycle tons of trash from the water’s edge, and, at seven locations, several hundred scuba divers collect trash below the water’s surface. This year will mark the event’s 16th year.
The following sites offer opportunities to see summer wildflowers. Keep in mind that changes in temperature and rainfall may cause plants to bloom earlier or later than the periods listed. As botanists are fond of saying, “Plants don’t read field guides!”
While Texans usually make a beeline indoors (or to the nearest swimming hole) on sweltering summer days, some of our native wildflowers revel in the heat. The species have learned to thrive during periods of high temperature and little rainfall, thereby giving them an edge over less-resistant species. Thanks to this phenomenon, splashes of yellow, violet, pink, and white adorn roadsides and fields even in the hottest months.
I’m back in the saddle again, riding a sure-footed horse along a rocky path that twists and bucks through cedar-strewn hills south of Bandera. My teenage daughter Erica trails along behind me on a feisty mare while a mustachioed wrangler, clad in dusty leather chaps and a weathered cowboy hat, leads the way. Soon my imagination wanders back 130 years to the grueling Longhorn cattle drives up the Great Western Trail to Dodge City. After more than an hour on horseback, thirst sets in under the blazing sun and my aching legs beg for solid ground. Still, I’m loving every minute of my trail ride at the Silver Spur Guest Ranch.
At Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Glen Rose, it's a wild, wild world
By Pam LeBlanc
A giraffe lowers its head from the treetops, unfurling an 18-inch purple tongue and delicately plucking a pellet of food from my hand. Another slurps a snack from my husband’s palm, which is extended through the sunroof of our Volkswagen. Soon, we’re surrounded by a bevy of friendly giraffes, all eager to slime us with their wet lips and sticky snouts.
The towering animals, with gently swaying necks and eyelashes so long they look like they’ve been brushed with mascara, have no qualms about bellying up to this bar—or car—for a late-afternoon snack. They’re star attractions here at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a drive-through wild-animal park near Glen Rose, some 60 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
“Not only is Fossil Rim an entertainment center, but on the conservation side of things, they’re improving the welfare of animals.”
The park, once operated as a private exotic game ranch, opened to the public 25 years ago. Tourism isn’t the main mission; the primary purpose here is to help species rebound from the brink of extinction. Because of the park’s size—it encompasses about 1,700 acres—it can nurture intact social groups of animals, rather than just individuals. Groups, when reintroduced to their native habitat, have a better chance for survival.
“Because we have lots of space, we can keep animals by the herd, the flock, or the pack,” says Executive Director Patrick Condy. He mentions five species—the addax, an exotic white antelope with ridged, spiraled horns; two types of wolves; the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken; and another type of antelope called the scimitar-horned oryx—that have been reintroduced to the wild through breeding programs at Fossil Rim. Some of the park’s addax have been sent to Tunisia to bolster native populations; Mexican gray wolves have been reintroduced in the southwestern United States. The park carefully chooses which animals to work with, focusing on animals that can adapt to the Texas climate.
“If we didn’t have Fossil Rim involved, we wouldn’t have had nearly the success we have today,” says Terry Rossignol, manager of the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Eagle Lake, which is home to the largest wild Attwater’s population (a mere 50 chickens). Most of them are a result of Fossil Rim’s groundbreaking captive-breeding program. “Not only is Fossil Rim an entertainment center,” says Rossignol, “but on the conservation side of things, they’re improving the welfare of animals.”
Giraffes, too, are losing habitat in the wild. That’s why park officials are so proud of the two gangly, long-necked reticulated giraffes born early this spring. Re-ticulated giraffes are named for the geometric brown spots on their fur, outlined by a network of white lines. The two female calves, which weighed about 150 pounds and stood six feet tall at birth, are getting used to life in the public eye.
“Because we have lots of space, we can keep animals by the herd, the flock, or the pack.”
I wave goodbye to my new giraffe friends, and we motor on. We putter past a small herd of zebra, which press in hoping for some pellets from our bucket, cruise through groups of sable and blackbuck antelope, and watch a dainty Thomson’s gazelle (“the fast food of the savannah,” a guide tells us) nibble grass.
Four or five tank-like creatures rumble around the rhino camp. We admire their leathery skin and sturdy legs, then proceed into ostrich territory. We can’t roll up the windows fast enough when we spot the powerful birds marching toward us. After all, ostriches can reach speeds of 40 mph, and their legs are so long and muscular they look as if they could kick over a car! We toss a little food out the window and make haste.
It takes two or three hours to drive the nine-mile paved road that weaves through four separate pastures of the facility. In all, more than 1,000 animals of 50 different species call Fossil Rim home. Among them are cheetahs, wildebeest, bison, and axis deer. The park recently added four Przewalski’s horses, a rare breed of Mongolian equines, to its roster of animals.
Also new for 2010, Fossil Rim is busy expanding its Children’s Animal Center, an educational facility where you can pet a goat and meet an emu. The larger center will accommodate new species, including parrots and a pair or two of the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chickens that are raised in a separate facility at the park.
Our self-guided tour complete, we head to our accommodations at Fossil Rim’s Foothills Safari Camp, a collection of seven tent cabins situated on a slope above a secluded watering hole. Each is set along a gravel path in a grove of oak trees.
The sun is sinking as we settle into chairs on the back porch of the camp’s glassed-in dining room, sipping glasses of wine. Right on cue, the nightly performance begins at the pond on the other side of the fence, just down the hill.
The spindly-looking sandhill cranes, intent on warning noisy intruders away from their nests, flap and squawk from a cluster of trees 100 yards away from us. A trio of sable antelope move in next, cautiously sipping water from the pond. Then come the addax, who bellow out a low-pitched, snorting symphony. Two of them clash horns in an impressive encore in the grassy, cactus-studded field next to the pond.
I’m thankful for the fence that separates us from the wildlife.
When it finally gets too dark to see anymore, we retreat to our cabin. Quarters are cozy—just enough room for two twin beds—but it’s not exactly roughing it. Each canvas-covered cabin is heated and air conditioned, and has its own sink, shower, and toilet. I happily unroll the canvas flaps and let the breeze blow through.
Springs feed the life force for humans (and other living things) throughout Texas, and have done so ever since … well, ever since there have been humans in Texas. Archeologists point to evidence that shows people were hanging around some of Texas’ largest springs more than 10,000 years ago. That’s a long time, especially in a region historically regarded as too harsh and hellishly hot in the summer to support large numbers of people.
Rockhounds scour the state for the good stuff
I must have rocks in my head to be out in the scorching Big Bend sun, teetering on a steep talus slope on Needle Peak, dodging thorny lechuguilla and prickly pear while searching for pom-pom agates and chalcedony pseudomorphs.
Agate expert Trey Woodward leads the way up the mountain. He has a knack for spotting dazzling rocks and helps me find “the good stuff” up and down the mountain.
“The hard part about Needle Peak is just getting to it,” says Woodward. The rugged spire, also known as Sierra Aguja, rises south of Terlingua on the western edge of Big Bend National Park. While the last few miles of dirt road leading to Woodward’s 285-acre Needle Peak acreage are rough going, the real fun begins when he powers his fat-tire Jeep down a slippery, flood-soaked creek, splattering us with muddy gumbo.
“Everyone loves the ride down here,” says Woodward, who leads outings to Needle Peak from his Woodward Ranch near Alpine, a renowned rockhound mecca where I got hooked on agate hunting years ago.
'Rock hunting is like treasure hunting.'
Whether I’m searching for agate in the volcanic backcountry of West Texas, precious gems and rare minerals in the Llano Uplift of Central Texas, or pelecypod fossils in Cretaceous limestone around Austin, collecting rocks captivates me like no other hobby. Many thousands of rockhounds share my passion for Texas’ geologic treasures.
“Rock hunting is like treasure hunting,” says Teri Smith, a rockhound from Alpine with a passion for agates and guiding others to prime collecting spots.
“You can be a scientist, artist, and explorer—all with rocks,” adds Smith, who has a rock shop and museum at the Antelope Lodge in Alpine, which she owns with her husband, John. “It’s thrilling to discover something beautiful, unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”
While Texas abounds with rocks, minerals, and fossils, public access poses a challenge. More than 94 percent of Texas is private land, off-limits to rockhounds without landowner permission. Much of the state’s public land includes state and nation-al parks and wildlife management areas where it’s illegal to collect rocks, artifacts, or plants.
Fortunately, rockhounds can hunt legally on pub-lic easements along Texas roads, and roadcuts can prove fruitful for collecting.