Note: This is my first installment in my new Outdoor Gear blog category. Having and using the right gear is an essential part of enjoying adventures in the Lone Star State.
I absolutely love to camp out. From my days as a Boy Scout to today, I love everything about camping — including the preparation. Preparing to camp or the anticipation of heading out on an outdoor adventure is a big part of the fun. I am one of those guys who enjoys walking slowly down the camping aisles at local sports and outdoors stores. I just like looking at camping stuff and, occasionally, adding an additional piece of gear to my collection.
When it comes to camp hygiene, I have tried everything from baby wipes to solar showers to compact backpacking showers. While camping in the bush in Tanzania and later venturing down one of the trans-Himalayan rivers in South Asia, I relied on my solar shower. I just set it out at the start of the day, let it heat up, and then enjoyed a refreshing rinse at the end of the day.
I added a compact pocket shower when I ventured to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and camped for a week on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was the perfect piece of gear for washing my hair in the mornings and taking a quick rinse at the end of the day. Like my larger solar shower, this compact version worked really well.
Of course, the only drawback to both of these pieces of gear is that you need something from which to hang the shower. Add a couple of gallons of water and now you have to find something that can hold sixteen-plus pounds of water weight. That can be hard to do at times. On my recent camping trip to the Guadalupe Mountains, finding a place to hang my camp shower at my base camp proved to be a challenge.
So, I looked at other shower options for my car camping adventures in the Lone Star State. As it turned out, camp showers can be a bit pricey. I needed something that could sit on the ground to eliminate the frustration of positioning a shower bag on a tree limb. And I needed something that could save water and still get the job done. So, I decided that a camp shower hack was the answer — something that would cost me a fraction of the price of a camping shower unit.
The answer: turn a multi-purpose garden sprayer into a shower unit. The only thing to keep in mind here is to start with a new unit rather than one that has been used to spray garden chemicals. I opted to buy a RoundUp brand 2-gallon garden sprayer unit. Because the sprayer hose was not very long, I also purchased a generic kitchen spray hose (the kind that fits onto a kitchen sink spray nozzle) to lengthen the hose. The only other items I needed were two couplings.
Within a matter of minutes, some quick splicing and coupling of the hoses, I had my shower unit. I chose to use the fan-spray nozzle that came with the sprayer. This nozzle produces a heavy mist spray that also saves water. A few pumps to build up pressure in the sprayer and my shower was fully operational. Of course, I did test it in my shower stall at home. Worked as good as I had hoped.
My new camping shower will now be a part of my car camping gear, along with my pop-up privacy shower tent. No more worries about hanging stuff from a tree branch. I will now be able to enjoy a refreshing shower wherever I car camp. The only other thing I will do is to paint the unit black to absorb more heat in the day time, leaving a clear strip on one side to monitor my water level.
Here is my all-in cost for my camping shower hack (figures rounded up):
• Garden Sprayer | $20.00 | I could have saved $10.00 by opting for a one-gallon unit.
• Kitchen Sink Sprayer Hose | $5.00
• Two Couplings | $10.00
Honestly, I don’t think there is ever a bad time to eat a burger. In fact, I could actually live on burgers — while still observing Taco Tuesdays, of course. That said, I am always on the lookout for new places to indulge my appetite for a delicious bacon cheeseburger.
After a recent trip to bike the trails at Huntsville State Park, my friends and I decided to drive to Coldspring for a burger. I love little Texas towns like Coldspring — the small friendly places that lie between the bigger places on the map.
The first post office at this little settlement opened in 1847 and was named Coonskin. A year later the name was changed to Fireman’s Hill. In 1850 the name was changed to Cold Spring for the spring water found there. In 1894, the name was officially respelled Coldspring.
My biking buddies and I decided to stop at GW’s Hickory Pit BBQ and Burger House. This place has all the markings of a dive and all the promise of finding hidden treasure. The sign out front boasted what we hoped would prove true: “This stuff is so good that if you get some on your forehead your tongue will beat you to death to get to it.”
I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and opted for crispy fries because they were fresh out of onion rings. I smiled the second I noticed the cook slapping a big patty on the grill. That was a good sign, indeed. And t made the waiting all the harder. A few minutes later my burger arrived nestled next to a jumble of hot fries. Wow! This was one big burger. The thick slabs of bacon were cooked to crispy perfection. This was another good sign since I have no tolerance for wimpy bacon.
I cut my burger in half and took my first bite. No need for a second bite to confirm that we had made the right choice by stopping at GW’s. Absolutely tasty. As with all good burgers I have found on my burger quest, I savored every mouth-watering bite.
Once again, taking a risk on a dive proved to be a better decision than opting for the convenience of a fast food chain. No regrets about stopping at GW’s. This is one burger I would definitely try again — and again. So, if you ever find yourself anywhere near Coldspring, stop by GW’s and try one of their burgers. You’ll be glad you did.
The small white chapel stands on La Lomita or “the little hill” located just a few miles south of the town of Mission. The restored chapel is a reminder of earlier days when the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) traveled by horseback up and down the Rio Grande Valley. These circuit-riding padres baptized babies, performed marriage ceremonies, gave last rights, and listened to confessions.
The land on which the mission stands was originally part of a Spanish land grant awarded in 1767. John Davis Bradburn purchased the property in 1842 and died two months later. His Mexican widow sold the property to a French merchant named René Guyard in 1845. Guyard died in 1861 and left the La Lomita grant to two Oblate priests “for the propagation of the faith among the barbarians.”
La Lomita played an instrumental role in the spread of Catholicism in South Texas. Located between mission centers in Brownsville and Roma, La Lomita became a strategic mission center for what became known as the Cavalry of Christ. These circuit-riding Oblates were some kind of tough. They faced all kinds of challenges and dangers in their efforts to spread their faith throughout South Texas.
The original chapel, built at a campsite along the Brownsville-Roma Trail, suffered flood damage more than once because of its proximity to the Rio Grande River. That original chapel was washed away by flood waters in 1865 and was rebuilt in 1899 at its present site at La Lomita. Over the years this chapel has sustained hurricane damage and suffered the normal deterioration caused by age. Today, thanks to restoration initiatives, the chapel is in good repair and continues to attract both the faithful and the curious.
When my hometown of Mission was founded in 1908, the town was named Mission in honor of the wide-ranging ministry of the Oblates. In 1975, La Lomita was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. In 1976, the city of Mission added visitor amenities to make the historic La Lomita a family friendly municipal park.
Places like La Lomita absolutely stir my imagination. As I walked the grounds I reflected on the hardy ranchers who tamed this southernmost part of the Lone Star State. I also thought about the tough cowboy-priests who rode from ranch to ranch to care for their flock. And, of course, I wondered about all who came (and still some) to this little place of worship with their burdens, anxieties, dreams and prayers — who lit their candles as an earnest expression of their hopes for answers and miracles.
La Lomita, like the Painted Churches and other historical places of worship, is a great road trip destination. Places like this remind us of an important part of our Texas history — the role of faith in the lives of those who settled the Lone Star State.
John Muir is regarded as one of our nation’s most influential naturalist and conservationist. He inspired the people of his generation to experience and to protect what would later become some of our country’s largest national parks. Muir was no stranger to hiking. His countless miles of meanderings inspired him to write what has become a favorite quote: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” That’s really good advice!
Sadly, lots of folks will live a lifetime without ever walking down a dirt path. For those of us who live in the Lone Star State, there is no excuse to not get outdoors to venture down a dirt or rocky path. With over ninety state parks, every Texan is within driving distance of a dirt path. It just takes a little planning and being intentional about venturing out.
Among my favorite day-hike trails is the Devil’s Hall Trail at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This trail leads hikers to a magnificent narrow canyon called the Devil’s Hall. This four-mile out and back hike is rated moderately difficult because it requires a bit of boulder scrambling. But, don’t let that scare you off. That’s what makes this such a fun trail to hike.
The trail begins at the Pine Springs campground and is well-defined for the first couple of miles. The trail eventually leads to a canyon wash that is filled with scree and boulders. No danger of getting lost, however, as long as you stay in the stream-bed. This wash leads to a stair step series of ledges called the Hiker’s Staircase.
It’s an easy climb up the staircase and past a natural bathtub at the top of this formation. The trail continues a short distance to the Devil’s Hall, a canyon whose walls are lined with horizontal stones that look like they were laid down by a stone mason. This is the turn-around point for this hike.
The Devil’s Hall is especially beautiful in the fall of the year — almost as colorful as nearby McKittrick Canyon, one of the most beautiful places in Texas. The canyon wash is lined with a variety of trees, including big tooth maple, Texas madrone, and ponderosa pine. The trek offers spectacular views of geologic formations and distant mountaintops. In short, this is a really beautiful place waiting to be enjoyed by those willing to take a dirt path.
The Devil’s Hall Trail is a great day hike. Even so, always be sure to take a day pack with snacks and plenty of water. Walk carefully. Enjoy the views. Stop often to breathe and to breathe in the beauty. And be sure to take lots of photos. The Devil’s Hall, and places like it, is a paradise for those who choose to take a dirt path.
Dell City is a small town located right where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the western edge of the Guadalupe Mountains. This is wide open country with iconic cowboy landscapes. This little farming town, situated at the intersection of Farm roads 1437 and 2249, was founded sometime before 1949 after the discovery of a large underground aquifer.
Water in the desert is a big deal. The folks at Dell City capitalized on this and tagged their little town “The Valley of Hidden Waters.” However, despite the treasure beneath their feet, the population of Dell City has remained less than five-hundred with a median age of about fifty. The town has one grocery store, one restaurant, and some amazing views of five of the highest peaks in Texas to the East.
The Spanish Angels Cafe is the local eatery and well worth a stop if you are anywhere near the area. I visited the cafe on a cold December day after a week of camping in the Guadalupe Mountains. The warmth inside was generated by more than the old radiant gas heater in the corner. The folks inside added a warmth of their own, the kind that characterizes small town hospitality.
Hungry for a burger, I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a glass of tea. My camping companion ordered the bar-b-cue ribs plate. While we waited for our food, we struck up a conversation with some of the other folks in the cafe. All of this made us feel right at home, like we were regular town folk rather than just two outdoorsmen passing through.
My burger arrived on a colorful plate with a pretty ample serving of crispy and seasoned fries. The portion of meat was perfectly cooked, the bacon was crispy, and all of the other ingredients were as fresh as they come. And when fully assembled, the flavor of the burger was really good — delicious, in fact.
I thoroughly enjoyed the burger and felt I had burned enough calories to justify eating a slice of chocolate cake — also delicious. The whole experience was made even more enjoyable because of the friendly atmosphere, great service, and overall ambiance of this small town cafe. If I lived in Dell City I would make it a point to eat at this cafe as often as possible.
I love small town cafes and inconspicuous eateries that serve up great food. These places are easy to miss as we speed from point to point or get in such a hurry that we opt for fast food joints instead. If you are on the road, take time to slow down as you travel through small towns and be willing pull off the road. You just might discover a great place to eat — like the Spanish Angels Cafe.
El Capitan, the signature peak of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, rises a modest 8,085 feet above sea level — just enough to make it part of an elite group of Lone Star peaks that are higher than 8,000 feet. I first became acquainted with El Capitan when I traveled to the park in 2014 to solo hike to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.
El Capitan is a ruggedly handsome peak from all angles. And, because of its prominent place, it is likely the most photographed peak in the Guadalupe Mountains. But after seeing this limestone bulwark from the summit of Guadalupe Peak, I was both intimidated and motivated. I knew then that I had to one day bushwhack my way to the top of this mountain.
This past week Doyle Lowry, my hiking buddy, and I met at the national park for a week of cold weather camping and to hike to the summit of El Capitan. Doyle and I had previously made a pact to summit all of the 8,000-foot peaks at the national park. El Capitan would be our fourth peak but far from the easiest since there is no trail to the summit.
We departed our campsite at a little after 7:00 AM and made our way up the Guadalupe Peak Trail. The National Park Service has rated this hike as strenuous because the trail steadily rises 3,000 vertical feet along the way. They are not kidding when they say strenuous. Be prepared to feel the burn in your legs.
Just shy of making the final switchbacks to the top of Guadalupe Peak, we left the trail and started toward El Capitan. Since there is no trail to El Capitan, we selected a prominent landmark and bushwhacked our way to the western edge of the bulwark. This made the hike up Guadalupe Peak Trail seem like a walk in the park (no pun intended). They call it bushwhacking for a reason.
Once we reached the western edge, we picked new landmarks and slowly pushed our way through the brush and scrambled around and over boulders toward the summit. The views from this side of the mountain are beyond spectacular and looking down the sheer cliffs is stomach-churning. Even though our progress was slowed by all of the brush, scree, and boulders, we could tell we were making progress.
We lost and gained elevation several times along the undulated way to the summit. As we neared the summit we also contended with snow on the ground and high winds. Finally, after more than two hours of bushwhacking, the summit came into view — and it was indeed beyond spectacular. We stood at the pinnacle of this intimidating peak and breathed in the most amazing views.
Before making our way back down, Doyle located the ammo box containing the summit log and we both signed our names in the book. There were very few names in the book, and understandably so. If you want to stand on the peak of El Capitan you have to be a little crazy and a whole lot determined. As Doyle pointed out, what we both lacked in youth and endurance we made up for in grit and determination.
After enjoying a few minutes on the summit, we started bushwhacking our way back toward the Guadalupe Peak Trail. This time we opted to do the final push along a dry ravine filled with boulders and scree — either that or battle the thick brush again. But, hard as it was, we finally reconnected with the Guadalupe Peak Trail.
Once we reached the trail, we decided to make our way to the summit of Guadalupe Peak — a third summit for each of us. From there we looked northward toward Shumard Peak and Bartlett Peak, two more of the 8,000+ foot peaks that we hope to summit next year. We started our descent by 4:30 PM. What had previously taken us far less than two hours to hike took us two and a half hours because we had to hike in the dark and had to hike slow because of the snow and ice on the trail.
Finally, after 11 hours and 43 minutes on the trail, we reached the Pine Springs campground and entered our time into the hiker’s registry. We are beyond elated at our accomplishment. Not a bad day for two old guys who hear the clock ticking and want to get in as many adventures as possible while it is still possible. For me, bushwhacking to El Capitan is officially the hardest day hike I have ever done — and the most rewarding. And hiking with a good friend who loves the outdoors is always a bonus! Already looking forward to our next adventure at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
When it comes to the vast expanses of the western regions of Texas, one thing is certain — the counties in this part of the Lone Star State seem to go on forever. Crockett County, named after Alamo hero Davy Crockett, covers 2,807 square miles of land or more than 1,800,000 acres. That’s a whole lot of land by any measure.
Ozona, located on Interstate 10 between Houston and El Paso, is the county seat of Crockett County. Ozona was originally known as Powell Well when it was founded in 1891 by E.M. Powell, a land surveyor. The name of the community was later changed to Ozona because of the open and fresh air or ozone.
For those traveling down those long stretches of Interstate 10, Ozona is a great place to stop and stretch. And that’s exactly what I did on a recent road trip from my home in Katy to the Franklin Mountains. I stopped to top off my gas tank in Ozona and noticed a small cafe next door, appropriately named The Cafe Next Door. I couldn’t resist.
The Cafe Next Door offers a full menu of mouth-watering home-style dishes, including hamburgers. I ordered my usual bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings and a tall glass of iced tea. The onion rings, our waitress cautioned, would be enough to feed two. I assured her that I would have no problem with that.
The burger was really delicious. It had a healthy portion of meat beneath a warm blanket of cheese, crispy bacon, and fresh vegetables. The onion rings were cooked to perfection. They were so good, in fact, that I completely forgot about the french fries lying undisturbed on the table. But, because I only have so much room in my stomach I had to set my priorities and eat more onion rings than french fries.
The wait staff was friendly and attentive to our needs. And the general atmosphere of the place was great. This is a small town cafe at its best — friendly folks, delicious food, time to eat a meal without feeling as though I had to rush. My friends and I enjoyed eating at The Cafe Next Door. We have marked it down as a must-stop on future road trips.
I hope you’ll stop and check out the food at The Cafe Next Door on one of your future road trips on Interstate 10. This is the kind of eatery, after all, that adds a measure of culinary adventure to any road trip.
When it comes to outdoor adventures in the Lone Star State, the Franklin Mountains have much to offer. Franklin Mountains State Park is located at the westernmost tip of Texas and is the largest urban park in the nation. The park encompasses more than 26,000 acres in the city of El Paso, and yet once in the park, you would never know you were anywhere near a city.
The Franklin Mountains are roughly three miles wide by twenty-three miles long and divide the city of El Paso. The range rises to an elevation of more than 7,000 feet above sea level and offer some of the best hiking and biking trails in Texas. The state park has some of the best camp sites of any state park — every one with a beautiful view of the mountains.
The Aztec Cave Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in the park. According to local lore, early El Pasoans reportedly found bones and other Native American artifacts in the caves. However, they mistakenly concluded that the early inhabitants were Aztecs and the caves soon became known as the Aztec Caves.
The trail to the caves is not long but it is steep. The trail is well-marked and well-maintained. There are a couple of primitive campsites along the way for visitors who want to spend the night at campsites located a bit higher than the other sites at the park. These are definitely bring your own water sites.
At about a half-mile into the hike, the trail becomes increasingly steeper but very manageable for hikers. I hike with trekking poles which make sections like this a bit easier to negotiate. The payoff at the end of the trail makes the hike absolutely worth it all. Once you arrive at the caves it is easy to understand why native peoples were drawn to places like this.
The view from the caves is absolutely magnificent. The ceiling of the main cave is stained by smoke, evidence that ancient peoples once spent time here and enjoyed the same beautiful vistas that visitors today enjoy. I’m glad that sites like this have been preserved by the Texas Parks and Wildlife system for us and future generations to enjoy.
If you enjoy hiking you will definitely enjoy the Aztec Cave Trail and the several other trails at Franklin Mountains State Park. If I lived in El Paso I would make it a point to visit and hike these trails as often as possible. As for me, I am already making plans to return to the Franklin Mountains to hike again.
Fort Stockton is located along Interstate 10 — not quite halfway between San Antonio and El Paso. Fort Stockton was originally a military fort named for Lt. Edward Dorsey Stockton, an officer in the First Infantry who died in San Antonio in 1857. Established in 1859 at Comanche Springs, within the site of the present city, Fort Stockton provided protection for travelers, freighters, and the mail service.
From its earliest days, Comanche Springs was a favorite rest stop for folks traveling between San Antonio and El Paso. Not much has changed. Fort Stockton is still a place where those traveling across the Chihuahuan Desert along Interstate 10 can find a bit of rest and refreshment. And for those who have some time, it’s worth checking out Fort Stockton’s Historic District.
On a recent road trip from Katy to the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, some friends and I stopped to eat at the Sagebrush Cafe in Fort Stockton. This modest eatery offers a full menu of homemade dishes, including hamburgers. And, for soda lovers, the Sagebrush offers a variety of Texas soft drinks, including one mighty tasty Texas Root Beer made with pure cane sugar.
Because there is nothing I like more on a Texas road trip than a delicious homemade hamburger, I ordered the bacon cheeseburger with onion rings and a cold Texas Root Beer. I am not a big soda drinker but just could not resist the temptation to try the root beer. And, of course, I was not disappointed. Texas Root Beer is a product of the Dublin Bottling Works in Dublin, Texas. These folks have been bottling sodas for more than 120 years and have definitely perfected the art.
My bacon cheeseburger was a work of art in itself — with a healthy portion of perfectly cooked meat, crispy bacon, pepperjack cheese, moist buns, and fresh lettuce, tomato, and pickles. The first bite was a foretaste of what would be an absolutely delicious meal. Everything about this burger was right. This was an honest-to-goodness absolutely delicious burger. And the pepper-sprinkled onion rings certainly held their own as well. Delicious.
There are more than plenty of fast food places along Interstate 10. But, I prefer to explore and discover more interesting stops along the way. I learned about the Sagebrush Cafe by asking a local guy working at a gas station. I’m glad I took his advice. The Sagebrush Cafe has earned a spot on my list of favorite places to eat in the Lone Star State.
The Prairie Heritage Festival is an annual event hosted by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists. This free, fun, and family-oriented event is held each year on the first Saturday in November at Seabourne Creek Nature Park in Rosenberg.
If you have never visited Seabourne Creek Nature Park you should add it to your list of places to visit when you are in or near the greater Houston area. This park is maintained by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists and is fast becoming a great place to educate folks about what this part of Texas looked like before settlers arrived.
The Prairie Heritage Festival features a number of guests who man booths with hands-on activities, live animals, crafts for kids, informative displays about plants and critters of the Coastal Bend region, glimpses into pioneer life, info on our state parks, and much more. If you love the outdoors then you will love the Prairie Heritage Festival.
I enjoyed strolling from booth to booth to look at the various displays and ask questions. I learned some interesting stuff about cavity-nesting birds like bluejays, learned about butterflies, came face to face with a few snakes, an interesting little owl, and other wildlife. I especially enjoyed watching the kids interact with these critters.
I am grateful for the Texas Master Naturalists and all that they do to promote learning about our beautiful region of the Lone Star State. Seabourne is the perfect setting for this event. The master naturalists maintain an area in the park that shows what prairies along the coastal bend used to look like — a great place to learn about the native plants that give prairies their iconic look.
The master naturalists also teach about how we can all do our part to preserve, restore, and recreate native plants. You can even purchase prairie grasses and plants at the festival to plant in your own yard. My wife is determined to bring the prairie to our own backyard. I’m ok with that. And, be sure to visit the butterfly garden at Seabourne. All of the plants that attract butterflies are labeled so that you can know what to plant to start your own butterfly garden.
Be sure to save the date for next year’s Prairie Heritage Festival on your 2018 calendar. You can also learn about other fun and family-oriented events sponsored by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists by visiting their website.