For the third year in a row, I drove across the Lone Star State with friends to participate in the Chihuahuan Desert Mountain Bike Endurance Fest. We loaded our mountain bikes and camping gear at four in the morning on Valentine’s Day and arrived at Big Bend Ranch State Park at four in the afternoon.
We wasted no time in getting our base camp set up at the Maverick Ranch RV Park in Lajitas. This park serves as ground zero for the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest that draws upwards of 500 mountain bikers from around the nation. For three days on Presidents Day weekend in February, the RV park becomes a small town with a population several times greater than that of Lajitas.
Big Bend Ranch State Park features some amazing trails, including a 50-plus mile Epic Loop rated as one of the best trails in the country by the International Mountain Biking Association. No worries, however, if you are hesitant to tackle a torturous trail like the Epic Loop. The bike fest is a non-competitive event that features a variety of guided rides for every skill level.
After setting up our campsite, we mounted our bikes and headed east toward the Buena Suerte Trail to get a ride in before sunset. The Buena Suerte trail is a wide jeep trail that leads to several single track trails that range in difficulty from easy to pretty hard stuff to ride.
Over the course of our two and a half days, we managed to rack up close to eighty-miles on the trails. While we all enjoyed riding our own mountain bikes, we couldn’t resist checking out the more expensive mountain bikes made available by the country’s biggest bike brands.
On our second day, I opted to try the Cannondale Monterra 2 electric mountain bike with full suspension and fat tires. This is one amazing mountain bike that features four electronic settings that make trail riding a whole new experience. This bike is nothing short of amazing. It was so much fun to ride and the fat tires just ate up the trails.The best part of an event like the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest is sharing the adventure with friends. We had a blast checking out new trails, stopping to take pics along the way, back-tracking to repeat fun sections of the trails, eating some delicious meals, and sitting around the campfire in the evenings.
I was especially glad to run into Karen Hoffman Blizzard and David Heinicke, two friends I met on my first ride two years ago. Karen is a contributing writer to Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine and David is the head naturalist at Brazos Bend State Park. They were great encouragers to me on my first ride and shepherded me down a trail that was a little above my pay grade at that time.
If you enjoy mountain biking then make it a point to do the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest. This ride is sponsored by Desert Sports of Terlingua, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Lajitas Resort. If you are interested in riding, then be sure to register early. The event is capped at 500 riders and fills up well before the registration deadline. I think you’ll agree that this ride is unquestionably one of the best things going for mountain bikers in the Lone Star State.
In my ongoing quest to discover the best burgers in the Lone Star State, I have pulled into more than one sketchy looking burger joint to check things out. In the process I have learned that unless you are willing to take a risk you are likely to miss some of the best eating in Texas.
That said, I must confess that I almost missed eating one of the best burgers I have ever had — not because the joint looked sketchy but because it was a place that did not specialize in burgers. To add to my indecisiveness about whether to walk in the doors is the fact that this joint is attached to a Shell station.
Pappa Gyros is located at the corner of Kingsland Boulevard and the Grand Parkway in my hometown of Katy. It is easy to miss because it occupies the south end of the Shell station on the southeast corner of the intersection. This place specializes in Greek food (which I enjoy) and American dishes.
I recently joined some friends to give Pappa Gyros a try. They assured me that they did offer burgers on the menu. So, I decided to be that guy that orders a burger at an ethnic food joint. Why not? After all, I was really hungry for a good burger.
Pappa Gyros is packed into a tight little space with a few tables and some bar seating. I noticed that their drive-thru service stayed pretty busy the whole time we were there. That was absolutely a good sign.
I ordered my usual bacon-cheeseburger and opted for a side of fries and some tea. My order arrived in good time. I did ask them to cut my burger in half, something I like to do in order to get a good look at the strata — a view of all of the burger layers and components.
The generous patty was cooked just the way I like it. All of the fixings were clearly fresh and the bacon was thick and crispy. One of the things that, in my estimation, ruins a good bacon cheeseburger is wimpy bacon. So, seeing the thick slabs of bacon cooked on the crispier side of the scale was a good sign for me.
As for the first bite, immediate confirmation that I had made the right choice. This burger was among the best I have had. Every bite brought a smile to my heart. Really good. And to think that I had almost missed this opportunity because I was judging a book by its cover. Goes to show you that you can find a good burger in the most unlikely places.
I have since recommended Pappa Gyros to friends who have thanked me for doing so. I certainly plan on visiting Papa Gyros again since it is only a couple of miles from my home. I encourage you to explore your own neck of the woods to discover a burger joint near your home. And remember to look past some of the things that might discourage you from giving a place a try. You just might find one of the best burgers you have ever had in the Lone Star State.
Immediately west of the towering escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains lies an other-worldly landscape. The Salt Basin Dunes rise modestly above the surrounding salt flats, the remnants of an ancient sea. These dunes of snow-white gypsum are formed by the collaborative artistry of the winds and the white sands of the salt flats.
The process is not entirely complicated. When the winds whip across the salt flats they pick up tiny crystals of gypsum. When these airborne grains slam against the western wall of the Guadalupe Mountains they are deflected upward and then fall back to earth to form the undulating landscape of the Salt Basin Dunes.
From the top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, the salt flats seem strangely out-of-place in the otherwise desert-looking landscape. They have the appearance of snow blanketing the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The sight of the salt flats from Guadalupe Peak is quite spectacular and beckons exploring.
The Salt Basin Dunes are a part of Guadalupe Mountains National Park and are accessible by ranch roads not far from Dell City. This day use area offers access to the salt dunes by way of a two-plus mile hike. Because this is a delicate ecosystem, visitors should stay on the trail and not break the fragile cryptobiotic crust beyond the trail. This thin crusty topsoil is essential for preventing erosion, producing soil nitrogen, and stabilizing the soil for vegetation to take hold. So, don’t bust the crust!
The dunes themselves are pretty spectacular. Although this seems to be the most inhospitable of environments, animal tracks in the sand indicate the presence of nocturnal animal activity. Various desert plants also accentuate the stark white dunes. Yucca, cholla, cactus, and various grasses have staked their claim to life on these shifting dunes.
While the view of the dunes is beautiful from atop Guadalupe Peak, the view of Guadalupe Peak is awe-inspiring from the dunes. You can, in fact, see five of the seven named peaks in Texas that rise over 8,000 feet. From north to south you can see Bush Mountain, Bartlett Peak, Shumard Mountain, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan keeping vigil over the dunes.
Regardless of when you visit the Salt Basin Dunes be sure to carry more water than you think you’ll need, a snack or two, and sunscreen in your day-hike bag. Stay on the trail. Have fun exploring the dunes. Take lots of pics. Take a moment to stop and enjoy the silence of the desert. Look toward the east and breathe in the beauty of the Guadalupe Mountains. And, leave no trace but your footprints in the sand.
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.