Beach Morning-Glories

I am a big fan of hardy Texas plants — the kind that stubbornly display their beauty under the toughest of conditions. And when it comes to hardy plants in the Lone Star State, the beach morning-glory has definitely earned its place on the list. This is one tough yet essential plant that plays an important role on Texas beaches.
Beach morning-glories thrive in one on the most hostile environments in Texas — our beaches. This blossom-yielding vine is unaffected by the scorching heat, strong winds, and salt water along the 367 miles of Texas coastline. Regardless of what the Texas coast throws at this plant, it continues to thrive.
On a recent trip to Mustang Island State Park near Corpus Christi, beach morning-glories were on full display under overcast skies. The rain soaked dunes at the park were draped with beautiful morning-glory vines. These fast-growing vines can reach lengths of thirty feet. They play a key role in stabilizing sand dunes by sending their roots deep into the sand.
There are several species of morning-glories. The particular species I saw at Mustang Island was the Ipomoea pes-caprae also known as railroad vine, bayhops, and goat-foot because the two-part leaves resemble the footprint of a cloven hoof. This species produces a beautiful deep pink or fuchsia bloom.
Beach morning-glories bloom from April through December along Gulf Coast dunes and beaches. They add beauty to our Texas beaches while providing the essential service of stabilizing sand dunes and the barrier islands that protect the Gulf Coast. Look for this beautiful Texas wildflower the next time you take a stroll down one of our Texas beaches.

Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site

There is a time capsule hidden away among jumbled granite outcroppings located thirty-two miles northeast of El Paso. Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site is the custodian of this slice of Texas geography where ancient peoples left their marks in stone — a record of more than three-thousand pictographs.
The meanings behind these ancient pictographs largely remain a mystery and the subject of archeological research. Among these cryptic images are more than two-hundred painted masks or face designs attributed to an ancient people known as the Jornada Mogollon.
What is no mystery is why there are so many pictographs in this island of granite rising above the vast sea of surrounding desert. For centuries, ancient peoples were attracted to this area because it provided them with the one essential they needed in order to survive in the desert — water!
The huge boulders and rocks in the area are pock-marked with fissures and holes, called huecos (whey-coes), that can hold rainwater for months at a time. Hueco is a Spanish word that means hollows, referring to the natural depressions in the boulders. These natural water tanks attracted people and animals and created microhabitats that supported a variety of living things.
The Kiowa, Mescalero Apache, and Tigua are among the Native Americans that found refuge at Hueco Tanks. These peoples left behind their respective signatures in stone. The pictographs of Hueco Tanks show dancing figures, handprints, animals, weapons, and human figures. These images tell stories of daily life, hunting, traditions, celebration, conflict, and more.
The rocks at Hueco Tanks also record the presence of latter-day visitors — cowboys and travelers through the region who also etched their names in stone. Sadly, vandals have also left their marks at the site, requiring costly services to remove the graffiti without damaging the original pictographs.
Because of the fragile nature and historic value of the site, visitors to the park are required to watch a fifteen-minute video that provides both the history of and orientation to the site. Guided tours are offered by park rangers into areas that are restricted to other hikers in order to protect the site’s pictographs. Hikers may access other trails that give them access to some beautiful vistas.
My wife Cheryl and I enjoyed our visit to Hueco Tanks. Loved our hike. Loved the sights. Loved imagining what it must have been like for the peoples who found refuge on this island in the Chihuahuan Desert. If you are anywhere near Hueco Tanks on your next road trip, be sure to add this amazing site to your list of places to visit.

Thank You, Trail Crews

On January 1, Texans of all ages will head to our state and national parks to participate in First Day Hikes, a cooperative initiative among the nation’s state parks to get more people outside. On that single day alone, folks in Texas and around the nation will collectively log tens of thousands of miles on park trails. And that’s a good thing!
Omar on Guadalupe TrailI enjoy both hiking and biking the trails in our state parks. In fact, I use my Texas State Parks Pass as often as possible. There is no question I get more than my money’s worth every time I renew my annual pass. There is no better way to relieve stress and to clear my mind than heading down a trail in one of our parks.
Doyle on Tejas TrailAs a guy who enjoys taking dirt paths, I have often wondered about trail development and maintenance. After all, trails don’t maintain themselves. The fact of the matter is someone had to get out there and determine the best way to get a hiker from Point A to Point B. That means understanding the local geography, how to mitigate things that can erode or damage trails, how to scratch out switchbacks to get hikers to higher elevations, building boardwalks and bridges, and much more.
on-tejas-trailOn my recent visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I had an opportunity to meet a trail crew — young folks who were there to do maintenance work on Tejas Trail. They were all thin, tanned, athletic, super-friendly, and excited to do their part to keep the trails we all enjoy in good repair. My friend Doyle and I made it a point to thank each of them for their work as we made our way up Tejas Trail toward Hunter Peak. And each of them in turn told us to enjoy our hike.
trail-toolsAt the end of a long day of hiking, more than nine hours on the trails, we made our way back down Tejas Trail as the sun was setting. The work of the trail crew was evident. They had refreshed quite a bit of the trail by pruning back limbs of adjacent trees and plants, filled areas damaged by erosion, and more to keep this particular trail well defined. What a great gift to those of us who show up ready for adventure.
Tejas TrailI hope you will participate in a First Day Hike (or ride) at a park near you. Lace up your hiking boots, fill your hydration pack, toss some snacks into your daypack, air up your bike tires, and then get outdoors. And as you hike or bike down a trail, do so with gratitude for the trail crews that work so hard to make sure every trail in the Lone Star State is well maintained for our enjoyment. Thank you, trail crews!

Beautiful Bur Marigold

I am not a naturalist but I do have a natural curiosity about flora and fauna in the Lone Star State. I have more photos of yet-to-be-identified plants and flowers on my phone than I care to count. But, that’s ok! I find it relaxing to leaf through the pages of my Texas wildflowers handbook in search of answers.
BBSP BikeOn a recent bike ride at Brazos Bend State Park, I was captivated by acres of beautiful yellow flowers growing along the edges of Elm Lake and along the trail to the spillway. These sunflowery-looking  beauties were a feast for my eyes and had me reaching for my camera.
Bur MarigoldCurious to learn more, I posted my pics on my iNaturalist app and asked for help. Thanks to the kindness of someone much smarter than me, I discovered that the beauties growing in biblical proportions at Brazos Bend are called bur marigold.

Bur marigold are also known by a few other names, including tickseed and beggar-ticks because their bristles tend to latch on to the britches or socks of hikers. These flowers prefer low, moist areas such as ditches, marshes, and wet meadows. That explains why they were flourishing along the lake at the park.

Bur marigold are also butterfly magnets. They attract a variety of butterflies, bees, and even birds. And, at least at Brazos Bend, they attract people. The photographers were out in force snapping away with their telephoto lenses. As for me, my iPhone camera served the purpose. As they say, the best camera is the one in your hand.
bur-marigold-closeRiding past acres of these beautiful flowers that Thoreau himself described as being full of the sun reminded me of why I love to get outdoors. Scenes of wildflowers, sounds of birds, sights of wildlife, and big oak trees with outstretched branches — it just doesn’t get much better than that.
BBSP Bike TrailThe weather in Texas is starting to get a little cooler, making it a perfect time to explore our treasure chest of state parks. Plan to get outdoors soon. Breathe in some fresh air. Feast your eyes on nature at its best. And thank God for the Lone Star State.

A Texas Prescription

There is an emerging trend in healthcare that is shifting focus from the mere treatment of disease to the promotion of wellness.

A couple of years ago, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital teamed up with the Appalachian Mountain Club to launch Outdoors Rx. This initiative is designed to combat disease which stems from inactive lifestyles — like childhood obesity, Type 1 diabetes, and asthma. Doctors are prescribing outdoor activities to patients. These prescriptions are then filled by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Prescribing the outdoors — this is brilliant.
Hiking SFA SPOutdoors Rx is giving new meaning to “giving someone their walking papers.” The truth of the matter is that too many Americans live sedentary lifestyles and should get out and walk or bike or swim or whatever the doctor orders.

Honestly, watching Bear Grylls slide down a rocky hill from your easy chair or playing video games does not burn many calories. Many health issues are related to poor diet, lack of activity, and a lack of exposure to fresh air.

Dr. Christian Scirica, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said, “In addition to the widely known benefits of physical activity, research studies have found that exposure to natural environments also improves physical and emotional health. Exposure to the outdoors has been found to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, Vitamin D deficiency, depression and anxiety, and may even improve attention.”

In addition to the physical benefits, spending time outdoors has the added benefit of improving mental health. Imagine that!

I applaud the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital and other doctors around the nation who are proactively doing something to fight the problems caused by nature deficit disorder — spending too much time indoors.

When it comes to your health, don’t wait for a doctor to give you a prescription. Take the initiative to get outdoors, get your heart rate up, and breathe fresh air. Do something hard and feel the burn. Doctors are reporting an improvement in the health of patients who are venturing out to neighborhood walking and biking trails, to state and national parks, and other outdoor settings.
Biking BBRSPThose of us who live in Texas have the benefit of 95 state parks and natural areas plus some amazing national parks to enjoy year round. Regardless of where you live in the Lone Star State, you are within easy driving distance of outdoor adventure at one of our many parks. You can bike, hike, run, climb, swim, camp, or just relax and enjoy the fresh air.

I recommend spending a few bucks on a Texas State Parks Pass. A park pass will make it more convenient to venture to any park, even at the last minute. In addition to enjoying free entry, a park pass will entitle you to some nice discounts on campsites and other park amenities. And, the modest cost of the card helps maintain our parks for all to enjoy.

So, don’t wait for a doctor to prescribe the outdoors. Write your own prescription to get outdoors and enjoy all that Texas has to offer.

Longhorn Cavern State Park

Located a few miles south of Burnet in Central Texas, Longhorn Cavern State Park is a Hill Country treasure. The land for this modest-acreage park was acquired in the 1930s. Over a period of eight years, more than 200 Civilian Conservation Corp workers carved a state park out of the rocky terrain and built a magnificent administration building to welcome park visitors.
Longhorn Cavern Entry SignThe main attraction at the park is the Longhorn Cavern. When the state acquired the site, the cavern was choked with silt and debris. The CCC guys spent several years removing an estimated 2.5 tons of debris, including plenty of bat guano, out of the cavern using nothing more than picks, axes, shovels, and wooden wheelbarrows. Once they had removed the debris, the CCC guys mapped passageways, installed lighting, and prepared the cavern for public access.
Longhorn Cavern CCC BldgLonghorn Cavern, it turns out, is a cave with a past. The cavern was used as a shelter by prehistoric peoples. Legend says that the Comanche held council meetings in the largest room in the cavern, appropriately named the Indian Council Room.
Sam Bass PlaqueIn more recent times, an outlaw named Sam Bass reportedly hid stolen gold somewhere in the deep recesses of the cavern. Bass was later killed and took the secret to the whereabouts of the hidden treasure to his grave.
Longhorn Cavern InteriorDuring the Civil War, Confederate soldiers made gunpowder in the cavern. One legend says that the Texas Rangers rescued a kidnapped girl from Indians in the cavern. And during Prohibition, one of the landowners built a speakeasy in the bowels of the cavern. Guests enjoyed gambling, drinking, fine dining, and a dance hall.
Longhorn Cavern DogThe cavern features many beautiful natural formations. The best way to enjoy these is to register for one of the interpretive walking tours. The tour lasts about an hour and a half. The temperature in the cavern remains a constant 64-degrees year-round so bring a light sweater if you are prone to getting cold. The tour guides are pretty knowledgeable (ours had an endless supply of cave humor) and will help you appreciate things you might otherwise miss.
Longhorn Cavern StalagtiteEven if you have visited other caves in the Lone Star State, make it a point to visit Longhorn Cavern. This is the only river-carved cavern in the state and boasts some pretty magnificent formations. The cavern’s natural beauty combined with its unique cultural history make this tour one of the best in Texas.

The Pictographs of Seminole Canyon

Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site is home to one of the oldest art collections in Texas — and I do mean really old. This 2172−acre park is nestled along the US-Mexico border nine miles west of Comstock in Val Verde County. Visitors can expect to see some of the most magnificent vistas in the Lone Star State and a whole lot more.
Seminole Canyon Cave ViewAncient inhabitants of this rugged region left their mark on the walls and ceilings of the caves along Seminole Canyon. These natural caves provided shelter and the canvas for ancient peoples to record their own stories. Without question, the rock paintings or pictographs of Seminole Canyon provide visitors to the park with a fascinating visual link to the past.
Seminole Pictograph HandsThose who study rock art have identified the pictographs of Seminole Canyon as belonging to the Lower Pecos River Style. This style of rock art appears only within a fifty mile radius of the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers.
Tinajas ViewThe early artists who painted these pictographs obtained everything they needed to produce and to apply their paints from the surrounding environment. The fact that their art is still on display testifies to their ingenuity and to the quality of the materials they produced.
Seminole Canyon Pictograph CeilingThere are more than 200 pictograph sites in the area that contain single paintings and panels of art hundreds of feet long. The pictographs depict animals, birds, weapons — and also human, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and enigmatic figures.
Seminole Pictograph 3Perhaps the most puzzling thing about these pictographs will always be their meaning. It’s impossible to look at the faded figures without speculating on possible meanings. Regardless of our conclusions, however, the reality is that the exact meaning of these paintings will be forever buried with the ancient artists who painted them.
Seminole Pictograph 4Protecting pictograph sites like those at Seminole Canyon is important. These pictographs are essentially an ancient text preserved on stone. They remind us that even ancient peoples understood the value of recording aspects of their culture, beliefs, and daily life. We owe it to them and to future generations to preserve their artistic and cultural legacy.
Seminole Entry SignThe only way to see the pictographs of Seminole Canyon is by a guided tour. The park offers a daily guided tour for a nominal fee. A park ranger leads each tour and offers insightful interpretive commentary. Expect to walk a couple of miles, including descending into the canyon and up and down stairs that lead to the pictographs.
Bill Worrell SculptureBecause both time and the weather continue to take their toll on the pictographs of Seminole Canyon, plan to visit this ancient outdoor art museum sooner than later. You’ll also see the really cool sculpture by Bill Worrell on your hike down the canyon. Regardless of where you live in Texas, the pictographs of Seminole Canyon are worth a visit. This is one Texas treasure you should not miss.

Estero Llano Grande State Park

When it comes to lesser known state parks in Texas, Estero Llano Grande State Park is  definitely on that list. This under-the-radar park is located south of Weslaco along International Boulevard, the road that leads to the Rio Grande River and Nuevo Progreso, Mexico. Estero Llano is at the geographic center of the World Birding Center — a network of nine unique birding locations along a 120-mile stretch in the Rio Grande Valley.
Estero Llano Grande EntranceThe Spanish words Estero Llano Grande are translated “a wet place on the big plain.” And indeed it is. More than 300 species of birds and a variety of flora and fauna can be found within the park’s 230 acres of ponds, woodlands, and thorn forest. Since opening in 2006, the park has become one of the top birding destinations in the Rio Grande Valley.
Ibis PondEstero Llano Grande is indeed a treasure among our state parks. And because it is located along a major bird migration corridor, it is a popular hotel for migratory birds as well as many tropical bird species found nowhere else in the United States. The park offers regular guided bird, butterfly and dragonfly hikes — an excellent way to learn some really interesting stuff about everything that lives, grows, and thrives at the park.
Estero Llano DucksWhether or not you are a birder, you will enjoy all that this beautiful park has to offer. I am not a birder but I did purchased a guide to South Texas birds at the park store. I was amazed at how many birds I saw as I strolled along the well-maintained trails. The benches along the trails prompted me to slow down to enjoy and to listen to the birds. Hopefully I will get better at the identification of birds with time and practice.
Estero Llano GuidebooksI also purchased guidebooks about native shrubs and plants of the Rio Grande Valley. Many of the trees, plants, and shrubs at the park are already identified by information markers. Others were easy to identify with the help of the guidebooks. This area is rich with a diversity of native plants and trees. Of course, I am partial to the gnarly mesquite.
Estero Llano BoardwalkI hope that you will discover and enjoy the state parks and natural areas near you. Invest in a Texas State Parks Pass — well worth every penny and a great way to support our Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Estero Llano is just one of 95 Texas State Parks you can enjoy with your State Parks Pass. This South Texas wildlife refuge is certainly worth a visit.

Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo

The area around Goliad is rich in Texas history. The Goliad Massacre, regarded as the darkest day in Texas history, took place at Presidio La Bahia. On March 27, 1836, Colonel James Fannin and 342 of his men were put to death under orders of Mexican General Santa Anna. Texans were so outraged that they embraced the battle cry “Remember Goliad” and vowed to win the war for Texas independence.
Mission Espiritu SantoLess than one-quarter mile from Presidio La Bahia is Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga. This spiritual outpost was established by Franciscan priests. The first mission was built at Matagorda Bay in 1722 adjacent to Presidio La Bahía. In 1749, both the mission and the fort were relocated to their present sites on opposite banks of the San Antonio River and near Camino La Bahía, a major Spanish trade route.
Mission Espiritu Santo InteriorThe Franciscan priests reached out to the native Aranama peoples and involved them in life at the mission. Under the supervision of the priests, the Indians worked with cattle, tilled the soil, learned to build with stone and mortar, spun wool for clothing, and made clay pots. Ranching, however, eventually became the main occupation at the mission and the indians became accomplished vaqueros (the original cowboys). By 1830, the mission was forced to close because of declining Indian populations and lack of money.
Mission Espiritu Santo CourtyardIn 1886, a hurricane destroyed what was left of Mission Espíritu Santo. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps was tasked with the reconstruction of the historic mission complex and the nearby Presidio La Bahia. Along with the restoration work, archeologists excavated the site and uncovered artifacts from the original mission structure. These are now on display at the site. The mission received a historical park designation in 1931 and is today listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Mission Espiritu Santo AltarMission Espíritu Santo is part of Goliad State Park and Historic Site. You can take a self-guided tour of the mission’s church and grounds, the focal point of the park. Park personnel and volunteers are available to answer your questions and to give you insight into what life was like at the mission. Also, there is an informative museum adjacent to the church. I encourage you to add this beautiful and historic site to your list of places to visit in the Lone Star State.

Bentsen—Rio Grande Valley State Park

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department manages 95 state parks in the Lone Star State. My goal is to visit all of them. Regardless of where you live in Texas, you are within a short drive of a state park or a state natural area — places where you can go hiking, biking, camping, boating, birding, or whatever scratches your outdoor itch.

If you are a history buff then you are in luck. Several parks preserve and bring Texas history to life — everything from ancient pictographs, twentieth century battleships, hallowed burial grounds, silent battle sites, and Spanish missions. You can even visit the place where Texas declared its independence from Mexico. We are indeed fortunate to have so many parks in Texas.
Bentsen State Park SignBentsen—Rio Grande Valley State Park, located just outside of my hometown of Mission, is the first state park I visited as a kid. As a Boy Scout, I spent many days camping and hiking all over this 760-acre park. This is where I learned to identify a variety of birds, where to locate the constellations in the night sky, and how to leave a campsite better than I found it.
Bentsen Birding SignNamed after the family of the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, this park serves as the headquarters of the nine World Birding Center sites in South Texas. More than 340 species of birds and more than 200 species of butterflies have been documented within the park’s boundaries. Because the park is a World Birding Center, no vehicular traffic is allowed in the park. Access into the park is restricted to walking, biking, or tram.
Bentsen Bird Viewing AreaBentsen is more than a popular stop for migratory birds and butterflies, it’s a very popular place for birders, locals, and winter Texans. The park offers several convenient places from which to watch birds, including a two-story high Hawk Observation Tower. A pair of binoculars is definitely a plus when visiting the park. And, if you are not a birder, pick up an inexpensive guide to the birds of the area at the park store and see how many species you can spot.
Bentsen State Park MesquiteLike all of our state parks, Bentsen is a Texas treasure. I enjoy riding my bike in the park and stopping at the designated bird observation areas to see the amazing varieties of birds. And because I happen to love mesquite trees, I enjoy taking photos of these trees with their gnarled trunks and branches throughout the park. The park is also home to other varieties of trees, including the beautiful ebony.
Bentsen State Park BikingI always enjoy visiting Bentsen—Rio Grande Valley State Park whenever I am in South Texas. It is a nostalgic and peaceful place for me. I am glad that in 1944 the Bentsen family gave this land to the state of Texas with the understanding that it be maintained and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. Their generous gift continues to be enjoyed by countless visitors from all over the world.