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.

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.

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.

First Day Hikes

The First Day Hikes program is a cooperative initiative among the nation’s state parks to get more people outside. Last year, an estimated 41,000 people across the United States logged more than 72,000 miles on park trails. Today, more than 75 state parks are offering guided hikes and other outdoor events.
First Day HikesThis past year was a wet one in the Lone Star State, making it a challenge to hike and bike the trails at many of our state parks. Even so, I managed to get plenty of use out of my Texas State Parks annual pass. When it comes to hiking, I tend to agree with the philosophy of renowned explorer Sir Rannulph Fiennes: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
Red Buckeye TrailThis morning, my wife Cheryl and I laced up our hiking boots and headed to Brazos Bend State Park for our First Day Hike. The cold weather and light drizzle did not dampen our spirits. We just donned our Frogg Toggs rain gear and took a leisurely stroll down one of my favorite trails at the park. Meanwhile, park rangers led other groups of hikers at Brazos Bend on their First Day Hike.
Buckeye Trail VinesToday marks the fifth year that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has offered First Day Hikes. After the untold numbers of holiday calories consumed by the average Texan, the First Day Hikes initiative is the perfect way to get folks to burn off some of those calories by moving in the direction of a healthier and more active lifestyle. Hopefully, many who participate in First Day Hikes will be inspired to savor the beauty of our outdoor spaces throughout the coming year.
Buckeye Trail SignCheryl and I certainly enjoyed our slow walk through the woods on this first day of the new year. Hiking with Cheryl made the hike far more interesting for me. As a Texas Master Naturalist, she pointed out a lot of interesting stuff about flora and fauna along the trail. Our walk reminded me of something David Henry Thoreau said: “An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day” — and indeed it was.
Buckeye Trail OmarIf you did not hike today, that’s ok. But, don’t wait until next year for your First Day Hike. Make any day of the new year the day of your first day hike. Hopefully your hike will inspire you to spend more time outdoors this year. Our Texas State Parks offer access to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. So, find a park near you, lace up your boots, and hit the trail. In the words of Thoreau, you will find the experience to be a blessing.