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Historical Cabin at Commons Ford framed by an old fence and orange flowers
Travel

9 Must-See Parks In Austin You Haven’t Heard Of

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Trees In a Neighborhood Park
Tree branches creating shade at Colorado Bend State Park
Field of Small Yellow Flowers

I saw an Instagram post from a California transplant complaining about Austin’s lack of nature and outdoor activities. I once believed this myth myself and nearly packed my bags for the West Coast, but as my mom has always said, “bloom where you are planted”. In place of a dramatic move to the mountains I set out to explore the best hidden gem parks in Austin and discovered our best kept secret – the city of Austin is home to many nature preserves, endangered species, and pocket parks that make Austin the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts to call home.

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Best Parks In Austin City Limits

Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park

Address: 614 N Commons Ford Rd, Austin, TX 78733

Commons Ford is a preserved prairie land that bursts with the colors of wildflowers in the spring and is home to native prairie birds and butterflies year-round. The unkempt trails scare most people away, but the quiet, sparsely populated park is the exact reason Commons Ford should be on your Austin bucket list.

Points of Interest: wildflowers, birding, waterfalls, and walking trails

Dick Nichols And Latta Branch District Park

Address:  7910 Beckett Rd, Austin, TX 78749

Dick Nichols playground and neighborhood pool is just a small part of the Karst Preserve at Western Oaks in South Austin. Trails filled with, green spaces, creeks and waterfalls that connect the Western Oaks Trail, Latta Branch Greenbelt, and Legend Oaks Neighborhood Park; each offering a reason to spend the day in the area. Those who love photographing old and abandoned subjects will love the abandoned vehicle and treehouses.

Points of Interest: abandoned attractions, tree house, waterfall, and trails

Birding Hotspots Near Austin

Milton Reimers Ranch Park

Address: 23610 Hamilton Pool Rd, Dripping Springs, TX 78620

Nearby Hamilton Pool and Pedernales Falls get all the glory, but Milton Reimers Ranch is a favorite among rock climbers, mountain bikers, and fishers. Less known for its hiking, Milton Reimers ranch is quiet hiker’s paradise with over 20 miles of hike and bike trails for all abilities, creek views, rock formations, caves, and wildlife.

Points of Interest: rock climbing, caves, wildlife, and birding

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

Address: 24518 Ranch Rd 1431, Marble Falls, TX 78654

A wildlife refuge where a third of Texas’s threatened and endangered species live or stop over, including the endangered black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler. The short trails around the refuge offer a variety of views from the sweeping hill country views on the 2.2 mile Rimrock trail to the quarter mile pollinator path which offers wildflowers in the spring and hawk sightings in the fall.

Points of Interest: birding and wildflowers

Canyon of the Eagles Resort

Address: 16942 Ranch Rd 2341, Burnet, TX 78611

This Texas style, full service, nature resort gets its name as a nesting ground for the American Bald Eagle spotted in the resort October through March every year. Guests can choose between tent or RV camping or glamping in the eco-friendly cabins with views no matter which room you choose. Spend the day hiking to hill country views, kayaking, and wildlife viewing, then cap the day off at one of the nearby breweries or vineyards.

Points of Interest: kayaking, eagles, and resort amenities

County and State Parks

Pace Bend Travis County Park

Address: 2805 Pace Bend Rd N, Spicewood, TX 78669

Pace Bend is the perfect last minute get away and outdoor relaxation; this hidden gem campground on the Colorado River, 45 minutes from Central Austin, requires no reservations. Though hiking trails are limited, you don’t need to leave your campsite to enjoy cliff side lake views and a blanket of wildflowers. Besides endless views, visitors can also enjoy day use picnic areas, beach side swimming, and boating.

Points of Interest: wildflowers, beaches, and swimming

Palmetto state Park

Address: 78 Park Rd 11 S, Gonzales, TX 78629

Palmetto State Park is a lush tropical forest and birding hotspot named after its signature dwarf palmettos. A hike in the unique, swampy terrain offers sites of wildflowers and historical buildings from the 1930s. Cool off in the humid, Texas summer with a dip in the San Marcos River or challenge yourself with the near by Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail.

Points of Interest: unique terrain, walking trails, kayakin

Lake Somerville State Park

Address: 14222 Park Rd 57, Somerville, TX 77879

What makes Lake Somerville unique is its 26 miles of rolling hills on the out and back trail that connects the Birch Creek and Nails Creek units. This challenging hike takes you through fields of wildflowers in the spring, water crossings, and dense forests, each filled with their own abundance of birds and wildlife. If overnight backpacking isn’t your style, then you can hike a distance you are comfortable with, then spend the rest of the day camping, fishing, and watching the gorgeous sunsets reflecting over the lake.

Points of Interest: hiking, wildflowers, birding, fishing

Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & National Historic Park

Address:  199 Park Road 52, Stonewall, TX 78671

History buffs will love exploring the 36th president’s ranch and historic cabins built in the 1860s and 1870s. The ranch is divided into a Texas State Park where you can immerse yourself in the past at the living history museum and a national historic park which consists of Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home and the Texas White House where he spent 20% of his presidency.

Points of Interest: historical buildings

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Travel

Detailed List Of 42 Central Texas State Parks

I’m on a mission to discover all the outdoor adventures tucked away in the 41 Central Texas State Parks; each one offering a unique view of this great state. In order to find the top hill country destinations, I have compiled a ranking of every Texas State Park within a 3-hour drive of Austin.

Texas Parks and Wildlife requires reservations for day and overnight use, so be sure to plan ahead.

Rating Central Texas State Parks

You’ll likely see the same few parks on every site when you google “best places to hike in Austin”. I’ve been to those – a lot, and I’m bored. I’ve set out to find the most beautiful and underrated state parks in central Texas and have not been disappointed. I started this project to discover lesser-known state parks to explore near me, so I haven’t been to all of these (yet), but places I had never heard of now sit at the top of my list for places to visit

To uncover what each park has to offer, I searched Google images, user-submitted Yelp images, the park websites, and various blogs then compiled the information into one location to make finding the best central states parks easy to research. I rated the parks based on how many attractions they have that interest me; here’s what I was looking for:

  • Mountain/landscape views
  • wildlife/birding
  • Challenging Hikes
  • Wildflowers
  • Unique Attractions

The more the park has or the more unique, the higher the rating.

State Parks Near Austin

State ParkRatingBest ForNot Best ForDrive Time From Austin
McKinney Falls State Park*****Birding, waterfall, camping, walking trailsChallenging hikes.5 Hours
Bastrop State Park*Camping, fishingChallenging hikes, views1 Hour
Buescher State Park*Lake, picnic, walking trails, views, fishingChallenging hikes, wildlife, swimming1 Hour
Inks Lake State Park****Birding, lake, swimming, camping, kayaking, swimming, scuba divingHistory, unique attractions1 Hour
Lockhart State Park*Walking trails, picnicsChallenging hikes, views1 Hour
Longhorn Cavern State Park*****Caverns, history, walking trails, experienced cavers,Wildlife, challenging hikes, pets not allowed in caverns, camping1 Hour
Pedernales Falls State Park****Waterfalls, swimming, birdingLong or challenging hikes1 Hour
Blanco State Park***Swimming, tubing, fishing, camping, birdingHiking, wildflowers, views1.25 Hours
Palmetto State Park*****Lake, vegetation, walking trails, history, swimming, tubing1.25 Hours
Colorado Bend State Park*****Waterfalls, viewsShade, many parts of the trails are in an open field making summer hikes tough1.5 Hours
Lake Somerville State Park****Birds, beach, wildflowers, challenging hikesViews, fishing1.5 Hours
Lyndon B. Johnson State Park*****History, wildlife, wildflowers, creeks, Christmas DecorCamping1.5 Hours
Mother Neff State Park**Walking trails, camping, watering hole, limestone wallViews, challenging hikes1.5 Hours

Weekend Camping Trips

State ParkRatingBest ForNot Best ForDrive Time From Austin
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area****Stars, views, picnics, campingBirding1 Hr 45 Min
Old Tunnel State Park**Views, BatsHiking, camping1 hr 45 min
Fort Parker State Park**Lake, birding, fishing, walking trailsChallenging hikes, views, wildflowers2 hours
Government Canyon State Natural Area**Hiking, dinosaur tracks, views, wildlife conservationDogs not allowed on most trails, fishing, boating2 Hours
Guadalupe River State Park****Lake, river, views, swimming, birding, campingChallenging Hikes2 Hours
Lake Whitney State Park*Lake,



fishing, swimming, camping
Hiking, wildlife2 hours
Meridian State Park****Wildflowers, camping, walking trails, birding (home to the endangered golden-cheeked warblers)Challenging hikes2 hours
Stephen F. Austin State Park**Birding, wildlife, walking trails, historyChallenging hikes, wildflowers, views2 hours
Honey Creek State Nautral Area*****Creeks and streams, wildlife, wildflowers, educational guidesHiking, camping, spontaneous trips (only available through reserved guided tours)2 Hours
Dinosaur Valley State Park****Swimming, lake, dinosaur tracks, watering holeChallenging hikes, views, birding, wildlife2.5 Hours
Goliad State Park and Historic Site***Mission Rosario and Zaragoza Birthplace Historic Sites, weddings, fishing, kayaking, birdingHiking, views, wildlife, wildflowers2.5 Hours
Hill Country State Natural Area*****Horseback riding, hiking, wildlife, birding, stargazingSwimming, fishing, boating, camping (very few campsites available)2.5 Hours
Lake Brownwood State Park*Camping, fishing, boatingHiking2.5 Hours
Fort Boggy State Park*Lake, fishing, boating, water sports, camping, cabinsHiking, wildlife, wildflowers2 hr 45 min
South Llano River State Park*****Birding, wildlife, tubing, camping, stargazing, hikingWildflowers, history, education2 hour 45 min
Battleship TEXAS State Historic Site****Battleship, historyCurrently closed for an undetermined time frame for repairs, hiking, swimming, wildlife3 Hours
Brazos Bend State Park*****Hiking, fishing, horseback riding, wildlife, birdingStargazing3 hours
Cedar Hill State Park***History, hiking, fishingViews, camping (crowded sites)3 Hours
Choke Canyon State Park**Calliham and South Shore Units, lake, birdingHiking, views3 hours
Cleburne State Park*Waterfall, lakeChallenging hikes3 hours
Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area**Bats, birdingHiking, camping, views, lake3 hours
Garner State Park*****Views, tubing, hiking, camping, lakewildlife, wildflowers3 hours
Huntsville State Park***Walking trails, lake, picnic, alligators, birding, hiking, weddingsViews,3 Hours
Lake Corpus Christi State ParkIBirding, fishing, campingHiking, views3 hours
Lake Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway*****Rock climbing, lake, views, hollow (similar to slot canyon), camping, hike, swim, fish, beginner and challenging hikes, birdingWildlife3 Hours
Lost Maples State Natural Area*****Fall foliage, moderately challenging hikes, viewscamping (there are sites, but they are limited and book a year out), wildlife3 Hours
Palo Pinto Mountains State Park (currently under development)****Views, fishing, hiking, camping stargazing.Boating3 hours
Possum Kingdom State Park***Fishing, campingWildlife, birding, hiking3 Hours
Sheldon Lake State Park**Lake, walking trails, fishing, envrionmental educationChallenging hikes, camping, wildlife3 hours
San Angelo State Park****Birding, wildlife (bison and longhorns), fishing, challenging hikes, horseback ridingViews3.5 hours

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Lost Maples State Park: A Taste of Texas Fall

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I’ve always said Texas has two seasons – hot and not so hot. It’s almost a stretch to say that we have more than one season, let alone four. But tucked away in Vanderpool, Texas, 85 miles northwest of San Antonio, I discovered an oasis of fall foliage that is Lost Maples State Park. Growing up, my grandparents who lived in the Smoky Mountains would tell stories of the tourists bringing too much hustle and bustle to their quiet town during peak fall foliage season. 

I thought it was silly that people planned vacations around the leaves changing; that was until I laid eyes on Lost Maples State Park. Once I discovered this taste of Texas fall, I was planning my own trips around the changing of the leaves. Over the past few years I have perfected a trip to Lost Maples and I am sharing those tips with you.

Best Time To Visit Lost Maples

It varies from year to year, but you can typically see fall colors in the last week of October through the first two or three weeks of November. For real-time updates, check out the Lost Maples Fall Foliage 2020 report, which is updated weekly with the status of the leaves. The park is busy at this time of year, so be sure to plan ahead and reserve a day pass on the Texas State Parks Reservations site.

Best Places For Pictures At Lost Maples State Park

There are two main hiking trails at Lost Maples State Park and both share the western part of the East Trail. The best fall colors I’ve seen at the park have been on the shared portion of the two trails. The one-mile stretch where the east and west trails merge is an easy, flat trail with a scenic pond at the one-mile mark. This is an excellent route if you’re shooting family portraits and need a route for all skill levels.

East Trail

Distance: 4 miles, 4.7 miles if you include the overlook 
Difficulty: Easy

The trail is mostly flat and easy, but there is a short steep and strenuous stretch that requires climbing up large rocks. Monkey Rock, located on the eastern side of the east trail, usually has some nice fall foliage; even without the vibrant colors, this familiar shape is sure to be a hit anyway. At the north of the loop is a small cove with a bench that’s had vibrant fall foliage every year I’ve gone. The bench and scenic backdrop make this spot the perfect place for a family portrait.

West Trail

Distance: 5 Miles, 7 miles if you include the West Loop Trail
Difficulty: Moderate

Most of the west trail follows along the creek where you’ll find plenty of opportunities to capture leaves collecting in a stream or a canopy of trees. The West Trail is less popular, so this route is perfect for landscape photographers seeking one of a kind photos.

Where To Stay

I discovered Lost Maples RV and Camping after a state park reservation mishap; we stumbled upon this unassuming gas station offering tent camping near Lost Maples. I’ve had the opportunity to watch this business grow from bare-bones tent sites to a community of tent sites with bathrooms and showers, RV sites with hookups, and cabins. I couldn’t recommend this place more!

Images of Lost Maples

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stream runs through a quiet forest over moss covered rocks
Travel

Unforgettable Sites In The Great Smoky Mountains

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After months of being cooped up in the house, I needed the mountains more than ever, and the Great Smoky Mountains was this wildlife and landscape photographer’s dream come true. Endless waterfalls, wildlife, mountains, and lush green forests all for the low, low price of free since Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee.

Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States and is infamous for it’s vibrant fall colors.  Those flocking to the park in the fall are missing out on the cascading waterfalls, lush green plants, and animal life found during the spring and summer months. If you are looking for a budget, COVID friendly, year-round adventure, then this is the guide for you!

Waterfalls In the Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains WATERFALL ADVENTURE HIKES

Deep Creek Trail

Location: Bryson City, North Carolina, Distance: 2.5 Miles, Difficulty: Easy

In just 2.5 short miles, this nature trail leaves nothing to be desired as you follow along the creek and listen to the sounds of its three cascading waterfalls.

Abrams Falls Hike

Location: Cades Cove, Distance: 4.5 Miles, Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Graveyard Fields Trail

Location: Blue Ridge Parkway, Distance: 2-5 miles, Difficulty: Hard

The hike isn’t physically hard, but it is unmarked and unkempt so be prepared to get lost and traverse some interesting terrain. Looking at this picture, I think it’s safe to say the views are worth the effort.

Grotto Falls

Location: Roaring Fork Motor Trail, Distance: 3 Miles, Difficulty: Moderate

Cool off in the mist as you walk behind this natural wonder.

Long shutter speed creates flowy water look at Grotto Falls
Small waterfall on Boogerman Trail in Catalooche Valley, North Carolina

Caldwell Fork Falls

Location: Cataloochee Valley Horse Trail, Distance: 1/2 mile, Difficulty: Easy

It’s only a half-mile out and back hike to see this beauty, but you can continue to the Boogerman Loop for a more challenging 7-mile hike.

SMOKY MOUNTAIN WATERFALLS YOU CAN DRIVE TO

Mingo Falls

Location: 6 Miles NE of Mingus Mill

At 120 feet tall, Mingo Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Mingo Falls
Roots of  a tree at the base of Cataract Falls

Cataract Falls

Location: Natural Trail at Sugarlands Visitor Center

Soco Falls

Location: Blue Ridge Parkway

 

Sun Rays Shining Through Dense Trees at Soco Falls
Small flowing falls of Laurel Creek

Laurel Creek

Location: Laurel Falls Trailhead

The trek to Laurel falls is 5 miles round trip, but you won’t have to walk much for some teaser falls at the trailhead.

Motor Trails

Cades Cove

Cades Cove receives rave reviews online and is one of the Smoky Mountains’ most prominent attractions for good reason. The area is known for its historic cabins built in the late1800s and early 1900s and abundant wildlife.

John P Cable Grist Mill - Great Smoky Mountains
Golden Hour silhouette in the Great Smoky Mountains

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a national parkway protected and operated by the National Park Service. Starting in the Great Smoky Mountains, the parkway follows the Appalachian mountain range through Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia to Shenandoah National Park. Blue Ridge Parkway is a fantastic alternative to the crowded smoky mountain trails for panoramic views and lesser-known hikes

ROARING FORK

You’re missing out if you don’t visit this secluded loop which contains some of the most serene, breath-taking views in the park.

Tranquil stream in the Great Smoky Mountains lush green forest

Hiking Trails

ALUM CAVE TRAIL

Choose your own adventure with an out and back from any distance to one of Alum Cave’s unforgettable points of interest, or hike all the way to Mt. Le Conte for an 11-mile round-trip.

stream runs through a quiet forest over moss covered rocks
Moss cover trail and trees on Tranquil Trails

SPRUCE FIR NATURE WALK

This pit stop on the way to Clingman’s Dome is an easy half-mile walk with a moss-covered forest floor that smells like Christmas.

BOOGERMAN TRAIL

A challenging hike that requires wading through water deeper than your boots, but the sites and sense of accomplishment are worth it.

Winding Hiking Path of the Great Smoky Mountains

Wildlife

It happened, my greatest fear, I came face to face with a bear. I kid you not; while unloading the car a bear arrived between trips hoping to help himself to a snack from the car and we were within six feet of each other when I noticed him. We were equally scared of each other and each slowly backed away; thankfully my instinct was exactly what the National Park website recommends you do if you encounter any black bears. 

While it is a cool story now, I was terrified at that moment. Wildlife that interacts with humans in any way must be put down, so I want to stress the importance of following the park’s guidelines for your safety and theirs. Thankfully, no bears or humans were harmed in the making of this story.

In spite of my near-death encounter I was still eager to see some wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains; from a safer distance of course. As you may have guessed from this story, wildlife won’t be hard to find and these hotspots will all but guarantee some wildlife sightings.

Great Blue Heron Catches a Fish for Dinner

CADES COVE

The Smokies dense forest makes it difficult to spot wildlife, so the easiest way to catch a glimpse of those majestic creatures is in one of the few open fields. Cades Cove is a one-way road circling an open field which makes it a prime location for spotting wildlife. In a single day I saw, a baby deer and his momma, two bears, a turkey, a heron, and several birds.

OCONALUFTEE RIVER PULLOUTS

Highway 441, which parallels Oconaluftee River, is known for its elk sightings off the side of the road. Though herbivores, elk are still dangerous, so protect yourself and the elk and keep your distance. While you’re in the area, check out the historic buildings in the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Northern American Male Elk Bugle
Small Yellow Pine Warbler Bird through green trees

BIRDING HOTSPOTS

You can purchase a birding guide that contains a map of all the known birding hotspots in the park, a list of common birds, and how to identify them.

  • Cades Cove
  • Laurel Falls Trail
  • Alum Cave Trail
  • Metcalf Bottoms
  • Maloney Point Overlook
  • Spruce Fir Trail

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Saguaro Cactus in Arizona's Saguaro National Park
Travel

2 Week Arizona and New Mexico Road Trip

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Stay safe in the post pandemic era with a cross country road trip that focuses on national parks, state parks, gardens, and zoos. With all outdoor actives and no airports, it will be much easier to control your environment and stay healthy. This two week road trip from Austin to Arizona and New Mexico was one the vacations I had put on hold when COVID-19 hit, but is at the top of my list once we open back up. Enjoy the road trip itinerary I planned for myself!

*Situations change by the minute these days, so please research ahead of time for closures or reservation requirements.

Start In Austin, Texas

Take a hike in one of Texas’ amazing hill country parks or explore the city like a local. Austin to New Mexico is a long drive so break it up with an overnight stop at Monahans Sandhills State Park.

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Though the caverns of Carlsbad Caverns National Park may be closed there is still plenty of unique activities in Carlsbad Caverns to make it worth a stop on your road trip itinerary. The Night Sky program is still offering star walks, moon hikes and meteor shower viewings through the summer, dawn and dusk bat viewing is available from the visitor parking lot, and a long list of hiking trails with panoramic views of the Guadalupe Mountains. The drive alone is worth it.

If you are traveling through southern New Mexico a drive through White Sands National Park is a must! Be sure to save time for some sand sledding which is free if you have your own sled or you can rent one from the visitor center for about $20. 

TUCSON, ARIZONA 

No southern Arizona road trip is complete without a stop at Saguaro National Park. There’s a debate on whether East Saguaro or West Saguaro is the best, but I say do both! If you’re a fan of Old Westerns the Old Tucson Theme Park has preserved old western movie sets that take you back in time. For a change of scenery out of the old, dusty south head over to the Biosphere 2 for an unexpected Oasis. 

Saguaro National Park
Pink Thorned Flowers

Phoenix, Arizona

The Desert Botanical Gardens hosts a variety of plants native to the desert which provides a unique perspective from more traditional botanical gardens.

Step back in time with hourly reenactments, museums, and various tours at the Goldfield Ghost Town – a preserved gold mining town that prospered for a mere 5 years in the 1890s.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

There is enough to fill an entire day at the ABQ BioPark; a botanical garden and zoo, If you prefer something more unique to Albuquerque then hike one of the three petroglyph viewing hikes at the Petroglyph National Monument, one of the largest Petroglyph sites in the country. Finish off the day with a scenic sunset view on the Sandia Peak Tramway.

TAOS, NEW MEXICO 

Drive the Turquoise Trail scenic byway from Albuquerque to Taos for a scenic and unique view of New Mexico with eclectic shops and towns along the way. The art town of Taos is about an hour from Santa Fe and is full of history and hiking. The Taos Pueblos are a World Heritage Site built between 1000 and 1450 A.D and is a must see!

Earthship Biotecture is a home construction company that builds self-sustaining homes using natural and reclaimed materials. While you may not be able to afford one of these eco-friendly homes, you can fantasize about it on one of their tours.

Earthship Biotecture

Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Palo Duro Canyon is known as The Grand Canyon of Texas and is absolutely the best canyon in Texas. Visit the Texas State Park website to reserve a day pass or campsite. Fun fact about Palo Duro Canyon; in addition to traditional accommodations, such as tent camping and cabins, there is an equestrian campsite for your horse. Only in Texas! Before leaving Amarillo, don’t forget to check out the roadside attraction, Cadillac Ranch.

Fort Worth, Texas

The Big D gets all the attention, so why not go to the FW in the DFW? I was raised in Dallas and still have family there, so there’s no need for me to go to Dallas. But, somehow I’ve never made my way to Fort Worth. One the most Texas things you can do is visit the Forth Worth Stockyards which is full of shops, restaurants, and history, Other outdoor activities in Fort Worth include the Botanic Gardens, Japanese Gardens, the Fort Worth Zoo, and the Nature Center & Refuge. In all my years as a Dallas resident, how I have never been out here?!

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Field of Texas Wildflowers In Spring
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5 Texas Hill Country Hikes with the Best Views

Texas isn’t exactly known for its panoramic landscapes so it might surprise you when I say that the Texas Hill Country has no shortage of hikes with jaw-dropping views. From landscape to wildlife to wildflowers I’m always finding new places to capture great photos with a short drive from Austin. These 5 parks are the best hikes with views in the Texas Hill Country and are sure to satisfy all the outdoorsy types.

1. Colorado Bend State Park

You’ll start to see the lush green trees 30 miles from the park and feel as if you are about to leave the flat, barren, dry state of Texas. Located on the Colorado River, I like to think Colorado Bend State Park is our little borrowed piece of Colorado as the park offers views of waterfalls, grasslands, rolling hills (or as I like to call them “Texas Mountains”), creeks, canyons, wildflowers, and wildlife. That’s a lot of words to say Colorado Bend has it all!

2. Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

Balcones Canyonlands

Home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped video, Balcones Canyonlands is a bird watchers paradise with sweeping views of the Texas Hill Country. With over 245 bird species, Balcones Canyonlands has been designated an important bird area by the National Audubon Society. While small with only 7 miles of hiking trails, it’s packed with a variety of wildlife and plant life that you’re sure to keep coming back for more.

3. Pace Bend

I could stare at the cliffside lake views all day and basque in the Texas wildflowers in the spring. In fact, I love Pace Bend so much my husband and I held our private wedding ceremony here. Camping is first come first serve but there is never a shortage of sites.

4. Lost Maples

Texas isn’t known for its four seasons – I often say we have two seasons: hot and not-so-hot. While most of the US is starting to bundle up in October and November, Texans are still barbequing by the pool. But there’s a little secret tucked away in Vanderpool, Texas with reliable fall colors and no cell phone signal. Lost Maples has become a yearly tradition to satisfy my need for that beautiful red, orange, and yellow leaves.

5. Balcones District Park

Ok, the word “hiking” is a stretch on this one, but this little neighborhood park offers a small oasis trail, is a starting location for the hike and bike trail leading to Walnut Creek Trail, is an official wildflower area, and great for bird watching. It’s probably my favorite place in the whole city.

These are some of my favorite places to hike and they’re so gorgeous you’ll almost forget you’re in Texas. Watch out for that Texas summer sun though, you’ll definitely remember where you are when you fry in our 100 degree summers! Bring water, wear sunscreen, and take lots of pics.


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1-Week Itinerary: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, & Sequoia

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It’s been a while since I posted a travel guide because it felt weird promoting travel while most of the world was in quarantine. As the world begins to reopen I’ve been thinking about the safest way to travel in a time of uncertainty, Hopping on a plane seems premature so road trips and outdoor adventures will be moved to the top of my bucket list for a while.

You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t visit Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks while visiting Yosemite. My strategy for extended hiking trips is to alternate days with hard and easy trails to give my legs a break between the tough hikes. With that in mind, I have put together the perfect itinerary for enjoying all three parks in one week.

Day 1: Travel Day

Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport offers the best combination of affordable airfare and reasonable drive time. With a rental car, it’s still 3 hours to Yosemite, so the first day is dedicated to travel.

We stayed in an adorable little Airbnb 15 minutes outside the gates of Yosemite. Terry was the most hospitable host who cooked us dinner, served us wine, and gave great advice. It was exactly what we needed after a long day of travel. I cannot recommend this Airbnb enough!

Yosemite National Park

Day 2: Mist Falls

More like drenched falls. You WILL get wet so come prepared with waterproof gear and moisture-wicking clothes. Mist Falls is gorgeous and is the adult version of running through the sprinklers.

Difficulty:

Moderate to hard – the climb to Mist Falls is moderately hard with lots of wet stairs, but doable. For an extra challenge, make your way up to Vernal Falls.

Length:

Mist Falls out and back: 3 Miles
Vernal Falls Loop: 7.5 miles

Please enjoy this short video featuring Mist Falls’ namesake! This video was taken with a phone as my camera was packed safely in my Osprey Daylite Plus which kept my pride and joy bone dry.

Pro Tip: Don’t know how to tell if your gear is 100% waterproof? Create a seal around the material and your mouth and blow. If you can feel the air on your hand on the other side, it’s not 100%.

Day 3: Quick Hikes

Each of these hikes are flat and a mile or less (except Mirror Lake which is a flat 3). I recommend utilizing Yosemite’s very efficient bus to drop you off near all the main points of interest, If you don’t manage to hit all of these lookout points, just add them the morning you leave for Kings Canyon. You won’t need all day at Kings Canyon, so that morning is a great buffer zone for fitting in the things you missed.

Mirror Lake | Swinging Bridge | Lower Yosemite Falls Vista Point | Bridalveil Falls | Glacier Point | Tunnel View

Day 4: Upper Yosemite Falls Trail

Upper Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls is a tiered waterfall; the bottom half of which you’ll see on the Lower Yosemite Falls Vista Point and is a much less strenuous way to see the iconic falls. If you’re looking to amp it up a bit, try the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. Though steep, you’ll be rewarded with views of Yosemite Valley and mist from the falls.

Difficulty:

Hard – Very Steep Incline

Length:

  • Columbia Rock: 2 miles round trip
  • Base of upper falls: 4 miles round trip
  • Top of the Falls: 7 miles round trip

King’s Canyon National Park

Day 5: Drive the King’s Canyon Scenic Byway

The drive from Yosemite to Kings Canyon is about 2 hours and is equally as stunning as the parks themselves. Without stopping, the scenic byway (from Grant Cove to Copper Creek Trailhead) takes about an hour each way. How long you stay at each of the 25+ lookout points is the real deciding factor in how long this highly underrated detour will take.

Sequoia National Park

Day 6: Giant Forest Trail

Start on the Giant Forest Trail and meander your way to various points of interest in the area – Bear Hill Trail, Hanging Rock, Moro Rock, Auto Log, and Tunnel Log. The trails in the area converge several times so it’s not critical to stay on the same path.

Difficulty:

Moderate- There are steep inclines to access some of the view points, but there are also long periods of flat terrain.

Length:

This is a “choose your own adventure” kind of hike. It can range from 3-7 miles depending on how many points of interest you include.

Day 7: General Sherman and Big Trees Trail

General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park

General Sherman is the world’s largest tree by volume and it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of that until you see it yourself.

Difficulty: 
Moderate – The way down is easy, it’s getting back up that’s the problem.

Length: 
1 mile

Big Trees Trail is a leisurely stroll around a meadow with an abundance of wildlife. As someone that loves capturing photos of wildlife, I could have stayed there all day!

Difficulty: 
Easy – Completely flat

Length: 
1 mile

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National Parks Pin with images of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia
Sunset At the Gold Butte Lookout Tower – Detroit, Oregon
Travel

Review of the Little-Known Gold Butte Fire Lookout

Gold Butte Fire lookout is among hundreds of lookout towers built from the 1930s to ’50s by the US Forest Service. These one-room cabins, built on stilts, peaks, or in trees provided 360 views and served as early fire detection and Aircraft Warning System during World War II. Advancements in technology have rendered most of these towers obsolete and are now rented out through the National Park Service. Check out Firelookout.org for a map of fire lookout rentals across the nation. Reservations open at 9 am CST 6 months in advance and they sell out fast, so have your tower picked, be signed up and logged in, and have the reservation page up and ready a few minutes ahead of time.

Gold Butte Fire Lookout

Our first lookout experience was at Gold ButteFire Lookout, 2 hours outside of Portland. The website led us to believe the hike up would be half a mile with “some” incline. We are no strangers to a challenging hike, so we thought it wouldn’t be too much trouble to make multiple trips so we could bring all our luxuries (luxuries being cold booze and real food). We were dead wrong!

Gold Butte Forewatch Tower - Willamette National Forrest, Detroit, Oregon
Fire watchtower from the 1930’s in Williamette National Forrest
Gold Butte Lookout Tower in Detroit Oregon

The tower sits at 4,618 feet elevation and the hike from your parking spot gains 1,000 feet in elevation in a mere three-quarters of a mile, so come prepared for a backpacking experience in order to avoid making multiple trips. The incline is not evenly distributed so the last half is… shall we say… character building? As we rounded up the last switchback and laid eyes on a picturesque 1934 cabin with 360 views of Willamette National Forest, we knew the trek was worth it. Talk about a room with a view! July is the best time to visit the Pacific Northwest because the weather is not too hot and just brisk enough to cool you down during a rest break. 

The cabin is about the size of a small bedroom with one twin bed and 3 cots. Previous travelers have been kind enough to leave behind some cookware (utensils and pots/pans), a propane stove, and games. There is some chopped firewood and a wood-burning stove to keep you warm  at night, but you have to haul the firewood up the steepest part of climb so we opted out of the wood-burning stove. 

What to bring

*Sleeping bag -The tower is not equipped with sheets or blankets, but does have plenty of pillows. Keep in mind, this is not a 5-star hotel with maid service; I don’t think they clean the linens between each use. They weren’t gross and I used them, but bring a pillow if you aren’t comfortable with that.

*Food

*Cooler – There is no fridge, so if you plan on bringing booze or real food, as opposed to freeze dried, you will need a cooler and ice.

*Water – Bring enough water for the entire stay, Detroit Lake is the closest place to refill water and that is a 40-minute drive.  

*Sweater, gloves, and beanie – At 4,618 feet elevation, nights are pretty chilly, even in mid-July.

*A 4-wheel drive vehicle – Most of the terrain leading to the tower and surrounding trails are steep, unpaved roads.

*Propane for a camping stove – There was a two burner camping stove with some propane left behind when we visited, but unless you want to take a gamble, bring your own fuel.

Jawbone Flats Hiking Trail

Opal Creek Hiking Trail In Oregon

Awarded one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the nation and full of unexpected sights, Jawbone Flats is worth the hour and a half drive from the lookout. If you are in search of a ghost town, look no further; the trail follows the original road to the now-abandoned mining town by the same name. The mine closed in 1951 and the town has since been left untouched. Mines, equipment, half-built railroad tracks, buildings, and cars all left exactly where they were nearly 70 years ago.  

This one of a kind trail makes for a moderately difficult 6.5-mile hike. The gently rolling hills will sneak up on you for a total of 1300 ft gain instead of the 200 net elevation gain advertised on the website

I’d rate our trip to Gold Butte Fire Lookout Tower an 11 out of 10 for the adventurous spirit. You’re miles from civilization and truly off the grid with nothing but the sounds of nature and a spectacular view of the stars.


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Gold Butte Lookout Pin