Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Grand Canyon of Texas – Visiting Palo Duro Canyon State Park

We left San Antonio and headed to our next destination, Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

Rather than take the Interstate highways, we always opt to take secondary roads.  They are more scenic, less congested, and provide a much more relaxing drive.  SR 83 and SR 153 met our expectations.  Lots of fracking, farming, and fields with cattle, horses and goats grazing. We passed a huge pile of tomatoes on the side of the road, presumably the result of a truck overturning.  Talk about one huge serving of pasta sauce (or as my maternal grandparents of Italian descent called it, "gravy")!

After spending the night in Wally World (AKA Wal-mart) in Sweetwater, we got back on the road at 7 a.m., this time taking SR 84, which consisted of acres and acres of wind turbines.  Though they stand tall within the fields, it wasn’t until a truck transporting one blade/prop passed us on a roadway that I realized just how Amazonian they really are!  Amazing stuff.

We arrived at Palo Duro State Park, home of Palo Duro Canyon, Texas’s version of the Grand Canyon.  Though not nearly as deep (only 800 feet vs a mile), as long (only 120 miles vs 273 miles), or as spectacular as the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon, as the #2 largest canyon in the U.S.A., is quite an impressive sight to see.   And while you can only hike or take a mule ride down into the Grand Canyon, you actually drive down into Palo Duro Canyon.

Mom was at the wheel and handled the descending roadway, with its curves, switchbacks, and 10% grade, like a pro! 

The step winding road into the Canyon!

There are several campgrounds within the Park. 
Based on the size of our set-up, we were assigned to Juniper Campground.   For $24/night, we got a huge pull-thru site with water, 50 amp electric, and covered picnic table.  Though no sewer connection on site, the Park has three dump stations.

In addition to the campground fee, you must pay an entrance fee of $5/person/night, which amounted to $30 for our 3-night stay (no charge for stuffed rats, cats, or goldfish).  We realized as we departed that we could have purchased an annual State Park Pass for $70, which gives unlimited access to ALL 90 of Texas’s State Parks for a year from the time of purchase.  Since Lake Livingston State Park is right near home base, we would definitely get use out of the annual pass. We ran back in, and the Park graciously applied our $30 entrance fee toward payment of the annual pass.  But the deal got even better!  The annual Texas State Park Pass comes with camping discounts!  Yup, for four (4) multi-night camping trips per year, you save 50% off of the second night, which for us put another $12 into my cheese bank.

In addition to RV sites and tent sites, Palo Duro State Park also has cabins, one built right into the Canyon walls just like a cowboy dugout. 

A Cowboy Dugout Cabin

We arrived at our campsite and were greeted by a welcoming committee consisting of two roadrunners!  I chuckled at the irony.  You see, despite spending four winters in Arizona, where the roadrunner is the state bird, we have rarely seen them.  They eluded us as if we were Wyle E. Coyote.  We come to Texas and see not one, but two, and they came to our camping area every day of our stay.

BEEP BEEP! One of the two roadrunners who visited us daily.

Once settled in, we immediately headed back up to the Visitor Center to learn more about the Park.  The Red River, which flows through the Canyon, was the site of a pivotal battle in the Texas-Indian Wars.  Several of the trails, bridges, and even the Coronado Lodge which houses this Visitor Center, were all built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  We hiked the CCC Trail to sample some of their handiwork.

We learned that Palo Duro State Park is home to hundreds of geocaches!  We found about a dozen of them as we hiked.  Unfortunately, we could not always log them since we had limited cell/internet service in the Canyon.

Wildlife was abundant in the Canyon.  In addition to the roadrunners, we saw deer, rabbits, tom turkeys and hens.  While sitting at a blind bird-watching, we were entertained by black-headed grosbeaks, mountain bluebirds, and a half dozen male cardinals all vying for the attention of two females.  Most importantly, we saw some fine specimens of Texas Longhorn steer.  Our campsite had a colony of some type of burrowing rodents (reminded me of my buddies, the prairie dogs).  It seems the Park and the rodents were battling over turf, and the rodents were winning.   We also hiked along the River in hopes of seeing a Texas long-horned lizard, but no such luck. 

A few of the six boys who were trying to impress a couple of gals.

This little rodent and his family are testing the patience of the Park groundskeepers, who keep filling holes in a losing battle.

Speaking of hiking, Palo Duro has more than a dozen trails, including one dedicated to mountain biking (Givens, Spicer, Lowry Trail) and one reserved just for horseback riding (Equestrian Trail).  Over the course of our stay, we completed 7 hiking trails, which featured unique rock formations (one looks like a lighthouse and the hues and patterns of another looks like vibrant-colored Spanish skirts).   

 This is where a cowboy on a cattle ranch would live!

The Lighthouse Formation

The white in this rock formation is gypsum.  Yup, the same stuff as White Sands!

And we explored a big cave when hiking the Juniper Cliffside Trail.  This was cool, but I must admit I was disappointed that there were no bats within it.  

The view from the cave!

Also of interest was the grave of Shal-a-ko.  According to legend, Palo Duro suffered a horrible drought, scorching all crops, and causing ancestral peoples to leave their homeland.  Then Shal-a-ko was born, bringing with him the much-needed rains so the peoples could return to their beloved home of Palo Duro.  Hence, Shal-a-ko became known as The Rainmaker.  Legend says that The Great Spirit loved Shal-a-ko and his peoples so much, that he bestows Palo Duro with much rain, more than the surrounding areas, so that the peoples green oasis will always thrive.  Guess that’s why the area succumbs to flooding on a regular basis.

So I have to tell you how difficult it is to be incognito with Big Boomer.  When getting out of the truck at an overlook, a young woman came up to us and asked if we were at White Sands in New Mexico last month.  Yes, we were, but how did she know that?  She remembered seeing Big Boomer there when she was parked at Alkalai Flats!  I concede Big Boomer is a bit unique, especially with Rat Patrol on its roof.

Big Boomer, Rat Patrol, and yours truly at a viewpoint.  It's tough being so highly recognizable.

We thoroughly enjoyed Palo Duro State Park.  We picked a perfect time to come:  mid-week, after Spring break, but before Memorial Day.  Hence, it was a peaceful, tranquil visit.  Palo Duro State Park is another Texas treasure worthy of a 5-cheese rating!

We would like to thank some amazing organizations for all they do for the RVing community:

Escapees RV Club


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RV Dreams

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Remember the Alamo! - Visiting San Antonio, TX

Now that Dad got a good medical report card, it’s time for some touring, and what better place to start than San Antonio! 

After researching RV parks in and around the San Antonio area, we opted to stay at the San Antonio KOA right within the City.  It was a bit pricey at $53/night, and it does not honor a Good Sam discount (it only offers discounts for KOA members and military).  However, it is easily accessible from the Interstate, is big rig friendly, has level sites, and offers great amenities like pool, propane, even a pizza delivery service, should you wish to utilize them.  Generally, we are not big fans of KOAs, only because they cater to families, and I try to avoid children at all costs (Hey, don’t judge me. You’d do the same if you were an adorable stuffed rat like me that kids just love to squeeze, pinch, and punch).   But what sold us on staying here was the fact that the VIA bus line to take you into downtown San Antonio had a stop right outside the campground gate.   So no need to disconnect, no worrying about navigating City streets and clearance levels, and no fretting to find adequately-sized parking downtown (all things we need to take into consideration because of the length of Big Boomer (our tow vehicle) and our overall height with Rat Patrol (our ATV) sitting on Big Boomer’s roof. 

We settled in at the campground quickly, and immediately hopped on the #24 bus to take in the sights.   We opted for the $2.75 all-day bus pass throughout our stay rather than the one way fares of $1.30, giving us flexibility to get on and off throughout the day and evening.  We stocked up on singles and quarters at the KOA store when they kindly apprised us that the bus requires exact change.   (If I paid my $2.75 fare with a $5 bill, I would have lost a chunk of my cheese money!).   We also observed very quickly that if you don’t pull the cord to request a stop, the bus stays in motion.  Similarly, if no one is standing at a bus stop to board, it will drive right on by that stop.  To top it off, announcements notifying passengers of the upcoming stops are not always made.  So we were diligent in apprising the bus driver of our intended destination as we entered the bus, and I made sure I stayed alert for fear I’d be going around in circles all day!

We exited the bus at Presa and Commerce Streets and headed to Riverwalk.  The San Antonio River is the life blood of the City, and it runs right through downtown.  The urban promenade, residing below street level, has a large assortment of restaurants, pubs, cafes, and even stages where you can stop and enjoy a variety of music, from Mariachi to Motown.  Riverwalk is a tropical park setting, so add the wonders of nature--trees, gardens, and ponds--to the ambiance (not to mention all the waterfowl and birds, many of which would actually go up to folks dining alfresco and beg for food).  The area is simply beautiful, but needless to say, it is very busy and congested on Saturdays and during peak eating times.  (In the photos below, you can notice the difference in crowds between Saturday afternoon/early evening to early Sunday morning, before most tourists got into gear and many restaurants were still closed).  You can navigate through this section of Riverwalk using the Rio water taxi, but we always prefer to explore by foot.  (And hoof it we did!  Over the course of our 3-night stay, we walked more than 25 miles throughout San Antonio!)

There is always a festival or celebration occurring in San Antonio.  While their biggest annual event, Fiesta, was starting on the day we departed, we did get to sample TacoFest, a street fair in the historic La Villita district, one of the first neighborhoods within the city, now known for its cultural and artisan shops.  The fest included traditional Spanish music and dancing as well as new Spanish musical artists.  

Entrance to La Villita from Riverwalk

Beautiful, brightly-colored tiles on the stairs, a testament to La Villita's artisans.

La Villita shops are set up in historical structures.

Street entertainers during TacoFest.

Spanish Dancing

We headed over to Hemisfair Park, home of the 1968 World’s Fair and the Tower of the Americas.  While there, we watched parents and photographers primping over young women in formal gowns and tiaras celebrating Quinceanera, the Spanish custom marking the transition from girlhood to womanhood.  

We got back on the Riverwalk and headed towards the Convention Center, which is a less traversed, more secluded area to admire and enjoy.

We ended our evening with a 3-mile round trip stroll along the Salado Creek Greenway, which connected right to our campground and provided an opportunity to see some wildlife:  turkeys, rabbits, cranes flying overhead, and assorted birds nesting in unusual places.


A female turkey

These crazy birds made their nests in the trestles of an overpass.

On Day 2, we hopped on the #24 bus and connected with the #40 bus, which takes you to the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.  Mom decided we should disembark at the furthest point, Mission San Francisco de la Espada and thereafter walk along the Mission Reach section of Riverwalk to get to Mission San Juan Capistrano, then Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo, and end with Mission Concepcion.  This turned out to be a terrific idea!  Most of the other tourists visited the Missions in the order of the bus stops.  Hence, this early in the day we had fewer people to contend with.  Additionally, Espada and San Juan, while still lovely, are small and the least majestic of the Missions, so starting our visits in reverse order saved the best for last! All of the Missions are currently active parishes with Franciscan priests, ministering to many of the descendants of the Coahuiltecans, those Indians who first inhabited the Missions.

I was saddened to learn the plight they faced so long ago.  You see, between suffering from Apache invasions and succumbing to European diseases to which their bodies had no immunity, their only means of survival was pledging loyalty to an unknown King and worshiping a white-man’s God.  They once roamed vast plains, and now they were confined to Mission walls.  They were forced to abandon their spoken word and heritage to learn new languages (both Spanish AND Latin) and adopt new customs.

Each of the Missions runs independently and is autonomous in its parish rules.  Hence, only Mission Concepcion allows photos to be taken inside the sanctuary.  In fact, I got a bit perturbed by the rudeness, lack of respect, and inability of some people to follow protocol at the other Missions.  Since it was a Sunday, all the Missions had services in progress through late morning/early afternoon.  This hindered our ability to get inside Mission Espada.  Fortunately, our timing was much better for the other three Missions. 

Mission Espada

Mission Espada

Mission San Juan

Mission San Jose

Mission San Jose and its "Rose Window" in the center

Mission San Jose

Mission San Jose

 All of the Missions have unique qualities and features, though Mission Concepcion has the distinction of being the oldest unrestored stone church in our Nation.  Where Mass was said on December 8, 1755, on the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, so it is performed today, from the same sanctuary, within the original walls.

Mission Concepcion

We thoroughly enjoyed touring the Missions, which together with the Alamo, are a World Heritage site.  And even more exciting, I completed the Missions National Historical Park Junior Ranger Program, earning me yet another badge!

I highly recommend traversing the Riverwalk to access the Missions.  It is a beautiful stretch brimming with nature.

Of course, no visit to San Antonio would be complete without a tour of The Alamo.  So on Day 3, we boarded Bus #24 yet again and arrived just as The Alamo was opening for business.  Established in 1718, the structure served as Mission San Antonio de Valero for 70 years before becoming the scene of the 13-day bloody battle of the Texas Revolution where 189 defenders perished in their quest for independence from Mexico.  A memorial statue outside the Alamo commemorates the heroic efforts of these men.  Out of reverence and respect, no photos are permitted inside The Alamo. You can feel the presence of the likes of Travis, Bonham, Bowie and Crockett as they fought to their death defending the Alamo!

We also visited San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the United States, which claims to house the remains of several of the Alamo heroes.  There is no sign within the cathedral as to whether photos were prohibited.  Being a “rules” person, Mom asked and learned that pictures could indeed be taken.  It is quite a lovely church, with a huge pipe organ, intricately-carved statues, beautiful stained glass windows and ornate alter.  There is a cool video art exhibit called “The Saga” that is projected on the cathedral facade.  Unfortunately, the exhibit does not run on Monday evenings and we left the area on Tuesday by noon.  Rats!

The Cathedral claims this tomb holds the remains of the several of the heroes from The Alamo battle.

We descended to the Riverwalk and hoofed it to the King William historic district.  Named for Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia, the district is comprised of stately homes, many dating back to the mid-1800s when the area was settled by prominent German merchants.  Here's photos of some of my favorite historic homes:

Grist mills were predominant along the River during this time period, and  Pioneer Flour Mills, founded by Carl Hilmar Guenther in 1951, is still in existence today, with his descendants at the helm.  Mr. Guenther’s original home now serves as a restaurant.

The Blue Star Arts Complex, located on the property of the Blue Star Ice and Storage Company, is the development of warehouse space into a trendy, artsy neighborhood of lofts, studios, galleries, and eateries, reminding me of New York City’s TriBeCa.

This City totally has it together!  Its rich history, diverse heritages and customs, varied architecture, and artistic edge provide a culturally fascinating experience within an environmentally friendly and ecologically unique atmosphere.  (Whew, it took me a while to come up with that closing summary!  Guess it would have been easier to just say it gets my coveted 5-cheese rating!).

Happy 300th birthday, San Antonio!  May you continue to flourish and prosper!

We would like to thank some amazing organizations for all they do for the RVing community:

Escapees RV Club


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RV Dreams
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