Every year for my birthday, we take a trip of some sort. In 2015 we hopped down to Houston where we visited four Texas State Parks. 2016 was a spur of the moment Texas History trip to Gonzales and Goilad, Texas. While in 2017, we visited the Ouachita National Forest are hitting many Arkansas State Parks. This year we went on a County Collecting trip and we stayed over night at the Hercules Glades Wilderness Fire Tower within the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. It was easy to convince Ren to camp because the weather was going to be beautiful and we would be using the hammocks, she just loves the hammocks. We had built hammock stands so the set up and break down was quick and easy; I think that is why she loves it so much.
This camping area is home to one of the many fire towers within the Mark Twain National Forest. These fire towers are actually stilled used today to help locate fires in the area. You are also able to rent some of the unmanned towers to stay in during the summers. For more information on this, please see https://www.nationalforests.org/blog/nine-questions-about-lookout-towers. We had no idea this was a possibility so we just camped here. The camping in this area is free and we had the area all to ourselves until about 2:00 AM and one hiker that was camped somewhere along the hiking trail.
We were extremely lucky to have such a beautiful, clear night so I was able to take some good night sky photos. The camera I use is a mirrorless Sony A6000; it is light and easy to use. My settings for these photos are ISO 8000, F-stop is 3.5, and I shoot for 15 seconds. I was extremely happy with the outcome of these photos.
As I’ve said before, there is something about mountains that call Ren and I. When we get to the mountains, it feels like coming home. I don’t think we have ever visited the mountains without at least discussing the possibility of moving there, and I expect that eventually, we will do so.
One of my favorite trips was in June of 2016 when we headed west to Davis Mountains State Park. As you would expect, this is a State Park located in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. There are several attractions in this are that make it worth the trip.
After a long drive, our first stop before heading to the park was the nearby, Balmorhea State Park, just outside of Balmorhea Texas. This unique park is in the foothills of the West Texas mountains, built around the San Solomon Springs, it is an oasis in the desert. In the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps took this spring and made it into a huge swimming pool. Up to 30 feet deep in places, the cool, crystal clear waters flow up from the bottom of the spring at a rate of 25 million gallons a day and flow out through canals to irrigate the surrounding countryside. We were both surprised to find it home to fish and other underwater creatures. The waters maintain a temperature of 72 to 76 degrees year round. We expected to find this a refreshing stop, and we did, but we did not anticipate how beautiful the setting was.
After our swim, we headed for Davis Mountains State Park (DMSP), just west of Fort Davis Texas. Located in the Davis Mountain range, Davis Mountains State Park, (DMSP), is actually two Parks. DMSP and Indian Lodge State Park. Indian Lodge is a full-service hotel located within the larger park. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, (CCC), in the 1930s. It serves as a getaway for those who want to visit this area without giving up their creature comforts.
The Park is between Five and Six thousand feet in elevation, the days were warm, but with the low humidity, not too uncomfortable, and the evenings were downright chilly. We spent the first day exploring the Park. The highest peak in the park is Lookout Mountain. You can drive to the top where there is an observation area with a great view in all directions. From there you can see McDonald Observatory to the west and Fort Davis to the east. You can drive nearly to the top, where there is a small parking lot. Nearby is an old CCC-built shelter giving you cool shade to take time to enjoy the amazing view. One of the hiking trail leads to the top of the mountain, then continues on, out of the park and down to Fort Davis. Neither Ren or I were in shape enough to do much hiking in the heat of the day, but the trail is clearly marked and well traveled.
We spent the next few days exploring the many things this area has to offer. We very much liked the town of Fort Davis. It is a small place and mostly survives on tourism, They do a good job of making you feel welcome. The reason they get so much tourism is that within the town of Fort Davis is the Fort Davis National Historic Site.
This is a well-preserved frontier fort from the era of the Indian Wars, active from 1854 to 1892, Fort Davis was built to protect settlers and freight on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road. The Fort, the town, the mountain range, and the county were named for Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War when the fort was established. Much of the housing and several other buildings survive, and there are many exhibits built to help explain life on the frontier. Visiting here you find yourself trying to imagine what it was like to live in this beautiful but harsh country without the benefits of air conditioning and other modern conveniences.
As the day got warmer we took advantage of the air conditioning in our truck and drove through the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop. The Davis Mountains Scenic loop is a 75-mile loop that begins in Fort Davis, heads west into the Davis Mountains on Highway 118, before turning south on Highway 166 which will bring you back to Highway 17 and Fort Davis. The Davis Mountains are an ancient range of volcanoes, with many rugged and beautiful peaks. The Davis Mountains fill a rough square about 31 miles on each side. The Scenic Loop is one of the best ways to appreciate this amazing area of Texas. It takes 2 hours to drive if you do not stop, it took us more like 4 hours as we stopped frequently to take in the views.
Make sure you are well prepared before taking this drive. This is an extremely remote and empty country. Once you leave Fort Davis you will pass the park entrance, and a few miles later, the McDonald Observatory, after that there is nothing but a couple of ranches until you get back to Fort Davis. There is no cell phone service, and we only passed a couple of cars the entire day. The roads are in very good condition, but there are places where you are many miles from help, and you might have a long wait till someone else came along. Make sure you have plenty of gas and plenty of water. That said, this is an experience you do not want to miss. This was my favorite part of the entire trip.
We drove the loop from Fort Davis to Alpine, to Marfa, and back to Fort Davis. While this is not officially a Scenic Byway, it could be. The scenery is beautiful and dramatic, and Alpine and Marfa are both interesting towns, well worth a visit.
We were there during the day, so we did not have a chance to look for the famous Marfa Lights, but we did spend a few hours at an interest resort called El Cosmico. El Cosmico is a resort that is an odd mixture of tents, mobile homes, RVs, tipis, and yurts. It has something of a hippy vibe to it. We relaxed for a while listening to obscure 60s LPs and drinking homemade sangria.
Nearby is the McDonald Observatory. We had not made reservations in advance, so we were not able to get tickets for the evening star parties, but we did attend the daytime tour and solar viewing. If you get in this area I highly recommend it. The tour is very interesting. The telescopes are impressive, and the views from the mountain are amazing. Be sure to reserve a space in advance, they do sell out.
Back at Davis Mountain State Park, they close Lookout Mountain after 10 PM, but for a small fee, you can get permission to stay up there after hours, which we did. This is one of the darkest areas of Texas, and famous for stargazing, but we were only a day or two away from the full moon, so the conditions were not especially good for astrophotography, but I took the camera and setup anyway. Ren brought an air mattress and a blanket and slept in the back of the truck while I, and another photographer we met there, took pictures. I did get some nice photos of all the cars driving back to the park after the star party ended at the observatory. I combined them to make a light trail.
It really was an amazing trip, and I look forward to going back for another visit, preferably when the moon is not full. What is your favorite story about the mountains? Let us know in the comments.
Scott and I drive a lot when we do our travels. There are 3,144 counties in the United States and we intend to pass through each of them; driving tends to be the way we are best able to do this. It enables us to stop and visit a town, getting to experience the people, their foods, and their culture. This is a bit slower than flight, but we both feel the hours getting to a destination is well worth it when we see the colored in space on the maps.
When we decide to go on what we call “Collecting Grab” trips, we sit down with Google maps or even a paper road map to plan the best route there and back going through as many different counties as possible. This often means never taking the same road twice. It is extremely rare for us to take the major highways or toll road unless we need to get through previously collected counties.
If we are on trips that are more than a day trip, we will fill our SUV up with delicious food, changes of clothing, and hammock/sleeping gear. While Scott is at work, I am able to get everything together and packed away; this enables me to pick him up as soon as his workday is finished and we can be on the road towards our destination.
Since we started doing these three to four-day trips to cover as much ground as possible we find National Forests and State Parks that are along our route to rest when we can no longer drive. We will pull in to a camping area and set up our hammocks or, due to weather, we will inflate the air mattress and sleep in the back of the SUV. Both are quick to set up and take down so we are able to pull off the road as late as we need and leave as soon as we can minutes after we have woken up.
One of the things we find ourselves saying when we travel is that it is never a true adventure until we have left the pavement. Surprisingly, this happens to us a lot. We have been driving along a perfectly good paved road when “BLAM!” we have crossed onto a gravel road. These roads, however, have been some of the most beautiful places and there is almost always a surprise waiting for us.
Yes, we drive a lot. This means gas is our largest expense when we are on the road. Because of our style of travel we do and not needing to use a hotel room, we are able to afford it. There have been times we needed to stay at a roadside hotel or motel, but we will stay in the most inexpensive place we can. We have been able to find some really awesome deals at Priceline Express Deals. However, a room with a view is a very rare occurrence for us.
Scott and I enjoy driving along the county roads within our country. This has enabled us to see what each state has to offer its people and how the people live and celebrate their lives. We love the miles we put behind us on the roads we drive upon no matter if they are paved, gravel, or dirt. We enjoy the adventure of having our expectations changed because the trip shows us so much more to a place. Yes, we drive, a lot; but, it is what we love to do.
Over our travels, Ren and I have had our disagreements over the way we travel. or more specifically the way we sleep while traveling. We both love the outdoors, but Ren also likes her comforts. I would camp every chance I get, Ren often prefers a hotel room. When we had the RV, this was not an issue. We got to camp and have our beds with us at the same time. When we are ready I expect we will have an RV again, but meanwhile, we needed another option.
We have slept in the back of our SUV a few times. A full-sized air-mattress will fit snugly in the back, and this works reasonably well in colder weather. It is not a good solution when it is hot. A tent with an air mattress on the ground is less and less acceptable as we get older, and we never found a cot setup that we really liked.
We stumbled across the answer by accident. While we were camp-hosting at Eisenhower State Park, I picked up a cheap hammock. When we set it up, it turned out to be more comfortable than our beds in the RV. A little research showed that a lot of people camp in their hammocks. This thought stayed in the back of our minds. As we were planning the remodel of the RV we even considered replacing the beds with hammocks, but couldn’t figure out how to fit it in. Hammocks are rather longer than beds. We had even picked up a few hammocks we found on clearance at the local outdoor shop.
After we sold the RV, we decided to give the hammocks a try. On our trip to Palo Duro Canyon, we spent the night at Copper Breaks State Park. Ren slept in the SUV, while I slept in my hammock, hung from two support poles under the shelter. It was a beautiful, clear summer night in Texas, with a nice breeze to keep the bugs away, and I slept out under the Milky Way. I was hooked.
A few weeks later we were headed out to Tennessee and planned to spend the evening at a National Scenic River in Missouri. When we called ahead to see if there were suitable sites, we were surprised to learn that the Park did not allow hammocks to be hung from trees. We had the proper straps to keep from damaging the trees, but a lot of people just used ropes, and the Park had just banned all hammocks on trees. Fortunately, Missouri State Parks had no such policy, and we spent a wonderful evening at Lake Wappapella State Park. Once again we were fortunate to have good weather, and this time Ren slept in the hammocks as well. On the way back from Tennessee we spent another evening in the hammocks at Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas. By now Ren was hooked too. We now knew that we were hammock campers. We also knew that we could not depend on always having great weather, and would need to upgrade our gear.
A few weeks later, as we were planning our trip out to western Oklahoma, we found out that a lot of campsites out that way, don’t have suitable trees, or even any trees. We also learned that we might not be allowed to hang our hammocks from the trees even if we found a suitable site. While we could not find any official policy banning the practice in Oklahoma State Parks, we did find several reports from people who were told by the park staff to take theirs down. It was time to look at other options.
We looked at a few stands on Amazon and found that the cheap options were not portable, and the portable options were not cheap. We had a budget for this trip, and it was not going to stretch to buying portable hammock stands. So we turned to YouTube.
A quick search on YouTube turned up just the thing: The Turtledog Hammock Stand. As near as I can tell this was developed by members of The Hammock Forum and copied widely. The design is simple, functional, relatively inexpensive, and can be built in an hour or two with minimal tools.
I won’t go into too much detail here, because we filmed making the second one, and it will make more sense to just watch the video.
Here is a breakdown of the parts list and what we paid at the local Home Depot. Your prices may vary. This is what we bought to make 2 of them.
12 2X2 pine. Cut to 6.5 ft. 3.98 each $47.76
3 10 foot 1-3/8 inch fence top rail. 9.72 each $29.16
4 5 inch Gate hinges 4.47 each $17.88
4 packs of 4 T-nuts, 5/18 inch 1.18 each $4.72
90 foot of paracord 0.10 / ft $9.00
4 1/4 inch shackles 2.67 each $10.68
16 5/16 x 1-1/2 in bolts 0.20 each $3.20
4 Rail end caps. 0.98 each $3.92
Total cost to make 2 sets. $126.00
We chose to have our rail that the hammocks hang from to be 12 feet long, for our 10 foot hammocks. Using 10 foot long fence rail we needed three rails to make 2 stands. Be sure and get the rail that has one tapered end that fits into the next rail. We cut our rails in half so they would fit into the SUV. It’s all explained in the video.
We also needed a rain tarp as there was a chance of rain in the forecast. We did not get the chance to try out the tarps before leaving on our trip, so we would have to figure it out when we set up camp. We camped for three nights in two different locations, we did not set up the tarps on the third night. The hammock stands worked just as we hoped they would. They went up quickly and easily.
The tarp system still needs some work. Normally you string a tarp just a bit higher than the hammock, on a separate rope. We were needing to hang them from the stands. When hanging a hammock from the stands, all the horizontal force from the hammock is against the pole, and all the force on the tripods is straight down. The tarps were trying to pull against the stands and not the pole, so the stands became a little unstable. We eventually figured out how to adjust them to deal with this, but in the dark after a long drive, is not the best time to be working these things out. We need slightly smaller tarps so we can stretch them on the pole and not the tripods. Stretching them from the tripods made them a little higher than ideal. We were lucky in the weather again. I’m not convinced we would have stayed dry if there had been a storm; however, it did all work.
We love sleeping in the hammocks. It is very comfortable, really more comfortable than our beds at home. Tear down is a snap, and setup is not much harder. We do still need to work on our gear with under blankets, tarps, and bug nets. But all in all I consider this to be a success, and we have ideas on how to improve.
In 2016 Scott and I were just over 20,000 miles in travel miles; this included a trip to San Francisco, Yosemite, and Athens, Georgia. We also visited Oklahoma and the Western edges of Arkansas using up about 9,000 miles for all of that, the left over miles were in Texas. We are actually focused on visiting all 95 of the Texas State Parks and have managed to visit 48 of those before the end of the year. This took us all over the plains areas of the state, the piney woods, and even into the Hill Country just north of the Austin area. Fortunately, we also were able to visit the far southwestern area of the Davis Mountains helping to give us many, many miles of travel in Texas.
Over the first three weeks of January 2017, we have worked hard at not traveling outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area; but instead, we are finding things locally to keep us entertained. However, we were not able to tame the travel bug much longer. Since I was having to attend the Texans for State Parks Board Meeting in Austin, Scott and I decided it would be the perfect jumping off point to visit a few new-to-us Texas State Parks west of Austin. He took off Thursday and Friday from work and we were set for a good amount of traveling on a four day weekend.
Thursday morning we left later than we had expected from our friends John and Faye’s, but it was worth spending a few more hours with good friends. They are always generous and happy to play host to us. They sent us on our way and we headed to our first of eight state parks, two of which were the only ones not new for us. We needed to move quickly, but stopped to view a couple of the scenic overlooks on our way towards Inks Lake State Park.
We stayed at Inks Lake State Park for two nights because they had an available cabin. Unfortunately, weekends in Texas there are rarely campsites or cabins available, no matter the time of year. If you are expecting to stay within the Texas State Park system, especially on weekends, you must make reservations as soon as you know when you are planning to visit, even then you are not always able to get a cabin.
We arrived at Inks, obtained our cabin key, and dropped off bedding, clothing and other such things then immediately headed towards Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. The is located just south of Llano off highway 16. Just before reaching the turn off (RM965), we noticed a sign that said, “Closed When Flashing – Enchanted Rock State Natural Area 9 miles.” It was not flashing, but according to Texas Hill Country website, the pack fills up fast on weekends and is closed due to lack of parking space and the insane amount of people. Fortunately, we were there on a Thursday so it was not full, but there were a lot of people.
This location is the site of a huge pink granite rock that stands 1825 feet high and is one of only two such sites like this in the United States; the other location is Stone Mountain located just northeast of Atlanta, Georgia. While the Texas batholith is much smaller than the one in Georgia, it is still impressive. Both of these granite rocks were once magma chambers for what was once volcanos. Over time, the magma became granite and the soil around them was eroded away leaving these beautiful stones.
This giant rock welcomes all who wish to climb its seemingly smooth surface to enjoy a unique landscape called sky islands and vernal pools. Here we found what could be compared to tide pools only with cacti and lizards. These depressions shelter different types of plants and animals that have adapted to this hot/cold, windy, and barren environment. In fact, by studying these depressions, ecologists learn how plants and animals come together and live in this habitat; how they modify their environment and help develop soils where there is no soil; and, how plant and animal communities are created and change over time and situation.
In the stone, as we climbed we saw long lines of crystals which have been created by an intense pressure of earth movement and the heat from having been a magma chamber. Unfortunately, I am not a geologist so I do not know all the right terms and explanations. I do know when the sun hits the granite just right, you can see the crystals within it shine and shimmer reflecting the rays of light.
Scott and I took our time to climb this giant rock, which is an estimated 45-minute climb. Unsurprisingly, it took us over an hour, but we were more concerned with my knee and our safety. Taking it slowly, we took many breaks so we could evaluate my pain level; they were definitely needed breaks for this, resting, and drinking water. Neither of us are use to the hiking, especially such a vertical path; however, we were both determined to reach the top to see the view and to find the survey marker we were positive would be there.
At one point, I almost gave up. I was two-thirds of the way up and I was just exhausted, of course, the knee was telling me off at this point. I told Scott to just continue and I would wait for him. He suggested we sit and drink some water and rest a bit. This was definitely good advice because about fifteen minutes later I was ready to attack the rest of the climb. He reminded me it was okay if I didn’t go, but asked me if I would regret not reaching the top. I would have regretted it very much. This was something I had on my personal “bucket list” and I decided I was just tired and not in much pain. I was wearing my knee brace and using my trekking poles so the knee did not have as much pressure as it would have. It always amazes me how using the correct equipment can make an activity so much more enjoyable.
Upon reaching the final five feet of the climb, the sky island made itself known and I was stunned at the beauty of vernal pools. There were small trees, cacti, pools of creatures and algae, I even found one of in the shape of a lopsided heart containing fern looking plants. I was amazed to see the life growing out of the large, round granite rock. Then I looked up and saw the surrounding landscape. My eyes tried to take it all in at once, only to find I was tearing up. I had made it to the top and was able to see the quick rising hills all around the country side full of cedars, scrub oaks and green winter grasses. Needless to say, I was completely overwhelmed and thrilled at my success.
Suddenly, Scott says, “There has to be a geological survey marker somewhere on this rock!” He quickly walked towards the location he believed to be the highest spot on the rock and there it was; the US Geological Society had placed their mark on the hill to show that it was significant. For hikers today, it is a symbol that they have beaten nature and achieved a great height. For me, it was proof that if I had to stay focused and not give up; I could not have done that without my husband, he encouraged me and reminded me not to give up.
Eventually, we decided it was time to climb down the granite mountain and prepare to take some night sky photos, which was the true reason we had visited this park. The Milky Way was supposed to show itself near the center between the two granite domes and he was determined to get a very nice shot of it. Fortunately for us, I had packed hot chocolate and plenty of warm layers. It was so extremely cold and I hate being cold.
The nine figures at the top of the rock are people.
At one point, while he was taking photos, we heard the worst sound (link goes to TheCrotalusfreak‘s YouTube channel). It sounded like a person in pain screaming in bursts of three. It sent chills up my spine for sure. I am very prone to my imagination running off with me and it had jumped out of my skin and was running around in fear. It didn’t help any that Scott says, “I sure hope that’s not a person hurt or worse.” I then began to think the worst. Come to find out from another couple who were also taking night sky photos, they had seen a bobcat approaching. They shined their flashlights at him and scared him off. I felt relief to know it was nothing more than a cat named Bob.
At one point the cold had convinced Scott it was time to pack up and return to our little cabin at Inks Lake State Park. We had an hours drive late in the evening, but it was sure to be an interesting one. Deer roam all over the area and often there are carcasses near the road showing the dangers for the wildlife among humans. We actually saw about three deer, but, fortunately for them and us, we had no ill-fated meeting.
This deer was hanging around at Inks Lake State Park when first arrived, he was one of at least a dozen we saw that day before the drive in the dark.