Tag Archive | Southern travel

Orange Beach Eateries

Orange Beach, AL

My husband and I just returned from another trip to the Orange Beach area and I readily admit, one of my favorite reasons for visiting the gulf coast is the food. In addition to the gorgeous white sand beaches and warm blue-green water, the fresh seafood definitely makes this vacation spot a win-win in my book!

A favorite breakfast or brunch spot for my family is ANOTHER BROKEN EGG CAFE. This restaurant has a great menu full of Southern fare offerings. It is located in a little strip center and can be quite crowded during peak times. The Biscuit Beignets, Biscuits & Gravy, Blueberry Bread French Toast, Biscuit Sandwiches, Crab Cake Benedict and City Grits are just a few of my favorite menu items. You can wash all this goodness down with coffee, a Mimosa or a Bloody Mary. Service comes with a smile and the food is always delicious. Very Southern – very good.

Another great brunch place is the BRICK & SPOON RESTAURANT. Don’t let the crowds dissuade you – the food will be worth the wait! This restaurant serves a Cajun-Creole breakfast and brunch fare. They are well-known for their “Build Your Own Bloody Mary” with an extensive list of vodkas, veggies, herbs & seasonings, eggs, meats and cheeses to construct one that suits your own special taste buds. I saw a few of these specialty concoctions on nearby tables and they were towering works of art! The food menu is quite extensive. One of the standout brunch menu items for me was their Brioche French Toast. Delish! Whether you choose Cafe Beignets, Breakfast Tacos, Breakfast Shrimp & Grits or a Crab & Pepper Scrambler – there should be something on the menu for everyone.

If you want a quick and more casual breakfast, head on over to BUZZCATZ COFFEE & SWEETS. Drop in and pick up a specialty coffee, baked good or a weekly breakfast special item. You can take away their food & drinks or dine on-site. My husband and I stopped in here on a rainy morning and enjoyed dining on the patio. We watched all the “comings and goings” while eating a delicious Buzz Bowl and drinking chai tea. Our Buzz Bowls consisted of grits or potatoes topped with grilled onions & peppers, two over-easy eggs and cheese. You can also add bacon, ham or Conecuh sausage (similar to smoked sausage – yum!). The bakery cases are filled with Hollah breads, flavored biscuits, cinnamon rolls, quiches, muffins, sandwiches, salads, and cookies. I don’t think there are any bad choices here!

My favorite mealtime is dinner, or as we say in the South – supper! There are many restaurants along the Alabama Gulf Coast where you can have a great evening meal. I will share a few of my top picks. First and foremost is COSMOS. I have eaten here several times in the past few years and always have a great meal and dining experience.

COSMOS RESTAURANT & BAR almost always has a wait time, so just be prepared. This is a colorful, art-filled restaurant with outdoor tables, a full bar, indoor dining areas, live music, a pet-centered gift shop, and a wine shop all on the premises. There is a lively atmosphere with a celebration of some type always going on! The food is what I would call “eclectic Southern.” There are standard seafood and comfort foods on the menu with many having an artistic, global flare. I have always had delicious meals here. Be sure to stop in at the bar and have one of Cosmos’s specialty cocktails, a glass of wine, or local brew while you wait on a table. I highly recommend the BBQ Crab Claws for an appetizer (simply the best!). The Chicken Roulade and Banana Leaf Wrapped Sea Bass were the latest standout entrees we enjoyed. The food and service are always top-notch. I always leave here wondering when I can return – and it is never soon enough.

Another favorite dinner spot is COBALT, THE RESTAURANT. This restaurant gets extra points for location, location, location. This upscale dining venue is located under the Perdido Bay Bridge and next to the waterfront, which gives diners a bay view. When my husband and I dined here recently, we were lucky enough to get a patio table and had perfect weather with spectacular sunset views. We sat and watched waterfowl, pleasure boats, fisherman, yachts, tour boats, and floating tiki bars (gotta try one of these next time!) while enjoying delicious cocktails, entrees and dessert. Our appetizer, Garlic Parmesan Chargrilled Oysters, were outstanding and at one point I wished that I had ordered a double order for my meal. The Bronzed Gulf Grouper and the Gulf Shrimp and Grits were both delicious entrees. Add top shelf margaritas and a Bushwacker (alcoholic ice cream dessert) and we had an exceptionable meal overall. Food, location, atmosphere – check, check, check.

A more casual dining spot in the area is DOC’S SEAFOOD & STEAKS. Doc’s has several locations and is popular with locals and tourists alike. The fried shrimp is award-winning (according to all the billboards!) but we prefer the grilled shrimp and grilled fish. There is nothing fancy here, just good old-fashioned seafood, hushpuppies, and cole slaw.

COTTON’S RESTAURANT is another popular seafood restaurant on the coast but with more “upscale” prices. Cotton’s is located in an old wood-paneled 1950s beach house with several floors. They serve prime rib, steaks, lobsters, and all types of seafood and seafood platters. Many of the popular seafood dishes have been elevated (just a notch) to separate this restaurant from all the more casual fish & shrimp “shacks.” Service is very friendly and you may just feel like you have stepped back in time when dining here. Like most popular eateries on the coast, there is almost always a wait for a table.

On the final night of our visit to the coast, we had had a very long and tiring day. Instead of cleaning ourselves up, changing clothes or dining out, we decided to order in. My husband called in an order to MOE’S, picked it up, and we ate in the hotel room. It was delicious! Moe’s is a little BBQ beach shack serving up Alabama-style smoked meats, fried shrimp and catfish, and barbecue platters. We ordered Pimento Cheese ‘n Chips and Moe Nachos. Both orders were huge servings and absolutely delicious. Their white BBQ sauce is a “must!” Loved it.

There are so many more great eateries in this area and I have never had enough time to try them all! Hopefully if you are heading down to the Alabama coast in the near future, this will give you some ideas on where to dine. I have certainly made myself hungry typing up this blog! Now I get to search through all my food pics, which will just elevate my hunger even more.

Grilled shrimp tonight, anyone?

Bluebonnet Trail

Ennis, TX

For all of us Texans still dealing with the outcome of the devastating arctic blast, there is a positive. The freeze that wiped out many of our trees, shrubs and flowers and spelled disaster to our state’s infrastructure, spared the bluebonnets and wildflowers.

It seems that all the snow we received in Texas actually acted as an insulator and saved many of the wildflowers and their root systems from the low surface temperatures. The bluebonnets weathered the winter quite nicely and they are currently in full bloom throughout many parts of the state.

Now more than ever during this pandemic, Texans are looking for fun outdoor activities to get us out of the house and the Texas Bluebonnet Trail is a perfect opportunity. My husband and I packed a picnic lunch this past weekend and drove down to Ennis, the Bluebonnet City of Texas. I wanted to see the state flower of Texas in all its glory!

Located off Hwy 45 and south of the Dallas metroplex, the Ennis Bluebonnet Trail is the oldest in the state and has over 40 miles of viewing opportunities. The best way to follow the trail is in your car because trails are mainly on paved or gravel roads and in park areas. The rule of thumb is that you can pull off on the side of any road as long as you do not block roadways, driveways or fire hydrants. Everyone is also asked to take photos – not flowers!

I downloaded a driving map off the Ennis Garden Club website (which is updated frequently) and we headed off. Our map told us the North Trail and West Trail had “peaked” so we headed to the suggested South Trail. It was rural, uncrowded and had acres of gorgeous bluebonnets as well as other colorful Texas wildflowers. We had some great photo ops!

We also visited the Meadow View Nature Area (and had a picnic lunch near Lake Bardwell), scenic Bluebonnet Park and the Ennis Veterans Memorial Park. The Veterans Park had acreage off to the side of the park with a large “natural” area that we really enjoyed.

The pastures, roadsides, meadows and yards along the marked routes are bursting with color! We noticed sapphire blues, fiery oranges, citrusy yellows, dainty pinks, scarlet reds, and deep purples all adding to Mother Nature’s spring palette. Most bluebonnets range in color from a light sky blue to a deep, dark navy blue – and all shades in between. We read that slight genetic modifications can occur and render the flowers white, pink or maroon as well but they usually don’t last long in the wild. I only saw blue, blue, and more blue!

A word of warning – bluebonnet fields are usually in rural areas and can be so dense that they provide shelter to animals and reptiles, especially snakes! Be cautious when moving around and through these areas. Bluebonnets are also toxic to humans and animals if ingested so keep an eye on your kids or pets when taking photos in or walking through the fields. This past weekend was late in the bluebonnet season and luckily for us, there were well-worn paths through most of the fields and no unwanted varmints were encountered.

April is the best month for viewing the bluebonnets but it looks as though they will still have at least another couple of weeks of peak season left. If you haven’t driven the Bluebonnet Trail yet, make plans quickly before they have lost their vibrant colors and healthy blooms. Kingsland, Marble Falls, Burnet, Brenham and Austin also have bluebonnet tours so pick your favorite spot and plan a trip SOON! Become a part of this incredible Texas tradition.

Beavers Bend State Park

Hochatown, OK

Our pandemic trips continue and we recently revisited Beavers Bend State Park and Broken Bow Lake in Oklahoma for a long weekend. We had rented a cabin and stayed in this same area earlier in the fall and enjoyed it so much that we decided to go back.

Sweetwater Cabins has some lovely rentals in this area and we chose one this time called Just-A-Swingin. The cabin was appropriately named, with a porch swing on the lower level, and had a beautiful, open-concept interior. The neighborhood is a hilly, pine-forested area just minutes off the highway and a stone’s throw away from the park entrances. Location, location, location! This cabin was perfect.

My husband and I had taken our yorkie on the last visit and she did so well that she was invited along again this trip! She seemed to enjoy hiking the nature trails with us so we are turning this nine-pound, nine-year-old spoiled lap dog into a decent trail dog!

We were lucky enough on this trip to experience great weather again. We grilled hamburgers on our deck the first night and prepared for two days of hiking to follow. Our days were full of activity and our evenings were quiet and lazy – just the way we like it!

The first full day inside the park, we chose the Beaver Lodge Nature Trail for our first hike. This was a 1.2 mile hike that started at the base of the Broken Bow Lake’s hydro-electric dam and was a great one-way hike with gorgeous scenery. The trail head was a little tricky to find since it began away from the dam’s parking lot, across a stream, and was not marked. Once we spotted some people coming off the trail, it was much easier to locate and follow.

This trail led us through a forested area, along a high ridge, and stayed parallel to the Mountain Fork River. I enjoyed the busy sounds of the rushing water and the wind in the pines. It was a truly beautiful hike. We saw several trout fishermen in the water and a few tourists climbing on the river boulders. We hiked until the trail became too narrow and treacherous and turned back around.

We explored the shoreline on the way back, climbed over some boulders, and took a short rest in the middle of the rushing water on a rocky plateau . This is where “said trail dog” plunged into the shoulder-deep water after slipping on a mossy rock. She was wet and smelly but took it like the true trooper she is!

After lunch, we were back on the trails. Our next destination was the Lakeview Lodge Trail. This is a 1.4-3.5 mile trail that started at Lakeview Lodge on Broken Bow Lake. There were three loops to chose from and it is meant to be hiked in a clockwise direction. The trail had beautiful pine trees, great views of the lake, clear streams, colorful rocks and a varied terrain. It was very quiet and peaceful. We never saw anyone else on the trail and I was quite surprised that we didn’t see any wildlife other than birds. If there had been a chance of stumbling upon a wild animal, this would have been the place!

Day one was in the books. After a delicious dinner picked up from Rolling Fork Takery (wings and potato salad), all three of us were tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.

Day two found us inside the state park again on the 3/4 mile Pine Ridge Nature Trail. The trail looped like a figure-eight and winded through an evergreen forest, a lagoon, a piney ridge, and a floodplain. It was a short trail but had varied vegetation and different elevations that were unlike any other trails. We followed the path up, down and around some very beautiful spots on this easy, shaded walk. Lime green moss, ferns, cane, and new spring flowers were the highlights.

We took a break and explored the main areas in Beavers Bend State Park and played around on the rocks in the Mountain Fork River. We drove through the park and checked out the campgrounds, pony rides, train depot, fishing spots, and kayak/paddleboat/canoe rentals. There was more to do here than we ever imagined! Another trip may be in order.

Our afternoon hike was the toughest of them all. Cedar Bluff Nature Trail is listed as a “moderate trail with minimal terrain.” What the trail guide doesn’t tell you is that the 1-mile hike is all straight uphill through a pine forest! After a little huffing and puffing on my part, we made it to a beautiful rock cropping overlook. At that elevation, we were overlooking the river, bald cypress trees and rocky cliffs below. The stunning views were well worth the effort and we took a few minutes to soak it all in.

We met another couple at this overlook where we exchanged pleasantries and took each other’s photo before we headed off. Hiking down the trail was a much easier than the hike up!

We picked up a pizza and salad on the way back to the cabin and had a quiet dinner. All three of us were tired but energized from all that we had seen and done. Once again, our trail dog had done extremely well and exceeded expectations (she also slept the entire way home!).

Another great trip to Beavers Bend State Park was in the books. I would love to return in the early fall to hike a few more trails and see the colorful foliage. I highly suggest this area for a quick weekend getaway or for a longer stay to do more activities with family or friends. Check it out if you haven’t already – it is beautiful country.

I hope to see you on the trails soon!

Cedar Hill State Park

Cedar Hill, TX

Duck Pond

Between Covid-19 and Snowmageddon 2021 keeping us all indoors, it is time for a little outdoor adventure! Personally, I am very tired of always being inside and try to plan a weekend outing for me and my husband when the weather cooperates. During this pandemic, we have discovered that Cedar Hill has some great areas for hiking. We have already ventured to Dogwood Canyon, Cedar Mountain Nature Preserve and Cedar Ridge Preserve – all located in this area south of Dallas. Our last planned adventure was to Cedar Hill State Park.

Cedar Hill State Park is located just twenty minutes from downtown Dallas in Ellis County along the shores of Joe Pool Lake. We had to make reservations to enter the park ahead of time at the cost of $7 per person. This is easily done online prior to your visit. If you have a Texas State Park pass, the visit will be free but you still need a reservation to enter due to the pandemic or you will be turned away.

Once you are admitted into the park and pass the entrance, the roads are well-paved and there is plenty of signage to guide you. We studied our map, chose our destination and headed to the Talala Overlook. We parked here in the small parking lot at the trailhead and began our first hike of the day. The word “talala” is actually a Cherokee wood meaning “woodpecker.” I kept an eye out for one on the way to the overlook but sadly I never saw one.

Talala Overlook is one of the highest points in the park with great views of Joe Pool Lake. There is a 1.5 mile loop trail that led us through diverse terrain. The dirt path meanders through thickets, over creeks, and among the Blackland Prairie head-high grasses. This was definitely an enjoyable nature hike for me! I would rank this as a “moderate” trail for hikers due to all the ups, downs, tree roots, rocks and overgrown sections. We saw lots of wild animal scat on the trail making us wonder what animals had been on the same trail very recently! Yikes!

Dogs are welcome on all the hiking trails but they must be kept on a leash. If you do bring your pet into the park, make sure you have proof of a Rabies vaccination handy if asked by a ranger or upon admittance at the gate. It is a state park regulation.

After our first hike and a lunch break on the lakeshore, we loaded up and headed to our next stop – the Duck Pond Trail. This is the shortest trail in the park at just .7 miles long (unless you miss the signs like we did and make it about a 3 mile hike!). It is a partially shaded, wide trail that starts at the trailhead near the parking area and loops back. This is a very popular trail for families with children or anyone that prefers an “easy” trail.

The Duck Pond Trail runs through a forested area with several small bridges over the “rough” parts. The actual pond is located on the edge of the park and is a perfect place to spot deer, ducks and other wildlife coming for a drink. We saw several tracks but no actual animals. It is very pleasant, peaceful and beautiful here. This is a great spot for a picnic, rest stop or photo op.

When you take a wrong turn on the Duck Pond Trail like we did, you end up on the Plum Valley Overlook Trail. It was a fortunate mistake! This trail was a bit more intensive but still pretty easy. The trail led us mostly uphill, through prairie grasses and cacti, and ended up in a heavily forested area. The scenic overlook gave us great views of the Tallgrass Blackland Prairie and where it converges with the White Rock Limestone Escarpment that covers much of this area.

One area we did not explore within the park boundaries was the Penn Farm. Our trail map stated the following: The Penn family farmed this area for over 100 years, beginning in 1854. Today there are remains of old buildings, the estate house, and antique farm equipment on the grounds. There is a nice little trail here with old photos and scripted descriptions of what you are viewing. We will have to explore this area on our next visit!

Overall, we had a lovely day here. It was so nice being able to get outdoors, stretch our legs, exercise, and breathe in the fresh air. We truly enjoyed this state park and all the trails on a gorgeous winter day in Texas. The best part – our little spoiled yorkie is becoming quite the “trail dog!” Who knew?

Dogwood Canyon

Cedar Hill, TX

My pandemic adventures continue!

The only “safe” travel plans for me these days are those that are outdoors and where I can socially distance from others. This has led me to explore areas around Dallas when weather permits. This blog details a recent Saturday visit to Dogwood Canyon in Cedar Hill. Located just thirty minutes south of downtown Dallas, the landscape here looks as if you have driven five hours south, down around the Texas Hill Country.

Dogwood Canyon is a 200-acre wildlife refuge and forested nature preserve with hiking trails and bird-viewing areas. Due to Covid-19, the visitor center, classrooms, picnic area, restrooms, etc. are all closed but the trails are open. After researching the park, I made reservations online one week prior to our visit. The available admission times are Fridays and Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. and the center currently only allows 10 reservations per hour. The trails and parking lot gates are locked promptly at 2:00 so make sure you allow enough time to enjoy your visit.

Dogwood Canyon is a true canyon that rises 300 feet from the canyon floor to the highest hilltop ridge. Most of Texas lies in the Blackland Prairie region but this area is actually part of the White Rock Escarpment (once part of an ancient sea). When driving into the park on I-20 you will notice the white Austin chalk hills that reach an elevation of 800 feet in some areas. This is very unique geology for Dallas County.

This park opened in 2011 after the land was donated by a wealthy conservation-minded owner who had bought the land from a communications station. He had originally chosen to build a house but decided against it. There is an unusually large concrete pit in front of the visitor center that remains from the previous AT&T site when it was in operation. Instead of the land being a single-family home with acreage, it is now a natural ecosystem and home to many native trees, plants, birds and wildlife – some very rare or endangered.

As far as hiking options, there are three miles of trails within the forested canyon area. The Canyon Loop Trail is an easy half-mile trail near the visitor center. My husband and I took the more strenuous West Rim Trail which is a 1.65 mile trail with a modest 150 ft. elevation incline. This trail allows you panoramic views of the canyon, nearby areas, and Joe Pool Lake. It was very tranquil, quiet and most enjoyable. We only saw three other couples the entire time we were on the trail. Let’s just say this excursion was well within the Covid-19 guidelines for safety!

The leafy, unpaved trails are well-marked and lead hikers through wooded areas of oaks, junipers, dogwoods, and ash trees. We noticed many dormant greenbrier, grapevines, poison ivy and Virginia creeper vines in the undergrowth off the trails. There were rocks, boulders, fallen trees, small creeks, and moss-covered stumps all along the way. There was much more “color” on the trails than we expected during this time of year. We spotted lots of green winter grasses, blue & red berries, yellow & white lichens, neon green mosses, and many colorful leaves underfoot. With clear blue skies overhead and warm temps, it was a most enjoyable day.

We didn’t spot any wildlife other than birds on this hike but we did see scat on the trail. There are several species of plants (orchids and lilies) and birds (warblers and hummingbirds) that are very rare and call this canyon home. I would love to return here in the Spring months to see the forest wildflowers, flowering vines and dogwood trees in full bloom. I bet it would be beautiful!

I highly suggest visiting Dogwood Canyon for a day hike. It is a great place for a change of scenery and a nice walk in the woods. Get out of the house, unplug, recharge, connect with nature and get moving! It does a body good.

I’ll see you on the trail!

Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve

Dallas, Texas

During this pandemic, all travel plans had to be postponed. Since I am one who craves adventure and loves to visit new places and see new things, my only option has been exploring local nature preserves, parks and trails. My husband and I have a list of day trip options to choose from so that we can get outdoors and explore new places while socially distancing and staying safe.

We have had a couple of “just okay” excursions (trashy urban parks). Our latest really enjoyable outing was to Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve which is located about twenty minutes southwest of downtown Dallas. This is a 600 acre tract of “hill country-like” land that I didn’t even know existed!

Our research revealed that the park is maintained by Audubon Dallas and includes 10 miles of walking trails (13 trails total) that loop through a hilly, heavily-forested area that is well-known for its unusual topography. We were sold! Cedar Ridge Preserve sounded like a great choice for an excursion so we packed a picnic lunch, loaded up, and made the 45 minute drive.

We arrived mid-morning on a warm, sunny weekend and the parking lot was packed. Note to self: next time get an earlier start! The main park buildings, education center and water fountains are closed due to the pandemic (restrooms were open). I highly suggest bringing your own water or snacks and wearing sturdy shoes for the trails.

Once inside the preserve, there was a large signage board where the trail heads begin. It shows a detailed map of all the trails, routes, and the distances. There is also information depicting plants and animals you may encounter. There seemed to be trails for all skill levels. We began with the 1 mile Bluebonnet Trail and it was lovely and not crowded. The trail is unpaved with natural rocks, roots, and leaves this time of year. The Bluebonnet Trail had a gentle terrain with a lookout point midway that overlooked the valley and Joe Pool Lake. We also took a few minutes to stand in a “nature blind” to watch a rare bird species (black-capped vireos) dart to and from a watering hole. There was a wide variety of prairie grasses, trees, mosses, plants, cacti and birds that we spotted along the way.

After looping back to the main trailhead, we chose an intermediate trail for our next hike. This second trail had more limestone hills, good canopy cover, several bridges, and more steps. This more diverse terrain was rich with juniper, honeysuckle, yucca, sumac, prickly pear, oak and other types of native trees, grasses and wildflowers. It also granted us a pretty good workout!

There are trails with varying degrees of difficulty. Some are very flat. Some have more inclines, descents, and more cardio challenges. No matter what trail you choose, you will not be able to miss the unique and beautiful limestone hills, bluffs, and ridges that resemble the terrain found in and around the Texas Hill Country.

I was really impressed with this little slice of nature within the Dallas metro area and thoroughly enjoyed my day here. I think we all deserve a place where we can unplug, get outdoors, breathe fresh air, exercise and connect with nature in a personal way. Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve is a bright spot among all the asphalt, heavy traffic, and the grind of our daily lives. Check it out!

I’ll see you on the trail!

Note: Dogs on leashes are welcome. The preserve requires no fee but suggests a $3 donation. Check the website before venturing out due to closures of the park and trails during the pandemic.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden

Fort Worth

Run – don’t walk – to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and Japanese Garden this November before weather changes things! You will definitely want to see all the colors on display this autumn before the freeze hits and the winter winds blow foliage away. The plants, flowers and trees are absolutely beautiful right now.

I researched the gardens a couple of weeks ago and discovered that November was one of the best months to visit. Truth!! The warm weather, the fall colors, the small crowds, and the colorful flowers all made for a perfect day.

I had never been to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden but had visited the Japanese Garden years ago when my daughter was a student at TCU.  The city has now combined these two gardens and admission is $12 per person (no charge for parking).

I highly suggest wearing your good walking shoes because the combined gardens now cover 110 acres and feature 23 separate specialty vistas/courtyards/gardens. I logged some very serious FitBit steps!!

The Fort Worth Botanic Garden is the oldest public garden in Texas.  There are over 2500 species of plants and flowers currently on display. The gardens are filled with beautiful fountains, pergolas, tiered garden beds, arbors, sculptures, bridges, waterfalls, trellises and animal-shaped topiaries. There seems to be a eye-catching surprise around every corner.

A new highlight for me since my last visit was the 1000-foot Texas Native Forest Boardwalk that connected one garden to the entrance of the Japanese Garden. This wooded boardwalk was an elevated walkway that led you through a section of dense natural forest. One side had all native trees, vines, and brush and the other side had non-native plants and trees introduced by humans to this area. Signage provided information on forest ecology, plant & animal life, conservation and wildlife tracks. There were also all sorts of interactive tasks for children. 

My absolute, hands-down favorite part of this visit was the Japanese Garden. The scenery was breathtaking this time of year! This eight-acre garden was created from an old quarry and was originally designed as a place for meditation and relaxation. Even though there were quite a few visitors here – the area still maintained an overall feeling of calm, tranquility, and peacefulness. It was all very Zen-like. 

Each and every view in the Japanese Garden was worthy of a photograph. The deep reflective pools, serpentine paths, Zen gardens, waterfalls, pagoda, teahouses, bridges, stonework, and koi-filled ponds were dramatic, peaceful, and colorful. The Japanese maple trees were bright orange, vivid red, and burgundy. The green waters churned with white, black, gold, orange and silver koi. It was all a delightful color palette.

Bright green foliage, silver evergreens, weeping willows and bamboo plants were reflected in the still water. Turtles napped in the sun on rocks and along the sculptured hillsides. A water snake calmly swam through a school of koi that were jockeying for positions to eat pelleted fish food being fed by visitors. Dramatic waterfalls tumbled onto the rocks below and stepping stones crossed babbling brooks. Every corner of the gardens had something new and interesting to observe. Photo ops abounded! 

From the Japanese Garden, we trekked to the Fragrance Garden and then on to the multiple rose gardens. I was amazed at how many roses and other flowers were still in bloom this time of the year! Colors abounded and all the gardens and terraces were beautiful. 

We ended our visit with a walk up the steps of the Shelter House for a beautiful view of the Rose Ramp and Lower Rose Garden.  We visited the Water Conservation Garden, the Rock Springs Garden and then called it a day.  We were off to a nearby city park to eat a late picnic lunch. It was a most enjoyable afternoon and a perfect day to be outdoors. I hope you can find time to visit in the next couple of weeks. It will be well worth your time!

Note: I suggest booking your tickets online prior to your visit with the Covid-19 regulations in place. The Rainforest Conservatory is closed and the cafes and gift shops have limited hours. Restrooms are open. Water fountains throughout the gardens are also closed. Picnics are no longer allowed on the property due to the pandemic. Masks are required inside all buildings and are “highly suggested” while exploring the gardens. Social distancing guidelines are encouraged throughout the property.

Beavers Bend

Oklahoma

It was time for a break! I needed a break from the house and a change of scenery from the four walls that have kept me contained since the pandemic hit in March. Between Covid-19, the husband working from home, canceling vacations, not dining out and social distancing – I was itching for a means of escape. An Oklahoma, long weekend getaway seemed like a perfect solution.

I researched, booked a cabin, packed up the dog, prepped food, loaded supplies and headed north across the Red River for a few days.

The drive from our home (the Dallas area) was a little over two-and-a-half hours. We traveled small highways and drove through many rural Texas towns with sprawling farmland and ranches. We actually stayed a few miles north of the actual town of Broken Bow in Hochatown (“Hoach”-a-town), Oklahoma where the entrances to Beavers Bend State Park are located.

I had booked a pet-friendly cabin through airbnb (Sweetwater Cabins) located on Eagle Mountain and just minutes from the park entrances. We lucked out and had a luxurious new cabin located in a very quiet, wooded area in a beautiful neighborhood. The cabin was perfect for us and we couldn’t have asked for more.

I had never been to this area of Oklahoma so I mapped out some hiking trails and things to do in Beavers Bend State Park and Hochatown State Park. The first day, we drove into each of the three nearby park entrances, walked along the shorelines, visited the marina, and hiked nearby trails. We watched the sunset over the lake. We marveled at the numerous white-tailed deer and colorful fall foliage. It was very peaceful and a perfect place to relax and immerse yourself with nature. Note: Dogs are welcome inside the park as long as they are leashed.

The second day, we woke up to a misty morning and had to wait until noon for the skies to clear. We loaded up Scarlett, the yorkie, and headed to the Forest Heritage Tree Trail. This was a 1.1 mile trail that began at the Forest Heritage Center Museum. This very scenic path led us past a large Indian sculpture and meandered along the shale floodplain of Beaver Creek, across a bridge, through the woods, and back to the Forest Heritage Center, with informational signs along the way telling the history of the area. The fall foliage was beautiful and the towering pines were marked in white to keep us on the path. With the exception of a few places where we wanted to climb on rocks and cross the creek, this was an easy trail, and perfect for a nine-pound canine on a leash. She loved every minute!

It would be hard to run out of things to do here at Beavers Bend and we really needed one or two more days. One could go hiking, biking, boating, fishing, golfing, jet skiing, kayaking or canoeing. One could also just enjoy the geographical beauty of this area – the beautiful Broken Bow Lake and Mountain Fork River, the pine and hardwood forests, and the rocky shale cliffs. We found it to be a fantastic way to reconnect with nature, to view spectacular scenery and remain socially distant. You could choose to do as much – or as little – as you want to do.

Along the highway near the park entrances, there is a one-mile strip with pizza parlors, wineries, souvenir shops, breweries, go-cart tracks, mini-golf, a saloon, coffee shop, cafes, etc. Due to Covid-19 we did not frequent any of these places but there seemed to be a very lively business going on regardless of the pandemic. To each, his own.

If you plan to visit in the future, cabins are available for rent throughout the resort area. Some are rustic and some are breathtakingly luxurious. Rentals range in size and style and feature any and all amenities. There are tiny houses and huge homes that sleep 24 people. There are also plenty of RV sites, tent campsites, and Lakeview Lodge – if you prefer more of a hotel-style stay.

A couple of days here turned out to be the perfect little vacay for my family. We enjoyed the fresh air and hiking trails. We enjoyed cooking all our meals and relaxing in our cabin. We especially enjoyed not having to enter a public facility or deal with crowds or congested hiking trails. I will definitely be returning in the future!

If you would like any additional information, please do not hesitate to ask about my experience. I would gladly welcome comments and other people’s experiences!

Palo Duro Canyon

Canyon, Texas

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I have found the perfect trip to take during these days of Covid-19!

Why not check out Palo Duro Canyon State Park and visit our nation’s second largest canyon? Consider it a mini Grand Canyon and one of Texas’s best kept secrets. This park covers 30,000 acres and is located a few miles outside of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. Palo Duro Canyon offers spectacular views, fun outdoor activities, lots of fresh air and few social interactions with others. Why not get a change of scenery, have a great time and enjoy nature  – all while social distancing? Win, win!

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My husband and I recently drove to Palo Duro Canyon (6 hours from DFW) and stayed in a wonderful cabin (Skyhouse @ Dove’s Rest Cabins) five minutes away from the park entrance and spent two days in the park. If you go, be sure to purchase your State Park day passes on-line a few weeks in advance due to limited availability. Tickets are only $8 per vehicle per day and the park is currently open 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.

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The morning we arrived, there were only a couple of cars ahead of us checking into the park. After entering through the main gate, there were 16 miles of paved roads ahead of us that descended 800 feet to the canyon floor. We stopped along the park road several times and enjoyed fantastic scenic views, historical sites and markers, picnic tables, miles of hiking trails and the visitor center (with limited hours). There were also public restrooms, biking trails, horseback riding trails, a souvenir shop with grill, camping areas suitable for day trips, and overnight tent camping. Several areas were closed due to the pandemic, including the outdoor amphitheater and park cabins, but there was still plenty to see and do.

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We were there on a Sunday and Monday and may have seen two dozen people – tops! The parking lots, trails and roads were nearly empty. We passed a couple of people on each trail we were on. The most people we saw in one place happened to be at a snow cone stand at one of the major trail heads. It was great!

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Our first morning hike in the park was on the Pioneer Nature Trail that looped down to the river and back. It is a popular place to spot Texas horned lizards/toads/frogs (my daughter graduated from TCU so I will hereafter refer to them as horned frogs!). We found three snake skins (yikes! lots of rattlesnakes in the canyon), small lizards, tons of red ants (horned frog food), and a half-eaten coyote pup skeleton.  Near the end of our hike on this trail, lo and behold, we came across a Texas horned frog. He froze, we took pics, and went on our merry way. I was a happy camper!

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We then hiked a short distance off-trail around the site of the historic Battle of Palo Duro Canyon where the high red walls and percolation caves (caused by wind and water) reminded us of the rock formations in Sedona. This whole area has that eerie “battlefield” feeling I have felt other places – it just makes me feel sad and uneasy remembering the history and loss of life here. The vibe is unsettling and disturbing. You can read more about what happened here at the end of this article.

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Back on the main road, we chose the Sunflower Trail for our next hike and it was my favorite of the trip. This trail led us alongside a creek on one side and a large red, Permian wall on the other. This 300 million-year-old wall had beautiful horizontal veins of shiny white gypsum running through it. Most of the trail was shaded by tall cottonwoods and the clay-like ground underfoot was filled with animal tracks. We recognized raccoon, deer, rabbit, bobcat, coyote, and mountain lion tracks. I don’t think I would want to be on this trail at night! We also had to avoid stepping in piles of wildlife scat along the way that was teeming with iridescent dung beetles. The circle of life is alive and well in the canyon!

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The following day began at the visitor center where we enjoyed the scenic view from the overlook at the canyon rim. We drove halfway down into the canyon and hiked off-trail again to climb a large prominent rock that overlooked the canyon floor. The views from there were amazing. This trail was full of cacti and the climb was not easy but I made it! We had to be very careful where we were stepping and constantly be on the lookout for snakes, scorpions and centipedes. Many things were ready and willing to stick, bite or sting!

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We hiked back to our car, drove a little further into the canyon and parked near the Kiowa trail head. We walked along the Kiowa Trail and followed a dry creek bed through mesquite groves for great views of another prehistoric Permian wall formation that gives the river its red color. We didn’t spot any wildlife here but saw many animal trails and tons of grasshoppers that would suddenly fly up and scare the bejesus out of you!

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Later that afternoon we found ourselves at the Lighthouse trail head. This is the most popular trail and leads to the iconic Lighthouse Rock “hoodoo,” the symbol of the park. This is a six-mile hike round trip and where most of the park’s heat-related injuries and deaths for people and pets occur. We were warned to not start this hike if the temp was above 80 degrees (it was) and not unless you have at least one gallon of water per person (we didn’t). We decided to hike down the trail far enough to see the Lighthouse, take a pic, and head back – which is what we did. We then made a beeline to the snow cone stand in the parking lot! 

Note: the canyon floor is always 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the temperature on the canyon rim. It was hot! hot! hot!!

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Afterward our much-enjoyed snow cone, we made a couple of brief stops at pull-outs and had a picnic lunch. We saw more beautiful rock formations, a big green lizard, and a turkey.  After two full days of exploring the park and canyon, our trip was coming to a close. We enjoyed it immensely and I would love to visit again in the spring or fall when temps are a little cooler. One major highlight of our trip (besides the gorgeous scenery) was that the lack of crowds could not be beat!

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More information on the park itself:

People have been a part of this scenic canyon for 12,000 years where they hunted large herds of mammoth and giant bison. More recently, the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa Native American tribes called this canyon home. They left behind rock art, arrowheads, and pottery shards that clue us into their way of life here. Early Spanish adventurers exploring the canyon, named it Palo Duro, Spanish for hard wood. The visitor center has a video and some of these artifacts, fossils and relics if you are interested.

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For you history buffs – a large part of this canyon’s history centers around the Red River War and the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon (mentioned above) which was an ongoing battle between the U.S. Army and the Plains Indians. In 1874, the U.S. Calvary attacked a large camp of Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes at dawn. Many in the camp fled throughout the canyon while the army attacked the surprised natives, captured 1,500  horses (and killed 1,100 after taking their picks), burned all the teepees, food, clothing, tools, and provisions. With no horses or winter supplies, the remaining Native Americans had no choice but to surrender themselves to the reservations. A marker now stands in the far end of the canyon and details this battle. As you stand in this spot, it is easy to visualize the haunting event that took place on these grounds and to imagine the sounds of the guns and the screams of the frightened people and horses. It is a bitter pill for me to swallow.

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 With the Native Americans out of the way, the canyon and surrounding area quickly moved into the “ranch era.” The resident buffalo were hunted almost to extinction for their hides and their carcasses were left to rot and be eaten by scavengers. The few small buffalo herds that remained were run out by the ranchers to make way for longhorns. The State of Texas bought this land for the park in 1933 after it had been used as a cattle ranch since the late 1800s.

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Currently Palo Duro Canyon State Park is ranked the “number one” State Park in Texas and ranks in the “top twenty” of U.S. State Parks according to several travel guides. No surprise there!

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our days spent in the park. It was a great little trip and a nice change of scenery. If you are a fan of the outdoors and enjoy hiking, rock formations and wildlife and don’t mind red dirt, cacti, and being up close and personal with nature – plan your trip today. I hope to go back soon so maybe I will cross paths with you there.

See you on the trails!

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Mission San Jose’

San Antonio, TX

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I had a lovely girl’s trip recently to San Antonio and one of our highlights was visiting a couple of the old Spanish missions along the Mission Trail. I am quite the art history buff and had always wanted to see a couple of the missions besides The Alamo, which I always enjoy visiting. 

The Mission San Jose’ y San Miguel de Aguayo (proper name) is known as the “Queen of the Missions.” It was built in 1720, just two years after The Alamo was founded and only five miles downriver. Upon completion, it had the reputation of being the most beautiful church along the entire frontier of New Spain. It is the largest colonial mission still standing today.

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The five remaining missions are located near the San Antonio River and not far from downtown San Antonio. There is actually an official Mission Trail where one can walk, bike, or drive to each of the missions or just choose to visit a couple – which is what we did on this day. Mission San Jose’ was quite easy to find and parking was plentiful. We actually approached from the rear wall which gave us very impressive views of a garden, statues, the church, dome and bell tower.

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The church itself is quite stunning. It was constructed out of locally quarried Texas limestone by Spanish and Native American craftsmen. The flying buttresses, carvings, statues, bell towers, an ornate rose window, and quatrefoil patterns are very indicative of the European influence. The building surfaces are now worn and weathered but at one time were covered with brightly painted stucco. I imagine that 300 years ago the church facade was quite a sight to see with vivid blues, golds, and reds painted in large geometric patterns. I am certain the locals and natives had never seen anything quite like it!

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After walking around the outside of this main building, we passed through the large decorative doors into the sanctuary of the church. It was simple, ornate, and quite beautiful (regular services are still held here). We walked the expansive grounds of the mission and explored the walled fortification that provided workshops, storage spaces, a granary, visitor lodging, and homes for the priests and Native Americans. There were also wells and stone ovens scattered throughout the property that gave me a hint of what life was really like inside these walls in the 1700s.

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After exploring the property, we headed to the Visitor Center (located outside the walls) and enjoyed the displays and artifacts. We also watched a 23 minute film in the park theater that told the history of this mission, the land, and the people. It was most interesting and I highly suggest taking the time to learn more about Mission San Jose’ to fully appreciate its history and purpose. I now understand more about the pageantry, art, food, celebrations, and architecture of San Antonio after seeing how the blending of Spanish and Indian cultures began here and created the “Tejano” culture that we know today.

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Mission San Jose’ is an expansive, well-maintained property that includes the historic mission and grounds, a book store, a visitor’s center, free parking, and restrooms. It is well worth a visit when in the San Antonio area. Very interesting!

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The five San Antonio Missions are actually part of the National Park Service and are also  UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  These missions represent the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America.  U.S. Park Rangers offer guided tours at Mission San Jose’  (check times at the visitor center).