camping

Camping at Dinosaur Valley State Park

After a great Thanksgiving holiday, Friday morning we packed up our truck and headed to Dinosaur Valley State Park for a camping trip with my brother, sister-in-law and 10 month old newphew.

I’ve been looking forward to this trip for months! We love Dinosaur Valley, we came here several times for day trips back when we lived in Dallas. It’s been several years since our last trip and I couldn’t wait to share the park with Evie. There’s something very novel about touching a dinosaur footprint!

It’s a four hour drive from our house so we decided to stop at Baylor both on the way down and the way back to stretch our legs. It’s a beautiful campus and a great place for E to run around. She loved visiting “sic ’em bears!” More importantly while we were on campus I saw a sign for the Bearathon (!!!) to be held March 22. It’s a half and is only three weeks after my scheduled full. Perfect timing!

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our campsite

Once we got there it didn’t take us long to get our camping equipment unpacked and our tent put up.

Our campsite was nice and backed up to the site my brother and his family were in. A small trail led from our site to theirs though some trees.

The weather was cooperative. It was a little chilly but turned out to be pretty much perfect. No rain, just cool enough for a campfire at night and just warm enough during the day for you to not shiver.

Back in the pre-kid days we would have hiked the entire park but during this trip, with three kids under three, a three mile hike seemed appropriate and even a little ambitious. By the time the hike was over both babies had melted and E was asleep in her daddy’s arms.

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To her credit she hiked a full TWO MILES up and down some steep hills. I am impressed she made it that far!

Seeing the footprints is such a special experience. No matter how many times we visit I am still in awe that we have access to something so unique. Unlike in a museum where you’re told DO NOT TOUCH, at Dinosaur Valley not only can you touch them, you can stand in them. It’s fantastic!

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crossing the Paluxy river, hunting for prints

It is quite an adventure finding the prints. They’re in and around the Paluxy river so you have to cross the river just to get close. If there’s been rain in the area recently the river will cover them completely, luckily for us the river was down but most of the prints in the water were covered in mud and debris.

Even when you find a print it’s difficult to know what you’re looking at. Some of the prints are eroded badly, making them unrecognizable. You find yourself wondering, “Is that a footprint or a hole in the rock?”

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eroded footprints

You may spend 20 minutes crossing your eyes, struggling to use your imagination but then you see one clearly. Once you see one, you start to see them all over the place.

Oh, there’s one!

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this print is freshly uncovered by the flooding river

There’s another one!

And one over there!

Oh my goodness! They’re everywhere! This is incredible!

Then you do silly things, like sit your kids in a mud puddle to take a picture.

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Camping with two little kids is hard – but isn’t everything? The memories I have of camping as a child are some of my most cherished. They embody everything that’s awesome about being a kid. Though Evie and Alvy are too young to remember this particular trip we will continue to take them to this and other special places to build their own sets of special memories.

The moral of the story here is that if you have kids (and a sense of adventure) take them to see the dinosaur footprints at Dinosaur Valley! It is a trip that they, and you, aren’t likely to forget any time soon! 

Big Bend Ranch State Park

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Big Bend Ranch is a special place. Easily the most unique Texas state park, it’s serious business.

The difference between this state park and all the others was evident when we checked-in. Check-in isn’t even inside the park, it’s well outside the park boundaries, and before we were allowed to venture inside park rangers made us go through an orientation/mini-desert survival training and sign a waiver.

Yup. A waiver.

They gave us a run down on all the local wildlife and urged us to keep our toddler at arms reach at all times, as the mountain lions aren’t exactly friendly. Then they took the name and age of each person in our party and make an note of where we would be staying and how long we’d be there.

Fun times.

Dubbed the “Other Side of Nowhere,” Big Bend Ranch is remote to say the least. It’s the largest park in the Texas State Park system at about 300,000 acres and you begin to understand the size and scope of its vastness during the 27-mile, hour and a half drive from the the turnoff in Presidio where you check in, to the park’s headquarters. Yes, it took an hour and a half.

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27 miles of dirt road that, though it is maintained and passable by a standard car, is quite an adventure in itself. Its hairpin turns, steep grades, and lack of guard rails snake you through the Chihuahuan Desert to the park headquarters in a “town” called Sauceda.

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I use the term town lightly. There’s some bunkhouses, the park “headquarters” (a.k.a. one lone park ranger and a handful of magnets), a mostly abandoned commercial kitchen, and the only indoor plumbing in the park. Though, the 5-gallon buckets of water under the sink in the restrooms labeled “emergency water for flushing toliets” tells me that water isn’t always available and most likely disappears quickly.

Several campgrounds (multiple camping spots grouped together) are available for camping off the main road. The remainder of the camp sites are remote, accessible only by a 4×4 capable vehicle on un-maintained roads. Each camp site has a picnic table (with cover) and fire ring regardless of its location.

Even in the “campgrounds,” campsites are not guaranteed to be level and tent pads are non-existent. No running water or electricity services are available to campers which means to go to the bathroom you must dig a hole or walk 200-yards through the wilderness to the composting toilet – which is extra fun in the dark.

You must bring in all your water and take out all your trash. There’s an ice machine at the park headquarters which the park rangers might stock with ice if they know people are coming – I wouldn’t count on it though.

Because we had our toddler with us, we chose to camp at the South Leyva campground, the closest camping area to the park headquarters. Our first night, two other groups were in the camp area with us but the last two nights we were all alone.

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It’s creepy to be out there by yourself. We found ourselves constantly on guard after dark, using our spotlight anytime we heard an unidentifiable noise, which was often. We were stalked by the local cayotes on multiple occasions and though it was easy enough to scare them off by waving our arms and throwing rocks, it made us wonder what else was out there hiding in the darkness.

This park is a giant outdoor playground full of 4×4 capable off-roading trails, equestrian camping and mountain biking. Our first and only off-roading adventure took place on a trail called the Oso Loop. An intermediate, un-maintained, trail which begins and ends off the main park road. It’s a narrow and steep 6.1 miles, which took us a little over two hours to complete.

It’s highly advised that when attempting to off-road in the park that you carry enough food and water to last your party three days (the amount of time it will take park rangers to find you…if you’re lucky), two full-size spare tires and a 48″ high-lift jack (all information we knew before our trip but were reminded of during our park orientation). This knowledge made traversing the 4×4 trails intimating, especially with a 18-month old daughter to consider.

To be safe, we took 15 gallons of water, five gallons of gasoline and all our food, including our cooler. We only had one spare tire and didn’t have a 48″ jack but we figured if we stayed on the intermediate-level trails then we could probably get away without. Our primary goal quickly became not having a flat tire.

Thankfully, we didn’t need any of our provisions and we came out of the Oso Loop unscathed. Unfortunately, the eggs weren’t so lucky.

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Thanks to several close encounters with cacti our truck is now decorated with something called “desert pinstriping.” Yes, our paint job is destroyed but if you want to enjoy the off-road trails they’re an unavoidable reality.

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The pinstriping is our truck’s badge of honor. It says, “I went to Big Bend Ranch and I had fun!”

By the time we left Big Bend Ranch all our camping equipment was covered in a fine layer of dirt (think powdered sugar) from the drive in and out of the park. This little souvenir remained with us for the rest of the trip. Each time we touched our tent, cooler, camp stove, chairs or bags we were reminded of our Big Bend adventure with a palmful of west Texas dirt. Next time, I think covering our gear in a tarp would be helpful. Future campers take note.

Will we go back to Big Bend Ranch? Absolutely! No question about it. It’s a must for anyone who considers themselves a real outdoor enthuaist and was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done.

I think next time we’ll wait until all our kiddos are out of the toddler/small child stage though.

The uneven terrain is not exactly friendly for little ones who loose their balance easily, coupled with the threat of Evelyn finding a rattlesnake hiding under a rock and the whole mountain lion thing means it’ll be awhile before we go back.

All that being said, I’m glad we went. We had a great time and made some wonderful memories! I can’t wait to do it again!

CAMPING!

A couple weeks before Thanksgiving, Jason and I did the unthinkable. We took our 18-month old daughter on a 1,900 mile, 10-day road trip to Big Bend Ranch State Park…and we were camping…and I’m pregnant.

Yeah, there’s a bombshell for you. I bet you weren’t expecting that.

Adventure is an understatement.

We packed up all our camping equipment, the kid, the dog and all the things that go with the kid and the dog. We also packed our ski gear – because our well planned camping adventure came during the worst cold snap of the year. At its coldest, it was 27 degrees. Did I mention we were tent camping?

Guess what the temperature was inside the tent?

That’s right. 27 degrees.

Burrrrr.

We didn’t just go camping. We went backpacking, offroading, hiking and primitive camping. We dragged our poor little girl to the other side of nowhere and back again on an adventure so grand that, now anytime she wants to do something fun, she says, “TRUCK! KEYS! BEEP!”

Only fun things happen in the truck.

Of course, we could have chosen to go to Disneyworld or some other child friendly location but that would have been too easy. We’ve never done things the easy way. What better way to spend time as a family than by visiting a place where you have to dig a hole before you go to the bathroom and getting attacked by a mountain lion is a legitimate concern.

All joking aside, Big Bend Ranch State Park was incredible, a truly unique experience that I will write a separate post about.

We took three hours of video and over 600 pictures. Don’t worry, I don’t have enough cloud space to share them all with you but I did make a cute little video which I’ve posted on YouTube. If you’d like to go on a little piece of our trip with us you should watch it.

After our epic adventure, I can truly say that I have never been more proud to be from and live in Texas. It’s a place full of topographic and cultural diversity and I cannot imagine living in any other place. Though, maybe on our next trip we’ll actually decide to leave the state.

Galveston Island State Park

Saturday we packed up the truck and headed back to Galveston for our long anticipated camping trip at Galveston Island State Park.

Our campsite was on the bay side of the park. Though, I admit, I was disappointed at first that we weren’t on the beach side in the end I was very pleased with our location. The bay side camping area was grassy not sandy and the mile between us and the beach was enough to keep the salt spray off the camping gear.

Much, if not all, of the park is new thanks to Hurricane Ike. It’s been a while since I’d been west of the seawall and I was blown away by how much damage was still visible and how much rebuilding was still taking place, almost 4 years later. The restrooms on the bay side of the park fall into the rebuilding category…I’m think the old ones are still floating around in the Gulf somewhere.

Arriving just after noon we set up camp and let E toddle around the campsite for a while…absolutely covered in sunscreen of course.

Getting into trouble…

After Evie took a nap we packed up our stuff and headed over to the beach to let her play in the water. She wasn’t too sure what to think of the waves at first but once she figured out they were fun we could barely keep up with her!

Crawling around in the water with Mommy.

Watching Daddy play with Baxter and catch hermit crabs in the sand.

 Around 6 p.m. we left the beach and went back to the campsite to grill burgers and roast marshmallows. Roasting marshmallows and sitting by the campfire is by far my favorite part of camping.

Roasting marshmallows with Mommy.

Unfortunately, a long day in the hot sun meant an early bedtime. We slept listening to the sounds of the sea breeze and our neighbors who apparently weren’t as tired as we were.

Sunday morning we woke early and fired up the campstove to make breakfast. Cooking breakfast outside is my second favorite part of camping.

“Helping” Mommy cook.

After breakfast we, reluctantly, packed up camp and left the park. Wanting to explore beyond the seawall a little further we drove to the far west end of the island, put the truck into 4×4 mode and drove out onto the beach. After driving up and down the beach we went back into Galveston proper and back onto the seawall for lunch. We decided, after much debate to go back to Casey’s. We didn’t return for the food but for the patio instead. We knew Baxter would be welcome.

Waiting for handouts…

He laid, dutifully, under the table during lunch waiting for us to hand him pieces of our hamburgers and french fries. He even scored some of Evie’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich!

Exhausted and slightly sunburned we drove home after lunch. Our fun camping trip had come to and end but I doubt this will be our last trip to Galveston this summer!