Our road trip begins as we head west across Texas to the Mexican Border towns.
Pedernales Falls State Park (28-7-14)
We had a difficult re-entry to the US following our “holiday” to Mexico. After the initial threat of deportation, a less vehement immigration officer agreed a further three month visa but on the understanding that we would then leave for a “substantial” period of time. If we were to visit all the National Parks on our initial list, we would have to leave Austin and get on the road pretty quickly. So after celebrating Ian’s birthday, we spent the weekend saying goodbye to friends, packed up the RV and set off on Highway 290 towards Fredericksburg.
On the way we stopped for the night at Pedernales Falls State Park. A clear, spring-fed river flows gently down sloping limestone to create the twin falls which we cycled and hiked to on the first afternoon. Sadly the first three miles of river (the best bit), including the falls area are closed to wading and swimming. The lower river was shallow and pretty uninteresting, but we had a relaxing float at the end of the day.
Next morning we were up early to mountain bike the 6 miles of the Wolf Mountain Trail, so called because it is still home to the “prairie wolf” or coyote. We really enjoyed this track which was a little more technical than we had so far experienced and included a visit to Jones’ Springs at the boundary of the park.
We’d heard a lot of favourable reports about Fredericksburg and the surrounding area. Around 40% of all of the Texan peaches are grown here and in Gillespie County, and it is also in a grape growing and wine producing area. We passed many wineries on the road into the town – most of them are sited along the 290 – but resisted the temptation to stop, pressing on instead to Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg was settled in 1846 by immigrant families from Germany and many older buildings retain traditional German and frontier styles. German is still spoken occasionally and many old customs are observed, including Oktoberfest. It does have a “touristy” feel about it, but we enjoyed wandering down Main Street and around the historic district, looking at the more European style shops. I finally found myself a Texan style hat which would provide welcome shade from the strong summer sun. We completed our self guided tour at the large library which supplied free WiFi access and provided a cool, quiet place to catch up on our email.
I’d spotted “What-A-Burger” on the way in to town and suggested this as our dinner choice. We eat very little “fast food” but I have wanted to dine at each of the American burger outlets and this was one that was still outstanding on my list. Like many others, this chain started as a family business in the 1950’s with modern designed, A-frame buildings and drive in meal collection. It was quite shocking to see photos of the modernity that existed at a time when England was only just recovering from the devastation of World War II. I think this was the tastiest burger I have had so far and I liked the personal touch of an employee presenting a tray of relishes and sauces at the table. To read their story go to http://whataburger.com/company
Hunger satisfied, we parked that evening in the car park behind the visitor information centre and wandered down to a micro brewery on Main Street to sample a few beers. On the walk back into town we were surprised to see the remnants of a large submarine outside a modern museum. It was the National Museum of the Pacific War. Fredericksburg is also the birthplace of Fleet Admiral Chester W Minitz, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II and the museum was built in his honour.
Enchanted Rock (30-07-14)
Next morning we were up early to start the steady, uphill drive to Enchanted Rock, north of Fredericksburg. This massive dome of solid granite is famed in North American legend and was said to be the site of human sacrifices. Some tribes feared to set foot on it, others used its height as a meeting point, but all held it in awe and reverence.
This is one of the largest batholiths in the United States, a unique pink dome that rises 425 feet above the surrounding countryside, 1825 feet above sea level. The rock is actually more than 100 miles across, but much of it is buried below ground.
It was an amazing site, like a mini Uluru and we were keen to climb to its summit before the heat of the day set in. We arrived when the park opened at 9.00am and began our walk straight up climbing 425 feet in 0.6 mile. The top was home to small, unique eco-systems, little areas of plant and cactus growth in small oval indents in the rock. It really was quite spectacular – one of my highlights so far.
Michelle had told us there was a cave at the top and you could make your way down the back of the dome. We found the marked entrance quite easily. However, from here we had to look for hand painted arrows to mark the unofficial route into the rocks. We had taken a torch and head light, but I was surprised at how restrictive and dark the route seemed, and a little alarmed at the initial drop down into the rocks. I opted to remain at the top while Ian investigated further and waited with some trepidation for him to return safely. I climbed a little higher onto the rocks to watch a Rock Squirrel who seemed undeterred by my presence, and within about 15 minutes I heard Ian calling from below. He had made it through and was now trying to get back to the top.
He had found his way down, and apart from a slightly committing exit up a small rock face had not had any problems. It seemed that the slightly difficult entrance was the hardest part and Ian was keen that I followed him back into and through the cave. I have to admit I was a little scared but it turned out to be an exhilarating experience, as I levered my body down and through the rock system in the dim torchlight and tried not to pay any attention to the spiders along the way. There was only one point where it was a tight fit to get though, but I was so focused on the task in hand I didn’t experience any of the claustrophobia I was concerned about. Ian found an alternative exit that avoided the haul up the rock he had tackled and after around 150 yards of semi darkness, we were back in the bright sunlight.
We then decided to take an unofficial route down the back of the dome to the trail below, which again tested my limits as we carefully made our way down the very steep granite and scree, sometime on our backsides. However, Ian makes a great guide and is easy to trust as he picked a great line down a difficult descent. Back on the lower track, we continued to enjoy the trail around the base of the giant rock, taking time to climb a few smaller outcrops along the way.
The afternoon was spent in the car park before summiting the peak once more at sunset, this time with a lot more people! Unfortunately the sky clouded as we sat atop the rock and it wasn’t nearly as spectacular as it might have been on a clear night.
We left the park at twilight and started our journey back down to Fredericksburg. Not far from Enchanted Rock we spotted a small, unusual looking bar on the side of the road that also offered camping, and we decided to stop and see if we could park overnight. John, the owner had created a great bar and music venue and was happy for us to park outside for $10. We sat chatting for while and he told us that he originated from Dallas, where he had gone to school with the kids of the owners of South Fork Ranch – the home later sold to the production company for use in the popular TV program “Dallas”.
John left us with a couple of beers each as he closed up the bar, but told us we were welcome to relax on the bar’s back balcony for the rest of the evening.
He even left the country music channel on the radio! As we sipped our beers, watching the stars in the dark unpolluted skies, we mused on how moments like this only happen when you make spontaneous decisions.
These are the times I best enjoy about travelling, and this was the perfect end to what had already been a great day.
Walmart, Kerville (31-07-14)
The next morning we had a wander around John’s ranch, before travelling back down into Fredericksburg. We hung around for the day waiting for the Farmer’s Market, which unusually started at 4.00pm in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointment. Much of the produce was being sold at highly inflated prices, that not even I could justify paying.
We packed up and headed out to the municipal park, four miles outside the town on Texas 16, where we’d read that there was a large public pool. We arrived with enough time to spend an hour swimming before it closed, after which we parked up by the river for dinner. This was a lovely park, by the airfield, which also had RV hook-ups at $30, but we had already decided to stop at a roadside picnic area for the night as we continued on to the South Llano River.
As we approached the picnic stop, we realised that it wasn’t really large enough to accommodate our RV – it was just a small area of tarmac at the side of the road. The van would have shuddered horribly each time a car passed it throughout the night. We decided quickly that we would simply make our way down to Kerville and park at Walmart , which is exactly what we did.
South Llano River State Park (1-08-14 to 2-08-14)
We cut short our visit to Kerville on finding out that there had been a weekend cancellation at South Llano River State Park, and headed up Interstate 10 to Junction before turning down to the riverside camp site. We were really heading away from civilisation now, and Junction felt particularly remote. For the first time we felt like we had finally left Austin for good, not just a quick jaunt out before returning to the city that had become home for the last couple of months.
We drove across the river to the park HQ and booked our space for a couple of nights. This park is located on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau and the river is said to be one of the “most pristine water bodies in the state”. It didn’t take us long to settle and cycle down to the river with our floats, where we spent the afternoon alternating between floating and river running until we reached the park boundary.
The next two days we spent cycling extensively around the 18 miles of park trails, which criss-crossed the total area of this large park. We both really enjoyed this park and fully utilised all that it had to offer. All of the routes were good for cycling with the added thrill of providing the occasional more challenging downhill sections that tested our $100 mountain bikes to their limit! Ian also managed to climb a windmill at a remote waterhole!
Rocksprings & The Devil’s Sinkhole (3-8-14)
We left South Llano River and meandered 40 miles down route 377 to Rocksprings where we were booked to go on a bat tour at Devil’s Sinkhole. The countryside levelled off to barren plains before we arrived at the equally barren town. It was Sunday afternoon and the streets were deserted. It was like a forgotten ghost town with faded signs, shabby shops full of junk and little to entice the casual traveller.
On a corner of Main Street we found the tourist information centre and meeting point for the tour where we were to gather at 7.00pm for our trip out to the sinkhole. In the window and alongside the opening times, a poster dating from 1996 gave the chilling details of the violent murder of Patricia Torrez Paz. We assumed the murderer was still at large.
It was easy to find a spot to park across the road and after a short wander around town we retreated to the RV for an afternoon of internet access. Having stumbled across the torn and half eaten leg of a dog, lying on the pavement, we were starting to get a feeling that Rocksprings had long since lost its spirit as well as half of its small population. Even the main hotel was deserted, requesting that any visitors telephone for assistance. The only activity to be found was that of large trucks that rumbled loudly through Main Street on their way to Del Rio.
Evening soon arrived and we started the tour with an informative video about the sinkhole and the colony of bats that lived there. Once on private land, the sinkhole had become the seasonal home for around 3 million Mexican Freetail Bats and we were hoping to see them ascend out of the hole at sunset.
The sinkhole itself is quite unique – it is the largest one-chamber cave in Texas with a 50ft opening dropping vertically to 140 feet. Down below it opens out into a cavern 350 feet across and a mountain of rock towers up the middle with freshwater lakes on either side supporting a couple of rare crustaceans. Devil’s Sinkhole is the only cave in the world completely mapped using state-of-the-art laser technology.
We took a lift out to the controlled State Park with Andrew, the tour leader and former Spanish teacher in Rocksprings. He gave a fascinating talk about the history of the sinkhole and the bats. We arrived to find a viewing platform above the hole and watched intently as the skies darkened, waiting in avid anticipation of some sort of stirring in the hole below.
It wasn’t long before great swirls of swallows ascended from their cave side nests, one mass after another – I estimated between 700 and 1000 birds left the hole. Shortly after, we started to hear a low buzzing noise. Andrew confirmed that the bats were starting their ascent, but first flying round and round the mountain tip, faster and faster, in the dark of the cave below. Every so often a bat would fly fast and fearlessly out of the sinkhole. Over the next hour the stream of bats became denser as they emerged into the night sky, flying in a constant stream to the East. These bats would consume over the course of the night, many tons of moths and other insects. They play an important role in keeping down the insect population!
We watched for the next hour, and were fortunate to also see Long Eared Owls hunting around the rim of the cave as they feasted on easy pickings in the massive opening. At this point Andrew told us that the bats would ascend for many more hours – 3 million bats took a long time to leave even in the density we were seeing. He suggested it was time to return to Rocksprings, but mentioned that he would be returning at 6.00am to see the bats fly back into the sinkhole, and that we were welcome to accompany him if we wanted to. We both answered an easy “Yes please”, and despite the early start found the descent of the bats almost more amazing as they zipped close to our heads and back to the depths of the cavern below.
Back in Rocksprings, on Andrew’s recommendation, we went to view the display of arrowheads in the old dance hall, which now doubled as hardware store. We were amazed to see a large guarded and locked display of literally thousands of flint and obsidian arrow heads which were all part of the owner’s private collection. The dance hall was a treasure trove of ancient relics, useful tools and a large proportion of hoarded junk! It kept us occupied for an hour or so as we listened to the proprietor’s stories and checked out the eclectic collection which included pictures of old Indian Chiefs, large deer trophy heads, and even boats hanging decoratively from the roof!
Del Rio & Amistad Recreational Area (4-8-14)
After a quick breakfast taco, we were back on the 377 toward Del Rio where we needed to stock up with food before heading out to the Amistad Recreational Area and Reservoir. I had to admit some nervousness about staying in the border National Park areas, as I had read previously about occasional gun battles in these remote locations between warring drug cartels. As we approached our first choice, down a long winding gravel track, the small shelters looked remote and uninviting, and there was no sign of the lake. Like Travis near Austin, the area was experiencing a drought and Amistad Lake had receded a long way.
We drove on into the outskirts of Del Rio and along the main road that seemed to support every single fast food outlet you could ever think of. After a quick stop at Walmart and a bike shop for new pedals, we’d seen as much as we felt necessary and were keen to get back out to nature, even if we were to be part of a gun war later that night! In all seriousness, and now having travelled most of the length of the Texan border with Mexico, I think the press have made it sound much more dangerous than it really is. There are so many border police and checkpoints that it feels safer than most inner cities of England!
We found a great camp for the night at San Pedro National Park Area for just $4, again no lake water, but splendid isolation with not another soul in sight. Ian produced a superb BBQ – he has now become quite the expert, cooking us up a whole load of chunky veggies for the next day’s lunch, marinated in virgin oil and lemon pepper – very tasty!
We sat outside in the dark skies, drinking beer and reflecting on our trip so far. We had reached the border and would now be heading west toward the state of New Mexico. But there were many places still to visit along the way. We were armed with a list of towns and recommendations from people we have met along the way, and were excited to see what this part of Texas had to offer. It was going to take longer to leave Texas than we had imagined!