National Parks in Texas aren’t stereotypical by any means. From forest to beach, mountains to rivers, battlefields to presidents, and missions to mammoths…there truly is something to interest everyone!
While many national parks are free 365 days a year, 112 of them charge entrance fees. The exception is on fee-free days. These select days throughout the year give everyone a chance to visit parks free of charge.
So what are you waiting for? Mark your calendar and start planning that trip!
THE 2020 FEE-FREE DAYS ARE:
January 20, 2020 (Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
April 18, 2020 (the first day of National Park Week)
August 25, 2020 (the National Park Service’s birthday)
September 26, 2020 (National Public Lands Day)
November 11, 2020 (Veterans Day)
Click on each name for further information on these National Parks and Recreation Areas in the Lone Star State:
Why the big dice in Decatur? Well, since you asked . . .
If you want to start a friendly debate in Decatur, Texas just ask a group of people about the origin of the phrase “Eighter from Decatur.”
The slang phrase is used by craps shooters who want to roll an eight, and it’s also the title of a song by Western swing legend Bob Wills.
The legend traces back to 1900 when a group of Home Guards and Army Regulars traveled by train to Virginia to participate in a reenactment of the Battle of Manassas.
Will Cooper, had been hired as a cook for the Decatur participants, participated in a game of craps during the train ride. As a lucky phrase when he wanted to roll a ‘hard eight,’ Will would either say “Ada from Decautur” (supposedly referencing his sweetheart’s name) or “Eighter from Decatur” (which would have been more literally what he was hoping to roll.” Once the men reach the site of the reenactment and joined with others from around the country the craps games continued and Will’s catchphrase spread like wild fire. Supposedly it was taken back to all parts of the country and spoken by people in the following years who had no idea where Decatur was.
Soon after the phrase caught on, it was incorporated in local signs, businesses and even became the name of the local Navy Band, seen here posing in front of the local courthouse.
Whichever way the phrase rolls off your tongue, you’ll want to keep a sharp eye out in the small Texas town for dice in logos, signs, and sculptures.
So many of us start off each new year by looking back, so I thought it was only appropriate to begin 2020 by sharing a place that brings us back to the beginning of Texas: San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.
Open since April 2018 the San Felipe de Austin Museum is simply one of the most beautifully interpreted historical sites I’ve seen, especially considering there is virtually nothing left of the original settlement. Inside, visitors can interact with touch screen displays to learn details about the settlement, and outside they can walk in the steps of settlers and explore the townsite.
Sitting on the bluff of the Brazos River on the actual site of the former colony it honors the spirit of early Texas pioneers.
San Felipe de Austin was established in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin, known as the “Father of Texas,” as a headquarters for his colony in Mexican Texas. The town had four public squares: Commerce, Constitution, Military and Campo Santo Cemetery.
The first area to visit after paying admission in the gift shop/reception area is a small viewing area for a short film that gives an overview of the history of San Felipe de Austin. Interesting and beautifully produced, it puts the history of the site and people who lived here in context as you continue through the property.
Entering the museum space, the first thing you’ll encounter is a replica of a log cabin. Displays like a spinning wheel and dress-up corner give a bit of information about pioneer life, but make sure you stand for a moment in the space and realize that this small cain would often house an entire family.
A corner across from the cabin holds a field desk that actually belonged to Stephen F. Austin, and display cases contain examples surveying equipment that would have been utilized in laying out the colony and surrounding land grants.
Other displays showcase artifacts recovered during archeological excavations that give visitors a peek into the everyday lives of early Texans.
One of my favorite things about the museum is the number of interactive displays. Adults enjoy them, of course, but as a parent and Girl Scout leader who has traveled with children of all ages, I know how these fascinating exhibits can draw people into history through high tech applications.
Walk up to a lighted, multimedia illustration of the settlement and touch key numbers to learn more about the different buildings (offices, the school, individual homes) and people who once existed there. (And yes, you know that I touched every single one!)
Turn around and walk up to a tabletop display to learn about some of the big decisions the officials of San Felipe de Austin had to make. Once you’ve made a decision about the issue, you can cast your vote, and see the results.
A colonial printing press like one used to print the Texas Gazette, at times renamed the Mexican Citizen, in San Felipe from 1829 to 1832 stands proudly in its own corner, along with a printing plate that . . . yes, really . . . visitors are encouraged to touch.
The display explains the vital role the press played both in the community and in the history of the state:
“The first book published in Texas, written by Stephen F. Austin, was printed by the Gazette press in 1829. In 1835, the Telegraph and Texas Register began operating under the guidance of Gail Borden, Jr. and soon became the unofficial voice of the Texas revolution movement. It also printed many other important Texas documents, including the Declaration of Independence.”
Impressed? I was, too.
I encourage you to take your time and read the descriptions that accompany seemingly small fragments and objects in cases that line the walls. There are priceless treasures and surprises among them.
William B. Travis was a town resident before his death at the Alamo, and he sent his famous “Victory or Death” letter from the Alamo to San Felipe. A ring thought to have belonged to him was excavated from his homesite and is now on display.
After exploring inside the museum, it’s time to expand your discoveries by venturing out the side doors, and into the townsite itself.
A bronze plat map sits on a platform on a covered patio, providing a frame of reference for how the settlement was laid out on the property. From here visitors can follow a mown path through the mown native grasses to visit specific sites within the former town. San Felipe was one of the most culturally diverse communities of its time in Texas. Farmers, explorers, politicians, enslaved and free people of African ancestry, intertribal delegations of local Indians, cattlemen and businessmen populated the thriving settlement.
A tavern, bakery, stores, homestead sites and more await visitors who will quite literally be walking in the footsteps along the same paths these brave citizens did almost two centuries ago.
The Texas Revolution caused the demise of San Felipe de Austin, when the residents burned it to the ground during the evacuation known as the “Runaway Scrape” in 1836. After the fall of the Alamo, Mexican General Santa Anna and his forces briefly occupied the ruins of the town just before their defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Just across the road from the museum are a few more sites you’ll want to explore. A commemorative obelisk marks the exact spot of Stephen F. Austin’s own cabin – the only home he ever owned in Texas. There is also a stoic bronze statue of the Texas hero, a replica dog trot log cabin, active excavation sites, and the original well for the colony.
The large white building is the J. J. Josey General Store, built on the townsite in 1847 and in continuous operation for generations before being moved here for preservation.
Visitor parking is available on site at the museum and limited parking is available across the street.
Allow yourself at least 60 to 90 minutes to enjoy the museum exhibits and the grounds, and be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes as the outside trails are unpaved and the ground is somewhat uneven.
San Felipe is just ten minutes east of Sealy, and the museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. , except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Even, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Admission – Adults, $10; Children (5-14), Seniors, Veterans & Austin and Waller County Residents, $5, Family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) $22. For other options and to find out more about he San Felipe de Austin Historic Site, click HERE.
When a friend and I arrived at Space Center Houston a few nights ago to see their new “Galaxy Lights” display, we weree met with an unexpected surprise: the Budweiser Clydesdales! I swear we were so excited, it was verging on giddy. The Clydesdales are such beautiful, powerful creatures and any chance to see them up close is a treat.
We stood in the parking lot taking photos of the horses (and of course, the Dalmation, too!), and talking with the handlers and agreed that seeing them alone would have been worth the visit, but it was time to go inside to a reception being held for our group.
If you haven’t been to Space Center Houston, I highly recommend it…for all ages, in groups, with family or friends, or alone…it’s a fascinating way to spend a few hours. I won’t go into the details of the center in this post, but perhaps I’ll revisit the topic soon.
This winter, a new holiday lights exhibit at Space Center called “Galaxy Lights” has been drawing in extra visitors with its festive use of space-themed interactive technology and light displays. Dazzling spectacles created with more than 750,000 lights covering more than one million square feet are incorporated in both indoor and outdoor areas.
SPECIAL NOTE: If someone in your group is autistic or has special sensitivities to light or sound, Space Center Houston provides a special “sensory guide” giving specifics about each station at the event. You can find a copy here: Galaxy Lights sensory guide
Entering the front doors, guests are greeted with a kinetic light show suspended from the ceiling. Beginning every 15 minutes, dozens of LED orbs suspended from cables move in precise choreographed sequences to holiday music. It can be viewed from anywhere on entrance plaza, but a few clever enthusiasts we saw actually laid down on the floor beneath it to get the “full effect.”
“Holidays in Space,” an original 15-minute film showing in-space footage and new interviews with astronauts talking about celebrating the holidays while manning missions in space is a must-see. The film is shown in Space Center Theater every 30 minutes from 6:15 p.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Every half hour a tram leaves from the rear door of Space Center to take visitors to the display at Rocket Park. After driving through a tunnel of over 250,000 LED lights synchronized to music, the tram drives by the building housing the Saturn V rocket, with the 363-foot long image of the rocket itself outlined and illuminated by 5,000 lights.
Inside the structure is the restored, historic Saturn V rocket positioned on its side. The sight of the rocket by itself is breathtaking, but “Galaxy Lights” pulls visitors’ attention to 3-D projected movies projected right onto the side of the vehicle. Be sure to look around as you walk inside the building for other small projections on the walls and floor, including images of the first steps on the moon!
Outside in Rocket Park, the displays that are the highlight (pun only slightly intended) of “Galaxy Lights.” Brilliant images of a rocket blasting off, sparkling globes representing the planets in our solar system, and International Space Station sculpture and even a 35-foot tall shooting star are a delight to walk among and enjoy.
When you’re through taking it all in catch a tram to return to Independence Plaza where the mock shuttle is mounted on an airplane. Food stations there sell hot cocoa, kettle corn, ingredients to make s’mores over one of the firepits, or options at a food truck (it was a taco truck the night we were there). There is also a full bar available inside and beer outside (for ages 21 and older, of course).
Nearby are a 40-foot, lighted holiday tree and two cute, lighted photo opportunities. One is a crescent moon with a saddle like seat to sit on, and the other is a line of the letters “EAR” and “H.” Guests are encouraged to spread their arms to form the letter “T” to complete the name of our home planet.
I would recommend this light display for families with young children. Little ones especially appreciate the freedom to walk right up to and in between the light displays, though parents should be mindful of electrical cord and guywires supporting the displays (tripping might spoil the fun!).
Allow about two hours to visit all the features of Galaxy Lights. A review of the map of the attractions and start times will help you navigate your evening.
“Galaxy Lights” is open Nov. 16 – Jan. 5 from 6 p.m. – 10 p.m.
This year the Hotel Galvez has outdone themselves with an entire gingerbread village that retells the story in the poem “The Night Before Christmas.”
Gingerbread plates beside each of the nine houses in the village have a portion of the poem neatly painted in coffee extract.
Trees made from icing covered ice cream cones, whimsical characters of fondant and even a little quilt covered bed made from a Rice Krispies treat bring the story to life. The bases for each vignette are made of gingerbread as well, and covered with “snow” created from powdered sugar and coconut.
If you’re only able to see one Christmas light show in the Houston area during the holiday season, push this one to the top of your list.
Filling 20 acres of space just outside Gulf Greyhound Park in LaMarque, where its been brightening holiday seasons since 2016, the remarkable spectacle is made up of intricate display pieces created using Chinese lantern-making techniques incorporating over six million lights. Some towering 60 feet high. It’s the largest festival of its kind in the United States.
The festival, the largest of its kind in the United States, runs for two months and requires ten months to plan the next one. Designs are sent to lantern technicians and artisans in Zigong, China, and the completed components are assembled on-site.
To truly appreciate the work and artistry that goes into a piece, take a look at it both from afar and up close!
There are nine themed areas in the exhibit, not counting the carnival: the Kingdom; the Village; the East; Houston; Space; Ice; the Dinosaur; the Square and the Sea.
My friend and I headed to The Village first, because . . . Santa! We wanted to get in a quick visit with Mr. and Mrs. Claus before the crowds came. Sitting inside a large lighted ornament with room enough for your entire family to pose together, the couple encourages friends of all ages to stop by with their wish lists and cameras.
The Village is fairly centrally located, with a variety of traditional displays like nutcrackers, reindeer and presents surrounding a towering Christmas tree.
Before you leave the area, look for a big lighted barrel and get a warm (or cold) drink to enjoy on your walk. On brisk nights like last night, it sure makes a yummy difference.
Travel to The East, and enter visions of the homeland of the talented artists who created these lantern lights.
A grove of cherry blossoms invites visitors to leave heart shaped notes among its branches, and a fascinating water garden seems to ripple thanks to clever lighting patterns.
After you find your birth animal on a wall of the Chinese Zodiac, turn to your right for a real “wow” factor: a wall of immense blooms in brilliant colors magically open and close almost seeming to breathe. This is one of the displays that really made us stop and think about all of the talented people behind Magical Lights.
There’s no mistaking The Houston section with it’s large lettered sign. A stage that lights up as participants step and dance on its surface, a cowboy riding a bronco surrounded by longhorn, and a wall of sights from countries around the world fill out this area of the park.
The special Space area this year pays tribute to the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 with lighted tunnels populated with aliens, and a giant, walk-through maze whose center is circled by an enormous revolving space shuttle.
It’s hard not to start humming “Under the Sea” to yourself as you approach the Sea display, which definitely ranked as one of my favorites of the entire experience – mainly because of the stunning walk-in area designed to make you feel that you were below the waves with the friendly sea creatures.
Of course, the lovely mermaid was a plus, too!
For a couple of hours every night, the “Ice Sisters” (yes, we all really know who they mean) reside in Ice, ready to greet visitors. And if you take a photo with them, please be sure to drop a tip into Olaf’s Summer Vacation Fund!
After a chat with the frosty friends, enjoy a stroll through the rest of this glittering display.
Snowy ice flows are populated with polar bears, penguins and animated flying fish, near the Russianesque blue domes of a large structure. You can even sit inside a Cinderella style coach pulled Pegasus!
Rides and games in the Carnival area require additional tickets, but are especially popular with the younger set. The smell of the food alone is enough to draw you to this side of the park.
The “Dinosaur” section of the park just beyond the carnival did, indeed have dinosaurs, but much more.
Entering into the area, visitors will walk through a lighted archway past storybook and fantasy characters including Alice in Wonderland and her friends, Humpty Dumpty, rainbow-striped zebras and a couple of friendly looking elephants.
Paths then wind through a display of animatronic dinosaurs with loud, roaring sound-effect. (Be warned that these moving, monstrous creatures may either thrill or startle small children, depending on their personality.) To the side was a tent filled with dinosaur-themed interactive activities for children, including digging for ‘fossils’ in a sand pit, riding small mechanical dinosaurs, watching baby dinos hatch from eggs, and photo opportunities of being in a dino’s mouth, hatching from oversized eggs, or in a jeep threatened by a T-rex (think Jurassic Park).
The Square is home to the performance stage at Magical Lights. When you enter the park, be sure to check the performance times for the Chinese Acrobats . . . you won’t want to miss them. There are two 40-minute shows each night. We went to the last show of the night, just before leaving.
This lovely bit of Chinese culture and some jaw-dropping acrobatic feats made for an exciting topper for the experience and a great topic of conversation for the drive home. (Be prepared for your kids to want to try juggling an end table with their feet when they get home.)
Magical Winter Lights is open through January 5, 2020, every day including all holidays! So when you have that house full of relatives that need to get out and stretch their legs . . . now you have a plan! Ask about group rates and party plans.
I must add though, that this activity is unique in that I would enjoy it just as much as a solo outing, family activity or reason for friends to get together.
Tickets are less expensive if you purchase them online ahead of time, or look for special deals from Groupon or Costco. At the time I am writing this, Costco is running a deal for 2 adult tickets for 27.99, and Groupon has a deal for adult tickets for $20 and seniors and children for $12.
Adult (Ages 13-64): $22.00
Senior (65+)/Child (4-12): $13.00
Family 4-Pack: $76.00
Children UNDER 4 years old: FREE
Adult (Ages 13-64): $25.00
Senior (65+)/Child (4-12): $15.00
Family 4-Pack: $80.00
Children UNDER 4 years old: FREE
The festival is at Gulf Greyhound Park, 1000 FM 2004, in La Marque. The entrance to the park is located just before the Pizza Hut / Taco Bell on FM 1764. For more information go to: www.magicalwinterlights.com
Most people only think of nutcrackers around Christmas but Kenneth Pape, owner of Pape Pecan House in Seguin, spent over 50 years collecting over 8,000 classic, obscure, comical and yes – even naughty – styles of the useful mechanisms.
Since 1961, three generations of the Pape family have been involved in the pecan business. They sell everything from pecan trees to harvesting equipment, but most customers stop into the store for edible treats including several varieties of the freshest pecans you’ve ever tasted, chocolate-covered and candied pecans, pecan oil, and more.
With a family legacy like that, it’s pretty clear how his interest in nutcrackers came about. Pape began collecting nutcrackers in the 1950s during his travels, with many of the classic styles coming from Germany. Over the years, friends and family would send them to him as gifts, and a fellow collector even willed his own gathering to add to Pape’s growing assortment. Estate sales, garage sales, antique stores, flea markets were his resources until her discovered ebay…and the collecting floodgates really opened.
One of the largest assortments of nutcrackers in the world, this nutty collection is housed in a 3,375 square foot museum that spills from the front room of the store to an additional space lined with shelves from floor to ceiling.
Nut picks, nut bowls and vices that would splinter the stubbornest nut; hand held and tables mount styles, of wood, metal, plastic and stone crowd every inch of space in view.
Browse to your heart’s content and discover whimsical depictions of Santa Claus, sports figures, likenesses of politicians, sultans, bishops, snowmen, leprechauns, “Naughty Nellies” (shaped like ladies’ legs), characters, movie characters, traditional soldiers, ballerinas, birds, alligators, rabbits, dogs and oh-so-many squirrels!
Somewhat appropriately for the Texas store, a towering nutcracker cowboy guards a sample table.
Pieces from the nutcracker collection aren’t for sale, but it’s unlikely you’ll leave without something tasty to take home. But before you drive off, be sure to take a photo with the world’s “Largest Mobile Pecan” just outside. It’s one of two giant pecan displays in town. The other sits on the courthouse lawn in town.
Admission to the museum is free, so “nut-urally” you’ll want to add Pape’s to your list of roadside stops if you’re in the area.
Kenneth Pape unfortunately passed away on October 8 2019. His wife Zee is now sole owner of the operation. Pape’s stepson passed away several months previous, and his daughter now lives out of state so it is uncertain who will take over. Hopefully someone with a love for the area’s nutty heritage will find his or her way to the helm.
But before we hit the road, I’m curious…do you pronounce it:
Driving down Highway 36, it’s a bit of a surprise to see a lone (quite large) Indian statue kneeling in a pasture. And when you do, ya just know there’s a story behind it!
In 1936 a new restaurant opened at 6151 Main in Houston, across from the original Rice Stadium. Bill Williams’ Chicken House was one of the few places along Main near the campus, and offered students a place to eat on weekends when there was no food available at the dining hall.
Word about the delicious fried chicken quickly spread, and it became one of the most popular places to eat in the area.
The Chicken House had a dining room as well as a drive-in, and an upstairs banquet hall with room for 200 guests.
When business declined due to competition ad the economy in the mid-1940s, Williams added an oyster bar and added seafood to the menu. Happy diners in 1946 could purchase a dozen oysters for 70 cents!
Around the same time, Williams replaced a rooftop sign of two Native Americans cooking over a campfire with tall, fiberglass statues of the same scene. One Indian knelt on one knee holding a skillet over the fire, and the other supervised, sitting cross-legged across from him. At night, the campfire was lit with flickering lights to simulate flames. You won’t find depictions of Native Americans cooking in skillets in most history books, but the eye-catching display became one of the well-known roadside attractions of the day.
Williams was also a generous philanthropist and supporter of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
The restaurant closed in 1973, and Williams passed away eleven years later at the age of 72.
James Wheeler was a member of the demolition crew that razed the Chicken House. He bought both of the Native American figures and moved them to his family’s property in Fort Bend County. When that property was divided, Wheeler used his money to purchase a home near Lake Somerville in Burleson County and took the figure holding a skillet with him. The other figure remained in Fort Bend, and its current whereabouts are unknown.
Wheeler later sold his Somerville home, the new owners insisted that the Indian be left on the property, but later decided to dispose of it.
Dennis Griffin and his wife made an offer on a whim, and ended up as its new owners, moving it to its current location. He’s considered a sort of a mascot in Somerville, whose school mascot is a Native American from a mythical tribe. Mysteriously appropriate, don’t you think?
So the next time you’re cruising down Highway 36 through near Somerville, keep an eye out for this unusual piece of restaurant history that…at least for now…has finally found a permanent home.
You know how I love historic buildings, and this one definitely comes with a colorful story. Built before 1904, it has served as a Masonic Lodge, a doctor’s office, a drug store and a classroom. The cafe has been serving up Texas-sized roadhouse fare here since 1986.
Grab a table when you arrive and – if you’re in the mood – prop this sign on your table to invite some chatty company to sit a spell with you.
At any given time of day the tables surrounding yours are likely to be serving a combination of ranchers, leather-clad bikers, tourists and church ladies. It feels like a wonderful combination of community center and diner.
Since it was a slightly chilly night when we visited, my friend and I ordered a patty melt and a BLT sandwich. Thumbs up to both, but what I really had my eye on was the pie safe.
Deciding which slice to order was one of the biggest challenges of the day (these things are important, ya know!), and I finally decided on fudge pecan. The choco-holic in me was definitely not disappointed! The portions are overly generous (if that’s possible), and if you’re a fan of meringue pie you’ll especially fall for the mile-high toppings.
While we were there we visited with a handful of the locals who went from table to table visiting friends and sharing the latest local news. We also heard one of the adorable waitresses exclaim what a busy night it had been with five to go orders to prepare.
Yes, things really do stroll along at a slower pace in Utopia, and thank heaven they do.
If you’re staying in the area of Vanderpool or Utopia, you’ll need to remember this cafe out of necessity as well since it’s pretty much the only “real” restaurant around, and stays open past 5:00 p.m. when the streets “roll up” in the area.
If the photos of this cute little cafe look a bit familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in the movie “Seven Days in Utopia,” starring Robert Duvall. As neat as that is though, its enduring fame will be for the tasty food rather than its acquaintance with Hollywood.
I dare you to go in there without leaving with a bag of cute items and a smile on your face. Pun-ny sayings on signs and dish towels, yummy smelling candles, seasonal decorations, yard art, and . . . well, take my word for it and stop in. This is one adorable shop.
A little comical for a town motto perhaps, but it reflects a pride in the heritage of this little town.
Settlers first arrived in the area of Rice, Texas in the late 1860s, and by 1872 the Houston and Texas Central Railway was built through the area.
The town was named for one of the railroad owners, William Marsh Rice who was the namesake of Houston’s Rice University as well. Rice also donated land to the community for a church and cemetery.
By 1890 Rice boasted a cotton gin, steam gristmill, two grocery stores, three general stores, a blacksmith shop, two wheelwrights, druggist and about 75 citizens. Pretty impressive, right?
Unfortunately almost half of downtown was destroyed by fire in 1901. The side of charming buildings that survive on the north side of what was once a busy street are shuttered, but charmingly picturesque. Step up onto the raised brick sidewalks to get a glimpse through the windows of interiors that have surely seen more than their share of stories.
At the corner is the local bank building, where some locals say the infamous Bonnie and Clyde carried out a bank robbery. Though rumors of the criminal duo robbing the local bank may have more to do with spinning a good yarn, they reportedly did stay at the hotel that used to be downtown. Photos in the Pioneer Village in Corsicana evidently offered proof of that part of the tale.
With roofs caving in, restoration looks doubtful. Rice isn’t a true ghost town but many of its residents work in nearby Corsicana as local businesses have shuttered.
Take the time to visit remnants of vanishing communities like Rice before the opportunity disappears. Walking in the steps of those who lived before us gives us a unique glimpse into their lives you won’t want to miss.