Road Trip Rest Stops – Enjoy the Ride

   Starting off a new year usually begins with lofty goals quickly filling up our calendars. But it’s probably the ideal time to make a decision to slow down and enjoy the ride.

Carl Monk Sr. Overlook and Picnic area on Highway 7 between Martinsville and Swift.

   When I was growing up, family car trips looked a lot different than they do today. The journey and taking in the sights of the places we traveled through were just as important and fun as the places we were going to.

   While a modern day family is more likely to think of Bucee’s when someone mentions a rest stop, (we had our version of that too back in the day, in the form of Stuckey’s) the roadside rest stops were something entirely different.

   Families didn’t scurry out of the car and head in different directions with the goal of loading up their arms with snacks and souvenirs.

   Instead small clusters of roadside rest stops, basically roofed spots with picnic tables, dotted the sides of the two-lane blacktop highways and offered travelers a place to get out of their car and stretch their legs, let the kids run off some excess energy, and unload their hamper of food Mom had packed that morning to enjoy a family picnic while taking in a view.

   Texas is lucky to still have a wide variety of these mid-century rest stops, so it might come as a surprise that other states have taken to demolishing theirs. Along Texas highways you might spot some shaped like teepees, with wagon-wheel sides, retro-curved roofs or just simple, functional designs. They bring back great memories of time spent on family vacations, and rank right up there with folded maps from gas stations on the nostalgia scale.


   I’ve never gotten over my love of road trips, which is a mystery to some of my friends who would rather fly somewhere that’s only a couple of hundred miles away. But I’ve noticed with all of the challenges in the past few months that many Americans are rediscovering the love of road trips, whether they are going across the state or across the country.

   And, yes, I’ll make the time to take a few minutes at lovely spots I find like this one, because they’re just as enjoyable when I’m traveling by myself.

   Take it from me, and rush less the next time you’re driving along to a destination. If you see a nice roadside rest area, take the opportunity to pause for a few minutes, enjoy a drink or snack and the view. It can put a whole new perspective on your trip.

     What road are you planning to follow in 2021?

 

Finding Fall in Lost Maples

     Ah, fall: cool breezes, pumpkin patches and leaves changing colors….

Wait! Change of season colors in Texas? Yep, and I’m here to tell you exactly where to mark your map for a beautifully vivid fall trip.

     Lost Maples State Natural Area is a pristine destination about five miles north of Vanderpool on Ranch Road 187. Typical of most state parks and natural areas, March through May are busy months due to the cooler weather.

     But Lost Maples’ most popular months are October and November when the foliage is ablaze in greens, reds, orange and gold.

     Uvalde big tooth maples, oaks, Florida basswood, American sycamore, green ash, black willow, sugar hackberry and pecan trees tucked into limestone canyons carved by the upper Sabinal River provide the dazzling seasonal color.  Add in an array of wildlife and seasonal wildflowers and this becomes one of the must-see autumn spots in the state.

     Sound amazing? It is!

     With over 2,900 scenic acres to explore you can fill your visit with hikes, picnicking, photography, camping, backpacking, fishing, geocaching and bird watching.

     A birding guide for Lost Maples here.

     Fall temperatures at Lost Maples are mild, and the stargazing at night is jaw dropping. The sky looked like a sea of twinkling glitter. I used a handy phone app to identify some of the stars and constellations we spotted. You can find more information about the free app here.

     Stop into the ranger station at the entrance parking lot for a small but interesting display about Lost Maples, and don’t forget to pick up a free trail map to set your course. There are ten miles of well-maintained hiking trails, including a challenging, steep seven-mile loop that takes you along the top of a 2,200 foot cliff.

 

 

 

     Even on the easiest trails, you’ll enjoy seeing steep canyon walls, streams, ponds and rocky bluffs.

     Remember to take plenty of water and normal hiking supplies like sunscreen and a small first aid kit.

     Dogs are welcome, but if they’re hiking along with you be sure to bring their water. It’s a workout for them, too.

     I was intent on finding Monkey Rock during my hike, one of most photographed spots in the park year round, and was grateful to find several signs indicating the general route to him. Just follow the marked trail and as you come into a clearing by the bluffs, look up! There’s no mistaking his toothless grin.

     I dare you not to smile when you spot him.

     In addition to reptiles and insects (even tarantulas!), keep an eye out for an array of birds, gray fox, white-tailed deer, armadillos, raccoons, bobcats, squirrels and an occasional javelina. Most of the wildlife will understandably avoid people, but the more tranquil (quiet!) your walk, the better chance you have of spotting them.

     If you only have half a day or so, I recommend prioritizing a hike along the Maple Trail, to Monkey Rock and the Grotto with its ferns and drip springs, with a short detour to the waterfall.

     Taking time for a picnic lunch and skipping stones across one of the ponds is guaranteed to wash away stress.

    When hiking, remember to stay on the trails to preserve the natural habitat. Water can sometimes cross the trails during heavy rains.

     Remember that you’re in a canyon, so don’t expect cell phone reception inside Lost Maples. It’s a great opportunity to disconnect from the world and enjoy nature.

     The park only accommodates about 250 cars, so if you go during the peak season you’ll want to arrive early to claim your spot.

     Weekends fill up fast with only 300 guest slots available from 8 a.m. until noon, and another 150 spots from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Once you’re there you can stay until 10 pm.

 

     Here’s the secret: you can actually purchase a Save the Day pass 30 days in advance online! When I chose the dates of my visit I counted backward on my calendar and jotted myself a reminder to book as soon as the dates were able to be claimed.

     As with most popular destinations, weekdays are less crowded. My friend and I went on a weekday to avoid the weekend crush and were thankful to have the trails virtually to ourselves.

     Another insider tip: Though the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks of November are traditionally the height of the fall color season, this can vary from year to year due to weather patterns. Be sure to check resources like the fall foliage conditions for the most current updates. A link is here.

     When you’re ready to satisfy that appetite you’ve earned after a wonderful day of hiking and exploring, check out the nearby Lost Maples Café in Vanderpool. Click the name for more details.

     My only regret is that Lost Maples was on my wish list of destinations for so long before I actually made time to go. Now I can’t wait to go back and take others along!





Free Fossil Hunting in Mineral Wells…Can Ya Dig It?

     When I was a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up.

     Now mind you, this was in the days (dark ages) before the Indiana Jones movies, so my parents didn’t quite know what to do with this aspiration, other than try to direct me elsewhere.

     I’ve never quite gotten over my fascination with archaeological dig sites, and recently I went to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park where visitors can dig for and keep fossils over 300 million years old!

   Think of it as the fossil equivalent of searching for seashells along a beach.

     Mineral Wells Fossil Park is a primitive, unique site that’s a fascinating place to explore by yourself or with your family. Offering eight acres to comb, the park used to be the city’s “borrow pit,” which is an area where dirt is taken from to fill other areas. The resulting pit eroded over the 20 years it was used, exposing thousands of fossils from the Pennsylvanian Period.

     It’s one of the few parks in the nation where visitors are legally allowed to remove fossils from the site, taking home true treasures.

     There is plenty of parking in the gravel parking lot, where you’ll also find clean, portable toilets, but no running water. If you’re going to want to wash your hands or rinse off a bit after your outing before you re-enter your car bring an extra jug of water.


     Take time to read the informational signs in the parking lot. They’ll help you to identify things you might otherwise overlook.

     If you’d like to take along a “cheat sheet” click this link to find a handy, printable reference sheet of fossil types, courtesy of fossilcentre.com.

     The park is primitive in more ways than one. You may encounter dangerous insects or animals (it IS their turf, after all) so keep a sharp eye out for them. And once you descend into the pit, don’t expect your cell phones to work. See? Magic – time travel.

     Follow the path to the pit (there’s one way in and one way out to minimize damage to the site). A chain handrail will help steady your balance on the rocky soil as you follow the walkway into the search area.

     My visit was on a day after a light rain which was ideal, since it washed the top layer of dust off of things and revealed new items in the channels where water runs down the sides of the pit. I had been told that I wouldn’t really need to “dig” for the fossils since most of them would be laying right on the surface, but I was skeptical. I was wrong . . . and it was amazing.

     You might find fossils of ancient sea species like trilobites, crinoids (urchins), brachiopods, pelecypods, (clams and oysters), corals, plants, and even sharks.

     The type I found with the least effort were sea lilies (which sound much more impressive when referred to as crinoids). Sometimes called “Indian beads” or “Indian buttons” (what my great-aunt used to call them) in reference to their button or bead-like shape, people used to collect and string them into necklaces. Not to get to “science-y”, but this illustration will show you what where in the plant (columnal) they were originally. Fossils from the other parts of the plant can be found as well.

 

     Who would have thought a big pit could be so much fun?

   Bring a picnic lunch or snacks and PLENTY of drinking water. Even in non-summer months, there is no shade in the actual digging area and you’ll need to stay hydrated. There are no nearby places to eat, so if you’re planning to stay at least a couple of hours (and you should!) your hard-working archaeology crew might get the munchies.

     There is a shaded table area as you enter the park that makes a nice place to give yourself and your family a break from the sun. If your visit will be in the summer months, it would be wise to plan to be there early in the day, or late in the evening.

     Yes, it’s basically a dirt pit, so dress appropriately. C’mon, that’s half the fun!

     You’ll want to make sure everyone has rubber soled shoes (old tennis shoes are perfect) to help with footing on the loose-soiled slopes. (Say THAT 3 times fast: loose soiled slopes, loose sloiled slolpes . . . never mind!)

     Other take-along suggestions: baggies or nail aprons to hold your finds, small hand garden trowels to loosen the dirt, an umbrella for extra shade, a wide brimmed hat, sunblock, bug spray, a bucket to carry tools and water bottles, and a small rubber gardening knee pad to sit on (it’ll feel a lot cushier than the hard ground). As always, please keep a first aid kit in your car to take care of minor boo-boos. Even adults need antiseptic and bandaids, ya know.

     Oh, and did I mention water? Water, water, water.

You’ll also want to bring along your sense of adventure and patience. Once your brain adjusts to what it’s searching for the fossils seem to become more and more abundant.

     Here’s a quick photo I took of the surface at the side of the pit. No, I didn’t even disturb it by beginning to dig! How many fossils can you spot?


You may even see a few “future fossils” during wildflower season.

     The park address is 2375 Indian Creek Road, just northwest of Mineral Wells, Texas. From Mineral Wells, head west on Highway 180. Turn north on Indian Creek Road and drive approximately 2 miles to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park entrance.

     It’s open daily from 8 a.m. until dusk and is admission free, which fits my travel budget just fine.

     Personally, I can’t wait to go back. Who’s up for an archaeological adventure?

Sweet Deals at Russell Stover Chocolates Shop

     If you’re looking for something to satisfy a sweet tooth, head to Corsicana!

     The Russell Stover Chocolates Shop is filled to the ceiling. . . literally . . . with a candy assortment to satisfy any sweet tooth. You can purchase the chocolates by the box, by the bag or individually. Don’t forget to try their ice cream. It’ll make you glad you turned off the highway, and is a great treat to break up a road trip. There’s even a shaded patio area where you can pull up a chair and enjoy it without risking drips inside the car.

     What takes most people by surprise on their first visit is the overstock bargains. Leave your willpower behind as you head to the back of the store, it won’t do you any good! Regardless of the time of year you visit, you’ll find overstocks candy from Easter, Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day and other seasons all at drastically reduced prices. And don’t worry, even if they’re out of season, they taste fresh and yummy! 

     Be sure to get a “frequent shopper card. Even if you only swing by about once per year, there’s often a free surprise for card holders.

    And, oooooh, the freshly made caramel apples!

     What’s your favorite type of chocolate?

     Russell Stover Shop, 1997 Pecan Delight Avenue, Corsicana

National Parks Fee-Free Days for 2020

     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:

 

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Amistad National Recreation Area

Big Bend National Park

Big Thicket National Preserve

Chamizal National Memorial

Fort Davis National Historic Site

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park

South Padre Island National Seashore

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park

Rio Grande National Wild & Scenic River

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Waco Mammoth National Monument

Truly “Magical Winter Lights”

   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.

 

THE VILLAGE

     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.

ONLINE
Adult (Ages 13-64): $22.00
Senior (65+)/Child (4-12): $13.00
Family 4-Pack: $76.00
Children UNDER 4 years old: FREE

BOX OFFICE
Adult (Ages 13-64): $25.00
Senior (65+)/Child (4-12): $15.00
Family 4-Pack: $80.00
Children UNDER 4 years old: FREE

Sunday – Thursday : 5:00 – 10:00 PM
Friday & Saturday, through Jan. 1 : 5:00 – 11:00 PM

     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

Conway’s Slug Bug Ranch

     Out of all the stops we made during our Route 66 trip, one was hands-down my teenage daughter’s favorite. She got to spray paint, explore and take lots of fun photos having the place all to herself almost the entire time we were there.

     So many travelers pass up the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas without even knowing it’s there and they’re definitely missing out.

     If you’re looking for a cuter, smaller scale roadside attraction than the famous Cadillac Ranch, the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas is for you.

     Also known as the Bug Ranch, VW Ranch and Bug Farm, it may be less famous and quit a bit smaller than it’s Cadillac Ranch inspiration, but it’s just as fun…maybe a bit more. It’s certainly less crowded!

     But it didn’t always look this way.

     The Longhorn Trading Post and Rattlesnake Ranch and gas station was opened by the Crutchfield family in 1967 on I-40 to lure tourists traveling down Route 66. The abandoned Conway Motel and Café sits on the next lot.

The Trading Post as it originally appeared.

     Unfortunately by 1970 more than half of the population of the small town moved away. In 200 Conway only had 20 citizens, and two years later Love’s Truck Stop was built on the opposite site of I-40 taking away much of the business the Crutchfields depended on.

     The owner plotted a parody on Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch to bring travelers back across the overpass. Using off-road equipment, Crutchfield buried five Volkswagon Beetles nose down in the ground outside his shop.

     He built it, and they came…at the ready with their spray paint cans. The new attraction drew the attention of media and tourists, but wasn’t quite enough to safe the business. The family abandoned the decades old business in 2003, but the VWs remained – bumpers in the air.

     We pulled into the parking area at the Bug Ranch, avoiding the broken asphalt and potholes, to discover there was only one other person on site. A nice surprise after the crowds at the Cadillac a couple of days before!

     As we piled out of the car getting our camera gear ready, the man came over to give a friendly warning not to climb into the Bugs and uttered the word that will always get me to take notice, “Snakes.”

Snackes in the Slug Bug Ranch
See anyone hiding in here?

     He asked me if I wanted to see one, and of course I said yes! As we leaned slowly into the cab of the first car body we could easily see a slithering occupant that would prefer the tourists leave him alone. Enough said (and seen). We thanked the man for the heads up, and he drove away.

      Luckily just because we weren’t going to climb inside the cars didn’t mean we couldn’t still paint on them (cautiously) and take lots of photos – which is why we were there.

     We wandered around the VWs with a few leftover spray paint cans from our visit to the Cadillac, happy to take our time. Just like the Cadillac, the cars were mere shells without windows or tires. A few still had doors, though they were permanently open due to the combination of weathering and paint.

Empty Trunks at the Slug Bug Ranch
Shadows of Empty Trunks

     What is it about VW Bugs? Even when they are in scrap metal shape, they’re still so darn cute! And I think all of the colorful paint made them even more so.

     After adding our little bit of color to the metal canvases, we moved on to the other antique car on the lot. This one was still in an upright position and had seats, though they aren’t ones that would have been comfortable to sit in for more than a moment. I carefully checked for slithering residents before hopping in for a quick photo – because I couldn’t resist. But please note, I’m not suggesting that you do the same!

     There were three buildings accessible on the lot as well, and countless people have visited and left their marks. The one closet to the cars was in the most intact condition, but wasn’t very intriguing after an initial look around.

     The two other buildings, which had served as a curio shop and gas station years ago, had obviously enticed more visitors to come inside and let their creative juices flow.

     Barn swallows have nested inside the curio shop and swooped at us protectively if we got too close to their nests, so we gave them plenty of room. Someone’s note on an old table top that “Birds don’t exist” made us chuckle since we had just been dive-bombed by some feathered residents.

     Earlier visitors had left artistic and not-so-artistic contributions, Bible verses, poems and jokes. It was obvious that some had come prepared with a plan and some (like us) just shot from the hip.


My daughter couldn’t resist spray painting some positive messages for others to find, and taking in the designs left by others.

     There were more rooms past the main area, but due to the ceiling caving in and piles of what was probably insulation we didn’t venture back in that area.

     While she was adding her graduation year to some old theatre seats outside, I spotted a family with young kids near the VWs and wandered over to share the snake warning with them.

     Their horrified expressions told me they had already been inside the vehicles. They said they had put one child at a time inside the one where a snake was clearly visible if you looked, and taken several photos. Yikes! They considered themselves lucky, but decided to get the heck out of there and on down the road.

     The abandoned gas station had the least graffiti, though there was quite a bit there including warnings of a zombie apocalypse. (Good to know!) There were also quite a few dangling electrical wires that, though I’m certain weren’t hooked up to anything any more, I would definitely not want small children (or distracted adults) around.



 

 

 

 

 

 

     All in all, the three of us had a good time exploring the property and actually stayed quite a bit longer there than we originally planned. Even if you can swing in for a couple of minutes though, I’d recommend it. Where else will you see a field of VWs planted in a row?

     These Bugs have fun written all over them – literally! To find the Slug Bug Ranch and leave your own mark, take Exit 96 off I-40 and turn south. It’s open and easy to find, just about 30 miles outside of Amarillo. 










Holy Cow, It’s the Big Texan Steak Ranch!

     If you’ve heard one thing about the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it’s probably about the challenge: eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour and your meal is free.

    While that may sound like a deal to a hungry cowboy, there’s actually a specific list of eleven rules that must be followed. There’s actually a “full meal” surrounding the 72 oz. steak that has to be eaten including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll with butter. It’s a twin meal to the champion of the very first competition at the restaurant consumed.

     Holy Heartburn, Batman!

     When Bob “R.J.” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch in 1960, on the iconic Route 66 touting “huge, Texas-size steaks,” many of his regular customers were cowboys who came for dinner after working in a nearby stockyard. Lee noticed that out-of-town visitors were fascinated while watching these Texans try to “out eat” each other.

     As the story goes, one Friday night in 1962, Lee pushed several tables together in the center of the dining room, sat all the voracious cowboys together and told them he wanted to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. The cost would be $5 per participant, and whoever won got to keep everybody’s entry fee.

     These cowboys obviously had no intention of turning down the dare.

     One fellow with a hearty appetite downed two steaks in just ten minutes…but he didn’t stop there. He requested a salad and shrimp cocktail with his third steak, and a baked potato and bread roll with his fourth and fifth. By the time the hour was up, he had devoured all the sides and four and a half pounds of steak (72 ounces).

     In response to the cheering crowd, the excited Lee stood on a chair and shouted that from that day forward, anyone who could eat the entire 72 oz dinner in one hour would get it for FREE…and the famous challenge was born.

     It became the restaurant’s biggest claim to fame and was advertised on billboards from Arkansas to Arizona.

     In the early 1970s when Highway 40 replaced Route 66 as the major thoroughfare, Lee and his family purchased land alongside the new highway to build a bigger, expanded version of his steak house dream.

     The original cowboy sign that greeted visitors for years was moved to its new location by helicopter! That would have been a sight!

     If you take the steak-eating challenge today, you are seated at a table on a stage platform in the restaurant, so everyone can watch your progress as the large digital clock above you counts down the hour allowed. Want to see if anyone is attempting it right now? Check out the live stream of the challenge table here.

     Now, I had no intention of attempting such madness, but I did want to check out the restaurant. I wasn’t prepared for how fun and HUGE it is!

     Pulling in to park between the steak house and it’s Old West theme hotel next door, visitors are greeted by the legendary cowboy sign as well as a towering statue of a boot wearing dinosaur propped in two-story tall sticks of fireworks.

     Wait….what? A dinosaur? Well, you just know there’s a story there too! Bobby and Danny Lee, “R.J.”s sons who now run the business share memories of seeing dinosaur statues on a special vacation that took their family across the historic Route 66. “Dino” smiles down on their patrons to remind them that “it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.”

     When you venture inside, be prepared to wait for your table at this popular restaurant. Once they hand you your pager, don’t just sit and wait for heaven’s sake…explore!

     Out back is a large covered beer garden (they have their own craft brewery on site) with live music, old-fashioned games, photo opps that include a stagecoach, huge rocking chair, 18-foot-tall cowboy boot and more.

     Inside try your luck at a carnival style shooting gallery where you can take aim at western targets like rattlesnakes, bad guys and bobcats as well as Frankentein, zombies and Dracula. Who needs Halloween?

     Outside be sure to check out the Texas-shape swimming pool, the motel, a horse hotel (yes, actually for horses), and RV park. And be sure to look down, because this attraction’s attention to details goes right down to imprinting cattle brands in the sidewalks.

     The gift shop has every version of a kitschy souvenir that you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. The night we were there, it was so crowded with tourists looking for that silly something to commemorate their visit that we needed to scoot sideways down the aisles to make any progress. (These are the times a good sense of humor comes in handy!)

     Once our pager alerted us it was time to chow down, the hostess lead my family into an immense, two-story dining room where chandeliers of antlers and wagon wheels hang from the ceiling.

     We felt like we were walking onto a saloon set soundstage of Bonanza or Gunsmoke, complete with swinging doors, taxidermy mounts, spindle railings, and the cowboy-hat-wearing waitstaff.

     Just about everything – including the margaritas – are garnished with some of the biggest jalapenos I’ve ever seen.

     While we waited for our food we enjoyed the two gentlemen who strolled the dining room playing western classics tableside for the diners. I kept my fingers crossed they would come our way, and lucky for us they did, asking for requests. (A personal note here: please be sure to tip entertainment like this as the tips usually make up the majority if not all of what they are paid for the pleasure they bring!)

     Kids meals are served in a cowboy hat that the kids can keep as a souvenir. My teenage daughter wasn’t hungry enough to eat one of the over-sized meals and asked if she could order from a children’s menu. The waitress smiled and said she could as long as she agreed to put on the hat afterward. Good sport that she is, she agreed and did…and no, she would NOT give me permission to post that particular photo.

     I couldn’t resist getting the southern classic chicken friend steak and have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was relieved that it wasn’t plate-sized as well, but still couldn’t finish it off.

     The vintage look Route 66 / Texan Steak House pattern china was a great touch as well and didn’t go unappreciated.

     If you have any room left for ice cream after all that…they have an ice cream bar in the main, too! Be sure to at least stop long enough to taste a sample…it’s worth it. Then you can wobble back to your car.

     Generations of visitors have come The Big Texan and often share photos with the owners. It’s a tasty tradition. Bobby says he never tires of hearing their stories.

     Just a note: one fun thing we didn’t find out about in time is a complimentary limo service to and from the restaurant! The Big Texan offers a complimentary limo pickup from most hotels, motels, and RV parks in Amarillo, as well as Cavender’s Boot City, and The Starbuck’s on I40 and Grand. Not just any limo, of course! A stereotypical limousine complete with longhorns mounted on the front. Pick-ups start at 4:00 and they drive customers home until everyone they brought is delivered safely back where they are staying. Check their website for the number to make a reservation for this unique shuttle.

      For someone who, as a little girl, devoured anything having to do with the Old West the Big Texan was like stepping into a little slice of good-humored  heaven…even before the food arrived. As a kid I would have eaten it up. But it was just as much fun as an adult.

     I highly suggest putting the Big Texan Steak Ranch at the top of your to-do list when you visit Amarillo. Just be sure to bring your appetite!





Palo Duro Canyon: Adventure on a Grand Scale

     I thought that when people referred to Palo Duro as the “Grand Canyon of Texas” they were probably overstating things . . . until I saw it for myself.

     The second largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 820 feet deep. It’s the second largest park in the state park system – 28,000 acres (over 45 square miles) with 28 miles of hiking, biking and horse trails. That’s a lot of territory!

     People have inhabited the canyon for about 12,000 years, and its history includes exciting chapters like Comanches and the Goodnight Trail. But This time around our family just focused on the absolute beauty of nature.

     Texas bought the land for the park in 1933. Civilian Conservation Corps workers spent five years creating the park, a cabin for their home base, the winding road to the canyon floor, the CCC Trail, and the El Coronado Lodge (now the Visitor Center). The craftsmen used local stone and wood for building materials and furniture, and forged decorative metal ornaments.

Boots were definitely more appropriate for riding horses than walking the canyon!

     After our morning ride along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon (more about that in my last post)  we headed to the state park, ready to see more of the stunning scenery. Initially, we intended to swing in for a short visit since we knew the clothes we were wearing (long sleeved shirts, jeans and boots) were perfect for riding, but not for hiking. Once there though, the views lured us further and further into the canyon, anxious to see what was next.

    Just a couple of miles inside the entrance, we made our first stop at the visitor’s center (the original the El Coronado Lodge) that was built by the CCC, so it was fitting that exhibits included some fascinating relics of the Corps’ days in the canyon. There’s also a small gift shop, though I’ll mention a more “souvenir-y” option  later in this post.

 

     The vistas from the vantage point outside of the lodge were so enchanting, we knew we had to go at least a bit further into the park.

     We took Park Road 5 which winds down to the canyon floor, circles clockwise in a 16 mile loop and slowly climbs back up to the rim.

Be sure to pick up a copy of a map of the canyon and its trails before leaving the Visitor Center.

     The first, short trail we ventured out on was relatively easy, but it was quickly apparent that at 11:00 a.m. it was already too hot (in addition to inappropriate clothing) for us to take on any of the longer trails. We were still fairly close to the rim, and the canyon floor would be about twenty degrees hotter!

     The view from even the least challenging trails are more than worth the effort and heat!

     Each one we investigated offered increasingly impressive scenery.

     Some of the trails were quite rocky and others were red dirt that I would have expected more in Oklahoma.

    Four geologic layers are exposed on the canyon walls, that seem to change color depending on the time of day and season of year – just one of the reasons Palo Duro draws so many amateur and professional photographers.

     Once I heard the erosion features referred to as “Mexican skirts” it was hard to get that image out of my mind. It’s really appropriate, don’t you think?

“Mexican Skirt” erosion feature

     The park provides enough diversity in its habitats to be a comfortable home to quite a variety of wildlife, in addition to part of the state herd of longhorns. Coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed and mule deer, and many species of snakes and lizards. We saw several roadrunners darting across the terrain, which reminded me of living in El Paso when I was little – and the birds seemed to be everywhere.

Palo Duro Mouse…look at those adorable ears! Photo courtesy of WTAMU.
Lots of creatures large and small make their homes in the canyon.

     You might even spot some wild turkeys. Did you know that a group of turkeys is called a “rafter?” There’s your trivia for the day!

 

 

 

 

 

     Two threatened species also live in the canyon: the Palo Duro mouse (which only lives in three Texas counties) and the Texas horned lizard (the State Reptile of Texas).

     Along our driving route we passed several picnic and camping areas. When I return for my next visit (and make no mistake about it…there WILL be a next visit!) I’d love to stay in one of the cabins on site. Imagine waking up to these views.

 

 

     One of the most pleasant surprises we encountered was fields or wildflowers, as well as individual flooring plants that had stubbornly pushed their way up through the dry dirt. In central and south Texas many wildflowers were already past season in June.

    Indian blanket, American basket-flower (shown in photo), sunflower, paperflower, blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats grama, buffalograss, sand sage, yucca and prickly pear cactus decorated the canyon floor and made the area appear to be more of a place for living creatures than desolate and empty.

Like mother- like daughter. My girl doing what it takes to get the shot!

     Even though we traveled the majority of the distance by car, we drank a LOT of water. Staying hydrated in the canyon (which can reach 130 degrees in summer) is non-negotiable!










     But if you think this vast canyon, however arid, couldn’t possibly be romantic I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Sharing this grandeur (not a word I use lightly) with the ones you love is a memorable experience.


     We pulled over one last time at the base of the canyon to check out the trailhead for the famous Lighthouse formation.

“Lighthouse” in the distance

     The Lighthouse Trail is the most well-known trail in Palo Duro Canyon. It’s considered a moderate hike ( 2.72 miles each way) but having arrived during the heat of the day without the proper shoes, we vowed to return at another time to venture off to see unusual 310 foot tall formation. I walked just around the initial bend of the trail to take a photo (though far away) of the lighthouse, which looked small in the distance.

     The park has posted multiple warnings about the danger of heat and dehydration at the head of the trail, and even staffed a tent with a ranger to provide information and advice to people before they set out. Although I certainly didn’t envy her, it was impressive how seriously they took visitors’ safety.

     By that time we had worked up an appetite and exhausted our water supply, so we headed to the Palo Duro Trading Post on the rim for a late lunch. They don’t serve anything fancy, but you know those times you’re so hungry everything taste like the BEST (fill in the food blank) ever? Yep, it was one of those days. The staff was friendly, service fast and tables clean. Hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs seemed like the find of the day. And the ice cream? C’mon…what do YOU think?

     The Trading Post also offered a fun variety of souvenirs from T-shirts to mugs to jewelry, all very reasonably priced.

Happy with our visit and satisfied appetites, we left the park to go back to the hotel to take off those boots and give our feet a rest before heading out to see more of Amarillo.

     If you only have time to visit one place in the Texas Panhandle (and that would be a shame), Palo Duro Canyon State Park should be that place.

     When you go, remember to:

  • Bring and drink water

  • Wear sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing

  • Have your camera ready

  • Bring and drink water

  • Pick up a map before you head out

  • Wear comfortable, supportive shoes

  • And…you guessed it…bring and drink plenty of water!

     Do you prefer to hike, bike or drive through sites like this beautiful state park? I’m interested to know!

 

Hit the Brakes – It’s Cadillac Ranch!

     Chances are if you’ve seen any photos of Route 66, a shot of the infamous Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo was among them. The row of ten, graffiti-covered Cadillacs buried nose-first in the ground has become famous around the world.

     Their make and models are no longer discernible due to weathering and layers of paint, but everyone seems to know they’re Cadillacs.

     The public art installation gained immediate attention from its inception in 1974 by eccentric businessman-turned-artist Stanley Marsh 3 (he thought the III after his name was too pretentious).

     Marsh commissioned the Ant Farm, a radical art group consisting of Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Dough Michaels, to carry out his plan.

     The classic Caddies dating from 1948 to 1963 were purchased for about $200 apiece and were installed with their original paint jobs. Depending on their drivability they were either hoisted or driven into the holes that became their almost-final resting places in a wheat field just outside the city limits.

     The temptation to visitors to leave their mark on the unusual sight became a rite of Route 66 passage, and didn’t seem to bother Marsh who embraced the enthusiasm of the new tradition.

     In 1997 urban sprawl necessitated moving the interactive folk art attraction a couple of miles down the road to its current site in a former cow pasture on I-40. The cars were carefully moved and reset in their original order and angle. It’s said that even some of the surrounding debris was moved to the new location with them, but that seems more like a bit of a Texas Tall Tale in the making.

     The cars were repainted in their original colors in 2002, and in 2003 they were painted in flat black to mourn the passing of the founder of the Ant Farm.

     Other than those two efforts, the colors and patterns have constantly evolved thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of visitors. It will never look exactly the same, even if you visit two days in a row.

     The Cadillac Ranch was one of our most anticipated stops along our trek across the Texas section of Route 66, and it didn’t disappoint. It almost shouts, “Just enjoy and don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Brooks & Dunn video

     You may even recognize the Ranch from Brooks & Dunn’s “Honky Tonk” music video  or Pixar’s animated ‘Cars’ movie – where its silhouette was used as the design for a mountain range.

     But let me steer you in the right direction for your own Caddie Outing . . .

     First of all, it’s free…so there’s no excuse to pass up the opportunity to visit. Plan to bring at least one can of spray paint per person to join in the fun.

     Heading east on I-40, take Exit 60 (Arnot Road). Pass through the intersection with Love’s Truck Stop and keep an eye out for cars parked on the side of the road to your right. Yes, the Cadillac Ranch is open 24/7/365 so there are always cars.

     Don’t expect a big touristy, lighted sign shouting the location, though. What you’ll see first is a turnstile gate and parked cars before you spot the Caddies propped up in a pasture in the distance.

     Typical for a summer day in the Panhandle, it was hot and windy so hats, sunscreen and water are essentials.

     The day we visited there was a fellow selling key chains and other quirky mementoes made from paint that had chipped off the cars, by the gate out of the back of his truck. Enterprising, but we passed. You’ll see large pieces of this layered paint on the ground surrounding the cars, so you can pick up one to make your own creation if you like.

     Once you pass through the turnstile a wide dirt path leads out to the Cadillacs.


     Note: the turnstile gate was the only access I saw while I was there, so unless a visitor in a wheelchair has assistance to get through the tight gate and has their folded chair passed as well, I’m not entirely sure this would be accessible. I would advise calling the visitors’ bureau who might know of another way in.

     I’ve also heard that the site can turn into quite a mud pit after a rain, but our timing didn’t make that an issue.

     We purposely wore clothes that we didn’t mind getting speckled with a bit of paint, since the wind chose exactly where the spray went.

     Don’t hesitate to jump right in and leave your mark on any or all of the cars. It’ll last at least until the next “artist” comes along.  Be aware if you’re climbing on or inside them that though they’re remarkable sturdy…they are deteriorating and shouldn’t be 100% trusted to support you!

     Some people even spray-painted messages and patterns in the dirt surrounding the cars, which was so hard it made a pretty good canvas.

     Visitors are asked to carry out their empty spray cans to toss in the trash bins along the fence line, but of course not everyone does. Be a bit of a hero and pick an extra one up to throw out with yours!

     The only traffic jam these cars see any more are the crowds that surround them. We chatted with people from several states and different countries and of all ages, and everyone was having a ball.

     Off-beat? Yes. Fun? Absolutely! The Cadillac Ranch makes my list of must-stops along the road.