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Texas

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

We’re going back in time to share our 2017 car camping adventure through the Southwest! While our trip ended up being shorter than planned, we had some amazing adventures, including several new national parks and getting to be on one of our favorite TV shows! Thanks for reading along!

The Plan had been to leave the Texas coast and head straight for our next stop: Big Bend National Park (cue heart eyes). But you guys should know by now that we rarely stick to the plan — and this time, it was for an unexpected and welcome detour.

At the time my brother, who lives in San Antonio with his wife, was working as a contractor in Iraq. When we were beaching camping, we learned that he was unexpectedly traveling home, and we’d be able to see him after all! His wife very graciously okayed our visit (even though we’d be passing through just a couple of days after my brother got back into the country) so we planned to spend a quick weekend seeing them and catching up.

Last time we visited our family in San Antonio we had a great time exploring the famous Riverwalk, the Alamo, and the Japanese Tea Gardens. This time, I was determined to get that San Antonio Missions National Historical Park stamp in my passport.

San Antonio Missions NHP 1 Our Streamlined Life

Our sister-in-law is photography student who has visited the missions several times to take pictures. I could see why once we arrived — the missions are beautiful!

San Antonio Missions NHP 3 Our Streamlined Life

There’s also a fantastic trail between the five missions comprising the park — and if you’re really up for some miles, you can take it all the way to the Riverwalk! We didn’t have time to walk the whole thing, prefer to linger over a few of them, but it would definitely be fun to come back and walk or bike the whole thing at another time.

 

San Antonio Missions NHP 9 Our Streamlined Life

Mission Concepción may have been my favorite — we had the whole place to ourselves, and it was very quiet and eerie.

San Antonio Missions NHP 5 Our Streamlined Life

We spent the most time at Mission San José, “Queen of the Missions.”

San Antonio Missions NHP 10 Our Streamlined Life

The park’s visitor center is located outside Mission San José, and we had a great time wandering the grounds and snapping pictures.

San Antonio Missions NHP 7 Our Streamlined Life

The day was moody and overcast, which added an eerie charm to the mission grounds.

San Antonio Missions NHP 6 Our Streamlined Life

We thoroughly enjoyed wandering the missions and learning a little more about the role they played in the early history of Texas!

San Antonio Missions NHP 4 Our Streamlined Life

We had a great time spending a few days in San Antonio, and left ready and refreshed for our next camping adventure in Big Bend National Park!

Beach Camping in Texas ⭐

We’re going back in time to share our 2017 car camping adventure through the Southwest! While our trip ended up being shorter than planned, we had some amazing adventures, including several new national parks and getting to be on one of our favorite TV shows! Thanks for reading along!

A much-awaited highlight of this trip was beach camping on the Texas coast — although our travels ended up not quite going as planned! Our trip from Louisiana took us through Houston in a crazy rainstorm …

Houston | Our Streamlined Life

… but as we turned south, the weather slowly turned to reveal some gorgeous clouds and Texas skyline that stretched on forever.

Texas Sky | Our Streamlined Life

The weather had us undecided on where to stop, and we waffled between powering through to our destination (S. Padre Island) and stopping at one of the many Texas state parks along the way. Eventually, after a long day of driving, we arrived outside Corpus Christi at Mustang Island State Park.

We’d planned to do some primitive beach camping, but as we arrived after dark we were a little hesitant about getting set up on the beach. We couldn’t quite tell where we were allowed to be and how soft the sand was. Finally, we just pulled into the parking lot off the beach and set up there.

Stealth Camping | Our Streamlined Life

We woke up the next morning to find the clouds had cleared and it was a beautiful sunny morning. (We weren’t the only ones camping the parking lot, either!)

Mustang Island Beach Breakfast | Our Streamlined Life

We drove out onto the beach, opened up the hitchenette, and made a delicious breakfast complete with beach views. It sure felt good to be camping again!

Feeling invigorated, we hit the road, once more headed south. We actually debated just staying at Mustang Island for a few more days, but I was determined to get in a little more primitive beach camping experience.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be — and I ended up making a rookie planning error that doomed our beach camping experience to ignominy …

… because, it would seem, Padre Island and South Padre Island are two very, very different places … and it’s a five hour drive to get from one to the other.

I won’t get into the details of the map-reading errors that landed us in this pickle. I’ll just say that when we arrived at S. Padre Island expecting a primitive national park landscape, and saw instead a crowded spring break destination, neither of us were thrilled. It was also hot as heck — the air conditioning in Franklin is out of commission — and we were informed at the county park campground I scrambled to find that car camping was not allowed under any circumstances. Ugh.

After much back-and-forth, and a medium-sized tantrum on my part, we ended up booking a hotel room, taking long showers, and grabbing dinner at the local brewery.

The next morning, we got up and tried again. I was determined to make beach camping happen, and we ended up scoring a spot at Isla Blanca County Park on the tip of the island.

Isla Blanca County Park Beach Camping | Our Streamlined Life

We set up shop and watched a glorious sunset over the bay.

Beach Sunset | Our Streamlined Life

It looked like we weren’t going to be able to check Padre Island National Seashore off our national parks list. But since we were definitely not going to be returning to South Padre Island anytime soon (okay, ever), I was determined to stamp my passport at nearby Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park.

Palo Alto Battlefield | Our Streamlined Life

We visited the visitor center, learned a little about the first battle in a two-year long war between the United States and Mexico that changed the map of North America, and walked the battlefield trail.

Less than impressed with South Padre Island, we opted to head north again … back to Mustang Island State Park, where we probably should have just stayed in the first place. Live and learn.

Mustang Island SP | Our Streamlined Life

Back on the beach, we decided we liked this part of Texas much better than the southern tip. The beach was prettier, it was much less crowded, and it was less hot and humid, too.

Mustang Island Jetty | Our Streamlined Life

It’s so sad to think that this area of Texas (outside Corpus Christi) suffered significant damage during Hurricane Harvey. But we can heartily recommend Mustang Island State Park as a lovely beachfront state park with nice facilities. (And in town, Coffee Waves Coffee Shop is a wonderful place get some caffeine … or gelato! … and do some work.)

While our beach camping experience was definitely not everything I’d hoped for, I’m glad we gave it a try. Next time I’d stay further north — Mustang Island is a good spot, as is Galveston Island State Park where we camped the previous year. I would still love to primitive beach camp on Padre Island National Seashore, although the warnings about the cost to rescue vehicles that get stuck in the sand are a little alarming.

Tell us in the comments: What are your recommendations for beach camping (in Texas and elsewhere)? How do you deal with humidity, bugs, and sand while camping? What are your favorite spots, and how do you find them?

Campground: Mustang Island State Park

  • Address: 17047 TX-361, Port Aransas, TX 78373
  • Our site: Primitive (Drive-up) Campsite
  • Available sites: Campsites with Water and Electric
  • Cost: $10 (plus $5/person entrance fee)
  • Pros: Beach camping, decent hot shower & restroom facilities. Conveniently located outside Corpus Christi.
  • Cons: Texas state parks, man. The facilities are just never nice enough to justify the relatively heavy price tag. That addition of the entrance fee gets us every time.

Campground: Isla Blanca Park

  • Address: 33174 State Park Rd 100, South Padre Island, TX 78597
  • Our site: Tent Site
  • Available sites: A range up to full hookups with cable
  • Cost: $15
  • Pros: Convenient location to S. Padre Island. Lots of amenities, and prime beach-front location.
  • Cons: Possibly the most crowded campground we’ve ever stayed in. Tent sites near the water were buggy and humid. The bathrooms were old and astonishingly dirty.

An Unplanned Hike (and Unexpected Discovery) in Big Bend (Day 12-13)

It’s been a while since we shared a post on our amazing Southwest Adventure — but our trip was too amazing not to share it all with you! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be blogging about the rest of our winter travels through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, with the goal of sharing our upcoming travels in a more “real time” way. And hey — if you’re starting to plan your winter travels around the United States, maybe these posts will serve as inspiration!

The day we were supposed to leave Big Bend National Park we woke up to the sun shining and the birds singing, feeling very rested after spending the previous day driving around the west side of the park. We quickly realized: we weren’t ready to leave! Given how much we still had to see, we decided to stick around another day. That morning I ended up talking to a neighboring camper and vanlifer who was interested in our camping build, and she told us about some beautiful trails she had hiked on the west side of the park at Oak Springs. She made it sound so appealing we decided to do it ourselves.

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We parked in front of Sam Nail Ranch, and started hiking east towards the Chisos mountain range. The views were spectacular! It was pretty warm that day, but as we hiked up into the foothills, we could feel the temperature slowly dropping, and the breeze picking up.

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Seriously though, those views.

After about 2 miles of hiking, we’d reached some woods, and discovered that the trail split. One path went toward Oak Springs, where we were planning on heading. BUT the other trail split off, and headed towards a secret, not-on-any-maps waterfall! Being the lovers of water that we are, we quickly decided to head that direction instead … after a short break.

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We hiked up out of the wooded ravine, and were on our way towards the falls. After another mile or so, we could see the ravine we’d be hiking into.  The whole time from here on in, all I could think about was the old black and white Lone Ranger show I used to watch with my brothers when we were kids — the landscape was nearly identical.

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After another 20 minutes or so of winding through the ravine, we’d reached the falls! And it was super cool.

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It’s hard to get a sense of scale from the pictures, but the fall was close to 50 feet tall, and fell into a beautiful shallow pool at the bottom. While we didn’t see any, it was cool to know that black bears and even mountain lions used this pool for drinking water.

cattail falls 2

We ate our lunch in the shade near to the falls, and enjoyed the peace and quiet almost entirely to ourselves. Then, we headed back towards the truck, and were treated to more amazing views on the way out.

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We made it back to the car by late afternoon, and headed back towards our campground in hopes of doing something we hadn’t gotten around to yet: watching the sunset from Boquillas Canyon. We’d been told by numerous people it was a must-do in Big Bend, so we decided to check it off the list before we left in the morning. We drove out, hiked in, and we were not disappointed: the canyon was beautiful.

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We got this fun shot, and had a great time exploring the area — the Rio Grande runs right through the canyon, so we enjoyed sticking our feet in the water and running around.

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The sunset was clear and glorious — a perfect end to our last night in Big Bend.

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The next day we summoned all our willpower to leave Big Bend — already planning a return trip for the following winter. Our first stop leaving the park was at Oasis Tire where we finally replaced that blown tire. (We can’t speak highly enough of how fast and helpful they were to a couple of travelers in need!) In just a few hundred miles and less than 24 hours the temperature went from 101 degrees in Big Bend to 41 degrees in Alpine, Texas — so we rushed through our planned stop at Fort Davis National Historical Site and headed on to our next campground, Brantley Lake State Park in Carlsbad, New Mexico. We were ready to explore Carlsbad Caverns!

Her Name is Rio and She Dances on the Sand (Day 7)

The next day dawned sunny and bright — perfect for road tripping!

But somehow … we just weren’t feeling it.

About two hours into our seven-ish hour drive towards Big Bend National Park, we were already starting to feel grouchy. We both felt silly about it — after all, we were barely a week into our road trip and had only done about ten hours of driving! — but sometimes, you just gotta go with it.

We started plotting a stop between San Antonio and Big Bend, but nothing on the map was catching our eye. Turns out south-central Texas is a pretty boring place. Finally, after just three hours of driving, we saw a sign for Seminole Canyon State Park and decided to throw in the towel. (It was like 2:00 pm. That’s how ridiculous we were being.)

Well, being ridiculous turned out to be an awesome decision. In addition to being a beautiful campground, Seminole Canyon is also a state historic site. It’s home to more than 200 7,000-year-old pictographs, and the park offers inexpensive, informative ranger-led tours.

Looking down into the canyon, it didn’t seem that big …

Seminole Canyon 1 - The Canyon

But once you were down in it, it felt massive. (See how tiny I look!)

Seminole Canyon 2 - The Canyon

The tour was quite interesting, and it was so cool to be able to get this close to the pictographs. In most cases we can only guess at their meaning, but the ranger offered lots of interesting facts about the Native American people who used to live here.
Seminole Canyon 3 - Pictographs

Our campsite was a simple flat spot with a picnic table and campfire ring, but we didn’t need anything else! We heated up some leftover homemade chili and enjoyed a quiet night under the stars. (Below, I’m probably Instagramming this picture to share with you nice people!)

Seminole Canyon 4 - Campsite

We decided, in the spirit of adventure, to get up early the next morning and do a hike before getting back on the road. (If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that “getting up early” isn’t exactly our scene, so we felt like this was kind of a big deal.) It was a little overcast, crushing our hopes of a crazy sunrise over the canyon, but the temperatures were perfect for hiking!

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As we wound our way along the Canyon Rim Trail, we suddenly came into view of the mighty Rio Grande!

Seminole Canyon 7 - Hike

Our destination was the Panther Cave overlook, which we’d heard about from our ranger guide the day before. An immense pictograph panel spans the back wall of a rock shelter visible across the canyon, and includes a panther image nine feet long!

We had to climb out on the edge of canyon to get a look at it, so we enjoyed a little snack break, too.

Seminole Canyon 6 - Hike

And we used binoculars to check out the panther across the canyon.

Seminole Canyon 8 - Hike

Because it was so far away, we couldn’t get a good picture of it, but here’s a good shot of it from Wiki (if you have a canoe or a kayak, you can get into the cave from the river):Seminole Canyon 9 - Panther

We took the more direct trail back to our campsite, and after a quick breakfast, got back on the road. We were energized by our early morning hike and excited to see more of Texas … and finally get to Big Bend!

Campground: Seminole Canyon State Park (Texas)

  • Drive-up primitive camping
  • Cost: $15 for camping, $3/person entrance fee (as of February 17, 2016).
  • Pros: Easy access to water and nice bathroom facilities, even for “primitive” campsites. Beautiful quiet location and easy access to hiking trails along the canyon. And the historic site was an unexpected bonus!
  • Cons: The park is conveniently located just off route 90 — but there’s nothing else around for miles. Very limited phone service (AT&T).
  • Seminole Canyon State Park also has sites with water nearby for $14/night and water & electric hookups for $20/night.

Sunny San Antonio! (Days 4-6)

After a few beautiful days on the beach, we were headed for our first city of the road trip: San Antonio, where we would be spending a few days with my brother and his wife. I had visited them before, but it would be Ryan’s first time in San Antonio and I was excited for him to see the city!

We spent our first afternoon in town just relaxing, but the next day we headed into downtown San Antonio to explore the city. The first stop, of course, was the Alamo!

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I was once again surprised by our first sight of the Alamo. It looks so incongruous sitting there, nestled among high rises and tourists!

San Antonio 2 - The Alamo

We took a few selfies while standing in line to get in. The line was quite long, but moved quickly. You can’t take pictures inside the building, but it’s very interesting; there are many artifacts, a helpful diorama of the battle, and exhibits about the history of the Alamo. It’s a San Antonio must-see, but I think once you’ve seen it, there’s not much value in repeating the experience. I think next time we go we’ll have to check out the San Antonio Missions National Park.

From the Alamo we walked a few blocks to the San Antonio River Walk. It claims to be the number one tourist attraction in Texas, and while I’m not sure how they would be able to measure that, it’s definitely a gorgeous spot. I absolutely love green spaces in cities, and am irresistibly drawn to water — so I love the River Walk! It’s really a beautiful urban oasis, and if we lived in the area I think we’d be there often.

San Antonio 3 - The Riverwalk

The River Walk can also be quite crowded. It was an overcast but warm February day when we visited, so we had plenty of company on our walk. I knew I wanted Mexican for lunch and Ryan and Adam were nice enough to indulge me. We enjoyed delicious food and margaritas, with lots of opportunities for people-watching.

San Antonio 4 - The Riverwalk

Our afternoon in San Antonio also happened to be Valentine’s Day, so after enjoying our late lunch, we headed home to get ready for a very important Valentine’s Day celebration: a double date to see Deadpool. Coincidentally, the theater my brother suggested also popped up on many “Top Ten Must See Places in San Antonio” — the Alamo Drafthouse. It was definitely a fun way to see a movie, and the milkshakes were a-mazing.

The next day was time for another Texas must: Shooting! It was my first time, and the guys were very patient teachers. We shot several different 9 millimeter handguns, a .38 revolver, an AR-15, an AK-47, and my brother’s new 9 millimeter 30-round machine pistol, which he and Ryan were very excited about.

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We rounded out the day with some homemade chili, ice cream, and a movie night!

We spent the next morning catching up on work, doing some grocery shopping for the next leg of the trip, and taking advantage of having a washing machine. By the afternoon we were itching to get out and explore again, so we headed back downtown to visit the Japanese Tea Garden.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was absolutely breathtaking!

San Antonio 6 - Japanese Tea Gardens

Built down into an old rock quarry just outside Brackenridge Park, the entire spot felt like a secret garden.

The garden features winding walkways, stone arch bridges, an island, and an impressive Japanese pavilion. The lush year-round garden also has a 40-foot waterfall and calm green ponds full of huge Koi fish.

San Antonio 8 - Japanese Tea Gardens

Most of the garden wasn’t even blooming when we were there (it was mid-February, after all) and it was still gorgeous.

San Antonio 9 - Japanese Tea Gardens

The gardens were lush and beautiful, but this giant pavilion overlooking the pond was truly impressive. It offers a lovely view of the gardens below and provides a patio for Jingu House, the cafe that sadly wasn’t open when we visited.

The Japanese Tea Garden was a surprising addition to our San Antonio visit, and one of my favorite parts of the trip! I’d highly recommend it as a San Antonio must-see.

Our stay in San Antonio was the perfect mix of relaxing and exploring, and we thoroughly enjoyed our family’s hospitality! The next day we’d be back on the road. We had a seven hour drive planned, with target destination of Big Bend National Park — but little did we know, we wouldn’t make it there that day …