A Sneak Preview of Texas’ NEW State Park!

A big ranch on the Texas coast has just been set aside as our NEWEST state park, and guess what?! Today you get a sneak preview of it here on Whit’s Wilderness! I’m excited to share it with you because A) it is gorgeous, and B) I have a feeling it’s going to be one of our most popular state parks, and you need to be in the know.

The good news is it’s not coming online for another five years, so you have plenty of time to renovate an Airstream trailer and become a professional outdoorswoman before it opens. 🙂

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The park is called Powderhorn Ranch, and it is located near Port O’Connor, Texas just up the coast from Rockport on Matagorda Bay.

We were there on a camp out with Stewards of the Wild, a group for young people in their 20’s and 30’s who are into the outdoors and conservation. This is a GREAT group to join, they always have fun activities that show a “behind the scenes” look at Texas Parks and Wildlife happenings.

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At 17,000 acres, Powderhorn is pretty sizeable (Memorial Park in Houston is 1,400 acres, for comparison) and it’s right on the beach in prime fishing, hunting, birding, and kayaking territory.

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We got to camp right on the water, with the soothing sound of the waves to put us to sleep and a killer sunrise to wake up to the next morning.

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We felt totally spoiled to get to see this park before it opened to the public, and had so much fun driving around looking at wildlife, kayaking, and fishing on the coast.

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The lodge on the property has a huge wraparound porch, and will be open for group reservations in the future. (You will want to get in on this!)

Panoramic beach views and an entire row of posts just for hammocks make it simply heavenly. Brandon tested out the hammock situation just for you all, and he reports that it is up to his napping standards.

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While a lot of land along the coast is flat and marsh-like, this ranch has such diverse scenery, from freshwater ponds that the birds and alligators love, to oak thickets, tall grass prairies, and beautiful grassy coastline.

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It was seriously so pretty.

In the future, a huge portion of this land will be used for public hunting and about 2,500 acres of oceanfront property will become the state park.

The prime part of the coastline is going to be the heart of the state park, and campsites are going to be strung out along the waterfront.

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I think this is going to be the part of the park that makes Texans fall in love with their state all over again.

The sunrise from this point is simply beautiful and there’s not a building for miles to ruin the view.

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You will want to bring your kayaks (or rent them from the park) because the fishing and sightseeing along the coast is something out of a magazine.

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{This coastline is Stewards of the Wild tested and approved!}

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As a wildlife lover and so was avidly photographing all of the deer, herons, pelicans, and shorebirds.

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Texas is a huge haven for migrating birds, and given how large our coastline is, we are a major part of their migratory route. They love the freshwater ponds and estuaries along the coast, and after a long gulf flight they love hanging out here and refueling on the fish, plankton, and plants in marshes and wetlands before continuing on their journeys.

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One morning I watched about a dozen pelicans dive-bomb their breakfast of fish just under the surface.

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Later that day I made everyone apple cobbler on the dutch oven and it hit the spot.

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We had a big bonfire on the beach that night, and I was reminded how much I love beach bonfires.

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Beach bonfires are the best.

But of course, not every camping trip is perfect. Ha. A huge thunderstorm pelted us with rain and wind Saturday night and we made a fun little discovery that our tent was not “waterproof” at. all. Water came through the roof and puddles formed around the edge of our tent, soaking our belongings. We layed awake from about 2am to 5am as the thunder and lightning passed overhead.

But despite it all, we had such an incredible time and I once again was wow-ed by the natural beauty of our state. We are so lucky to have places like this to enjoy and I am so excited for the many Texans who will get to visit this ranch and make memories in years to come.

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One day I’ll get to tell my kids, “Your father and I came here before it was a state park, before there were restrooms, roads or any of these fancy amenities!” We’ll tell them about how we got stuck in a thunderstorm and how we had sticker burrs in our sleeping bags. I’m sure they will roll their eyes. But I still can’t wait to share this slice of pristine Texas coastline with them.

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How YOU Can Go to This Park Before it Opens!

  • If you are between 21 and 45, and live in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, or Dallas, you can join Stewards of the Wild. They will be making one last trip to Powderhorn next year and you can join them.

Things to Know

  • Location:

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  • 3 hours from Austin, Houston, and San Antonio
  • Lots of sticker burrs, beware! Bring a tarp to put under your tent. We had sticker burrs and thorns poking through the floor of our tent.
  • Bring bug spray
  • It can be windy

A Bit About the Public Hunting

I personally can’t wait to sign up for public hunting down at Powderhorn. Public hunting will open in 2018, before the rest of the park is open to the public. Those of you looking to put wild game on your table can look forward to that! See my instructions for how to hunt Texas park land here.

Where the Name Comes From

A “powderhorn” is what they used back in the old days to hold gun powder, and was typically a cow or buffalo horn with the ends sawed off and stoppers at both ends. It was worn around the waist/cross body. The lake near Powderhorn Ranch is shaped like a powderhorn, hence the name.

What to Do in the Area

Thanks to PBS’ The Daytripper for these tips!

I hope you all get a chance to enjoy this beautiful park some day! Until then check out our many great state parks on the coast, like Mustang Island and Galveston Island.

9 Reasons to Make Truckee, CA Your Next Summer Vacation

This summer after our big backpacking excursion, my family spent a few days in Truckee, California, a cute mountain town near Lake Tahoe. After sleeping on the hard ground for days on the trail, it was a treat to sleep on a mattress and have internet! I also fell in love with this town for other reasons, which I’ll talk about here. This is the PERFECT vacation spot for a family so I hope you enjoy!

I know many of my readers are looking for places where their family can enjoy the outdoors while not having to forego all of life’s little luxuries. We want wifi, comfortable accommodations, and plenty to do, and we want it all for an affordable price. Nowadays most vacations require you to plan months if not years in advance, and once you get to your destination, it’s often crowded and full of tourists. I don’t know about you, but planning years in advance ain’t always my cup of tea.

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But this is.

Even though Truckee is near Lake Tahoe, and even though it is beautiful, it is neither crowded nor touristy. Truckee has wide roads that are free from traffic and potholes. There is plenty of parking and no lines to get in anywhere. We did not make a single plan or reservation before we got there and still were able to do what we wanted! All without bribing a sole. Oh, did I mention it’s in California? So you get that cool California weather, too.

I think Truckee must be California’s little secret.

How to Do Truckee

  • Rent a house on Tahoe Signature Properties (in Tahoe Donner location). We stayed at this one and LOVED IT: Three Pines Cabin…we will definitely be coming back.
  • Be sure to rent a house that includes Tahoe Donner recreation membership cards if you can. (It will say in the description.) This is not required to use the amenities I describe below but strongly recommended.
  • Utilize the Tahoe Donner Association recreational facilities. (See below.)
  • Fly into Reno and rent a car. It’s a 35-40 minute drive to Truckee.
  • 4+ days recommended
  • Go to the Trout Creek Recreation Center the day you get in and pick up their activity guide for the latest info on what’s going on in the area

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What You’ll Love

1. Swim, kayak, fish, sunbathe, and boat on Donner Lake

The central feature of the Truckee area is Donner Lake. While not as large as nearby Lake Tahoe, Donner is a 5 minute drive from town and much more intimate. You can rent kayaks at the Tahoe Donner Marina Beach Club, or you can walk your dog, picnic, or swim at the parks around the edge. If you get on-the-ball early enough in the day, you can commandeer one of the docks for picnicking and sunbathing, and THAT looks like the way to spend the day.

The Beach Club Marina’s guided kayaking tours are also rumored to be fun.

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Donner Lake

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Our kayaks

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A stud in a hat!

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the crew

2. Hike a nearby trail or keep up your exercise regime at Trout Creek Recreation Center

Work out by day, pizza by night, am I right? That sounds like vacation to me. Between the many trails in this area and all of the work out opportunities, you don’t have to feel too guilty about stopping at The Treat Box Bakery for doughnuts or going to Full Belly Deli for lunch.

The Trout Creek Rec Center has fitness classes as well as a full gym.

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If you want to feel the burn but also get some fresh air, the trails are ample in this area. I loved the Summit Lake Trail. Between the Tahoe Donner Land Trust and the Tahoe Donner Neighborhood Association, over 7,000 acres of the surrounding landscape has been purchased and preserved for hiking and mountain biking, keeping the views pristine and opening up miles of trails for the public.

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Summit Lake Trail

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Summit Lake Trail

3. Drop your kids off for trail rides, hikes, archery lessons, and other kids camps offered in Tahoe Donner.

Your littlest ducklings can go to Kids Camp at the Trout Creek Rec Center playroom.

The kids camps might be the only thing you need to reserve in advance. See the Tahoe Donner website closer to summertime for details. Here’s a brief overview of what is offered:

  • Equestrian Center: trail rides, horsemanship lessons, pony rides
  • Golf Course: Junior Golf School, Junior clinics, Glow Golf family parties
  • Trout Creek Recreation Center: archery clinics, kids night out, geocaching, adventure days (includes hiking, crafts, archery, and games)
  • Swimming: swim lessons
  • Beach Club Marina: water kids club, pirate treasure hunt
  • Day camps: 9-noon/9-2pm depending on age. Includes activities mentioned above.
  • Tennis center: Junior tennis program
  • Mountain biking: “Bike Like a Girl” bike camp,
  • Sailing: Junior sailing camp

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Playground at the Tennis Center

Since there are so many kid friendly activities, there are plenty of adults in the 30’s and 40’s age range. So….

4. Go to One of the Parties for Adults

Party time! Woo hoo! One of the fun perks of the Tahoe Donner facilities is the parties they throw for adults. They take place at the various facilities, and include everything from barbecues to tennis round robins. One of the most appealing to me was a bratwurst and tennis round robin party (two of my favorite things in life combined). I also saw a Cowgirls and Cocktails party that looked fun, a Pancakes and Ponies party (this one included kids obviously but hey, where’s the adult version?!), trivia night, family movie night, and a private Euer Valley dinner….just to name a few events from this summer!

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Fire ring at the equestrian center

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Tennis center

5. Don’t Miss Truckee Thursdays Downtown

The charming downtown is blocked off every Thursday night in the summer for a street festival. You can buy lobster rolls, fresh bread, jewelry, art, ever-important coffee mugs, and plenty of strange hippie dippie things if you so desire. Food trucks line up and the boutiques are open late. There’s usually a band and at the very least a street act. It’s people watching at it’s finest.

(PS. Everyone in Truckee is fit and dressed in outdoor gear. I guess that’s what happens when you mountain bike all day.)

*Park at the Trout Creek Recreation Center and take the free shuttle, as downtown is just about the only place in Truckee with limited parking.*

6. Truckee’s Gorgeous Golf Course

The best part of golfing is the courses you get to play on, am I right? This one is beautiful.

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There’s a putting green and driving range right by the Lodge restaurant, and we had a fun afternoon eating and putting. (I get more excited about golf when food is involved.)

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View of golf course from The Lodge restaurant

On that note…

7. Dinner at the Lodge is a must!

This place has a chic and romantic vibe at night. Get a patio table if the weather’s nice! We sat on the patio and gorged ourselves on the delicious food…I can’t remember what we ate, it was one big delicious blur, but I remember being incredibly happy with it.

8. The view from Donner Pass

Outside of town is Donner Pass, which can be accessed by car. The views up here are awesome and not to be missed!

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Justin, mom, and me at Donner Pass

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Donner Lake

(After my backpacking trip I was all for whatever we could see by car. 🙂 )

9. Lake Tahoe is right nextdoor

You MUST drive by Lake Tahoe on your trip! Tahoe is such an incredible sight. It’s immense, and the fact that it is naturally formed (i.e. not formed by a dam) makes it a true wonder. 900 feet deep, pure glacial blue…so lovely. I’ve heard the boat rides offered there are fun, but the place that will be on my list next time is this Scandinavian Castle built on the shore of Lake Tahoe in the 1920’s era by a woman named Lora Knight.

Other Things to Know about Truckee

  • I said it above but it deserves another mention: Full Belly Deli is where it’s AT!
  • You might want to stop in Big Truck hat shop and get a hat…it’s kind of the uniform around these parts. (Conveniently next door to Full Belly Deli.)
  • Tahoe National Forest is nearby and stunning

I hope you have the chance to see Truckee one day and enjoy it as much as I have! Who knows, it could be a family tradition in the making.

A few last parting images from our trip…

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Tahoe National Forest

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This lake has been sent to the lab for testing

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Swimming at Trout Creek Recreation center

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Equestrian center and its many offerings

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Mountain bikes for rent

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Monarch butterfly sippin’ on some pollen on Summit Lake Trail

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Mi familia…very happy

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9 Things to Know About Visiting the Everglades National Park

Last weekend, before the Memorial Day weekend hit, Brandon and I left the confines of Texas and ventured out to the beaches of Florida. He had a conference, so we took it as an excuse to vacation there for a few days.

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While there, I pulled up a map and found we were only 1.5 hrs from Everglades National Park. By Texas standards, that was practically next door. (We only have two national parks in Tejas and both are 6+ hours away!) Wouldn’t it be a crime to not visit, if we were this close?

Plus, I had just heard Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna Bush Hager speak in San Antonio about their new book, Our Big Backyard, which highlights five national parks including the Everglades. The Bush women spoke romantically about the park and so I thought, If Laura and Jenna Bush like it, certainly I will too, right?

Not to mention, Everglades National Park has the following accolades:

  • World Heritage Site
  • Biosphere Reserve
  • Wetland of International Significance
  • Largest wilderness in the Southeast
  • Largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere
  • Most significant breeding grounds for tropical wading birds in North America

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Brandon and I set off for the park the following morning, venti coffees in tow. As we approached, the landscape melted into the simple sawgrass prairie the park is known for, and we watched shorebirds fish in canals as we sped along the road.

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We parked, and as I opened the car door, a wall of heat hit me instantaneously. It’s ok, I’m from Texas. I can take this, I thought as I stepped out. But within minutes, I felt like a withering flower in a convection oven.

1. Florida is hot.

I live in a place that reaches 113 degrees in the summer, but the heat of the Everglades is something special. No wind, no mercy, and no tall trees.

After breezing through the visitor center, we took a quick jaunt over the nearby swamp on a boardwalk.

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We saw some turtles….

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…pretty fish….

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and, drumroll, please…a baby alligator!

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I later read in the Christian Science Monitor that a new study found some alligators in the Everglades are not American alligators, but man eating Nile crocodiles.

How lovely.

Leading from the visitor center is a 15 mile round trip to an observation tower. You can walk, rent bikes for $9/person, or take a tram that runs only every few hours for $24/person.

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The tram wasn’t leaving for another few hours, so we decided to walk down the road. We had gone merely a few hundred feet, and had to stop. It was sweltering, and there was no way we would make it 15 miles round trip.

And so I learned…

2. Take the tram to the observation tower

Do not walk, my friends!

Having given up on the idea of walking, due to the next scheduled departure not being until 2:00pm, I unfolded my map and found a designated “Scenic Loop” in the nearby Big Thicket Preserve.

Which brings me to the next few lessons I learned about the Everglades that afternoon…

3. Prepare Yourself for Mosquitoes

We followed said “Scenic Loop” through the neighboring preserve at the glacial speed limit of 30 mph. The land was entirely bottomland swamps, with brush was so overgrown that we couldn’t see more than five feet beyond the edge of the road.

After several miles, we made a u-turn.

When we passed a sign for a nature trail, we decided to give it a go.

As we entered the trail, it felt as if a curtain was closing behind us. Shade enveloped us and the air was at once muggy and damp.

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I had made about five strides into the forest when I noticed a few mosquitoes enjoying my arm. I swatted them, and turned to Brandon. As the words, “I’m going to get the bug spray,” left my mouth, a swarm of mosquitoes descended upon us.

Mosquitoes swarmed in my face. I looked down at my legs, bare in nothing but shorts, and saw at least a dozen more attaching themselves to me. Brandon and I looked at each other and started bolting for the car. According to him, five mosquitoes remained attached to my right leg during the entire sprint.

It was not my favorite moment of the trip, but it is a memory I will never forget.

4. Focus Your Time on the South Side of the Park

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There are two roads that lead through the park–one on the north side, and one on the south side.

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This is remarkable when you consider the park is 1.5 million acres, larger than the state of Delaware. Imagine Delaware with only two roads!

Thus it is important to note that very little can be seen by car, and even less by car on the northern road, Highway 41.

I recommend the southern road.

5. Arrive Early

Shark Valley Visitor Center has a tiny parking lot and a one car in, one car out policy when it gets full.

6. See it by boat

Airboat rides are a dime a dozen, and you don’t always need to make reservations. They are a thrilling, high speed way to see the scenery.

Kayaking is another option, which enables you to weave through the mangrove swamps and camp at remote areas. That being said, I have heard from two people that there are too many critters for this to be enjoyable. You have been warned!

If kayaking, I would entertain the notion of hiring a guide.

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7. Allow 2 days

If you really want to experience it, one day is not enough time to see a 1.5 million acre wetland. I vote two days including a boat tour, or not at all.

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8. Wear a hat!

The sun is merciless, and you will need a respite.

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9. Everglades National Park is a great place for birders

We saw more than our fair share of birds, and I’m sure with patience, a few days, and another set of binoculars, we would have encountered much more.

After our Everglades Escapade, we pointed our car north and headed to Palm Beach. Brandon’s conference was starting the next day. Back in civilization, I donned my Lilly Pulitzer (this was her hometown after all), and before I knew it I was at the Breakers Hotel, cooling off with a view of the ocean.

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I hope you have a successful, enjoyable trip to the Everglades. It is very different from our other national parks, but a natural wonder in its own right.

Plan Your Visit

  • Everglades NPS Website: here
  • Nearby cities: Miami, Key Largo, Florida City

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Field Fashion Friday: Water Sports Attire

Sometimes a bikini or one-piece isn’t right for various water sports. (Jumping into a lake, for instance, is not friendly to bikinis…unless you like losing your top!) One of my favorite outdoor brands, Prana, is making some cute swimwear this season for athletic-type uses in the water. Kayaking, cliff jumping, stand up paddling, etc. I love the colors and practical design. Growing up kayaking, I always found outfits like this to be much more comfortable.

First up: Lorelei Sun Top + Hydra Short

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Hydra Short

Next: Atla Tankini + Rai Swim Tight

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I love these pants so much!

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Alternatively, wear them with the Isma Top.

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Last but not least, these board shorts are a great option with the tops above or your favorite quick-dry (read: not cotton) t-shirt.

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Here are all the links: Lorelei Sun Top / Atla Tankini / Isma Top / Millie Board Short / Rai Swim Tight / Hydra Short

Happy snorkeling!

Where to Kayak In Austin (And What to Eat Afterwards)

The most popular place to kayak in Austin is Lady Bird Lake, which runs through the center of our city. Kayaking on Lady Bird is perfect, because the lake is beautiful, wide, and doesn’t have a strong current. There are ample places to explore via boat. Paddle up Barton Creek, and enjoy the crystal clear waters that afford excellent views of passing turtles and carp. (I love this little jaunt.) Paddle down to Longhorn Dam at the end of the lake, and get your workout in. Or, paddle as far up as Red Bud Isle, a charming island where you will see labs bellyflopping in the water and chasing after tennis balls.

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How cute is this guy?

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Given the lake’s perfection for kayaking, there are several businesses that can cater to your paddling needs and today I’ll tell you the ones I have tested and approve.

Option 1 – Texas Rowing Center

The first and probably the easiest to find is the Texas Rowing Center. This is the best choice if you want to be in the middle of the action on the lake.

(Which can be a lot of fun, and can be hectic. If you don’t like crowds, then wait for my second and third options.)

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How to Get There

Park at Austin High, at the intersection pf Mopac and Cesar Chavez. The TRC sign is just around the bend from the tennis courts.

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When you get to this sign, you’ll know you’re in the right place, because you will see paddles, boats, boards, life jackets, and dozens of people in Chacos.

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Go down these steps to the shack on the left. First you must sign a liability release and then you take the form up to the cashier and tell her what you want to rent.

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What to Rent

They have one person kayaks, two person kayaks, stand up paddleboards, and canoes.

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How Long To Rent

You can either rent for an hour or for the whole day. I prefer more than an hour.

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How to Integrate Delicious Food into this Experience

Pack some charcuterie in your lunch sack. A little smoked gouda never hurt anyone. Kayak up to Red Bud Isle, get out, and have a picnic. Or, kayak up Barton Creek, and take a breather while you eat lunch, and let the current carry you downstream. I’m all about the picnic, can you tell?

Option Deux – Austin Rowing Club

Another option is to go to Congress Avenue Kayaks at the Austin Rowing Club at Trinity St. and Cesar Chavez. I used to row with a crew here and love this boathouse.

This option is great because you can rent the boats for a half day (four hours), which I deem to be the perfect amount of time for a satisfying kayak experience.

Shout out to our friends Kevin and Lindsay. Kevin gives ARC a thumbs up.

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How to Get There

Park near the intersection of Trinity and Cesar Chavez, and walk south on Trinity Street until it dead ends at the boathouse. Parking can be a nightmare in this area. Austin Rowing Club boathouse is two floors, and you will take the stairs down to the lake level to find the kayak kiosk. Kayak kiosk. Kayak kiosk. (Say that ten times fast.)

How to Integrate Delicious Food into This Experience

The ARC boathouse is a beauty, and perhaps the classiest looking place to rent a boat on the lake.

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Grab a glass of wine or cup of joe and a sweet pastry from Alta’s coffee shop, in the boathouse, and sit out on the patio one afternoon…you won’t regret it.

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How Long to Rent

If you are planning on kayaking to Barton Creek from ARC, you will want to rent your boat for a half day. The creek is a little ways away. It’s not strenuous or exhausting to get there, you just can’t do the round trip in an hour without hustling.

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Bonus – People Watching!

One benefit of renting from ARC is that you can easily get downriver, across the I-35 bridge, to our city’s new boardwalk, where you’ll see people biking, walking, running, and pushing strollers.

This section of the river is less crowded, too—another perk.

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Option Trois

Continuing on down the lake, there is The Expedition School. Out of the three options, this offers the most diversity of classes and events. They host everything from a full moon paddle potluck to wilderness first aid. If you ever want to have a lesson before you get out in the boat, this is the place to go. See their website here for a full list: www.expeditionschool.com.

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Nothing like a good haiku to start your paddle off right!

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Pro Tip

Call before you go and make sure that they’re available. One year I called and I said I want to stand up paddleboard, and they said, Come on down! When do you want to come? And I said, Well, I’d like to come this Friday. Do I need a reservation? and they said Nope! Just show up! So I did, and had a great day on the water. Then this year I showed up there without a reservation, and they had classes all day and couldn’t rent me a board.

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Why choose the Expedition School?

One perk of TEDS is that it sits on a lagoon, away from even the slightest current. (Translation: much easier to balance on a board!) Once you have your sea legs, you can head out into the main stretch of the lake.

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However, in all honesty here, from a person who is neither coordinated nor daring, there’s nothing to fear in kayaking or stand up paddling for the first time. It’s not as hard as it looks, and I think SUP-ing looks really hard!

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One thing I like about The Expedition School over TRC or ARC is that you can paddle downstream to Snake Island (sounds creepier than it looks) near Dam Longhorns—ahem, I mean Longhorn Dam—sorry—and have a picnic there.

How to Integrate Delicious Food Into This Scenario

After you’re done paddling, go get some pizza at Bufalina. Or, get tacos and queso fundido on the patio at Takoba! You will have earned it. Like I said, anytime you can integrate food into something, it’s much more fun.

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Have fun out there! Leave your questions in the comments.

Wardrobe Staple: My Favorite Water Shoes

solomon techamphibian womens, salomon techamphibian women's, women's water shoes, river shoes women

Salomon Women’s Techamphibian Shoes, $50-$70, Amazon.com

I’ve had these shoes for many years, and can recommend them confidently. They’ve gotten me through a Pecos river canoe trip, multiple Guadalupe river excursions, and most recently, a hike along Barton Creek in Austin. I’ve categorized them as “Wardrobe Staples,” as they are comfortable and practical for any excursion involving water.

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Like a tennis shoe, they have tough rubber soles and laces, but unlike tennis shoes, they are mesh, allowing water to flow through the shoe but keeping out pebbles. The mesh allows them to dry quickly.

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The laces are a cable with a drawstring and lock feature, which you simply cinch down until snug.

Wearing a full coverage shoe like this as opposed to Chaco or Teva sandals protects the top of your feet. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have unknown objects brushing the top of my feet as I wade through a river.

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The most handy feature for overnight canoe/kayak expeditions is the back of the shoe, which is made to be folded down, turning the shoe into a slip-on. I found this handy when camping alongside the Pecos river several years ago and needing to go in and out of my tent regularly.

These are not meant to be worn with socks.

My only complaint was that after hiking several miles in these yesterday and wading in the creek, I had a blister on the back of my foot. But I assume that can be expected when hiking with wet feet and no socks for several miles.

Not a paid advertisement.

Kayaking Lady Bird Lake

More info on where to rent kayaks can be found in this post: Where to Rent Kayaks in Austin (and Where to Eat Afterwards)

One of the things I do in my free time is mentor a George W. Bush Institute Women’s Initiative Fellow. The fellowship is a yearlong leadership training program for women from North Africa and the Middle East, and I have been paired up with Insaf, a bright and confident Tunisian woman. Insaf is starting an initiative to increase recycling in her country. I will have to tell you all about her some time! But for now, I want to tell you about the time we kayaked Lady Bird Lake together.

Insaf (pronounced just as it is spelled) visited me in Austin one weekend this past March. We ate Mexican food, went to a SXSW film screening, and shopped till we dropped. We got some work in too. But, no tour of Austin would be complete without a little time on Lady Bird Lake, so I took her kayaking.

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Insaf had never been kayaking before. When I first proposed the idea during one of our Skype dates, she seemed a little dubious. However, she said she trusted me to make her time in Texas worthwile and whatever I thought we should do, she would do. (No pressure.)

I had 72 hours to fill her up with as much love for my home state as I had, or at least–that was something I could shoot for.

One morning during her visit, we drove down to the lake to the Texas Rowing Center, a straightforward and affordable kayak rental shop. I was certain that I wanted us to rent two single kayaks, as opposed to one two-person kayak. Singles are smaller and more maneuverable, and you don’t have to rely on another person to paddle. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten stuck in a boat with someone who doesn’t paddle. It’s like they’re trying to summon The Force and move the boat with their mind.)

When I suggested we rent individual kayaks, there was instantly a look of fear in Insaf’s eyes. It occurred to me then that she might actually be nervous about setting off on her own. Having grown up around boats and fording down rapids in kayaks, I hadn’t considered this possibility. But I wanted her to love her time in Austin, so a two-person kayak it was!

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We loaded our sunscreen, water, and other gear into the boat and gingerly pushed away from the dock. As we paddled towards the Mopac bridge, Insaf turned around and asked in a weak voice, How deep is it here?

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Oh, just a few feet, I lied, recalling previous times I’d tested the depth with my oar and found that it was at least one oar length, if not more.

Maybe we can go more this way, she replied, pointing towards the shore.

I can’t see the bottom,  she said later, her voice thick with fear.

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After I convinced her it really wasn’t that deep, she got more comfortable and took our her camera. She loved the turtles and was snapping pics of them right and left.

I usually take the sight of turtles at the lake for granted; it’s amazing what you notice about your city when seen through a foreigner’s eyes.

We headed towards the Mopac bridge, hugging the shoreline. Insaf was paddling away–in between selfies and photos of turtles–and I was glad she wasn’t a slacker!

During the boat ride, Insaf let me practice my French speaking skills on her. This was quite a charitable act on her part, I must say.

We crossed over to the other side of the river, turned around, and headed towards Barton Creek. I love making this detour because the water is much shallower and clear enough to see to the bottom. There are also usually a lot of birds, fish, turtles, and other wildlife hanging out along the creek too.

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The wildlife were out in force that day and Insaf, my fellow environment enthusiast, was loving it.

I’m not going to lie, it is a huge joy to hang out with someone who loves wildlife and the outdoors as much as I do. You both can just nerd out all day long and know you’re not boring the other person, and not being looked at as weird. Rather, you can just embrace the experience together.

By the time we turned around and started to head back to the dock, Insaf was all smiles.

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I had been doubting whether she was having fun, and could not see her face since she was sitting in front of me. But as I glanced at this selfie before stowing my phone away in a dry bag, I saw that smile and knew I had hit a high note with this expedition.

When we got out of the boat at the boathouse, she turned to me and said, in her French accent, Whitney, this was the most fun part of my trip. Thank you for taking me.

Score!

Maybe I am doing this mentor thing right after all. I smiled back at her with a combination of relief and pride.

She later told me that she knows of a kayak rental place back home in Tunisia and she said she would try it when she got home.

She also said she had been told by a program leader that she would find her mentor to be such a kindred spirit, and that she would find she and her mentor to be very alike and have much in common. She said that had all proven to be so true. Knowing how much I admire her, it was a touching compliment.

So, it had been a successful day on the water, after all!

And, because we earned it, because she was on vacation, and because I was just trying to be a good mentor, we headed straight to South Congress and ordered burgers at Hopdoddy’s. No trip to Texas would be complete without a loaded burger.

Burgers are a universal language.

Info to file away for later: How to Do Lady Bird Lake

  • Parking: Austin High School
  • Kayak rental: Texas Rowing Center
  • Cubbies available with fee
  • Must see: Barton Creek
  • Cost: around $20, depending on rental

The Famous YETI: Is it worth it?

The tag on my new YETI reads, “It’s well suited for a weekend at the ranch, a BYOB dinner at the Salt Lick, 18 holes on the golf course, or a day on the water.” Okay, I can get into that…but will it live up to the hype? That is the question.

YETI’s are the hot new equipment in the outdoor world these days. It seems nearly everyone has one, and those who don’t have one, want one. My curiosity was piqued. There must be something very special about them if a woman would spend $400 on a cooler when there are a number of things she could have instead.

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This Christmas, mom gave me the soft-sided grey version. (I had asked for a new purse…I guess this was her interpretation.)

First Impressions

My first impression is that this is one tough piece of equipment.  It must be, if hardcore fishermen take YETIs on multi-day fishing excursions. Everything down to the label seems built to endure the wear and tear of outdoor adventures.

Interior

The interior doesn’t have a single seam, and is supposedly leak proof. This is a bone I have to pick with other coolers. Cooler juices are not something I want soaking the back of my car!

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Zipper

This zipper has been my nemesis since day 1. It doesn’t go all the way across the top, and doesn’t allow the cooler to stand open, so every time you reach for something you have to wedge the cooler open with your knees while reaching through the narrow opening. That said, this is probably this cooler’s only flaw.

Shoulder Strap (a huge perk!)

A shoulder strap attaches on the side, allowing you to carry the cooler on your own. Here’s to being independent women who carry their own coolers, dang it! All other YETI models require either a man, a friend, or both hands. No thank you. (I need to check Instagram or carry my coffee with my other hand, duh.)

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The Test

I gave it a three-day test on a camping trip. Three to four days is about the average time I will ever use it without refreshing the ice.

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On a scale of 1-10 (10 being ice cold), it kept my food at an 8. Some ice melted but the temperature remained relatively cool.

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The temperature was more or less consistent. I give it a 7 out of 10 in this category. By day 3, the temperature was waning, but there was still ice in the bottom.

Morning of day 2.
Morning of day 2.

About 30% of the ice melted.

Other Perks

I liked the handles on either end.

I also thanked God that it was light, much lighter than the other types of YETI coolers.

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Drawbacks

  • Zipper
  • Small opening, which prevents light from getting in, making it difficult to find things. I would liken it to feeling around for car keys in the bottom of a purse, but one that is filled with ice and frigid water. Not that I’m speaking from experience.

In Conclusion

Your need for a YETI depends on how often you go on multi-day excursions that require your food to remain extremely cold.

For car camping or fishing or something that does not involve carrying gear very far, I would get the classic hard-sided YETI. On the other hand, the shoulder strap on the soft sided YETI makes it much easier to carry, which is handy for toting it down the slope of a riverbank, through the countryside to a picnic destination, on and off a boat by yourself, etcetera. It’s also much lighter. I’m glad I have it.

So, is the YETI all it’s cracked up to be?

In terms of keeping things cool, mostly yes. I was appreciative that after two days in the cooler, the beef we brought was still cold.

Would I spend my inheritance on it?

Only if I really needed to keep things ice cold for multiple day excursions.

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The choice is yours. How much of an avid angler, camper, glamper, or huntress are you? How much do you want to look like a badass outdoorswoman?

Maybe reward yourself after an accomplishment at work or a month of healthy eating. And isn’t your birthday coming up? I think it is…