As I mentioned in my last post, Drew and I are leaving the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in South Texas after living here for a few years. I am reflecting on all the places we visited in the second part of my RGV Bucketlist. I spent most of my time working in McAllen, but we got to see quite a lot while living here!
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo
Santa Ana was the first place I visited here in the Rio Grande Valley. This refuge is the reason we moved here, for Drew’s job. When Drew first moved down here, the Rio Grande was at flood stage and water was released upstream to prevent flooding of urban areas. Most of Santa Ana was under several feet of water. One day while I was down here visiting, Drew took my kayaking on the hiking trail! Also in the 2,000 acre bird refuge is a hawk tower and canopy rope bridge.
I love visiting Drew at work because I always get the VIP tour
Everyone goes to Santa Ana for the birds, and the birds go to Santa Ana for the habitat.
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
By far my FAVORITE wildlife place in the Valley. I see something spectacular every time we go. Nilgai, Deer, Javelina, Pauraques, Chachalacas, Green Jays, Osprey, Roadrunners, Indigo Snakes, Texas Tortoises, Alligators, and many species of hawk! Driving out to Laguna every Saturday evening in duck season felt like we were going on vacation. Luckily, our friends that work and live on the refuge let us stay in their guest room (and eat their delicious food)! I was always on the look-out for Ocelot but never did see one. They are so secretive and really only move at night. It’s just nice being out there in the middle of the Thornscrub, miles from traffic and people.
American Kestrel on a Spanish Dagger at Laguna Atascosa
White-tailed Buck at Laguna
Altamira Oriole on a nectar feeder at the Visitor’s Center at Laguna
American Alligator at a water guzzler on the trails at Laguna Atascosa. I love gators.
We also had some great hunting at Laguna. More on that in another post.
South Padre Island
End of the road: South Padre Island
If there weren’t so much fishing and hunting to be done, I would’ve spent more time on the Island. It’s easily the nicest beach in Texas. The best days on the Island rival good days in Pensacola, my favorite Gulf Coast beach. There is a cute little bar on the beach that even has a small pool in the middle. I could spend days swimming and sunning on the beach. My favorite places besides the beach are Sea Turtle Inc, and the Birding Center Boardwalks. Tons of wildlife to see including lots of ducks and wading birds. We end up visiting every time we head to the Island.
The Birding Center Boardwalk
Gator at the Birding Center. Are you seeing a pattern? My favorite reptile.
Happy grebe swimming very close to the gator!
Sea Turtle Inc Rescue, Rehab and Educational Center
My favorite little island bar: Boomerang Billy’s
Rancho El Charco in La Joya
This one has been on my list for months, every since our new Education Supervisor started at work. She used to be the Education supervisor over at Rancho. This is a really interesting ranch. It’s privately owned and used to be open only for weddings and school field trips. Now they open the whole ranch up on the weekends to the public (for a $10 entry fee) as well. Its got something for everyone! I had seen pictures of their waterfalls and swimming holes and it looked like an oasis in the dessert. Turns out… it is! I LOVED visiting Rancho! We got a private tour and had the whole ranch to ourselves for an afternoon.
They have free-roaming horses (that they used for carriage rides when they are open), wild black bucks, pinned bison and gemsbok, pinned goats that you can go pet and feed, a fishing pond, views of Walker Lake, trails, a rope bridge leading to a waterfall that you can explore, and much more!
My favorite part? The swimming holes. They call them “holes” but the water is actually treated and safe to swim in. There are 3 pools. Two look more like swimming pools and have chlorinated water as warm as a bath!
The “Charco” (which means “puddle” in Spanish) is natural-looking and fed by cold water pumped in from a windmill on the ranch. I could spend all day in these pools. If you get the chance to go to Charco, I highly recommend it!!
Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco
Ring-necked Duck at Estero
We made a quick visit to Estero. The Visitor’s Center deck overlooks a small lake and you can see a ton of birds without having to go far! Really enjoyed our short day there.
My first good view of a Cinnamon Teal at Estero!
Rio Grande River
This one is a bit controversial. You can see the river from various places (including Santa Ana) but it is not recommended to actually get ON the river. From what I hear, people used to kayak and bird on the river all the time. But being that the Rio Grande is the border between the US and Mexico, increased border violence has shut down most River trips. One River trip that still happens is the Pontoon birding tour during the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. I was invited to go on this field trip as an assistant to the guides. I got to see a “life bird” – the Zone-tailed Hawk!
Big beautiful black and white raptor. Can you see it in the middle of the picture above? I also got to see all 3 species of U.S. Kingfishers in 1 trip! We didn’t see any active border issues that I’ve heard about (like cartel men crossing the river with their rifles over their heads), but we did see something disturbing that I’ve never seen before: a body floating in the river. A dead man against the bank on the Mexico side. I called Border Patrol to report it but it was hard to explain to the other birding tourists that were also on the field trip. No, I didn’t take a picture; I felt like that would be disrespectful to that man and his family. Some people do want to visit the River for eco- and recreational tourism, but I will not go again.
Lower Laguna Madre
A bit further from the US-Mexico border is one of my other FAVORITE places in the RGV. Laguna Madre is a bay in between main land Texas and Padre Island. In the map above, the Lower Laguna Madre runs north-south from the top where it says “Laguna Madre” all the way down to Port Isabel.
We spend our weekends in long, shallow, hyper-saline bay. The average depth of the whole Bay is just 3.6 feet. Other than where the Intercoastal Channel cuts through, you would wade across it. I have fallen in love with “The Bay” as we call it. It’s become a magical place for me, probably because we’ve seen so many sunrises and sunsets over the Bay.
We usually launch our boat in Arroyo City, head down the Arroyo Colorado (river), and enter the bay from the Intercoastal. If it weren’t for the port of Harlingen and the Intercoastal Channel, we probably wouldn’t be able to launch a boat because it’s so shallow! But huge barges have to get into Harlingen so the Channel is dredged to maintain its depth. We always see dolphins feeding and porpoising in the Channel.
Out on the sand and grass flats, we see redfish, sting rays, wading birds, and lots of people fishing. This bay offers incredible hunting and fishing but I will have to devote a whole post for that!
Corpus Christi and the Texas State Aquarium
Texas State Aquarium Outdoor Exhibits: Stingray Touchpool
I feel like Corpus is a mix of Houston and South Padre. We went to Corpus to buy our boat and while we were there we did a little sight-seeing. We drove over to North Padre but didn’t really get to see the beach. The Corpus waterfront was a lot like any big city waterfront. I wanted to see the Aquarium because they have billboards down here with dolphins on them, haha. They have a few great exhibits including the Stingray touch pool, but we saw the whole aquarium pretty quickly. We didn’t see too much more of Corpus so I don’t really feel like I can judge the whole city based on that one visit.
Schlitterbahn New Braunfels
While not in the RGV, I’ve wanted to visit the original Schlitterbal forever! On our way home from visiting family in Baton Rouge, we made a side trip to San Marcos/New Braunfels. I can’t believeI did it, but I convinced D to go to Schlitterbahn!! Schlitterbahn has been the mecca of waterparks ever since I was a kid. I’d heard stories of how the park intermingles with the river and it sounded incredible. As an adult I have since lowered my expectations, thinking it the con’s of the crowds and lines would outweightto pro’s. But we had to go to San Marcos for D so I figured, why not check it out! I am sooo glad we did! Schlitterbahn is so much fun!!! Even with the crowds we had a blast and spent most of our time in the (cold) water! The park was built into the banks of the Comal river and even uses river water in several of the “rides.” Most of the rides were actually tube chutes where you hop in a tube and ride the chutes and falls for miles. You can get out and back in in many places. The older part of the park does a great job of incorporating nature into the chutes, but the water was low and all of us adults kept getting stuck! I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard as when we all got bunched up in an eddy and couldn’t manage to get out! The newer part of the park has 3 sections all connected by Tubenbach tube chute. This was my FAVORITE part. The water was still fed from the river and cooold at first! The falls and obstacles were so much fun and so fast! You also got great views of the river. AND we got to ride a conveyor belt, IN YOUR TUBE, to get to the top of the chute! Finally, there was the newest section, Blastenoff, home of the Master Blaster. This was a true waterpark RIDE and we waited an hour in line (it went by quickly). This is the ride that you see on all the tv shows and has been voted Best Waterslide a million times. The cool part is that right after the first drop, you go back up using only the force of the water! Very cool. Worth the hour-wait once, but we didn’t ride it again. I didn’t have my water-proof camera housing with us so we didn’t really get any pictures inside the park.
I think Drew’s favorite place we visited on this trip was Buc-ee’s. It’s a gas station the size of a department store! So much jerky, candy, home goods, clothes, ice cream, and souvenirs! You can only see a small part of it in this picture! We bought t-shirts, sunglasses strap, a beautiful cow-hide pistol case, and lots of Dippin’ Dots (ok, I bought lots of Dippin’ Dots because no day at the waterpark is complete without Dippin’ Dots).
Other checks on my Places bucketlist:
- Rio Grande Valley Outlet Center in Mercedes(don’t laugh, I’ve gotten some incredible deals here!)
- Bentsen RGV State Park in Mission (biking trail)
- Rancho Lomitas in Rio Grande City (native plant tour and longhorns!)
- National Butterfly Center in Mission (beautiful trails and gardens)
Trail at the National Butterfly Center
- Bass Pro Shops Harlingen (we actually volunteered at the Grand Opening!)
- Boca Chica (birding on the beach)
- King Ranch and Kingsville (loved the museum)
- Choke Canyon (our first time RV camping thanks to our neighbors, and a great swimming spot)
- Southmost Preserve (inside the border wall)
I hate to make an RGV Places Bucketlist and not include Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, but I’m not including it on this post because it has been so much more than a check-mark. I’ve worked at Quinta Mazatlan for 2 years and I’m going to miss it terribly. More about QM in another post…
My PLACES RGV Bucketlist is not yet complete. I still want to visit our local Schlitterbahn on South Padre Island and Clayton’s beach bar! Hopefully we will get to see those places before we move!