National Bison Range, Montana

 

Driving from Kalispell to National Bison Range

On our way from Kalispell and Whitefish to Missoula, we had to stop at the National Bison Range in Dixon, Montana. On our way there, we drove on a smaller road on the east side of the Flathead Lake.  Talk about beautiful views!  AND we drove through a bunch of cherry tree orchards!  I’ve seen “Flathead Cherry” jellies all over the place and we finally found where they come from.  Of course being winter the Cherry trees were dormant but I’d love to come back when they are blooming.  The drive from Flathead Lake to the Bison Range was full of wetlands and tons of ducks!  I wish we had stopped to take some pictures because they were in their beautiful breeding plumage.

National Bison Range Sign

The National Bison Range is a National Wildlife Refuge under the stewardship of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (federal government).  Historically, Bison were estimated to number between 30-60 million animals.  By the 1880’s there were about 100 bison left in North America.  The Range was established in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt to provide a permanent home for some of the few remaining bison in United States.  The refuge includes over 18,000 acres of wildlife habitat and is home to around 350 bison.  The range and the bison are actively managed by US Fish and Wildlife staff.

I highly recommend bringing binoculars if you go to the National Bison Range.  While the animals are very well adjusted to humans, having binos will enhance your experience and bring you closer to the wildlife without disturbing them.  Note that people are not allowed to leave the tour loop or designated walking trails.  Learn more about the National Bison Range and the history of the Bison on their website.

Since we went to the National Bison Range in March which is during their “winter” season, only half of the auto tour loop was open but it was plenty and we spent a few hours seeing the sights.

Before we even got to the tour loop we came across were some white-tail and mule deer.  Once we started noticing them, they were everywhere!

National Bison Range Deer

National Bison Range Whitetail Deer

 

The tour loop ran along a ridge of a small mountain (I guess northerners would call it a hill?) which sloped up to our right.  Down slope to our left was a stream and wetlands, followed by beautiful farm land, and then gorgeous mountains in the distance.

 

National Bison Range Auto Tour Loop

National Bison Range Views

 

Soon enough, we spotted our first Bison along the stream!

National Bison Range Bison

 

We started seeing bison all along the lower slopes near the water!  In the picture below you can spot both deer and bison.

National Bison Range Views (2)

Each curve around the mountain brought a new surprise.  We spotted a single cow (female) elk…

National Bison Range Elk (2)

Little did we know that she was leading a herd! They quickly crossed the ridge and gave us some great views.National Bison Range Elk (3)

There were even a few spike bulls (young males) mixed in.  We learned that the big bulls (older males) stay up in the higher elevations as spring and summer approach.

National Bison Range Elk (4)

 

Pronghorn antelope were also lounging and feeding on some of the less steep ridges.

National Bison Range Pronghorn (2)

 

This buck (male) Pronghorn below gave us plenty of time to get some close-up pictures.  Pronghorn have such strange yet beautiful shapes to their face.

National Bison Range Pronghorn

National Bison Range Pronghorn (3)

The winter tour loop ended at a parking/viewing area.  There were a group of bison grazing in the distance so we took a few minutes to watch them through our binoculars and walk the dogs.  See those brown dots on the picture below?  Those are bison!

National Bison Range binocular viewing

A few of them were rubbing on this giant rock.  I’m sure dropping their winter coats gets a little itchy!

National Bison Range Bison rubbing

 

This big bull was sitting quietly watching over the herd.

National Bison Range bull bison

 

Bogie desperately wanted to go run but dogs aren’t allowed off leash on the Bison Range (for good reason!)

National Bison Range Bison Viewing

 

On our way back on the tour loop we thought we had seen everything there was to see.  Nope!  The elk herd that was on the steep slope had crossed the road and moved into the wetlands.

National Bison Range Elk (5)

 

One of my favorite things in the world: elk butt!

 

 

National Bison Range Elk butt

We also some some waterfowl including Canada geese feeding in the stream below the elk.

National Bison Range Canada Goose

And then we watched a funny interaction between 2 species of ducks.  First we spotted a beautiful Hooded Merganser drake (male) relaxing under a tree in the stream.  It wasn’t long before a pair of Mallards came swimming down stream.  I guess the Mallard drake (male) didn’t like the looks of the Merganser, so he chased him off!  I captured it in a few pictures below.

National Bison Range duck collage

Little Merganser didn’t stand a chance!

National Bison Range Hooded merganser and Mallard

 

The last species we saw was a Coyote, stalking the fields.  They blend in so well; if he wasn’t moving we never would’ve seen him.

National Bison Range Coyote

 

After the tour loop we stopped in at the Visitor’s Center, which is only open from 10am-2pm during the winter season.

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There was a giant full-body mount of a bison, along with a fresh elk shed, picked up that morning by a staff member!

National Bison Range Visitor's Center (3)

I loved this visual depiction of the historical number of Bison in North American compared to today’s Bison population.  The display really gives you an idea of how many Bison we’ve lost.  There are just a few “wild” herds left and even they are mostly within parks and wildlife refuges.

National Bison Range Visitor's Center (2) National Bison Range Visitor's Center

 

Just outside of the visitor’s center was a display holding elk sheds found on the Bison Range.  That’s a ton!  Each one weighs 20-40 pounds!

National Bison Range Visitor's Center (4)

 

We had such a great time in our few hours spent at the National Bison Range.  I would love to go back in the summer and fall to see how different everything looks and how different the wildlife behave.  This is a can’t-miss stop in Montana!

National Bison Range Visitor's Center (5)

 

 

 

 

Skiing the Fish- Whitefish Mountain Resort, Montana

Ski Whitefish Montana (8)
On the third day of our Montana road trip we headed through of the town of Whitefish, about 30 minutes north of Kalispell.  We drove through the town and up the mountain to Whitefish Mountain Resort.  The whole way there we could see the ski runs carved in the mountain.

Ski Whitefish Montana

I’ve been skiing 3 times before- in West Virginia, New Mexico, and Alaska.  The most recent time was Alaska about 5 years ago.  I was in Anchorage visiting my mom at Christmas time while she was working up there.  There was a small ski area right outside of the city and I went by myself while she was at work.  By the end of that day I really felt like I finally got the rhythm of skiing down so I’ve been itching to go back ever since!

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Whitefish Mountain Resort Trail Map

Drew has been once before and has not been interested in going again.  So convincing him to go was not easy but he loves me 🙂

Ski Whitefish Montana (15)

We arrived around 9am.  Late March is nearing the end of their winter season but there were still quite a few people skiing and enjoying the resort.  Drew’s mom Cathy had a hurt back from our Snowmobiling adventure so she stayed in the lodge to watch and take pictures.  It was a beautiful day and we were overdressed.  The weather was warm and sunny and perfect!  We weren’t the only ones in camo, either!  (use what you got!)

Ski Whitefish Montana (12)

Drew and I checked in at the Base Lodge and purchased the beginner’s package, which is the best deal I’ve even seen on skiing:  $75 per person gets you two days of lower lift tickets, two ski school sessions, and full rentals!  We were only going to be there for 1 day but it was still the best deal we could get.  We picked up our gear, remembered how to walk in those awful ski boots, grabbed a run map and met the other ski school students at the waiting area.    Our morning session was 2 hours with an instructor and about 5 other newbies.

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Drew and I with our awesome instructor Lorne

I was pleasantly surprised that when I put on my skis at Whitefish, it all came back- like riding a bicycle!  But it was nice to go through ski school with Drew as I picked up a lot of improvements I could make.  Our instructor was awesome.  So patient and knowledgeable.  Another thing I’ve never seen before that Whitefish had was a small ski run just for learning, called the Big Easy.  All the ski school students were using it but it never felt overcrowded.  AND instead of a tiny chair lift to get to the top of the Big Easy, they had a conveyor belt called the Magic Carpet!  You ski right up to this moving carpet, push yourself on, and then stand up and ride up the slope!  It’s pretty great and far less intimidating than a chair lift for a first-timer.

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Riding up the Magic Carpet!

So we spent about 2 hours riding the Magic Carpet up and skiing down the Big Easy using different techniques as instructed.

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Skiing down the Big Easy under our Instructor’s watch

Once Drew was comfortable, we left the class to go to the lower chair lift, Lift 6 to the Village.

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Riding Chair Lift 6 to the Village and top of some easy runs

This lower lift takes you from Base Lodge to the Village.  From the Village you can go down Chipmunk or Huckleberry or go up the Big Mountain Express lift which will take you to the top of the mountain!  We did NOT take the Big Mountain Express 🙂  I made that mistake in New Mexico and had to basically ride my skis like a sled down the mountain because I couldn’t handle the big runs!

Ski Whitefish Montana (11)

Huckleberry Patch ski run

Our instructor recommended the Huckleberry Patch for our first ski run as it was the easiest green run available to us.  WWe made the mistake of trying to get to Huckleberry from a steep hill. There was no slow way to get down this steep hill so I just went straight down and stopped at the top of Huckleberry. Drew tried to switchback down the hill and ended up not being able to get to Huckleberry. He went flying across Chipmunk and wiped out.

Ski Whitefish Montana (19)

I couldn’t go back so just went down my run. He fell again near the bottom of Chipmunk. I met him at the bottom and he was not happy. I felt awful because the ONLY reason he even WENT skiing was because I love it so much.  And now he busted his butt twice for me.  We decided to take a break and eat lunch with Cathy in the lodge.

Ski Whitefish Montana (20)

The grilled cheese was TO DIE FOR.  Actually EVERYTHING was delicious so many it was more me being starving and having so much fun!  After lunch Drew went back to the Big Easy to build up his confidence and I went back to Huckleberry.  This time on my way up the chair lift I noticed a cut-across that went under the lift and across Chipmunk to Huckleberry.

Ski Whitefish Montana (10)

Drew and I coming down Huckleberry

I tried it and it was SO much better than our first go!  I took my time down Huckleberry and went to find Drew.  He reluctantly agreed to give it a go again because he’s amazing.  I brought him the easy way and he actually enjoyed that run!  We did the same run 3-4 more times and got really comfortable.

Ski Whitefish Montana (6)

I could have stayed all day but Drew and Cathy wanted to head out so we returned our gear, stopped by the gift shop (obviously) and went back to Kalispell.  We didn’t even touch most of the ski runs but I still had so much fun.  My endorphin levels were so ramped up that I was on a natural high all day.

Ski Whitefish Montana (9)

Happy happy!

On our way down the mountain we even found a Mule Deer yearling and his/her momma feeding on the slopes.

Mule Deer yearling

 

Every time I ski I get more confident and get better with my technique.  This was my 4th time skiing and my first time to not fall at all!  I’m already dreaming of next winter hoping to go again 🙂

 

Ski Whitefish Montana (4)

Drew and his mom Cathy

 

 

Montana Road Trip- Kalispell

We’ve been living in northeastern Montana for 6 months (officially eligible for resident hunting licenses, yeah!).  Drew’s mom Cathy wanted to come visit us on her spring break so we planned a little road trip!  Here was our itinerary:

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Day 1: drive from home to Kalispell

Day 2: explore Kalispell

Day 3: ski Whitefish

Day 4: drive from Kalispell to Missoula

Day 5: drive from Missoula to Bozeman

Day 6: drive from Bozeman to Chico Hot Springs

Day 7: drive home from Chico Hot Springs

Bogie and Spartacus are such good travelers.  I can't even handle the cuteness!

Bogie and Spartacus are such good travelers. I can’t even handle the cuteness!

The drive to Kalispell took about 9 hours.  Starting the drive in the morning we saw lots of pheasants and some mule deer doe close to the house.

Montana Mule Deer Does

Mule Deer does

But it really didn’t get pretty until we got to Lewis and Clark National Forest and then Glacier National Park.  The roads were mostly closed in Glacier but we were able to enter the park and go 11 miles on the Going-to-the-Sun road along Lake McDonald.

Glacier National Park in Winter

My mother-in-law Cathy at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

My mother-in-law Cathy at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

We finally made it to Kalispell and stayed at a family member’s condo.  They are winter Texans (or “Snow Birds”) and were still in south Texas so we had the condo to ourselves.  The view was beautiful, but I don’t think there is a view in Kalispell that isn’t beautiful!

View of the Rockies from our condo.

View of the Rockies from our condo.

I like to suggest and pick restaurants in new cities by their TripAdvisor rating so we ate at the #3 restaurant in Kalispell- Hop’s Downtown Grill.

Hop's Kalispell Review

And it exceeded out expectations!  Hop’s is a small restaurant but the ambiance is warm and cozy.  The staff is excellent, and all so attractive!  The menu was a little pricey, but Cathy wanted to celebrate Drew’s birthday so we enjoyed ourselves 🙂  Drew got the bison burger with homemade chips.  Cathy and I both got the beef tenderloins with rosemary garlic potatoes.  My goodness.   Had I left any sauce on the plate I would’ve licked it clean.  It was an incredible meal!

Beef Tenderloin with Rosemary and Garlic potatoes at Hop's

Beef Tenderloin with Rosemary and Garlic potatoes at Hop’s

We also went to the #5 restuarant in Kalispell- Sweet Peaks Homemade Ice Cream!   Delicious and so reasonably priced!  I got the Lime Curd and Shortbread.

Sweet Peaks Kalispell, MT

Sweet Peaks menu

Sweet Peaks menu

Lime Curd and Shortbread homemade ice cream from Sweet Peaks

Lime Curd and Shortbread homemade ice cream from Sweet Peaks

Kalispell is a really cute town.  I wish we had more time to explore the old downtown area.  It also seems like a lovely place to live.

Yarn Bombing in Kalispell!

Yarn Bombing in Kalispell!

 

Moose Bronze Sculpture, Kalispell, Montana

Our second day was wide open so we called up  Swan Mountain Snowmobiling to see if they had anything open.  I’m so glad we did!  We got their info from the local tourist guide and they squeezed us in for a 2-hour Snowmobile trip in the afternoon!  In the morning we went to Cabela’s and spent way more time there than we planned.  But I walked away with a new 7mm-08 rifle after making a trade 🙂  Anyways, we drove up north through Columbia Falls to the Canyon Creek Recreational Area where a lot of people enter the Snowmobile trails.  It was about 30 minutes from Kalispell.  We met our guide at the parking/staging area.  He distributed our rental gear (that included an avalanche beacon, jackets, snow pants, helmets, and even gloves if we needed them!).  He gave us a quick intro to how to drive a Snowmobile (or “sled” as its called in western Montana) and we hopped on.   It was the first time on a snowmobile for all of us!   It was a lot like driving an ATV but turning took some getting used to.  The machines were so light that you really had to use your body weight to help you turn.  We took off onto the trails.  It was so much fun!!  Our guide Shawn took us up and up and up.

Snowmobiling West Glacier

The red line is our Snowmobiling Track up the mountain into Kimmerly Basin and back down again!

View from my Snowmobile

View from my Snowmobile

On the trails!

On the trails!

We climbed 4,000 feet up to  to the Kimmerly basin which was over 6,000 feet.  The trails were the most fun.  The basin looked like a giant playground for snowmobiling.  Tracks everywhere!  Shawn brought us to the highest point to take pictures.

The top of Kimmerly Basin in a quick snow storm!

The top of Kimmerly Basin in a quick snow storm!

A snowmobiler's playground!

A snowmobiler’s playground!

 

Shawn showed us how deep the snow was when he pushed the 10-foot poll into the snow under our feet and it never touched ground!

The snow was over 10 feet deep!  And we were standing on it!

The snow was over 10 feet deep! And we were standing on it!

Shawn let us “play” in the basin and do whatever we wanted!  Which of course means we all got stuck.  Several times.  Mine was the worst.  I really dug the tracks deep trying to get out.  Then Shawn got his sled stuck trying to get me out!  It took about 30 minutes of pulling, pushing, digging and scraping but Drew and Shawn finally got my machine unstuck.  I was a little freaked out but Shawn stayed positive the whole time and even laughed about it.

My snowmobile stuck deep!

My snowmobile stuck deep!

I was done with the playground after all that!  The trail ride back to the staging area was awesome.  Shawn let us really cut it open on the straight-aways.  I got over 55mph (which I thought was CRAZY) but Drew passed me going 70!  Our total ride was 25 miles (up and back down the mountain).  By the time we got back we had definitely gone over our 2 hours and Shawn was such a great guide!  I highly recommend him and Swan Mountain Snowmobiling!

Snowmobiling Canyon Creek Recreation Area, West Glacier, Montana

After all the excitement of snowmobiling we crashed that evening!   Sore quads and backs.  But totally worth it for a check on the bucket list.  And that was just the beginning of our trip!  Stay tuned for more 🙂

Drew and Christine Move to Montana

Friday, Sept 20th was our last day working in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas.  We accepted an offer on our house earlier in the week and Saturday was spent anxiously waiting for packing day.

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Our living room in boxes.

Sunday the movers arrived to pack our house.  It was so cool watching them work!  They packed our entire house (except for Dale, our mounted elk) in 8 hours.  While the government paid for this service for us, we both agree that we will never move again unless we can have someone pack for us!  Sunday night we got together with our neighbors for an impromptu cook out.  We will miss our neighbors more than anything else in the RGV.  The people that move in after us are very lucky!

Collage

On Monday, the movers returned to load our stuff in their truck.  We just paced for a few hours while they worked.  SIgned some final paperwork with out real estate agent (who is awesome and highly recommended by the way), and we were ready to leave by 1pm!  We said goodbye to our neighbors and our house and left the Rio Grande Valley.

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One last picture of our first house.

We were originally planning on going through Colorado but avoided the area due to the flooding.  So glad we did because pulling the boat up to Denver would’ve been rough!  We ended up going through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and finally Montana.

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Our route from south Texas to northeastern Montana.

I spent hours planning our travel and picked hotels based on these standards: 1. Rate within our government travel allotment.  2. Good reviews on Trip Advisor.  3. Pet-friendly (2 dogs over 50 pounds). 4. Free Breakfast. 5. Pool and hot tub!  Every night we did the same thing.  Check in.  Walk the dogs.  Get dinner.  Get in the hot tub.  Bed.

Since we left Monday afternoon we only went as far as San Antonio.  We ended up staying at La Quinta in Schertz, TX.  I give it 4.5 stars.  The staff was very nice and helpful.  There was no pet fee (no pet fee at any La Quinta).  And the breakfast was great.  The only problem was some noise coming through the walls.  But the hot tub was sooooo nice.

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Best part?  Right across the street from Raising Cane’s!  Oh how I’ve missed Cane’s sweet tea.

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Tuesday, we had a short (6.5 hour) drive to our next stop and got to really enjoy the hotel when we got there.  We stayed at Embassy Suites in Norman, OK.  I give it 5 stars!  Wish we could’ve stayed at an Embassy Suites every night.  We did have to pay a pet deposit but it was worth it.  The hotel was beautiful, we had a 2-room suite and the pool was indoors.

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Every evening they have open bar for 2 hours so we had some drinks and ate at the hotel restaurant so we didn’t have to drive.  The breakfast was by far the best one with lots of fresh options.  Even though all the rooms opened to the main corridor, there was NO sound transfer into our room.

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On Wednesday, the drive to Nebraska was quite beautiful.  Rolling plains and rock outcrops.  We had a little trouble with a tire on Drew’s truck, small puncture leaking air.  We had to pull over on the side of the highway so he could change the tire.  I think it took him 20 minutes total which is quite impressive.

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We drove through Kansas and got to Nebraska for our stay at La Quinta in North Platte, NE.  I give it 4 stars.  This was obviously a stopover travel hotel.  Lots of traffic and noisy room.  But we loved the restaurant they recommended: Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill.

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We got steak for dinner and smores for dessert!  They bring out a tiny little fire pit on your table and you get to roast the marshmallows right there!  I LOVED this.  What a great idea.

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The dogs travel so well.  Spartacus rides in the front seat in the truck, and Bogie in the front seat of my car.  They are worn out by the time we get to the hotel each night.

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Lunch break!

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Bogie wiped out at the end of the day.

Driving through Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota was our longest day of travel but it was another beautiful one.  We finally spotted some Pronghorn antelope and even had to brake for a grouse to cross the road!  I didn’t get any pictures because we were driving.  We were beat by the time we got to Dickinson.  Dickinson is a boom town right now thanks to the Bakken oil fields that are currently in production.  They estimate that these oil towns have doubled in population in the last 3-4 years thanks to all the oil field jobs.  We stayed at the Microtel in Dickinson, ND.  I give it 4.5 stars.  We picked this Microtel because it was number 1 on Trip Advisor.  The rooms were very nice ( the dogs loved the seat under the window).

I was definitely most tired today.  We got Wendy’s for dinner and after the hot tub we went to bed early.

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This was the only place where we were concerned about our vehicles in the parking lot.  There were even cards on the beds in the hotel that told you to make sure you leave no valuables in your vehicle.  Crime has gone up with the increase in population.  When we were exhausted at 8:30pm we realized that we were in Mountain Time!  Totally didn’t realized we crossed time zones.  The breakfast was OK.  All the oil field workers get up at 5am so breakfast was a little old by the time we got downstairs at 8.

The drive from Dickinson, ND to Williston, ND and Medicine Lake, MT was a mix of BEAUTIFUL scenery and oil field traffic.

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All the highways were under construction and being expanded.  We got stuck behind lots of oil trucks.  But the views were incredible.  Especially when driving through the National Grasslands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  That’s where we saw our first bison of the trip!

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Looking across to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

We drove through WIlliston just to see what it was like and pick up a few things at the store.  It is COLD up here!  Williston was crazy with traffic and we were glad to get out of there.

Our final destination is our new home on Medicine Lake.

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The front of our house, facing Medicine Lake.  It’s a new house so the sod isn’t here yet.

On our way in we stopped to watch 6 hen pheasants get out of the road.  We’ve seen a ton of ducks, geese, and swans plus lots of other birds.  Words can not describe out beautiful our new home is.  And how happy we are to have finally arrived.

Me in our front yard.

Spartacus is in heaven, finally in a climate he was bred for.  Bogie is just happy to be with us.  I got a solid 11 hours of sleep our first night here.  Then I embraced my inner pioneer woman and made a hot breakfast!

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Country living is fantastic so far.  We are spending the next two days getting settled and acclimatized to our new 2,000 foot elevation before our moving truck arrives and we fill our new house.I can’t wait to explore our new home!!

Sunrise over Medicine Lake, Montana.

RGV Bucketlist: Places

RGV Bucketlist: Places to See
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!

Things I learned While Traveling In Hawaii

Recently, D and I were lucky enough to spend 11 days in Hawaii.  We spend most of the trip staying in Waikiki and seeing much of the island of Oahu.  Then we flew to Kona and got to spend a few days on the Big Island of Hawaii.  I’ve been reading a lot about minimalist travel and light travel for backpacking and got inspired to try to go minimalist.  I got about half-way there.  Here are some lessons I learned on our recent trip.

 

Lesson 1. Just because you can save $25 in baggage fees by only checking 1 bag between two people does NOT mean it’s going to be worth it!!
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Thanks to having only 1 checked bag between the two of us (filled mostly with scuba gear), tor the first time I managed to not overpack my clothing!  But we still brought a ton.  Any time I vacation somewhere I’m in the water a lot I tend to wear a lot more clothes because I end up changing twice a day.  Not to mention we were gone for 11 days.
Here is the breakdown of our luggage (for two people):
  • 1 giant checked bag (that was over 50 pounds every time we checked in at an airport) which held both of our snorkel/dive gear, some clothes that didn’t fit into the carry-ons, and everything that isn’t allowed on planes (toiletries and liquids, dive knives)
  • 2 rolling carry-on bags- packed to the absolute maximum with clothing and shoes.  1 for each of us.  (By the way I had 4 pairs of shoes- flip flops, tennis shoes (worn on the plane), boat shoes, and heels.  Wore every pair.  D had tennis shoes (worn on the plane) and boat shoes.)
  • 1 laptop bag that D carried which held his laptop and cords, plus all our plane snacks (we flew for about 8 hours to get there and the airlines did not offer a free meal)
  • 1 giant tote bag that I carried which held: my purse (wallet, tickets, chapstick, etc); all my electronics and cords (camera, cell phone, nook plus chargers); a jacket, blanket and pillow (if I’m not comfortable I will NOT be able to sleep on a plane), my binos, my scuba diving regulator and computer (I don’t check those because they are the most expensive things I travel with and I don’t want to take my eyes off of them); and a water bottle (that I filled up inside the security checkpoint which subsequently leaked all over the place on the plane- lesson learned).

Watching White-tailed Tropicbirds outside of the Jagger Museum, Volcanoes National Park, HI.

If the Airlines actually enforced the whole “1 Carry-On and 1 Personal Item” rule I would’ve been in trouble as that giant tote back didn’t actually hold all that stuff, but I find that as long as you only have one carry-on in the overhead compartments and can fit everything else under the seat they overlook the number of items.
They do, however, enforce the “50 pounds per checked bag” rule and we had to re-pack twice and paid the overage fee once.  On top of that we had a LOT of stuff to drag through airports while trying to catch a connecting flight.  Next time we will spend the additional $25 and pack another 50 lb checked bag and it will save a lot of airport stress.
Lesson 2.  Minimize clothing and maximize accessories.

Dressed up for a Catamaran Dinner Cruise off of Honolulu, Oahu, HI. The only time I wore my heels while in Hawaii.

This is something I did right and it’s the first time I’ve attempted.  I usually travel with wayyy too many clothing choices and just one or two necklaces.  I wear the same earrings daily and don’t bother with bracelets, hair pieces, etc.  Well this time I packed a ton of jewelry into a toiletries bag and went with the minimum clothing to cover the activities we would be doing (lots of time on boats, lots of walking, and a few nice nights out).  I wore everything I brought and some pieces I wore over and over but I never felt like I was wearing the same thing because I would change up my jewelry.  Not to mention I bought lots of clothing and jewelry while there.  By the way the most common and easiest accessory?  Flowers in your hair!
Lesson 3.  Pack for the style of the place you are going.

Dressed up for a Luau in my swimsuit, a sarong and accessories!

I brought most of my ~tropical~ style clothing and accessories and I’m so glad I did.  It’s not everywhere that you can wear a giant flower in your hair or a bright orange and white sarong as a dress, but you can do it in Hawaii and fit right in.  And it really helps get in the ~island~ mood which in my opinion made my vacation richer.  I’m glad I brought that stuff with me or I would’ve wanted to buy more than I did.  I know I won’t wear this stuff much at home but on a beach vacation I definitely will!
Lesson 4.  Things I’m Glad I Brought

My ScubaPro split fins. They are big and bulky in my suitcase but so worth it to have my own fins while snorkeling and diving.

  • My super awesome new cell phone (an unlocked, rooted and ROM’d HTC Rezound) with a great camera on it, for quick pics, easy uploads, and check-ins on Facebook.  By the end of the trip I was checking in at EVERY place we went so when I got home I could go through and remember where we went.
  • My rooted Nook (Android tablet) for internetting, reading, and playing games on the long flights.  This replaces my big clunky laptop which I used to bring on every trip.  I’m so glad I’ve switched to a tablet for travel.  Lighter and you don’t have to take it out while going through airport security!
  • All my snorkel and dive gear (includes: mask, snorkel, fins, booties, regulator, and air-integrated computer).  We got to snorkel a lot more than I expected and I was so happy to have our own gear.  Our gear was superior to the rental gear and we were always first in and last out of the water.  Yeah we had to lug it around and clean it but it was worth it to be able to jump in ready to go.
Lesson 5.  Things I’m glad I left:

Taking pictures of coral and fish while free diving off the Big Island of Hawaii. I’m always happy that I brought my camera’s underwater housing!

  • My big Canon DSLR.  I instead opted to carry only my Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot and it’s underwater housing.  My Canon takes superior pictures but it is heavy and changing out lenses is kind of a pain.  If my mother-in-law didn’t have her DSLR with her I would’ve regretted not bringing mine but she got a lot of great pics and shared them with us.
  • Lots of toiletries.  I really minimized the toiletries I would have normally brought and instead used the hotel’s shampoo/conditioner.  I also minimized the size of the bottles.  I poured some makeup remover into an old hotel shampoo bottle to avoid bringing the whole 6 oz. bottle.
Lesson 6.  Things I Wish I Brought:

I probably wore this shirt the most while in Hawaii!

  • Febreeze and laundry detergent.  I remembered the Oxyclean but I really needed more laundering stuff.  I wore some of the same clothes over and over and they got pretty stinky, especially the ones I put on after getting out of the ocean.  Then when we traveled to the big island and I had to pack everything together, EVERYTHING got a bit stinky.  I was very glad to be home and in fresh clothes.  On-the-go laundry stuff will definitely be in my luggage next time.
  • A USB car charger.  I knew that most of our flights were going to have power ports but I didn’t realize that most of them would be for car lighter chargers.  I had a charger perfect for this but I left it at home.  Next time I will definitely be in my bag.  At one plane ride had regular power outlets and we watched videos on D’s laptop, played Angry Birds on my Nook, and listened to comedy albums on my phone.
  • TWO blankets.  D raises his eyebrows when he sees me bringing a jacket, pillow, and blanket all the way across the Pacific Ocean, but on the way back on our overnight flight, he was trying to get some of my blanket!
It was an amazing trip and I learned so much.  Not only about the Polynesian culture but about myself and how I like to travel.  I can’t wait to incorporate what I’ve learned into our next trip!