Stonehenge II in Texas Hill Country

What do Stonehenge, Easter Island, and Texas Hill Country have in common? A visit to Hill Country Arts Foundation in Ingram, Texas, solves that mystery. There you’ll find a Stonehenge and two Easter Island Moai head replicas. The structures are the work of two Hill Country residents, Al Shepperd and Doug Hill.

Stonehenge II and Moai heads

Neighbors, the two men hatched the plan to build a Stonehenge replica in 1989. Using steel frames, plaster and metal mesh, they built a scaled version (about 90 percent the height and 60 percent the width) of the famous Stonehenge circle on Shepperd’s ranch. It took them just nine months to construct the monument. A few years later they fabricated two Moai heads following a trip Shepperd made to Easter Island. For years, tourists flocked to Hunt to see the oddities.

Current location

Stonehenge II and the Moai heads found a new home in 2010 on the grounds of the Hill Country Arts Foundation in Ingram. I have to say, this location is perfect. The Moai heads flank a dirt pathway leading through a meadow to Stonehenge II. It’s a bucolic spot, with the Guadalupe River just off to the left.

Admission to the site is free, but the photographic opportunity is priceless.

Encore

I recommend you visit Stonehenge II about lunchtime. Why? Co-located on the art foundation property is a delightful little restaurant, Encore. The restaurant offers home-style lunches six days a week (closed Mondays). The restaurant has an outdoor deck that overlooks the Guadalupe River. We lunched there during our visit and were pleasantly surprised by the freshness of the cuisine and friendliness of the service. They also proffer an amazing selection of craft beers.

Blue Topaz

If you’re in the market for unique, fine jewelry, you’ll find it in Ingram. Just down the road from Stonehenge II is Gems of Hill Country. The jeweler Diane Eames and her partner Brad Hodges offer lone star cut (that’s the cut with the embedded five-pointed Texas star), blue topaz jewelry. Blue topaz is the official state gem of Texas and found only in the Mason area. The stone is usually clear, but you can also find blue variations. The more intense the blue, the more valuable the stone. Eames is a true artist. The stones she cuts are breathtakingly beautiful. Prices begin in the $200 range and go up from there.

When you go

Stonehenge II (120 Point Theatre Road South, Ingram) is in a field. As such, it’s accessible seven days a week. Encore (122 Point Theatre Road South, Ingram) is open for lunch 11 am to 2 pm Tuesdays through Sundays. And Gems of the Hill Country (200 Highway 39, Ingram) is open by appointment (phone (830)-367-3368).

 

Bats! Old Tunnel State Park

It’s bat time at Old Tunnel State Park!

Old TunnelIf you plan a summer visit to Texas Hill Country, be sure to reserve an evening for nature. In this case, viewing the night exodus of three million Mexican free-tailed bats from an old railway tunnel near Fredericksburg.

Mexican free-tailed bats

The bats arrive in March from their winter homes in Mexico. Two different types of colonies form: smaller male bat colonies, and larger maternity colonies like the one you’ll find at Old Tunnel. The mother bats give birth in June to a single bat pup. By August, the pups join their moms in the nighttime flight for food. It’s during August and September you’ll experience the most massive emergences.

Aerial river

The little Mexican free-tailed bat is less than five inches long and weighs about 14 grams (that’s just half an ounce). By itself, a bat is a tasty bite to its predators, hawks and owls. By emerging en masse, the bats increase their odds against the birds lying in wait outside the tunnel opening. For onlookers, we see a streaming black river flowing under the tree canopy as the little critters make their way south towards the Guadalupe River. Viewing a bat emergence is a must on any nature lover’s bucket list. My husband and I were transfixed in awe as the river of bats continued for almost ten minutes, and intrigued by the scent left in the bats’ wake. Yes, you can smell the bats! It’s like an umami scent.

Bat viewing tips

Old Tunnel has two viewing areas. You’ll have the best experience from the lower level. However, space is limited. To ensure a lower viewing spot, be sure to arrive at Old Tunnel at least half an hour before the earliest posted emergence time. The lower level is only open Thursday through Sunday.

The upper viewing area is also a wonderful option. This area is free and available seven days a week. Be sure to bring a set of binoculars if viewing from the upper level. On Thursday through Sunday, a docent talk is given at both viewing locations. The docents are exceptionally good and full of great bat trivia.

Alamo Springs Café

Why not have dinner before seeing the bats? Texas Monthly bestowed “third best burger in Texas” fame to Alamo Springs Café, located adjacent to Old Tunnel State Park. It’s a funky café that looks like a house with a few too many additions on it. We ate there on a Saturday night and were treated to tunes from a local band. The café and patios are packed at dinner time, so be patient. The service is friendly and efficient. The burgers are great, but my favorite were the onion rings….awesome!

When you go

Old Tunnel State Park is at 10619 Old San Antonio Road, Fredericksburg. Lower area viewing is $5 a person (the upper viewing is free). Bats don’t use alarm clocks, so you need to call the Old Tunnel hotline at (866) 978-2287 to get the latest emergence time. Alamo Springs Café is at 107 Alamo Road. The café is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. There are also a few outdoor tables at Old Tunnel if you want to bring your own picnic.

Be careful driving home. The area is chocked full of deer, we almost hit a buck making our way back to Fredericksburg.

Tip

Frankie the Free-tailed Bat is a cute book for older kids. It’s loaded with information about the bats. You can download a free copy courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

North Texas Camping

Nothing says adventure like spending a night out in the wilds, even if those wilds are located just a few miles from home. While our northern neighbors camp during the summer months, spring and fall are the best times to pitch a tent in North Texas.

CampingThe spring floods closed many local camping spots. However, you can still camp at two, city-run parks. Erwin Park is best suited for those who want a more rugged camping experience, and Little Elm Park works well for families with small children.

Erwin Park

Located in north McKinney, farm fields border this green space. The 212-acre park is a favorite campsite for local Scouting groups. If you are a mountain biker, you’ll love this area. Erwin Park sports almost nine miles of mountain bike trail maintained by Dallas Off Road Bike Association. Camping areas with covered picnic pavilions (there are three) require payment and advance registration. There are also numerous, smaller campsites with fire pits ideal for families and small groups.

The park has two restroom facilities (no showers) at picnic pavilion areas. From November to March, the city secures water to the park to prevent pipes from freezing. You can still camp during that time, but there are no toilet facilities.

When you go

Erwin Park is at 4300 County Road, McKinney. Operated by the City of McKinney, you can reserve a picnic pavilion by calling (972) 547-2690.

Little Elm Park

Little Elm Park is one of the least expensive camping locations on Lake Lewisville. The park not only has campsites, but also sand volleyball, baseball fields, and a swim beach. A newly opened playground is sure to be a hit with your pint-sized campers. Hiking trails are limited, though you will find a paved, one-mile trail ideal for strollers at the north end of the park.

When you go

The park is operated by the City of Little Elm and is located at 701 Eldorado Parkway. Camping is $5 a night per tent. You can pay for overnight camping at the kiosk in the parking lot. For more park information contact the city at (9720 731-3296.

Happy camping!

Helium Monument in Amarillo

I love quirky, Texas attractions. The Helium Monument in Amarillo is one oddity I can now check off my bucket list. Built in 1968 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the discovery Helium Monumentof helium, the Helium Monument is part monument and part time capsule.

Time Capsule

Supported by four slanted columns, the stainless steel structure reaches towards the sky. Filled with books, papers, and memorabilia from 1968; each hollowed column serves as a time capsule to be opened at different intervals. The first column was opened after 25 years in 1993. The remaining columns will be opened in 2018, 2068, and 2968. I’m singularly impressed that the final column won’t be opened for 1000 years! A bank passbook for $10 is in the 2968 column. In 1968, the $10 savings account earned four percent interest. You do the math. If the savings account continues to draw four percent interest over 1000 years, the $10 account will have grown to one quintillion dollars!

Why combine a helium monument with time capsules? Helium can be used to protect fragile documents, like the Declaration of Independence, from deteriorating. In the Helium Monument, helium pumped into each column replaced oxygen-rich air, further preserving the time capsule documents.

Helium Capital of the World

A monument to helium may seem strange. It is not so odd when you learn the Cliffside Gas Fields near Amarillo produce over 40 percent of the helium used in the US, lending credibility to Amarillo’s nickname as the Helium Capital of the World.

Helium is mined by super chilling natural gas 300 degrees. Operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Cliffside Gas Fields began mining the element in the 1920s. Uncle Sam tried to get out of the helium business. However, attempts to privatize mining have not been wholly successful and the BLM continues to operate the Cliffside location under the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013. Helium is important for more than just party balloons. Today, helium plays a critical role in MRI operation, rocket fuel, cryogenics, and as a cooling medium in nuclear reactors.

When you go

The Helium Monument is located adjacent to the Don Harrington Discovery Center at 1200 Streit Drive, Amarillo. The monument is outside, so you can view it at any time. However, if you are traveling with children, be sure to also visit the Don Harrington Discovery Center. The discovery center is open Tuesday through Saturday (9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), and Sunday (noon to 4:30 p.m.).

National Weather Center

Meteorologists, storm chasers and weather hobbyists will want to visit the National Weather Center (NWC) located on the University of Oklahoma (OU) campus in Norman, Oklahoma. What a great summer boredom-buster!

National Weather Center - North Texas RamblingsIn a unique partnership, OU, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and state agencies share space within the impressive seven-story, NWC building. Built in 2006, the NWC can withstand a significant tornado not because it houses the weather agencies, but because of its post-911, anti-terrorist construction. The building has both bulletproof glass and Kevlar reinforcements.

NWC Tour

Tours begin in the lobby. Remember the 1996, storm chasing movie Twister? The tornado-monitoring invention Dorothy used in the film is on display in the lobby. You can also see TOTO (TOTable Tornado Observatory) the actual tornado-monitoring device that inspired much of the movie.

From the lobby, the tour takes visitors to the vehicle bay. While Norman gets more than its share of severe weather, scientists also have specially outfitted vans for deployment to severe weather locations. The mobile monitoring stations allow the meteorologists to gather data in the field. What looks like kitchen sink plumbing on top the vehicles’ roofs are actually high tech, sensitive equipment used to measure and monitor weather events.

The NWC has its own observation deck with an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surrounding area. Here meteorologists view local weather. The OU School of Meteorology is located on the fifth floor. The school has about 300 undergraduate and 100 graduate students, and is ranked as one of the country’s top schools for meteorology.

Working Meteorologists

Perhaps the tour highlight is an opportunity to go into NOAA watch centers to see meteorologists at work. Have you ever wondered who issues tornado watches and warnings? It’s the forecasters right here at the National Storm Prediction Center who track, monitor, and warn about potential tornado and other extreme weather events. The NWC tour takes visitors into the center’s workspace. Next to the storm prediction center, visitors can also observe meteorologists at work providing local weather forecasting.

Details

The comprehensive NWC tour lasts between one to two hours, and offers a unique glimpse into weather research and storm prediction. Enthusiastic OU students lead the tours. The students readily answer questions and provide humor-filled anecdotes on research conducted at NWC.

Public tours begin at 1 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Tours are free but require advance reservations made through the NWC website. Be sure to reserve at least two weeks prior to your visit. Please note security policy requires that foreign nationals arrange tours at least two week in advance and provide passport information.

The Flying Cow Café, located in the NWC lobby, is a great place to grab lunch. I’m a big fan of their t-shirts, which feature their logo of an airborne, cartoon cow.

NWC is easily assessable from I-35 and is located at 120 David L. Boren Boulevard in Norman. It is about 180 miles north of Dallas.