Road Trip — Tulsa, Oklahoma

How about a visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma? Spring break is always a good time for a road trip. North Texas Ramblings - The Center of the Universe in Tulsa OklahomaYou can travel to the Center of the Universe, spend the afternoon at an oil tycoon’s home, and visit one of the world’s tallest freestanding statues. Those are just some of the adventures waiting for you in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The second largest city in Oklahoma, Tulsa comfortably combines the sublime with the absurd. Beautiful art deco buildings grace the downtown area. However, there appears to be no city zoning logic with hotels, strip malls and residential neighborhoods clustered together throughout the city. This eclectic building mix gives the city personality and character.

Tycoon’s Mansion – The Philbrook Museum

Waite Phillips, oilman and business entrepreneur, donated his 72-room mansion to the City of Tulsa in 1938 for an art museum. The mansion, designed in Italian Renaissance style, is as much fun to explore as the art collection it houses. You’ll find an excellent exhibit of European art.

Perhaps most intriguing is the museum’s Native American collection. Park any preconceptions you have of Native American art at Philbrook’s front door and enjoy the exhibit’s vast diversity of expression and style. For three decades (1946 – 1979), Philbrook hosted an annual, juried show of Native American artists. Philbrook’s collection was, in part, built from these events. The Philbrook (2727 S. Rockford) is closed on Mondays and major holidays.

Hungry? Just south of the Philbrook Museum on Peoria Avenue you’ll find a several dining options. Charleston’s (3726 S. Peoria) serves an awesome chicken fried steak in a casually upscale dining room. Weber Root Beer Stand (3817 S. Peoria) is the place for root beer (in a chilled glass) and a burger.

Quirky Salute to Tulsa’s Oil Heyday – The Golden Driller

No visit to Tulsa is complete without a visit to the 76-foot tall Golden Driller statue located on the edge of the Tulsa Fairgrounds (4145 E. 21st). Purported to be one of the tallest, freestanding statues in the world, the Golden Driller is made of steel and concrete. He stands as a tribute to the days when Tulsa was known as the “Oil Capital of the World.”

The Golden Driller truly is impressive and well worth a photo. His right arm rests on an actual oil derrick. In 2011, the statue received a facelift courtesy Tulsa based Bill Haynes Co. who applied a special, protective coating to preserve the statue.

The Wild Side — Tulsa Zoo

I confess. I love a great zoo. The Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum (6421 E. 36th) may not be the largest city zoo, but it does have an impressive variety of animals and exhibits. Be sure to take advantage of numerous zoo demonstrations and talks. Our family enjoyed the antics of the California sea lions: Briney (female, age 26) and Dorsey (male, age 19). The geriatric pair of sea mammals works for their living, putting on demonstrations for visitors twice daily.

The Children’s Zoo has the standard corral with sheep and goats for the kids to pet. But here’s the twist, the Children’s Zoo also has a collection of antique animals like the Highland cow and Jacob’s sheep. That’s right, Tulsa Zoo has domestic animals facing extinction as they are being replaced by new farm breeds.

Tulsa Zoo continues to renovate with new exhibits designed so that visitors experience both animal and their habitat. The Tropical Rain Forest transports you to a humid South American and the newly renovated Wildlife Trek recreates forest, desert and aquatic habitats.

The Tulsa Zoo is open 9 am to 5 pm year round (closed Christmas day).

Uncanny — The Center of the Universe

Part of Tulsa’s charm is its unique ambience. And nothing is more eerily unusual than standing in the Center of the Universe. According to the Tulsa Library website, “The ‘center’ is a worn concrete circle, 30 inches in diameter, in the middle of a 13 row circle of bricks. . . located at the apex of a rebuilt span of pedestrian bridge, originally built in the 1930s.”

Stand in the center of the circle and talk. You, but no one else around you, will hear the echo of your voice. It does almost feel like you’re speaking into a hole in the universe. Weird right?

The Center of the Universe is located on the Boston Avenue pedestrian overpass between First and Archer Streets. And, yes, the Bank of Oklahoma (BOK) building opposite the overpass does look a lot like the former World Trade Center. The World Trade Center (built 1973) and the BOK Tower (built in 1975) were designed by the same architect.

While downtown, enjoy the mix of architecture. Tulsa is famous for its Art Deco buildings constructed during the height of the oil boom. Of national note is Boston Avenue Methodist Church built in the 1920s (1301 S. Boston).

Historic Washington State Park in Arkansas

If you are looking for a trip over spring break but don’t want to go too far afield, consider a trip to Historic Washington State Park in Arkansas. The park is actually the set of historic buildings that comprise Washington. The nineteenth century town transports visitors to the Washington Parkpast when great western pioneers like Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and Stephen Austin traveled the Southwest Trail.

Washington History

Originally a supply depot along the Southwest Trail, Washington grew into a major town in the 1830s. In its heyday the town boasted 16 doctors, 17 lawyers and three hotel keepers along with a host of craftsman and merchants — impressive for a frontier settlement.

It’s this golden age – 1830 through 1880 – Historic Washington State Park captures with its living history exhibits and reenactments. Over a dozen buildings have been restored including the 1836 Courthouse that served as Arkansas’ State Capital during the Civil War; a tavern purportedly where Houston, Crockett and Austin planned the liberation of Texas from Mexico; Greek-Revival styled homes built in the mid 1800s; and even a log home circa 1835. Other buildings like the blacksmith shop are reconstructions.

The 1874 Hempstead County Courthouse houses the park visitor center. For a nominal $8 (children are just $4), visitors can take a walking tour through several of the historic buildings. Costumed docents at each building bring history to life with stories of Washington’s past. Allow at least three hours for the walking tour. Not all buildings are open each day, but visitors will be able to tour at least eight of the historic structures.

What you’ll see

The 1920 Print Museum is a favorite with its functioning antique printing press. First published in Washington in 1839 the Washington Telegraph is the oldest, continuously published weekly newspaper in Arkansas.

The legendary Bowie Knife was made by Washington resident James Black, a silversmith, for frontiersman James Bowie. Visitors learn more about the Bowie Knife and blacksmithing at the blacksmith shop.

Those interested in antique weapons will want to visit the B.W. Edwards Weapons Museum. Housed in the Old Bank Building, over 600 historic rifles and pistols are on display.

Other historic buildings provide visitors with a glimpse into everyday life. Homes of prominent Washington residents are furnished as they would have been in the mid 1800’s.

In addition to the walking tour, Historic Washington State Park hosts several reenactments throughout the year including a Civil War Weekend in November. A favorite time to visit the park is in March when thousands of naturalized jonquils create yellow flowering carpets throughout the town. The park’s Jonquil Festival, a three-day event with craft fair, is in mid-March.

When you go

Before you leave the park, be sure to dine at the Williams’ Tavern Restaurant. Located in a historic 1832 building, Williams’ Tavern serves southern food at affordable prices. The restaurant is on the grounds and open daily for lunch from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.

Historic Washington State Park is located eight miles northwest of Hope, Ark., on Highway 278.  The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Winter Weekends Near Dallas

While our northern neighbors are shoveling snow, Dallasites can take advantage of moderate winter weather. In fact, many of these destinations are best visited in winter or early spring before our hot summer heat makes outdoor activities unbearable. Whether it’s a family safari, gathering fossils or diamond hunting, here are five family-friendly winter weekend destinations within driving distance of Dallas.

Mineral Wells, Texas.

Mineral Wells Fossil Park will capture young paleontologists’ imaginations. Located just 80 miles southwest of Dallas, the park contains thousands of small, prehistoric sea life fossils. The park was once a borrow pit used by the city for dirt fill. Years of rain and erosion exposed the 300 million old fossils with many readily visible throughout the pit.

Gathering fossils is easy – no digging necessary. Bring a small baggie for collecting treasures. You won’t find a dinosaur here, but you can keep what you unearth! The park is free, and is open Friday through Monday.

Glen Rose, Texas

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center is as close as you’ll get to an African safari without boarding a plane. Spanning 1800 acres near Glen Rose, Texas, the sprawling complex is home to North Texas Ramblingsover 50 species of exotic African and Eurasian animals. The most common way to observe the animals is from your car. Buy a bag of animal feed and you’ll make a herd of new friends as you drive the nine mile park route.

Nearby Dinosaur World will thrill pint-sized dino lovers with over 100 dinosaur replicas.

Waco, Texas

Waco Mammoth Site is an often overlooked destination. In 1978, two teenage boys spotted a bone embedded in a dry Waco creek bed. The boys’ find became the largest nursery herd of Columbian mammoth (19 mammoths and a camel) discovered. The Waco Mammoth Site opened to the public in 2009. Docent-led tours take you through a climate-controlled building surrounding the dig site where you can see mammoth bones as they were found.

While in Waco, stop by the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame. Most of the museum focuses on real Texas Rangers, but one section is dedicated to our fictional heroes like those in Lone Ranger and Walker Texas Ranger television series.

Murfreesboro, Arkansas

Crater of the Diamond State Park may make you rich. Or so you hope. About 250 miles east of Dallas, the park is the only diamond mine open to the public. To the uninitiated, the mine looks like nothing more than a plowed farmer’s field. But appearances can be deceiving. Hidden in the dirt furrows are diamonds, agate, jasper and quartz.

Park visitors find over 500 diamonds each year, though most diamonds are less than the size of a pea. Adventurous families can camp at the park or the Queen of Diamonds Inn in Murfreesboro offers affordable and comfortable lodging.

Grapevine, Texas

Great Wolf Lodge Grapevine fits the bill for those wanting a weekend escape without the car drive. Your stay at the lodge includes access to their massive indoor water park – a guaranteed winner with the youngsters. Great Wolf Lodge offers special discounts for multiple night stays (up to 20 percent off) and even deeper room discounts for families staying during the weeknights.

While it’s possible to spend an entire weekend just at the lodge, be sure to take advantage of all the nearby Grapevine offers. Reopening February 22, 2013, the Grapevine Vintage Railroad transports passengers from Grapevine depot to the Stockyards in Fort Worth via old time rail cars pulled by either Puffy (a 1896 steam engine) or Vinny (a 1953 diesel engine).

Whooping Cranes in Rockport

Rockport is a picturesque seaside town with quaint downtown shops and a working port filled with fishing boats. But the area’s biggest attraction is not a place – it’s a past time – birding.

Rockport provides seasonal respite to migratory birds including the regal whooping crane.  The largest North American bird, the whooping crane stands nearly five-foot, mates for life, and has fought its way back from the brink of extinction.

The Whooping Crane – Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Numbering just 16 wild whooping cranes in 1941, the bird faced extinction.  Extensive species management including captive breeding programs brought the bird back from the brink, though its numbers are still limited (about 250 wild and an equal number in managed breeding programs).  The only natural wild flock of whooping crane winter in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

North Texas Ramblings Whooping CraneThe best way to view the birds is by boat. Tours operate from Fulton Harbor, taking bird enthusiasts through bays, along the refuge’s shoreline and to Matagorda Island.   In addition to whooping crane, you’ll see osprey, heron, pelican, ibis, cormorant and shore birds. For an exceptional birding experience, try an outing on the Skimmer skippered by Tommy Moore. Moore knows his birds and their favorite places to ‘hang-out.’

Rockport – Shopping, Aquarium, and Science on a Sphere

Downtown Rockport sports a surprising number of art galleries, antique shops and boutiques. If you are looking for a unique wedding ring or anniversary gift, check out Sazon Studio and Galleries where artist Ruben Villareal-Aiken handcrafts jewelry inspired by his muse, the whooping crane. The gift shop 4 the Birds is your go-to spot to get the latest information on area bird watching, and the store houses nature photographer Diane Loyd’s Salt Flats Gallery.

The Aquarium at Rockport Harbor has a collection of native fish. This small aquarium is fun for all ages. Be sure to take time to chat with the aquarium volunteers, and say hello to the star attraction Marley, a leopard eel.  The aquarium is open Thursday – Monday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Also at Rockport Harbor, you’ll find the Bay Education Center. In addition to its estuary exhibit, the Bay Education Center houses a Science on a Sphere theater. This unique system, developed and fielded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, projects films about earth science onto a suspended sphere instead of movie screen. Bay Education Center is one of just 50 U.S. facilities to host Science on a Sphere. Films are Tuesday – Saturday at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Admission to the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor and Bay Education Center is free.

Lodging and Dining in Rockport

Miss Kitty’s Fishing Getaways and Vacation Rental by Owner are two online sites for a list of vacation property rentals available in the Rockport area. For a more traditional hotel experience, highly recommend the Lighthouse Inn at Fulton Harbor. The well-run hotel is affordable and ideally situated with bay view rooms.

Restaurants are peppered throughout the area. For a funky, no-frills seafood boil dinner, try the Boiling Pot; Latitude 28 02 offers fine dining in a beautiful art gallery setting; and Moon Dog has oysters and a view of the bay.


Johnson City

Johnson City, in Texas Hill Country, is a great destination for families. Here are three family-friendly activities you’ll not want to miss during your visit.

Sauer-Beckmann Farm. Travel back in time at the Sauer-Beckmann Farm, a living North Texas Rambling Sauer Beckmann Farmhistory farm located in the Lyndon B Johnson State Park and Historic Site. The farm gives visitors a look at Texas Hill Country life at the turn of the twentieth century. Costumed interpreters perform farm tasks like canning fruits and vegetables, milking, and soap making. A dogtrot styled farmhouse outfitted with turn of the century furnishings offers kids a glimpse into what it might have been like to live in Texas Hill Country a hundred years ago. During my family’s visit, our son shared the chores by fetching eggs from the hen coop. The Sauer-Beckmann Farm is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There is no charge for touring the farm though donations are welcome. Nature trails collocated at the farm make for an easy hike, even for small children.

LBJ Ranch Tour. At the Lyndon B Johnson National Park, your family can explore recent American history by taking the LBJ Ranch Tour in your car. An audio CD narrates the tour route and highlights aspects of the Johnson presidency. The tour also examines factors that influenced him during his childhood years. Stop at the re-creation of his birthplace, and visit LBJ and Lady Bird’s gravesides. Learn about his vocation as a schoolteacher and his dedication to education, including the formation of the Head Start program. The tour highpoint is a stop at the Texas White House. Guides conduct tours inside the home from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. The downstairs portion of the house has been restored to its 1960s appearance. The show barn and airplane hangar contain many of LBJ’s automobiles and his presidential plane. The driving tour is free though there is a $3 fee for the Texas White House Tour. You can obtain your driving tour pass and audio CD at the park visitor center.

Exotic Resort Zoo. Take a walk on the wild side at the Exotic Resort Zoo (235 Zoo Trail, Johnson City). The animal park boasts 60 different species and 500 animals. You’ll find the animals on the open range and in a petting zoo environment. Zoo tours are available daily. Tractors pull trailers outfitted with a canopy and seats. Zoo guides narrate the Texas Hill Country safari. Be sure to buy at least one bucket of food pellets for the hour-long tour. Bison, zebra, ostrich, antelope, llama, aoudad and emu abound. The animals converge on the safari mobile for handouts and some will even lop next to the moving vehicle for their treats. Beware the very friendly camels. Omar, the older of two camels, sometimes steals an entire food bucket from unsuspecting visitors. Cabins are available for rental on the zoo property and make an ideal spot for family reunions.