Popping Up across the Lone Star State: Man, 2 boys head out on spring break adventure

Published on Saturday, 29 March 2014 22:20 - Written by Brian Pearson bpearson@tylerpaper.com

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The plan was to keep things moving and adventurous, reminiscent of previous trips. Two years ago, I took my boys, Curt and Luke, on a road trip that went all the way to the Grand Canyon and back. Another trip included baseball games in two cities and plenty of amusement park rides.

For spring break 2014, the travel plans took us on a trip roughly around the Hill Country’s perimeter, staying at different campgrounds during four nights.

We set out early March 8 with the pop-up camper in tow. Five hours later, we arrived at Colorado Bend State Park, just west of Lampasas.

The park offers wild-cave tours, even for children as young as 6. Spelunkers provide the headlamps, gloves and elbow and knee pads, while the park provides the helmets and a guide.

The park has more than 600 caves, with about a half dozen of them on the tour list.

It took a bit of a descent through a scary-looking crack in the ground to get into our cave, but at no point did the journey feel unsafe.

The group crawled through a tunnel — complete with a bat hanging on the wall just inches away — and emerged into a room almost big enough for standing up.

The tour lasted the allotted two hours, and the guide was going to give us a bonus and show the group another cave, but a thunderstorm popped up, so we headed back to headquarters.

The state park was booked, so we stayed at a cozy, scenic private campground nearby called Barefoot Camp and R.V. Park. Cliffs soared hundreds of feet high on the other side of the Colorado River.

After a good night’s rest, we hit the road early, in search of a Hill Country greasy spoon for breakfast en route to our next destination: Sonora Caverns.

We stopped in Brady, where my dad and I every June for years attended the state muzzleloader championships. He passed away in January 2007.

At the shooting range outside town, I took a photo of my boys standing on a spot where more than 40 years earlier my dad took a photo of me with a horned toad clinging to my shirt. The place hadn’t changed a bit.

It quickly became apparent that small-town greasy spoons in the Hill Country do not open on Sundays, so with stomachs growling, we pushed on from one town to the next.

The patience paid off with the discovery of Isaack’s Restaurant in Junction. The restaurant opened in 1950, and our waitress, Helen, started there in 1967.

I eat approximately one chicken-fried steak a year, and this seemed like the place to get the annual fix. So Curt and I had that, while Luke had a delicious-looking cheeseburger. According to a sign on the wall, Texas Monthly in 2008 put it on a list of “40 Best Small-Town Cafes.”

And the secret to the quality chicken-fried steak here? It’s grilled instead of fried!

Bellies bursting, we made our way the short drive from Junction to Sonoma Caverns, which I consider to be the prettiest cave ever. (And I’ve seen Mammoth Cave, Carlsbad Caverns and Natural Bridge Caverns, among many others.)

Sonoma Caverns has amazingly delicate crystalline formations. The cave feels so fresh and alive and looks like some kind of palace.

There are campgrounds — including water and electricity hookups — on site. It was a festive scene, thanks in part to the huge group of Scouts stopping there for the night en route to Big Bend National Park.

Peacocks roam the grounds and will walk right into campsites. They make a lot of noise, so if peace and quiet is what you seek, this is not the place to camp.

We hit the road early the next morning and headed for Garner State Park west of San Antonio. This is the most scenic part of the Hill Country, looking downright mountainous in spots, with crystal-clear, emerald-colored rivers running through.

Outside Rocksprings, we tried to find Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area but found all the gates locked. We later learned that visits to the sinkhole are by appointment only through the Devil’s Sinkhole Society.

We took Ranch Road 335 south and found ourselves on one of the most scenic roads this state offers. It almost looked like something out of Colorado. We cut over to U.S. Highway 83 via the equally scenic Texas Highway 337.

Check-in at Garner State Park was a madhouse, thanks in part to a computer problem.

This very popular park is massive and offers plenty to do.

Despite the mob of people descending on Garner, our campsite was spacious and didn’t feel crowded. It was a different story over in the day-use/tent area, which was crowded, noisy and more like summer camp, with a basketball court, paddleboating and other activities.

We hiked up Old Baldy, which soars above the Frio River and offers spectacular views, and found the state geocache box along the trail that leads to White Rock Cave, which we went in but didn’t fully explore.

Our destination the next day was Bastrop State Park, with a major detour to two places dear to my heart: my dad’s old deer lease in Rio Medina just west of San Antonio and The Salt Lick barbecue place southwest of Austin.

My hope with the deer lease was to drive up to the camp and snap a photo from the same spot my dad took a picture almost two decades earlier. That picture hangs on the wall of our home, and I figured the boys would get a kick out of being on that spot.

The gate was locked, so we went into the general store, where the owner referred me to the postmaster in the back corner. The postmaster called the property owner, who appeared 5 minutes later.

He remembered my dad and let us onto the lease, where, like the Brady shooting range, it had changed very little, with the exception of my dad’s dilapidated popup camper gone.

He must have shot his photo on a day similar to that one, with the beginnings of spring apparent and a few clouds punctuating the blue sky. Being here was powerful, with deer-camp memories flooding my mind.

I told the boys all about the lease and the characters who hunted here. After some poking around in the brush, I found a piece of my dad’s camper: The table that attached to the outside. The wood was rotted, but the shiny pull out arm, which I had pulled out countless times, was still there. This put a lump in my throat.

The boys asked if we should take it, but it seemed like its place was there on the lease, where rusting equipment sits where it dies and time moves a whole lot slower.

After that, it was time to head to the legendary Salt Lick barbecue place southwest of Austin. We had a ridiculous lunch before grinding through Austin traffic and getting to Bastrop.

What I didn’t know was that a massive forest fire more than two years earlier, thanks to a tree falling on a power line, had rendered the once-gorgeous state park a wasteland of charred, dead trees.

But the surreal landscape was a powerful image, and during a hike to find the state geocache here, the focus turned from what fire had destroyed to what had survived, such as a single live pine tree surrounded by hundreds of dead ones. And it was good to see no vacancy at the campsite.

The next morning, we pulled into Rockdale and found Lee’s Landing, another cozy breakfast place where Luke and Curt had their first grits and the waitress called us “honey” and “sugar.”

Hours later, we arrived back in Flint — tired, dirty and satisfied that we had made the most of this latest adventure.