Camping in the desert at Stillwell Store, TX
Stillwell Store at daylight. We could hear coyotes howling in the distance.
The drive from Fort Stockton to Big Bend National Park is 100 miles of nothing but flat, treeless, desert gray and brown emptiness with a few mostly bald mountains far off in the distant haze.
There are no services. Take my word for it: there is nothing. No service stations, grocery stores, people or animals. We passed only 10 cars on the trip south toward Big Bend National Park. However, locals know of Stillwell Store which is reachable about eight miles off Highway 385 and although not a grocery store like we are accustomed, Stillwell sells some canned food stuffs, beer, ice and gasoline and that’s about all the inventory. It is also a great night sky viewing area since there is no man-made light interference.
A vulture greets the morning sun on a fence post along Texas Highway 385.
Stillwell Store is also a campground and camping destination for visitors to Big Bend in addition to rock hounds who dig in the nearby endless desert and campers heading to Black Gap State Wildlife Preserve. From here, it is still about 25 miles to Big Bend National Park Visitors Center and more of the same scenery. Again, I cannot stress enough that we are smack dab in the middle of nowhere.
We are however, determined to see one of the nation’s largest national parks.
Highway 385 cuts through the mountains near Stillwell Store, TX.
NEXT: Discovering the wilds of Big Bend
The countryside changes to desert scenery in southwest Texas
It was a chilly 48 degrees when we awoke today (April 6, 2017) at the KOA in Leander, TX and after sleeping with the windows open, it was even chillier 58 degrees inside the RV.
We are driving west to Fort Stockton, TX today, a distance of about 300 miles where we will spend one night then drive south to Big Bend National Park for several days. The travel schedule is not complete beyond Big Bend.
A refreshing display of flowing water and art alongside the Fort Stockton, TX Visitors Center. The original Comanche Springs is located in a downtown city park.
During the five day stay in Leander, we drove a lot of back country roads, some of them dirt, enjoying the bluebonnet, Indian paintbrush and Indian Blanket blooms. We managed to time our visit here at the peak of the wildflower bloom.
Back country roads were excellent through Llano and Mason and the spring roadside wildflower bloom continued spectacularly along the route. At Junction we were surprised to find a Coopers Barbecue restaurant, the well-known Llano eatery we discovered several years ago while traveling the Texas Hill Country. Juicy brisket and mild link sausage with the usual baked beans and potato salad proved more than we could eat, leaving plenty for dinner tonight in Fort Stockton.
Interstate 10, where the speed limit is 80 miles-per-hour, runs through Junction and provides a straight shot to Fort Stockton, arriving there late afternoon. The landscape changed from green to gray and tan along the way as we approached the Chihuahuan Desert. To say rainfall is scarce here is an understatement.
The KOA here has an onsite restaurant which was convenient, serving country fried steak, mashed potatoes and green beans. The left-over Cooper Barbecue will be enjoyed on the road tomorrow to Big Bend. We were surprised to find grass in a fenced dog walk. Most of the landscape here is desert brown.
Elevation in Fort Stockton is 2,732 feet which again guaranteed another cool night. It is hard to beat the spring nighttime weather in the high desert country. During the day, however, it gets hot.
We drove a few miles into downtown Fort Stockton the following morning and picked up some west Texas travel brochures at the visitors center, located in an old Santa Fe Railroad train station. The town got its name from the original Army fort built here in 1859 near the Great Comanche War Trail that ran from San Antonio to El Paso. The location was chosen because of Comanche Springs, a longtime watering hole for Native Americans traveling through the area that still flows today in a downtown city park. The army built seven forts along the route to protect supply lines and early settlers from Indians and bandits.
The largest supply train to use the road incluided 340 wagons, 4,000 animals, 450 civilians and 175 soldiers.
We are in Texas, where everything is bigger, including ranches. The nearby La Escalera Ranch consists of approximately 257,000 acres and is considered one of the largest in the state.
After buying a couple cups of coffee in a nicely redecorated shop that was once an old garage, we drove past what is left of the original Fort Stockton then drove south toward Big Bend National Park on Highway 385.
Within a few miles of leaving Fort Stockton, traffic came to a halt. Well, not really because there was no traffic to halt. We had the road to ourselves.
Talk about emptiness—there was nothing around us. No farmhouses, no farm animals, no wild animals—nothing as far as the eye could see in every direction which was a long distance because the terrain is flat with some far off mountains. The landscape is mostly gray and tan with an occasional green thrown-in. Rocks and cactus dominate the scenery.
We did see a couple of road runners scooting across the highway at break-neck speed; 20 miles per hour says a Texas guidebook. They can run so fast they seldom fly except in short distances.
During the last 50 miles of the trip to Stillwell Store, our campground for tonight, we counted 10 vehicles. No phone signal. We were alone.
NEXT: The wildness of Big Bend National Park
Following the bluebonnet trail in the Texas hill country.
The drive from College Station, TX to Leander, TX., our destination for tonight, was uneventful thanks to good smooth roads, little traffic and lots of blooming roadside wildflowers, The back roads were chosen to avoid Austin traffic but skirting the north of the city put us unexpectedly on a toll road.
A single red Indian paintbrush in a field of bright blue bonnets.
When driving off the toll road at the Austin North KOA exit, there was no toll gate, only a sign that says tolls are collected electronically. There is no need to slow down or stop to pay toll to a clerk. Unfortunately, out-of-state drivers will pay 33 percent more than locals which they won’t learn until arriving home and receive the toll bill by mail.
We will stay in Leander for the next five days, sampling the area’s well-known barbecue restaurants and driving the back roads while enjoying the roadside wildflower blooms.
Thanks to meds, Heidi, our golden retriever, is a much improved passenger and is entertained by a half dozen Texas longhorn cattle grazing in a fenced pasture about 20 yards behind the RV campsite.
A bluebonnet field on private property not far from Ilano, TX.
It’s early April and weather in the Texas Hill Country has been comfortable with mid to upper 50 degrees at night and 80’s day time. For three days we have managed to enjoy good weather. On the fourth day we were watching early morning local teevee news when a bulletin came across the screen that a tornado warning, accompanied by 60 miles per hour straight line winds, large hail and heavy rain was expected within an hour.
RV’s are not safe places to be during a tornado. Compare it to a reinforced cardboard box.
Together with Heidi we joined about 30 other campers in a clubhouse building and followed the approaching storm on television until power went out, just as heavy lightning, rain and winds passed through the area. Winds probably reached 50 or 60 miles per hour but all the RV owners in the clubhouse were relieved that hail and tornadoes missed the area. Although the campground was full with RV’s and trailers, most chose to ride out the storm.
Wild bluebonnets along a dirt road in the Texas hill country.
Later in the day, we drove the bluebonnet trail, a circular route from Leander south to Highway 71 going west to Beecave and then northwest to highway 281 to Marble Falls and Burnet and east to highway 29 south back to Leander on Highway 183. From our campground, the route was about 85 miles.
Bluebonnets and other wildflowers were sparse along the road until midway between Marble Falls and Burnet when we happened upon the “bluebonnet house,” locals name for one of the most prolific bluebonnet blooms in the area. The pasture in front of the vacant house is fenced, and posted which keeps tourists off the bluebonnets and helps protect next year’s bloom. The entire field probably covered eight to ten acres and was a solid color of bright blue– filled with bluebonnets at peak bloom.
About a half dozen people were leaning over the fence photographing the scene when we arrived with most using phones to record the bloom. More arrived before we left about a half hour later.
Bluebonnets and cactus growing alongside a small creek.
The following day we joined a photography tour led by an area professional photographer who took us off the highway onto back roads where we found more blooming bluebonnets along with Indian paintbrush, Indian blanket, pink primrose and other wild flowers. Along with the blue color of the bluebonnets, there were reds, pinks, yellow and purple wildflowers. Some fields were all yellow which the photographer said could be canola. We photographed in the Ilano area, found a beautiful patch down a dirt road near an old bridge and more at a vacant old stone house near Pontotoc.
Serious wildflower photographers who are unfamiliar with the area, would benefit from joining a photo tour group rather than spending hours driving and hunting for places to photograph. Even with the tour guide, we were unable to cross the fenced and posted fields and had to photograph the blooms from the road rights of way. Texas, he said, is one place you don’t want to trespass.
Yellows and blue wildflowers mixed in this large pasture scene near Burnet, TX.
“Keep out here means exactly what it says.”
Thanks to the tour guide, we managed to hit the bluebonnet bloom at its best.