Saturday, September 15, 2007

McKinney Falls State Park, Austin, TX

There's a nice state park a few minutes outside central Austin, and only minutes away from the 'burbs to the south-east of Austin called McKinney Falls State Park. It sounds lame, being so close to the city and under the airport-path, but desperate times called for desperate measures. To elaborate: We had just moved to Austin and were looking for an apartment while staying at the cheap and friendly Howard Johnson Hotel. Since our place wouldn't be ready for a few days, we decided to check out of the hotel and save a few bucks by camping at the park.

Outside the HoJo Austin!

Unfortunately, we didn't really get to spend any time at the park except at night to sleep. I went to work in the day (remember, it's close to central Austin) and J hooked up with free wireless in various coffee shops around town to look for jobs.

So anyway, here's a new feature on the blog and my first review of a campground, hopefully with many more to come. There are over eighty campsites at McKinney Falls SP, and all of them have water, picnic tables, trees (huge bonus... ours had a massive live oak that covered our table and the spot where we pitched our REI Quarter Dome UL), fire pits/grills, and several have electrical hookups for you RV folks. The cost is quite high, over $20 a night, but the sites are big and are laid out well, most have lantern hooks/poles next to the tables, the bathrooms are immaculate (including the showers, which have free hot water). Reservations can be made at Reserve America (online) and there are a handful of walk-in spots, too (first come, first served); there are also group sites, if that's your thing.

On the two nights we stayed there (Wed. and Thurs. before Labour Day Weekend), we were the only people staying in our loop of campsites. Not even the park host was on duty those nights, so we simply picked out a spot right next to the bathrooms, pitched our tent, and had a nice meal before it started to rain a bit.

The park sits next to Onion Creek, and there's loads of hiking and biking trials there, as well as good fishing in the creek, so we've heard. There's an interpretive center, which is okay (the rangers were a bit surly when we were there) and a big campground fire pit/amphitheater thing.

The only thing that dampened our experience there is that on the first of the two nights we camped, it was about 90-degrees F at night and raining, which meant inside our puny backpacking tent, it was about 120-degrees F, damp, and smelly! I can't really fault the park for that -- it's really a problem with the Quarter Dome's design that it gets such poor ventilation when the rain-fly is fully battened down. On the second night, it was still warm at night, but we took the fly off and were able to sleep and cooled down as the night wore on, eventually getting down into the mid-70's, which was great.

If you're coming to Austin, and it's not summer, I highly recommend going out there. I know that J & I will be checking out the park again this fall when it cools down so we can check out the hiking trails, try out new gear, and get out of the city quickly. Which is one of the reasons I will choose to give the park a 7 out of 10: It's close enough to Austin to be used as a base of operations for exploring the city as a visitor (and MUCH cheaper than a hotel!) as well as a good place for an overnight or weekend escape (provided it's not a million degrees outside) for Austinites and it makes an easy day-retreat. The facilities are top-notch, but the reason it doesn't score higher than a 7 is because the rangers were surly and I plan on reserving 8's, 9's, and 10's for those campsites that are really spectacular AND serve as gateways to phenomenal outdoors activities (stuff that's way out of the way, has amazing views, etc.).

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Capybarra and Hot Sauce

Yep.... it's been almost two weeks since we got to Austin, and we almost have a place. We've paid up our security deposit for a place just south of the river in the hip young neighborhood known as SoCo. Unfortunately, we're not able to move in until Wednesday next week because they're re-furbishing the place (still) so we're spending the weekend at my cousin's house near Houston, which is cool because I never got to see her much when I was young as she lived so far away.

Last weekend, after we had settled on a place to live, we went to the Red Bull Flugtag event, which is where crazy people from all over Texas (and North America, too, as contestants came from Minnesota and Alberta!) make human-powered flying machines that get pushed into the Lower Colorado River (which for some reason is called a lake in Austin) from a 30-foot-high ramp! Priceless. The only crappy thing was that it was about a million degrees outside and the sun was setting behind the ramp, which means to watch the event, you had to stare directly into the sun. Hopefully next year they plan it a bit better.

Bats in Austin are a bit of a theme, as a big colony lives underneath the Congress St. Bridge.

Overall, though, Austin has been fun, so far. We haven't taken in many of the cultural sites (like we havent been to the capital building, yet) and I worked all week at UT, but the people have been great, the food is amazing, and there's a bunch of cool independent restaurants, shops, coffee houses, etc. It's like being in Santa Cruz!

The Texas State Capital building, which I've been told is open 24-hrs. a day.

Anyway, after the Flugtag, we were pretty tired and even though we knew that on Sunday there was the annual Hot Sauce Festival, where individuals, restaurant chefs, and bottlers compete with one-another for the best red & green salsas, pepper sauce, and "special" category. "So," we thought, "there's no way we'll be interested in hanging around at the hot sauce thing because it'll just be too darn hot." But then again, what the heck else were we to do? Hang out in our Howard Johnson Hotel all day? [I must give a plug here and say how accomodating the HoJo Austin was. For less than fifty bucks a day, we got free internet, free breakfasts, a nice clean room, shower, and bed, etc.] So we went off with three non-perishable food items each (donated to the local food back) for some free salsas! And man am I ever glad we went! First of all, as soon as we showed up, I got to take this picture:

Justine and Caplina Rous, the baby Capybarra!

Yep. Didn't know you could own those, but it seems that there's a breeder of these gigantic South American rodents right here in Texas! SOOOOO CUTE! This one's just a baby, but the world's largest rodent can grow to be 150 lbs.!!

For the rest of the afternoon, we walked around trying different salsas and mustards and glazes and some hot sauces that were so hot they literally make you cry! Tamales and beer were plentiful, as was the free water, which helped put out more than a few fires on our tounges (as this video shows)! Overall, it was an excellent experience, and if we were in Austin this weekend, we'd be going to the annual "save the bat" festival, which has bands, food, and around 8 million bats, who come out from under the bridge just after sunset! Must be quite a sight...

'Till next time,

Crowds and tents at the Austin Hot Sauce Festival!

A new shirt and a new koozie!