Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 5 Favorite Campsites for 2014

I  just reviewed all my 2014 camp I did a lot of boondocking this year, especially when I compare this year to 2013 when I was "learning the ropes" about full-timing and depended much more on pay-RV parks with full hookups.  I camped at some really nice parks throughout the US and tough as it may be chose the 5 camping areas I found the best for varying reasons.  Here they are from fifth to overall number 1.

Number 5:  Brazoria County Free Beach  Surfside, TX

I'm a sucker for two things Brazoria County Free Beach provides:  camping on the Gulf Coast beach and no camping fee.  You can read my review here:  Brazoria County Free Beach Review

The Tank's campsite at high tide.

Number 4:  Kartchner Caverns State Park  Benson, AZ

The only pay campsite in the 2014 top 5, Kartchner Caverns State Park simply has to be experienced to appreciate the "it factor" of the extensive cavern system it encompasses.  It is truly unique and worth the trip to Benson, AZ.  Here's my two part reviews:  Kartchner Caverns State Park Review Part 1  Kartchner Caverns State Park Review Part 2

The trail head for the Guindani Trail hike.

Number 3:  Coyote Ridge Long Term Visitors Area (LTVA) Yuma, AZ
I lied earlier, you have to buy a camp permit from the BLM ($45 for 2 weeks) to camp at Coyote Ridge so this is the second pay campsite on my top 5 list, although the $3/day fee is pretty minimal.

No doubt named after the noisy nocturnal packs.
My review of the LTVA site is here:  Coyote Ridge LTVA Review .
Number 2:  Spring Creek Park  Tomball, TX 
Normally when you boondock you have no electrical or water hookups so you have to be self-contained in those departments, either with solar panels or a generator and a big fresh water tank.  When you "boondock" at beautiful Spring Creek Park the county provides you with free electric hookups along with water an sewer for up to 7 days!  That's what I call roughing it.

A few miles west of 249 in Tomball, TX.
Here's the review I wrote:  Spring Creek Park Review .

Number 1:  Sweet Briar Recreation Area  Mandan, ND

The county of Morton in North Dakota has set up an almost perfect boondocking situation around Sweet Briar Lake with incredibly spacious campsites that are available free for up to 14 days.  I stayed there in July of this year and the weather was perfect, the fish in the lake were biting, kayaking on the calm lake couldn't have been better, and as a bonus Verizon reception was great!  This is a real gem of a campsite and, truthfully, I'd never have thought a site in North Dakota of all states would be my favorite for this year but there you have it.  Sweet Briar wins!  Sweet Briar Recreation Area Review

A gravel road runs along the west side of the lake providing site access.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone!  Thanks for reading the blog this year, I've really enjoyed keeping you up to date on my meanderings across the country.

Houston's Walk of Lights -- over 4000 bulbs that change color via computer control
Check back before New Years to see my Top Five 2014 campsites.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Campground Review: Cedar Hill Park Wallisville, TX

Located on the northeast bank of Lake Charlotte Cedar Hill Park is another of Chambers County's parks that you are allowed to camp for free if you obtain emailed permission from the County Commissioner's office (phone number to call is available on the park's website).  I traveled to the park in early December for three days of camping.

"Primitive camping by permit".
The park was opened in 2000 and is managed by Chambers County under a lease agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, who built the park.  During the time of the Texan revolution the park was part of a resort area that was serviced by two-masted schooners that could sail up the Trinity River from Galveston right into Lake Charlotte.  That passage is no longer viable as the southern end of Lake Charlotte has silted up too much.  The park is part of the Corps of Engineers giant 23,000 acre Wallisville Lake Project.

Spanish moss covered Cedar trees near the kayak launch site.
The park is somewhat like two separate parks next to each other.  As you drive into the park off of Lake Charlotte Road you enter a day-use picnic area with vaulted restrooms and covered picnic areas.

The open "day-use" side of Cedar Hill Park.
If you continue along the road on the right in the above photo you come to the portion of the park that has Lake Charlotte lake shore and the part I chose to set up camp in.

The Tank's site.  This area was much more shaded and nearer the lake.
Here's Cedar Hill Park's data sheet:

Hookups:                                 None
Fire ring:                                  No
Water Access:                         Yes
Fresh Water:                            Yes
Trash Service:                          Yes
Toilets:                                    Yes - vault
Showers:                                 No
Dump station:                          No
WiFi:                                       No
Level sites:                              Yes
Laundry:                                  No
Store:                                       No
Pool:                                        No
Shade:                                     Yes
Verizon reception:                   4G-2 Bars
Internet reception:                   2 out of 4 Bars
Cost:                                      Free for up to 3 nights

One of the nice features of Cedar Hill Park is the more than nine miles of hiking trails cut through the forest surrounding the park.

One of the bench lined hiking trails -- part of a 9 mile layout.
Lake Charlotte's lake front is very heavily treed and even though the hiking trails parallel it's shore this is a typical view of the lake:

Lake Charlotte from a trail bench.
 There IS electricity available under a gazebo covered picnic area on the day-use side which you are prohibited from hooking your RV up to but if you needed to charge a phone or a laptop you could do it.

This covered area has electrical outlets.
One side of the park has an observation deck that allows viewing of a swamp area that a nearby sign says contains myriad different wildlife (no mention of gators.).

The swamp view observation deck.
The swamp you observe.
It was so great camping at Cedar Hill Park!  Probably due to the winter season I had the park completely to myself with an occasional exception of a kayak fisherman.  I think it's really cool that Chambers County, unlike a majority of Texas counties, allows permitted camping in some of it's parks.  Plan a camping trip to Cedar Hill Park and Lake Charlotte, you'll really enjoy it!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Campground Review: Ft. Anahuac Park Anahuac, TX

Historical Background:

In November of 1830 on a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Trinity River the Mexican authorities began construction of a fort to control traffic entering the Texas Territory and to enforce the Law of April 6, 1830 which was passed to stop the free flowing Anglo immigration from the US into Texas.  (Irony anyone?)  One of six such forts built along the coast, all named with Mexican names, the one on the Trinity was called Fort Anahuac after the home of the ancient Aztecs.  The Mexican garrison at Fort Anahuac reached a high of 295 officers and men in 1832.  Colonel William Travis was briefly imprisoned at the fort in 1832 for the illegal importation of slaves into Texas, he had brought his man-servant with him from the US.  In June of 1832 Texan insurgents attacked the fort to free Travis and after they successfully captured the fort it caught fire and burned.  This attack is often referred to as the opening of the Texan Revolution.  Colonel Travis was to lead the defense of the Alamo four years later in 1836.

A stone marker is placed on the Fort's site, nothing remains of the Fort.

Fort Anahuac Park is a Chambers County park located in the southwest corner of the Texas town of Anahuac on the Liberty River just as it enters Galveston Bay.  I traveled there in late November to take advantage of the three day free stay policy Chambers County offers at a number of their county parks.

This vista of the park was taken on the only non-rainy day I stayed.
Fort Anahuac Park is pretty large for a county park and offers three boat launch ramps, a lit fishing pier, three lit baseball fields, a restroom with showers, covered picnic gazebos with electricity, playground equipment and a bird watching boardwalk through the marshes complete with observation towers.

Here's the Fort Anahuac Park data sheet:

Hookups:                                 30 amp but use is prohibited
Fire ring:                                  No
Water Access:                         Yes
Fresh Water:                            Yes
Trash Service:                          Yes
Toilets:                                    Yes - flush
Showers:                                 Yes
Dump station:                          No
WiFi:                                       No
Level sites:                              Yes
Laundry:                                  No
Store:                                       No
Pool:                                        No
Shade:                                     Yes
Verizon reception:                   4G, 2 of 4 bars
Internet reception:                   3 of 4 bars
Cost:                                     Free for up to 3 nights

The fishing pier which is brightly lit at night.
Given that Chambers County let me stay free for three nights you'd guess that I wouldn't have anything to complain about regarding my stay and you'd be ALMOST right.  When you email the County Commissioner's secretary to obtain permission to camp at the park (you can't just go there and camp without permission) she emails you a PDF of the park rules.  One of the rules prohibits tying into any of the parks electricity which is fine -- it's their electricity.  But why then are there dozens of RV hookup boxes with live electricity spread around the park if no one is allowed to hookup to them??  The rules warn that you'll be asked to leave if you are found electrically hooked up.

A Kindle getting a surreptitious charge on top of a prohibited hookup box. 
The hookup ban is policed too, a park employee drove his county pickup up to a meter near where I was camped and wrote down the meter reading.....just to be sure!

Note the lack of a hookup cable on the Tank....Yay solar panels!
I wish I had experienced better weather during my stay at Fort Anahuac Park.  Instead I endured two and a half days of fairly constant rain and wind which precluded my even walking down to the bird watching boardwalk through the marshes.  I probably made a bigger deal out of the hookup ban than I needed but something about it just seemed wrong-headed but it's not a big deal for a RV with a solar setup and really, the price of the stay can't be beat.  Overall I was very impressed with the park and will make a point of returning hoping for decent weather this time.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Best Thanksgiving Dessert Ever!

 Note:  (This post was actually added to the blog last Thanksgiving) There are quite a few new readers of this blog so I wanted to repost this guide to cooking my family's favorite Thanksgiving dessert which I'll be making at my sister's in Austin this Thanksgiving.

One of my family's Holiday traditions is Eggnog Pie.  The typical response I get whenever I ask fellow RV'ers if they have ever had it is "What is that?".  Then after I describe it the almost unanimous response is "Mmmmmm....that sounds good!"  So, instead of the usual life on the road/ campground review stuff I thought I'd list the recipe that's been handed down within my family for generations and take some photos of my progress making it (somehow I am the only person in my immediate family who can manage to make this recipe...go figure!)


2 cups eggnog                                                          1 cup whipped cream
1 envelope plain gelatin                                             1 1/2 tsp. vanilla flavoring
1/4 cup sugar                                                           1/4 tsp. almond extract
1/4 tsp. salt                                                              1 - 9 inch graham cracker pie shell
1 can fruit cocktail, well drained

Ingredients in  my sister's kitchen in Austin.  Pie shell not pictured.


1) In a pan mix together the gelatin, sugar and salt.  Slowly stir in the eggnog.  Warm the eggnog mixture over LOW heat until the gelatin is completely dissolved occasionally stirring.  You will initially see little bubbles of gelatin in the mixture, then, as the temperature slowly rises there will be  fewer and fewer gelatin bubbles till they are dissolved.  Do not let the mixture come to a boil.  Chill the mixture in the refrigerator until it will "mound" slightly when dropped from a spoon.

No boiling and no gelatin bubbles!
2) After removing the now "mounding" eggnog mixture from the refrigerator fold in the almond and vanilla flavorings along with the fruit cocktail.  Then carefully fold in the whipped whip cream being careful to maintain the "fluffiness" of the whipped cream.  (I always add 1/4 cup of sugar to the whip cream while whipping it but this is up to you). 

3) Pour the final eggnog / whipped cream mixture into a 9 inch pie shell and chill in the refrigerator for 3 - 4 hours prior to serving.

I'm lazy, I buy the shell but you can make it if you want.
4)  Enjoy!

Not long for this world!
 One year I think I got some expired gelatin and the pie never "hardened".  Rather than trying to serve soupy pie I placed the pie in the freezer overnight and served it as kind of like an ice cream was non-traditional but still delicious!

Good luck with your pie and Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Campground Review: FM 521 River Park Wadsworth, TX

FM 521 River Park is located just off of FM 521 on the Colorado River near the town of Wadsworth, TX.  The small 13 acre park is administered by Matagorda County and the county allows up to three free days of overnight camping.

Three days then you have to scoot.
Part of the Colorado River Trail series of parks that stretch along the Colorado River's banks the River Park was finished in 1996.  I traveled to the park in early November 2014 and stayed a few nights.

Commemorative plaque at the park.
There are two port-a-johns at the park but no fresh water or electrical hookups of any type.  Here's the FM 521 River Park data sheet:

Hookups:                     None  
Fire ring:                      No
Water Access:             Yes
Fresh Water:                No
Trash Service:              Yes
Toilets:                        Port-a-john
Showers:                     No
Dump station:              No
WiFi:                           No
Level sites:                  Yes
Laundry:                      No
Store:                           No
Pool:                            No
Shade:                         Yes
Verizon reception:        3G, 1 bar
Internet reception:        1 Bar with a booster
Cost:                            Free for up to 3 nights

The park has a boat ramp that allows fishing boats to be launched onto the Colorado and also has 2 fishing piers that allow shore fishing in the Colorado.

One of two shore fishing piers at the park.
 One of the nicer features in the River Park is a very large grassy field adjacent to the parking area.

The park's huge grass field.
If I had to choose one thing at the park that is a little less than desirable is that it's located adjacent to the FM 521 bridge over the Colorado and there's a lot of traffic noise during drive time in the morning and evening.

The (somewhat) noisy FM 521 bridge taken from the park. 
The park has a covered picnic pavilion with multiple tables and there are also outdoor picnic tables spaced along the river.

The park's picnic pavilion.
There aren't individual RV sites at the River Park.  I just staked out a convenient spot in the lit parking lot.

The Tank's site.  Note the light pole that lit the park at night.
Surprisingly, the Colorado is navigable by barges and tugboats even past the park and you occasionally see river traffic moving past.

The beautiful (and navigable) Colorado River from the other pier.
I would definitely camp at FM 521 River Park again.  For the most part it was a very quiet relaxing stay and the county does a good job maintaining the park.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Campground review: Brazoria County Free Beach

Texas has 367 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Mexico, much of which you can camp and drive on.  (Texas treats it's beaches as two way roads).  I traveled to the town of Surfside, TX which is just to the east of Freeport, TX to camp on the Brazoria County Free Beach where you are allowed to camp for up to 14 days ----for FREE!  Thus the "Free" in Brazoria County Free Beach.

The Tank's campsite at high tide.
While driving a road vehicle on sand might conjure up need for oversize tires and 4-wheel drive that's not the case on the Free Beach, the sand is hard packed and discernible "roads" that vehicular travel have created make that portion of the beach as solid as asphalt roads.  The "hard pack" also almost eliminates blowing sand which is welcome in the steady wind that's always present.

Here's the Free Beach data sheet:

Hookups:                                 None
Fire ring:                                  No (you could dig a hole in the sand)
Water Access:                         Yes
Fresh Water:                            No
Trash Service:                          Yes
Toilets:                                    Port-a-Johns in some places
Showers:                                 No
Dump station:                         No
WiFi:                                       No
Level sites:                              Yes
Laundry:                                 No
Store:                                      No
Pool:                                       No
Shade:                                    No
Verizon reception:                   4G, 2 out of 5
Internet reception:                   2 out of 4
Cost:                                      Free for up to 14 days
That's a shrimp boat out on the horizon.
If you decide to camp at the Brazoria County Free Beach you need to insure you're on THAT beach and not the Surfside Beach where camping is prohibited (and the sheriff patrols daily).  The GPS data for the site in the top picture is:  28.990895, -95.235838.  Anywhere east of that is the Free Beach and you shouldn't have a hard time finding a great campsite.

Did I mention the great sunrises?

Being an early riser has some benefits!
In the late spring and early summer the Gulf had experienced a massive seaweed die off that resulted in tons of dead seaweed clogging up the beaches and, with the accompanying smell, left most of the beach around Surfside unusable.  I'm very glad to say that problem is no longer a worry and you can see from my pictures that the sand is relatively clean.

The strong steady winds make kite flying a widely embraced pastime on the beach.  One of the days of my stay the local kite club had an outing.  Here's some pics:

Kites and seashore just go together some how.
If you're by the Gulf you have to have a pink shark kite.
The round rainbow one was like a parachute with a hole in it.
The weather was just perfect during my six day stay, 80 in the day with nice breezes and 50's at night.  The windy conditions have the added benefit of eliminating most annoying bugs from the equation too.  Although I just waded around a bit the water temperature was warm enough to be swimable and many families near me were doing that.  You have to camp on the beach by the Gulf at least once in your life and if you do you'll find it relaxing and fun....and the price at the Brazoria County FREE Beach can't be beat!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Campground Review: Spring Creek Park Tomball, TX

Every now and again I'm tempted to keep a really great campground to myself and not review it so as to keep camp traffic down.  There is a city park in Tomball, Spring Creek Park, that tempted me to not review it it's such an uncommon value.

A few miles west of 249 in Tomball, TX.
Once every 30 days campers are allowed to reserve one of the 8 RV camping sites for up to 7 days.  There is NO CHARGE for the 7 days camping and the RV sites come with full hookups....that's right, FREE electric hookups, and water and sewer.  Now if Spring Creek was a run of the mill city park you might think "Meh!" but the park is meticulously cared for by a large staff and boasts a shower house that is also cleaned daily.  It is hands down the nicest park I've been in in Texas.

The park is spread over 114 acres.
Here's the Spring Creek Park data sheet:

Hookups:                                 15, 30 & 50 amp.  Water and sewer.
Fire ring:                                  No
Water Access:                          Yes (Spring Creek)
Fresh Water:                            Yes
Trash Service:                         Yes
Toilets:                                    Yes
Showers:                                 Yes
Dump station:                         No (sewer hookups instead)
WiFi:                                       No
Level sites:                             Yes
Laundry:                                 No
Store:                                      No
Pool:                                       No
Shade:                                    Yes
Verizon reception:                   4G, 3 of 4 bars
Internet reception:                   3 of 5 bars
Cost:                                      Free for 7 days

Tent camping is also allowed although the tent sites are "primitive camping" (no hookups).  Additional park features are:  one unlighted softball field, one lighted basketball pavilion, two lighted tennis courts, a small barbecue pavilion, a large barbecue pavilion, three tent camping sites, one primitive camping area, a playground, trails, picnic tables, barbecue grills, a sand volleyball court, and a rest room/shower pavilion.

There are several miles of hiking/biking trails.

Spring Creek runs along the northern edge of the park and I saw several people fishing from it's banks during my stay there.  The RV sites are in the southern portion of the park across from the rest room/shower building.  The community DOES actively use the park -- there were 3 high school cross-country meets in the park during my stay, and the teams practice there each afternoon after school.

Part of the north section of the park was once a cemetery.
On another topic, I took the camper off the pickup during my stay and found this in the bed of the truck:

Thankfully, the mice were long gone!

 I was really grateful to the City of Tomball for making such a great park camping experience available for free.  If you plan on checking it out look at the park's website and be sure to call to make reservations as 8 sites get booked up fairly quickly.  

Thanks for reading! 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Campground Review: Stubblefield Lake Recreation Area Sam Houston National Forest

I spent a couple nights at the Escapee's campground in Livingston in order to pick my 2015 Texas state sticker for my truck up (The Escapee's are my mail-forwarder and they do a great job if you need one.)  Not too far to the west of Livingston is the Sam Houston National Forest, one of four National Forests in Texas which seems low given the immense size of the state, but that's all there are...just four.  There are several camping areas set up by the Forest Service within the Sam Houston and I went for the Stubblefield Lake Recreation Area which if just northwest of Lake Conroe.

New Waverly, TX is the closest town.

The Recreation Area was built in 1937 as part of the New Deal and consists of 30 RV parking sites (no hookups) and probably double that tent sites dispersed around a loop with two restrooms with flush toilets and showers at opposite ends of the Area.

Really spacious campsites under tall trees.
Here's the Stubblefield Lake data sheet:

Hookups:                                 None
Fire ring:                                  Yes
Water Access:                         Yes
Fresh Water:                            Yes
Trash Service:                          Yes
Toilets:                                    Yes (flush)
Showers:                                 Yes
Dump station:                          No
WiFi:                                       No
Level sites:                              Yes
Laundry:                                  No
Store:                                       No
Pool:                                        No
Shade:                                     Yes
Verizon reception:                   4G, 1 bar
Internet reception:                   2 out of 5 bars
Cost:                                      $15 / night

Stubblefield Lake is more pond-like than lake-like.
There is a covered pavilion at the Rec Area with picnic tables for group picnics but since you can't reserve a campsite there I'm not certain how one would reserve the pavilion.  The campsites are given out on a first-come basis and bring exact change because you pay by putting cash into a Forest Service envelope at the entrance gate and then into a metal mailbox-style envelope container.  There is a nice couple who act as park hosts and from the look of their campsite they've been at it for a long time.  They come by and greet each party of campers and check to make sure you've displayed an envelope sticker on your dash that proves you've paid.  The lady explained that a tow service promptly removes vehicles without proof of payment, and I saw him drive through the loop a few times, FYI.

A small island in the middle of Stubblefield Lake.
One of the things that first attracted me to Stubblefield Lake was all the online reviews mentioning that the nightly cost was $10.  No longer, somehow the Forest Service deemed a 50% rate increase to be reasonable and $15 per day is now the cost which I found a LITTLE steep for primitive (no hookups) camping without a dump station.

Spanish moss hanging from trees along the lake shore.
Only an hour north of Houston, Stubblefield Rec Area fills up almost every weekend so I wouldn't advise knocking off work at 5, driving home then heading up on a Friday night although there is an overflow area just to the east of the Rec Area that looked like you could stay in for free - without rest rooms or trash service though.  My stay at the Area was quiet and relaxing and the October weather was perfect.  If you can overlook premium primitive camping rates you'll enjoy Stubblefield.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

And the New Broadband Wireless Internet Provider Is....

Image result for verizon logo

There really wasn't too much of a choice for RV'ers...AT&T or Verizon have BY FAR the best coverage in the Lower 48.  Better the Devil I I went with Big Red.  Actually between now and the end of the month all four majors are offering double data plans for wireless broadband plans.  Under my old Millenicom plan for 20 GB/month and my Verizon smartphone plan on Verizon with 3 GB/month I was paying:

Millenicom:  $89.99/month  (20 GB data)
Verizon:       $110.00/month (smart phone with 3 GB data)
TOTAL:       $199.99/month

My NEW monthly charge:

 Verizon:  $210/month (40 GB Data, 2 lines: smartphone and 4G Jet Pack)

Yup you read right!  Big Red is DOUBLING my monthly data for $10 more a month.  Normally this plan would only have 20 GB associated with it so if you're thinking you need wireless broadband make the jump before the end of this month while those double data plans are still around!  Yay more monthly data!  By the way the 4G Jet Pack (a broadband wireless router that can have up to 8 devices connect to it) I referred to was free if I signed a 2 year contract.  There was no contract if you wanted to buy the Jet Pack up front...I think it was around $145.

Thanks for reading!