Monday, December 27, 2021

Lights Spectacular spreads holiday cheer in Texas

You don’t have to go into space to see the best holiday light display in central Texas. But if you happened to be circling the earth that way, NASA reports that the Lights Spectacular show in Johnson City, Texas, would still catch your attention.

More than two million lights glimmer during the 32nd year of this stunning Christmas display. Families are taking advantage of this winter’s mild evenings to bring excited children to the Lights Spectacular display, which is centered around the Blanco County Courthouse.

Additionally, the Pedernales Electric Co-op’s Headquarters boasts a lighted forest. Every inch of bark and limbs is covered with white and blue lights, with larger bulbs gleaming through the branches. Businesses around the historic downtown square are also shining brightly.

Johnson City (named for the family of former president Lyndon B. Johnson) is located in central Texas, 48 miles west of Austin and 60 miles north of San Antonio.  Lights Spectacular is an extraordinary exhibit worth the hour’s drive from Austin. Have dinner at a local eatery, and then enjoy this extraordinary free display of lighted figures and buildings.

Lights shine each night through January 2, 2022. Most of the special events associated with Lights Spectacular have already occurred this season, but carriage rides and hayrides are still available, and live music is scheduled for certain dates. Check the Chamber of Commerce calendar for exact times. Additionally, some local businesses have extended hours for holiday shopping or browsing through galleries.

People from all across the United States have visited the “Twinkliest Town in the Hill Country” in its transformation from small town into a Christmas wonderland. Bed and breakfast cottages and down-home cooking at local restaurants entice visitors to stay overnight.  Several art galleries, nearby wineries, antique shopping, and Pedernales State Park are local attractions for those who can stay longer. 

Together with holiday lighting on local homes, parks and street corners, Johnson City’s Christmas presentation makes a glowing gift to the community, a testament to the history and culture that lives in many rural American towns.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier







Thursday, December 16, 2021

Cruising for wildlife

One of the best ways to travel in Alaska is by ship. Visions of massive blue glaciers, misty snow-capped mountains, and dog sleds may come to mind. But don’t forget about the wildlife. From bears to birds, wildlife can be found literally everywhere in the state. If you want to see more than just coastal inhabitants, consider a land extension, either before or after the cruise, that will provide additional views of this large state and its diverse wildlife.

Winter is the perfect time to start planning your Alaska cruise. All major cruise lines that sail from the U. S. provide a wide selection of cruise lengths, dates, and options. Sailing the Inside Passage is a favorite itinerary of cruisers, so let’s look at a variety of wildlife that you can see either from the ship or when exploring on shore.

Look for orca whales, largest member of the dolphin family. They roam in pods throughout the cool waters of southeast Alaska but are not as prevalent as humpback whales. Being somewhat social, their black and white bodies make them easy to spot on a cruise, especially if you have binoculars and are willing to scan the sea from time to time.

Look, also, for dophins and porpoises, which frequent shallow coastal waters and are commonly seen throughout Alaska’s bays. These playful creatures seem to enjoy showing off for spectators—who absolutely love their acrobatic maneuvers.

Passing a beach, sandbar, or ice floe near Alaska’s coast? Look for harbor seals. You might glimpse a brown head peeking out of the water as they swim gracefully from one hang out to another.

Sea otters also can frequently be seen lounging on chunks of ice or floating on their backs in the waters of Southeast Alaska. Watch them tumble and dive in the water and use paws to groom themselves. These playful furry creatures are especially abundant in water near fjords.

If you venture into Prince William Sound or Glacier Bay National Park, you might see humpback whales. These massive creatures spend warm days in the cooler Pacific Ocean around Alaska. After bulking up during the summer, in winter they migrate to seas near Hawaii where they can be spotted later in the year. Notice how the pattern on each fluke is different—a sort of fingerprint for the humpbacks.

Along the way, be on the lookout for bald eagles gliding in the air. They are surprisingly available, which is a thrill for anyone wanting to see our national bird in the wild. Watch as they swoop down to catch fish and then soar overhead back to large nests in trees along the shore.

Many port excursions are designed especially to see various types of wildlife, Local guides can increase your chances of spotting various fish or fowl. From remote areas to bustling cities, Alaska has much to offer any traveler. Don’t forget to bring your camera!

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Escape city vibes in this urban state park

We lived in the Austin, Texas area for many years before discovering a delightful state park located almost in our backyard. But once Larry and I visited McKinney State Park, it became a place we return to often.

Located 13 miles from the state capital and on the outskirts of Austin’s city limits, this delightful state park is known for its history and natural beauty.


Artifacts found in the park indicate that Native American tribes occupied this area more than 8,000 years ago. Later, a portion of the El Camino Real do los Tejas ran through it from the late 1600s to early 1800s.  During this period, missionaries and friars intent on converting Native Americans to Christianity, government officials and soldiers wanting to defend Spain’s interest in the New World, and traders needing routes for commerce travelled through the area. 

Perhaps they even crossed Onion Creek where its waters flowed near the Lower Falls in today’s park.

Thomas McKinney (the park’s namesake) was one of the first 300 colonists that Stephen F. Austin enticed to settle in Texas in 1830. He was a successful businessman and became very influential during the Texas war for independence and later a senator to the first legislature. By 1850, McKinney had built a house along Onion Creek near a crossing of the El Camino Real, and he continued to grow his ranch and other business interests.

The park opened to the public in 1976 after the land was donated to the state by the James W. Smith family, who owned and farmed the land for several generations after McKinney died.


Without knowing any of that history, we first came to the park to enjoy the scenery. Onion Creek flows over expansive limestone ledges and splashes into pools where visitors can fish or swim—no license is required to fish from shore in state parks.

We explored the park on foot. There are nine miles of trails for hiking or biking in the park (check the Interactive Trails Map). The 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail has a hard surface that can accommodate strollers and road bikes. History buffs can find remnants of McKinney’s homestead and gristmill on the Homestead Trail. Picnic tables, open grassy areas (great for flying kites or playing ball games), a group hall that can be rented, six cabins, and 81 campsites are also available for visitor use.

As we discovered, there are different parking areas, so check a map beforehand and then park near the area where you wish to be. Trails lead to the Lower Falls and huge expanses of limestone boulders that are easy enough to walk on. If you want to walk in the woods, trails near Onion and Williamson creeks are filled with bald cypress trees and bright wildflowers. Near the Upper Falls, look for Old Baldy. Estimated at more than 500 years old, this 103-foot tree is thought to be one of the oldest bald cypress trees on Texas public land. On wooded trails you might even glimpse white-tailed deer, raccoons, armadillos, squirrels and a variety of birds.

Take time to just wander and explore. This is not a park to hurry through but to slow down and absorb nature’s beauty through a variety of elements, including water, rock, and trees. It’s especially pretty in fall.

Upcoming events

Several programs are scheduled in the park for December 4, 11, and 18, 2021: Birding with a Ranger, Watercolor Holiday Cards, and Prehistory in the Park. Check the website for times and additional ranger-led programs. As for all Texas state parks, reservations are recommended and can be made online. 

Entrance fee for McKinney State Park is $6 per adult for a day pass, and it’s free for children 12 and under. Pick up a free Junior Ranger Activity Journal  at headquarters if your party includes kids.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier