Virtual Texas

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Explore marvels throughout our great state from the comfort of home

Ancient canyons carved by thousand-year-old rivers. Miles and miles of blue flora, dotted with red and yellow. Sandy beaches on endless shorelines. Historic buildings where decisions shape our future. Getting on the road and exploring the diverse natural landscape, stunning architecture and innovative industries of the Lone Star State is one of the greatest joys and freedoms of being a Texan.

While travel has been discouraged and many Texas tourist attractions remain closed, you can visit some of them virtually — and start planning your next trip. Some of them will be more than just a day trip. But for today, you can visit them all right from your home. So, fill up your Yeti cup, take your computer, phone or tablet outside, set your device to full screen and enjoy the ride. [Editor’s note: This article includes several links, written out in the text below. To view clickable links, go to wacoan.com/virtual-texas.]

Out of the Blue

If you missed the bulk of the bluebonnets this year due to the shelter-in-place order, you were definitely denied the beauty and tranquility of one of Texas’ greatest traditions.

“There’s nothing quite like driving back to my hometown of Waco during bluebonnet season,” said Christi Whittenburg, a Waco native and speech pathologist who lives in Longview. “When I’m driving south, the really big bluebonnet patches start about Powell on Highway 31. Then, from Corsicana on, it’s bluebonnets galore.”

Taking photos in the bluebonnets is a rite of passage for most Texans, an act that brings back memories of childhood and simpler, happier times.

“Some of my funniest memories are of getting shuffled out of the house and taken to a patch of bluebonnets along Highway 6 or in the Woodway area, which used to seem like almost the country to us. But those are some treasured pics and times I will never forget,” Whittenburg said.

The bluebonnet trails of Ennis, Texas — a little over an hour’s drive, just south of Dallas — are some of the most well-known. In 2014, the trails were even named one of the “30 Most Gorgeous Travel Locations” by Mashable.com. You can catch a glimpse of the more than 40 miles of mapped bluebonnet trails in the area by visiting youtu.be/unghgKuOFAk. Or go to visitennis.org/bluebonnet.htm for some photos from the 2020 bluebonnet season.

Zoo Revue

Nothing entertains and distracts — kids and adults, alike — quite like a visit to the zoo.

“As a family we loved to go to the zoo when my girls were little,” said Chelsa Ressetar, director of advancement at Vanguard College Preparatory School and mother of twins Allison and Brindley, 11, and Ruby, 8. “We would get there right at 9 a.m. and visit the different animal exhibits. It was so fun to see the curiosity of my children as they watched their favorite animals. Zoos are some of the best places to spark children’s and adults’ curiosity.”

The Houston Zoo offers live webcam views of giraffe feedings, gorilla habitats, the elephant yard, leafcutter ants, the rhino yard, a chimp window, and brightly colored flamingos. All the cameras are live from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. To see all the action in real-time, high-resolution images, visit houstonzoo.org/explore/webcams.

If you’re looking for more of an under-the-sea experience, check out the Texas State Aquarium, which is located in Corpus Christi. Float with graceful jellyfish, swim with the stingrays and get up close and personal with sharks as you explore the coral reefs that are available through webcams at texasstateaquarium.org/virtual-tours. Also, the aquarium has a learning series, available for free, to support students who aren’t able to go school during this time. Visit texasstateaquarium.org/educate/learn-from-home-activities for programming on shark tracking, coral reef conservation, sea turtle rescue, birds of prey and more.

And, just a few minutes away from home is every Wacoan’s favorite zoo, Cameron Park Zoo. If you’re missing the African lions, Galapagos tortoises or your friends on Lemur Island, you can easily reconnect through the zoo’s 18 virtual exhibits.

“We love being able to read about each animal and discover fun facts that we can share with our friends,” said Will Curtis, athletic director at Vanguard and father of twins Caleb and Blake, 7.

Visit cameronparkzoo.com/visit/zoo-map to find an interactive map and click on the habitat you want to view. There’s no doubt these animals are anxious for you to return in person!

Wide Open Spaces

Along our southern border with Mexico lies the vast Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America — quite literally isolated from everyday civilization. Bending through the landscape is the Rio Grande, which gave way to the name for what is Big Bend National Park. The park covers 801,163 acres of diverse landscapes and protects more than 5,000 species of plants and animals. It’s larger than Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee and Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Parks in California — but is often overlooked, perhaps because it’s in our own backyard.

“I love that I can see 40-70 miles in just about any direction,” said Mark Felton, who’s in the local farm and ranch real estate business. He’s been traveling to the area for 25 years. “And I can always get my bearings from the unique names and shapes of the signature mountains there. There’s Elephant, Study Butte, Iron Mountain and my favorite, Nine Point Mesa, which has 40,000 acres on top of it.”

Big Bend’s geologic history includes salty sea waters, acid rain, river flow and volcanic eruptions — all of which carved and shaped the dramatic limestone, shale and sandstone formations that define the landscape today. Though most of the rocks ended up in Big Bend when it was covered in sea water 145 million years, some of the oldest rocks found in the park are 500 million years old.

“It is one of the most unique geological areas in the world because of all the volcanic activity which has lifted much larger formations from 60-100 million years ago,” Felton said. “That has led scientists to also find some of the best dinosaur fossils, which are part of an exhibit in the park.”

For stunning 360-degree views of Big Bend National Park — from the top of Emory Peak to Chisos Basin at sunset to Elephant Tusk Trail and much more — visit virtualbigbend.com/big-bend-virtual-tour. Click on the gallery view (bottom left) for links to high-resolution panoramic images that will temporarily transport you to a completely new climate and ecosystem. For live webcam images of the park’s most popular views, go to nps.gov/bibe/learn/photosmultimedia/webcams.htm. And for an informational video about the park’s history, geology and ecosystems, go to youtu.be/D8X5w24VD1M.

Lone Star Lawmakers

If you’ve never had the chance to visit the Texas Capitol — set smack dab in the middle of downtown Austin — check it off your list today and vow to see it in person as soon as you can. It’s the building that houses the offices of the governor and the Texas Legislature, so we all have a stake in what goes on inside this architectural beauty. In fact, decisions about how to reopen the Texas economy amid the global coronavirus pandemic are being made inside these walls right now.

“Every Texan should visit our state capitol if they can,” said Mary Duty, retired history teacher and chairman of the Democratic Party of McLennan County. “This is the place where laws are made and changed and policies are set. You can actually watch it happen, and that’s very exciting and interesting to see.”

The Italian Renaissance Revival style building, completed in 1888, was modeled after the United State Capitol, but constructed with local red granite. Sitting on 2.25 acres of land, the capitol building is 360,000 square feet, which is larger than any other state capitol — and has almost 400 rooms and more than 900 windows.

Duty said one of her favorite rooms is the Capitol Rotunda.

“You have to stand in the center and look up to really get the feeling of how large it is and soak in that history,” said Duty, who also recommended finding your congressman’s office when you can go in person. “You may never find your way out because it’s so big, but someone will help you.”

For an informational and educational video about the significance of the Texas Capitol, go to youtu.be/ELtc4GoOMts. And for some breathtaking 360-degree images of the various rooms in the capitol building — from the rotunda to the Senate chamber to the Governor’s Reception Room and more — visit georgeramirezphotography.com/texas-capitol-virtual-tour/.

Wave on Wave

Does the current situation have you needing an escape to clear waters and balmy breezes? The beaches of South Padre Island, a barrier island at the southern tip of Texas, are known as some of the state’s best.

“This is my happy place,” said Meredith Sutton, senior lecturer for dance and choreography in the Baylor University department of theater arts. “The beaches are beautiful — the absolute best in Texas. The sand is great, and the water is clear, especially clear in the last few years. The temperature is just perfect from June to October.”

A long haul from most places in Texas — a seven-hour drive from Waco — South Padre Island isn’t a usual day trip destination, but rather a place you settle in for the week. And while many people think of it as a wild spring break spot, if you’re looking for peace and calm, it can most definitely be found.

“South Padre is really, really peaceful,” Sutton said. “There have been times in my life when I would go there and just sit on the beach for hours, listening to the sound of the waves. With the exception of big holidays, it’s very uncrowded. We like to get up early and take morning walks or go out in the evening and feel the cool sand under our feet while watching the moon on the water.”

For sweeping aerial views of South Padre’s expansive beaches and crystal waters — well, by Texas standards — view more than 30 minutes of drone footage at youtu.be/gU4UXpxfEWU.

If all this is making you long for the wind in your hair as you set out on the open roads of the state you love, don’t despair. The Lone Star landmarks and traditions we love will never be lost. They surely are growing stronger, more sustainable and more beautiful during this quiet time. And something tells me we’ll appreciate them even more after some time away.

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