Austin’s newest urban green space, Waterloo Park, opens to the public Aug. 14

Austin’s newest urban green space, Waterloo Park, opens to the public Aug. 14

Pam LeBlanc takes a ride down the stone slide at Waterloo Park during a media tour June 22, 2021. Tori Robertson photo

Austin’s newest urban greenspace, an 11-acre oasis of grassy lawn, sprawling oak trees, an outdoor music venue and an elevated walkway straight out of the Jetson’s, will open to the public Aug. 14.

To celebrate, the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy is planning an all-day unveiling, dubbed CommUNITY Day, complete with live performances and activities.

Gary Clark Jr. will perform at the Moody Amphitheater on Aug. 20. Pam LeBlanc photo

Construction of Waterloo Park, 500 East 12th Street, began in 2018. I strolled the grounds during a media preview Tuesday. The best part? Taking a zip down the stone slide, specially designed so it doesn’t get as hot as a traditional metal one. The curving, elevated skywalk serves up great views of Waller Creek and beyond, and the park, which wraps along Waller Creek, also features a 1.5-mile hike-and-bike trail, lots of inviting lawn for spreading out, and cool playscapes that look like a tumbled pile of logs and giant-sized blades of grass.

Some of the trees at the park were transplanted from other locations, including one that was saved from the grounds of the Texas State Capitol two years ago. Gardens are filled with native plants.

The 11-acre park along Waller Creek has plenty of sprawling oak trees. Pam LeBlanc photo

CommUNITY Day will feature live musical and performing arts, kids’ activities, educational and environmental programs, plus booths from community partners including the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Capital Metro, and Art from the Streets. An evening “Taste of Austin” concert is also planned at the Moody Amphitheater Aug. 14.

A week later, Gary Clark Jr. will perform the first ticketed show Aug. 20 at the park’s Moody Amphitheater. One hundred free tickets to the show (and all forthcoming C3 performances) will be distributed to the community through a lottery system. The remaining tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. June 25 at Ticketmaster.com.

Designers said the project was planned to connect people to nature and allows the removal of 28 acres of land from the city’s flood plain for development.

“It’s an important first step to transform a neglected stream system into a healthy ecosystem,” Susan Kenzle of the city of Austin’s Watershed Protection department.

Greenway officials touted the lawn’s tough and quick-draining lawn and said C3 would host about 35 concerts a year at the park. Other events are also planned.

Martin Nembhard, director of park operations for the Waterloo Greenway, answers questions at a media tour of Waterloo Park on June 22, 2021. Pam LeBlanc photo

“I like that it’s an opportunity to engage and bring people together. There’s a growing need for public space in this growing city,” said Martin Nembhard, director of park operations for the Waterloo Greenway.

He’s looking forward to seeing the park filled with people. “We didn’t build it to be a monument or a museum. It’s for people to enjoy,” he said.

The park opening will mark the finish of Phase One of the Waterloo Greenway park system, which will connect 15th Street to Lady Bird Lake.

Go to WaterlooGreenway.org for a full programming schedule and MoodyAmphitheater.com for a full calendar of concerts.

 

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Get ready to take a flying leap – Balmorhea Pool opens June 26

Get ready to take a flying leap – Balmorhea Pool opens June 26

Pam LeBlanc enjoys the cool waters of Balmorhea Pool in West Texas. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

Swimming hole connoisseurs: Prepare to take a flying leap into the world’s largest spring-fed pool.

Texas State Parks officials announced this week that the pool and day use area at Balmorhea State Park will reopen on June 26.

The opening comes as refreshing news to locals and visitors who flock to the 3.5-million gallon oasis in Toyahvale, an hour’s drive west of Fort Stockton, to rinse off the dust and swim in the same water as the endangered Comanche Springs pupfish. The pool has been closed since September 2019, and before that was open only sporadically since May 2018, when a concrete apron beneath the diving board collapsed.

The enormous V-shaped pool with a natural bottom will remind Austinites of Barton Springs, plopped in the middle of a prickly desert, but the water’s a little warmer. The site once served as a watering hole for Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and American soldiers. The Civilian Conservation Corps transformed the fragile desert wetland into a pool in the 1930s.

Jumping off the high dive into the pool’s clear water is a right of passage for many Texans. Walking the length of the springy board feels like walking the plank of a pirate ship, and splashing into crisp waters of San Solomons Springs is like landing in a giant aquarium. Look down deep – you’ll see catfish swirling in the depths.

Light construction is still ongoing in the pool area and the San Solomon Courts, campground, and cienegas remain closed to the public for now. Crews are restoring the motel to its 1930s appearance, minus the carports, and are replacing plumbing, repairing the roof, and rewiring the electrical system. The campground is getting a new bathroom and showers, too.

The pool is open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. or sunset, whichever comes first. Day passes are available for purchase on the Texas State Parks Online Reservations Center. They can be purchased up to 30 days in advance.

For more information go to the park page on the TPWD website.

 

 

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The 10 best things to do in Mesa Verde Country of southwestern Colorado

The 10 best things to do in Mesa Verde Country of southwestern Colorado

This huge rock monolith stands near the entrance to the Ute Mountain Tribal Park in southwestern Colorado. Pam LeBlanc photo

I’ve been to the Durango area half a dozen times, to see cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, ride the steam train that chugs up to Silverton, and to ski at Purgatory and Wolf Creek. This week I skipped all those things and focused on mountain biking.

I’ll be writing a complete story later, but for now, here are the 10 highlights of my trip to what the tourism folks call Mesa Verde Country in southwestern Colorado:

Professional cyclist Ashley Carelock zooms down at trail at Boggy Draw near Dolores, Colorado. Pam LeBlanc photo

  1. Swooping through the Ribcage. I rented a Specialized Stumpjumper mountain bike from Kokapelli Bike & Board in Cortez, an hour west of Durango. Then I connected with professional endurance gravel bike racer Ashley Carelock, who led me up a network of single track trails through scrub brush and rock formations that looked like they were made out of Silly Sand at Phil’s World. At the top, we launched into the most celebrated stretch of flow trail in his corner of Colorado – the Ribcage. The drop-in was a little bit gnarly, but then we rocketed up and down a series of undulating dipsy-doos, hardly peddling because the momentum kept us rolling. I still haven’t wiped the smile off my face.
  2. Biking Boggy Draw. When the sun rose higher in the sky and the heat cranked up, we ditched Phil’s World for Boggy Draw. This slightly milder collection of trails weaves through a pine forest, and since it’s at a higher altitude it’s not quite as hot ther.e
  3. Jumping into McPhee Reservoir. I was on my own the next day, and it got hot – Texas style warm-a-tortilla-on-the-sidewalk hot, with temps hovering just over 100 degrees. To cool off, I drove through a forest of pine trees to the rocky shore of a cold lake, where I jumped in (naked, of course.)

Tribal member Rickey Hayes explains the history of rock art at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Pam LeBlanc photo

At the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, visitors can see ancient rock art. Pam LeBlanc photo

4. Exploring the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Put this on your must-do list. Tribal member Ricky Hayes led our group of six onto part of a 125,000-acre parcel of tribal land and showed us rock art, mounds of pot sherds and ruins, told us ancient stories, and taught us about Native American culture.

5. Staying at Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch. This amazing 2,000-acre guest ranch made me swoon. Not only is it populated with sheep, cattle, cats, and chickens, owners Ming and Garry Adams are eccentric, creative, welcoming and wonderful. They invited me to dinner, where I met a Navajo couple and other long-time friends.

6. Feeding the sheep. Garry handed me a sack of organic chia and quinoa chips, and pointed me to a field at the guest ranch where huge, fluffy sheep were grazing. I barely escaped a gentle trampling when they eagerly rushed over for a snack.

7. Eating like a local. In Cortez, I stopped by Blondie’s for a Navajo taco, made with hot fry bread topped with green chile and sour cream. WildEdge Brewing Collective in Cortez served great tap beer and excellent pork nachos. I cooled off with a scoop of honey lavender ice cream at Moose & More in Cortez. And I also sampled the world’s best hummus and great baked goods at the Dolores Food Market in Dolores.

8. Visiting a winery. Sutcliffe Vineyards is tucked in a beautiful valley about 15 miles outside of Cortez. They’re best known for chardonnay, and owner-founder John Sutcliffe, a former polo player and New York City restauranteur, is happy to show visitors around.

9. Shacking up at the Retro Inn in Cortez. If you need an affordable place in Cortez, book a night at the Retro, a renovated motel with a funky, retro vibe and clean but basic rooms. There’s a giant outdoor chess set, a real-live telephone booth, and a barbecue pit. I stayed in No. 1971, decorated with Clint Eastwood movie posters from the time.

10. Take in a sunset. Slow down, sit outside, think about the ancient people who once lived here, and soak it all in.

  1. The Wagstaff Cabin at the Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch is secluded and luxurious. Pam :LeBlanc photo

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Paddlers gear up for 2021 Texas Water Safari, which starts Saturday

Paddlers gear up for 2021 Texas Water Safari, which starts Saturday

Heather Harrison and Courtney Martinez are racing tandem. Pam LeBlanc photo

You’ve got to have a screw or two loose to sign up for the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile paddle race from San Marcos to the Gulf Coast.

Why else would you endure bobbing logjams, spiders, rapids, snakes, soul-sucking mud, exhaustion, extreme heat, alligators, mosquitos, and hallucinations?

I dropped by check-in for the grueling race, which starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River.

Colton Moore will attempt his first Texas Safari race. Pam LeBlanc photo

Among this year’s racers is Colton Moore, 31, who moved to Central Texas last year to prepare. He thinks he’s ready, although he’s apprehensive. This year marks his first attempt at the event, dubbed “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race.

“I just want to make it through the first 30 miles without breaking my boat,” he says, noting that many of the other competitors have years of experience on him. “They know these rivers, they know these boats. But I can do this.”

A few months ago, it looked like racers would have to deal with slow moving water during this year’s race. But recent rains have bumped up the flow. The weather forecast calls for high humidity and temperatures in the upper 90s.

Owen West, 83, will try for his 29th Safari finish. Pam LeBlanc photo

Eighty-three-year-old Owen West doesn’t seem at all worried about conditions. The 29-time contestant, known famously for carrying a baggie filled with Swisher Sweets cigars along on the route, chomped on a stogie as his grandson Alex West, 33, hovered nervously. West is hoping to become the first to rack up a finish in all seven decades that the race has been staged. This year he’s racing with two younger paddlers – his grandson Eric West and his friend Keegan McCally.

“It takes an army to get him down the river, but we don’t tell him that,” Alex West says. “He’s ‘Let’s get some cigars and Coca Colas and go down the river.’ We just want to make sure Owen is OK. I’m sure he’d love to die on this thing, but we don’t want him to.”

This racer taped a picture of his family next to his canoe seat to keep him motivated. Pam LeBlanc photo

The five-man Cowboys team is legendary in the event. John Mark Harris, 62, a member of this year’s cowboy hat-wearing crew, is looking for his 35th finish.

“I still get very nervous, but it used to be worse,” he says, explaining that during one of his first races he had to ask his dad to pull over so he could barf out the car door on the way to the start line.

So why do it?

“The short answer is you start out doing it to see if you can,” Harris says. “You keep doing it because you realize you can do better. And then you keep going because you realize you love it.”

 

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Want to run through the West Texas desert? The Marathon2Marathon is back!

Want to run through the West Texas desert? The Marathon2Marathon is back!

The Marathon2Marathon is back on and scheduled for Oct. 23, 2021. Here, Pam LeBlanc runs the 10K version of the race in 2018. Andrew Lochbaum photo

Running a marathon on city streets is one thing, but imagine knocking out 26.2 miles through the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas.

After a hiatus last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Marathon2Marthon is back on, race organizers announced this week. The full marathon, half marathon, 10K and 5K will take place Oct. 23 this year on a gradually downhill course without much vehicle traffic. Did I mention the climate is dry, too?

I did the 10K a few years ago, and loved the experience.

All four distances start north of Marathon on Highway 385, and finish in the heart of the tiny town, the Gateway to the Big Bend.

This year’s event will feature a pasta dinner Friday night at The Gage hotel, a barbecue lunch at the finish line and a dance and star party at the Marathon Motel on Saturday, plus a gospel brunch at the French Grocer on Sunday.

I did the 10K version of the race on a whim in 2018, and loved running past cactus and road runners as I trotted toward Marathon. Plus, where else (in the United States anyway) can you take a picture next to an official city sign that says “Marathon,” when you’re running a marathon?

For the first time this year, the race won’t finish on Highway 90. Instead, it will end in front of the Community Center on a side street.

Registration is $115 for the full marathon, $90 for the half, $60 for the 10K and $50 for the 5K. (Late fees kick in on Oct. 20.) Registration includes free transportation to the appropriate start line, along with a shirt and a finishers medal.

To register, go to https://www.marathon2marathon.com/event. All proceeds will benefit the Marathon Health Center. For more information about the race, go to www.marathon2marathon.com.

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