The Painted Churches are one of Texas’ historical gems. While not widely known, twenty of these churches appear on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of these churches are available for the public to enjoy the amazing art of our ancestors; others are closed to the public. They are located from south Texas to north Texas to the panhandle, and a handful reside in central Texas.
Dubina, Czech for Oak Grove, was first settled in 1856 by Moravian immigrants from what is now the Czech Republic. These Czech-Moravians traveled for 14 weeks across the Atlantic, finally landing in Galvestion. After much hardship, they found their way to the fertile lands just south of La Grange. Working together, these tough people forged a community and erected their first church in 1900. A hurricane (1909) and then a fire (1912) destroyed their small church. A third church was designed by Leo Dielmann. The community raised over $5,500 to construct this new parish, and the building the building has served as the community center since then. The Saint Cyril and Methodius Church is colorful and ornate. The frescoes on the walls and ceiling have undergone several transformations, the final one coming in 1983 to restore the art to its original state.
The beauty of these churches is stunning, but the journey of the immigrants that established and built these structures tell an even more amazing story. In the 1840s, large groups of Germans and Czechs made their way to central Texas and established communities in what is now Fredericksburg, Schulenburg, Shiner, Dubina, La Grange, New Braunfels, and many other areas. The journey to this new land was arduous and long, often lasting three to four months. For several groups, the trek required 14 weeks of sailing across the Atlantic. The Germans and Czechs that survived the trip entered Texas through Galveston, the “Ellis Island of the West.” From there, groups would scatter. Some traveled onto Iowa and others stayed in Texas. A ferry would transport them up Buffalo Bayou, then they would set out in wagons. Some of these groups settled in central Texas in the 1850s – many in Fayette County – and built the famous Painted Churches of central Texas in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In 1887, settlers exited the first train to roll through Fayette County, and not long after the town of Shiner was born. Czech and Germans of the new town met and, after purchasing two acres of land east of the traintracks, a new church was planned.
The church we see today is one of the famed and beautiful painted churches – St. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. The first structure was completed May 31, 1891, but it did not last, as it was blown off its foundation by a tornado in 1892. Undeterred, the community did not abandon the building. Soon, the walls were straightened and the tower replaced.
As the town grew, more room became necessary for the parish to serve its people.
The structure standing today was designed by the architect, James Wahrenburger, in a beautiful Gothic style. The colorful stained glass shines with vibrant color, and rich, detailed frescoes bring the Garden of Gethsemane to life as it rises above the altar.
Today, and within a small radius near Schulenburg, some of the most beautiful parishes, not only in Texas but in the nation, show off their treasures and are open for the public to enjoy. In this area east of San Antonio, these small parishes resemble the Gothic architecture of the German and Czech homeland. The interiors are filled with magnificent works of art – frescoes on the ceilings, ornate columns, detailed statues of the saints and angels, and vibrant colors that fill the room with life.
Happy Travels, Texas, and I hope you can enjoy these churches someday regardless of your faith or persuasion.
Rob Images from Texas
When I’m out searching for the best fall colors in Texas, I often have time to contemplate life while driving and exploring. One of my favorite writers is Robert Frost, and when I hike in the among the changing leaves of Autumn I am sometimes reminded of his poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. In the Hill Country where I reside, green leaves and long summer days are passed, and the memories of hot afternoons and warm evening walks with my girls are quickly fading.
On one of my November treks for Autumn color a few weeks ago, I drove to the Utopia and Vanderpool areas and spent a few days at Lost Maples State Natural Area. I remember visiting this little state park many years ago and enjoyed the solitude, but in more recent years, the rest of Texas has discovered what a gem this place is, as well. These days, I only visit during the week, and even then the trails are filled with leaf-peepers. This influx of folks strolling the paths can be pretty frustrating for a photographer, I assure you.
I arrived in the morning after a short drive from Garner State Park – after a lousy night of sleep in the back of my 4Runner. I had waited around that morning at Garner for low clouds and fog to clear, but I finally gave up and made the hour drive to Lost Maples. There, I had hopes the sun would burn off the clouds and blue skies would again appear. Normally, I prefer to shoot at sunrise or sunset, but for the reds and oranges of maples and cypress, my personal preference these days is for blue skies dotted with nice white clouds. I find the contrast between red and orange and blue and white to be like Nature’s gold in Autumn. And I know the brilliant colors won’t last long, and in some years don’t appear at all.
If you’ve ever hiked at Lost Maples, you probably know it isn’t that big. The main loop takes you north from the big parking lot, through the short Maple Trail, then up along the East-West Trail, then back down a steep rocky path, by the ponds area, then back to the parking lot (sort of). The loop is about 5 miles long and offers some pretty decent views from up high. However, ironically, the overlook listed on the trail map has probably the poorest view of anywhere on the rim of that walk. Don’t waste your time on the 1/3 mile trek to the scenic overlook (labeled #3 on the state park map). And as you head west on the trail, you reach another overlook on the map. It, too, is pretty poor. However, if you continue west and are willing to cut over to the edge of the cliff – maybe a 50-100 foot walk, you’ll continue to see better and better vistas.
From high up on the edge of the East Trail in Lost Maples, this view shows the the colorful trees lining the lower portion of the trail as it winds its way back to the Sabinal River.
OK… back to my morning. I arrived under overcast, spitting gray skies. As I started north on the Maple Trail, usually the highlight of the fall trip, I discovered I was sharing the path with a group of perhaps 25 middle school students on a field trip. I have to admit, I grew frustrated waiting for views to open up without kids hanging from branches or climbing on rocks. But I tried to choose a different response and reminded myself they had as much right to enjoy this area as I did. So I talked myself from a “Get off my lawn” old man attitude to an “everybody have fun” perspective. I even chatted up some of the kids, heard how they found a tarantula, and how they were excited to find Monkey Rock. Eventually, I pulled ahead of them when the steeper portion of the hike slowed them down, and thought to myself “this old father of two girls still has it!” HeHe.
Along the trail, I met several nice folks – a couple from Houston; a family from Kerrville, and a couple from just up the road from me in Austin. As I arrived at the previously mentioned overlooks, the clouds final began to break up, showing patches of beautiful blue sky. So I lingered here for a while, enjoyed a caffeine-laden Cliff protein bar and some lime Gatorade, and waited for a better sky. It finally arrive.
From high up on a trail, this view looks down at a small pond surrounding by the changing leaves of Autumn. This area in Lost Maples State Natural Area is one of my favorites to photograph, and the fall of 2020 was one of the best in many years.
Down the steep rocky path and back to the ponds area, I took in the views and appreciated the smaller crowds.
One of my favorite places to photograph the Autumn colors at Lost Maples State Natural Area is this little pond with a backdrop of red and orange maples reflecting in the water. This image was taken on a cool mid-November afternoon.
Along the flat east trail I watched a mother taking pictures of her little girl playing in the leaves. Before arriving back in the parking lot, I paused in several areas to photograph the red maple trees.
The red leaves of Lost Maples State Park Autumn show turn the path into a carpet of crunchy color. This path is along the East-West Trail and, each fall, it winds through groves of glorious maples trees with leaves of red and orange.
Eventually, I arrived back at the car, but realized I needed to walk a portion of the loop again and photograph the maples and red oak under better sky conditions. It is rare when a landscape photographer gets a redo! So on I went, revisiting the same areas I’d walked a few hours earlier.
A small bridge along a path in Lost Maples is surrounded by Autumn colors on a cool November afternoon.
Walking back to the car for a second time, I reminisced on Robert Frost’s poem. It seemed appropriate on this late afternoon. The words he wrote go much deeper than just a fading of reds and golds into winter. I suppose like these rolling hill country views and the changing of the seasons, there are layers of life waiting to be experienced, then contemplated on some future walk in the woods.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Bluebonnet season is just a month away. The rosettes on our land are not as plentiful as in other years, but we’ll still have a decent showing of blue by late March. While reading up on this year’s wildflower predictions, I’ve found that rainfall was hit and miss in the fall, which means some locations have potential while others will be barren. So on this cold, rainy February morning, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on some of my favorite bluebonnet images from the last ten or so years. These are not necessarily my bestsellers, but the photographs below are special to me for one reason or another.
Just Over the Mountain
Between Round Mountain and Johnson City, some of the smaller roads north of these towns can produce some nice blooms every few years. On an April evening in 2016 as I drove up and down Althaus-Davis Road, I found some nice blooms along old fence lines, but nothing that really jumped out. I was hoping that, like life, when you see things from a different perspective, the situation will appear more positive, so I turned around several times, scanning the roadsides and the rolling hills. Unfortunately, the change in perspective didn’t result in a glory field of blue.
I had passed a rancher feeding his cattle just off the dirt road a few times, and finally just slowed down to say hi. He asked what I was doing and I explained I was l searching for bluebonnets. He introduced himself and said he was the ranch manager for this land. Continuing, he told me that just over the hill (heading overland and away from the road), the bluebonnets were full, and that I was welcome to explore. Just watch out for rattlesnakes! We chatted a bit more, but as the sun was close to setting, I didn’t linger long. I thanked him profusely, grabbed my tripod and backpack, and set out for the hills. After about a 10-minute walk through scrub and cacti, I topped the first hill and found a palette of bluebonnets rolling down the hill. The sky was showing pastel shades of orange and blue, and I scrambled to find the optimal composition to remember this beautiful scene.
Bluebonnets adorn the gentle slopes of the Texas Hill Country in this sunset image taken in early April. Thanks for a local rancher and land manager, I was allowed to visit a few areas of private land that were covered in these favorite wildflowers. The sunset helped the landscape come alive, as well.
At one point, I squatted down and inadvertently sat on a prickly pear cactus. I can’t write here was I said, but I can tell you the drive home was painful, and I often tried to prop up my buttocks so as not to put any weight on it when driving. To finish off the evening when I returned home, I had my wife perform the unenviable task of plucking out tiny needles and thorns from my backside. She didn’t get them all, and the twitches of pain from being poked lasted for a week. Still, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Big Bend Bluebonnets: A Once-in-a-lifetime-bloom
In late February and early March, 2019, the slopes of the Chisos Mountains along East and West River Roads came alive with seas of bluebonnets. I have a few friends that spend much of the year in Terlingua, and, just as the park rangers said, they’d never seen a bloom like this. I was fortunate enough to spend a week in the Big Bend on two separate occasions last spring, and it is challenging to pick just one favorite from those trips. The rugged landscape of rock and cacti and yucca stood in such sharp contrast to the unique species of the taller, tougher Big Bend Bluebonnet, and petals of blue had filled in all the empty spaces. And so I’m going to offer two images here. One shows bluebonnets at sunrise looking east towards Cerro Castellan, one of the iconic features of the western slope. The other shows a sunrise, bluebonnets, an ocotillo, and Cerro Castellan as the moon slides in the western horizon.
I knew the sky was going to light up when the. high clouds became visible well before sunrise. I also knew the bluebonnets were full and healthy after scouting locations the previous day. The winds were calm and the landscape of Big Bend National Park came alive with color about 15 minutes before sunrise. Bluebonnets – the best bloom in memory – filled the slopes and washes with color and the beauty of this remote area came alive on a very cold February morning. in the distance, the iconic Cerro Castellan rises over 3000’ into the orange sky.
With the sun rising in the east, the three-quarters moon began to fade in the west. Under a tranquil west Texxas sky, bluebonnets of Big Bend awaited the warming light on this mesa on the western slope of the Chisos Mountains. In the distance, the well known Cerro Castellan rises over 3,000 feet above the Chihuahuan Desert, making for a grand landmark in this beautiful and remote area of Texas.
I love my time in the Big Bend, and look forward to returning there again and again.
A Most Amazing Evening
My dad used to accompany me on some of my wildflower hunts. These days, he’s older, can’t hear well at all, and doesn’t get around much anymore. Still, on April 3, 2012, he was with me for one of the most beautiful Texas Hill Country scenes I’ve ever photographed. We’d left my home in Dripping Springs while storms unleashed rain across the area. Driving up 71 towards Llano, the clouds started to break, and eventually we made our way out of the rain, through Llano, and on towards San Saba. I had a friend who’d tipped me off about some nice bluebonnet patches on some off-the-beaten-path dirt roads. After 30 minutes of searching, we came across this field.
Evenings on the edge of the Texas Hill Country don’t get much better than this. I had driven 2 hours in search of bluebonnets and finally arrived on a little country road near San Saba. The setting sun turned the sky into a palette of color, and the only company I had were the cows in a distant field. In my trips to photograph Texas wildflowers, this was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve had the pleasure to experience.
The storms had passed, leaving the winds completely and absolutely motionless. The clouds caught the last rays of evening and put on a colorful display of orange and blue, and the strong and unforgettable scent of bluebonnets floated in the still air. For nearly two hours we hung around this one location, never seeing another car, and the only sounds were the distant mooing of cattle. And to show the utter calm of the atmosphere, my last image from this evening – taken well after sunset – was a 20 second exposure of bluebonnets, with the result being a tack-sharp photograph. I’ve never experienced anything like that night. I’m glad my dad was with me. This was a good memory.
The Wooden Fence
Between Llano and Burnett, an old wooden fence stands unnoticed for most of the year. In the Spring of 2010, bluebonnets surrounded this fence and created a sort of mini-landscape perfect for photography. My oldest daughter was nearly two years old, and, along with my wife, had come along with me to search for bluebonnets. We ended up spending most of our time at this little location – my wife and daughter waiting patiently while I worked my craft and photographed the bluebonnet-laden fence from all angles.
One of my favorite places for close-ups of bluebonnets is an old fence row near Llano, Texas. If you passed by it in wildflower season, you might not even notice because it hides a bit behind a hill. One side is private property, so you have to be respectful of that land, too. In a rainy spring, the bluebonnets start along side of the road and spill into the distant field. In this particular season, the area was a sea of blue, perfect for intimate shots of the flowers and fence.
I even took few photographs with my daughter, though we were careful to avoid stepping on any bluebonnets. Unfortunately, thanks to social media and moreso to folks who are careless with where they step (or just don’t care), word spread about this little fence. In the last 5+ years, the bluebonnets do not last long as folks trample them for their own selfies and family photos. The last time I saw this area look really good was 2012. On one particular evening early in the wildflower season, I was able to shoot several nice shots of bluebonnets with the old wooden posts. I returned just two days later to find more than 50% of the bluebonnets mashed to the ground. I’ve tried to return to this location a few times in the last five years, but it has never been the same.
One of the roads I drive quite often has an old windmill off to the side. You’d barely notice it, and I’d never thought about stopping to photograph it. But one afternoon as I drove home from the San Antonio area, I notice a large patch of bluebonnets in front of the structure. I thought about stopping, but then decided against it, as the scene just wasn’t worth it. Back at home, I couldn’t shake the idea that maybe I shouldn’t have dismissed this little scene so easily. Finally, curiosity got the best of me and I rose early one morning and drove back to the windmill, arriving well before sunrise. The clouds were thick and the sky gray. Why did I roll out of bed for this? I decided to wait and, as good fortune would have it, the skies began to break up and the morning light filtered through the gray, creating an amazing and unusual sky for a few brief moments.
When I set off from my house to photograph this windmill with a foreground of bluebonnets, the sky was overcast and fog made visibility quite limited. I arrived with the sky pretty dark but still had 15 minutes until sunrise. I had just about given up hope when I noticed a little break in some low drifting clouds. Five minutes passed, and suddenly the sky begain to light up in oranges and pinks, and I was escatic with my good fortune. I only had time to capture a few images from that morning. This is my favorite.
And this is what a little patience can offer. I can’t count how many times I’ve just about given up on nice colors at sunrise or sunset, only to start packing up to find the sky lighting up. (And I should note I’ve packed up many times but had no regrets, either). But not this time. It was beautiful. And if you drove down this road today, you’d barely recognize this location. I’ve never seen bluebonnets there again.
Thanks for perusing this blog. If you’d like to see more, please feel free to visit my online bluebonnet gallery.
For now, we’ll wait and see what the season holds. I fear the warmer temperatures will stimulate the growth of tall grasses before the bluebonnets appear. But hope springs eternal, and we’ll know shortly how the Wildflower season of 2020 looks.
Summer is finally in the rear view mirror, fall seemed to last about two days, and now cold fronts have blown in from the north. And that means fall colors in Texas are on the way. In early October, I spent a week in Colorado shooting the changing leaves in the Rockies, covering 1700 miles over 7 days and enjoying the amazing display of color across the state. While Texas can’t match Colorado’s Autumn colors and the sheer coverage of changing leaves, the Lone Star State can still offer some pretty stunning areas to take in the red maples and oak and the orange cypress.
Around this time of year – October and November – I’m often asked where the best fall colors can be found. A few years ago, I added an online gallery dedicated to fall colors in Texas. And in this short blog, I’d like to share a few of my favorite places in no particular order.
Located off Highway 187 near Vanderpool, Lost Maples State Natural Area is arguably the most popular location for fall colors in the Hill Country. And that means it is the most crowded, as well. In good years when the rain and temperatures cooperate, maples and oak turn red and orange during the early part of November. Paths through colorful leaves and overhanging branches lead through small groves of the Uvalde Bigtooth Maple trees.
Along the East Trail in Lost Maples State Park, you’ll enjoy views like this in mid November. This day was perfect – calm, temperatures in the 50s, and very few people (it was a weekday). In this area of the Texas Hill Country, you’ll find lots to do besides photograph the beautiful Autumn colors. Towns like Leakey, Vanderpool, and Medina, as well as Garner State Park, offer places to explore, have lunch and enjoy the country life.
The Sabinal River winds through the park, as well, presenting a few opportunities to see and photograph colorful scenes with a peaceful stream flowing through the area. But be warned… this place is packed on the weekends with locals and tourists who drive hours to take in the beauty. So plan ahead, book an entrance ticket early, or better yet – arrive early on a weekday. When you finish hiking, there are even a few good wineries in the area!
Garner State Park
Just 28 miles southwest of Lost Maples near the town of Concan sits Garner State Park – home to the clear Frio River and Old Baldy. In the fall, cypress and oak along the Frio turn red, gold, and orange in a beautiful display of fall color. Here is one image taken while standing in the Frio on a cold late afternoon that shows the river with the Autumn trees lining the banks. This image also appeared on the cover of Texas Highways Magazine in October, 2019.
* This image from Garner State Park appeared on the cover of Texas Highways Magazine in the October 2019 edition.*
On a serene evening deep in the Texas Hill Country, fall colors of red and gold shine in the evening sun along the Frio River in Garner State Park. Standing in knee deep water to capture this image, and with Mount Baldy in the background, I had to pause at the beauty and mirror-like reflections of this amazing scene.
Photographic opportunities abound in this area. Walks along the river provide various angles full of pristine water and colorful cypress trees. A short hike up Old Baldy, the highest point in the park, affords views overlooking the river valley and the summit makes a nice place for a snack or picnic. But like Lost Maples to the north, the parking lots usually fill up by late morning on weekends. When I shoot here, I bring my wide-angle lenses and I arrive early on a weekday.
After Garner State Park, heck out some of the surrounding drives and towns. The loop from Vanderpool and Lost Maples west to Leakey, south to Garner State Park, west to Utopia, and back north to Vanderpool makes from some amazing views. Try some of the side roads, as well, exploring the smaller streams and creeks that run in the area. Hidden gems are just around the corner.
Located about an hour north of Van Horn and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the Guadalupe Mountains rise out of the Chihuahuan Desert, reaching their highest point at the summit of Guadalupe Peak (also the highest point in Texas). The mountain range is the fossilized remnant of the Capitan Reef and is now composed of almost entirely of Limestone. But hidden in one of its canyons is an ancient stand of bigtooth maple. A hike into McKittrick Canyon in early October reveals secrets of this lost grove of trees, and the trail can often be ablaze in the red fall colors of the changing leaves. The image below was taken a few years ago along the McKittrick Canyon trail and was used by Texas Highways Magazine.
Following the trail through McKittrick Canyon, there are places of dense maple trees. At one point, you are nearly surrounded by the beautiful leaves, and in Autumn the forest can turn orange and red with some of the most beautiful fall colors in Texas. The main hike is around 4 miles each way, but you can continue up to ‘the Notch,” a climb of about 1500 vertical feet over another mile or so at which point you can look down into a canyon on each side of you. The hike up is a grunt, but the views are incredible. You can look back down and see the colorful maples as they follow the path of the river.
The hike trail will take you as far as you want to go. I usually enjoy climbing to the top of McKittrick Ridge to a point called “the Notch” – a high point in the trail that offers views of the valley in both directions. This trail is a day-use only area, so plan accordingly. I try to hit the trail as soon as the gates open and enjoy a morning and afternoon exploring the area in all its colorful beauty.
Pedernales Falls State Park
I probably know the land that borders the Pedernales River better than any other place in Texas. This little park is close to my home, and I enjoy my early morning walks here when all is quiet and serene. In the fall – usually mid-November at the earliest in this park – the cypress along the clear, cool waters of the Pedernales River turn orange and dark red.
The Texas Hill Country comes alive with autumn colors each November. Here, the cypress lean in and cover the Pedernales River on a cool fall morning, their gnarled roots wandering their way down into the water.
Exploring both upstream and downstream leads to small cascades and cypress-lined portions of the water. This park does become crowded on the weekends, but when exploring at sunrise or sunset I’ll often find myself alone.
If planning to visit this area in the late fall, check their calendar. The last several years, the park has been closed during peak color times for planned hunts, something that has left me frustrated at missing out on such colorful opportunities. I believe the hunt-closure for 2019 is not until December (thank goodness), but check before heading out.
Other places in Texas offer fall colors as well, and some can be quite amazing. I’d love to hear from folks out there about their experiences in fall at Caddo Lake, Daingerfield State Park in east Texas, and other locations where the colors have been eye-catching.
In the meantime, it is time for me to head out to the hill country and start scouting. I plan on starting my trek for Texas fall colors in just a few days and am ready to go!
After making a few trips out to Big Bend to witness the stunning bluebonnet display in the desert, it is time to turn the camera toward the Texas wildflowers of central Texas and areas closer to home. My friend, Mike, and I, were still dragging from the early mornings and late nights and driving long distances in west Texas, but he’d already done some scouting in areas south of San Antonio, so I headed that direction to join him for a few days of wildflower hunting.
We really focused on areas around Poteet, though other locations are just as colorful as I write this.
The afternoon and evening found us shooting colorful fields along Eichman and Wheeler Roads. The clouds were nice and offered contrast in the blue sky, as well.
Just north of Poteet, Texas, and south of San Antonio, wildflowers of red, blue, gold, and purple fill a field on a cool spring afternoon. This colorful landscape is made up of groundsel (gold), bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, and phlox (the small purple blooms). A windmill rises in the distance to complete a beautiful spread of vibrant color.
The wildflowers south of San Antonio around Poteet in Atascosa County created a colorful palette in the fields this spring. Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, White Prickly Poppies, and other varieties seemed to be blooming at every corner. This wildflower photo is from the late afternoon in mid-March. The bllue sky with a few high clouds was just about the perfect complement to the colorful explosion of blooms going on in the field.
We were also searching for a nice sunset spot. Unfortunately, the best areas we found all faced east – good for sunrise, but not so much for sunset. Still, we settled for a field of bluebonnets around a large oak tree.
Sunset south of San Antonio brough beautiful orange and blue to a bluebonnets landscape on this warm March evening. All was quiet as daylight waned. In this photograph taken near Poteet, hints of red paintbursh, violet phlox, and white prickly poppies can be seen mixing in with the carpet of bluebonnets.
The sunset did offer a little color, but nothing like we’d see the next morning.
And so when the sun arose a few hours later, we found ourselves in the middle of a beautiful wildflower field (with permission from the owner). Surrounded by reds (paintbrush), golds (groundsel) and blue (bluebonnets), the soft colors of the sky brought beautiful light. A windmill added a nice touch to the landscape as the sun peeked over the horizon.
Morning light streams through an old oak tree as a vibrant field of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush awaken to a new spring morning. A windmill completes this beautfiul Texas wildflower landscape taken south of San Antonio near Poteet, Texas. In the distance, the calls of wild turkey and peacocks coudl be heard. It was a great morning to enjoy the wildflowers.
A windmill reaches into the morning sky as a field of bluebonnets comes to life on a cold spring morning. This colorful landscape was taken south of San Antonio in Atascosa County. Sprinked in among the bluebonnets are red Indian Paintbrush and golden grounsel.
This photograph was taken on private land with permission from the owner.
A little later, I moved closer to an old oak tree. My goal was to photograph the tree, the bluebonnets in the foreground, and horses just behind the tree. This is what I brought home…
Sunlight sparkles through an old oak tree as is spreads its warmth across a carpet of bluebonnets. Behind the tree and in the distances, horses graze and one watches me in this last orange light of a spring evening. Wildflowers were aplenty south of San Antonio.
This photograph was taken on private land with permission from the owner.
After spending a few days at home, I headed out to investigate the hill country. This area is still a few weeks away from any potential blooms. I have hopes that it will be nice in areas around Mason, Llano, and San Saba, but the bluebonnets I found were thirsty and needed rain in a bad way.
On one evening’s drive, I’d just about given up on shooting anything. But the sunrise turned out to be spectacular, so I pulled over and photographed bluebonnets along an old farm-to-market road.
On a lonely stretch of road between Llano and Castel, bluebonnets filled in the roadsides and ditches on a cool late March sunset. The sky lit up a in a beautiful orange glow as the the road carried my view down the hill and onto the next bend – always wondering what is next on these backroads of the Texas Hill Country.
This little section was about the best I’ve found so far. But bluebonnets always bloom closer to the road a few weeks earlier than blooms appear in fields. They just need rain.
So get out and enjoy the wildflowers. The colors are prolific south of San Antonio. I’m hoping we’ll see the same closer to home in the hill country. Fingers crossed!
I’ve enjoyed many fun experiences as a professional photographer, from hiking in Rattlesnake Canyon in Colorado to standing on the South Rim in Big Bend National Park. One of those rewarding experiences that required a lot less work was shooting the moon – the Super Blood Wolf Moon.
At 11:12pm on January 20, 2019, the Super Blood Wolf Moon reached its peak over the Hill Country, glowing an eerie reddish-orange hue. Several events transpired on this night to create this rare view. The Super Moon was in view – when the full moon is closest to earth at ~ 223,000 miles; the Wolf Moon – a full moon in the month of January; and a total lunar eclipse – the earth coming between the sun and moon – causing the Blood Moon. This unique alignment of celestial events made for a great lunar show on this cold winter night. The next total lunar eclipse will not occur until May 26, 2021.
A few nights ago, January 20, the earth passed between the sun and moon, bringing on a total lunar eclipse. At the time, the full moon was closer to the earth than usual (~ 223,000 miles away). This occurrence is known as the super moon, and during this time the moon appears 14% larger and 30% brighter. Since these lunar events happened in January, the “Wolf” title was included, as well, since a full moon in January is called by this name (in American Folklore).
On this night, I didn’t have to travel far – just a few miles from my house in the Texas Hill Country. The walk from my car covered about 20 yards – a far cry from the 14 mile round trip to the South Rim in Big Bend!
I had scouted out this location earlier. Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Stellarium, both online apps, I knew when and where the moon would be when the eclipse reached totality. I nearly always include a foreground in my images – something to catch the viewer’s interested – and for this rare evening I chose an old windmill. I figured since I can shoot almost straight up to catch the blades of the windmill as well as the moon, I could find a composition that would capture both a portion of the windmill and the blood moon. I also wanted to have the foreground fairly far away so I could use my zoom lens, thus making the moon appear larger against the dark blades of the windmill. This effect is just changing perspective, but often makes the moon more dramatic.
So after checking out the location earlier in the day, I headed back a little before the peak of totality which was set to occur at 11:12pm. Practically laying on my back in order to shoot nearly straight up, I took several images, making sure I had everything aligned to my liking. I probably shot 50+ images over the next 15 minutes, keeping only four final versions.
Because the windmill and the moon were so far apart, while one appeared sharp the other would be a bit blurry. No amount of changing the depth of field on a long telephoto lens could overcome this difference. I ended up using two separate images for each final version – one with the windmill in focus and the other with the moon in focus. I blended the two together using Photoshop. I am pleased with the final versions, having captured and created something that our eyes can see but the camera cannot capture in one single image.
This blood moon image was taken at the peak of the eclipse. I used a windmill’s blades as the foreground – shot while basically on my back looking nearly straight up. I lightened up the foreground a bit so the blades of the windmill showed up a bit.
This photograph shows the rare Super Blood Wolf Moon as it turned a reddish-orange high in the Texas sky late in the night of January 20, 2019. With a windmill’s blades rising in the foreground, I used a telephoto lens to zoom in on both the windmill and the moon. This image is a composite of two photos, each taken to maximize clarity and sharpness. In the first image, the moon was the focal point. In the next image, the windmill was the focal point. Both were combined using Photoshop to show what the eye can see but the camera cannot capture, creating a sharp image of the windmill, maybe 50+ feet high, and the moon, about 223,000 miles away.
It was cold that night, and I am glad I did not plan on shooting the duration of the eclipse from partial to full to partial again. Here is how that full progression appeared back on April 15, 2014…
In the early morning hours of April 15, the earth passed between the sun and moon, causing a total luner eclipse and resulting in a ‘blood moon.’
This image was a composite of the moon phases over the course of several hours over Austin, Texas.
Maybe next time. After all, the next total lunar eclipse in my area is only a few years away – on May 26, 2021!
In the meantime, stay warm out there. Bluebonnets are on the way.
As a husband and father of two little girls, I don’t have much quiet time. And apart from spending time with my wife and kids or a select few close friends, I generally prefer time by myself. I get asked occasionally to meet up with a photographer to go shoot somewhere, and while it sounds ok, I’d mostly just rather enjoy a quiet morning by myself and shoot whatever comes my way. I stay away from photography clubs and meet-ups. Shooting with 5-10 other people sounds like torture. My wife says I’m just anti-social. I embrace that 🙂
With that said, I often find retreat at sunrise along the Pedernales River. I live only about 25 minutes away, and this little oasis of a state park is one of my favorites in the Texas Hill Country. I know most bends of this river as if I was raised along its banks. I generally know where the sun will be rising and setting depending on the time of year; I know when and where the autumn leaves will be the most brilliant; I know where I can shoot for the best effect – even in the middle of the rapids.
As fall approaches, the leaves of the cypress will be turning colors in about a month, and at this point the trees look full and healthy. I have high hopes that this year’s color change will be beautiful, especially after the last few disappointing years. This past week I was out one morning before sunrise and even found a few new perspectives that I look forward to trying in mid-November.
I’ve added an underwater, waterproof case for my camera to my photographic options, which makes from some interesting perspectives. I’ve got a ways to go before mastering this technique of showing both underwater and above ground views, but it shows promise and is certainly unique. When the nearby fish cooperate, it makes for pretty amazing results:
Regardless of when or what I shoot, I do enjoy my time along this river. I’ve seen it at raging and destructive flood levels, and I’ve seen it as it is now – as a trickle. Some of the cypress that I photographed last week still had debris 15 feet up in their branches from the flood a few years ago. In the quiet and as I attempt to tread lightly on these cool mornings, I am sometimes privy to wildlife sightings. I’ve seen raccoons, armadillos, wild hogs, countless lizards and frogs, buzzards, goats, and even a few rattlesnakes. I’ve seen a lot of fish in the pools along the river, too. I’ve only brought along my fly rod one time, but one of these days I’ll bring it again and try my luck at angling.
For now, I’ll enjoy my quiet time out there, from the time before sunrise to climbing some class three boulders to get the perfect angle. Pedernales Falls is one of my happy places.
I don’t know if anyone reads these blog entries, but I write them for Google search engine optimization (SEO) and as a way to share a little about my experiences. This past month, I haven’t had much time to shoot for myself, but a few days ago, I finally had a chance to visit one of my favorite places in the Texas Hill Country – Pedernales Falls State Park.
I live fairly close to this state park, and I feel I know parts of the river basin like my own back yard. I’ve photographed this stretch of limestone canyon too many times, but I still return here because it always seems to look a bit different based on water flow and lighting. And in this blog entry, I’d like to take you through my morning in a chronological order, sharing both actions and thoughts. Should you choose to read this, I apologize ahead of time for the flip-flopping back and forth between present and past tense. So here goes:
4:45am – I never used an alarm clock. I look over at the digital readout and contemplate whether I’m getting out of bed now or in three hours.
4:50am – I roll out from underneath warm covers, walk to the large windows in the bedroom, and look out at the clouds. If it is clear, I’m staying home. If it is cloudy, I’m back in the sack, too. I look up. The sky is a patchwork of white clouds. It has the potential to be a nice sunrise. So I crawl back in bed, knowing my eventual fate.
5:01am – Back out of bed – clothes on – and into the kitchen
5:17am – Out the door – Moonshine Mango Tea and a peanut butter cream protein bar in hand, along with a tripod, lens, several flashlights and an L bracket (for vertical oriented shots) in my backpack.
In the dark of the car, I turn on the radio and put on Coast to Coast AM (590AM), but the guest is Nancy Sinatra, and I don’t care. I’d rather hear some good conspiracy talk about bigfoot or UFOs. So I turn on a Nancy Griffith CD to keep me company.
5:51am – Arrive at the park headquarters for Pedernales Falls State Park. I stop and fill out the form using my parks pass. I can barely read the small print on my parks’ pass. I hold the card at arm’s length and this helps bring the small numbers barely into focus. They should give me a permanent pass since I’m here so much, but rarely when anyone is actually manning the shop. My visiting hours are before sunrise or at sunset. I know they need the form, along with my parks’ pass number, filled out because this helps keep track of visitors as well as helps with funding.
5:58am – Arrive the parking lot. Surprise! I’m the only car in the parking lot. Just the usual, I think. Out of the car, and the coolness of the air hits me. This is glorious – I’ll need long sleeves! First time this season. I put on my headlamp, my military grade flashlight in my pocket, turn on the GPS, and with my backpack strapped on, head down the path to the overlook. From the overlook, if it was daylight, I’d have a commanding view of the landscape and the falls as the river flows west to east. As it is, the moonlight illuminates the valley below in a soft light – enough light where I could probably make it down to the river without a flashlight.
6:10am – I start the trek upstream – going over boulders and across small sand bars. The river is low, so I’m not anywhere near the water. I know this place well, I think to myself. Up and down a few larger gulleys, with sand slipping into my shoes, and I’m close to one of my favorite spots.
6:22am – I realize I’ve gone too far upstream. Everything always looks a bit different in the dark. I double back and head towards the water. As I approach the river, I can hear the rush of small cascades. I also realize the river is lower than usual, so I won’t have to wade across the stream to reach the rock from which I want to shoot.
6:30am – There is a dim glow on the eastern horizon. I want to shoot with a moonlit landscape, so I know I’d better hurry. Jump across a few small washes, walk along a sandbar, then some Class 3 rock climbing/scrambling takes place as I go up and over a limestone wall. I’m pretty good at this, I think, and drop onto a large layered rock where I can look both west and east and see the river in both directions.
6:36am -The sky in the east is a beautiful dark orange shade and its beginning to glow, but I’m shooting west at one of my favorite bends in the river. Using the L-Bracket, I quickly take a few long exposure test shots using an 11-24mm L lens. I get the lighting right, then proceed to take 6 vertical images that I’ll stitch into a large and wide panorama to show the beautiful curve in the river. I shoot this scene several more times, each with a different focal length, to ensure I don’t have any regrets in post processing.
6:59am -Then I turn and shoot to the east to capture the perfectly calm water and high clouds that are beginning to show orange and blue color. I’m always amazed at the beauty of this place – and the sky – and how fleeting these colors are.
7:03am – I return to shooting towards the west. The clouds this direction are pink and blue and have a nice reflection in the water. I can also see large fish swimming about ten feet beneath me (I’m on a rock overhang with my tripod feet at the very edge of the ledge.)
7:13am – I finish here and know that this is the official moment of sunrise. But I also know I have time to shoot the actual sunrise because it’ll be at least 20 more minutes before the sun rises over the cliffs. So with more scrambling, I’m up, over, and back down large rocks to a different location and shoot again towards the west.
7:21am – While I’m setting up, I can hear the howls of coyotes in the distance. First, one lone coyote cries out, but is soon joined by the yips of several more. It is a distinct call in the country that I’m very familiar with. The sounds remind me of growing up in the country, as well as time spent more recently at my parents’ ranch on cool autumn nights.
7:42am – I find myself on the top of a very large boulder – probably about 10-12 feet off the ground and I scramble up the side of this large limestone rock. On top, the surface runs off at an angle, so I adjust the legs of my tripod to steady the camera. I’m set up, focusing on rocks, an oak tree, and the river behind it. In the distance, the sun will soon rise over the cliff. I want to capture the moment the first light descends into the valley. I know with the lens I have, that first light will create a beautiful starburst for the final image. So I wait – and I wait and wait. Sunrise always seems to take longer when you are waiting for it. Finally, the moment arrives. Got the shot. Time to climb down and follow the light. So I’m back in shadows – a little closer to the cliff – and wait for the sun to again reach over the cliff and light the area I’m at.
8:19am – After three moves and capturing three different perspectives of sunrise, my time here is finished. Walking back – across sandy areas, over rock formations, and finally up to the parking lot. I see a mother and baby wild pig. I wonder what a baby wild pig is called. A wild piglet? Just don’t want to get between mother and piglet. What’s great is I didn’t see any people at all until my walk back to the car – and I appreciate the solitude.
8:42am – Back at the car. I think about how cool it was then I reminisce about my summer shooting for my Colorado Gallery. But now is home time. Time to play with my little girls.
It was a nice morning – rejuvenating for the soul and for my mental health. I always feel closer to God out here, too – certainly closer than inside the 4 walls of a church while a preacher talks at me. And I know I’ve been blessed with this 4 hour escape. It was a peaceful time, beautiful sunrise, and a moment I’ll take with me.
Before I start in on bluebonnet season, I’m pleased to make a few announcements. First, for the third year in a row I have several photographs featured in Texas Highways magazine. Next, over the winter I have been working on launching a new website – Images from Colorado. While it is far from complete, it is up and running. I’ll be working at adding a lot of images over the next six months. The descriptions and keywording each image just takes a long time. And that process will slow down as wildflower season gets into full swing.
As we turn the page and head into April, bluebonnets should be nearing peak. However, thus far this wildflower season has been less than stellar. This past week I drove over 500 miles through the hill country looking for a few colorful fields. Many of the roadsides were nice, especially on Highway 29 between Mason and Llano. The spaces between the road and fence lines were full of bluebonnets sprinkled with red Indian paintbrush. Still, the fields were relatively barren of colors.
All my driving yielded little except a few nice sunrises taken along 29 and some morning photographs from the famous “bluebonnet house” in Marble Falls. The pasture in front of this 100 year-old stone house had the most bluebonnets in over five years. Because I live pretty close to this location, I waited for a really good sunset. Despite some of the photographs that have been posted on popular hill country Facebook pages, I can assure you there have not been any spectacular sunrises in Marble Falls since the bluebonnets have bloomed. For some, photoshop is a best friend, and non-disclosure is obvious. But that is a topic for another blog! And even more crazy… one afternoon when I drove by this old house surrounded by bluebonnets, a family had evidently crawled over or through the barbed-wire fence in order to take their family photo – this despite the “No Trespassing” signs posted prominently about every 15 feet Anton the fence! Anyway, on a few nights there were some high soft clouds that made for pleasing pastel colors of pink and blue.
With little clouds to speak of, I decided to use what God had provided. I stayed late and shot the night sky over the bluebonnet house,p. To make the stars really shine in a photograph, I useda star tracker to take long exposures of the stars without any trailing. While the Milky Way doesn’t appear in the north, the stars at night are big and bright and still magnificent.
Thanks to a new friend, I received a tip about some healthy bluebonnets not far from Marble Falls. Immediately, I headed out before this location became public knowledge and before the bluebonnets were trampled by family-portrait folks. The winds were calm, clouds easy and soft, and for an hour we enjoyed our time photographing what so far is a rare scene this year. In one particular spot, a single firewheel (also known as an Indian blanket) rose above the bluebonnets. I photographed this little red wildflower from all directions before settling on one particularly nice angle. I don’t think I could have planned it any better.
That night, I lingered in the bluebonnets and decided to shoot into the early morning hours and capture the Milky Way as it crawled across this beautiful field. The sky was taken with a star tracker and the results can make for a large print! In one of the Milky Way photographs I even had the good fortune of capturing a meteor. I did not recognize this until working on these the next day.
Near this same location in Marble Falls there is a small herd of longhorns. In one of the fields where they graze, patches of bluebonnets are scattered across the pasture. More than several times I drove by this location but the longhorns were never in good position. Finally this past Saturday just before a major storm, I found them sitting among the blooms (and any Texan knows that if cattle are laying down, that means rain is on the way!) With this nice surprise I was at last able to photograph a few of these regal and rugged creatures within the bluebonnets.
When shooting these or any fields of Texas wildflowers, I usually take several images of the same scene with variying depths of field. Back home, I’ll align and merge these images into one photograph in order to achieve maximum sharpness throughout the image. Most of the bluebonnet photographs from this year consist of at least four separate images blended together. The panoramas are made of eight or more photos stacked and merged. This process is tedious but allows me to provide my clients with the highest quality. And being obsessed with details myself, this is the only way I’d do it!
With the recent rains these last few days, I’m hopeful the wet weather will stimulate a future bloom. The hill country still has reds and golds to offer, and perhaps even a few bluebonnet surprises. Time will tell.
Thanks for reading!
Via con dios.
Images from Texas
While waiting for the advent of bluebonnet and wildflower season here in central Texas, my family and I took advantage of a few down days and visited Disney World. I knew my two girls, ages 8 and 6, would love it, but I wasn’t sure how much my wife and I would appreciate the trip. We started the trip at the Austin airport with me having a hunting knife confiscated at security. Doh! I completely forgot it was in my backpack. I asked if I could take it back to my car. No. I even asked the security guy if he could use it… just don’t throw it away! No. That was a bummer. Nevertheless, that wasn’t going to ruin this trip.
As we strolled through the airport looking for food, I noticed in one of the tourist shops – on a stand in the front – my book of Austin photos! Pretty cool stuff for me. My girls were unphased and just wanted food.
The two hour-twenty minute flight was uneventful, and after landing in Orlando and gathering our luggage (it all arrived safely!), we caught the Disney Express to the Caribbean Beach Resort. I’ll spare you all the details, but suffice it to say to we had a really good time. I’d read where 75% of first time visitors return to Disney. I feel pretty good about saying we’ll be back – sooner rather than later, if possible. Here are a few thoughts:
1 – We stayed on site. No car. Transportation was extremely efficient.
2 – We had a meal plan. I know we could probably save money by paying individually, but it was liberating not having to give a second thought to prices throughout the entire trip. I’m pretty frugal and seeing those prices would have made me tighten up a bit. With the meal plan, I was like “Hey, let’s eat!). All of our meals were good, not great, but nothing was bad.
3 – We had two character lunches – one at the Cinderella Castle (most expensive meal of my life if it wasn’t prepaid), and another at the Akershaus in Norway (Epcot Center). On both occasions, my girls were memorized by the princesses and seeing them (my girls) so amazed and excited was well worth the cost.
4 – I’m captivated by how efficient the entire system at Disney runs. They move people like nobody’s business. Maybe the city planners in Dallas, Houston, and Austin should visit and learn about traffic flow.
5 – Every park employee we engaged with was super nice and helpful. I’d read about this, and it really showed. I think that is a big reason folks come back.
6 – It is a great place to bring kids, and I think my girls were about the perfect age. We probably walked over 25 miles during 4 days, visiting each of the parks, and they never complained. As a parent, my girls were constantly entertained and I only had to herd them in the right direction. That makes everyone happy.
7 – Disney does a good job of insulating you from the world. No talk of Trump’s craziness or Hillary’s shenanigans… just good clean fun.
Two other items… Fast passes work great, as do the magic bands. However, on our last day there (a Saturday) after we used up our 3 morning Fast passes, the fast pass was pretty useless because everything was booked by that point. The first several days, we could use our fast passes, then re-up and schedule more rides/shows with it. I guess weekends really bring in more crowds.
Next, on our first morning in the park – at the Magic Kingdom – as we headed to our first ride to use first fast passes, we found my wife’s magic band had fallen off her wrist. Uggh. Not a good start. We headed back to “City Hall” at the front of the park. Literally 2 minutes later, we were walking out and headed to the rides, a new magic band ready to go. Anywhere else, we would have had forms to fill out and a week of waiting. Not at Disney. They are good. We’ll be back!
And then back to reality…
While business the last few months has been brisk, I’ve been out to shoot exactly twice since December 1st. One excursion involved photographing the icicles hanging from the grotto at Westcave Preserve, located near Hamilton Pool Preserve in the Texas Hill Country. When the temperatures drop into the teens and twenties, rare for these parts, water seeps out of the overhanging ledge and gradually forms long daggers of ice. This is one image from that very cold morning:
Thanks to the folks at Westcave for allowing me access to shoot a beautiful and rare event.
My second trip out for photography was taking four images of town lake for the Four Seasons. I was contacted by an art consultant interested in some work for the hotel rooms, so I obliged and took what they wanted. I look forward to seeing the final product!
I’ll be heading to Big Bend in a few weeks… one of my favorite places to hike and explore. After that, I’ll be exploring the backroads looking for bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers.