Monthly Archives: August 2012

Have you ever noticed those jets west of Loop 1 (MoPac Expressway) between the 35th Street and 45th Street exits?

Photo of F-4C Phantom II courtesy of

The jets are a high-visibility marker of the location of Camp Mabry, which also houses the Texas Military Forces Museum, a must-see for anyone interested in history, the armed forces, or military transportation. The museum is free and open to the public Wednesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.


Due to its storied history, Camp Mabry is on the National Register of Historic Places.


To get to the Texas Military Forces Museum, enter Camp Mabry from 35th Street. You will be required to stop at a security area for visitors, where your driver’s license and vehicle license plate are recorded. These post-9/11 security measures might seem intimidating, but the security guards are friendly and you will soon be on your way. When you reach the first stop sign, take a right. At the second stop sign, take another right. (Also note the Camp Mabry exit to your left at the second stop sign for when it is time to head home.) After you pass the P/X and a running track on your left, you will find the museum on your right.


Yes, this is the door to the museum: an adventure awaits!


Inside, you will find a mind-boggling display covering almost 200 years of Texas military history, from militias in Stephen F. Austin’s colony to present day. Exhibits focus on the role of Texas military forces, including militia and volunteer units from the 1800s, Texas Army National Guard from 1903 to present, the Texas Air National Guard, and the Texas Defense Guard/Texas State Guard.

The entrance takes you directly to the Great Hall, which houses large artifacts from horse-drawn wagons to tanks.


It’s not every day you see an airplane hanging from the ceiling!


We visited the Lost Battalion Gallery, which tells the story of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery whose members were taken prisoner March 1, 1942, near the Island of Java in the Dutch East Indies. Most members of the group were forced to work building a railroad between Thailand and Burma, including the famous Bridge Over the River Kwai. Survivors were freed after 42 months in captivity. (Some images within the exhibit may be disturbing to younger children.)


The exhibits have clear labels and explanations so the purpose and background of everything on display can easily be understood.


In the Air Guard Gallery, you can take a close look at this jet engine, which weighs 2,455 pounds!


Your children can climb aboard and check out the seating arrangement for themselves. My 10-year-old son thought this was a tight fit!


In the 36th Infantry Gallery, you can view detailed dioramas of different battles. This display shows the taking of Velettri, Italy, by the 36th Infantry on May 29, 1944.


Informative posters help you understand the whole story behind the exhibits.


It was interesting to see this poster describing the 36th Infantry’s experience liberating a small concentration camp near Landsberg, Germany (a sub-camp of Dachau). The poster states, “If American soldiers had been uncertain why they had been fighting since 1941, they now had an answer they would never forget.”


There also is a collection of Nazi artifacts, still unnerving decades later.


My biggest “aha!” moment was seeing these anti-tank obstacles….now I know what those little pieces were in the kids’ army sets!


Kids fascinated by firefighting vehicles will love this U.S. Army fire truck!


Did you know that Audie Murphy, the most decorated combat soldier in U.S. history at the time of his death, was a member of the Texas National Guard?


While the museum has displayed artifacts related to the Texas Revolution for a long time, these new explanations and timelines were very helpful.


This Tenth Texas Cavalry Regiment flag is from the Civil War.


We have been visiting the museum for many years, so we were pleasantly surprised to find the new exhibit gallery covering the Cold War to the Global War on Terror.


You can even see a piece of the Berlin Wall!


If your kids really don’t want to hear about the Cold War (just try to explain it!), they might be more interested in this display of dime store toy soldiers from the 1930s.


Unlike most museums, the Texas Military Forces Museum has a significant outdoor component: Armor Row and Artillery Park.


The kids were happy to stretch their legs and explore the giant military vehicles.


All of the fascinating artifacts on display had sparked their imaginations, so the boys devised a “battle” of their own behind this barricade.


The Texas Military Forces Museum is in the process of being renovated and expanded. Whether you’ve been there often in the past or are a first-time visitor, you will find something new to learn about!

Austin Active Kids Opinion: An informative and easy outing packed with opportunities to cover important educational and historical topics.
Outing Time: About 1.5 hours
Reminders: If you have not talked to your children about the 9/11 tragedy, think about whether you want to visit the Global War on Terror Gallery. There is a picture of the World Trade Center burning, but it is not graphic. Any discussion of the War on Terror would be incomplete without including 9/11, so plan ahead on how you want to handle this. The track at Camp Mabry is open to the public if you or the kids would like to go for a walk or jog after you visit the museum.


Barton Springs Pool is sometimes referred to as the “soul” of Austin and a visit to this delightful 3-acre natural swimming pool will definitely show you why! The cool 68-degree water fed by underground springs is utterly refreshing and draws a wide assortment of Austin’s citizenry.

The pool is located inside Zilker Park at 2201 Barton Springs Road. There is a parking lot on the west side of the pool (accessible from Barton Springs Road) that is free unless a special event is underway. Another entrance is located near the baseball fields on Robert E. Lee Road (near the intersection with Barton Springs Road) where parking is always free.

If you enter from within Zilker Park, you are welcomed to the pool by Philospher’s Rock, representing celebrated writers J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedicheck, who in years’ past met frequently near the pool for literary and philosophical discussions.


Barton Springs has a colorful history. The area was first settled in 1837 by William “Uncle Billy” Barton and it has attracted visitors craving its cool waters since then. The land was later purchased by Andrew Zilker, who deeded it to the City of Austin in 1918 and 1931. You can read more about Barton Springs Pool’s history and ecological significance on this web site.


Pool admission prices are very reasonable. It’s important to note ahead of time that dogs, food, drinks, glass objects, and coolers are not allowed. You can bring in water bottles with a re-sealable lid in your pool bag. If you want to pack a picnic to enjoy after swimming, you can leave it in your vehicle or just outside the gates of the pool.


While referred to as a “pool”–which might bring to mind a rectangular, chlorinated swimming pool with a level cement bottom–Barton Springs is a natural body of water. The rock surface on the bottom can be slippery! Water shoes will help you stay steady.


In keeping with the natural state of the water, you will see plants and fish in Barton Springs.


Nothing you can tell your kids (or yourself) will adequately prepare them (or you) for the chill you encounter when you step into the springs! You will hear lots of squeals of people acclimating to the water if you stand near the pool entry areas.


These ramps help you get used to the water slowly if you are not the “jump in and get it over with” type.


The southern end of the pool is shallow and a bit warmer. This is where younger children like to play and explore.


My son and I decided this looked a lot like a Bigfoot print in the limestone near the shallow end.


We also found this fossil that had a pearly shell.


This is the view looking north across the pool toward downtown. It does not do justice to the size of the pool!


In addition to being cold, the water is amazingly clear.


Unfortunately, we did not see any Barton Springs Salamanders.


The eastern bank of Barton Springs Pool is a popular spot for relaxing and getting some sun.


On the northern edge of the pool, you can see Barton Creek Spillway, an area that is accessible without an admission fee. It’s a popular place for wading and bringing along pets.


After our poolside walk, we relaxed in the cool shade of this magnificent pecan tree.


All of the swimming and walking worked up our appetites, so we capped off our visit with a stop at the Zilker Cafe for drinks and snacks.


Visiting Barton Springs is a great way to spend a summer afternoon (or really any of our hot Austin days that last well into the fall). Like many Austinites before them, your children will be dazzled by the waters of Barton Springs Pool.

Austin Active Kids Opinion: An afternoon at Barton Springs Pool is an unforgettable and essential part of any Austin childhood.
Outing Time: About 2.5 hours
Reminders: Bring sunscreen, towels, floats, rafts, balls, and water bottles with re-sealable lids. Remember, you cannot take in food, glass containers, or coolers.
The pool is closed Thursdays 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for maintenance and it can also close due to water quality or safety issues if there has been significant rainfall. Check the City of Austin’s Barton Springs Pool web site for hours or other announcements.
It’s always a good idea to check event listings for festivals or other activities that might be going on in the Zilker Park area that will cause traffic headaches or limit access to Barton Springs Pool. The Austin Chronicle calendar and the Austin 360 calendar are good starting points.

Of Note: Many community groups work to improve and protect Barton Springs Pool. This includes Friends of Barton Springs Pool (which conducts monthly cleanings and advocates for the pool) and Austin Heritage Tree Foundation and Barton Springs Tree Stewards (which help care for the extraordinary trees around the pool).

Tucked between Oltorf Street and St. Edward’s University is Blunn Creek Nature Preserve at 1200 St. Edward’s Drive, Austin, 78704. These undeveloped 38 acres will make you feel like you have stumbled into a forgotten woods in the middle of the city. The preserve does not have a parking lot and it’s easy to miss this sign, which reflects the rugged state of the preserve.


Almost immediately upon entering the trail, you are surrounded by the natural landscape.


There are a lot of trail markers to help guide you but a map would have been handy nonetheless!


We quickly arrived at the first overlook: a bluff from which you can view the preserve and the creek below. The overlook is scenic but there is not a guardrail and the bluff is steep. Be cautious and watch your children closely if you take the short path to this first overlook area.

While walking in Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, it’s easy to forget how close you are to the city. One short detour on the wrong path took us directly to a neighborhood street.


We reached the first creek crossing and the kids enjoyed hopping across the rocks to get to the other side.


About 1/3 of the mile in, we came upon this enormous oak tree. What a sight!


Shortly afterward, we arrived at the volcanic overlook, the second overlook on the trail. Did you know that millions of years ago not only was the Austin area an ocean but there were massive active volcanoes underwater? See for yourself at Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, where you can stand on top of the extinct volcano. As described on the sign below, “With each new eruption, the mound grew upward but probably never reached the ocean’s surface. When the eruptions finally ended, mollusks and other marine animals thrived in the relatively shallow water over the summit, depositing layer upon layer of limey shells. These layers became a type of rock known as limestone.”


We wondered if the red line in this rock could be lava from an ancient volcano? Even if we end up learning it’s just sandstone or granite, we like the story about lava better!


This part of the trail is informally called the volcanic overlook because from here you have a beautiful view of St. Edward’s University (which is built on top of a hill that is also an extinct volcano).


Before the hike, the children had heard me talking about the extinct volcano along the trail and it built up their expectations about what we would find. What you actually see is a circular area of unusual-looking rock high up on a hill. It’s probably not what most children conjure in their imagination when they hear “volcano.” If you plan to visit Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, it’s probably a good idea to make sure your kids have a realistic idea of what they will find there.

While we really enjoyed this hike, it was mid-afternoon and very hot. We also had only one bottle of water per person and that was not enough to continue the hike for the full distance (1.5 miles). We cut the hike short at the volcanic overlook–skipping the northern section of the preserve–and headed south back toward the car. Because we did not walk through the northern part, we missed the third overlook: a view of downtown Austin.

Some online articles briefly mentioned that the Blunn Creek Nature Preserve area includes an ancient coral reef. When we saw this rock full of fossils near the trail, we wondered if this was an example of a fossilized coral reef.


Blunn Creek is a relatively small creek but that did not stop my son and his friend from trying to find a crawdad under a rock.


A restoration project is underway at the preserve, with the goal of removing non-native invasive species like ligustrum and chinaberry. The preserve will really be something to see once it’s returned to its authentic state!


As we were leaving, we saw this Texas spiny lizard (with a nub for a tail) climbing a tree. If you are familiar with Texas spiny lizards, you know how fast they are so capturing this shot was pretty amazing.


We plan to return in cooler weather with ample water bottle reserves to tackle the full trail. It certainly felt like more than 38 acres and we did not even walk the whole trail. Just the southern section we covered this August afternoon was well worth the visit!

Austin Active Kids Opinion: This small amount of acreage packs a mighty punch but it’s better suited for families with hiking experience and children ages 5 and up.
Outing Distance: About 3/4 mile
Outing Time: A little over one hour
Reminders: Take a LOT of water to drink. There are no water fountains or public restroom facilities. While there are many trail markers, some of the paths are not labeled and it can be kind of confusing on your first visit. It seems that most of the trails loop back together and eventually you will find your way. You can use your smart phone’s map and compass to help keep you going in the right direction. Michael Barnes of the Austin American-Statesman wrote about the preserve in an Untold Austin column and you can read more details in this Austin Explorer description.

If you have driven by or walked by Austin City Hall and wondered what it was like inside, you should plan a visit soon. Completed in 2004, Austin City Hall (301 West 2nd Street) is a truly stunning building that will fascinate your kids.


City Hall is open to the public Monday – Friday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. There is plentiful parking in the underground parking garage (entered from Lavaca Street). Visitors to City Hall can get their parking stub validated.

We went to City Hall on a Thursday, when the City Council typically meets. We sat in Council Chambers for a few minutes to get a glimpse of our city leaders in action. My kids did not seem to think it was very exciting but they kindly humored me in my attempt to enhance their civic education. There were other children in attendance, visiting with a summer camp or meeting boy scout requirements.

My children were really excited about all of the artwork in The People’s Gallery, a year-long display of more than 150 artworks from Austin-area artists, galleries, museums, and art organizations. It was fun to be surrounded by so much amazing and original art, not just on the walls but on the ceiling above us, too!

Heaven Positive, Jennifer Chenoweth

I was touched by the memorial exhibition honoring 42 city employees who lost their lives or were killed in the line of duty. It’s an unusual but moving tribute, with little carved figures representing the profession of each individual.


The painting below might look like just empty pots, but according to the artist’s statement, it’s quite profound: “Throughout history and literature, the idea of the empty vessel appears as a theme based on the human condition, and often refers to the human potential to be filled with knowledge, nourishment, or spirituality. For me, the empty vessel simply signifies the intrinsic framework of possibility.” Wow!

Empty Vessels II, Hollis Hammonds

After the kids fully investigated the snack vending machine options near the Empty Vessels II painting, we checked out “Austin Past & Present,” a multimedia history of the city of Austin. This display included a timeline of Austin’s history as well as an interactive map of interesting landmarks to explore throughout the city.


The boys ran up the stairs to the 2nd floor to see what awaited us. They were not disappointed!


They were pretty much left speechless by these two ladies.

Blue Mama: Laugh and Blue Mama: Cringe, Claudia Reese

Viewed from the 2nd floor, the plastic caps structure was one of the kids’ favorites! You have to see it in person to believe how tall it is. The shape is designed to resemble bulrushes or cattails (plants that grow around the edges of ponds and lakes).

Plastic Caps Sculpture, George Sabra

This artwork, Of Earth and Sky, was another favorite. I was not able to get a good photograph, but this piece was so incredible, I did not want to leave it out. It is an angel made out of an old piano!

Of Earth and Sky, John Sager

After visiting three floors of City Hall (out of four), we went outside to City Hall Plaza. These steps are known for being a live music venue but the kids thought climbing and jumping were the best activities for this final part of our visit!


Austin Active Kids Opinion: The whole family will be impressed by Austin City Hall and it’s likely you’ll all learn something, too!
Outing Time: About 1.5 hours
Reminders: If you want to stop by a City Council meeting when you visit City Hall, check their meeting schedule first. Talk to your kids about behavior expectations ahead of time. For a council meeting, children will need to be able to sit still and speak quietly. The artwork is very appealing to kids, but they will not be able to touch or handle it.