Caprock Canyons State Park/Facebook

The 5 best Texas state parks to visit in 2017: Can anyone say road trip?

Texas Travel Bucket List

The new year is a time for self-reflection, renewal, and determining your travel bucket list. After all, there’s no better time to contemplate the places you want to explore in the coming year. And, luckily, there are incredible parks throughout the Lone Star State that are perfect for a road trip. Check out our picks for the top Texas state parks to visit in 2017.

Balmorhea State Park
There’s something special about bathing in a giant pool smack-dab in the middle of the desert. From Houston, travel west for around hours and you can swim or even scuba dive in Balmorhea’s cool blue waters — the world’s largest spring-fed pool, in fact.

Pro tip: Cross two parks off your list by staying at the Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. The Indian Lodge is truly a West Texas treasure, with its stark white adobe walls and scenic views of the park.

Big Bend Ranch State Park
Sure, Big Bend National Park is glorious, but don’t forego Big Bend Ranch State Park in far West Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border. There are 238 miles of incredible trails and sights to see here. From rocky canyons and breathtaking mountain vistas to otherworldly desert landscapes, this park pretty much has it all.

Pro tip: Go in the springtime, when the area is ablaze with wildflowers and temperatures are comfy.

Caprock Canyons State Park
Caprock Canyons, located eight-and-a-half hours northwest of Houston near Amarillo, often gets passed up in favor of the showier Palo Duro Canyon, but this is precisely why you should consider going. It’s less developed, more remote, and boasts marvelous views and miles of ruby red canyons.

Pro tip: Come prepared with food and a full gas tank.

Colorado Bend State Park
With its lush green scenery and majestic waterfalls, Colorado Bend, located west of Lampasas and southeast of San Saba, is a unique addition to the scrubby Texas Hill Country. About a four-hour drive from Houston, this is one of the most special spots in the state. There are plenty of trails here, but don’t skip the hike to Gorman Falls, a gorgeous 65-foot waterfall surrounded by so much bright green vegetation you may think you somehow landed in Oregon.

Pro tip: Avoid the crowds by camping at nearby Sulphur Springs campground, where you can score a spot right on the picturesque Colorado River.

Garner State Park
If you’re seeking the quintessential Texas state park experience, Garner, located near Uvalde, around four hours west of Houston, should be your go-to destination. Whether you’re looking to tube down the cold waters of the Frio River, go fishing, or hike some of the most verdant land in the state, this park has a little something for everyone. Don’t forget to trek up Old Baldy Hill for spectacular views of the surrounding area.

Pro tip: Head to Garner in the summer when the park hosts its famed old-timey jukebox dance.

Caprock Canyons boasts marvelous views and miles of ruby red canyons.

Caprock Canyons State Park/Facebook
Caprock Canyons boasts marvelous views and miles of ruby red canyons.
Courtesy Photo

High Intensity Pilates adds calorie-burning cardio to stretch workout

HIP Fitness

Editor's Note: We asked our CultureMap staff to try some of the latest workout classes and report back. Here's our first report.

While we are all in full swing of bringing the mantra “New Year, New You” into reality, we are searching for the latest and greatest ways to keep ourselves fit and add a little variety into our workout routine. I decided to give HIP Fitness (High Intensity Pilates) a try. For months I have been hearing the buzz on this new Pilates method that is hitting the Houston workout scene. As a beginner, I was obviously skeptical about experiencing this level of intensity. But the small class size allowed the instructor to pay close attention to my clueless and very unskilled self.

What is HIP Fitness

In just 45 minutes, HIP will take you through heart-pumping exercises on the Megaformer 3,M3 Pilates machine. The movements are slow and controlled, but you transition to the next movement quickly which kick starts the cardio element of the workout. If you want to combine cardio with major strength training this is class for you.

Created by celebrity trainer Sebastien Lagree, this method promises to burn up to 700 calories in one session. Unlike traditional Pilates reformers, the special Megaformer 3, M3 that Lagree designed offers constant tension but is still easy on the joints and promotes flexibility. The program can be modified by adjusting resistance and position to tailor it to each client’s specific needs. With these machines, the possibilities and combinations of moves are endless, which can make each class seem new and avoid any monotony that we all suffer from in our workout routine. The class went by fast and had an upbeat vibe with the fun, loud music played.

Where to find it

HIP Fitness now has two locations in Houston. The West University location (2294 West Holcombe Boulevard) and the brand new River Oaks studio (2400 Mid Lane, Suite 330) each have only 10 Megaformer machines to ensure an intimate class setting so that each client gets one-on-one training from the instructors. A single session is $35, with various priced packages on multiple classes, but first-time clients get the $15 single session special. Beginners to professional athletes like Houston Rockets player Trevor Ariza frequent the studios.

The Benefits

The best part about HIP Fitness, besides the fact that my entire body was sore the next day, is that the exercises target muscles I didn’t even know I had, but still encourage flexibility and lengthening of the body. Get ready for a body shaking, high intensity session that is definitely hard at first. You will leave knowing you had a full body workout and be ready to face the rest of 2017. Don’t let the soreness or the fast paced class scare you away. As they say — sore today, strong tomorrow!

Time to clean out your closet: What to get rid of and what to keep to create the perfect winter wardrobe

Style Tips

"As we move into a new season it is imperative to start de-cluttering your old wardrobe in an effort to get organized," says fashion stylist Ashley Hargrove. "While most people cringe at the thought of cleaning out their closets and moving things around when the weather starts changing, it is helpful to begin with a list of things to keep, buy, and lose."

CultureMap caught up with the Austin style maven, who was recently named one of Southern Living's fashion Instagrams to follow now, to get some tips on updating your wardrobe for the winter season.

Five to keep
Basics, basics, basics. Never forget these words. Whether you are shopping in your closet or at the store, always begin with the basics. Basics are investment pieces that defy trends and will never go out of style. These are the top five basics to build your winter wardrobe around this season:

1. Black leather jacket

2. A nice trench or wool coat

3. Leather boots or booties

4. Cashmere sweaters in solid colors

5. A classic handbag that will last you season to season

Five tips for refining your wardrobe
Once you have the items on this list in place it's easy to see what needs to go.

1. Always check your wool and cashmere pieces. Most people never check the items that they rarely wear or that were stored in tubs for months. Keep an eye out for pilling and holes in sweaters.

2. Try on all of your jeans and leggings. People tend to gain or lose weight when the seasons change. Most people stockpile their jeans and rarely try them on. I suggest keeping three to five pairs of great fitting jeans for winter.

3. If you have been storing sweaters in a tub or on hangers in a closet, be sure to check the fabric condition. Does it have hanger dimples? Does the elastic in the fabric still hold up or does it stretch out and stay stretched out?

4. Check your boots and make sure they are still in style. Most people aren't buying nice boots every season so they wear the same pair and styles year after year. Take a look at the style and the heels. If they are originals from a former decade, toss ‘em and buy a new pair!

5. Costume jewelry. This is something all of us are guilty of hoarding, but now is the time to toss some. What are the signs that you need to send pieces packing? Have you worn it in six to 12 months? If you answered no, toss it. Is it tarnishing? Do your hands smell after you touch it? Is it turning your skin colors? If you answered yes to the last three questions, it is time to go. There is no need to keep a collection of cheap jewelry, and replacing it with current looks is one of the least expensive ways to update your look. This is one area where you can go trendy without breaking the bank.

Photo courtesy of Epicurean Group

This Houston company has managed to make meals healthy, delicious, and easy

Healthy You

Was one of your New Year's resolutions to eat healthier? Despite best intentions, following through on that vow is not always as easy as you'd like — unless someone else is doing the cooking.

Enter Epicurean Group, which prepares fresh and great-tasting meals that manage to hit all the major health-conscious must-haves. Even better, they deliver. That means suddenly your refrigerator is stocked with a sensible yet tasty menu for the upcoming work week, and you didn't have to lift a teaspoon.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and à la carte options are all available, and the menus change weekly. Think apricot pork tender, beef bourguignon, shepherd's pie, fig preserve and prosciutto pizza, to name a few.

With over 20 years in the local food business, founder and owner Patti Ramsey has built her career providing fine foods for discerning tastes. So whether you're drawn to traditional comfort food or exotic delicacies, the end result will surely be delicious.

But back to that whole healthy thing. Each week’s menu is low to moderate in sodium, typically under 30 percent fat, high in fiber, and seasoned to perfection. The food contains three to five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, and is clean, local, and unprocessed (no additives, preservatives, or HFCS). There are vegetarian, heart conscious, diabetic friendly, and gluten-free options.

To make life even easier, Weight Watchers points are already calculated for you, and meals are designated at two different portion sizes: 1,200 and 1,800, which keep you on those calorie targets with three meals a day.

Browse the available meals at Epicurean Group's website, then make sure to have your orders in by 10 am Friday morning. That next Monday morning, either swing by Epicurean Group's office in River Oaks off Memorial or await delivery to your door. Then enjoy, knowing that you're doing your schedule and your waistline a favor.

Salmon with grilled vegetables.

Photo courtesy of Epicurean Group
Salmon with grilled vegetables.
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Towering downtown skyscraper and former headquarters for oil giant set for new high-rise apartment conversion

fins and all

An empty downtown skyscraper harking to Houston's energy capital brand may soon reignite the high-rise living trend in downtown.

The tower formerly known as the Humble Oil headquarters and now the Exxon building (800 Bell St.) has been sold to an out-of-state developer with plans to convert the structure to residential units. Ralph Bivins, a former CultureMap scribe, was first to break the news on Realty News Report.

Bivins reports that the 1.2 million-square-foot building was sold to a New York investment group affiliated with CMI Developers. Notably, the group boasts experience in historic redevelopment and apartment conversions. Bivins adds that the age of the Exxon building (it was completed in 1962) and its high local profile might yield available historic preservation tax credits for the developers.

As downtowners may recall, the former Exxon HQ at 800 Bell for around eight years when the company relocated to its modern new campus.

Culturally, the building has been significant as a towering symbol of Houston's energy powerhouse status. At the time of its opening, Bivins notes, the building was considered the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. Its famed Petroleum Club atop the building was the site of myriad power deals, and later, special events.

Looking forward, the building presents numerous opportunities for adaptive reuse. The first floors of the building, once open to neighbors who utilized the Exxon cafeteria, can be an ideal mixed-use locale for restaurants and even retail. One hopes the building's signature "fins," crafted to block the hot Houston sun, remain a design feature.

Exxon building 800 Bell fins A close-up shot of the building's fins.Photo via CALpix; copyright 2023

The large scale of the Exxon tower raises the opportunity for placing a significant amount of retail or restaurants in the lower levels of the building, located between Milam and Travis. The old Exxon parking garage, located nearby, comes with the deal, Bivins point out — always a boon for parking-scarce downtown areas.

Given the green-light status of the hotly contested I-45 expansion project and plans to redevelop Midtown and areas near the Pierce Elevated, the high-rise residential could be an epicenter of new downtown growth.

Globally famous diner dishing out "world's rudest service" headed to Texas...like, whenever

Displeased to serve you

Imagine you’re at a restaurant and the server rolls her eyes because you don’t like ice in your water. What a pansy you are. First, you order a chocolate milkshake, but on second thought, you’d like vanilla. You apologetically ask her to change it on the ticket and she threatens to spit in it. On your way out, you tip her 20 percent and leave a review: “5 stars. Rudest service I’ve ever had.”

Karen’s Diner provides the worst service for the best experience, at least according to cheeky clientele who appreciate the campy comedy of a long-suffering server who just can’t smile through it anymore. The Australian restaurant concept exploded in popularity in the last few months, largely from viral videos of funny quips and embarrassed customers (who are usually in on the gag).

Part subversion of the sweet neighborhood waitress trope and part revenge fantasy for off-duty service industry people who find relief in watching other servers speak their minds, this is an exercise in improv comedy wrapped up in a classic diner meal. There are now 14 locations in the United States according to the restaurant’s locations page, including one that has quietly popped up online in Austin.

There is very little information about this location in particular, but there is an active listing on Hidden, which allows users to sign up for a waitlist and eventually gives access to the restaurant’s secret location. As of January 24, Hidden told CultureMap via email that it does not know the opening date.

Although the diner could rest on the laurels of its terrible attitude, reviewers seem to agree, the food is also good. The menu lists 14 burgers, including some traditional cheeseburgers, luxe twists, chicken burgers, and a few meatless options, in addition to other diner snacks like wings, floats, and fries. Prices may give visitors something to complain about (the burgers range from $16-28), but the price keeps the most creative instigators on staff.

Kids under 14 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian for lunch, while dinner’s raunchiness raises the accompanied age to 16. In general, the chain encourages minors to attend earlier in the day. Any actual Karens may show their ID for a free drink.

More information about Karen’s Diner can be found at bemorekaren.com. Check Hidden for changes, or sign up for the ticket release waitlist.

Ken Hoffman trashes Houston's No. 1 spot in 'dirty, rotten' new ranking of filthiest U.S. cities

here's the dirt

Great. Now we’re the Dirtiest City in America, too? It’s not enough that Houston is the serial winner of Fattest City in America?

Lawnstarter, a nationwide lawn care, landscaping and pest control company, ranked cities coast-to-coast by “32 dimensions of compatibility.” (No wait, that’s eHarmony.) Lawnstarter compared U.S. cities on the basis of: pollution, living conditions, infrastructure, and consumer satisfaction.

Houston came in dead last … or in this case, No. 1 for Dirtiest City in America. Of course, that’s a dirty rotten lie.

For this "study," Lawnstarter calculated publicly available data, like air quality index, gas emissions, percentage of smokers, population density, homes without kitchen facilities, homes with cockroaches, and number of landfills and junk yards.

Here’s a better way of determining if a city is dirty: open your eyes.

Important to note: Lawnstarter folks did not actually visit Houston to take a look around.

Garbage advice from non-visitors

The folks at Lawnstarter suggest that Houstonians stock up on air fresheners, mouse traps, and cans of Raid. Sure, we have some rough parts of town, where people use unlit back roads as an elephant burial ground for worn-out mattresses and rusty old appliances. But overall, Houston is a progressive, forward-thinking town that keeps up appearances.

I don’t have to hold my nose when I walk outside or wear a Hazmat suit when I drive downtown for a ballgame.

I’m not going to dispute Lawnstarter’s finding that Houston is No. 1 in cockroaches and No. 3 in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the by-product of geography and industry. We’re working on it. But Lawnstarter says we’re No. 1 in overall filth and I ain’t buying it.

The five dirtiest cities in America, according to Lawnstarter, are:

  1. Houston
  2. Newark
  3. San Bernadino
  4. Detroit
  5. Jersey City

The cleanest city, or more to the point, the least dirty city is Virginia Beach, Virginia. Other spotless towns include Des Moines, Iowa and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

I don’t like to criticize other cities, but I once stepped in New Orleans and had to wipe my shoes. Chicago wasn’t exactly Tidy Town, either.

How Houston can clean up its act

I’m not saying that Houston is squeaky clean, either. There are some habits and things we need to clean up. They’re little things, but little things mean a lot. Here’s my top-5 list:

  1. Who are these deranged psychopaths who pick up their dog’s poop, then leave the plastic bag on the sidewalk or neighbors’ lawns? It’s not just unsanitary, it’s disgusting. And unlawful.
  2. How about people who put their garbage on the curb too early and then leave the empty trash bins out there for days after it’s collected? And thanks for putting your garbage out on holidays when you know it won’t be picked up. Merry Christmas. Makes the street look like a garbage dump for out-of-town relatives.
  3. I’m tempted to speed up and yell at drivers who throw cigarette butts out their window on I-10. But I don’t. I’m chicken.
  4. Is it too difficult or a physical hardship to return shopping carts to the parking lot corral?
  5. We build bike lanes to encourage a healthful habit like riding a bicycle, and then we allow them to become trash heaps. Here’s a million dollar idea: open “Fix-a-Flat” stations every 100 feet next to the bike lanes on Westpark.

Bonus: This one is close to home: raw onions on the ground in fast food parking lots.

I’m told that the No. 1 thing fast food workers have to sweep up at night is raw onions. People take off the onions and throw them out the window before driving away. I completely understand. I hate raw onions, too.

And yet, I love breaded and fried onion rings. I guess that’s what makes me such an interesting person. (Editors' note: Way to peel back the onion on that one, Ken.)