Road Trip from Austin to El Paso: 9 Stops along the Way

The drive from Austin to El Paso is rich with history, adventure, and natural beauty

Bookended by the capital city of Austin and the West Texas border town of El Paso, a drive through West Texas takes in not just two of Texas’s most distinctive cities but also a host of cool small towns rich with frontier history, sweeping vistas, and delicious barbecue and Tex-Mex cuisine.

The drive from Austin to El Paso clocks in at about nine hours and at first glance it can look a bit daunting and devoid of major towns. But rest assured that there are plenty of fascinating attractions to break up the drive.

Types of barb wire used in West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, like us turn it into a multi-day journey. As with any road trip, it’s best to meander a bit, staying overnight for a few nights along the way and detouring from the main route now and then. In order to soak up the Texas hospitality and try plenty of regional cuisine along the way, I recommend taking 5 or 6 days on the road trip across West Texas.

Here are my seven favorite stops from Austin to El Paso.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center in Austin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin

From the world-famous barbecue to the non-stop live music to the quirky charm of South Congress Avenue, Austin is a fantastically fun place to start a Texas road trip.

Walk across the Congress Avenue Bridge just before sunset when the Mexican free-tailed bats that live under the bridge venture out to form dark clouds in the sky over Lady Bird Lake. It’s a sight to see and one that attracts hundreds of sightseers to the bridge each night.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center in Austin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a quick lunch, the Congress Avenue Torchy’s Tacos is a popular regional chain with a creative taco menu (try the Trailer Park with fried chicken, pico de gallo, and green chiles). For a decadent dessert, get in line at Amy’s Ice Creams where the Mexican vanilla and dark chocolate flavors are standouts.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center in Austin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with the stellar Tex-Mex cuisine, any trip to Austin should include a visit to at least one of the city’s famous barbecue spots. The Visit Austin website breaks it down in its Ultimate Guide to Austin Barbecue. Terry Black’s BBQ is a premiere destination for legendary Texas barbecue. You can’t go wrong with an assortment of brisket, sausage, and turkey (sold by the pound) and sides of mac and cheese, green beans, and cornbread muffins.

You could easily spend a week or two exploring Austin but on a road trip across West Texas, two or three days would allow you to take in a good assortment of the city’s attractions.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg

Heading west out of Austin on US Highway 290, a favorite first stop is Fredericksburg, a mid-sized town with an astonishing array of well-preserved rock buildings from the 1800s days of German settlers. Any visit to Fredericksburg should begin with a walk down Main Street to take in distinctive buildings like the Pioneer Memorial Library (built in 1882) and the Vereins Kirche Museum (built in 1847).

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop for lunch at the iconic Auslander Restaurant and Biergarten for authentic German fare like schnitzel and sauerkraut or the Altdorf Restaurant and Biergarten for bratwurst or knockwurst. For a beautiful look at the plants, seeds, and wines of the region take a quick drive east from town to Wild Seed Farms. To hike head a short distance to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

Wildseed Farms near Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus: Luckenbach, the tiny Texas outpost made famous by a 1977 hit song by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson is a 15-minute drive from Fredericksburg and makes a wonderful day trip.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caverns of Sonora

The founder of a National Speleological Society (read: a group of dudes who love exploring caves) once said “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by a Texan.” The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth form 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cavern is known for its stunning array of calcite crystal formations, extremely delicate formations, and the abundance and variety of formations. You’ll find helictites, soda straws stalactites, speleothems, stalagmites, and cave bacon. The cave is a constant 71 degrees with 98 percent humidity which makes it feel about 85 degrees.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daily guided tours of this remarkable cave system last just shy of two hours and take you 155 feet below the earth’s surface. Sonora is also a great halfway point between Austin (or San Antonio) and Big Bend. Their RV Park offers 48 sites complete with water and electricity, several of which are pull-through. Due to the presence of the cavern, a dump station is not available; however, there are clean restrooms with showers.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Stockton

Few Texas towns can claim a past as colorful or well preserved as Fort Stockton. The best way to experience these cultural treasures is to take a self-guided driving tour beginning at the Visitor Center inside the railway depot that was built in 1911.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the tour, you’ll pass more than a dozen legendary sites such as the Pecos County Courthouse, the Historic Old Jail of 1884, the “Oldest House” that is believed to have been built as early as 1855, and the Comanche Springs Pool. Following this route takes you to some of Fort Stockton’s most fascinating places, a great way to get acquainted with this exceptional West Texas town.

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Monahans Sandhills State Park

A mystical place where the wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys Mon­a­hans Sandhills offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages. These natural sand dunes are ever-changing and worth stomping around. An hour north of Fort Stockton on State Route 18, stop here for a picnic or sled down the swirling dunes on rentable plastic lids.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entry is $4. And spend the night at one of the 26 camping sites with water and electric hookups, a picnic table, and shelter. Camping is $15 nightly plus the entry fee.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park

It’s time to bust out your swimsuit. Near the crossroads of I-20 and I-10, you’ll find a literal oasis in the middle of the desert: the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world. Recharge in the cool, clear waters and get a glimpse of tiny endangered pupfish, found only in the San Soloman springs.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Open daily, entry costs $7; buy a day pass in advance to guarantee a spot especially on crowded weekends when the pool can reach capacity. Stay overnight at one of 34 campsites. Or reserve a room at the San Solomon Springs Courts, motel-style retro lodging built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa

Although staying on I-10 would be the quickest and most convenient way to continue west, consider heading southwest at the I-10 town of Fort Stockton toward Big Bend Country. Even if you’re not continuing on to the amazing Big Bend National Park, the row of little West Texas towns that are known as gateways to the park make a worthy detour off the interstate.

Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa are all within 30 minutes to an hour from one another. Visitors can take their pick among Marathon for its splendid night skies, Alpine for its bustling downtown and colorful murals, and Marfa for its movie, music, culinary, and art scenes.

I suggest choosing one of the towns to serve as a base for exploring the region for a day or two. In Marathon, Marathon Motel and RV Park offers 19 full hookups sites suitable for big rigs.

Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis

For another cool detour south of the interstate, consider the historic town of Fort Davis, a 35-minute drive from Balmorhea State Park on State Route 17. Located in the middle of the craggy Davis Mountains, Fort Davis is a self-contained community of about 1,100 people that boasts a surprisingly robust selection of restaurants and shops.

Fort Davis Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For authentic Mexican food, try Poco Mexico where orders are taken at a window to the busy kitchen or at Cueva de Leon which features a full menu of Mexican fare and a comfortable outdoor patio.

And while you’re in the area, be sure to check out the well-preserved frontier military post, Fort Davis National Historic Site, and the incredibly scenic Davis Mountains State Park.

McDonald Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargaze at McDonald Observatory. Northwest of Fort Davis on State Route 118, one of the darkest night skies in the country allows for spectacular stargazing. Gaze into the cosmos during one of their evening star parties. Otherwise, they’re open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday. 

Franklin State Park near El Paso © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Paso

Located along the Rio Grande on the border with Mexico, the far-west Texas city of El Paso offers a wonderful mix of Mexican and Old West cultures. The international culture is evident in everything from the city’s historic buildings to the Tex-Mex cuisine to the colorful art.

Any visit to El Paso should include an exploration of the Las Plazas Arts District, an area in the center of town that features the picturesque El Paso Street festooned with string lights and neon signs. The entire Arts District is a great place for a walk and the area features a host of trendy spots for taking in a cocktail or meal.

Franklin State Park near El Paso © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Paso also features numerous choices for authentic Mexican cuisine. The homey L&J Café offers a range of Tex-Mex specialties such as beef and chicken fajitas, chile con queso, and grilled steak. In the downtown area, the Kansas Street spot ELEMI sources heirloom varieties of native corn from sustainable farming communities in Mexico for its signature dishes such as deconstructed street corn.

El Paso is a great spot to either end or start a road trip across West Texas and a stay of several days would give visitors a good taste of the city.

For more on West Texas, check out these articles:

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

There is a growing feeling that perhaps Texas is really another country, a place where the skies, the disasters, the diamonds, the politicians, the women, the fortunes, the football players and the murders are all bigger than anywhere else.

—Pete Hamill

7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

Desert, mountains, sandy beaches, clear blue rivers, and deep canyons. The Lone Star State has it all—and you can find it in a state park.

Texas is one of the most geographically diverse states in America—it is the largest state in the contiguous United States after all with a thriving state park system to match that has more than 80 different sites across the state to explore.

Officially established in 1923, Texas’s state park system was loosely modeled on the United States’ national parks. When Texas was annexed into the U.S. in 1845, the state government stipulated that Texas must retain control over its public lands, so when the country’s national park movement was first gathering steam in 1916, very little land was allocated to the federal government. There’s now a grand total of 603,748 acres of Texas state parks to traverse, so there’s a little something for every type of adventurer.

Here are the 10 best Texas state parks to visit.

Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Davis Mountains State Park

Why go: Desert mountain hikes and a historic lodge

Nearest town: Fort Davis

Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay: Davis Mountains State Park offers primitive camping, campsites with electricity and water, and full hookup campsites for RVs. If you’re not into camping, check out the Indian Lodge, a full-service hotel in the state park. 

Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you ask any Texan what they think of when they hear the words “West Texas,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is Big Bend National Park (or, alternatively, the cool little art town in the middle of nowhere, Marfa). But about 140 miles north of Big Bend country are the Davis Mountains which are geologically classified as a “sky island”—an isolated mountain range surrounded by a radically different lowland.

Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mountains were created 35 million years ago after a series of violent volcanic eruptions which gave the area a large outcropping of rare (for Texas) igneous rock. The park offers a variety of hiking and biking trails and horseback riding corridors plus what the park fondly calls the “best little bird blind in Texas.”

McDonald’s Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to the state park’s proximity to the McDonald Observatory, the area enjoys mandatory dark skies making it an ideal spot for stargazing.
Davis Mountains State Park isn’t known only for its outdoor activities. One of the most distinctive hotel options in the area is the Indian Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. The pueblo-style lodge functions as a full-service hotel and has 39 rooms and a dreamy swimming pool.

Related Article: 10 Things You Need To See and Do At Least Once In Texas

Big Bend Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Why go: Big Bend’s geography without the crowds of Big Bend National Park

Nearest town: Lajitas or Terlingua

Where to stay: Primitive camping only. Nearby towns of Lajitas and Terlingua have RV parks, hotels, and motels.

Big Bend Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend Ranch State Park is often overshadowed by its spectacular national cousin, Big Bend National Park. But just a few minutes down Highway 170 (which, by the way, was named one of the most scenic drives in the country) is this state park—the biggest in Texas at a whopping 300,000 acres. Admittedly, Big Bend Ranch State Park is not for the faint of heart: There’s only primitive (a campsite with no water or electricity, but can be driven to) and backcountry (campsites with no water or electricity either, but require a hike to reach) camping in the park.

Big Bend Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because of its size and remoteness, it offers little in the way of amenities. What the park does have is 238 miles of multiuse trails for hiking, biking, and riding horses. Bring plenty of water—temperatures can reach as high as 130 degrees in the summer, so plan your visit for sometime during late November to early March. This west Texas park also makes a great place to stargaze.
For an extra dose of personality, add a stop in Terlingua to your trip. The famous revitalized “ghost town” serves up some serious western-inspired grub, drinks, and music at the Starlight Theatre. 

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area 

Why go: Hike a gorgeous pink granite monolith

Nearest town: Fredericksburg

Where to stay: Group campsites, campsites with water, and backcountry camping are all available.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As any Texan knows, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is a must-visit park. You can see what makes the region special from miles away along the drive on Ranch Road 965—a gargantuan hunk of pink granite that’s completely unique to Texas. (The state capitol is made of the same rock.) Geologically, the unusual formation is known as a ​​monadnock, a hill of bedrock that rises above its surroundings.

Related Article: Discover more on a Texas-sized Outdoor Adventure

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The stunning monolith has always had a mystical ambience. Before the Spanish and Anglo settlers arrived, the Plains Native Americans who frequented the area called the formation the “Singing Rock.” When the granite would cool from Texas’s ultra-hot summer temperatures as the sun went down, the stone would moan and groan as it shrank in the cool night air. If you’re lucky, you can still catch this phenomenon during a sunset hike.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 11 miles of trails in Enchanted Rock State Natural area; the most popular hike goes straight up to the top of the rock, the Summit Trail. The “trail” (there are few ways to mark a path on bare rock) can be slippery at times but the view of the Hill Country at the apex makes the near vertical trek worth it. Because this hike is up a hunk of granite, the trail has little to no shade or vegetation, so be prepared with hats, sunscreen, and plenty of water. 

Mustang Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mustang Island State Park

Why go: White, fluffy sand in Texas’s best beach town

Nearest town: Port Aransas

Where to stay: Campsites with electricity and primitive camping are available. There are also RV parks in the area.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

OK, so calling Port Aransas Texas’s best beach may be a controversial statement—South Padre Island is regularly flooded with spring breakers each year, Galveston enjoys a steady stream of tourists, and let’s not forget Latina superstar Selena’s hometown of Corpus Christi. But many Texans will say that Port Aransas easily beats them all. And if you’re into fishing, the reel-’em-in heaven of Rockport is only 18 miles away from this island community. 

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes Port Aransas so special? Think small-town Texas with charming coastal vibes and the whitest, fluffiest sand your toes will ever have the pleasure of knowing. Plus, being located on the barrier island, the area enjoys an ecosystem populated by seabirds, 600 species of saltwater fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and even a few alligators. One of the best places to experience the island’s environment is Mustang Island State Park.

Port Aransas ferry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has five miles of coastline where visitors are encouraged to camp, bird-watch, kayak, fish, or simply play in the surf. Camping here is a little different than in most Texas state parks—though there is a designated camping area with electric hookups, guests can also camp primitive-style directly on the sand near the surf with the appropriate permits. 

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park

Why go: Visit one of the largest spring-fed pools in the world

Nearest town: Balmorhea

Where to stay: Campsites with electricity, group campsites, and cabins are available.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Barton Springs in Austin is indisputably one of Texas’s favorite swimming pools thanks to its year-round cool temperatures and convenient location in the heart of the capital. But if Balmorhea were a little closer to central Texas, it would definitely be a fierce competitor. It offers a sizable spring-fed pool that hovers around 72 to 76 degrees all year, right smack in the middle of the desert.

Related Article: Absolutely Best State Parks from San Antonio

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before the Civilian Conservation Corps built the concrete swimming pool and cabins in the 1930s, the San Solomon Springs provided water for local wildlife and hunter gatherers who are believed to have first made their appearance in the area around 11,000 years ago. During the 1800s, cattle ranchers and railroad workers often used the springs.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now, the pool is most commonly frequented by Texans looking to escape the oppressive summer heat in an appealing desert landscape. Visitors can swim, snorkel, and scuba dive at the pool which hosts two endangered species of fish: the Pecos gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish. Though Balmorhea State Park is a bit out of the way from any major city (the nearest one—Odessa, Texas—is 116 miles away), getting to take a dip in the turquoise gem of the west Texas desert is an experience not to be missed. 

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Why go: Play on the Sahara-like dunes

Nearest town: Monahans

Where to stay: Campsites with water and electricity are available; also equestrian sites.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can surf on the Gulf Coast in Texas but you can also surf at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. A virtual island in a Permian Basin sea, the narrow strip of dunes runs for 200 miles from just south of Monahans north into New Mexico and creates a unique habitat that’s home to a variety of wildlife and supports one of the world’s largest oak forests—albeit the oaks themselves are of the diminutive variety. The Harvard oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above three feet in height even though their root structure may extend as deep as 70 to 90 feet in the dunes.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and RV camping and a favorite activity of many visitors, sand surfing. The 26 campsites offer electric and water hookups, picnic table, and a shade shelter. Rent sand disks to surf the dunes or bring your horse and check out the 800-acre equestrian area. Just make sure you mark off “surfed in a desert” from your travel bucket list.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look for “fulgurites” (melted sand created by lightning strikes), ride your horse, or borrow a disk to surf the dunes. This park seriously reminds me of a scene from Aladdin. Oh, and did I mention that you can surf down the sand dunes? I can’t think of many activities more fun than that!

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goose Island State Park

Why go: Lapping water and Gulf breezes

Nearest town: Rockport-Fulton

Where to stay: 

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bounded by the waters of the St. Charles, Copano, and Aransas bays, 314-acre Goose Island State Park is a coastal delight. Popular with Winter Texans during winter months, birders during spring and fall migration, and campers year-round, Goose Island State Park is located 10 miles north of Rockport-Fulton, off State Highway 35.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to the Island engage in a variety of activities, including camping, birding, fishing, boating, water sports, picnicking, hiking, photography, geocaching, and wildlife observation. A leisurely 1-mile hiking trail is available. Swimming is not recommended as the shoreline has concrete bulkheads, oyster shells, mud flats, and marsh grass.

Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goose Island State Park is best known for two celebrated residents, one of which is the Big Tree—an enormous 1,000-year-old coastal live oak that has survived prairie fires, Civil War battles, and hurricanes. With a height of 44 feet, a circumference of 35 feet, and a crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) for more than 1,000 years.

The other resident is the rare endangered whooping crane that returns to the area every winter

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose from 44 campsites by the bay or 57 sites nestled under oak trees, all with water and electricity. Every camping loop has restrooms with showers. Goose Island also has 25 walk-in tent sites without electricity, and a group camp for youth groups.

Read Next: 16 of the Best State Parks in America

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

In the Lone Star State, find natural springs, granite batholiths, and even gypsum sand dunes

Texas is known for big skies, wide-open spaces, and starry nights. Parts of it bristle with cacti. Others glisten with swampy, tea-colored water. Along the coast, endangered sea turtles nest along sandy beaches, towering cypress trees lean over cool green rivers, and fossilized dinosaur bones poke out of dry creek beds.

Every corner of the Lone Star State serves up its own version of Texas terrain, from mountains to beaches and well beyond. And less than five percent of its land is publicly owned. In all, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department oversees nearly 100 parks, historic sites, and natural areas across the state. The National Parks Service operates 16 more public spaces including national parks, monuments, recreation areas, preserves, trails, and memorials. Below, I’ve picked 10 of my favorite state and national parks in Texas to plan a trip around.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale

It’s hard to imagine finding a giant blue-green swimming hole swirling with fish in the middle of a desert but that’s what beckons at Balmorhea State Park where more than 15 million gallons of water flow daily from San Solomon Springs into a 25-foot deep pool with a natural bottom. Native Americans, early explorers, and passing U.S. soldiers have all watered up here and in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps turned the desert wetland into the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now, it’s popular with land-locked scuba divers, swimmers, and anyone looking to take a flying leap off a 7-foot 3-inch-high diving board. It’s also home to two small endangered species of fish: the Comanche Springs pupfish and Pecos gambusia.

Related: Everything’s Bigger in Texas: Best Road Trips from Houston, San Antonio, and Austin

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, far West Texas

At first blush, Big Bend National Park in far West Texas looks desolate and uninviting. But get out and hike its prickly folds, armed with plants that poke, scrape, and stab, and you’ll discover spectacular geologic formations and a diverse range of inhabitants from javelina to tarantulas, black bear, snakes, and mountain lions.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backpack the South Rim high in the Chisos Mountains at the center of the park, raft the café-au-lait-colored water of the Rio Grande or explore the desert floor and the old farming and ranching ruins it holds. The largest of the national parks in Texas, Big Bend sprawls over 801,100 acres, so one thing you won’t find is big crowds. Peak season is November through April—no surprise, as temperatures can soar to over 100 degrees in summer.

Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Thicket National Preserve, near Beaumont

Four types of carnivorous plants live in the Big Thicket and chances are you’ll be able to watch one of them turn an unsuspecting insect into a slow-cooked meal if you visit. But first, stop by the preserve’s visitor center to get the lay of the land at this diverse park which is made up of non-contiguous units that cover 113,114 acres of land and water in seven counties.

Related: 10 Things You Need To See and Do At Least Once In Texas

Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll find sections of longleaf pine forest, swampy bayous, and wetland savannas, crisscrossed by about 40 miles of hiking trails including a few wooden boardwalks that take you past carnivorous pitcher plants. Paddlers can explore the waterways by kayak or canoe, too. Just remember to bring the bug spray.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, near Fredericksburg

Enchanted Rock looms like a giant pink onion, half-buried in the Hill Country scrub. It formed a billion years ago when a pool of magma pushed up through the earth’s surface and hardened into a granite batholith. Most visitors make the 30- or 45-minute beeline to the top of the 425-foot dome passing fragile vernal pools where water collects in shallow pits providing a home for freshwater shrimp.

Enchanted Rock State Enchanted Area© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But don’t miss the loop trail that encircles the main attraction. Pitch a tent in the primitive sites alongside Moss Lake and watch the sun cast a rosy glow on the rock—and maybe catch the eerie creaking and groaning that some report hearing at night.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goose Island State Park, near Rockport

Lapping water and Gulf breezes: We must be on the coast! Goose Island offers camping, fishing, and birding along St. Charles and Aransas bays. Camp, fish, hike, geocache, go boating and observe and take photos of wildlife, especially birds. Fish from shore, boat, or the 1,620-foot long fishing pier.

Related: Spotlight on Texas: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose from 44 campsites by the bay or 57 sites nestled under oak trees, all with water and electricity. Every camping loop has restrooms with showers. Be sure to visit the Big Tree which has been standing sentinel on the coast for centuries and has withstood several major hurricanes.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, Johnson City, and Stonewall

If you’re looking for a history lesson during your next park outing, consider Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park a two-in-one immersion into rural Texas life in the 1950s. First, tour the grounds of President Johnson’s boyhood home in Johnson City then drive 14 miles to the LBJ Ranch and Texas White House where you can drive past his birthplace, a show barn, a small schoolhouse, and the Texas White House (which is temporarily closed to indoor tours due to structural issues).

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you make the rounds, imagine the former president known for pulling pranks on his guests—like the time he loaded dignitaries into a vehicle, rolled it down a hill, and into a pond, hollering that the brakes had given out. He didn’t tell them it was an amphibious vehicle designed to drive on roads and float in the water. Time your visit for early spring to coincide with the annual bluebonnet display.

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, near Mission

In the Rio Grande Valley, you’ll find wonderful bird-watching opportunities. Approximately 360 species of birds have been spotted at Bentsen-Rio Grande. Butterflies, javelinas, bobcats, and more have also been seen at the park.

Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will definitely want to bring your binoculars for birding with you. Like many other state parks, nature is the most intriguing part of the journey. Cars are not allowed to park on-site to help preserve nature. You can leave your car at headquarters and explore on bike, foot, or even tram.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore, Corpus Christi

Grab your swimsuit and aim for Padre Island National Seashore which hugs 70 miles of the Texas Gulf Coast on the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world.

Related: Absolutely Best State Parks from San Antonio

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Splash in the ocean, admire birds (including the Pepto Bismol-colored Roseate spoonbill), sail, fish, and, during the summer, watch Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchlings dash across the sand as scientists release them into the wild. Many a Spanish ship met its fate off the coastline here and visitors can park an RV or pitch a tent on the beach.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McKinney Falls State Park, Austin

Listen to Onion Creek flowing over limestone ledges and splashing into pools. Follow trails winding through the Hill Country woods. Explore the remains of an early Texas homestead and a very old rock shelter. All of this lies within Austin’s city limits at McKinney Falls State Park.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of the park as Austin’s backyard; we’re just 13 miles from the state capitol. Here you can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek. Hike or bike nearly nine miles of trails. The 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail have a hard surface, good for strollers and road bikes.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park, near Pecos

A mystical place where the wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys, Mon­a­hans Sandhills offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as a close-up view of a unique desert environment. These natural sand dunes are ever-changing and worth stomping around after a few hours behind the wheel.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop here for a picnic or sled down the swirling dunes on rentable plastic lids if you’re so inclined. Entry is $4. And spend the night at one of the 26 camping sites with water and electric hookups, a picnic table, and shelter. Camping is $15 nightly plus the entry fee.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

It’s a hell of a drive, but well worth the journey

Texas being the largest state in the lower forty-eight is just an abstract fun fact… until you actually drive across it. A few hours in the RV often gets you exactly nowhere, a frustrating truth until you decide nowhere is exactly where you want to be. 

Driving West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s the ideal outlook for a road trip to far West Texas. Removed from just about everything in the best ways, the hours melt into the horizon as you roll steadily past mile after mile of dry, desolate rangeland and on to “nearby” towns like Fort Stockton. 

“Flat” and “boring,” the uninspired will utter, but this sprawling landscape is also punctuated by moments of natural beauty, world-class art, funky towns, big sunsets, and oddball surprises that are well worth the long journey. Take your time and fall into the change of pace—the vibe, if you will—that each area offers. 

Birding in West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a good chance Marfa is your final destination or maybe Big Bend, one of the most far-flung and underrated national parks—a mountainous dreamscape for kayaking, star-gazing, and hiking. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before you get there.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to see on the drive to West Texas

Embrace “the journey is the destination” mindset and prepare for a full day of RV travel. Hopefully, you can budget time to stop at these natural wonders along the way:

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caverns of Sonora

The founder of a National Speleological Society (read: a group of dudes who love exploring caves) once said “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by a Texan.” Daily guided tours of this remarkable cave system last just shy of two hours and take you 155 feet below the earth’s surface. Sonora is also a great halfway point between San Antonio and Big Bend. Their RV park offers 48 sites complete with water and electricity; several of which are pull-through.  Due to the presence of the cavern, a dump station is not available; however, there are clean restrooms with showers.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park

A mystical place where the wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys, Mon­a­hans Sandhills offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as a close-up view of a unique desert environment. These natural sand dunes are ever-changing and worth stomping around after a few hours behind the wheel. Not far from Midland, stop here for a picnic or sled down the swirling dunes on rentable plastic lids if you’re so inclined. Entry is $4. And spend the night at one of the 26 camping sites with water and electric hookups, a picnic table, and shelter. Camping is $15 nightly plus the entry fee.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park

Time to bust out your swimsuit. Near the crossroads of I-20 and I-10, you’ll find a literal oasis in the middle of the desert: the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world. Recharge in the cold, clear waters and get a glimpse of tiny endangered pupfish, found only in the San Soloman springs. Open daily, entry costs $7; buy a day pass in advance to guarantee a spot especially on crowded weekends when the pool can reach capacity. Stay overnight at one of 34 campsites. Or reserve a room at the San Solomon Springs Courts, motel-style retro lodging built by the CCC.

Marfa

There’s no small town in Texas with a bigger reputation than Marfa. In the early 1970s, Marfa became a refuge for the acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd who laid the foundation for the thriving international art scene the town is known for today. Indisputably hip, even by big-city standards (perhaps especially by big-city standards), Marfa still manages to feel mythical and off-the-grid.

Driving the Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis and Alpine

For a glimpse of everyday living in far West Texas, swing through the towns of Fort Davis and Alpine. Both offer easier access to exploring the trails and state parks in the area.

Hike in Davis Mountain State Park. You don’t expect to find “mountain” and “Texas” in the same sentence very often and yet here we are. Take in the rugged landscape with a hike on Skyline Drive Trail or drive the 75-mile scene loop that starts and ends in Fort Davis. 

The Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Comprising 647 acres, Sul Ross in Alpine boasts a beautiful 93-acre main campus and enjoys perhaps the most temperate climate in the state. It is situated in the Davis Mountains and overlooks the center of the city below. The university also has a 468-acre working ranch that serves its animal science programs.

Fort Davis National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1980s, some students at Sul Ross placed a large metal desk on top of the very large Hancock Hill behind the university. It’s still there today. Notebooks left in the desk’s drawers are filled with salutations and sage wisdom from past visitors.

McDonald Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargaze at McDonald Observatory. Just north of Fort Davis, one of the darkest night skies in the country allows for spectacular stargazing. Gaze into the cosmos during one of their evening star parties. Otherwise, they’re open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is the keystone to far West Texas and one of the most gorgeous places in the state. The park’s great expanse and stunning beauty—from desertscapes to river canyons and mountain hideaways—can not be summed up in a few words or even a few days exploring it.

Before heading to Big Bend, be sure to fill up your gas tank in Alpine, Marathon, or Terlingua (depending on where you’re driving in from). It’s also a good idea to bring waaaay more water than you think you’ll need (maybe avoid the hot summer months) and download maps to your phone, as cell service can be dicey. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping sites are available at Chisos Basin Campground in the higher (read: cooler) elevations of the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande Village Campground (best for big rigs and winter camping) overlooking the Mexican border.

The iconic center point of the park, the Chisos Mountains is the only mountain range completely contained within the borders of a national park. The dramatic drive up to the mountain basin is worth the trip alone just to watch the temperature drop at least 15 degrees from the desert below. From the mountain basin, you can hike to the top of Emory Peak, Big Bend’s most recognizable feature or down the Window Trail to where the entire basin empties out into the desert.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon where you can dip your toes in international waters, wave to Mexico, and hike into the 1,500-foot vertical chasm cut by the river over the eons. The Hot Springs Canyon Trail on the eastern side of the park also offers great views of the river. You can also kayak to your heart’s content.

Drive or hike in the Chihuahuan Desert. This arid, harsh desert makes up about 80 percent of the park but it’s not without its own rugged beauty. Bluebonnets and wildflowers add a burst of color in the springtime. The Chimneys Trail off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive has neat stone arches left by ancient lava flows.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend’s ultra-remote location, free and clear of any light pollution, makes it one of the best places in the country to stargaze. In fact, it’s the darkest national park in the lower 48. The park occasionally hosts star parties or moonlit walks led by rangers.

Your only option for eating and for drinks in the park is The Chisos Mountain Lodge restaurant and patio has an early morning breakfast buffet and stays open until 9 pm for dinner. There are three locations to buy basic supplies within the park but if you’re planning to stay longer than an afternoon pack in supplies from the grocery store in Alpine or other nearby towns.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

A Cool Oasis in the West Texas Desert

Dive into the crystal-clear water of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool

In July, on a 100-degree day in the desert, 562 miles west of Houston, the San Solomon Springs Pool at Balmorhea State Park in Far West Texas, is a favorite place for many RVers and other travelers searching for respite from the hot Texas sun.

The water is so clear it’s like jumping into a dream. The water temperature hovers around 75 degrees, refreshingly cool in the heat of the summer and comfortably warm in winter. It is, in the opinion of many, the best swimming hole on Earth.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Set against the Davis Mountains where the Chihuahuan Desert transitions into the low, flat Permian Basin, the San Solomon complex of springs gush out 15 million gallons of artesian water every day, feeding a canal system that runs to nearby farms and the town of Balmorhea, 4 miles away.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the mid-1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built walls around the desert marsh to create the pool. Today, more than 200,000 people stop by every year to swim with fish, waterfowl, and amphibians.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The CCC-era structure is the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. More than 15 million gallons of water flow through the pool each day, gushing from the San Solomon Springs. The 1.3- acre pool is up to 25 feet deep, holds 3.5 million gallons of water with the temperature 72 to 76 degrees year-round.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several years ago when we stopped by in early spring on our route west to Arizona, we had the park to ourselves. But on summer weekends so many people cram into the park that volunteers improvise parking in open fields.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I always figured Balmorhea was too far away from major population centers, too in the middle of nowhere, to get overrun. I was wrong. In recent years, visitation has surged. For families between Van Horn and Odessa, Balmorhea is the one affordable place within 100 miles to cool off and picnic.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scuba clubs from as far away as Kansas and Arkansas explore the springs on weekends year-round. Fitness buffs motoring coast to coast make detours for a swim.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For almost three months, during the peak summer season, the pool was closed as staff figured out how to fix a collapsed retaining wall below the diving boards.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The closing was sudden and unplanned. During the annual cleaning in early May (2018), Abel Baeza, the manager of the local water district, was directing workers to make repairs in a nearby canal when he heard a noise, then turned around to see the underwater concrete skirting cracking off below the high dive.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 80-year-old pool, like the nearby adobe San Solomon Springs Motor Courts which are closed during a planned restoration, requires constant upkeep. The concrete repairs were an even bigger deal. A dam had to be constructed to hold back water around the damage during the painstaking process.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“There are five endangered species in the pool, and this is the only population left of this species of black catfish,” said Mark Lockwood, the West Texas regional director for Texas state parks.

“We can’t just open up the gates, let the water dry up everywhere, build a wall, and put it back together.”

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In early August, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) announced that pool repairs would begin imminently, with the cash-strapped agency forced to find creative ways to pay the estimated $2 million bill. Apache Corporation, the company doing most of the fracking exploration around Balmorhea, which some locals and environmentalists believe caused the damage, offered a $1 million matching grant through the nonprofit Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation.

The Garrison Brothers Distillery pledged a portion of proceeds from its small-batch, $59-a-bottle Balmorhea whiskey. Even for a park as popular as Balmorhea, getting things done these days requires the governmental equivalent of a GoFundMe campaign.

This project is only one of the three major developments underway at Balmorhea State Park. Renovations to the San Solomon Springs Courts and campgrounds have been ongoing since 2017. Once these projects have completed, visitors to Balmorhea will have an enhanced park experience at West Texas’ most treasured oasis.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF) has established a fund to accept donations towards the structural repairs that are needed to reopen the pool. These donations will help ensure that Texans can continue to enjoy this historic spring-fed swimming pool and unique West Texas destination for generations to come.

The park remains open for day-use only with limited facilities.

The restoration of the San Solomon Springs Motor Courts should be finished by spring. The fallen wall in the pool should be repaired any day now. I’m standing by.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another sunny 70 degree fall or spring day with little wind will do just fine. Odds are, we’ll have the park all to ourselves.

If you wait until next summer, y’all will be waiting in line with the rest of y’all.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

5 RV Trips for 2019

A new year and an empty calendar! Does inspiration know any finer muse?

A new year and an empty calendar! Does inspiration know any finer muse?

When it comes to RV travel, the arrival of January fuels daydreams of adventures and far-flung exploration.

Here we explore five new and evolving travel opportunities across America, everything from a cool oasis in the West Texas desert and the centennial of America’s most famous geological marvel to wildlife adventure. And with the exception of two— Cedar Breaks Wildflower Festival in July and the Custer Park Buffalo Roundup in September—these ideas aren’t tied to a specific date, making them worthy of a trip any time of year.

Start marking up that calendar now.

Balmorhea’s New Beginnings

Expect big changes at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas, which will reopen its swimming pool this winter after major repairs and unveil a revamped motor court and upgraded campground this spring.

Renovations of the lodging facilities had already started when, in May 2018, crews discovered an eroding wall near the high dive in the pool. Officials shut down the swimming hole, dry-docking visitors looking for a respite from the heat.

Pool repairs started in September and should be wrapped up in time for you to take a flying leap into the crisp, fish-filled water by the time temperatures heat up again.

The Grand Canyon

In 2019, the park dedicated to America’s most famous geologic marvel will celebrate its 100-year anniversary with a series of talks, concerts, and special exhibitions throughout the year. And while you can certainly have an awe-inspiring experience without venturing far from the designated lookout points, there’s more to see and experience.

The park becomes extremely crowded when school lets out in June, so plan your visit before then, if possible. To avoid the crowds, plan a trip between May and October to the North Rim: less than 10 percent of the canyon’s 6.2 million annual visitors see this side of the park.

Louisiana

To many, Louisiana is known as the place where jazz music was born, where over-stuffed po’ boys are bountiful, and where the greatest Mardi Gras celebrations take place.

The list of lesser-knowns from this swampy Southern state is deliciously new to the visitor: a steaming hot bowl of gumbo, freshly-made beignets, crawfish, jambalaya, boudin, and crackling. Thankfully, the uninitiated can head down one of Louisiana’s Culinary Trails to acquaint themselves with the candid Creole/Cajun flavors.

But there is more to the Cajun appeal than just the food. Between bites of their tasty cuisine, boredom is never a problem in Cajun Country. Nature experiences are abundant on the Creole Nature Trail, an All-American Road.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

At an elevation of over 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks National Monument looks down into a majestic geologic amphitheater, a three-mile long cirque of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. Like a naturally formed coliseum, the Amphitheater plunges 2,000 feet taking your eyes for a colorful ride through arches, towers, hoodoos, and canyons. The colorful wildflower bloom is generally at its peak during the first two weeks of July, which coincides with the annual Cedar Breaks Wildflower Festival, a wonderful reason to visit the park.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park in the Black Hills encompasses 71,000 acres of spectacular terrain and an abundance of wildlife. A herd of 1,300 bison roams freely throughout the park, often stopping traffic along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. The Annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of people to Custer State Park every September. Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they roundup and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo.

Besides bison, Custer State Park is home to wildlife such as pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros. Whether hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, or camping, you’ll find your adventure along the park’s roads and trails.

Worth Pondering…
From wonder into wonder, existence opens.

—Lao Tzu