15 Bucket List National Historic Landmarks in America (Must-See + Photos)

From sea to shining sea, these are America’s best historic landmarks

What are some bucket list national historic landmarks that you want to see during your lifetime?

I will give you my list of the 15 National Historic Landmarks you’ll want to see in your lifetime. Maybe you’ve already been to a few of these incredible sites. There’s no reason why you can’t go back, however. Or you might want to see some of the ones you haven’t been to yet.

This list includes American landmarks which are managed by the National Park Service as well as others which are not.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

El Tovar © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. El Tovar

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: May 28, 1987

Location: South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Coconino County, Arizona

Description: This celebrated historic hotel located directly on the rim of the Grand Canyon first opened its doors in 1905. El Tovar was one of a chain of hotels and restaurants owned and operated by the Fred Harvey Company in conjunction with the Santa Fe Railway. The hotel was built from local limestone and Oregon pine. It cost $250,000 to build and many considered it the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi River.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

USS Drum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. USS Drum 

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: January 14, 1986

Location: Mobile, Mobile County, Alabama

Description: The submarine USS Drum (SS-228), a World War II veteran with 12 Battle Stars is credited with sinking 15 ships, a total of 80,580 tons of enemy shipping, the eighth highest of all U.S. submarines in total Japanese tonnage sunk. USS Drum is the oldest American submarine on display in the world.

Read more: Lucky A: USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park

Woodford Reserve Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Labrot & Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: May 16, 2000

Location: Versailles, Woodford County, Kentucky

Description: Woodford Reserve Distillery is an award-winning distillery that produces a range of whiskeys including limited-edition releases like the Kentucky-only Distillery Series. Established by Elijah Pepper in 1812 the distillery is one of the oldest distilleries in Kentucky and is listed as a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Formerly known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery and later the Labrot & Graham Distillery, the distillery produces several whiskeys including Woodford Reserve Bourbon.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Massachusetts State House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Massachusetts Statehouse

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: December 19, 1960

Location: Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts

Description: Designed by Charles Bulfinch, the new and current State House has served as the seat of the Massachusetts government since its opening in 1798. Holding the legislative and executive branches, it sits adjacent to the former site of the historic Hancock mansion. 

Read more: Walk the Freedom Trail and Experience over 250 years of History

Santa Fe Plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Santa Fe Plaza

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: December 19, 1960

Location: Santa Fe, Santa Fe County, New Mexico

Description: The Santa Fe Plaza, part of the Santa Fe Historic District is the heart of Santa Fe. It has been the social, political, commercial, and public center of Santa Fe since it was established in 1610 by Don Pedro de Peralta.

Today the Santa Fe Plaza is popular for tourists who are interested in Spanish, Native American, and Mexican cultures. Throughout the Plaza, one can find native jewelry, art, designs, music, and dances. Many annual events are held at the Santa Fe Plaza including Fiestas de Santa Fe, the Spanish Market, the Santa Fe Bandstand, and the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Read more: Santa Fe Never Goes Out of Style

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. The Breakers

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: October 12, 1994

Location: Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island

Description: The Breakers is a Vanderbilt mansion located on Ochre Point Avenue along the Atlantic Ocean. The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer cottages and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in the turn of the century America. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century.

Read more: Newport Cliff Walk: Ocean Views, Mansions and more

Middleton Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Middleton Place

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: November 11, 1971

Location: Dorchester County, South Carolina

Description: Middleton Place is a 65-acre, 18th-centuryth -century rice plantation. The plantation is the birthplace of Arthur Middleton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The plantation is now a National Historic Landmark and home to America’s oldest landscaped gardens. The Middleton Place House Museum was built in 1755 as the gentlemen’s guest quarters and is the only structure still standing of the original three-building residential complex.

Fort Davis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Fort Davis

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: December 19, 1960

Location: Jeff Davis County, Texas

Description: Set in the rugged beauty of the Davis Mountains of West Texas, Fort Davis is the best surviving example of an Indian Wars frontier military post and one of the best preserved Buffalo Soldier forts in the Southwest. Fort Davis was strategically located to protect emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahua Trail, and to control activities on the southern stem of the Great Comanche and Mescalero Apache war trails.

Fort Davis is important in understanding the presence of African Americans in the West and the frontier military; the 24th and 25th U.S. Infantry and the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, all-black regiments established after the Civil War, were stationed at the post. When not chasing renegade bands of Apache or bandits, the soldiers helped build roads and telegraph lines.

Read more: Fort Davis National Historic Site: Frontier Military Post

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Skyline Drive

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: October 6, 2008

Location: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Description: The historic 105-mile Skyline Drive, a National Scenic Byway, traverses Shenandoah National Park, a beautiful, historic national treasure. The mountain-top highway winds its way north-south through Shenandoah’s nearly 200,000 acres along the spine of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. 75 scenic overlooks offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east. While you are gazing out at the views, keep a close eye on the road too, as deer, black bear, wild turkey, and a host of other woodland animals call Shenandoah home and regularly cross Skyline Drive in their daily travels.

Read more: Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive

Painted Desert Inn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Painted Desert Inn

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: May 28, 1987

Location: Navajo County, Arizona

Description: In its almost 100 years overlooking the Painted Desert, the inn has undergone many changes. The original building from the early 1920s was made of petrified wood. Today’s adobe facade dates to the 1930s renovation of the Painted Desert Inn.

The national historic landmark functions only as a museum now, with no overnight accommodation and food service. Interior displays highlight the building’s history, Route 66, and Civilian Conservation Corps. There are also restored murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Union Oyster House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Union Oyster House

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: May 5, 2003

Location: Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts

Description: The Union Oyster House located on the Freedom Trail enjoys the unique distinction of being America’s oldest restaurant. This Boston fixture, housed in a building dating back to Pre-Revolutionary days started serving food in 1826 and has continued ever since with the stalls and oyster bar, where Daniel Webster was a constant customer, in their original positions.

Read more: Walk the Freedom Trail and Experience over 250 years of History

Roma Bluffs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Roma Historic District

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: November 4, 1993

Location: Roma, Starr County, Texas

Description: Over two centuries of Texas borderland heritage surrounds the plaza in the historic river town of Roma. The plaza’s surviving structures as well as surrounding buildings trace Roma’s heritage back to its Spanish Colonial roots, providing a visual reminder of the beautiful border architecture once thriving throughout the region. 

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. San Xavier del Bac Mission

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: October 9, 1960

Location: Pima County, Arizona

Description: Mission San Xavier del Bac is a place both historical and sacred that no visitor to Southern Arizona should miss. San Xavier is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the U.S. The oldest intact European structure in Arizona, the church interior is filled with marvelous original statuary and mural paintings.

The mission’s white walls and soaring bell tower can be seen for miles around and the site attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year. Plan to spend an hour or two walking the grounds of the mission and exploring the interior. I was awed by the glowing white walls against the deep blue sky—all set off by rugged desert terrain.

Read more: Mission San Xavier del Bac: White Dove of the Desert

Fort Ticonderoga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Fort Ticonderoga

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: October 9, 1960

Location: Essex County, New York

Description: Fort Ticonderoga, formerly Fort Carillon is a large 18th-century star fort built by the French at a narrows near the south end of Lake Champlain in northern New York. It was constructed between October 1755 and 1757 during the action in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War often referred to in the US as the French and Indian War.

The fort was of strategic importance during the 18th-century colonial conflicts between Great Britain and France and again played an important role during the Revolutionary War. The name Ticonderoga comes from the Iroquois word tekontaró:ken meaning “it is at the junction of two waterways”.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Mesilla Plaza

Date recognized as a National Historic Landmark: July 4, 1961

Location: La Mesilla, Dona Ana County, New Mexico

Description: Mesilla did not become part of the United States until the mid-1850s but its history begins with the end of the Mexican-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe. Soon after, the sleepy border town would become one of the most important towns in the West, playing a key role in Western expansion. By the mid-1800s, Mesilla’s population had reached 3,000 making it the largest town and trade center between San Antonio and San Diego and an important stop for both the Butterfield Stage Line and the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Lines.

Read more: La Mesilla: Where History and Culture Become an Experience

Worth Pondering…

The past itself as historical change continues to accelerate has become the most surreal of subjects—making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.

—Susan Sontag

LOOK: These Are the Prettiest Small Towns in Texas for a Road Trip

There’s a world of hidden gems beyond the bustling metropolises of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio

Ever find yourself staring out the window and wishing you could hop in the RV and just drive away? Here are some ideas of where you might wanna go in Texas.

When you find yourself having moments like this, where do you imagine yourself driving? Do you envision a desert town or a beachfront campground? Or maybe it’s the drive itself you’re most jazzed about.

As John Steinbeck so eloquently put it, Texas is the obsession. And if you’ve traveled in Texas long enough, chances are that you’ve checked off all of the big cities on your Lone Star State bucket list that make you love it so much. But what about the small towns in Texas that are equally—if not more—unique?

By the way, I have a series of posts on RV travel in the Lone Star State:

There are so many beautiful places on this planet to visit. And for many of us, we’d like to visit most of them. At the same time, I’m thankful for the opportunity to travel in a state that offers so many diverse experience opportunities. Whatever you’ve got a hankering for, travel-wise, in many cases, you can find it in small-town Texas.

One of my favorite road trip destinations is traveling to pretty towns that offer a unique experience in a lovely setting without necessarily having to brave a gazillion people once I get there.

If that’s something to which you can relate, I’ve done a little research on some of the prettiest little towns in Texas. Let’s take a quick photographic tour. Cuz hey, even if we can’t head out on the open road immediately, we can at least make some travel plans so we’re ready to launch when we are.

And research shows that even just PLANNING a trip can be a mood booster. Isn’t that an encouraging thought? I think so! And while many others could be added to this list, let’s simply start with these.

OK, here are 23 of the prettiest little Texas towns you ever did see.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Fredericksburg, Texas

Located in the heart of Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is a heavily German-influenced town. Full of beauty and charm, it has a rich history and has long attracted visitors who are lured in by its popular Texas attractions, wildflower farm, and peach-picking opportunities when in season.

Meander down the historic downtown strip, indulge in wine tastings or appreciate artifacts at the National Museum of the Pacific War. Speaking of museums, the city’s German heritage is highlighted at the Pioneer Museum, as well. And the Marktplatz offers a replica of a 19th-century German church that was once a pillar in this pretty little city.

Speaking of that German culture, while you’re there, be sure and stop into one of the German restaurants. Der Lindenbaum is a perennial favorite but there are also many other food options as well.

Outdoor enthusiasts will find Fredericksburg convenient for exploring the vibrant landscapes at nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area where a short hike leads to rewarding views from a pink granite dome.

Rockport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Rockport

A coastal enclave flanked by Copano and Aransas bays, Rockport is a small town that offers the perfect location for a beach getaway. With pedestrian-friendly streets and a bustling downtown area, the popular Austin Street is lined with colorful shops and restaurants serving up fresh seafood to friendly locals.

Wander through the local galleries and shops in this 15-square-mile town as this emerging art town offers plenty of shopping opportunities. Rockport is a great place to relax and unwind, soak in the Texas sunshine, and dig your toes in the sand as you indulge in a day of sunbathing and swimming.

Blue Bell Creameries © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Brenham

About an hour outside of Houston is the pleasantly small Texas town of Brenham. It is the county seat of Washington County and is also home to the famous Blue Bell Creameries, one of the largest (and most delicious) ice cream producers in the country.

If you want a little more space away from the hustle and bustle of big-city life, then the suburban feel of Brenham is a great fit. Here in this part of Texas, you can enjoy Lake Somerville State Park, the fragrant Chappell Hill Lavender Farm, and nearby wineries. A quick jaunt to the Downtown Brenham Historic District will find you among art walks, antique carousels, boutiques, and even live theater.

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Schulenburg

Known as the town that’s halfway to everywhere, Schulenberg is a great small town between Houston and San Antonio. This quiet, cozy spot of just over 2,600 people is usually used as a stopover for those long road trips in Texas but it deserves more time on any itinerary.

Schulenberg was founded by Czech, Austrian, and German settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, making it the perfect home for the Texas Polka Museum and a great place to try Czech kolaches or German schnitzel (I recommend Kountry Bakery).

Downtown, you can dance the night away at Sengelmann Hall, a fully restored Texas dance hall that still has its original pinewood floors from 1894!

One of the local highlights is a stunning series of Painted Churches that some say rival the cathedrals of Europe.

Gruene © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Gruene

If you want to feel like you are living in a country song, head to this live music mecca for a day, night, or weekend of good times and tunes. Pronounced green, this dreamy little town is set on the Guadalupe River and is now actually a district within the city limits of New Braunfels. The highlight of the town is Gruene Hall which is known for its live music and the impressive artists that stop in to sing a few songs.

6. Luckenbach

…And everybody is together now. “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas with Waylon and Willie and the boys”. Sure, there aren’t exactly many sights to explore in this small community but what it lacks in attractions, it makes up for with charm. This is the quintessential Texas spot to pop open an ice-cold beer and relax while eating a hamburger from the feedlot and listening to some live music.

Interesting fact: A 2006 census tallied the official population of Luckenbach as three people strong.

Black’s Barbecue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Lockhart

This small town in Caldwell County holds a big claim to fame: It’s renowned as the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Famous for its mouthwatering barbecue with several legendary barbecue joints serving up delicious smoked meats, Lockhart also boasts a charming downtown area with historic buildings, boutique shops, and local restaurants. The nearby Lockhart State Park also offers camping, hiking, and swimming.

Moody Mansion, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Galveston

This vibrant coastal city is located on Galveston Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Known for its historic architecture, stunning beaches, and lively entertainment, Galveston offers plenty of things to do: Visitors can explore the Strand Historic District filled with Victorian-era buildings, relax on beautiful beaches, and enjoy attractions such as the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier and Moody Gardens.

Port Lavaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Port Lavaca

Port Lavaca is a coastal Texas town that offers a serene escape with its beautiful beaches and scenic waterfront. The town is especially popular for fishing and water sports but visitors can also relax on the sandy shores of Magnolia Beach or explore the nearby Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Fort Stockton

Fort Stockton is the county seat of Pecos County. This town is somewhat different than the others in that it’s not traditionally beautiful in the opinions of some. But its history is so compelling that it is lovely in its own way. At least, to me!

The town was named after Robert F. Stockton, a U.S. Commodore who aided the capture of California in the Mexican-American War. The town is also built around Comanche Springs, a major spring water source in Texas.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Port Aransas

The community of Port Aransas is small but mighty. Despite heavy damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the coastal town has kept its chin up and continued to bring in thousands of visitors each year. Tourists come for the top-notch fishing and 18 miles of beaches. They stay for the laidback salt life vibes that are evident in everything from Port Aransas’s divey beach bars to its lively arts district.

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Goliad

The site of one of the most infamous battles of the Texas Revolution, Goliad, is a top spot for history buffs traveling through Texas. Goliad is the third oldest municipality in Texas and is the County Seat of Goliad County which is one of the oldest counties in all of the state.

The original name for Goliad was Santa Dorotea, noted by the Spaniards in the 16th century. It was then changed to Goliad in 1829 with religious origins. Places to visit include the Goliad State Park and the General Ignacio Zaragoza state park and historic site.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Shiner

Shiner, Texas is home to 2,069 people, Friday’s Fried Chicken, and—most famously—the Spoetzal Brewery where every drop of Shiner beer is brewed. Tours are offered throughout the week where visitors can see how every last drop of their popular brews gets made. 

Tours and samples are available for a small fee. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer to states across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Sarita © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Sarita

You may have passed this county seat because you were too busy looking at your fuel gauge. It’s on Highway 77 en route to The Valley between Kingsville and Raymondville. Sarita was once part of the Kenedy Ranch and John G. Kenedy named the town after his daughter Sarita Kenedy East when it was established in 1904 as a center for the ranch and the Kenedy Pasture Company. Kenedy Ranch Museum is worth a visit.

Take a picture of the Courthouse as I did, nobody will bother you. Look for gophers in the courthouse lawn. There isn’t much more to do. Population is up from 185 in 1993.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Alamo

Alamo’s claim to fame as the Refuge to the Valley illustrates its symbiotic relationship with the adjacent Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, an internationally renowned birding destination. The subtropical thorn forest along with the resacas draw birds such as tropical green jays, Altamira orioles, great kiskadees, and chachalacas.

After exploring the refuge, check out the Mercadome Flea Market and Alamo Dance Hall which draws thousands of weekend visitors to shop, eat, and move their feet to the sound of accordion-driven conjunto and norteño music.

Kerrville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Kerrville

Nestled in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Kerrville stands as a gorgeous getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. From its many public parks to the picturesque Guadalupe River that runs right through downtown, Mother Nature is truly the star here. In short, finding enjoyable things to do in Kerrville is as simple as stepping outside. Visitors also travel to Kerrville for its music festivals, arts and crafts fairs, outdoor sports and activities, shopping, and world-class dining.

Port O’Connor © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Port O’Connor

Port O’Connor is a small fishing village on the Texas Coast. It is often known as the Best Kept Secret on the Gulf Coast for its relaxing, laid-back atmosphere and numerous fishing and boating venues. The most common activity in Port O’Connor is fishing followed by recreational boating and coastal sightseeing.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Luling

Located on the banks of the San Marcos River about 45 miles south of Austin, Luling has all the elements of the perfect Texan small town—historic buildings, great barbecue, quirky history, viable downtown, lively harvest festival, a noon whistle, vintage stop signs, and eclectic shopping. A friendly, quiet central Texas community, rich in history and Texas pride, Luling is renowned for its barbecue, rich oil history, decorated pump jacks, fresh produce and plants, abundant watermelons, and Texas’ first inland canoe paddling trail on the San Marcos River.

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. La Grange

Discover a fanciful cache of history and culture in the Central Texas community of La Grange, a town steeped in German and Czech culture. Though many of the original buildings in La Grange are more than a century old, a number of them have been renovated and serve as creative outlets, blending history and modern-day function. To taste Czech culture and a delectable kolache—gooey, fruit-filled Czech pastries—and other bakery goods head to Weikel’s Bakery. La Grange Czechs out as a perfect blend of history, culture, and natural beauty.

Aransas Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Aransas Pass

Aransas Pass offers cool breezes and unique, crystal clear waters, beautiful seagrass, and excellent bay fishing. There are many marinas and boat ramps available with the largest at the historic Conn Brown Harbor. This picturesque harbor setting is a favorite spot for photographers and a preferred location to buy fresh seafood right off the boat.

Nearly 500 species of birds pass through Aransas Pass. Some of the best birding is found in the Aransas Pass Nature Park within the 36-acre Aransas Pass Community Park bordering Redfish Bay. This area is a haven for migrating and regional birds. Another favorite site, Newberry Park is a 1.2-acre mall central city park landscaped to attract birds and butterflies.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Sonora

Locals tout the Caverns of Sonora, their subterranean National Natural Landmark, as the most beautiful show cave in Texas. They aren’t exaggerating. See for yourself on a 1-hour-and-45-minute nearly 2-mile tour of its crystal palace. Or sign up for a cavern tour featuring rappelling, unique underground workshops, or photography. Above ground, explore the little-known, 37-acre Eaton Hill Nature Center & Preserve, a living classroom that studies the flora and fauna of the landscape’s transition from the Hill Country to the Chihuahuan Desert.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Blanco

Blanco calls itself the Lavender Capital of Texas as the home of Hill Country Lavender Farm and the annual Lavender Festival in June, complete with tours of lavender crops, growing tips, and music. If swimming or fishing’s your thing, head to Blanco State Park, where you can hook up your RV or pitch a tent and stretch your legs along the Blanco River. At Real Ale Brewing Company sip an unfiltered beer and toss washers. Each spring the brewery hosts the popular Real Ale Ride with Hill Country routes ranging from 15 to 80 miles and beer at the finish line.

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

23. Fort Davis

Fort Davis started as a military post on the turbulent Texas frontier but nowadays you’ll find a decidedly laid-back town. Some streets remain unpaved, cell phones tend to fall silent, and folks still wave to each other on the street.

It’s a quiet little town that doesn’t have a lot of tourist infrastructure. It has the essentials, though, and attractions such as the recently made-over Indian Lodge and the nearby McDonald Observatory, which last year overhauled the Hobby-Eberly Telescope and George T. Abell Gallery. Be sure to visit Fort Davis National Historic Site.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Here and there…not quite everywhere yet!

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

The Spotlight Shines on Unique Small Texas Towns

From the “Tip of Texas” on the Mexican border to the Panhandle Plains, Texas is full of vibrant small towns

Looking for the best small towns to visit in the Lone Star State? We’ve got you covered.

Welcome to Texas: one of the best states for road tripping where the highways stretch for miles and the summer heat is sweltering. While Texas is home to some of the biggest cities in the U.S., there are some hidden gems along the back roads that you won’t want to miss. So put on your boots, and get ready to say “Howdy, y’all” to these small Texas towns!

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luling, Texas

Located on the banks of the San Marcos River about 45 miles south of Austin, Luling has all the elements of the perfect Texan small town—historic buildings, great barbecue, quirky history, viable downtown, lively harvest festival, a noon whistle, vintage stop signs, and eclectic shopping. A friendly, quiet central Texas community, rich in history and Texas pride, Luling is renowned for its barbecue, rich oil history, decorated pump jacks, fresh produce and plants, abundant watermelons, and Texas’ first inland canoe paddling trail on the San Marcos River.

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Best known as a mecca for Texas artists, Rockport is also home to the Maritime Museum, prime saltwater fishing, and tons of outdoor activities. The area is popular for being a great place for bird-watching due to its small crowds and vibrant natural landscape, and visitors often come from all over the Texas coast to see the flocks of coastal birds that call the region home. 

Related Article: Totally Texas

La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Grange, Texas

Discover a fanciful cache of history and culture in the Central Texas community of La Grange, a town steeped in German and Czech culture. Though many of the original buildings in La Grange are more than a century old, a number of them have been renovated and serve as creative outlets, blending history and modern-day function. To taste Czech culture and a delectable kolache—gooey, fruit-filled Czech pastries—and other bakery goods head to Weikel’s Bakery. La Grange Czechs out as a perfect blend of history, culture, and natural beauty.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas Pass, Texas

Aransas Pass offers cool breezes and unique, crystal clear waters, beautiful seagrass, and excellent bay fishing. There are many marinas and boat ramps available with the largest at the historic Conn Brown Harbor. This picturesque harbor setting is a favorite spot for photographers and a preferred location to buy fresh seafood right off the boat. Nearly 500 species of birds pass through Aransas Pass. Some of the best birding is found in the Aransas Pass Nature Park within the 36-acre Aransas Pass Community Park bordering Redfish Bay. This area is a haven for migrating and regional birds. Another favorite site, Newberry Park is a 1.2-acre mall central city park landscaped to attract birds and butterflies.

Related Article: 4 Small Texas Towns to Visit

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schulenburg, Texas

Located at the intersection of Interstate 10 and US 77, Schulenburg may be best known as a reliable stop for a kolache fix (Kountry Bakery). But with its roots in German and Czech settlement, this little town offers numerous cultural attractions including the Schulenburg Historical Museum, Texas Polka Music Museum, the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum, and the spectacular Painted Churches of Fayette County.

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonora, Texas

Locals tout the Caverns of Sonora, their subterranean National Natural Landmark, as the most beautiful show cave in Texas. They aren’t exaggerating. See for yourself on a 1-hour-and-45-minute nearly 2-mile tour of its crystal “palace.” Or sign up for a cavern tour featuring rappelling, unique underground workshops, or photography. Above ground, explore the little-known, 37-acre Eaton Hill Nature Center & Preserve, a living classroom that studies the flora and fauna of the landscape’s transition from the Hill Country to the Chihuahuan Desert.

Gruene © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gruene, Texas

Greune (pronounced “green”) was established by German farmers in 1845, Gruene had its cotton economy destroyed by boll weevils and became a ghost town before it was rediscovered in 1975. The tiny town is best experienced by a stroll through the main square of the Gruene Historic District. You’ll find live music every day at Gruene Hall, Texas’s oldest dance hall, Southern-style lunch at The Gristmill, and wine at The Grapevine with plenty of outdoor seating and fire pits. And, there are around a dozen locally-owned shops and boutiques.

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

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blanco, Texas

Blanco calls itself the “Lavender Capital of Texas” as the home of Hill Country Lavender Farm and the annual Lavender Festival in June, complete with tours of lavender crops, growing tips, and music. If swimming or fishing’s your thing, head to Blanco State Park, where you can hook up your RV or pitch a tent and stretch your legs along the Blanco River. At Real Ale Brewing Company sip an unfiltered beer and toss washers. Each spring the brewery hosts the popular Real Ale Ride with Hill Country routes ranging from 15 to 80 miles and beer at the finish line.

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

Fort Davis, Texas

Fort Davis started as a military post on the turbulent Texas frontier, but nowadays you’ll find a decidedly laid-back town. Some streets remain unpaved, cell phones tend to fall silent, and folks still wave to each other on the street. It’s a quiet little town that doesn’t have a lot of tourist infrastructure. It has the essentials, though, and attractions such as the recently made-over Indian Lodge and the nearby McDonald Observatory, which last year overhauled the Hobby-Eberly Telescope and George T. Abell Gallery. Be sure to visit Fort Davis National Historic Site.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Stockton, Texas

Until someone invents the time machine, a visit to Fort Stockton is the next best thing to traveling back to the Wild West. Frontier history seeps through every corner of the town where cowboys once stopped to drink at the saloon and U.S. soldiers and Texas Rangers kept the peace and protected citizens from outlaws and Comanche raids. Needless to say, the top things to do in Fort Stockton involve diving into local lore and experiencing local heritage up close and personal. From the carefully preserved relics at the Annie Riggs Memorial Museum to the intricate artwork depicting life in the south over a century ago, Fort Stockton’s past makes for a wildly entertaining present. 

Related Article: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Here and there…not quite everywhere yet!