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

“Howdy, y’all” to these Small Texas Towns

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

These burgs might not be as flashy or as big as cities like Houston and San Antonio but the warm hospitality and eclectic attractions are found in the sparsely populated patches up in the hills, through the plains, and along the coast are well worth a trip to explore. So put on your boots, and hit the back roads. and get ready to say “Howdy, y’all” to these small Texas towns!

Here are a few suggestions for unique small towns in Texas to add to your next getaway in the Lone Star State. 

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goliad, Texas

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.

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Shiner, Texas

Speaking of beloved American beverages… 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. 

Related Article: The Spotlight Shines on Unique Small Texas Towns

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tours and samples are free. 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!”

Port Lavaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Port Lavaca, Texas

It’s no secret that the Texas Gulf Coast is a fantastic destination for seaside fun. Port Lavaca is a place where you can enjoy all the sun, sand, and surf without bustling crowds and traffic jams. Nestled halfway between Galveston and Corpus Christi, Port Lavaca is a spectacular place to go fishing on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Port Lavaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anglers have access to a number of public boat launches and fishing piers around town such as those at Bayfront Peninsula Park, Lighthouse Beach, and Magnolia Beach. Along with all the fishing, Port Lavaca is a bird watcher’s delight. Lighthouse Beach offers a birding tower and walkway for getting out among the wetlands creatures of the bird sanctuary, but it is just one of many places around town to bird watch.

Kenedy County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sarita, Texas

You may have passed this county seat because you were too busy looking at your fuel gauge. It’s on Highway 77 on 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.

Kenedy Ranch Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related Article: 4 Small Texas Towns to Visit

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

Alamo, Texas

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.

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

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.

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schulenburg, Texas

With its rolling hills and relaxed pace, Schulenburg will put a little oompah in your step. Located at the intersection of Interstate 10 and US 77, Schulenburg may be best known as a reliable stop for a kolache fix. But with its roots in German and Czech settlement, this little town offers outsized cultural attractions including spectacular painted churches, the Texas Polka Music Museum, and the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum.

Guadalupe River at Kerrville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kerrville, Texas

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.

Black’s BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart, Texas

Houston and Austin can quibble all they want about who has the best barbecue, but the clear winner is Lockhart. This small town 35 miles south of Austin is the Barbecue Capital of Texas—and that’s not just a municipal marketing ploy. The Texas State Legislature passed a resolution in 2003 officially giving Lockhart the title. 

Smitty’s Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hundreds of thousands of people make the trek to Lockhart every year where four barbecue joints cook up mouth-watering meats made by legendary pitmasters. Here, meat is served in boxes by the pound and eaten off butcher paper on long, wooden tables.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Stockton, Texas

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. 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.

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

Port O’Connor © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Port O’Connor, Texas 

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.

Port O’Connor © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Port O’Connor area is an excellent place for birding. Some places to view birds in town are at the Nature Park at Boggy Bayou, King Fisher Beach, and the Little Jetties as well as walking the residential areas.

Read Next: Texas Road Trips Sampler

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Here and there…not quite everywhere yet!

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!