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

Texas is big, beautiful, and diverse. It’s not so exaggerated to think of Texas as a whole country—800 miles wide and nearly that far from north to south.

With the state’s 10-gallon hats, acres of cattle ranches, and expansive skies, it’s easy to understand why Texans love to exclaim, “Everything is bigger in Texas!” And indeed, Texas is the largest state in the contiguous United States—only Alaska is larger in terms of square mileage—so they’re not wrong!

The Lone Star State possesses a rich history and varied landscapes. Over the course of its history, Texas has been ruled by six different countries. It’s known as the Lone Star State because it was once an independent republic. No other state can make such a claim.

Fully exploring the state will expose you to 10 different climatic regions that range from dry, dusty deserts and sandy beaches to rolling hills.

With so much to see and do, you could easily spend a lifetime in Texas and not experience it all, so be sure to put these 10 things to see and do at least once in Texas at the top of your travel bucket list.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Remember the Alamo

Perhaps because of its significance in Texas’s struggle for independence from Mexico, the Alamo is one of Texas’s most-visited attractions. Located in the heart of San Antonio this mission-turned-battlefield shouldn’t be missed.

Today the 300-year-old limestone structure is predominantly a shrine to the lives lost on the site during the famous Battle of the Alamo. You can learn more by watching a brief film and by reading the signs placed throughout the grounds.

Mission San Jose © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the Alamo is the best known of San Antonio’s Spanish missions, there are four others. You could easily spend an afternoon exploring them all when you’re in San Antonio. For just a few dollars, you can purchase a day pass for the metro bus that will shuttle you between the missions. Otherwise, you could rent a bicycle from a local bike-sharing station and explore the Mission Trail by bike.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Stroll along the San Antonio River Walk

Hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and historic sites surround the San Antonio River as it flows through downtown San Antonio below street level. This area, known as the San Antonio River Walk is just a short walk from the Alamo, and exploring the River Walk is a quintessential Texas experience.

If you opt to take the 35-minute narrated cruise down the river, your guide will discuss the city’s history and point out interesting sights along the way. Afterward, enjoy a drink at the Esquire Tavern, the oldest bar on the San Antonio River Walk; it opened the day Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933. Otherwise, enjoy fresh guacamole paired with a prickly pear margarita at Boudro’s.

Black’s BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Dig into Texas Barbecue

With 13 million head of cattle, Texas has nearly double the number of any other state so it should be no surprise that the Lone Star State cooks up the delicious barbecue. Whether you prefer thick slices of brisket or a rack of ribs, barbecue is one of those foods you can’t leave Texas without trying.

As you travel through Texas, you’ll likely notice different styles of barbecue from sauce-covered meat in the southern and eastern portions of the state to well-seasoned meat with sauce on the side in the central and western portions. Needless to say, it’s all fantastic.

Lockhart is the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Out-of-towners and locals flock to four smoked-meat emporiums—Black’s Barbecue, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, Kreuz Market, and Smitty’s Market.

Bishop’s Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. I Still Dream of Galveston

With a year-round warm climate, a trip to the beach is almost a guaranteed fun time. Many beachgoers head to Galveston virtually any time of the year but the summer months are the most enjoyable bringing more visitors than any other time.

Galveston Island is home to some of the best attractions Texas has to offer including Moody Gardens as well as Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark and the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier amusement park. Galveston also offers numerous unique museums including The Bryan Museum, Texas Seaport Museum, Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum, and Galveston Railroad Museum.

Having one of the largest and well-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the country, Galveston allows visitors to explore the island’s interesting history by touring one of its popular historic mansions.

Blue Bell ice cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Order up a Scoop of Ice Cream at the Blue Bell Parlor

Founded in 1907 as the Brenham Creamery Company, Blue Bell began operation making butter. In 1911, ice cream for local consumption began production. Ice cream distribution was limited to the small town of Brenham in the Brazos River country of south-central Texas about 70 miles west of Houston. As transportation improved, distribution expanded. The company name was changed to Blue Bell Creameries in honor of a Texas wildflower in 1930. A reproduction of one of the first route trucks, a 1932 Ford, sits outside company headquarters.

Blue Bell offers a wide variety of ice creams, sherbets, and frozen snacks. Ice cream flavors include 25 classic year-round options like cookie two-step, mint chocolate chip, and pistachio almond. As well as rotational limited-time flavors like fudge brownie decadence, spiced pumpkin pecan, and confetti cake. And yes, I’ve tried them all! Honestly, all Blue Bell ice cream is so good. Any other brand could never compare.

A trip to Blue Bell isn’t complete without exploring the beautiful surrounding communities.

Lady Johnson Park near Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Tour the Texas Hill Country

Imagine hills, soft and scrubby, green valleys, and limestone cliffs. Conjure up ranches and communities of German heritage, wineries, fields of wildflowers, and sparkling rivers lined with cypress and oak. Ah, the Texas Hill Country. To some, it is the state’s greatest natural resource.

No big cities, no hustle and bustle—just cafes with country cooking, water for fishing and inner tubing, and old places with timeworn comfort. Yes, it’s easy to feel at home in the Texas Hill Country.

Wildseed Farms near Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hill Country offers many getaway options. Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The towns of Boerne and Comfort, New Braunfels and Gruene, Dripping Springs and Marble Falls, Kerrville and Blanco, and Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World”.

Oh yes, and Luckenbach. When Waylon Jennings first sang about Luckenbach, the town in the Hill Country where folks “ain’t feelin’ no pain,” it instantly put this otherwise non-place on the map. The population is about 10, and all that’s here is the old General Store, a town hall, and a dance hall.

Shiner beer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. A Toast to Texas History

In Texas, the mere mention of the word “Shiner” immediately brings to mind thoughts of a cold longneck and the distinctive brew within. However, before the beer, there was the town. Not surprisingly, the best way to learn the history of Shiner is to learn the history of Shiner Beer as the two have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. So, head to Spoetzl Brewery and join a tour. The tour provides a firsthand look into the brewing process and, of course, a firsthand sampling of the final product, from flagstaff Shiner Bock to the Extra Pale Ale, Haymaker. A day trip to Shiner goes down as smooth as the namesake beverage. As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!” That’s what ought to come out of your mouth before the refreshing goodness that is a free beer goes into it. It’s a toast that means “good health.”

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Best Little Day Trip in Texas

This might just be the “Best Little Day Trip in Texas.” I’m sure Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton would agree as it was the events of La Grange’s famous “Chicken Ranch” that inspired the classic musical “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” While the brothel is no longer around there’s still plenty to do in this town.

For starters, “Czech” out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center. This museum gives visitors a feel for the culture and early days of Fayette County when thousands of Czech immigrants populated the area. Another must-see stop is the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! One of the best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery.

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Charm of the Texas Coast

The quaint fishing village of Rockport-Fulton has been a favorite coastal hideaway and Winter Texan roost for years. You’ll find a sandy beach, a birder’s paradise, a thriving arts community, unique shopping, delectable seafood, unlimited outdoor recreation, historical sites, and great fishing. The town’s recovery since Hurricane Harvey three years ago counts among the great feel-good stories in Texas history. Rebounding in stunning ways, this little art colony beloved by visitors since the 1950s for its fishing, bay setting, and festivals feels fresh again.

Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Envision the life of an affluent Victorian family while exploring Fulton Mansion, built-in 1877 with comforts not easily found: gas lights, central heat, and running water. At Goose Island State Park you’ll find the wintering grounds for whooping cranes and other migratory birds. It’s also home to the 1,000-year-old Big Tree, one of Texas’ largest live oak.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the paved roads make it possible to explore much of the park’s natural beauty, many of the more obscure sights are hidden deep within the park’s interior on rough, dirt roads. To explore this rugged area bring a vehicle with four-wheel drive, plenty of ground clearance, and good tires.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state 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

Absolutely Best Road Trips from Austin

Texas lends itself well to adventure

With many vacation-based flights on hold, you’ll want to cure your cabin fever with a road trip to one of the many quirky and quaint destinations that are just a short drive away. Take in scenic views of the Texas Hill Country with a glass of Texas wine, eat at the oldest and most revered of BBQ joints, or feed a few bucks into the jukebox at a haunted honky-tonk bar. Here are eight road trip-worthy destinations—now all you have to do is to choose your adventure. 

Gruene Hall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gruene

Distance from Austin: 48 mile

Greune (pronounced “green”) is technically a historic district within New Braunfels but worth a visit all on its own. 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.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio

Distance from Austin: 80 miles

Centrally located on Alamo Plaza in downtown San Antonio, the Alamo features interactive tours and exhibits and hosts reenactments of the Texas Revolution. The River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, is a San Antonio treasure and the largest urban ecosystem in the US. Tucked below street level and only steps from the Alamo, it provides a serene and pleasant way to navigate the city.

San Antonio has always been a buzzing cultural hub. Head to Pearl, a massive mixed-use space built using the historic structure of the former Pearl Brewery, to shop, grab a bite, or just hang out at one of the green spaces. Find your food fix with the San Antonio Food Trails. Think specialty tacos, the finest smoked brisket, and smooth and salty margaritas to start.

Black’s BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart

Distance from Austin: 33 miles

A short trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any foodie’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations in the world. Kreuz Market is enormous and stuck in time in the best way, just don’t ask for a fork or sauce for your ribs. Go to the Original Black’s Barbecue for melt-in-your-mouth brisket and to Smitty’s Market for juicy, coarse-ground sausage with just the right snap.

But there’s a lot more to Lockhart than just smoked meats. Immerse yourself in Lockhart’s cowboy-town history with a visit to the Caldwell County Jail Museum before sitting for a spell in the historic Dr. Eugene Clark Library. Golfers can look out on the rugged Texas scenery while enjoying a round of golf at the Lockhart State Park Golf Course which also offers an on-site swimming pool, camping sites, and fishing hole.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg

Distance from Austin: 80 miles

Fredericksburg maintains a small-town feel while having lots of things to see and do. With its unique German heritage, thriving wineries, and shopping, it’s the perfect getaway. The historic buildings along Main Street are home to over 100 shops. Influenced by the town’s heritage, German and German-inspired food options abound. Fredericksburg and the surrounding regions are at the heart of Central Texas wine country. This area is particularly beautiful in the springtime, with gorgeous wildflowers erupting from the otherwise green landscape.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park

Distance from Austin: 80 miles

Guadalupe River State Park is a great spot for a scenic adventure in the Great Outdoors. Many folks come here to swim but the park is more than a great swimming hole with beautiful scenery and colorful history. On the river, you can swim, fish, tube, and canoe. In the dog days of summer, you’ll want to beat the heat and kayak or canoe the Guadalupe River which boasts the 5 mile Guadalupe River State Park Paddling Trail. While on land, you can camp, hike, ride mountain bikes or horses, picnic, geocache, and bird watching. Explore 13 miles of hike and bike trails. Trails range from the 2.86-mile Painted Bunting Trail to the .26-mile Barred Owl Trail, which leads you to a scenic overlook of the river. Camping is the way to go, here with 85 campsites offering amenities like picnic tables, outdoor grills, fire pits, and water, and electricity.

Fayette County Court House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Grange

Distance from Austin: 65 miles

Etched in the eroded headstones in the city cemetery and the cemeteries at the nearby “painted churches”—quaint little chapels with exquisite, spangled interiors—are the names of German and Czech immigrants who flocked to the town starting in the 1840s. With its rich heritage, it’s no surprise that La Grange is the hub for celebrating the Czech culture in Texas. Over 80 percent of the Czech Moravian families that settled in Texas at some time lived in Fayette County before they spread out across the state. For starters, Czech out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center. Vitáme Vás is the Czech equivalent of “howdy”, and you’ll certainly feel welcome.

Kolaches at Weikel’s Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Czech immigrants incorporated different aspects of their culture into the town, perhaps the most apparent being the architecture of the buildings standing in the town square. In the center of the Square sits Fayette County Courthouse, the fourth structure to house county business since 1838. The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! The best spot to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery

Texas Waco Museum, Waco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Waco

Distance from Austin: 102 miles

Founded in 1968, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum is the official hall of fame, museum, and archives for the Texas Rangers, the oldest law enforcement agency in the United States and a symbol of the American West. While in Waco, take a tour of the Dr. Pepper Museum & Free Enterprise Institute, a place that serves up history, nostalgia, and Waco’s favorite authentic soda fountain drinks. Most people agree: there’s nothing like a cold Dr. Pepper float on a hot summer day especially when enjoyed in the ambiance of a classic 1950’s soda fountain. Waco Mammoth National Monument sits within 100 acres of wooded parkland along the Bosque River. Surrounded by oak, mesquite, and cedar trees, the site provides a glimpse into the lives and habitat of Columbian mammoths and other Ice Age animals.

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington County

Distance from Austin: 90 miles

Have you seen those iconic photos of a lone live oak tree on a small rise overlooking an endless field of bluebonnets? It may well have been snapped in Washington County. With old courthouse squares alive with shops and cafes, frequent town festivals, and historic Texas-independence sites, you can’t get more small-town Texas than this. No town is more than 40 miles from the region’s main center, Brenham, home of Blue Bell ice cream. The self-guided tours conclude with $1 scoops from the parlor. In addition to regular favorites, the creamery also serves special flavors like Cookies ’n Cream and Pecan Pralines ’n Cream and the newest flavor to temp your taste buds, Fudge Brownie Decadence.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state 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

Discover more on a Texas-sized Outdoor Adventure

The diverse regions and terrain of Texas are nature made for sampling a wide variety of outdoor experiences

Outdoor recreation options in Texas are as big and wide as the state, thanks to a mind-boggling mix of landscapes. There are desert, rugged mountains, and wind-sculpted sand dunes in the far west; beaches, marshes, piney woods, and swamps in the east; and prairies, plains, plateaus, and rolling hills in between. Texas also has at least 3,000 caves and sinkholes, some of which, such as the Caverns of Sonora west of San Antonio, are open for tours.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Add abundant sunshine and temperate weather conditions into the equation and Texas is a year-round destination for outdoor adventure. So, whether you want to embrace your inner cowboy at Bandara, the “Cowboy Capital of the World”, or try something new like camping in the sand dunes, Texas has you covered. Here’s a quick look at some of my favorite Texas destinations where you can explore and relax outdoors.

Scenic State Parks

The 95 Texas State Parks protect invaluable natural resources and offer an array of outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, horseback riding, and no-license fishing. Most parks charge a nominal entrance fee, well worth the price for access to the state’s natural wonders.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life seldom seen almost anywhere else in Texas. This little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bounded by the waters of St. Charles, Copano, and Aransas bays, 314-acre Goose Island State Park is a coastal delight. Visitors 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. Goose Island State Park is also known for the Big Tree—an enormous 1,000-year-old coastal live oak that has survived prairie fires, Civil War battles, and hurricanes.

The Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goliad State Park is a chance for a history lesson if you choose. The main attraction here is the Spanish colonial-era mission which dates back to the 1700s. But Goliad is also a hot spot for camping, kayaking, canoes, and river activities.

Goliad State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Round as a giant Easter egg, Enchanted Rock sits half-buried in the hills north of Fredericksburg. It’s a half-mile hike to the top but an unforgettable experience. The massive pink granite dome rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- to a 40-story building.

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. You can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek. Onion Creek can flood after rainfall.

McKinney Falls State Falls © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Urban Green Spaces

Nature is woven into the fabric of Texas’ biggest cities. Land conservation, public-private partnerships, and eco-friendly urban planning have created easy-access green spaces inside the city limits of places like Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.

Lady Johnson Bird Park neat Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 12-acre park in the heart of downtown Houston, Discovery Green has a lake, water gardens, tree-shaded walks, grassy areas, and 100-year-old oak trees. Try out the new jogging trail that surrounds the park or splash around The Model Boat Pond.

In San Antonio, Emilie and Albert Friedrich Wilderness Park feature 600 acres of undeveloped Hill Country terrain with over 10 miles of paved and unpaved trails. Try the park’s rugged Vista Loop for clear-day vistas of the downtown skyline.

Lady Bird Wildlife Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin regularly ranks among the greenest urban areas in the U.S. The city, which manages more than 300 parks, is also home to McKinney Falls State Park, a limestone-and-waterfall wonderland. 284-acre Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is the state botanic garden and arboretum of Texas. The center is home to the most diverse collection of native plants in the state with more than 800 species represented from many of the major eco-regions of Texas.

Connecting many of Austin’s green spaces is a network of natural greenways including South Austin’s Barton Creek Greenbelt. The roughly eight-mile-long greenbelt is a popular jumping-off point for outdoor adventures like bouldering, biking, hiking, rock climbing, and soaking in an old-fashioned Texas swimming hole.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas-style Bike Trails

Biking in Texas is whatever you want it to be. The state’s wildly diverse topography means there are plenty of options for leisurely pedaling, adrenaline-pumping mountain biking, and everything in between. For a uniquely Texan experience, tackle the mountain biking trails at Flat Rock Ranch, a Hill Country cattle ranch-mountain biking venue 5 miles northeast of Comfort (50 miles northwest of San Antonio). Ease into the action on the meandering Green Loop before tackling challenging uphill climbs, steep descents, and big-thrill enduro runs (a type of mountain bike racing where only the downhill is timed).

Franklin Mountains State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas State Parks offer an unparalleled world of fun for bicyclists of all stripes. From the massive Franklin Mountains in El Paso to the wildlife-rich Copper Breaks, the scenery and terrain in Texas’ State Parks offer something for everyone —whether you’re a self-proclaimed “mountain bike maniac” or simply looking for a way to enjoy the great outdoors. The parks offer many opportunities to choose from—including road rides near some parks, rails-to-trails conversions where you can travel for miles along former railroad beds, and off-road experiences.

Driving Park Road 1C between Bastrop and Buescher state parks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bicycling in the Hill Country is a Lone Star treat. This challenging-yet-scenic ride through the shady Lost Pines of Central Texas is featured as part of the MS 150 benefit (first Saturday in May), a fundraising ride sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society that runs from Houston to Austin. The 12.5-mile stretch of Park Road 1C between these Bastrop and Buescher state parks offers a taste of what road riding has to offer and serious roadies can be combined with other area rides for longer routes. The road is open to vehicle traffic.

Fulton Mansion State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Historic Sites

Hike, pedal, or paddle through Texas history at a state historic site. Rising above the Aransas Bay and surrounded by stately live oaks, Fulton Mansion State Historic Site is located in Rockport-Fulton. The house must have appeared incredible in 1877 as it does today with its mansard roof and ornate trim. Interior gaslighting, flush-toilets and other refinements were progressive and luxurious elements for this period of Texas history.

Ruins of the Kreische brewery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1849, German immigrant Heinrich Ludwig Kreische purchased 172 acres of land including the Dawson/Mier tomb, now known as Monument Hill. In the 1860s, he utilized the spring water from the ravine below his house and started one of the first commercial breweries in Texas. Walk the ruins of this once bustling brewery and envision how Fayette County citizens would enjoy a pint of Kreische’s Bluff Beer.

National Museum of the Pacific War © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Museum of the Pacific War is the only institution in the continental U.S. dedicated to telling the story of the Pacific Theater in World War II. The six-acre campus in the heart of Fredericksburg includes exhibits and memorial areas. Artifacts from the war, both large and small, shape the exhibits which feature ships and planes, weapons, helmets, and uniforms of those who served.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.

Going far ahead of the road I have begun.

So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;

it has inner light, even from a distance.

—signage at Lady Bird Wildflower Center

Grab Some Fresh Air and Commune with Nature at McKinney Falls State Park

Escape the Austin heat at McKinney Falls State Park

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. Think of the park as Austin’s backyard; it’s just 13 miles from the state capitol.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek. Onion Creek can flood after rainfall. Beware of the creek’s flow; contact the park for current creek conditions. Youngsters can complete the Junior Ranger Activity Journal, which is available at park headquarters and may be downloaded from the website.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McKinney Falls is actually a series of two waterfalls—an upper and lower falls. The Upper McKinney Falls is where Onion Creek is channeled into a chute that is about 15-20 feet tall. The Lower McKinney Falls is where the combined flow of Williamson Creek and Onion Creek drops over a wide 15-foot limestone bench. It would typically have a segmented appearance exposing its underlying limestone bedrock except following periods of persistent rains when it would swell to a wide singular block.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. Take the Rock Shelter Trail (only for hikers) to see where early visitors camped.

Go fishing in Onion or Williamson creeks. Bring your fishing poles to catch catfish, Guadalupe bass, white bass, and sunfish. You do not need a license to fish from shore in a Texas state park. Wear a wide-brimmed hat (I prefer a Tilley), sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect your head, eyes, and skin. Bring plenty of drinking water to prevent dehydration; soft drinks encourage dehydration.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White-tailed deer, raccoons, armadillos, squirrels, and many bird species including the colorful painted bunting live in the park. The flowing waters of Onion and William­son creeks support majestic bald cypress trees and bright wild­flowers like red Turk’s cap.

Many people visit the park to see “Old Baldy,” a 500-year-old bald cypress tree that stands 103 feet tall and whose trunk measures 195 inches around. Bald cypress trees rule the park and are so named because they turn bright orange early in the fall and lose their needle-like leaves.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area was inhabited more than 8,500 years ago as evidenced by artifacts left by American Indian tribes; which groups occupied this area remains a mystery. When Spain ruled this part of the United States in the 1600s major roads were constructed throughout Texas to encourage settlements.

By 1850, Thomas McKinney was living on this property along Onion Creek. The family ranch was located near one of these historic roads, El Camino Real de los Tejas. McKinney, a native Kentuckian, was one of the first colonists to relocate to Texas and he later became a state senator. Park visitors can see remains of the McKinney homestead which include the two-story limestone house, a horse trainer’s cabin, a gristmill, and an assortment of stone walls. After McKinney’s death, his wife, Anna, sold the property to James Woods Smith. Several generations of the Smith family farmed the land eventually donating it to the state of Texas in 1973.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The busiest months in the park are from March to November. Early April may be the best time to visit as the park’s namesake waterfall splashes amongst bluebonnets and cacti—a distinctive native Texan landscape. Graceful great egrets outline the creek beds. But the best reason to visit in spring may be the great blue heron rookery. During the first week in April, newborn chicks pop their fluffy heads from the nest awaiting the arrival of nourishment.

Stay at one of 81 campsites (all with water and electric hookups). McKinney Falls has 81 campsites with 30-amp or 50-amp electrical hookups, water, picnic tables, and fire rings. Restrooms with showers are nearby. Most weekends, park rangers offer a workshop or presentation at the rock-hewn amphitheater. Or rent one of the six newly remodeled cabins. The park also has a primitive youth camping area for use by nonprofit-sponsored youth groups. A group hall is available for rental.

And, with the park’s location within Texas’ capital city, McKinney Falls makes a great base camp from which to explore the nearby Hill Country.

Fact Box

Location: Travis County within Austin city limits

Busy Season: March through November

Date Established: 1976

Park Entrance Fees: $6/adult or Texas State Park pass; children 12 years and under, free

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campsite Rates: $20 (30 amp)-$24 (50 amp) + daily entrance fee

Directions: 13 miles southeast of the state capitol in Austin off of U.S. Highway 183; take McKinney Falls Parkway from U.S. 183 South straight to the park entrance.

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

Linger Awhile in Luling

The home of the Watermelon Thump is rich in history, barbecue, and parks

Those traveling on Interstate 10 through Texas may know Luling only as a favored Buc-ee’s pit stop on the highway. But for this Winter Texan, Luling offers a glimpse of the slow pace and friendliness of small-town life.

Luling watermelon water tower © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A stop in Luling is a favored stop when heading east or west on I-10 between Houston and San Antonio. Each time I see that big watermelon water tower, I long to stay a spell. My love of small-town life never waned and now I’m heading to Luling with time to linger for a while! 

The WatermelonThump.com website counter ticks off the days until the annual Thump. It was June 24-27 this year after a cancellation due to the pandemic in 2020. It all started back in 1954 when a Luling principal offered up an idea to promote the Luling watermelon crop. A local high school student won a contest with a name for the event that conjures up fun: the Thump. The Thump now draws 30,000 visitors to 5,500-resident Luling each year.

Watermelon Shop in Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How do you thump a watermelon, anyway? The name comes from the practice of hitting (thumping) the watermelon to listen to the sound for juicy ripeness.

As for the capital “T” Thump, there are too many activities to name. The newly crowned Thump Queen presides over the big parade. Other highlights of the four days of activities include a carnival, concert/dances, food booths, beer garden, children’s entertainment, and a marketplace. There are seed-spitting and melon-eating contests and an auction of the biggest melons weighing in at up to 80 pounds. People eat dripping slices of melon and fan themselves on benches, passing the time of day while wildly laughing children run around like it wasn’t boiling hot, chunking watermelon rinds at each other.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The history of the town itself began in 1874 as the far western stop of the Sunset Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad and gathering place for cattle-driving cowboys on the Chisholm Trail. Those hooligans were so unruly that Luling became known as “the toughest town in Texas” until the drives ended in the 1880s. Luling was a quiet cotton town until oil was discovered.

In 1922 Edgar B. Davis brought in Rafael Rios #1 which proved to be part of one of the most significant oil fields ever discovered in the state. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the discovery of the Edwards Lime. It set off vigorous exploration to find the lucrative shallow production.

Oil pump jack © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Almost overnight, Luling was transformed from a railroad town of 500 to an oil town of 5,000. Tents filled every vacant area with roughnecks and their families. “Rag Town” as they called it came with every kind of good and bad-makeshift saloons, restaurants, and even a shooting gallery as entertainment.

Central Texas Oil Patch Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Work was hard and living even harder but the dream that unfolded was a microcosm of Texas history. It was a time when a community of farmers and their families responded to the coming of the railroad only to have their lives changed forever by the discovery of oil. By 1924, the oilfield was pumping 11 million barrels of oil annually.

To acknowledge and embrace the importance of oil to the Luling economy, the town’s pumpjacks are painted with all kinds of characters including a cow jumping over the moon and a little girl eating—what else?—a watermelon.

Central Texas Oilpatch Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Founded in 1990 as a non-profit educational foundation, the Luling Oil Museum is designed to preserve and honor the memories of the vibrant life and times during the oil boom in the Central Texas oil patch. The Luling Oil Museum houses tools used in the oil industry and examples of oil production technology from the past. Various artifacts and documents trace the development of the oil industry in Luling and the Central Texas area. Whether your interest is in learning more about an oil town, the oil industry, and the people instrumental in the growth of the oil industry, or the rich cultural heritage of Central Texas, the Luling Oil Museum has something to offer you.

Central Texas Oilpatch Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the oil industry’s importance has faded in this crossroads town, Luling is more vibrant than ever. Luling Main Street is a community group that seeks to revitalize Davis Street and the downtown area with parks, signage, facade design, murals, planters, and decorative crosswalks.

The highlight of my visit to the charming shops along Davis Street began by following my nose to the original City Market BBQ. I’m thrilled to see no long line for this legendary joint and hurry on back to the pit room to place my order. They keep it nice and simple: brisket, ribs, and sausage. That’s it.

City Market BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soon my brown bag is stuffed with smoky pork ribs and fall-apart brisket (with a huge burnt end, to my delight), a whole dill pickle, a big slice of onion, and sweet pickles/cauliflower from the big jar. The sausage “links” are each their own little tasty ring. I don’t often categorize barbecue as “adorable,” but these sausage bracelets fit that description.

City Market BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each of Texas’ famed barbecue places has its own customs. Try not to look like a newbie and just follow along. At City Market, you pay for your to-go meat in the back then return to the front counter to buy sauce, beans, or a few other items. For some, it’s all about the sauce and City Market offers the orange vinegary kind, not too sweet. Best of all, the price for the whole feast is about half of what I paid at an inferior place in Katy only a week earlier.

San Marcos River in Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Marcos River runs through Luling and its history. Early settlers harnessed the river’s power by building several mills along it to run the community’s gristmill. The Zedler Mill is the last surviving one, built in 1874 by three men from Tennessee who added a cotton gin and water wheel (to power their machine shop) to the stone dam. It was purchased by the Zedler family and other investors in 1885; Zedler bought out his partners in 1888.

Modernizations happened through the years but as late as the 1950s, the mill was still turning out chicken feed for livestock and fine cornmeal for Luling’s dinner tables. But the mill shut down soon after and fell into disrepair.

Renovated Zedler Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around 2002, Luling bought the property; the Zedler Mill Foundation and the city invested more than $1.5 million to improve and restore the mill buildings in a new city park. Today the park is a beautiful site for family outings and fun in the water. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and partners put together the Zedler Mill Paddling Trail along with the two- to four-hour trip. Examine the inventive mill components and marvel at how they used the power of the river so effectively long ago. 

San Marcos River and Zedler Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A mere 8 miles southeast of Luling but still along the San Marcos River lies a tropical treasure of a state park, Palmetto. After you pass the aforementioned Buc-ee’s (pick up some trail snacks), drive past it a mile or two until you see the brown sign for Palmetto State Park. Roll down the windows to enjoy the cool-down as the two-lane road winds under shade trees that intertwine across the top, forming a canopy.

Along the road from Luling to Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t be puzzled by the signs of non-park life when you emerge from the shade—you’ll soon see park signage directing you to headquarters, the fishing dock, campgrounds, and a variety of trails. Everything looks so photo-worthy. If you’re looking for more than just a day trip extends your retreat with a night or two of camping or a stay in the park’s quaint cabin.

The first thing I look for at a park is a trail to hike and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto State Park offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive Trail have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life some seen almost nowhere else in Texas. Riotous birdsong is Palmetto’s soundtrack. The 270-acre park has attracted 240 species of birds, including an invasion of hummingbirds each spring. In the fall, look for butterflies everywhere. Fox squirrels and a variety of wildlife inhabit the park due to the presence of the river nearby.

The park is graced by the presence of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) buildings including a refectory made of sandstone that seems to rise out of the ground and once had a thatched palm roof. A water tower on the park’s interpretive trail was unique for its time supplying fresh water to all the campsites.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, everywhere you look is the park’s namesake plants adding a tropical feeling, unlike the surrounding Texas countryside. Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants from which the park gets its name surround the park’s swamp. These palmettos grow in East and Southeast Texas as well as the Palmetto State (South Carolina) and much of the southeastern US. The state park boasts the westernmost stand of dwarf palmettos in the country.
I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I linger in Luling rather than just passing through.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

I didn’t drive eleven hours across the state of Texas to watch my cholesterol.

― Robb Walsh

Palmetto State Park: Nature-filled Getaway in Central Texas

This small park offers a large amount of fun, both on water and land

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Along the entrance road to Palmetto © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life, some seen almost nowhere else in Texas.

Back in the early 1930s, a small piece of that swamp, midway between Gonzales and Luling, became Palmetto State Park. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) efforts to blend nature into their construction, the park today looks almost as natural as it did eight decades ago.

San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just an hour from Austin or San Antonio and two hours from Houston, this picturesque park is a short drive for many Texans and easily accessible off of Interstate 10. If you’re looking for more than just a day trip, extend your retreat with a night or two of camping or a stay in the park’s quaint cabin.

You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps.

CCC-built picnic pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On land, hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos. Host a gathering at the park’s CCC-built picnic pavilion which has an air-conditioned kitchen. 

Choose one of the 19 tent sites or 18 RV sites. Camp with up to 99 of your friends at the secluded group site. Or rent our air-conditioned cabin (for up to six people).

Hiking trail at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first thing I look for at a park is a trail to hike and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto State Park offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive Trail have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

A swamp at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life some, seen almost nowhere else in Texas. Riotous birdsong is Palmetto’s soundtrack. The 270-acre park has attracted 240 species of birds, including an invasion of hummingbirds each spring. In the fall, look for butterflies everywhere. Fox squirrels and a variety of wildlife inhabit the park due to the presence of the river nearby.

Palmetto at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, everywhere you look is the park’s namesake plants adding a tropical feeling, unlike the surrounding Texas countryside. Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants from which the park gets its name surround the park’s swamp. These palmettos grow in East and Southeast Texas as well as the Palmetto State (South Carolina) and much of the southeastern US. The state park boasts the westernmost stand of dwarf palmettos in the country.
The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. The Mesquite Flats Trail offers a look at the drier, savannah-like parts of the park where prickly pear cactus finds a home.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you get finished exploring the park on land, enjoy the water. The always-fun Oxbow Lake offers calm water to cast a fishing line in search of catfish or sunfish. Try out a paddleboat, kayak, or canoe, or take a swim in the cool water. The San Marcos River low-water crossing is a great place to either splash around in the water or take a tube for a 20- to 30-minute float around the park. Make sure you check river conditions with park staff.

CCC-built pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Marcos River is one of the most popular recreational rivers in Texas. The river arises from Aquarena Springs within the city limits of San Marcos and flows approximately 75 miles through heavily wooded banks to join the Guadalupe River. A wide variety of water types including a few rapids, many small riffles and an abundance of clear, quiet pools are present. The average width of the stream is 30 feet; however, it narrows between steep banks in its lower reaches. In periods of low water, numerous log jams are found, especially downriver.

San Marcos River at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good point of entry is Luling City Park, located adjacent to State Highway 80, just east of the city limits. The park provides about one-half mile of shoreline and camping is permitted.

Paddlers will enjoy a gentle family-friendly ride on this quiet river lined with beautiful trees and wildlife. Since private land borders the river, put-in and take-out points are limited.

CCC-built pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Didn’t bring gear? The park staff has you covered with rentals of life jackets, kayaks, canoes, tubes, and hydro-cycles (basically bikes with pontoons). The park also participates in the tackle loaner program allowing you to borrow fishing poles free of charge.

The staff and volunteers at Palmetto State Park are eager to show you a safe and relaxing experience. Make sure you check in with them at park headquarters on your way in. While you’re there, pick up a souvenir at the well-stocked park store.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Entrance Fee: $3 daily

Camping Fee: $12-$20 + daily entrance fee

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

Corpus Christi: City by the Sea

Sun, sky, sea, and sand best sum up this city by the sea

Corpus Christi is home to numerous one-of-a-kind places to see and do but the USS Lexington stands out. The Lexington is a World War II-era aircraft carrier that operated in the Pacific Theater and served until 1991 racking up more records than any other ship in the history of naval aviation in the process.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the parking lot, follow the ramp to the Hangar Deck where you’ll receive a self-guided tour map at admissions. Five tour routes cover 100,000 square feet and 11 decks. Allow up to four hours to explore all five routes. Smartphone users can enrich the tours by downloading a QR code reader app that corresponds to codes at various exhibits (English and Spanish). “Yellow shirt” volunteers, many of whom served onboard the USS Lexington, are stationed throughout the ship to answer questions.

Nearby, the Texas State Aquarium provides insight into the creatures inhabiting the Gulf of Mexico and oceans beyond. Its conservation and rehabilitation programs for turtles and dolphins, in particular, earn the aquarium nationwide respect.

Texas State Aquarium © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most visitors allow a minimum of four hours to explore the Texas State Aquarium, an indoor/outdoor adventure spread over six acres of glimmering shoreline. Besides aquariums filled with sharks, barracuda, lionfish, and other marine species, highlights of the four-level attraction include touch tanks, interactive displays, wildlife shows, 4-D movies, and a splash park (open in spring and summer). Upon arrival, check the Visitor Map and Guide (free with admission) for show schedules. For the best seating/viewing, arrive at each venue 30 minutes prior to scheduled program times.

Texas State Aquarium © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The attractions sit side by side on North Beach, a section of Corpus Christi located on the far north end of the city. They are next to Harbor Bridge (U.S. 181), a large, arched span that stretches across the Corpus Christi ship channel. Note: The iconic, LED-lit bridge is undergoing a major upgrade. Once complete, the new Harbor Bridge will be the tallest point in South Texas and the longest cable-stay bridge in the United States.

USS Lexington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new bridge design incorporates a number of aesthetic features including a shared-use path, a community plaza, nighttime LED lighting, and xeriscape landscaping (derived from the Greek xeros meaning “dry,” the term means literally “dry landscape.”). In all, the project includes the design and construction of just over six miles of bridge and connecting roadway. Before visiting, check for traffic updates at harborbridgeproject.com. Also, because of 2020 closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, check the status of each facility before you go.

Make your first stop at the Corpus Christi Visitors and Information Center where plenty of information is available. While in the area, be sure to visit Heritage Park, a collection of eight historic local homes that have been restored by non-profit organizations to their former splendor.

USS Lexington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area in which Corpus Christi is located was first explored by Europeans in 1519. Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez identified the area as Corpus Christi (Body of Christ), giving it the name of the religious feast day. Attempts to establish missions were actively opposed militarily by local Native Americans.

When Texas became a republic in 1836, it claimed the Rio Grande as its southern border. Mexico disagreed and set the border farther north at the Nuces River. Corpus Christi was established where the Nuces River reaches the Gulf of Mexico in order to set up a base of operations to pursue the boundary dispute.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1839 US troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor set up a small tent city there in preparation for battle with Mexico. Among Taylor’s troops were three future US presidents: Taylor himself, Franklin Pierce, and Ulysses S. Grant. Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, was also present.

The settlement at the Nuces River remained and Corpus Christi came into being. It did not become part of Texas until the Mexican war of 1846. By then it had become a supply route for US troops headed to Mexico.

Corpus Christi Heritage Park© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The person responsible for establishing Corpus Christi as a permanent settlement was Colonel Henry Lawrence Kinney, an adventurer from Pennsylvania who established a trading post in the area in 1839. After the Mexican war, Kinney aggressively promoted the town throughout the East as “the Italy of America” because of its sunny climate.

Captain Forbes Britton of Virginia returned to Corpus Christi with his wife in 1850 after retiring from the army. Their home, built on land they purchased from Kinney, (Britton-Evans Centennial House) is the oldest existing structure in the city. Built in 1848-1850, the brick house has foundations of a shell create, cement reinforced with oyster shells indigenous to the area.

Corpus Christi along the sea wall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the mid-1920s the Army Corps of Engineers dug a deep ship channel. Corpus Christi is the deepest port on the Texas coast. The city’s position was enhanced further with the introduction of the Naval Air Station and its advanced flight training school.

The two-mile sea wall running through the heart of the business district was constructed in such a way as to open the city to the Bay rather than to form a barricade. Stroll the sea wall and you’ll pass by work and party boats, cruise boats, and shrimp boats sitting at anchor in the marina.

Corpus Christi along the sea wall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Steps lead down to the water and to the popular “T” head docks for pleasure boats. The waterfront was designed in the late 1930s by Guzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore. He worked with the city at that time on the major landfill project that created Shoreline Boulevard and Corpus Christi Beach. His design joined the beauty of the miles of blue water with the cityscape.

The revitalized downtown area provides visitors with an array of stores, restaurants, and nightlife. The center of activity downtown is the Water Street Market, a collection of places to dine, shop, and then relax with a cool drink and evening entertainment.

Corpus Christi North Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the bay is Corpus Christi’s front yard, then the beaches on Padre and Mustang islands are its backyard. The natural wonders of Padre Island National Seashore—at 130,434 acres, called the longest remaining undeveloped barrier island in the world—make it a favorite with outdoor enthusiasts. Of the world’s seven sea turtle species, nests belonging to five—leatherback, hawksbill, green, loggerhead, and Kemp’s Ridley—are found at Padre Island National Seashore. It’s also a top spot for windsurfing.

Corpus Christi North Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Henry Kinney’s vision was fulfilled in the years beyond his lifetime as Corpus Christi evolved from a smugglers’ cove and frontier trading post into a booming tourist and vacation area, modern commercial buildings, and palm-lined boulevards.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Elmer Kelto

Texas is BIG—Beautiful & Diverse

Texas is big, beautiful, and diverse

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a state as diverse as Texas, there’s always an adventure around every corner and unique attractions at every turn. From West Texas to the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast, El Paso to Texarkana to Brownsville, from outdoor enthusiasts to foodies to culture buffs, there’s always something to see and do in Texas.

Even those of us who visit Texas frequently and spend a big chunk of our time traversing it leave most of the state untouched. We’ve driven through Texas numerous times over the years. But yet, it always amazes us just how big Texas really is.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Charting any RV trip through the state can be a daunting task. So many miles, so many routes, and even after all our years on the road we’ve still not seen large portions of the Lone Star State. Every trip through, we explore new areas—and revisit favorite haunts. The state overflows with awesomeness at every turn, places we find completely captivating.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually, we just follow I-10 from the west. Yes, it can be boring but it is the most direct route. We take our time and schedule varied side excursions along the way and make the journey—and not the destination—the highlight of the trip. It is the journey that is the joy of RVing.

We’ve explored the Big Bend area including Big Bend National Park, Terlingua, Alpine, Marfa, and Davis Mountain Observatory. If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wind-swept, dynamic rippling sandscapes in Monahans Sandhills State Park are one-of-a-kind. A half-hour’s drive west of Odessa it is well worth a visit. The park consists of 3,840 acres of wind-sculpted living sand dunes some up to 70 feet high. The Park is set in one of the areas where the dunes are still active and constantly being shaped by the wind and rain. The dunes grow and change shape due to seasonal prevailing winds and you can watch them change whenever the wind is blowing.

Blue Bell Creamery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ice cream. For us aficionados, ice cream is one of the four food groups. Blue Bell has become the best tasting and certainly the most successful ice cream in Texas (and that means the best in the world). Would my taste buds lie? To learn what makes an exceptionally good thing good, we visited “the little creamery” in Brenham: I think we found out but every few years we require a refresher course.

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart is the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Out-of-towners and locals flock to four smoked-meat emporiums—Black’s Barbecue, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, Kreuz Market, and Smitty’s Market. Several tons of barbecued beef, pork, chicken, and smoked sausage links are served each day. Aside from the barbecue, Lockhart is a wonderful old town to visit. This small Texas town exudes a rustic, slow-paced charm arising from its Western heritage rooted in cattle and cotton.

City Market, Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the great joys of RVing is visiting new places and making interesting discoveries. Another is just the opposite—revisiting those places that demand a closer look. Sometimes that second chance leads to a third—and a fourth. City Market in Luling, is such a place. The meat-market-turned-barbecue-restaurant started in 1958, and over the years has become a barbecue icon. This is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Texas, the mere mention of the word “Shiner” immediately brings to mind thoughts of a cold longneck and the distinctive brew within. However, before the beer, there was the town. Not surprisingly, the best way to learn the history of Shiner is to learn the history of Shiner Beer, as the two have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. So, we headed to Spoetzl Brewery and joined a tour. The tour gave us a firsthand look into the brewing process and, of course, a firsthand sampling of the final product, from flagstaff Shiner Bock to the Extra Pale Ale, Haymaker. A day trip to Shiner goes down as smooth as the namesake beverage. As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!”

Bishop’s Palace, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s more—much more—an adventure in Texas. Space does not permit us to detail our numerous other unforgettable adventures and experiences from The Alamo, River Walk, and San Antonio Missions National Historic Park in San Antonio to Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park in the Hill Country. Galveston, Johnson Space Center, Big Thicket National Preserve, Caddo Lake, Rockport, Corpus Christi, Goliad, Rio Grande Valley, and Austin.

San Antonio Missions National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t Mess with Texas, Y’all!

And, of course, because we haven’t yet been quite everywhere, we’ll keep exploring Texas. 

What’s Next?

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

After 7 days of trial and error,

God created Texas on the 8th day.

The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Thanks to the park’s varied terrain, you can choose between desert, mountain, and river hikes, or hop in your car and explore the park on four wheels

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park abuts the border with Mexico across a stunning stretch of southwestern Texas where evenings are defined by an orange sky and red canyon walls and where chirps of yellow meadowlarks and the sounds of the Rio Grande fill the air. While such stunning scenes are commonplace within Big Bend, the massive desert preserve remains overlooked among U.S. national parks—it has never surpassed 500,000 annual visitors since its designation in 1944.

The lack of tourists is likely due to the park’s extreme remoteness: Big Bend lies 300 miles from El Paso, the nearest major metropolitan area, and is geographically isolated within a massive turn of the Rio Grande from which the park gets its name. Those who brave the miles will find the journey is filled with natural riverfront hot springs, luminous night skies, and secluded mountain trails. Here is how to make the most of your trip to one of the more underrated national parks in America.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pick the right season and give yourself plenty of time

With its southerly location and exposure to the elements, triple-digit temperature stretches in the summer months are not uncommon and threaten to turn the most well-intentioned hiker into a sweaty, sunburned mess. A better experience is found in winter and autumn but spring comes with the double bonus of long daylight hours and wildflower season. If you do go in the summer make sure to bring lots and lots of water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat (I prefer a Tilley), and plan your excursions around the heat. Winters can also get surprisingly chilly—averages hover around 60 degrees but can dip into the forties—so dress warmly if you plan your trip in the colder months.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

While the paved roads make it possible to explore much of the park’s natural beauty, many of the more obscure sights are hidden deep within the park’s interior on rough, dirt roads. To explore this rugged area bring a vehicle with four-wheel drive, plenty of ground clearance, and good tires.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and gaze at the night skies

Roadrunners, sparrows, and warblers are among the 450 species of birds found within Big Bend, home to more birds than any other national park. With a keen eye and a bit of luck, you can also spot jackrabbits, coyotes, black bears, mountain lions (known in Big Bend as panthers), and javelina—a hairier cousin to the familiar pig. Sunrise and sunset observations are recommended for optimal wildlife spotting and while the average smartphone may suffice take a camera capable of capturing the brilliant scenery at night.

This is dark sky country. Due to its relative isolation from major cities, this side of West Texas has some of the lowest levels of light pollution in the country. Thousands of stars are visible on a clear night and even the Milky Way can be seen under the darkest conditions earning it a designation by The International Dark-Sky Association. Consider bringing a telescope or simply lie down at night, looking up, and see what appears above.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pass through Marfa on the way in and Terlingua Ghost Town on the way out

The tiny, peculiar artistic town of Marfa is about 100 miles north of Big Bend. Here you’ll find the El Cosmico hotel with rooms consisting of brightly colored vintage trailers, tepees, and yurts. The town acts as a venue for the annual Trans-Pecos festival in September containing a weekend’s worth of art, building, and songwriting workshops, artisanal markets, pop-up parties, live music of all genres, and the tense yearly sandlot baseball showdown between Austin’s Texas Playboys and the Los Yonke Gallos de Marfa.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel 30 minutes north on U.S. 90 to find the famous Prada Marfa art installation in neighboring Valentine, a tiny, fake store isolated within the surrounding landscape and complete with actual Prada shoes and handbags from the fall 2005 collection. Try heading east about 10 miles to watch for the mysterious Marfa Lights off of U.S. 67. Sometimes they’re red, sometimes they’re green, and sometimes they’re white. Visible at night regardless of season or weather, nobody is quite sure what causes them.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Marfa travel 30 miles east on U.S. 90 to the town of Alpine and take TX-118 for 80 miles due south to Terlingua at the gates of Big Bend. The remnants of a mercury mining camp from the early 20th century, the former ghost town has become known for its charming assortment of gift shops, earthy hotels, and its famous chili cook-off in early November. Check out the Terlingua Trading Company for handmade gifts and grab a bite of chips and guacamole and catch live honky-tonk music at the old Starlight Theater Restaurant and Saloon. Spend a few days at Paisano Village RV Park & Inn to further explore the area.

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Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and see Santa Elena Canyon in west Big Bend

At the western end of the park coming from Terlingua, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is perfect for single-day trips. The paved road covers 30 miles of gorgeous desert scenery including stops at landmarks such as Sotol Vista, Tuff Canyon, and Mule Ears. The road ends at Santa Elena, one of the numerous river canyons within Big Bend.

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Tour the Chisos Mountains in central Big Bend

In the center of Big Bend lies the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States fully contained within a single national park. Given their relatively high elevation—the summit of Emory Peak stands at 7,835 feet—the Chisos are typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the adjacent desert and home to a wide variety of shady juniper, mesquite, and oak. Within the 20 miles of trails here it’s a fairly easy hike to a beautiful view at the summit of Emory Peak. Camping is available here as well at the Chisos Basin Campground. If camping isn’t for you, try the stone cottages at the Chisos Mountain Lodge the only hotel within the park.

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Visit the Hot Springs Historic District and Ernst Tinaja in east Big Bend

The eastern side of the park is home to Big Bend Hot Springs, a geothermally heated oasis now sitting within the remnants of an early 1900s bathhouse. Once a gathering place for locals, soak in the year-round 105-degree waters said to have healing properties and enjoy unobstructed views of the Rio Grande and into Mexico. A short trail passes Native American petroglyphs on the adjoining limestone cliffs and the still-standing Hot Springs Post Office where mail was delivered every Monday in the early 20th century.

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What to know about camping in Big Bend National Park

When night falls, you’ll want to have an already reserved campsite so all you have to do is settle in. Here’s everything you need to know to secure that perfect Big Bend National Park camping spot.

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There are four campgrounds inside Big Bend National Park—three park-operated camping areas with various services and one by an outside company. The three park-run campgrounds are Chisos Basin Campground, Rio Grande Village Campground, and Cottonwood Campground. All require advance reservations booked (up to 6 months in advance) through recreation.gov.

Chisos Basin Campground sits in a scenic mountain basin with views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. There are plenty of hiking trails nearby, including Window Trail, a popular place to watch the sunset. The year-round campground has 60 sites with access to flush toilets, running water, and a dump station. There are no hook-ups, and trailers over 20 feet and RVs over 24 feet are not recommended.

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The year-round Rio Grande Village Campground is nestled in a grove of trees near the Rio Grande. This is the place to go if you want access to more amenities—a store, laundromat, and visitor center are nearby. The park has 100 sites with access to flush toilets, running water, showers, and some sites with overhead shelters. A dump station is nearby.

The small Cottonwood Campground is more remote than the other campgrounds and has fewer services but tends to be quieter with plenty of shade. Cottonwood is a seasonal campground –(open November 1 to April 30) with 24 camp spots—all without hookups or generators.

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While certain park-operated campgrounds allow RVs, you’ll want to head to the Rio Grande Village RV Park (operated by Forever Resorts) for a camping experience tailored to RV campers. All 25 sites at Rio Grande Village have full hook-ups—water, electrical, and sewer—and are built for RVs. The campground sits adjacent to the Rio Grande Village Store and allows pets. For reservations, call 432-477-2293.

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Fact Box

Size: 801,163 acres

Date Established: June 12, 1944

Location: Southwest Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Big Bend was named for the prominent bend of the Rio Grande River that runs through it along with the United States and Mexico border.  

Did you know? Big Bend has more species of scorpions (14) than any other national park, including some species that have been found nowhere else in the world.

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Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

Spotlight on Texas: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

There isn’t a single amazing thing about Texas. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

The big-city sprawls of Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, or San Antonio seem very far away as you pass through hundreds of miles of open land and small towns. You know how the song goes, “The stars at night, are big and bright (clap, clap, clap, clap) DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS!” The song goes on to declare the “sage in bloom” to be “like perfume” and the “prairie sky” that is described as “wide and high”…DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS.

Texas is big—and we mean big—and the only way to truly appreciate its size is to hit the road and discover what’s out there in those wide-open spaces. The cities have tons to offer, but Texas does “small town” like few other states, with friendly locals, historic buildings, quirky claims to fame, and an easygoing way of life everywhere you look.

So what’s your pleasure?  Whatever route or destination you choose, you’ll saddle up for adventure on a grand scale.

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Fredericksburg

In the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg maintains a small-town feel while having lots of things to see and do. With its unique German heritage, thriving wineries, and shopping, it’s the perfect getaway. The historic buildings along Main Street are home to over 100 shops. Influenced by the town’s heritage, German and German-inspired food options abound. Fredericksburg and the surrounding regions are at the heart of Central Texas wine country. This area is particularly beautiful in the springtime, with gorgeous wildflowers erupting from the otherwise green landscape.

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Corpus Christi

Beaches, islands, bays, and ports—there are many opportunities to engage in the variety of available water and wind sports. Arts, music, museums (such as the USS Lexington battle ship), and other cultural activities (like the Texas State Aquarium) make this Texas road trip enjoyable for those who desire a more relaxing time than their water-adventuring counterparts.

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart

A trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations in the world. While you could make it a daytrip you’ll need several days or more to eat your way through it. Tackle at least two of the Big Three on Day One: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). Proceed in any order you please. Lockhart has one more stop in store for you: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978).

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Luling

Luling is home to some of the best barbecues in the Lone Star State, so prepare for a meat coma. City Market is one of Texas’s most-storied ‘que joints serving up only three types of meat—brisket, sausage, and ribs. Across the street from City Market is Luling Bar-B-Q—a relative newcomer since it’s only been open since 1986 (which still a long time to perfect their recipes!) Stop by for a second barbecue meal of moist brisket, smoked turkey, and tender pork loins. To cool off on a summer’s day, head to this renovated Zedler Mill on the banks of the San Marcos River to splash in one of Texas’s best swimming holes. It’s got everything you need for a perfect afternoon—shade, water, and plenty of sun. If you’d rather paddle than swim, you can rent kayaks and canoes on site.

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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 their popular brews get made. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schulenburg

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 numerous cultural attractions including the Schulenburg Historical Museum, Texas Polka Music Museum, the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum, and the spectacular painted churches. The area has the rolling hills and the beautiful bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes in the spring. Not far from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, or Waco either, Schulenburg is halfway to everywhere.

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Big Bend National Park

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres, in fact) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm offering shaded respite along the meandering Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size, geographic diversity, and faraway locale, this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

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Caverns of Senora

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. 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.

Painted churches tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Painted Churches of Fayette County

The Painted Churches of Fayette County are a sight to be seen. Go inside a plain white steeple church and you will find a European styled painted church of high gothic windows, tall spires, elaborately painted interiors with brilliant colors, and friezes created by the German and Czech settlers in America.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.  

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La Grange

You’ll discover a fanciful cache of history and culture in this Central Texas community, a town steeped in German and Czech culture. Much of the town history is encased in dignified old architecture laid in the late 1800s. Many of the original buildings have been renovated and serve as creative outlets. The Texas Quilt Museum is located in two historic 1890s buildings. Another must-see stop is the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! One of the best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery.

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San Antonio

From the San Jose Mission to the Alamo, this city is known for its fabulous, historic architecture. With a mix of Spanish and U.S. cultures, the Mexican and Tex-Mex food is more authentic than found almost anywhere else in the country. There is a lot to do in San Antonio, from visiting the missions to the Alamo and touring the River Walk or Natural Bridge Caverns. You can also spend days enjoying family-fun destinations like SeaWorld and Six Flags or join a ghost and vampire tour. There is no lack of diversions to explore in this city.

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Rockport-Fulton

Find yourself in Rockport-Fulton and discover why Rockport-Fulton is the Charm of the Texas Coast. You’ll find a sandy beach, a birder’s paradise, a thriving arts community, unique shopping, delectable seafood, unlimited outdoor recreation, historical sites, and great fishing.

The quaint fishing village of Rockport has been a favorite coastal hideaway and snowbird roost for many years. Be it sportfishing, bird-watching, seafood, shopping, the arts, water recreation, or simply relaxing in the shade of wind-sculpted live oaks life here revolves around Aransas Bay.

Blue Bell Creamery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brenham

Blue Bell fans travel from all over to see the making of their favorite ice cream. At The Little Creamery in Brenham, visitors can watch the manufacturing process from an observation deck and then check out the Visitors Center to read up on the company’s history and see artifacts. The self-guided tours conclude with $1 scoops from the parlor. In addition to regular favorites, the creamery also serves special flavors like Cookies ’n Cream and Pecan Pralines ’n Cream and the newest flavor to temp your taste buds, Fudge Brownie Decadence.

Moody Mansion, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston

Strung along a narrow barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston is a beautiful blend of graceful Victorian and early 20th-century mansions, bungalows, and cottages, along with a stunning historic downtown lined with tall palm trees and shady live oaks. Galveston Island is home to some of the best attractions Texas has to offer including Moody Gardens, Schitterbahn Waterpark, the Historic Pleasure Pier, dazzling Victorian architecture, and 32 miles of sun-kissed beaches.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state 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