The 8 Most Scenic Road Trips in Texas

Even if you only have a day or two to explore, these road trips deliver natural swimming holes, stunning views, and good eats aplenty.

A car-free section of Highway 170 in West Texas, with flowering blue bonnets on the shoulders

With the largest highway system in the United States, Texas is ideal for road-tripping.

Photo by IrinaK/Shutterstock

In the largest state in the contiguous United States, it can take hours just to drive out of Texas, especially if you live toward the center—say, near San Antonio or Austin. So, when most Texans plan road trips, it’s usually an in-state jaunt. The good news is thanks to its size, there are many scenic things to see and do within the borders of the Lone Star State.

Texas sits in an interesting geographical position and boasts 10 different, distinct biomes—it’s not all rolling tumbleweeds and high desert—so there is plenty of scenery to enjoy. Some areas of interest to consider for your trip: the piney woods and Louisiana-like swamps of East Texas; the charming knolls of the Hill Country (and all the clear, cool rivers that run through it); the enchanting, mountainous West Texas desert; the rolling plains of the Panhandle.

If you’re a history buff, there are many historical museums, towns, and monuments to add to your itinerary. Texas was its own country for nine years, something no other state can claim, and has all of the drama, military conflict, and political spats that go along with nation building. With more than 16,000 historical markers throughout all 254 counties of the state, be ready to tap on the brakes and pull over for a quick stop. As John Steinbeck noted in Travels With Charley, the smaller a town is, the more historical markers it is likely to have.

Perhaps what makes a Texas road trip truly unique and worthwhile are the distinctive communities you’ll encounter. Most of central Texas was settled by German immigrants and many small towns in the area—like Gruene, Fredericksburg, and New Braunfels—have German-style restaurants, shops, and even festivals like Wurstfest. South Texas is home to the second-largest population of Latino people in the country after California, with a vibrant Tejano culture that’s been around for centuries. (I sure hope you like Tex Mex.) For a more traditional Southern jaunt, head to Houston where the drawls grow longer, the sweet tea flows free, and the barbecue ribs are as sweet as honey.

All of that, and I haven’t even talked yet about Buc-ee’s, aka the best (and cleanest) gas station chain ever and current record holder for the largest gas station in the world. Consider stocking up on beef jerky and beaver nuggets while you’re there and picking up a chopped brisket sandwich. And keep your eyes peeled for those good ol’ mom-and-pop diners as well—they might be selling homemade pies that will put your mama’s recipe to shame. Oh, and don’t forget to make a pit stop for barbecue if you happen to be near one of the best ’cue joints in Texas.

Ready to ride? Here are the eight of the best Texas road trips:

A view of the Rio Grande Canyon along Highway 170.

Highway 170 partially runs along Texas’s border with Mexico, making for striking canyon views.

Photo by jamsedel/Shutterstock

1. Lajitas to Presidio

  • Start: Lajitas
  • End: Presidio
  • Distance: 50 miles
  • Recommended time: One day

In the far reaches of West Texas, in the desolate-yet-beautiful borderlands between Mexico and the U.S., is Highway 170, arguably one of the most gorgeous drives in the whole country. Don’t just take my word for it—in 2008, National Geographic Traveler named it one of the nation’s most scenic highways, along with classics like California’s Highway 1.

You could begin this journey in either direction, but the canyons are most spectacular if the drive starts in the small town of Lajitas (not much there besides a high-end golf resort and air strip) and ends in the slightly bigger small town of Presidio. There are no tourist traps or cultural stops along the way; this is a drive purely for enjoying the ruggedness and solitude of the West Texas desert landscape. Be sure to bring snacks or enough food for a roadside picnic—there are plenty of places to pull off from the road and enjoy a scenic meal.

For fans of Lonesome Dove, consider a detour to see the casita that served as Maria’s Ojinaga home in the miniseries Streets of Laredo, in the ghost town of Contrabando within Big Bend Ranch State Park. And if you happen to be driving from Presidio to Lajitas, make the extra 13 miles to Terlingua, where you can refill on fuel and refill your belly at the legendary Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon—the margaritas are chilly and strong.

Empty straight stretch of Davis Mountains Scenic Loop near Fort Davis, with mountains in distance

The Davis Mountains Scenic Loop begins and ends in Fort Davis.

Photo by Mae Hamilton

2. Davis Mountains Scenic Loop

  • Starts and ends in: Fort Davis
  • Distance: 75 miles
  • Recommended time: One day

The Davis Mountains of West Texas are classified as a “sky island,” and their green slopes certainly strike a sharp contrast to the brown scrub brush of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. Encompassing a scenic 75-mile stretch of Texas State Highway 118 and Texas 166, the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop is the most elevated highway in the state as well as one of the least crowded and most scenic. When I made this trip in November 2021, I didn’t see a single car besides our own for the entire duration.

Along the way, travelers can admire historic ranches, rolling golden grasslands, and mountaintops teeming with flora and fauna found nowhere else in the state. There are several picturesque places to stop for a picnic, including the fancifully named Dead Man’s Canyon, which, as legend has it, got its moniker when the body of young Horace Powe was found propped up next to a boulder in the 1880s—he had been shot 11 times.

The route also passes through 33,000 acres of wild mountain land that’s stewarded by the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve as well as the University of Texas’s famous McDonald Observatory. The McDonald is a working observatory; academics travel from all over the world for the dark sky reserve that encompasses much of the Big Bend region of West Texas. However, there’s also a museum on campus where visitors can learn all about the research facility’s history and current functions.

Because the loop begins and ends in Fort Davis, spend some time in the small mountain town that still does not have a single traffic light. Blue Mountain Bar and Grill, which uses local ingredients in its kitchen, is a favorite.

If you have a few days to burn in the area, consider embarking on a more thorough West Texas road trip.

Bluebonnets flowering around the Bluebonnet House in Marble Falls.

The Bluebonnet House in Marble Falls, built in the 1800s, is one of the most photographed homes in the state.

Photo by JaDipity/Shutterstock

3. Mineral Wells to Marble Falls

  • Starts: Mineral Wells
  • Ends: Marble Falls
  • Distance: 163 miles
  • Recommended time: One or two days

This is a Texas road trip best suited for summer thanks to its watery itinerary—there are several places to swim along this route.

The journey begins in the small North Texas town of Mineral Wells, once a bustling, premier spa destination known for its hot springs that lured the likes of Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Will Rogers, and even Bonnie and Clyde to its alkaline, mineral-rich waters. Sadly, the Baker Hotel, the place that put the town on the map, shut down in 1972. However, a group of investors bought the hotel in 2019 and are restoring the Grand Old Lady (placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982) to its former glory. (Keep up with their progress on their popular TikTok account.) But you don’t need to stay at the Baker to enjoy the water: Mosey on over to Lake Mineral Wells State Park, if the urge to splash around strikes you. Mineral Wells also has a cute downtown with plenty of shops and restaurants; try the shrimp and grits and ribs at Hole in the Wall Grill & Bier Garten.

Highway 281, which will take you from Mineral Wells to Marble Falls, is full of Hill Country charms and views. Stop in Hico for its Billy the Kid Museum (and an Old West conspiracy theory that says Billy wasn’t killed by Pat Garett in Fort Sumner—instead, he ran away to Hico in some sort of Elvis-Presley-is-still-alive kind of plot twist). Lampasas is home to the oldest spring-fed swimming pool in the state if you’re ready for another dip.

Finally, the journey ends in the small town of Marble Falls, set along the Colorado River, where retirees flock; you can get in one last swim here. Marble Falls is also home to the Blue Bonnet Cafe, a cozy diner famous for its homemade-style pies.

If you’re looking to spend a few days exploring the area, consider embarking on the ultimate Texas Hill Country road trip.

A boardwalk in Port Aransas leading to the beach.

Port Aransas has over 18 miles of fluffy, white-sand beaches.

Photo by Stephanie A Sellers/Shutterstock

4. Galveston to Port Aransas

  • Starts: Galveston
  • Ends: Port Aransas
  • Distance: 209 miles
  • Recommended time: Two or three days

The saying goes that the West Coast is the best coast, but how about the third coast? Texas has 367 miles of shoreline, making it the sixth-longest coastline in the country. Unlike the East and West coasts where some of the most expensive property in the world comes with an ocean view, the beach communities of Texas are, for the most part, composed of working-class folks.

This road trip begins in the island city of Galveston, 50 miles from Houston. Thanks to its proximity to H-Town, Galveston is one of the most popular beach towns in the state and features attractions like the Moody Gardens and the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier. I think the best beaches in the state are a little farther south—thankfully, the road south along State Highway 35 is a beautiful one. Winding through marshlands, the route provides peekaboo views of the Gulf Coast and meanders through cute towns like West Columbia (capital of the Republic of Texas for eight months in 1836) and the fish-crazy city of Rockport.

Finally, the journey will end in Port Aransas, one of the prettiest beach towns in Texas. There you’ll find 18 miles of white-sand beaches and fresh Gulf Coast seafood. In the colder months, be sure to make a detour to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where the last wild flock of endangered whooping cranes likes to winter. Between April and August, baby sea turtles hatch and make their big journey to the ocean.

The Frio River, lined with trees near Utopia, Texas

After you’re done with the Twisted Sisters, hop over to the nearby Frio River for a dip.

Photo by Taylor Leto/Shutterstock

5. Twisted Sisters Motorcycle Route

  • Starts and ends in: Leakey
  • Distance: 100 miles
  • Recommended time: One or two days

Comprised of three Farm to Market roads—FM 335, FM 336, and FM 337—the Twisted Sisters Motorcycle Route is known the most challenging motorcycle loop in the state. And, it also happens to be one of the nicest drives in Texas. Located northwest of San Antonio, the Twisted Sisters cuts through the heart of the Hill Country. Expect gentle, rolling hills, lush live oaks, and limestone outcroppings.

But for motorcyclists, the road can also be dangerous—a sign off of FM 336 warns that 10 bikers have lost their lives on the Twisted Sisters since 2006. However, for experienced motorcycle enthusiasts, the twists, turns, and occasionally bumpy pavement of the famed loop are a delight to experience.

The Twisted Sisters ends and begins in the same place: Leakey, Texas, population 555. After the Twisted Sisters, consider relaxing by the banks of the Frio River, lined with bald cypress trees that turn a gorgeous shade of umber in the fall.

A red, blue, and white Route 66 sign in Texas's Panhandle

Texas’s stretch of old Route 66 will take you across the Panhandle.

Photo by TLF Images/Shutterstock

6. Route 66

  • Starts: Shamrock
  • Ends: Glenrio
  • Distance: 164 miles
  • Recommended time: One or two days

The Lone Star State is home to the shortest stretch of Route 66, a little under 165 miles (not everything is bigger in Texas), and it cuts almost straight across the Panhandle. As elsewhere in the USA, most of the road is not in service or has been demolished, but Route 66 mostly follows the modern path of Interstate 40. There are several Route 66–themed attractions to stop by during this drive, including the iconic, art deco–style U-Drop Inn and the public art installation of Cadillac Ranch. But perhaps one of the most famous stops is the Big Texan Steak Ranch, which serves 72-ounce steaks for free—if participants can eat the entire hunk of meat in less than an hour with no assistance.

The front entrance of white, wooden Gruene Dance Hall, the oldest dance hall in Texas

Established in 1878, Gruene Hall may be the most famous dance hall in Texas.

Photo by Philip Arno Photography/Shutterstock

7. Gruene to Fredericksburg

  • Starts: Gruene
  • Ends: Fredericksburg
  • Distance: 71 miles
  • Recommended time: One or two days

This is probably one of this Texan’s favorite road trips on this list, mostly for sentimental reasons. As anyone who grew up in Central Texas knows, options for convenient day trips are scarce in the region, but Gruene and Fredericksburg are tried and true, and the drive between them is gorgeous.

Gruene (pronounced “green”) is a little German Texan town on the banks of the Guadalupe River; it is most famous for Gruene Hall, the state’s oldest continuously operating dance hall. Gruene Hall is something of a Texas legend and is worth visiting all on its own—musicians like Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, and George Strait have played at the famed venue. Gruene was initially established by German immigrants interested in cotton farming; a giant cotton gin facility in town has been converted into the Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar, which has a fine view of the Guadalupe (its rushing waters once powered the gin).

The jaunt up to Fredericksburg, about 78 miles west of Austin, takes drivers through rolling Hill Country landscapes and vineyards. Much like Gruene, Fredericksburg was also settled by German immigrants and is famous for its German-style fare—consider stopping by the Old German Bakery and Restaurant on Main Street for some schnitzel and potato pancakes. Fredericksburg is famous for its peaches, so the best time to visit is in the summer when things like peach cider and ice cream are available and farm stands line the highways.

A road going through the Pineywoods of East Texas, shaded by tall trees

How do you know if you’re in East Texas? Take a deep breath—smell pine? You’re there.

Photo by @invadingkingdom/Unsplash

8. Houston to Sam Houston National Forest

Starts: Houston
Ends: Sam Houston National Forest
Distance: 47 miles
Recommended time: An afternoon is fine, but plan an overnight visit to truly immerse yourself in the area.

The metropolitan crown jewel of East Texas is Houston (with its insanely delicious and diverse culinary scene), but to get a taste of what the surrounding countryside is like, venture outside city limits to the Pineywoods. The Pineywoods of East Texas is a large area of woodlands that’s part of a bigger forest system that extends into Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Here, travelers will find swamps as well as heavily forested areas peppered with oak, mesquite, ash, elm, and, of course, pine trees. Hundreds of different bird, mammal, amphibian, and reptile species call the Pineywoods home, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, southern short-tailed shrew, and rafinesque big-eared bat. Keep a careful eye out for venomous water moccasin (aka cottonmouth) snakes as well as the fearsome American alligator.

One of the best and most convenient places to explore the Pineywoods from Houston is Sam Houston National Forest, just under an hour’s drive from the city. Day hikes like the Lone Star Hiking Trail or Double Lake Trail make it easy to get a sense of the area in a few hours, but there are overnight camping options in the park as well. Try visiting in the spring or fall to avoid those broiling Texas summer temperatures. If you’re looking for a place to cool off, head to the Blue Lagoon, an old limestone quarry that’s been turned into a swimming hole. Though it primarily caters to scuba divers, casual swimmers are also welcome.

Huntsville is only a 10-minute drive from Sam Houston National Forest. The town is infamously the home of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, which houses the Death Row unit of the state. In Huntsville, travelers can visit the Texas Prison Museum, which is dedicated to “preserving the history and the culture of the Texas prison system.” Inside, there are exhibits that cover Bonnie and Clyde, the history of how the state’s penitentiary system grew, plus a display dedicated to those who were proven innocent after being wrongly executed by the state—it’s an intense, but sobering experience.

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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