This itinerary is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips and inspired itineraries on the Travel Tales home page. Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
You’d be mistaken for thinking Texas is just about cowboys, oil rigs, and high school football. In reality, the state is a study in contrasts—a place where thriving cities like Austin are bordered by natural attractions like caverns, granite domes, and waterfalls. Here, you can be surrounded by hipsters one moment and desert wildlife the next. To get a true sense of the Lone Star State, explore both the cities and the more rural areas, taking time to indulge in culture, wilderness, and more.
Get weird in Austin
Start your Texas adventure in perhaps the state’s coolest city, Austin. Located in the heart of downtown, the sophisticatedJW Marriott is the ideal place to base your stay, with its rooftop bar overlooking the Texas State Capitol and Lady Bird Lake. Also on property, you’ll find some of the largest guest rooms in the city, complete with sweeping views through floor-to-ceiling windows, plus a luxurious spa and delicious restaurants like Burger Bar and Corner, where you can sample regional specialties made with locally grown ingredients.
for its live music scene. For a closer look, sign up for Austin Detour’s Austin Live Music Crawl, led by a talented local musician. You’ll visit two to three venues on the tour, from iconic bars to newer clubs, learning about Austin’s live music history along the way. Your guide will even give you the latest scoop on the city’s music scene so you can continue exploring on your own afterward.
Left to your own devices, head straight to the Continental Club, the self-described “granddaddy of all local music venues.” Opened in 1955 as a private supper club, the spot has become the go-to for soul, rock, folk, country, swing music, and more, with local bands playing during the week and touring groups passing through on weekends. Next, head to sister venue C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, a bi-level club on cool South Congress Avenue, complete with a spacious outdoor patio and an upstairs cocktail bar. Expect soul and R&B on stage, with some added country on Sundays.
The next day, start strong with breakfast tacos at Veracruz All Natural. The migas with scrambled eggs, Monterey Jack, onions, cilantro, avocado, and crumbled tortilla chips are a must-order. Afterward, do some shopping. An Austin mainstay since 1977, Allens Boots boasts the largest selection of boots under one roof in the world, with top brands like Lucchese, Old Gringo, and Frye, plus great Western wear. Another classic worth visiting is Waterloo Records, where you’ll find everything from electronic, funk, and hip hop to reggae, pop, and Latin, as well as a well-curated selection of used vinyl. That evening, go to Perla’s for dinner. The South Congress favorite serves fresh fish and oysters flown in daily from both coasts, along with handcrafted cocktails. Choose to sit on the oak-shaded patio or in the airy dining room, where a huge saltwater fish tank complements a poured concrete oyster bar and an open kitchen.
Once you’ve had your fill, it’s time to hit 6th Street. The famous stretch has four different sections, each with its own personality. Old 6th, better known as “Dirty 6th” for its rowdy feel, is where to go for dive bars and general debauchery, while the Red River District is famous for its amazing live music venues like Mohawk, Empire Control Room, and Barracuda. If you’re more of the clubbing type, head to West 6th, where there’s everything from rooftop lounges to dance clubs. And for something more laidback, there’s East 6th, which features some of Austin’s top restaurants and bars, like Buenos Aires Café and Whisler’s, a stylish cocktail bar with a mezcal speakeasy upstairs.
Head out of town
On your third day in Texas, grab some coffee and egg sandwiches at Paperboy—a stationery trailer with some of the best breakfast in Austin—then hit the road. A little over an hour south of town, you’ll find Natural Bridge Caverns, home to the largest commercial caves in Texas. The site gets its name from the 60-foot limestone slab that spans the cave’s entrance, left suspended when a sinkhole collapsed. Take a guided tour of the caves to witness otherworldly formations and massive underground chambers, then check out attractions like the Twisted Trails Zip Rails & Ropes Course or the AMAZEn’ Ranch Roundup, a 5,000-square-foot outdoor maze. You can also search for gems, fossils, and other treasures at the Mining Company or hunt for souvenirs in the Shops of Discovery Village.
For something more outdoorsy, drive about two hours west of Austin to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, where pink-granite domed peaks share space with four major plant communities and nearly 11 miles of hiking trails. Climb domed areas like Enchanted Rock, Little Dome, and Turkey Peak—which were formed when large pools of magma pushed through the earth’s surface, then cooled and hardened—and look for fairy shrimp in the vernal pools, where water collects in the low spots in the granite. Also make time to wander through the open oak woodland, mesquite grassland, and floodplains, keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife like fox squirrels, armadillos, white-tailed deer, lizards, and vultures.
Another option about two hours northwest of Austin is the pristine Colorado Bend State Park. Here, you can look forward to 35 miles of hiking and biking trails, more than 400 caves, and some 155 species of birds. Make the three-mile round-trip hike to the 70-foot, spring-fed Gorman Falls, or take the Spicewood Springs trail, which passes one of the best swimming holes in all of Hill Country on its way up the canyon. You could also tour the caverns with an experienced guide or go fishing for bass in the six miles of Colorado River frontage.
Back in Austin that night, grab dinner at one of the city’s famed restaurants. Contigo is a favorite for ranch-inspired fare made with Texas produce, while Emmer & Rye offers delicious pastas, vegetable-forward small plates, and a funky wine list. Try Kemuri Tatsu-Ya for a unique mix of Japanese and Texan food, or Odd Duck for some contemporary Austin cuisine.
See the rest of the state
After three days in Austin, it’s time to leave the city behind for the open frontier. On your way west, stop by Rancho Cortez in Bandera, Texas to get schooled in cowboy culture. Start with a horseback ride through Texas Hill Country, then learn to throw a lasso and help feed the ranch’s resident longhorn cattle. Also available to visitors are hay wagon rides, Western entertainment, outdoor and indoor heated swimming pools, campfires, and tasty meals made with ingredients grown on site. To see the Texas desert at its finest, continue on to Big Bend National Park in the southwest part of the state. Comprising the entire Chisos mountain range and a large portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, the park features more than 150 hiking trails up the mountains, through the desert, and along the Rio Grande, as well as several scenic drives down paved, improved dirt, and primitive dirt roads. If you’re short on time, try the 1.4-mile roundtrip hike up Santa Elena Canyon (one of Big Bend’s most scenic spots) or the easy .3-mile Window View Trail (which offers a great feel for the surrounding scenery). You could also do the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which passes the ruins of the Sam Nail and Homer Wilson ranches on its way to the banks of the Rio Grande. Along the way, pull over for breathtaking views of the Chihuhuan Desert landscape, or stop to explore the Castolon Historic District, an old farming and ranching area that’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you’ve got a couple days to spend in the park, hike the five-mile Lost Mine Trail or the six-mile Window Trail through the Chisos Mountains, then check out the Fossil Discovery Exhibit—an award-winning display that covers 130 million years of geologic time. Also worth exploring are more off-the-beaten-path hikes like the Chimneys, Mule Ears, and Grapevine Hills trails, as well as backcountry drives down River, Glen Springs, Old Ore, and Old Maverick roads (just be sure you have a high-clearance vehicle, preferably with four-wheel drive). All the while, keep an eye out for everything from Mexican long-nosed bats and rattlesnakes to bears, mountain lions, and bobcats, plus hundreds of birds and some 60 different types of cacti.
For mountains, canyons, deserts, dunes, and starry night skies all in one place, go instead to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where you’ll also find the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef, the four highest peaks in Texas, and an incredible range of flora and fauna. Here, you can take nature walks through the desert, moderate hikes through canyons to riparian oases, and strenuous climbs to the high-country forest. The Devil’s Hall Trail leads to an awe-inspiring natural rock staircase, while the Smith Spring Trail offers the chance to see the landscape change from desert scrub to lush vegetation. The tougher McKittrick Canyon Trail leads to the historic Pratt Cabin and the scenic Grotto, and the very difficult Guadalupe Peak Trail climbs 3,000 feet through conifer forest for sweeping views to the west and south.
With more time to explore the park, you can backpack on longer trails like Blush-Blue Ridge, the Tejas Trail hike-thru, and Pine Springs to McKittrick Canyon. Along the way, you’ll observe several different ecosystems, from the harsh desert and streamside woodlands to rocky canyons and mountaintop forests. You might also spot wildlife as diverse as coyotes, badgers, Texas banded geckos, javelinas, scorpions, and tarantulas, proving, without a doubt, that you’re not in Austin anymore.
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