Courtesy of Treehouse Utopia
Photo by William Silver/Shutterstock
Big Bend National Park covers more than 800,000 acres.
With its therapeutic sunshine, affable locals, and booming wine, art, and culture scenes, a Lone Star escape is always a good idea.
Too often, vacationers to Texas plunk themselves in a big, flashy metropolis (Houston! Dallas! San Antonio!) and never leave city limits. In doing so, they miss out on a world of small-town charm and natural diversity. Next time you’re boot-scootin’ southbound, tack on a few extra days to explore the countryside, coastal regions, and other wide-open spaces that have helped make Texas so legendary. Here are seven ideas to get you started.
To feel as though you’ve been air-dropped onto the set of an old Spaghetti Western, take a breather from West Texas’s artsiest magnet and head 100 miles south to Big Bend National Park, one of the country’s most isolated and bewitching parks. On more than 800,000 acres, you can kayak the Rio Grande or hike, bike, or camp in the Chisos Mountains, towering nearly a mile above the Chihuahuan desert. The 4.8-mile Lost Mine Trail offers sweeping views of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon; the strenuous South Rim traverses nearly 14.5 miles with 2,000 feet gained in elevation. The landscape is dotted with cacti, yucca, mesquite, Arizona cyprus, maple, aspen, and Ponderosa pine, and if it’s your lucky day, you may spot an elusive bobcat or mountain lion.
With more than 100 miles of paved roads, scenic drives at Big Bend also abound: The 6-mile Chisos Basin Road has some of the park’s most dramatic vistas, and the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a solid runner-up, with front-row seats to the Sotol Vista and Mule Ears Overlook. It ends at the 1,500-foot limestone walls of Santa Elena Canyon, near the Mexican border. The best place to spend the night is Chisos Basin, a 60-site campground with flush toilets, running water, grills, picnic tables, and majestic views of the surrounding peaks. Or book one of five cozy stone cottages at Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only accommodations within the sprawling park.
Fredericksburg, Wimberley, and Dripping Springs receive a lot of weekenders from SATX. But there’s a less-explored corner of Hill Country that’s just as enchanting: Uvalde and Bandera Counties, between one and two hours west of River City. Park yourself at Treehouse Utopia, a bed-and-breakfast in a town actually named Utopia (population: 227). The all–tree house property, on the banks of the emerald Sabinal River, was founded by Texas-born chef Laurel Waters and Pete Nelson, star of Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters.
It’s the perfect jumping-off point for stuffing your face with brisket quesadillas at Bear’s Den in Leakey; riding refuge horses on the trails at Elm Creek Stables in Concan; sampling the smooth whites and velvety cabs from Lost Maples Winery and Polvadeau Vineyards in Vanderpool; and floating the Rio Frio, a spring-fed river that doubles as a mobile tailgating party on hot summer days. Concan-based outfitter Andy’s on River Road sets travelers up with rental tubes for themselves and their beer coolers.
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West Texas lays claim to the fifth largest viticultural area in the United States, with more than 9 million acres devoted to harvesting wine grapes. Lo and behold, nearly 90 percent of those grapes are grown in Lubbock. Although the South Plains city is home to some 250,000 residents, it’s one-third the size of El Paso, 5.5 hours west.
Vineyard hopping is practically a sport here, and most tours start or end at the 20-year-old powerhouse McPherson Cellars, host of the annual Wines & Vines Festival founded in 2011. The Llano Estacado winery, vino-and-tapas restaurant La Diosa Cellars, and the Funky Door Bistro & Wine Room should also be pinned on your map. Leave time for a saunter through the Buddy Holly Center, dedicated to Lubbock’s most famous musical son, and don’t miss the 19-acre historical park, bronze sculpture garden, and 44,000-square-foot Western Americana museum at the National Ranching Heritage Center. Lock in a suite at Woodrow House Bed & Breakfast, across from Texas Tech; its cheerful red Santa Fe Caboose is a restored train car turned guest room, complete with kitchenette and private bath.
South Padre has earned a reputation for its Girls Gone Wild–style spring break parties, but there’s more to this 34-mile barrier island than frat boys double-fisting Solo cups at hotel pool parties. About a three-hour drive from Corpus Christi, the skinny isle on the Gulf of Mexico promises beaches and boardwalks for miles. (Our favorite: the horizon-spanning stretch of sand at Andy Bowie County Park, on the north end of South Padre Island.)
Less than a quarter mile from the county park is the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary, where visitors amble along 3,000 square feet of elevated boardwalk bridging 50 acres of wetlands. Climb the five-story watchtower for glimpses of black skimmers and scarlet tanagers. (Grounds admission is $5 to $8 and free for children under 4.) And one minute away, you can observe a feeding while learning about rescued sea turtles at Sea Turtle Inc., an operation focused on education, rehabilitation, and conservation. On the southern end of the island, check into one of South Padre’s gazillion Airbnbs—this superhost’s two-bedroom, glass-front condo is just two minutes from the waterfront and walkable to a feast of freshly marinated fish at Ceviche Ceviche.
The world’s largest antique fair takes place in a town of 90 residents, less than a 90-minute drive from Texas’s famous blue dot. The long-running Original Round Top Antiques Fair celebrates its 52nd birthday this year; although its biannual Antique Week scheduled for March 30–April 4, 2020, was canceled due to concerns about COVID-19, the fall event (September 2–October 3, 2020) is still on. Because the fair prohibits vendors from selling new items or reproductions, it attracts some of the country’s most serious antique and vintage collectors.
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For year-round tchotchke hunting, browse treasures from more than 50 dealers at the 12,000-square-foot Round Top Vintage Market and stop by McLaren’s Antiques and Interiors for one-of-a-kind architectural salvage, D. Little Gallery for antique French pottery, Mallory et Cie for vintage indigo ponchos, and Abejas Boutique for vintage Navajo and Zuni jewelry. Round Top Festival Institute, founded by concert pianist James Dick, is another community pillar that turns 50 this year. An anniversary gala is still slated for April 18, but check the calendar for music and poetry events throughout the year. For grub, look no further than the thin-crust pies and pitchers of sangria at the Stone Cellar, followed by a slice of Texas Trash pie (coconut, chocolate chips, graham crackers, pretzels, and caramel) at Royers Pie Haven. To stay, book a room at Rancho Pillow Motel, a remote family compound turned quirky artists’ retreat about eight miles from downtown Round Top. If your timing is right, you can reserve the hand-painted tepee with air-conditioning.
Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, the island city of Galveston is a magnet for multi-generational families. The five-bedroom Lost Bayou Guesthouse sits squarely within walking distance of Porretto Beach, city center, and the historic Strand district, a pocket of Victorian-era buildings with hand-painted signs and ornate iron balconies. (The seaport town was so wealthy once upon a time, it was nicknamed the “Wall Street of the South.”) Tour the 1892 Bishop’s Palace, aka Gresham House, considered one of the country’s finest examples of Victorian architecture, to see just how wealthy we’re talking.
For an adrenaline rush, zoom down a 100-foot vertical drop at 52 miles per hour on the Iron Shark roller coaster at Galveston’s century-old Pleasure Pier; for a collective family aww, marvel at the penguins in the 1.5-million-gallon aquarium housed within the glass pyramids at Moody Gardens. Galveston Island State Park, a 2,000-acre barrier island ecosystem with lagoons, salt marshes, and coastal prairie, offers a quiet escape, ideal for swimming, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and kayaking. The diversity of wildlife is its biggest draw—keep your eyes peeled for everything from armadillos to marsh rabbits.
For a true Bonnie-and-Clyde-style escape, book one of two rooms in the Cell Block, a 1930s-era jailhouse turned boutique inn about two hours south of the twin cities metroplex. (Rooftop deck? Check. Natural gas firepit? Check. Vintage phonograph and the wax to go with it? Double check.) The Cell Block is situated in Clifton’s Art Alley, a historic stretch peppered with small galleries, shops, and restaurants.
To stay entertained, browse yoke shirts and hand-tooled leather roach stompers at BJ’s Western Wear; ogle Corvettes, Thunderbirds, and other vehicles from the 1940s through ’80s at the Clifton Classic Chassis Auto Museum; or catch a concert, play, or art exhibition at the Tin Building Theatre and not-for-profit Bosque Arts Center, housed in a landmarked former admin building of Clifton Lutheran College. When your stomach rumbles, fill it with fried catfish or a chicken-fried rib-eye steak from Horny Toad Bar and Grill, chased with a bottle of tempranillo or lenoir from the Clifton-based tasting room of sustainable winery Red Caboose. Come nightfall, check in with the Central Texas Astronomical Society to see if the Meyer Observatory at the Turner Research Station has any public stargazing events on its calendar—all the proof you need that the stars at night really are “big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.”
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