Big Tex Road Trip: With Low Gas Prices, Now’s the Time for an Epic Journey Across Texas

Big Tex Road Trip: With Low Gas Prices, Now’s the Time for an Epic Journey Across Texas

Once, on my way to Big Bend National Park, I decided to take the rarely traveled Texas Highway 349 from Sheffield to Dryden. I’d done the monster drive by myself to the far West Texas beauty before — once through Marathon, another time via Alpine. However, as a completionist who wants to cover each mile of every single Texas roadway, I needed my car to chew up another patch of asphalt instead of an already-traversed thoroughfare.

About 45 minutes into the hour-long jaunt, piloting a perfectly functioning car under a sunny, calm sky, I became unnerved. I realized that I hadn’t seen another car, a single long-haul truck or even an animal, dead or alive, the entire time. I also didn’t recall spotting anything else, not even a gas station or abandoned building.

“This is actually the middle of nowhere,” I thought to myself as the wave of panic intensified. “What if I die out here? No. I’m already dead. And nobody will find me. Ever. I love my mom.”

Only later did I realize the source of my mini-freak-out: In all my years driving all over this insane country, often through remote wooded areas or desert wastelands, I had never cruised down a highway for nearly an hour (and during the middle of the day, at that) and only encountered the road. It was so strange. And although jittery, I also had a sense that something beautiful and unique was happening.

This distinctive experience — and so many amazing others — could’ve occurred only during a Texas road trip.

With cheaper gas prices and long-lined debacles at the airport that the Transportation Security Administration can’t seem to fix, there may be no better time to hit the road for a Big Tex Road Trip Challenge.

The entire state is crammed with killer restaurants, arts and culture spots, historical sites for added Texan cred, roadside attractions, live music, dive bars, and unbeatable swimming, camping and hiking destinations. Even in and near Beaumont and Amarillo. We called on Houston Press Food Editor Phaedra Cook to line up the eating-out spots for us, so you can be sure these are good ones.

Instead of a long weekend or a full week, use your accumulated time off, forget about hopping on a big bird or dropping a bunch of money on hotels and shopping spots, and instead take some time to explore the entire state on the cheap.

After all, as the behind-the-steering-wheel pilot of your car, truck or Winnebago, you are the master of your travels, and can basically do anything you want as long as you know how to stretch a dollar.

In the meantime, get an oil change, practice setting up a tent and call every friend or fourth cousin you know throughout the state for a place to crash.

Houston Area
Before making moves out of Houston, a tour around our sprawling-to-no-end city is basically a mini-road trip.

It’s never a losing proposition to spend hours at the picnic-blanket-coaxing grounds of the Menil Collection campus (1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400), which includes the Cy Twombly Gallery and the Rothko Chapel, or at James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace on the Rice University campus (6100 Main), which dazzles with its analog/digital light show. Miller Outdoor Theatre (6000 Hermann Park Drive, 281-373-3386) presents free concerts, plays and dance performances in a wonderful outdoor amphitheater, while companies such as Catastrophic Theatre (3400 Main, Suite 285, 713-522-2723), Stark Naked Theatre (1824 Spring Street, 832-786-1849) and Black Lab Theatre (1824 Spring Street, 713-515-4028) offer left-of-field performance fare.

As Houstonians, we know our food scene is tops, but for out-of-towners on the Big Tex Road Trip, the restaurant roll call should definitely include The Original Ninfa’s On Navigation (2704 Navigation, 713-228-1175) for outstanding fajitas, classic margaritas and handmade tamales; Lankford’s Grocery & Market (88 Dennis, 713-522-9555), a no-frills eatery with over-the-top dishes like the Grim Burger, which is topped with macaroni and cheese, jalapeño, bacon and a fried egg; and Underbelly (1100 Westheimer, 713-528-9800), where, in addition to ample cuts of local- and humanely raised meat and farm-fresh vegetables, there’s plenty of nods to the city’s culinary melting pot, including Thai, Vietnamese and Korean.

For shows, the “social and pleasure club” that is The Big Easy (5731 Kirby, 713-523-9999) is not only an H-Town institution, but also a wrecking-crew venue for blues and zydeco in the entire American South. The boot-moving Firehouse Saloon (5930 Southwest Freeway, 281-513-1995) is an unspoiled assortment of picnic tables, well drinks in plastic cups and Texas country music. The brand-new, three-stage White Oak Music Hall (2915 North Main Street) includes an open-air venue with a grassy lawn for show-watching and awesome skyline views.

The trip’s first crucial Texas history lesson is located 30 minutes outside central Houston at the San Jacinto Battleground and Monument (1 Monument Circle, La Porte, 281-479-2431), where Sam Houston and the boys won the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution. Though it’s a sightseers’ trap, there’s a way to un-tourist a visit to Space Center Houston (1601 NASA Parkway, 281-244-2100). Ditch the main space and take the rickety tram directly to mission control, where you can sit and pretend that you’re a genius NASA person back when space was king.

Down in Galveston, it’s almost impossible to think of the coastal town and not consider an outing to Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant (3802 Seawall Boulevard, 409-761-5500). Don’t-miss dishes include the trio of soups (gumbo, bisque and the soup of the day), fresh Gulf oysters and the famous fried platter of Gulf shrimp, seasonal seafood, tenderloin of Texas catfish and “stuffing balls,” a close kin to hush puppies.

The seasides of Galveston Bay can be (mostly/all) trashy. That’s not the case at Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula (accessible by ferry from Galveston, then drive north on Highway 87), where, if you’re not into the post-up spot, you can simply get in the car/truck, drive on the beach (which never gets old) and go elsewhere to set up a campfire.

Before bouncing from Galveston, you can pony up some dough to take a guided ghost tour and/or follow the invisible spirits to the haunted Walmart Supercenter (6702 Seawall Boulevard). The St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum was located on the site — until the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 washed 90 little kids and ten nuns into the sea. Apparently, employees of the big-box behemoth have found misplaced toys and heard the screams of invisible children in the aisles. Dreamy.

Other Houston area spots: Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins Historical Marker (corner of Dowling and Francis); Project Row Houses (2521 Holman, 713-526-7662); Love Street Light Circus Ruins (Buffalo Bayou west of the Main Street bridge); Irma’s Original (22 North Chenevert 713-222-0767); Hugo’s (1600 Westheimer, 713-524-7744); National Museum of Funeral History (415 Barren Springs Drive, 281-876-3063); Memorial Park (6501 Memorial, 832-395-7000); The Orange Show (2402 Munger, 713-926-6368); Gilhooley’s (222 9th , Dickinson, 281-339-3813); Moody Gardens (1 Hope Boulevard, Galveston, 800-582-4673).

Jucy’s Hamburgers
Jucy’s Hamburgers
Tammy Cromer

East Texas and the Piney Woods
Sorry, y’all. East Texas isn’t least Texas.

Starting in Beaumont, normally referred to as a murderous hole (also not true), there’s Gator Country (21159 Farm to Market 365, 409-794-9453), an alligator-themed park where you can snug with and feed baby gators. Museum of the Gulf Coast (700 Procter, Port Arthur, 409-982-7000), located in the hometown of Robert Rauschenberg, showcases a number of pieces by the late, great pop artist as well as Janis Joplin and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson ephemera.

Afterwards, swing by Patillo’s Bar-B-Q (2775 Washington Boulevard, Beaumont, 409-833-3154) — both the oldest family-run barbecue joint in Texas and the oldest black-owned — whose claim to fame is beef sausage that’s full of fat and flavor. It’s one of the rare times the traditional slice of white bread actually comes in handy. 

Stuff yourself because from here on out, you’ll be roughing it for a while in an area of the state that always floors out-of-state visitors, who inevitably say, “I didn’t know it was so green in Texas.”

Indeed it is, thanks in large part to the Piney Woods, the tropical and subtropical forest that extends from east Texas to southern Arkansas and western Louisiana. The wooded area is huge, and includes four United States National Forests (Angelina, Sabine, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston) and 17 Texas state parks.

A solid entry point, via Highway 287 through Kountze and FM 943, is Big Thicket National Preserve, which scientists and plant nerds call the world’s most biodiverse area outside the tropics. Along with 40 miles of hiking and hunting, there’s also the Light of Saratoga. Locals and paranormal freaks say to drive down a dirt road (no way) to try and spot a mysterious ghostly light (liars) that may or may not be the effigy of a decapitated railroad worker (y’all crazy).

Continuing north, the amorphous Big Thicket blends into the Piney Woods. But if you need a break from the outdoors, detour to the 67-foot-tall version of Sam Houston. Bow down to the war hero, the first president of the Republic of Texas, ex-Texas governor and U.S. Senator at the Sam Houston Statue Visitor Center (7600 Highway 75 South, 936-291-9726). There’s also the Texas Prison Museum (491 State Highway 75 North, 936-295-2155), which immortalizes the Texas penal system from 1848 to present. The top-dog attraction is Old Sparky, which barbecued the brains of 361 prisoners between 1924 and 1964.

Barbecue on the brain? One of the state’s best spots for grilled-up pork, chicken and sausage is close by at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbeque (2601 Montgomery Road, 936-294-0884). The Southern-style joint, open only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, is run by the church’s minister/pitmaster inside of modest digs adjacent to the Lord’s house.

With a dead animal flesh ball in your belly — and some leftovers for the campsite — get the car rolling through Davy Crockett National Forest and Nacogdoches, and over to the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame (310 West Panola, Carthage, 903-694-9561). Formerly the Tex Ritter Museum, this institution gives it up to country music superstars who were born in the Lone Star State, such as Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, Billy Joe Shaver and Ernest Tubb.

An hour later along Highway 59 and Texas 43 North is a one-of-a-kind site for Texas. Caddo Lake State Park in Karnack (245 Park Road 2, 903-679-3351), the state’s only natural lake, is a labyrinth of cypress swamp bayous and includes swimming, canoeing, camping, fishing opps and, according to recent reports, homicidal snapping turtles.
When it’s time to descend from the woods, beeline to one of the five locations of Jucy’s Hamburgers, such as the flagship restaurant, in Longview (816 West Marshall, 903-753-8993). The menu is charming, and while the burgers are the big draw, old-school lunch items like Frito salad and the hamburger steak plate with grilled onions are tempting, comforting options.

One of the final must-visits of East Texas is the Tyler Rose Garden (420 Rose Park, 903-531-1212), the self-proclaimed “nation’s largest rose garden,” which shows off more than 38,000 rose bushes and 600 different types of roses. An old-timey rose garden in one corner of the 14-acre site includes antique bulbs that date to 1867, which is kind of nuts.

Still think East Texas is the least?

Other East Texas spots: Crockett Street Entertainment District (200 Crockett, Beaumont, 409-833-1700); Tonkawa Springs (County Road 153 near Garrison); Mud Creek Off-Road Park (3971 County Road 4209, Jacksonville, 903-586-6972); Gladewater Saturday Night Opry (108 East Commerce, Gladewater, 903-845-3600); Stephen F. Austin State University Arboretum (near Johnson Coliseum, 700 East College, Nacogdoches, 936-468-4343).

Fort Worth Herd Cattle Drive at the Fort Worth Stockyards
Fort Worth Herd Cattle Drive at the Fort Worth Stockyards

North Texas
You’re no longer in East Texas when some crazy in an SUV whistles by at 90 miles an hour during a driving rainstorm and kicks up blinding sheets of “I can’t see, I might die” onto your windshield.

Welcome to Big D. Need a less extreme transition from rural life? Then loop around to the relaxed, affordable Denton.

Though the home of the University of North Texas is going through changes, it remains a quaint, cheap and underrated destination. You can still park for free smack-dab along the perimeter of Denton Downtown Square, where there’s the speakeasy-like Paschall Bar (122 North Locust) inside of a circa 1877 building, one of Denton’s oldest. Around the corner is J&J’s Pizza (118 West Oak, 940-382-7769), which oven-fires gets-the-job-done slices that can be destroyed while you’re watching a pop punk or grating noise band in the basement.

Now. Deep breath. Another. The construction between Denton and Dallas is horrible, worse than the Interstate 35 stretch around Waco, and there’s not really a way around it that makes sense. We promise it’s worth the hour-long stress drive.

Decompress at Kalachandji’s (5430 Gurley, 214-821-1048), an Indian restaurant inside of a Hare Krishna temple that offers an Ayurvedic buffet. For luxury eats inside of a hotel, check out Fearing’s (2121 McKinney, 214-922-4848), where diners can experience tortilla soup and Dr Pepper-braised rosewood ranch short ribs with loaded whipped potatoes and crispy tobacco onions.

Dallas goes full bore on the arts. In downtown, there’s the always-free Dallas Museum of Art (1717 North Harwood, 214-922-1200), the four-story behemoth that’s heavy on Frida Kahlo, ancient Egyptian mummies and modern art. Deep Ellum new-ish-comer Black Lodge (212 South Walton, 214-444-4298) attempts to re-create its Twin Peaks namesake in the form of weirdo and mysterious art installations. Pariah (1505 Gano), housed inside a corrugated metal hut a bit south of downtown in the Cedars neighborhood, offers visual and sonic peculiarities. Dallas Contemporary (161 Glass, 214-821-2522), located in a lonely stretch of industrial businesses and dirt lots in the Design District, focuses on chance-taking artists inside a raw, exposed-brick space.

Another perk of the Dallas area is the miles of waterways. A must-do is the Dallas Trinity Paddling Trail, a ten-mile route that sends kayakers and canoers through the tree-lined Trinity River and eventually into a channelized portion, where there are killing views of downtown. Bobcats and blue heron can often be spied in the denser woods, a much better alternative to racing away from Dallas cougars in the urban wild. (Hardy har. No, seriously.)

Revitalized East Dallas and the Oak Cliff neighborhood are visually anchored by the Kessler Theater (1230 West Davis, 214-272-8346). Opened in 1942 and remodeled in 2010, the art deco concert hall hosts folks such as Mavis Staples, Bob Schneider and Robert Ellis. If you’re more into cinema, take in an indie movie at the overhauled Texas Theatre (231 West Jefferson, 214-948-1546). The historic art house, where authorities nabbed accused John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, also hosts shows by folks like Houston-based recluse Jandek.

After Jack Ruby gunned down JFK’s lone accused murderer, nobody in Dallas wanted Oswald’s bullet-hole body. Eventually, Fort Worth’s Shannon Rose Memorial Park (7301 East Lancaster, 817-451-3333) agreed to house the remains of the supposed killer. Funeral-home personnel won’t speak the dude’s name. Instead, ask for directions to his cemetery mate Nick Beef, who until recently remained a mystery.

On the way out to see Oswald, dive deeper into the macabre with a visit to Dimebag Darrell’s gravesite. The Ennis-born, ex-Pantera guitarist and songwriter, gunned down on a Columbus, Ohio, stage while playing with Damageplan in 2004, is buried at Moore Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Arlington (1219 North Davis, 817-275-2711).
Pull into the heart of Cowtown, where the small-town-in-a-bigger-city charm is lathered all over the walkable, darn cute downtown that includes the little bit goofy but endearing Fort Worth Water Gardens (1502 Commerce), a public park co-designed by Philip Johnson, the late architect whose fingerprints are all over Houston.

Down the street in the so-called Cultural District are the Kimbell Art Museum (3333 Camp Bowie, 817-332-8451), which coherently packs 700-plus years of art into 16 tiny angular vaults, and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame (1720 Gendy Street, 817-336-4475), which loves up on Patsy Cline, Sandra Day O’Connor and other kickass women from the American West.

Fort Worth is also a lower-brow master. 1919 Hemphill (1919 Hemphill, 682-233-5349), an all-volunteer-run warehouse space that’s survived for 15 years in the constantly-in-upheaval DIY music scene, delivers with middle-fingered punk and satanic-goat-charged hardcore. Billy Bob’s Texas (2520 Rodeo Plaza, 817-624-7117) is a honky-tonk/cattle barn on Texas growth hormones, with 127,000 square feet of live music, line-dancing and an indoor bull-riding arena.

If you’re in the Billy Bob’s/Fort Worth Stockyards area between 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., watching the Fort Worth Herd Cattle Drive is a no-brainer. Gather near the Fort Worth Stockyards Visitor Center (130 East Exchange, 817-624-4741) and witness the march of the longhorn steers with a not-ironic-at-all burger in hand or steak in mouth from one of the nearby restaurants.

If you’re not feeling the Stockyards’ food options, head over to Joe T. Garcia’s (2201 North Commerce, 817-626-4356), known for its Tex-Mex dishes like fajitas, tamales and flautas, all of which can be enjoyed on the big, gorgeous patio with gurgling fountains. Or to Angelo’s Barbecue (2533 White Settlement, 817-332-0357), an old-timey Texas barbecue joint founded in 1958 that remains the gold standard for melt-in-your-mouth brisket and perfect ribs.

On the way out of DFW, there’s the offbeat Dr Pepper Museum (300 South 5th Street, Waco, 254-757-1025), which catalogs the history of the Texas-invented soda inside a 1906 bottling plant, and the Creation Evidence Museum (3102 FM 205, Glen Rose, 254-897-3200), a one-room venue that displays “proof” that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that humans and dinosaurs lived side by side. Just because it’s crazy doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Or something.

Other North Texas spots: Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden (8525 Garland Road, 214-515-6615); Keller’s Drive-In (6537 East Northwest Highway, Dallas, 214-368-1209); El Fenix (1601 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, 214-747-1121); Amon Carter Museum of American Art (3501 Camp Bowie, Fort Worth, 817-738-1933); St. Olaf Kirke/Old Rock Church (County Road 4145, Cranfills Gap); Cameron Park (2601 Sturgis, Waco, 254-750-5980); Cedar Hill State Park (1570 West FM 1382, Cedar Hill, 972-291-3900).

Palo Duro, The Gran Canyon of Texas
Palo Duro, The Gran Canyon of Texas

Panhandle
After navigating the curved highways in and around Wichita Falls, the road straightens into the shape of an exclamation point, and the landscape opens into a never-ending rinse of dirt.

With the big-sky surplus, perhaps them good ol’ boys thought: Let’s fill the void with wind-powered hardware and gaudy promotional billboards for 72-ounce beef babies.

If you can consume a 72-ounce steak, shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll (with butter, of course) in an hour or less at The Big Texan Steak Ranch (7701 Interstate 40 East, 806-372-6000), the meal is free — and so are any later reprimands from your digestive system. Fail, and pay $72. There’s also what might be the goofiest motel in the state, with an “Old West Main Street” facade painted in bright carnival colors and a Texas-shaped pool.

Though you can’t really move from a stupid full gut, just do it. Once you’ve parked on the Interstate 40 feeder, it’s only about a quarter-mile’s walk to Cadillac Ranch (on the south side of the I-40 Frontage Road just west of the Amarillo city line), where 1970s-era hippies sank broken old Cadillacs into the Panhandle’s dry, parched soil like Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza.
The most unreal views you’ll see anywhere are about an hour south of Amarillo at Palo Duro Canyon (11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, 806-488-2227). Also called “The Grand Canyon of Texas,” the natural formation looks a lot like the Arizona stunner with its delicious, shaved rock mesa walls.

Now, this is Texas, this drive south through Plainview on the way to Lubbock. The smell of oil. The sight of one-armed bandits drawing up fat paychecks for the energy industry. And visions of your cracked skull torpedoed through the windshield of your vehicle that’s been blown into a ditch. It’s forever windy out here, so grip tight.

A reward for survival can be found at the feels-like-Austin-or-Houston Yellow House Coffee (3017 34th, Lubbock, 806-702-8997), where there’s excellent coffee sourced directly from the growers and brewed by friendly baristas.

Afterwards, pay mad respect to Buddy Holly, the pop troubadour and Lubbock’s most famous son who died alongside Richie Valens and fellow Texan The Big Bopper in a 1957 plane crash, at the Buddy Holly Center (1801 Crickets, 806-775-3560). Along with his Fender Stratocaster, tour schedule and record collection, the 20/800 prescription horn-rimmed nerd glasses he wore the day that he (and the music) died remain on permanent display. Lubbock’s live-music offerings include the Cactus Theater (1812 Buddy Holly Avenue, 806-762-3233), a 400-seat venue that opened in 1938 and today plays host to country and Americana acts like Joe Ely and Jerry Jeff Walker as well as the occasional musical play.

Prairie Dog Town, located inside of MacKenzie Park (301 Interstate 27), is a wild prairie-dog sanctuary that sometimes teems with the fatty critters. Other times, there might be only two or three rodents running away from a couple of local drunks who are throwing back canned beer at 9 a.m. Before heading south to Midland-Odessa, swing by Lubbock Christian University (5601 19th, 806-720-7326) for a gander at John Wayne’s Head. The Duke’s face is carved into a 13-ton boulder and awkwardly propped into a corner of the school’s library on Dover Avenue.

No matter which way you take (Highway 87 or 62), there’s nothing but beautiful dirt and heat and industry. Soak it in — and then get ready to chuck food at people.

During Summer Mummers, which started in 1949, you can hurl popcorn at the performers and not get your jaw rearranged. Each summer at downtown Midland’s circa-1929 Yucca Theater (208 North Colorado, 432-570-4111), Midland Community Theatre presents a locally written melodrama that’s made for audience participation in the form of loud cheers, overexcited boos and throwing a trough’s worth of popcorn at the stage.

For Odessa’s version of upscale, fill up on the full bar and wood-oven-fired pizza at Cork and Pig Tavern (7260 Texas Highway 191, Suite 204, 432-272-4569). There’s an outdoor patio where you can look at the nearby upscale hotels and apartment complexes (which are mostly dark and abandoned these days owing to the current oil crisis) and breathe in air choked with hard work and broken dreams.

As cliché as it may be, it would be dumb to trek all the way out here and not drive by Ratliff Stadium (1862 East Yukon). The setting for H.G. Bissinger’s book and the Friday Night Lights movie is still the home of the Permian High School Panthers.

Unless it’s football season, you’ll likely only see the sprawling parking lot and the light posts that crisscross like the base of an oil derrick, but as long as you can shout “Texas Forever!” out the car winda’, who cares?

Other Panhandle spots: Perini Ranch Steakhouse, 3002 Highway 89, Buffalo Gap, 325-572-3339); I-20 Wildlife Preserve (2201 South Midland Drive, Midland, 432-853-9453); American Wind Power Center (1701 Canyon Lake , Lubbock, 806-747-8734); Globe of the Great Southwest (2308 Shakespeare, Odessa, 432-335-6818); George W. Bush Childhood Home (1412 West Ohio Avenue, Midland, 432-685-1112); Caprock Canyons State Park (850 Caprock Canyon Park Road, Quitaque, 806-455-1492).

West Texas
With four regions of the state conquered, and perched high atop Guadalupe Peak/Signal Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park (400 Pine Canyon Drive, Salt Flat, 915-828-3251) — the state’s tallest natural peak at 8,749 feet, which juts out of the Chihuahuan Desert floor — you’re now the king/queen of Texas. Kind of.

You still have a ways to go on the Big Tex Road Trip. However, the nascent road warrior in you is more than ready to tackle the most sprawling, mysterious region of the state. West (sometimes called “Best”) Texas.

For the sake of inner harmony, it’s good to balance the 5,000-percent middle-of-nowhere spots (which you should be used to by now) with 1,000-percent in-the-boonies sights. From the Guadalupes, it’s about three hours west to El Paso, which, as a road-tripping destination, is underrated.

H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop (701 East Yandell, 915-533-1144) is much more than a place to give your vehicle a bath. Locals and visitors gravitate to the ELP staple for classic Mexican fare like huevos rancheros and chile Colorado. Since it’s on the border of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico, L&J Cafe (3622 East Missouri, 915-566-8418) is an interesting cross-section of what “Mexican food” means to each of those locales. Chile con queso and enchiladas are chock-full of green chiles, and burritos come doused with complex moles.

After dinner, check out a show at the cozy Lowbrow Palace (111 East Robinson, 915-356-0966), a uniquely configured venue that books punk, stoner metal and other strained-sounding nihilism. In the morning, tackle the high-desert bliss of Franklin Mountains State Park (1331 McKelligon Canyon Road, 915-566-6441). Located about 20 minutes northwest from the center of El Paso, the site offers 100 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as rock climbing and camping.

When it’s time to leave the arid desert of El Chuco, it’s high time to take a dip. Although the campsites are just so-so at Balmorhea State Park (9207 Highway 17 South, Toyahvale, 432-375-2370), the cerulean waters of “the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool,” which maintains a year-round 74-degree temperature, is worth a plunge.

Balmorhea, located at the far end of the Davis Mountains, is a gateway to the McDonald Observatory (3640 Dark Sky Drive, Fort Davis, 432-426-3640). The University of Texas at Austin’s outer-space lookout, which sits at 6,790 feet, hosts star parties that allow folks to zoom in on mind-blowing constellations and planets through one of the center’s high-powered telescopes. Afterward, snuggle up at Davis Mountains State Park (Park Road 3 near Texas 118, Fort Davis, 432-426-3337) for seductively-chilly-at-night camping.

Continue cruising the Trans-Pecos and over to the roadside attraction Prada Marfa (U.S. 90, Valentine), a non-functional designer fashion store built as a sardonic commentary on luxury-goods commerce. Once in Marfa, the often-cited Austin or Brooklyn of West Texas, visitors can easily kill an afternoon at the Donald Judd-founded Chinati Foundation (1 Calvary Road, 432-729-4362), a former World War II military outpost that’s now a supercool art complex. More beautiful visual art can be found at Ballroom Marfa (108 East San Antonio Street, 432-729-3600). If you’re lucky with the timing, you’ll also witness a concert by a heavy hitter like Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Grouper, or Peter Brötzmann.

When the vehicle is pointed towards Alpine, it’s probably the best time and place in Texas to ponder extraterrestrials. If anything, the Marfa Lights Viewing Center (east of Marfa on Highway 67/90) is a neat place to kick back in the middle of nowhere under the West Texas stars and listen to alien abduction stories on Coast to Coast AM.

Once in Alpine, grab an indie coffee at Plaine (215 East Holland, 432-837-5157), the Scrabble tile-adorned sister coffee shop to Marfa’s Frama/Tumbleweed Laundry, and a gourmet hot dog from the Cow Dog food truck. At night, hit up Railroad Blues (504 West Holland, 432-837-3103), which features a full-bodied roster of beers, a communal bonfire, and blues and country bands burning down the wooden stage.

From Alpine, it’s only about an hour to Big Bend National Park (Highway 385 via Marathon or Highway 118 near Terlingua, 432-477-2251) and the nearby, often-deserted Big Bend Ranch State Park (1900 South Saucedo Ranch Road, Presidio, 432-358-4444).

The only mistake that can be made at the 800,000-acre Big Bend National Park is spending only a night or two in the far west Texas beauty. In the summer, ditch the too-hot Rio Grande River camping and head up to Chisos Basin. The campground, located about 5,400 feet above sea level, might get to the high 80s during the peak of the day, but that’s nothing for a real Texan like yourself.

Well, almost real.

Other West Texas spots: Paisano Pete, which is apparently the second-largest roadrunner sculpture in the world (Highway 290 and Main, Fort Stockton); the entire “town” of Marathon (U.S. 90 and Highway 285); and Terlingua (Highway 170); Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site (6900 Hueco Tanks Roads Number 1, El Paso, 915-857-1135); Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens (43869 Highway 118, Fort Davis, 432-364-2499); Chinati Hot Springs (1 Hot Springs Road, Presidio, 432-229-4165).

South Texas
You now know firsthand that Texas is a land of extremes. With this understanding, it should be no problem to go from Big Bend bliss to middle-fingered punk and hardcore.

The Rio Grande Valley, a hip scene in the late ’90s/early aughts for scuzz-punk and belligerent indie pop, has experienced a resurgence in thorn-in-your-side music. Today, there’s a potent volume of local Brownsville and McAllen bands anchoring shows at McAllen’s Yerberia Cultura (613 South 17th Street) and SPACE16th (322 South 16th Street, 956-330-8582). Venues like BAM in Brownsville (1045 East Washington Street), which is transitioning to a co-operative-owned art space, also host international aggros like Conflict and Subhumans. 

While show-hopping between McAllen and Brownsville, stop at the recently made-over Estero Llano Grande State Park (3301 South International Boulevard, Weslaco, 956-565-3919). The aviary, one of the World Birding Center’s nine locations, is a treat during the tail end of the summer when rare and not rare bird species kick back at the park’s shallow lake.

In nearby San Benito, the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame (210 East Heywood, 956-276-9588) traces the formation and evolution of working-class Tex-Mex music. The Freddy Fender Museum, located under the same roof, gives props to the Bebop Kid and Texas Tornados superstar, who was born and raised in a San Benito barrio.

Before or after basking on one of South Padre Island’s beaches — such as the white sands of Isla Blanca Park (33174 State Park Road 100, 956-761-5494), which is often busy but not always crazy crowded — plop down at Blackbeards’ Restaurant (103 East Saturn Lane, 956-761-2962), which offers solid seaside grub like clam chowder, fish and chips, and mahi-mahi.

On the way over to Corpus, take a tour of King Ranch (Highway 141 West, Kingsville, 361-592-8055), one of the planet’s largest ranches, established in 1853. About 45 minutes away is Lipantitlán State Historic Site in Nueces County (nine miles east of Orange Grove off of Highway 359, FM 624 and FM 70, 361-547-2635), where Texian insurgents fully locked down the Gulf Coast during an important stage of the Texas Revolution.

Once in Corpus Christi, feed yourself at Snoopy’s Pier (13313 South Padre Island Drive, 361-949-8815) and the adjacent dessert shop, Scoopy’s. Each is located on a 600-foot pier and the experience is unbeatable, especially while you’re dining on fried shrimp, broiled fish and deviled crab.

Corpus’s greatest contribution to the world occurred in 1950 when Harmon Dobson and Paul Burton opened the first Whataburger. It’s only fitting that the coolest Whataburger is in its hometown. The 6,000-square-foot, two-story, vaguely boat-shaped Whataburger By The Bay (121 North Shoreline, 361-881-9925) also sports a life-size bronze statue of Dobson.

The Texas Riveria is also the spot to pay tribute to the gone-too-soon Queen of Tejano, Selena Quintanilla. The Selena Museum (5410 Leopard, 361-289-9013) immortalizes the international superstar inside of the recording studio where she cut “Dreaming of You.” Art Museum of South Texas (1902 North Shoreline, 361-825-3500), housed inside a Corpus Christi Bay-hugging, Harbor Bridge-spying building designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, shows off work by Bryan-born and Houston-raised modernist painter Dorothy Hood as well as Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures.

Contrary to the frat-tastic bros all over South Padre Island’s seashores, the Padre Island National Seashore (20420 Park Road 22, 361-949-8068), on North Padre, is a 70-mile collection of kick-back, often-secluded beaches. The world’s longest expanse of undeveloped barrier islands, bordered by Laguna Madre and the Gulf of Mexico, is home to crabs, frogs and endangered sea turtles.

Despite its far-reaching location and senior-citizen vibe, Rockport is home to an amazing chef-driven restaurant. The menu at Glow (1815 Broadway Street, 361-727-2644) makes the most of the local culinary wealth, like Gulf fish and seafood and Texas game meats as well as The Game and Gulf Plate, which dazzles with grilled wild boar sausage, seared fish of the day, sautéed shrimp, fried shrimp and oysters. At the Boiling Pot Restaurant (201 South Fulton Beach Road, 361-729-6972), watching someone dump steaming hot crawfish, blue crabs, shrimp, corn and potatoes all over the butcher-paper-covered table is one of the craziest feeding rituals you’ll experience.

Other South Texas spots: Freddy Fender Water Tower (a little south of San Benito on the west side of Interstate 69 East); Club Westerner (1005 West Constitution, Victoria, 361-575-9109); Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (1 Wildlife Circle, Austwell, 361-286-3559); Galvan Ballroom/Galvan Music Company (1632 Agnes, Corpus Christi, 361-883-4101).

Gruene Hall, “The oldest dance hall in Texas”, New Braunsfels
Gruene Hall, “The oldest dance hall in Texas”, New Braunsfels

Hill Country
Remember earlier? When we said you’re almost a real Texan?

Your 20,000 percent, lifelong credentials can only be stamped at The Alamo Mission in San Antonio (300 Alamo Plaza, 210-225-1391). So what if it’s overhyped and “very small”? It’s the Alamo, damnit, the sight of the Battle of the Alamo, which stoked the soon-to-be full-forced Texian Army and Sam Houston to kick major ass at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, to claim Texas independence.

With your Texas passport in order, it’s not time to leave S.A., especially with Cured (306 Pearl Parkway, Suite 101, 210-314-3929) down the street. The “pick your own” charcuterie plate is popular, as are the farmers’ market plate and the milk and honey dessert, a honey cake with sweet cream ice cream, honeycomb candy and “milk jam.” For breakfast tacos, Caracheo’s (3033 East MacArthur View Road, 210-590-4020), The Original Donut House (3307 Fredericksburg Road, 210-734-5661) and Grumpy’s Mexican Cafe (18816 FM 2252, Garden Ridge, 210-651-3444) are some of the best spots.

For a whizbang cultural offering, the McNay Art Museum (6000 North New Braunfels Avenue, 210-824-5368), Texas’s first modern art museum, includes healthy collections of 1800s to 1900s European and American art as well as koi ponds that can soothe a road-weary bod with bountiful amounts of Zen.
There’s also mysticism at Gruene Hall (1281 Gruene Road, New Braunfels, 830-606-1281). The self-proclaimed “oldest dance hall in Texas,” built in 1878, still retains its barebones, un-air-conditioned, open-air appeal. The all-star roster of past performers includes Townes Van Zandt and George Strait, while current heavies like Jerry Jeff Walker and Dale Watson get feet moving inside the white clapboard saloon.

A visit to NB isn’t complete without a stop at the largest Buc-ee’s (2760 Interstate 35 North, 979-238-6390) in the state and the so-called biggest convenience store on Earth. The 24-hour palace of ridiculousness includes 84 toilets, 80 soda dispensers, rows of snack mixes and fudges, hunting supplies, baby clothes and beaver nuggets (a.k.a. beav nugs).

On the way up to Austin, don’t miss out on the Central Texas barbecue trail in Lockhart at Smitty’s Market (208 South Commerce, 512-398-9344), Black’s Barbecue (215 North Main, 512-398-2712) and Kreuz Market (619 North Colorado, 512-398-2361). Which one has the best of which part of the “trinity” (brisket, ribs and sausage) is always up for argument, but what’s inarguable is how much fun a Lockhart barbecue tour can be. Pace yourself, then head over to the dreamboat that is Wimberley and the Blue Hole Regional Park (100 Blue Hole Road, 512-660-9111), a swimming area with rope swings and stately cypress trees.

Austin is stacked with the arts, including the Mexic-Arte Museum (419 Congress, 512-480-9373), which is linked with the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo organizations in Mexico City, and the sunny University of Texas at Austin-located Blanton Museum of Art (200 East Martin Luther King Boulevard, 512-471-7324), which specializes in classic European and American art and also showcases a robust collection of Latin American pieces.

Before heading to a show at night, watch the bats underneath the South Congress Bridge. Arrive around sunset at the Statesman Bat Observation Center (305 South Congress, 512-327-9721), walk a bit north towards downtown and watch some of the one million bats taking flight over Lady Bird Lake.

For bona fide ATX country music, there’s the Broken Spoke (3201 South Lamar, 512-442-6189), which remains glued to its foundation despite the loftification of South Austin; East Austin’s The White Horse (500 Comal, 512-553-6756) and its huge, beer-spilled-in-every-corner dance floor; and Little Longhorn Saloon (5434 Burnet, 512-524-1291), a matchbook-size honky-tonk that’s BYO everything but beer and plays host to chicken-shit bingo every Sunday night.

For other genres, the comfy Continental Club (1315 South Congress, 512-441-2444) presents country, folk, blues and rock; the ancient Scoot Inn (1308 East 4th ) offers general rock, full-fledged brass ensembles, improv music and stressed-out hardcore on indoor and outdoor stages; Mohawk (912 Red River, 512-666-0877) hosts bigger-name acts indoors and outdoors; and the cloaked Museum of Human Achievement (Springdale and Lyons roads), a huge warehouse-like playground with a killer PA, showcases experimental theater and offbeat music.

In the morning, get up early to get a taste of amazing smoked ribs, brisket, sausage and habit-forming espresso barbecue sauce at Franklin Barbecue (900 East 11th). The experience requires patience; this place opens at 11 a.m. each day except Monday, but lines form at least a few hours before. For dinner, the chef’s counter is the best place to watch the staff of Foreign & Domestic (306 East 53rd, 512-459-1010) pull together dishes in which French technique meets Texas ingredients.

Before leaving Austin, be sure to spend time at the Texas State Capitol (1100 Congress, 512-463-0063), the 1888 granite and marble babe. Then head a tad north and crane your neck up at the University of Texas Tower (West 24th Street east of Guadalupe Street, 512-475-6633). A tour of the observation deck is available, but the available dates and times are random, so be sure to call ahead.

For added integral Texas history, pay a visit to Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park (199 Park Road 52, Stonewall, 830-644-2252). The two sites include the Johnson City settlement where LBJ lived as a kid and teenager, and the ranch district, where the 36th President of the United States took up residence in the “Texas White House.” At that point, you’ll be on the informally mapped Texas Hill Country Wine Trail (Highway 290 between Fredericksburg and Johnson City and beyond). There are wineries all over the state, but the heaviest concentration of them — around 30 or so — is in the Hill Country.

There are hundreds of outdoor voyages in the Hill Country. Descend 52 steps into the Longhorn Cavern State Park (6211 Park Road 4 South, Burnet, 830-598-2283), look at limestone rock carvings and cool down in the organic air conditioning — the cave stays at 68 degrees year-round. A hot Texas day also calls for a dip in Hamilton Pool (24300 Hamilton Pool Road, Dripping Springs, 512-264-2740), a naturally fed, limestone-carved swimming oasis with a 50-foot waterfall.

And, finally. The last stop on a totally mental, Big Tex Road Trip: the birthplace of Texas.

The Washington-on-the-Brazos Historic Site (23400 Park Road 12, Washington, 936-878-2214), which served as the capital of the Republic of Texas, features a replica version of Independence Hall, where the Texas Declaration of Independence was basically inked in ancestral blood. As the literature and signage touts, it’s “where Texas became Texas.”

There, you can take off your Buc-ee’s cap, wipe the Panhandle’s red dust from your legs, then scratch the bug bites suffered at Big Bend, check to see if a Dallas cougar texted you, look down at boots scuffed from all of the honky-tonkin’, remove a barbecue-stained napkin to wipe away tears and proudly recite the inscription: “Here a Nation was born.”

Other Hill Country spots: Louie Mueller Barbecue (206 West 2nd Street, Taylor, 512-352-6206); Sengelmann Hall (531 North Main Street, Schulenburg, 979-743-2300); Canyon Lake (FM 306, New Braunfels); Cheatham Street Warehouse (119 Cheatham Street, San Marcos, 512-353-3777); Luckenbach Texas (412 Luckenbach Town Loop, Fredericksburg, 830-997-3224); Texas State Cemetery (909 Navasota Street, Austin, 512-463-0605); Cave Without a Name (325 Kreutzberg Road, Boerne, 830-537-4212); Blue Bonnet Cafe (211 Highway 281, Marble Falls, 830-693-2344). 

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