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

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

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).

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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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