Driving Texas is all a matter of perspective. Anyone who's ever rolled across the state with purely pragmatic intentions knows the pain of realizing that, after hours in a near-featureless wasteland, you're still hours outside of the middle of nowhere (rough Spanish translation: "El Paso").
But things improve when you ditch the superhighway for the back road and set out to explore some of the travel destinations Texas has to offer. Most folks know about South Padre's beautiful beaches, Big Bend's stunning natural beauty and Austin's nightlife. We've skipped those more obvious attractions in favor of a few lesser-known Lone Star spots that won't blow your budget.
Way out west
The austere beauty of West Texas makes it an ideal destination for those who want to get away from the city. For a western destination, consider Alpine. The small town, located southwest of Fort Stockton, is one of the last outposts before sprawling Big Bend National Park. Like its better-known neighbor Marfa, it's not all rustic — Alpine features numerous art galleries, shopping and well-preserved frontier history. Unlike Marfa, here it's easy to find a relatively cheap motel and a bite to eat.
Couples in Alpine have the option of exploring the scenic city through "His and Hers Day," which offers a day of separate gender-themed activities — including shopping, golf, beer drinking and spa treatments — that reunites couples for lunch and a sunset dinner. The legendary Marfa lights are a short drive away and provide for an interesting night for both skeptics and believers. (Keep it legal — cops are strict in these parts.) Big events include the Fiesta Del Sol (June 19 and 20), a street fair for local merchants, and the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo (August 7 and 8), where hungry riders compete to qualify for Amarillo's larger rodeo. Bring a camera — the Alpine area boasts hundreds of miles of scenic highways, and the weather is cooler and drier than on the coast. For information, see visitorcenter.alpinetexas.com.
Not too far north you'll find some serious scientific equipment in the desert at McDonald Observatory. It's impressive in its own right, but the nightly star parties (9:30 p.m., $10) make it worth the trip. Visitors will tour space through the observatory's powerful telescopes and get an up-close view of Saturn or Jupiter, depending on the time of summer. Make sure to dress in warm clothes and arrange accommodations beforehand — the facility is somewhat remote. For information, visit mcdonaldobservatory.org.
Less than ten miles from the observatory is Davis Mountains State Park ($5 day, 432-426-3337). The park offers awesome hiking on several trails of varying difficulty and accommodations at the multilevel Indian Lodge hotel (starting at $90 per night, book as far in advance as possible: 432-426-3254). Follow that up by relaxing at one of the state's best swimming holes, located at Balmorhea State Park ($7 per day, 432-375-2370), a few miles south of I-10. The 77,053-square-foot pool there is spring-fed, crystal-clear and always around 74 degrees. Scuba diving is available, as are rooms at the retro-looking, Spanish-style San Solomon Courts (starting at $60 per night), located right on the spring.
The Texas wine country is coming up fast — Orbitz ranked it the second-fastest growing wine region in the country two years ago — but it still retains the friendly charm befitting a Texas travel destination. A number of wineries dot the scenic Hill Country landscape around Fredericksburg — the useful interactive map at www.texaswinetrail.com supplies users with contact information and hours for 24 locations. If you'd rather leave the driving to someone else, call 877-TEX-WINE to arrange a tour of five wineries in a plush minibus (starting at $65/person).
Either way, be sure you stop by Becker Vineyards, which boasts lush lavender fields, a genuine 18th-century bar from a former San Antonio saloon and a fantastic tasting room where you can sample the notable European-style reds. For information, visit www.beckervineyards.com.
Lodging in the area isn't a challenge — Fredericksburg is lousy with bed and breakfasts. (If quaint were a drug, this part of Texas would be causing overdoses left and right.) One standout is the Full Moon Inn (starts at $125 per night), which claims the highest return visit rate in the area. It's larger than most B&Bs, but the facilities are duly charming, and you'll never be short of advice on what to see and do. For information, visit www.fullmooninn.com or call 800-997-1124. Visit www.fredericksburg-texas.com for other options.
If you get your fill of sipping, strike out for Enchanted Rock State Natural Area ($6 per day). There's mostly relaxed hiking and potentially less relaxed rock climbing at the second-largest granite outcropping in North America. Listen for the ghost sounds the Tonkawa Indians heard at the top — there's a geological explanation, but we won't ruin it for you. For information, call 830-685-3636. After working up an appetite, swing south to O.S.T. (305 Main St., 830-796-3836) in Bandera for some country cooking — it's out of the way, but the chicken-fried steak is worth the drive.
A noteworthy winery a little closer to home is Messina Hof in Bryan. A number of carefully crafted wines are available to sample ($5 per person for the public tour and tasting); they also appear in every dish at Messina Hof's upscale Vintage House restaurant (reservations recommended, call 979-778-9463). A series of harvest events begins in July and gives guests the chance to participate in the wine-making. (Yes, you'll get to stomp grapes.) For a schedule, visit www.messinahof.com. As for accommodations at Messina Hof, the Villa offers luxurious rooms and a spa on a 100-acre estate (includes a wine tour and tasting, call 979-778-9463 for rates and reservations).
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If the morbid side of history grabs your interest, then no trip from Houston to East Texas is complete without a stop at the Huntsville Prison Museum ($4). Its extensive collection of artifacts — from contraband to guards' guns to a replica of an electric chair — isn't exactly cheery, but the stories it tells are fascinating. And, of course, there's a small gift shop with no shortage of kitsch. For information, visit www.txprisonmuseum.org.
Deeper in the region — about 250 miles northeast of Houston on the Louisiana border — you'll find the best of what East Texas offers near the town of Uncertain on Caddo Lake. Photographic opportunities abound on this eerily beautiful body of water dotted with cypress trees and draped in Spanish moss. Lodging isn't anything fancy, but you won't exactly be roughing it, either — the cool little cabins of Moonglow Lodge, for instance, feature full kitchens and wi-fi access. (We're not sure if the latter is a good thing.) The best way to explore the sprawling lake is on the Graceful Ghost, an "authentic re-creation of an old-time paddlewheel steamboat" ($20 per person, with discounts for seniors and kids, 903-472-1081). Or launch a canoe and head out on your own — just make sure to keep your bearings. If you find things getting a bit too still, the bars and casinos of Shreveport are less than an hour to the east. For information, a list of other places to stay and additional recommended activities, visit www.cityofuncertain.com.
What the hell?
File this one under "only if you're already in the area": The Creationist Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, about 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth. There's only one thing you need to know about the museum: It contains proof that man and dinosaurs walked the Earth as contemporaries. Bring $2 a person for admission and leave everything you thought you knew about science at the door. For information, visit www.creationevidence.org.