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).
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).
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).

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen