2. Hill Country
3. Big Bend National Park
4. Dallas / Fort Worth
Marfa is a strange, unique, cool place in the middle of nowhere. It’s close to Big Bend and worth at least spending a day/night. The eclectic stores, hipster restaurants, quirky art installations, and pretty, desolate countryside has made this a very popular destination for local Texans. Marfa is also well known for its dark skies and subsequently opportunities for incredible stargazing.
The large city of San Antonio’s most famous and best attractions are the River Walk for a stroll and some Tex-Mex and The Alamo. Nearby you’ll find Natural Bridge Caverns, which is cool. Be sure to book a tour in advance. San Antonio itself can be done in an afternoon in my opinion, depending if you want to see any of the museums downtown, longer if you plan to visit Natural Bridge Caverns. Easy day trip from Austin which is way more interesting and fun.
Garner State Park
Beautiful park with great places for swimming, crystal clear water, nice views, various hiking trails. Nice campgrounds also for both tent and RV camping. I was lucky enough to see some jack rabbits, which if you’ve never seen one, are the size of a small person. Also some wild turkeys. Good for a weekend.
Whenever I go to a cave, I always ask my guide what is there favorite cave. One of them told me Sonora Caverns. Located along Route 10, you’ll drive right by this place on your way to somewhere on a long road trip through Texas. It’s also a reasonable day trip from Austin. This cave is one of the most diverse and complete I’ve ever seen. Large cavern rooms, cave bacon, drapes, soda straws, various types of stalactites/stalagmites, pools, and some smaller unique formations. There are peacocks roaming about on the vicinity and you can camp there. The cave is pleasantly warm, in the 70s and humid all year round. Tours are kind of weird because you purchase your ticket and then wait until there is enough people to take you down, which could be 10 minutes or 45 minutes. Makes it a little tough to plan if you’re on your way somewhere else. But if you have time, worth the stop for sure.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Though a little lower on my list due to accessibility (it’s at the very north panhandle of Texas just outside of Amarillo), this state park is the largest canyon in Texas. The rocks resemble those beautiful patterns and colors you might see in Arizona, Utah, or South Dakota, making for an entrancing view of this vast landscape. I would highly recommend the very popular Lighthouse trail at just under 6 miles round trip (it’s worth it). If you have time and energy, also check out the Rock Garden trail for some beauty in rocks and rock scrambling. If you enjoy hiking, I suggest spending 2 days which will allow time for a couple of the popular trails. Bring plenty of water and sunblock, especially if you go in the summer/fall, it gets very hot and there’s no shade!
El Paso is the largest city in west Texas and borders Mexico and New Mexico. It’s surprisingly cultural considering it’s located practically in the middle of nowhere. A few sights worth seeing are downtown, Museum of Art, Museum of History, Holocaust museum, and don’t miss Scenic Drive. Eat at Salt + Honey Bakery Cafe, D’Lox, and Ansen 11. Nearby Hueco Tanks State Park is supposed to be cool.
Guadalupe Mountain National Park
Guadalupe Mountain is one of only two national parks in all of Texas. Interestingly, it shares the mountain range with Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, which is very close by and definitely warrants a trip! As for Guadalupe Mountain, while I found it a bit underwhelming after seeing incredible pictures, if you’re in the area it’s worth a stop. Two trails I would recommend are the popular Guadalupe Peak trail which will put you at the tallest spot in Texas once reaching the summit. Just be mindful it’s 8.5 miles round trip and quite strenuous. Another, easier, lovely trail is Devil’s Hall at 3.8 miles round trip, which guides you along the canyon floor and is especially nice in the fall when the leaves change color.
Corpus Cristi / South Padre
Padre Island, specifically South Padre, is the main attraction. It’s quite flat and maybe not what you think of the beach if you’re from either of the U.S. coasts, but a beach nonetheless. The town of Corpus Cristi kind of looks like a beach town that was on the rise, but then sort of just stopped. There’s not much to do there, but it’s a semi-popular beach town. Nearby Lake Corpus Cristi State Park is a good option for swimming and camping.
- Weather. Because of it's size, Texas has varying climates depending on which part you're in. The west half is very dry and desolate, while central and east are more humid and green. Of course in the summer, the heat is brutal pretty much everywhere. In the mountains and desert, it will even be cool at night. Winters in Texas can get quite cold, even to freezing temperatures (though uncommon). It can snow, but rarely sticks, at least not for long, unless you're in the mountains.
- Flash Floods. When it gets really hot and dry, sometimes there will then be crazy storms and downpours. It never drizzles or mists in Texas, the sky just vomits violently. As a result, in Hill Country in particular, but pretty much anywhere near streams and large bodies of water is the risk of flash flooding. If you're not familiar with flash floods, they can be devastating and life threatening. You don't need to be scared, just mindful and cautious. Don't go hiking or driving when there are flash flood warnings or you could put yourself and others in serious harm. Just pay attention to the weather and check in at visitor center's or online before heading out hiking if rain is in the forecast. Though I've never directly encountered it, we get flash flood warnings often.
- Sunblock. Texas gets brutally hot in the summer and even throughout the spring/fall. It's very easy to get sunburned after as little as 10-15 minutes in the direct sunlight. Remember, Texas is farther south than other places in the country. I recommend wearing sunblock if you have sensitive skin and/or plan to be out in direct sun for long periods of time. That said, a lot of hiking trails in many of the parks have trees and shade for at least part of the way, so if you play it smart, you can avoid the need for sunblock. While I'm a big advocate of protecting your skin, I prefer to do without if I can stay out of the sun and avoid chemicals on my skin. But I always bring it with me and decide at my destination whether or not to apply. A note on sunblock and rivers, please don't slather on sunblock right before going into the water. It pretty much just washes off and then ruins the water for flora and fauna that thrive in it and doesn't really protect you anyway. People don't immediately think of it (neither did I), but most products are very harmful to these rivers and watering holes. You can always just wear a hat and/or a sun protective shirt.
- Snakes. Spring in particular is ripe with snakes, some poisonous like rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, coral snakes, some not. Generally speaking, they won't bother you as long as you follow a few simple rules: 1) stay on the trail, 2) let them be, 3) make noise to avoid startling them, 4) if you see a snake stop, back away slowly and let it pass. Hiking with a partner helps and is advised. Interestingly, I actually saw more rattlesnakes in North Carolina in 1 week, than I have after 3+ years living in Texas.