"Don't mess with Texas" I think sums it up nicely. Everything is bigger in Texas as they say. Though, having lived in Texas, it's much more than the stereotypes of gun toting rednecks, cowboys, cattle, and desert tumbleweeds. Sure, the stereotypes are true in some places, but cities like Austin
defy that stereotype and there is an abundance of natural wonders in this huge state. Including waterfalls, swimming holes, mountains, and even forests. Texas is vast and diverse, especially on the eastern side.
Austin E. 6th St
Highlights: Live music, museums, food, nightlife, nature, hiking, watering holes
Suggest Staying: 3-7 days
Stay Around: South Austin / South Congress
Austin is my second favorite city in the U.S. Its “keep Austin weird” mentality and influx of people in the last decade has resulted in a boom of growth and variety on all levels in this remarkable city. It’s completely unlike any other city in Texas, and even compared to many other cities. Full of incredible nature within the city limits and just outside, like minded tolerant people, and Texas country blues & rock n’ roll tough to find anywhere else in the country. A lot of local talent in music, food, tech, art and various other industries. While there are always assholes in every city, Austin is generally full of wonderful, friendly, thoughtful people. There’s really some of everything and something for everyone. While you can explore the popular central downtown, 6th Street and South Congress in a day, the multitude of neighborhood pockets in Austin can keep you busy and exploring for years.
See & Do
- Downtown. The center of downtown is basically 4th st and Congress st. From there you can walk several blocks in each direction to see the center of downtown.
- East 6th Street. The main drag of Austin downtown. Shops, live music, bars, restaurants. Good to visit day or night. If you actually keep going east on 6th Street past I-35, there’s another section of shops, bars & restaurants which is less touristy and more chill.
- South Congress. Best place to go for the highest concentration of Austin culture, shopping, and eating. Gets busy with locals and visitors.
- Capitol Building. Where all Texas state officials come to congregate when in session. Nice grounds, free tours.
- Zilker Park & Botanical Garden. The largest public park in Austin where outdoor events are often held. The botanical garden is very cool, either pay to park in the lot, or walk in for free and pay metered parking at Zilker park across the street and down the road a bit. You’ll also find nearby in Zilker Umlauf Sculpture Garden. Parking there is limited.
- UT Austin. Wander around the university, maybe even catch a football game. Check out the Harry Ransom Center.
- Bullock Texas State History Museum. Impressive building that tells the story of Texas. Pretty big, plan to spend at least an hour or two.
- LBJ Library. While a library may sound boring, this one is actually quite interesting and has a lot of fascinating information about former president Lyndon Johnson who grew up nearby.
- Blanton. Art museum.
- Austin Toy Museum. Nostalgic 80s/90s toys.
- Farmer’s Markets. As in any worthy hipster town, you’re going to find several farmer’s markets in spring through fall over the weekend. My two favorites are SFC Downtown and Mueller (north Austin), a revamped yuppie suburban area created from the old airport. Nearby you’ll find some restaurants and Thinkery (a science museum for kids and adults).
- Vintage/Second Hand Stores. There are tons of them around town, namely in North Austin. Ranging from clothes to records to antiques. If nothing else, fun to explore and nostalgic for some. Just a few notes: Tesoros Trading Co., Buffalo Exchange, Uncommon objects, Uptown Cheapskate. North Loop IBIZ District has several in close proximity.
- Books. Book People is a local multi-story bookstore with speakers from time to time. Half Price Books is a great local bookstore, with several in the area.
- Outdoor Gear. REI located right downtown, wonderful place with great staff to find any and all outdoor needs. Whole Provision Co. also very cool.
Nature & Hiking
- Boating. Directly downtown you can paddleboard, kayak, or otherwise enjoy the Colorado River. Rentals available.
- Barton Creek Greenbelt. When I moved to Austin, everyone kept telling me to check out “the Greenbelt” but when I searched on the map, I couldn’t find it. Upon further investigation, there are many “greenbelts” throughout the area, the most popular of which is Barton Creek Greenbelt. This 7-mile hiking trail takes you to some incredible spots, and it’s so close by. You also don’t have to hike the entire thing to see all the sites, there are multiple entry points, so you can drive to the places that most interest you.
- Barton Springs Pool. Massive, crystal clear, spring fed pool. Gets crowded in peak season. Nearby you’ll find the trailhead for one end of the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Hike about 1 mile in to a beautiful section of the greenbelt with rocks and streams. Wander or relax. There will be a crowd during warmer months here too. If you continue from there, maybe another mile or so, you’ll come to Gus Fruh where you’ll find a boulder for rock climbing as well as a large pool (before it dries up in the summer). There’s also nearby Deep Eddy which is very similar to Barton Springs, but smaller and less crowded.
- Twin Falls and Sculpture Falls. About midway into the Barton Creek Greenbelt, this very popular hiking trail system is a great place if you’re tight on time, but want to experience some of the nature and “the greenbelt” in Austin before you leave. Park on the frontage road right off of TX-360 and Mopac Loop 1. Tough to find the access road if you’ve never been there, but you’ll see a ton of cars. Search for “Barton 360 Trail Access” on your map/gps. The hike is shaded, rocky, and hilly. Only 10 mins to Twin Falls for a dip, usually dried up towards end of summer. Another maybe 30 minutes you’ll come upon Sculpture Falls which is better and less crowded.
- Lost Creek. The opposite end of the Barton Creek Greenbelt, this lesser known gem is a great place for relaxing in this natural watering hole. You can hike more along the riverbank if you like. It’s part of the 7-mile trail system. Park at the Hill of Life.
- Mt. Bonnell. Great views.
- Onion Creek Greenbelt. Located in South Austin, less traveled.
- McKinney Falls State Park. The only state park located in Austin proper, this park features hiking, waterfalls, and swimming. Very popular, be sure to get a day pass ahead of time. Camping available.
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. If you’re at all into botanicals, plants, succulents, and native growing, this is the place to go. Lots of variety, mostly, if not entirely, native plants and information about them if you want to grow your own.
- Bastrop State Park & Buescher State Park. The former is good for camping and hiking amongst the trees, while the latter is a great place to picnic and relax by the lake. Located right next to each other. About 45 minutes from Austin.
- Lockhart State Park. Small hiking area. Good place if you’re in Lockhart for BBQ. About 45 minutes from Austin.
- Palmetto State Park. Unlike other state parks in the area, seems like something out of the dinosaur period. Also saw a couple live armadillos wandering around.
Food & Drink
- General. There are so many outstanding restaurants in Austin, here’s a long list of just a few. Things to try: BBQ (of course), steak (of course), oysters (gulf oysters are big, sweet, cheap, plentiful, and as good as you can get in New Orleans), sushi (who knew), ramen (great, authentic ramen like you would find in Japan).
- Austin Staples. Juiceland (not just typical juice, healthy smoothies, juice, and snacks), Thundercloud Subs (excellent sandwiches), Soup Peddler (soup and sandwiches), Torchy’s Tacos, Picnik (one location is a food truck, one is a sit down restaurant, all healthy, unique and creative).
- BBQ. Franklins (most known, long lines, hours wait, I’ve actually never been), Valentinas (my favorite), Slab (more Kansas City style, sweet), Black’s (downtown), La Barbeque. I’ve heard the best BBQ is in Lockhart, about 45-60 minutes from Austin (Kreuz Market, Smitty’s, Black’s).
- Steak. Eddie V’s (seafood & steakhouse), ALC Steaks, Saltgrass, Texas Roadhouse (chain, but eating at one actually in Texas…).
- Oysters. Perlas, Clark’s Oyster Bar, Salt Traders Coastal Cooking (seafood, fish also, awesome oyster happy hour, in Round Rock).
- Sushi. Lucky Robot (one of my favorite sushi restaurants, fish from Tsukiji, Tokyo), Uchi (touted as best in Austin), Fukumoto (sushi and Izakaya), Kome, Beluga (best kept secret, located in Round Rock), Kura (revolving sushi).
- Ramen. Daruma (my favorite), Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Michi, Haru Ramen & Poke, Kanji.
- Breakfast. Magnolia, Kerby Lane, Snooze A.M. Eatery, Austin Java. If you’re in South Austin, two gems are Opera Coffeehouse and Crema Bakery. If you’re up north, First Watch (healthy eats, in Round Rock).
- American. District Kitchen (outstanding), Lenoir (farm to table, seasonal, small, need a reservation), Odd Duck, Launderette, Barley Swine.
- Vegan/Vegetarian. Flower Child (fantastic, one of my favorite places in Austin), Vinaigrette (amazing salads, outdoor patio), Bouldin Creek Cafe (entirely vegetarian, very good even if you’re not vegetarian).
- Italian. Asti (wonderful), Juliet Italian Kitchen (also wonderful).
- Cajun. Evangeline Cafe, Cypress Grill. Both feature live music, excellent catfish, not everything is spicy.
- Wu Chow. Chinese, not to be missed. Amazing dim sum (make a reservation), great lunch, exceptional dinner.
- Chinatown Center. Collection of asian restaurants (TC Noodle House, First Chinese BBQ, New Fortune) and supermarkets like MT Supermarket. Hana World Market excellent supermarket nearby.
- Koriente. Awesome Korean bowls and bubble tea, tucked away just behind 6th Street.
- Aba. Absolutely fantastic Mediterranean style mezze (tapas).
- Quality Seafood. Fish market style restaurant, where you can eat there or get fresh fish to take home.
- Pho With Us. Some of the best Pho I’ve ever had, and I’ve been to Vietnam. Far down in South Austin.
- Tarka. Indian, quick, made to order.
- Thicket Food Park. Food trucks, picnic tables, live music. Located on 1st st in South Austin.
- Tea. There are some amazing tea places in Austin which include Steeping Room (tea and full food menu), Teahaus, Zhi Tea (so much variety to purchase and tea tasting), GuanYin Tea House (intimate, tea tasting), Teapioca Lounge (bubble tea), Kung Fu Tea (bubble tea).
Drinking & Nightlife
- E 6th Street. Tons of bars, clubs, music. The section on the other side of I-35 has similar but less tourists/people. Hotel Vegas & Volstead Lounge are my favorite, Violet Crown Social Club also cool, and Whistler’s has excellent drinks (even one named after a Miyazaki film).
- South Congress. More for music and bar restaurants.
- Rainey Street. A bit more college aged, fun small strip of unique bars, including a beer garden and bar made entirely of shipping containers.
- Red River Street District. Great area of downtown for live music and nightlife.
- Midnight Cowboy. Secret speakeasy you need to search for, reservation required. Definitely a must visit while in Austin.
- Roosevelt Room. Best cocktails in town in my opinion. Sit at the bar if you can, fun to watch them make the drinks. Reservation highly recommended.
- Speakeasy. Beer, cocktails, live music, rooftop. Even a small bowling alley and other games.
- Garage Bar. Cocktail bar located in a parking garage.
- The Driskill Hotel. Famous hotel with a bar people like to frequent.
- Easy Tiger. Beer garden, also good food and outdoor space. Fresh bakery upstairs with break, cookies, and soft pretzels.
- Buenos Aires Cafe (secret bar). Argentinian restaurant with a secret bar, secret entrance.
- Las Perlas. Mezcal, next to a whiskey bar. Mezcal is big in Austin.
- Justine’s. Chill neighborhood, serves food, outdoor space, where a lot of bartenders go hang out.
- South Austin. Several spots farther south in Austin are some very local places outdoors with live music. Slow Pokes (BBQ + outdoor stage with local blues), Giddyups (local Texans, live music sometimes), The Moontower (food, drinks, and volleyball, named after the classic party spot in Dazed and Confused). There’s also South Austin Beer Garden (SABG) that just opened, I’ve never been, always crowded though.
Live Music & Events
- ALC Live and The Moody Theater. Saw Dave Chappelle here. Live musician sessions.
- Bass Concert Hall. On UT campus, saw Aziz Ansari here.
- Paramount & Stateside Theater. Catch music, shows, theatrical performances, and cinema.
- Palmer Events Center. All kinds of things come to this place throughout the year, just across central downtown.
- Continental Club. Famed nightclub for blues, country, and rock music on South Congress.
- Antones. Best place to hear blues music at this classic club downtown.
- Emos. Good size, but still intimate, popular venue with bands all the time and exceptional sound. I’ve been to countless shows here.
- Stubb’s. Primarily a BBQ restaurant, next door is an incredible amphitheater that hosts some of the best shows in Austin.
- Historic Scoot Inn. Very similar to Stubb’s, but smaller and lesser known bands.
- Hotel Vegas. Always has local bands. On E 6th street.
- The Mohawk. Smaller outdoor venue downtown.
- Empire Control Room. Smaller outdoor venue downtown.
- The Parish. Upstairs bar with live music.
- The Broken Spoke. This Austin staple features country music and line dancing. Gets very crowded.
- San Marcos. About 30 minutes south of Austin, hippie town, small parks, river activities.
- New Braunfels. About 45 minutes south of Austin, river tubing, water park.
- Son’s Island. Island resort with a beach town feel. Requires advanced reservations to stay/visit.
- Waco. About 90 minutes north of Austin, this city famous for an old shootout is a little rough, but this home to Baylor University hosts a hidden gem in the Waco Mammoth National Monument. Apparently, a site of tens of mammoths were trapped and fossilized millions of years ago, then discovered semi-recently.
- Guides. For what’s going on in Austin, check out do512. Thrillist is also a great resource (available in other major cities too).
- Water. Never be without at least 1L of water if you’re going to be out for the day in nature. It gets insanely hot in summer, which basically is from April through September. You don’t want to get dehydrated out on the trail. If there’s moving water, take a dip to cool down. Always bring a swimsuit when hiking in Austin.
2. Hill Country
Highlights: Rolling hills, lakes, rivers, hiking, watering holes, swimming, caves
Suggest Staying: Day Trips or Camping
Unbeknownst to most people, Austin has an incredibly high concentration of natural beauty to include shaded mountain hikes, spring fed lakes, watering holes, waterfalls, caverns, and rivers in the form of state parks, local public parks, private parks, and simply undeveloped greenery. It’s truly remarkable so much of this water infused beauty exists in Texas in this area referred to as the Hill Country, described as such for the rolling hills that make up the land to the west of Austin.
See & Do
- Pedernales Falls State Park. This my personal favorite state park in the area, possibly in the state. It’s just beautiful, especially after a lot of rain, but even when there isn’t. Clear waters, swimming, bouldering. It’s one of two places I am eager to take visitors who like nature and have the time. Only 90 minutes from Austin. Camping is available.
- Hamilton Pool. Probably the most picturesque place in Hill Country. You can actually go swimming here, though sometimes swimming is off limits due to E. Coli concerns. The hike down is uneven, so be mindful of that if you’re a little unstable walking. Located in Dripping Springs.
- Milton Reimer’s Ranch. Haven for rock climbers. River runs through it and there are hiking trails.
- Hamilton Greenbelt. Another nice, lesser traveled greenbelt with hiking, streams, and small waterfalls. Located in Lakeway.
- Jacob’s Well. A small crystal clear underwater spring fed watering hole where you can jump off rocks into the cool blue water. It’s very deep. Requires advanced reservations as the number of visitors are limited. Located in Wimberley.
- Krause Springs. Really cool hidden(ish) gem with this privately owned spring nestled between rocks and trees. Costs $8, camping also available. Gets crowded in warmer weather. Located in Spicewood.
- The Oasis. Beautiful views, there are a handful of restaurants and shops atop a hill overseeing Lake Travis. Nearby, you’ll also find a couple of interesting places, Hippie Hollow (nude friendly beach) and Windy Point.
- Emma Long Metropolitan Park. Some really nice, calming, shaded, hiking trails, not far outside the city. There’s a main trailhead at the parking lot (beware of parking hours if you park along the road to avoid a ticket). Turkey Creek Trail is very nice.
- Bull Creek Greenbelt. Little known place not terribly far from the more popular Barton Creek Greenbelt. Includes hiking along a stream and also the nearby Balcones Canyon Nature Preserve (requires permit, purchase online).
- Riverside Nature Preserve. Canyon hike located on one side of the trail with a public park along the river on the other side.
- Inks Lake State Park. Great place to relax, camp, picnic, and maybe do some light trekking around the lake. Nearby you’ll find the resort towns of Marble Falls and Horseshoe Bay which offer pretty views of Lake Travis.
- Longhorn Cavern State Park. Cave with large, open rooms. And of course, interesting rock formations. Exceeded my expectations. Nice area to picnic or hang out while waiting for your cave tour.
- Guadalupe River State Park. Wonderful place for lounging, picnicking, BBQ’ing, and most notably floating on the river in an inflatable tube. Great place for swimming in the hot Texas summer. I really love the cypress trees along the river bank. Gets crowded in summer, so not the greatest for solitude, but there are always places to escape the crowds if you look hard enough (or go during the week).
- Enchanted Rock. A giant boulder with many other boulders for bouldering. There’s even a small lake. The canyon trail and little rock is most fun to meander about with fewer people than the summit. This picturesque place is truly magical. I recommend driving through Fredericksburg on the way out or back to wander the main street and grab a German meal/beer. About 1.5-2 hours from Austin.
- Colorado Bend State Park. Incredible state park with hiking, the famed Gorman Falls which looks like something out of a jungle in Southeast Asia, Spicewood Springs to cool off, and of course the Colorado River that flows through the park for swimming or boating. There are also several short canyon hikes above or below the pools that ultimately feed into Spicewood Springs and the Colorado River. Great place to relax or be active. About 2 hours from Austin.
- Blanco State Park. Another watering hole prime for swimming.
- Pace Bend State Park. Huge lake, good for swimming and boating. Kind of has a beach. Not the most interesting, but good for swimming. I remember the water being warm.
- Lyndon B. Johnson State Historic Park. Nice venture out to Johnson City if you like history.
- Fredericksburg. Not really part of Hill Country per se, this German founded town has an interesting history and really fun main street with shops and restaurants, namely authentic German food. Just 90 minutes outside of Austin. Nice drive out, makes for a fun day trip. If you’re driving at night, be vigilante and watch out for deer in the road!
- A Day in Dripping Springs. This small area has an incredible collection of things to see, do and eat. If you only have one day to spend in Hill Country, I would either go to Pedernales or visit Hamilton Pool, have lunch at the famous Salt Lick (Driftwood), and go hiking/swimming at Reimer’s Ranch. All located relatively close to one another.
- A weekend in Dripping Springs. Extend to camp at Pedernales, then visit Jacob’s Well (south in Wimberly) or Krause Springs (Spicewood).
- Park Entrance & Reservations. For some odd reason, state parks have windows of entrance times. Such that if the parking lot fills up, you can’t enter until the second window later mid afternoon, even if people are leaving (makes no sense). And if you decide to leave and come back, you lose your place in line and risk not getting in then either. Some of the more popular parks can fill up by 9am if not earlier on the weekends during peak season. Pretty much every park over the spring/summer/fall fills to capacity at some point on the weekends. Luckily, you can purchase a day pass online in advance which I highly recommend. You may even need to do so at least two weeks in advance to ensure availability. I would also extend advice to book far in advance any campsites, as they fill up quickly during peak season.
- Wear Shoes in Watering Holes. You’ll notice that most locals wear, shoes, sandals, or water shoes when wading/swimming in the watering holes. Why? Tons of rocks. It’s really tough on your feet, plus very slippery. Aside from dirt and such, please make sure your footwear doesn’t have chemicals, poop, or anything that could negatively impact the quality of these rivers and pools.
- Hunting Season. During the winter, I think in Jan/Feb, state parks are closed for hunting season. Check before you drive out.
3. Big Bend National Park
Santa Elena Canyon
Highlights: Mountains, rivers, canyons, hiking
Suggest Staying: 3-7 days
Stay Around: Rio Grande Village Campground or Chisos Basin Campground
It’s hard to describe the vastness and beauty of Big Bend, which stands tall at the western most part of Texas bordering Mexico. Despite being out in the desert, the mountains, canyons, and winding rivers set an incredible backdrop for views and hiking trails located throughout the park. Certainly not something you would expect in Texas, especially after driving for hours across the west half which is pretty desolate. This is a must see in Texas, and other than Austin, my favorite place in this giant state.
See & Do
- Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Beautiful drive and some great viewpoints including several of the places below.
- Santa Elena Canyon. One of my favorite areas of the park. Winding river, high canyon walls that bear some resemblance to The Narrows in Zion National Park.
- The Window. Incredible views, great at sunset. Like a window into the park’s soul.
- Mule Ears Viewpoint. Spectacular.
- Tuff Canyon. Neat view of the canyon from above. What’s better…go down into the canyon and you’ll find a world of rocks you can climb over and explore with no other visitors. One of my favorite “hidden” lesser known places in the park.
- Castolon Historic District. See old equipment, check out the visitor center and store, maybe stop for a quick picnic lunch.
- Chisos Basin Road. Drive this 6-mile steep and windy road for mountain views.
- Rio Grande Village. Stock up on supplies, campground nearby, showers, laundry.
- Boquillas Canyon. Winding river with mountains off in the distance.
- Langford Hot Springs. Why would hot springs be fun in hot Texas weather? Well, the 4-mile drive to get there is an adventure, then you hike 0.5 miles to a large sandbox sized “hot springs” pool situated adjacent to the river. It’s warm and wonderful after hiking and you can hop over into the cool river as well to cool down.
- Hiking. There’s a lot, ranging from short to long and easy to strenuous. Some I went on are included below. I hope to return and do more. If you like hiking, this is the main reason to spend minimum 5 days in the park.
- Rafting. There are areas among the canyon rivers that provide anywhere from a nice casual float down the river to class II-III rapids. You’ll need to check with an outfitter and permit is likely required.
- Stargazing. Some of the darkest skies in the country, you can see so many stars and systems with ease.
- Window View Trail. (.3 mi rt easy) – sunset views
- Window Trail. (5.6mi rt mod) – two trail heads, popular, views, cliffs, rock-scrambling — start at Basin Campground (4.4mi rt)
- Lost Mine Trail. (4.8mi rt mod) – switchbacks, greatest views, rock scrambling
- Emory Peak Trail. (9mi rt stren) – highest point, views, Pinnacle Trails
- Tuff Canyon Trail. (.75mi rt easy) – views, hike down into canyon
- Santa Elena Canyon Trail. (1.7mi rt easy/mod) – popular, must see
- Mules Ears Spring Trail. (3.8mi rt mod) – spring, wildlife, views on other side
- The Chimneys Trail. (4.8mi rt mod/stren) – rock pinnacles, pictographs, go back way you came at Old Maverick Rd
- Rio Grande Village Natural Trail. (.75 rt easy) – 3 major ecosystems, sunset views
- Boquillas Canyon Trail. (1.4mi rt easy) – impressive, less crowded
- Hot Springs Canyon Trail. (1mi rt mod) – hot springs, abandoned ruins, shorter hike for springs
- South Rim. (12mi rt stren) – views desert/Mexicos (this splits off on the way to Emory Peak and I hear in the fall it’s absolutely gorgeous with trees changing colors and also great views; this is my #1 hike to do next time I visit)
- Grapevine Hills Trail. (2.2mi rt easy) – popular, views from brochures, rough rd (7mi)
- Devil’s Den. (6mi rt stren) – cliffs but can also wade through waist deep water, have a buddy as can get trapped by steep wall, path finding req’d get map
- Ernst Tinaja. (1.4mi rt easy) – natural hole in rocks that holds water, high clearance vehicle req’d to trailhead
- Pine Canyon Trail. (4mi rt mod) – scenic, waterfall (if rain), high clearance vehicle req’d to reach trailhead, small risk bears mountain lions
- Marfa. This tiny artsy, hipster town has no business being located out in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of like if you picked up an art installation in Austin and plopped it down in the middle of the desert. It’s very cool, close the Big Bend, and definitely worth spending a full day there. Good food, really unique art installations, eclectic shops. You can also stay here if you’d rather not stay in the park (though it will take time to drive into the park vs. It’s kind of pricey though. Also a great place for stargazing.
- McDonald Observatory. If you even remotely like astronomy and stargazing this is a must see. Situated up in the mountains at For Davis, they offer solar tours (during the day) or star parties a couple nights during the week (check the schedule) where you get to look through their telescopes to see incredible views of the moon, planets, and various constellations from these dark skies.
- Big Bend Ranch State Park. Not many people visit this neighboring park, so you’ll find a beautiful, rugged, and more isolated experience. I’ve not been, but will next trip out there. Pictures and articles I’ve read make it sound impressive.
- Boquillas (Mexico). I didn’t realize this was a thing when I first visited, but you can actually take a raft over the Rio Grande into Mexico from the park. Just remember to bring your passport.
- Getting There. If you’re coming from east Texas, it’s fastest to drive out route 10 and then come down route 385 through Marathon, turning off at Fort Stockton (good place to stock up on supplies and gas). You can also go by way of Alpine or Marfa if you don’t mind going a bit out of your way.
- Accommodations. Rio Grande campground will be warmer, since it’s in the valley. It’s the largest campground with 100 sites, flush toilets, laundry, and public showers. Chisos Basin is colder, as it’s in the mountains. It has 63 sites and flush toilets (pay showers at the lodge). They”re pretty far from each other and most of the action will be around Chisos. I stayed at Rio Grande because of the temperature and showers. Can’t go wrong with either. I would encourage you to go Thursday or earlier in the week to snag a first-come-first-served tent spot before the massive crowds arrive over the weekend. Not into camping, try Chisos Mountain Lodge. Outside the park, you have the towns of Alpine, Marfa (coolest, pricier), and Fort Davis (cheapest option, farther away). In Marfa, El Cosmico is unique (but pricey).
- Weather. Stargazing (cold). Due to the size of the park along with valleys and mountains, it will literally be cool, and a need for a jacket hiking in the Chisos area in the mountains, and then it will be in the 90s at the valley floor out by Rio Grande. Dress in layers. I went in Nov which was cool in the evenings, and still warm during the day, but not blazingly hot. Interestingly, 2 weeks later around Thanksgiving it snowed. Spring or Fall after Labor Day is probably the best time to visit.
- Flash Flooding. If you’re not familiar or used to desert conditions, if there is any rain in the forecast, be very mindful and watch out for flash flooding. It’s no joke and people die either stupidly trying to cross over fast moving water/washes or hiking in canyons where they are overtaken by the rapids. So just be sure to check in a the Visitor Center if you’re driving or hiking in a high risk area.
- Wildlife. There’s a surprising diversity in Big Bend given the climate differences, terrain, and size. This includes, to name just a few, black bears, mountain lions, snakes, roadrunners, tarantulas, and javelinas. Tarantulas are very non-aggressive from my understanding and observation. You’d be hard pressed not to see a roadrunner (we say about 10 in 5 days). Javelinas are kind of like wild pigs. Interestingly at Rio Grande, each evening, the javelinas would come out to snack on the grass. The first evening, was sitting there eating dinner (early, but dark) when I noticed what I thought was a kid roaming around. Though it didn’t seem quite the same shape. Sure enough it was a javelina. I redirected my head lamp back towards the nearby field to then see a whole gaggle of about 20 or 30 javelinas! Was pretty cool. They didn’t bother anyone, just roamed around. Don’t piss them off though, I heard they have bacteria in their bite that is not pleasant to humans. Don’t fear them though, just let them do their thing and don’t leave food out! Similarly for food, there are quite a few bear around, especially around Chisos. When camping keep your food in bear proof lockers. When hiking, I suggest only bringing sealed food with you. No need to have a bear approach you because you have food in your pack. Generally they stick to berries and won’t bother you if you don’t bother it. I saw a few, just stay back and let them pass on and there will be no trouble. Good rule of thumb with nature in general, just let it be, don’t both it and it won’t bother you.
4. Dallas / Fort Worth
Highlights: City, cattle, cowboys, music
Suggest Staying: 1-3 days
Stay Around: Deep Ellum or Arlington
The Dallas Fort Worth area (two very large cities about 1 hour from each other) offer a really interesting perspective of Texas. On the one hand, it’s pretty stereotypical of what most people think about Texans, long horned cattle, cowboys, thick southern accents, living large. But on the other hand, there are elements of hipster culture, including food halls, live music, trendy restaurants, and nature. If you’re visiting Texas, definitely a place worth visiting if you have some time.
See & Do
- Grassy Knolls. Where John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
- Deep Ellum. My favorite neighborhood in Dallas. Trendy, hipster, some great places to eat. Saw some incredible southern country rock & blues in a bar with people dressed up as Santa Claus. There’s some good southern rock that comes out of Dallas. Funny story about where “Deep Ellum” got its name. It was originally called “Deep Elm” but everyone kept pronouncing it “Deep Ellum” so they just changed the name. That is one of the biggest, truest, unknown stereotypes of Texas, not pronouncing words correctly.
- Bishop Arts District. Cool artsy area with shops, restaurants, and nightlife.
- Trinity Groves. Iconic bridge.
- The Stockyards. Located in Fort Worth, this is such an interesting area, old stockyards turned into shops where you can get hot sauce, BBQ, tea & spices, and other souvenirs. Periodically people dressed as cowboys will walk huge long horn cattle down the street. Just a neat place to visit that definitely feels like a slice out of the old west (with modernity).
- Arlington. City between Dallas and Forth Worth with similar things like shops, restaurant, etc.
- Denton. Up and coming hipster city.
- Possum Kingdom Lake. Inspired the song Possum Kingdom by The Toadies.
Food & Drink
- Deep Ellum. Really any of the places in this area are good choices.
- Legacy Food Hall. This giant food hall is great and has all kinds of hipster and trendy eateries.
- Fadi’s Mediterranean Grill. Outstanding choose your own plate mediterranean.
- Modern Market Eatery. Outstanding healthy food, quick.
- Ghengis Grill. Mongolian BBQ.
- Rolls by Chubby Cattle. Hot pot. Incidentally, this shopping center if full of Asian restaurants.
- Matcha Mecca. Bubble tea.
- Parliament. Cocktail bar.
Highlights: City, beaches, forest
Suggest Staying: 1-3 days
Stay Around: Huntsville State Park (camping) or Galveston (beach)
The cultural center of Texas, Houston is a little more metropolitan and similar to other big cities in the U.S. It’s not the most interesting in terms of sightseeing in my opinion, but worth a quick stop downtown. There are several just outside the city worth exploring.
See & Do
- Sam Houston Park. Historic park.
- Discovery Green. Greenery, outdoor art, one of my favorite spots downtown.
- Heritage Plaza. Large, interesting looking building.
- Hermann Park. Nice park next to the zoo, Japanese garden. Nearby there are also a bunch of museums (similar as you would find in other large cities – natural history, science, art, etc.).
- Houston Arboretum & Nature Center. Get your nature fix.
- Emancipation Park. Historic park dedicated to the end of slavery.
- Space Center. You’ve no doubt heard “Houston, we have a problem.” Well this is the home of NASA’s Houston base of operations.
- Battleship Texas. Large battleship you can tour.
- San Jacinto Monument. Memorial to the battle here.
- The Orange Show. Created by an eccentric gentleman is a really fun off-the-beaten-path site. You’ll spend about an hour. I don’t want to show too many pictures, just go.
- Wat Buddhavas. Yes, there is a Thai Buddhist temple in Texas.
- TAXA Outdoors. Headquartered in Houston, these guys make the coolest campers. Designed by a former NASA engineer.
Food & Drink
- Phoenicia Speciality Foods. Middle eastern and mediterranean market that feels like a Costco. Market, grocery store, supplies. They also have the best fold up grocery bags I’ve ever seen…trust me, by a couple for you and your loved ones. You can only get there at the store. Great place to stop for lunch and groceries if you’re heading from Austin to New Orleans. Definitely worth checking out.
- NuWaters. This locally run by volunteers farm is a wonderful example of people trying to do good in their community. There’s a farm outside the downtown area and a store across from Emancipation Park. The owners wonderful human beings.
- Katz’s Deli & Bar. NY Jewish style delicatessen.
- Sammy’s Wild Game Grill. Basically a burger joint that sells all kinds of exotic wild game such as elk, ostrich, kangaroo, and more. They say they responsibly source, so hopefully that’s true. Try a sliders sampler.
- Huntsville State Park. Great park with a huge lake and trees! Great spot for camping, relaxing, boating, fishing. There are some hiking trails as well. There are alligators that live in the lake, on the other side of the campground. It’s safe. I find this to be a perfect stopover or destination if you want to relax, lay in a hammock, and/or enjoy the lake in the spring or fall. I imagine it’s brutally hot, humid, and full of mosquitoes in the summer. Look for the nearby giant statue of Sam Houston.
- Galveston. Popular beach town that is quite touristy, but good if you’re looking for a trip to the beach. Located along the gulf, so will be a bit different from the ocean, likely warmer water and less waves, for example.
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.
See & Do
- Prada Store. Probably the most famous, photographed art installation. Out along the highway.
- Target. Similar as the Prada Store. Out along the highway.
- Downtown. Easily walkable and small, be sure to soak up the views from the top of the courthouse.
- Wrong Store. Cool, quirky shop.
- Marfa Book Company. Bookstore.
- Ayn Foundation. Art gallery with Andy Warhol’s rendition of the Last Supper.
- Rock Shop. Neat local rock shop with rocks sourced from all over. Leave with a memento from your trip to west Texas!
- Chinati Foundation. Old interment camp turned art installation.
- Marfa Lights. Popular spot just outside the town with a large parking lot and platform.
- McDonald Observatory. If time permits, I highly recommend a star party here, located just north in Fort Davis. Look through telescopes at the moon, planets, and various constellations.
- Ranch Road 2810. Adventure drive, pick up at the railroad tracks.
- Route 17. Pretty drive between Fort Davis and Balmorrhea. There’s actually a spring fed pool at Balmorrhea State Park.
Food & Drink
- La Ventura. Great breakfast.
- Aster. Great breakfast.
- Do Your Thing Coffee. Great toast options in addition to coffee stop.
- Accommodations. Stay anywhere around town in a hotel or AirBnB. Or for something more unique, check out El Cosmico.
- Stargazing. Personally, I didn’t like Marfa Lights because it’s right on the highway and crowded (even in the winter off season), making it difficult to let your eyes adjust. In the summer I hear it’s very crowded. Instead, either go to McDonald Observatory for some real stargazing or just pull off along the road farther from cars. For McDonald star parties, in the summer peak season, hundreds of people attend, so be sure to check the schedule (they only happen certain nights) and purchase tickets online ahead of time (they sell out). It’s cold out that way in the evening, dress warmly and in layers, some even bring blankets. It’s the desert, so even in summer heat, it could be cool at night. It’s definitely cold in the winter! In general check the weather fo clothing as well as cloud cover or rain, which may cancel the star party.
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
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
Palo Duro Canyon
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.
- Camping. Tent sites are limited and first come first served, so you may be out of luck as I was when you arrive. Your alternate options are 1) get an RV spot (if available) and sleep in your car or rooftop tent, 2) BLM (public) land about 29 miles north towards Carlsbad (at 424), 3) stay in Whites City which is right next to Carlsbad Caverns.
Corpus Cristi / South Padre
Lake Corpus Cristi State Park
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 its 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.