A visit to Texas wouldn’t be complete without experiencing a touch of its cowboy and cowgirl swagger. From dude ranches that boast authentic chuck-wagon meals to a night at the country’s largest rodeo and livestock show, there’s no shortage of opportunities for groups to explore Texas’ rich and storied ranching heritage.
National Ranching Heritage Center
On the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, the National Ranching Heritage Center offers visitors a chance to learn about Texas’ ranching industry in an immersive way. There, guests can enjoy a 44,000-square-foot museum with seven exhibit galleries. The center also features a 19-acre historical park with 50 preserved ranching structures dating from the late 1700s to the mid-1900s. They are outfitted with authentic period furnishings and tools.
The buildings are arranged chronologically to provide a life-size timeline of sorts of the state’s ranching industry.
“What makes the National Ranching Heritage Center unique is that it really represents the authentic West,” said the center’s executive director, Jim Bret Campbell. “We read about the romanticized West in books or see it in movies, but here we tell the real stories of the men and women who ventured out to the American West to help establish the Texas ranching industry. And the ruggedness and individualism that comes through in their stories is part of what’s so fascinating about this history.”
A 1.5-mile paved trail provides easy access to each structure, and guests can make the most of their self-guided tours by downloading the center’s smartphone app, which delivers photos, audio and text about each building.
Fort Worth Stockyards and Cattle Drive
Every day at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., visitors can line the streets alongside Fort Worth’s Stockyards National Historic District to witness an authentic Old West-style cattle drive. The parade of Texas longhorns through the streets — complete with drivers outfitted in historically accurate chaps, boots and hats — harkens back to the city’s role as part of the Chisholm Trail, the storied trade route used by Texas ranchers to drive an estimated 5 million cattle north to Kansas between 1867 and 1884.
Some of the best spots to view the cattle drive, which is free to attend, are in front of the Stockyards Visitor Center, which can also offer insight on the many additional Western heritage experiences Fort Worth has to offer, including the nearby Stockyards Museum and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Fort Worth is also home to the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, which celebrates the women like Annie Oakley and lesser-known influencers who helped shape the American West.
After the ample dose of Western history, guests may want to close out the day by shopping at one of the city’s famous Western apparel outfitters, like M.L. Leddy’s, in operation since 1922, or by kicking up their heels cowboy-style at Billy Bob’s Texas, the world’s largest honky-tonk.
“Billy Bob’s Texas has over 127,000 square feet, with two dance floors and live bull riding on Friday and Saturday nights, plus free line-dancing lessons on Thursday nights,” said Sarah Covington, assistant director of public relations for Visit Fort Worth. “And, if you’re here on the weekend, you can attend the Stockyards Championship Rodeo in Fort Worth every Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m. We’re the world’s only year-round rodeo.”
Republic of the Río Grande Museum
In the heart of Laredo’s downtown historic district, the Republic of the Río Grande Museum operates out of a historic home that served as both a residence and the capitol of the short-lived, independent nation known as the Republic of the Río Grande.
Formed in January 1840 and lasting until early November that same year, the Republic of the Río Grande included areas in what is now southern Texas and three northern states of Mexico.
“It lasted 283 days,” said museum assistant Andrea Ordoñez. “It didn’t last very long, but we tried to be our own independent country for a little bit. The Republic of Texas was going on at the same time. It was a little bit of a land dispute happening here. Texas claimed [the area]. Mexico claimed it. We claimed it.”
The museum is outfitted in period-authentic home furnishings and includes exhibits that shed light on Laredo’s leadership role in the brief independence movement. The museum, which was built in the 1830s and has an 1860s-era addition, was once home to a prominent rancher and mayor of Laredo.
“We have highlights on the history of Laredo and the Republic, and then two rooms in the back are set up as a historic home from the late 1800s to early 1900s,” Ordoñez said.
Dixie Dude Ranch
Even city slickers can get a taste of the Western way of life at Dixie Dude Ranch, in operation in the town of Bandera — which dubs itself the Texas Cowboy Capital of the World — since 1937.
Fourth-generation ranch owner Clay Conoly and his wife, Diane, run the working stock ranch, where guests enjoy daily horseback riding, three home-cooked meals daily and a chance to experience life on the range.
“I’m pretty much running the ranch much like my grandparents did — very simply but with great value to our guests,” Clay Conoly said.
The ranch can accommodate up to 60 guests and has a two-night minimum stay. While there, visitors are treated to heaping servings of Texas cuisine — barbecue, fried chicken, chicken fried steak and the like, plus even a twice-weekly cowboy breakfast, “where guests actually ride horses up to the chuck wagon and we have breakfast there,” he said.
And while the ranch’s modest herd of longhorn cattle roam nearby, guests won’t be required to wrangle them. There is an opportunity to learn roping skills, albeit from the safety of the ground instead of on horseback.
“The thing we hear the most is how much our guests enjoy the relaxation they acquire while they’re here,” Conoly said. “The land here, that Texas Hill Country, is so pretty. And the scenery and the animals, plus our excellent ranch staff, work together to create a kind of magic for our guests.”
Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo
Texas prides itself on doing things big, so it should be no surprise that the world’s largest livestock show and rodeo can be found right in the heart of Houston.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, also known affectionately as Rodeo Houston, lasts for roughly 20 days each year, typically from late February to mid-March. This year’s schedule runs from February 25 through March 17 and includes nightly concerts by some of country music’s biggest stars, including Kasey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Brad Paisley, and the Zac Brown Band.
“Typically, we are the largest fair or festival in North America,” said Joel Cowley, the event’s president and CEO. “We average about 2.5 million visitors each year in general attendance, and about 1.3 million of those guests also will go into NRG Stadium to enjoy the rodeo and one of our star entertainers.”
The event includes daily livestock shows, plus a large outdoor carnival complete with midway rides and food stands. Each night, a championship rodeo event features some of the country’s most elite rodeo competitors.