Texas is the travel corollary to the how-do-you-eat-an-elephant joke. The answer, of course, is “one bite at a time.”
Texas is simply too big to take in all at once. Until Alaska came along, Texas was the biggest state in the Union. In motorcoach terms, it is 786 miles from Marshall in the east to El Paso in the west and 785 miles from Brownsville in the south to Amarillo in the north; and it’s still another 95 miles from Amarillo to the Oklahoma state line. That’s a lot of time on the asphalt.
So how can you tackle the Lone Star behemoth? Start by understanding who Texans are by visiting the University of Texas at San Antonio Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio and then by biting off logical regions. Authentic Texas magazine calls the institute a terrific starting point for understanding the larger picture of Texas.
San Antonio & the Hill Country
The institute, a Smithsonian Affiliate that transcends its academic roots and is a vibrant visitor attraction, was born as the Texas pavilion for HemisFair ’68, the first world’s fair in the American Southwest. By design, it remained after the fair to tell the story of the many cultural and ethnic groups that settled Texas and continue to help it grow: Native Americans, Spanish, Germans, Norwegians, Jews, Danes, Poles, Vietnamese, Syrians and others. The list numbers more than two dozen.
A Texas tour itinerary could radiate from the institute and, of course, should begin in San Antonio.
“Everyone knows the Alamo; but remember that there are four other Spanish colonial missions: Mission San Jose, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. All are active Catholic parishes,” said Dee Dee Poteete, director of regional communications at Visit San Antonio.
The Mission Reach portion of the San Antonio River Walk provides a special way to enjoy the missions. Mission Reach is an eight-mile linear park for walking, bicycling and even kayaking. Imagine adding an urban float trip to your Texas tour for a most unusual perspective on nature and history.
The San Antonio Food Trails program offers guidance for dining destinations. A nonprofit called Culinaria launched it with three trails: tacos, barbecue and margaritas. Trail restaurants are on a two-year rotation, so ideas remain fresh in a city that is one of only two in the U.S. designated a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy for its diverse culinary heritage. Tucson, Arizona, is the other.
Beaumont & East Texas
East Texas is a slice of the Lone Star State that contrasts dramatically with San Antonio. Anchored by Beaumont down toward the coast and stretching up to Arkansas and Oklahoma, east Texas is a region of coastal plains, piney woods, lakes and perennial attractions, such as the Texas State Railroad that connects Rusk and Palestine.
“We’re pure Texas with an overlay of Cajun and the Old South, and we are heaven for groups that want to enjoy nature,” said Dean Conwell, executive director of the Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In particular, Beaumont is famous for bird-watching, with two migratory flyways and abundant species to see. The CVB offers multiple itineraries into four habitats — woods, wetlands, marsh and shore — and it is possible to visit them all in just a day. Smith Oak Sanctuary is a place to see colorful spoonbills, and right in town are viewing platforms along the wetlands boardwalk of Cattail Marsh.
Beaumont is one place where it’s easy to verify the two-step directions for this recreational pursuit: (1) go outdoors and (2) start looking around.
If you’re the least bit sun-averse, you can get indoors at several museums. Among them are the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, the Clifton Steamboat Museum, the Edison Museum and the Texas Energy Museum. Just-for-fun group photo locations are with Big Beau, a 135-foot-long alligator attraction, and a 24-foot-tall fire hydrant donated to the city after the 1999 rerelease of Disney’s “101 Dalmatians.”
Three hours north of Beaumont is a trip into the late 1800s. It’s the Texas State Railroad, which uses vintage locomotives and coaches for a 25-mile trip through the first state forest in Texas. It crosses 24 bridges, one that is 1,042 feet long, and allows you time to enjoy the depot areas of Rusk and Palestine — say “Pal-es-teen” if you want to sound like a local — during the four-hour experience.
An even more tranquil east Texas experience is another hour north at the Tyler Municipal Rose Garden, 14 acres of floral beauty that showcases 38,000 rosebushes and more than 500 varieties of roses. Ask about varieties saluting notables such as Barbara Bush, Miranda Lambert and Brenda Lee. October, the month of the Texas Rose Festival, is especially active with special events.
Heading west about 100 miles gets you to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, where you could plan an entire week’s tour and never go all the way into the two major cities. There’s plenty to see and do in the sprawling outskirts. Here are some ideas for tour planning.
Sports are big throughout Texas, but Frisco, about 30 miles north of Dallas, has particular sports cred. Not yet 2 years old is the National Soccer Hall of Fame, which is built into Toyota Stadium, home of major league soccer’s FC Dallas. It is the first major league sports Hall of Fame within a stadium. It is highly interactive, and its static displays are impressive. Example: The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy is here permanently.
That other kind of football, the NFL type, is the focus of The Star, the headquarters and practice facility of the Dallas Cowboys. Wesley Lucas, communications manager at Visit Frisco, highlights the fact that this is the only NFL facility of its kind open for tours. The 91-acre complex also includes the Ford Center, a 510,000-square-foot athletic center for football and soccer games, and a collection of three dozen restaurants, shops and other businesses. You don’t have to be a Cowboys fan to enjoy The Star.
Arlington delivers another sports/entertainment/dining combo with the new $250 million complex called Texas Live! between the stadiums where the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers play. One attraction is Live Arena, a 35,000-square-foot arrival area where you can watch games in the two stadiums on a 100-foot LED HD television. As they say, “No ticket, no problem.”
Rodeo, of course, is a sport of a different kind, and it’s the big draw in Mesquite, which bills itself the Rodeo Capital of Texas. Target a Saturday evening from June through August to see saddle bronc riding, bull riding, team roping, barrel racing and other events in a 5,500-seat arena that has the special attribute of being air conditioned. Check out the Mesquite Outlaws — Major Arena league soccer — in the same space.
After the excitement of rodeo, you can chill out with a tour on the Grapevine Urban Wine Trail. Grapevine preserved its historic main street, making it a picturesque location to visit a variety of tasting rooms and other shops and restaurants. Tip: Dr. Sue’s Chocolate is a special Grapevine treat.
An activity that’s even more chill is a visit to Nash Farm, just a few blocks off Main Street. This 5.2-acre farm dates to 1859 and features a farmhouse, a barn, vegetable gardens, orchards and farm animals. Ask about arranging a farmhouse breakfast and participating in activities such as feeding sheep, collecting eggs and picking peaches. Hint: You can enjoy a peach or two while you’re “working.”
El Paso & West Texas
The far west of Texas is Big Bend Country, the place to go for wide-open spaces and outdoor grandeur that’s on a — well — Texas scale. El Paso, which is so far west that it’s in the Mountain Time Zone, is the only metro area in the region.
It is made special for many reasons, most particularly because it is joined at the hip with Juarez, Mexico, making it an international destination. You can offer your group a distinctive side trip with a walk over the Paseo del Norte International Bridge, where you can pick up a local tour vehicle or take a walking tour that includes the excellent Museum of the Revolution, the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a bustling mercado. Most Juarez tours end with a stop at the Kentucky Club and Grill, where margaritas were invented. Few will object.
Downtown El Paso has had a hotel renaissance recently, and there are plenty of lodging choices within walking distance of the El Paso Art Museum, the El Paso History Museum, the Plaza Theatre and a down-home shopping district anchored by Starr Western Wear, where you can buy the cowboy hat you’ve always wanted and have it custom fit, too.
This is the region for enormous parks, even directly in El Paso. Spectacular views of the city distinguish Franklin Mountains State Park, the largest urban park in America. Its tallest peak tops out at 7,192 feet. Slightly more than 100 miles away is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas at 8,751 feet. Still in the region but almost 350 miles away is the spectacular Big Bend National Park. Break up that drive by seeing the Fort Davis National Historic Site and the McDonald Observatory for looks into frontier expansion and outer space.
If you seek a national park marathon, you could target Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but that would take you into New Mexico, and as you already realize, there’s plenty of Texas remaining to explore.