From cacti-speckled badlands to the best barbecue joints in town – earn your spurs in the Lone Star State and plot the perfect wild escape with our handy guide...
After nearly 45 minutes of gently ascending the Lost Mine Trail, I turned the corner to be greeted by the topographical glory of Juniper Canyon. This rocky wonder, set deep in Big Bend National Park, soon became one of my favourite views in the whole of Texas.
Layers of mountains – each a slightly different shade of pastel colour – stretched across the landscape as far as the eye could see. Spiky desert cacti punctured the scene to set the mood and, best of all, the rock formation beside me happened to be shaped like a chiselled armchair. I quickly settled into my throne of nature and soaked up the astounding scenery for nearly an hour.
What struck me – beyond the magnificent visual canvas – was the utter lack of any human interference. There were no motor sounds; there weren’t any telephone lines, planes or scraps of paper.
It was highly possible that little had changed here since my spot had been similarly occupied by the region’s indigenous inhabitants thousands of years ago.
For that blissful hour, I let my eyes and thoughts wander and disperse across the colossal untouched Texas landscape.
I spent the next few days exploring Big Bend’s other natural wonders, from traversing the mighty Rio Grande River and relaxing in its hot springs, to marvelling at sheer vertical canyon walls, to savouring the delicacies of West Texas at the park’s dining lodge.
Occasionally, I’d see a Texan basking in Big Bend’s rugged beauty. True to form, they’d politely smile and offer a friendly “Howdy” while acknowledging that we were fortunate to be sharing such an experience. But there was no denying that the glory of Big Bend offers the perfect gateway to explore this wild state, yet it is far from the only wonder to be found here, as visitors soon discover.
Duration: Three to seven days
Route: Big Bend National Park • Terlingua Ghost Town • Marfa
Why go? To experience the majesty of Texas’ mountains and deserts, either as an outdoor adventurer or in the comfort of a lodge and vehicle.
Travel considerations: The most convenient airports are Midland and El Paso, which are, respectively, three and five hours’ drive from Big Bend NP. Hire a car at the airport.
The immense appeal of this region’s wide-open spaces draws many people, and its dark skies are quite a sight. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Big Bend National Park, which lies on the Mexico border.
The park features nearly 250km of trails, from short loops to rugged backcountry treks with major elevation increases. Some of the highlights are the dramatic 450m-high cliff walls of Santa Elena Canyon and the massive Casa Grande formation, a mesmerising beacon of the Chisos Basin area. The Santa Elena Canyon Trail (almost three km) is a manageable starting point, while the South Rim Trail (up to 23km) is a wild epic.
Another great way to see it is by paddling the Rio Grande, with options ranging from quiet canoe rides to whitewater rafting via guided trips at Big Bend River Tours. Camping is also available at three sites: the mountainous Chisos Basin, the lower-level Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood.
Just a short drive away is the dusty-yet-charming Terlingua Ghost Town, a small desert village with surprisingly modern lodging and a historic cemetery.
About 175km north also lies the community of Marfa. Artists and art lovers flock here for the quirky gallery scene, restaurants and historic architecture. Lucky travellers will see the mysterious Marfa Lights – ethereal bouncing orange orbs with no apparent source, aside from theories claiming that they’re UFOs or Native American spirits.
Duration: Three to four days
Route: Fort Worth
Why go? To experience the sights, sounds and smells of Texas’ legendary cowboy era, as well as world-class museums.
Travel considerations: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is one of the nation’s largest, offering rental cars and public transportation to the city.
Fort Worth is the quintessential Texas city. Cowboy history? Yup. Cultural gems? Check. True grit? Hell yeah.
With a nickname like Cowtown, you know what you’re gonna get. In the 1860s, this town was the main destination for cattle drives along legendary routes such as the Chisholm Trail.
Even today, the Stockyards National Historic District now serves a hub for visitors to witness honest-to-goodness cowboy- related activity.
Experience weekly livestock auctions at the Exchange Building as weekend rodeos at the legendary Cowtown Coliseum and the twice-daily clip- clopping of longhorn cattle on the cobblestone streets.
Enjoy history of a different kind just a few kilometres away in the Fort Worth Cultural District. The world-class Kimbell Art Museum contains artwork by Monet, Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse, all bathed in natural light radiating from barrel- vaulted ceilings.
Head next door for another unusual structure, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which appears to float on a placid pond.
Impressive views await inside, too, including colourful Andy Warhol silk screens.
Finally, explore an oft-forgotten history at the nearby National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, which highlights the significant role of women in the American West.
Duration: Two to three days
Route: San Antonio
Why go? To experience a bygone era of world history, when the Spanish Crown was making its first tentative moves in the New World.
Travel considerations: San Antonio and Austin have major airports; consider renting a car at either location and combining both cities into a one-week visit.
In the US, a site is in contention for being classified as ‘historic’ at 50 years old, according to the National Parks Service. Although this is pretty recent by European standards, it renders San Antonio’s 300-year-old history downright ancient.
One of the most historically significant sites is the iconic Alamo (founded in 1718) and the four other mission churches – recently named a collective UNESCO World Heritage Site. They represent a bygone era of Spanish colonialism, and a visit to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park takes you back to a time when the Spanish Crown was attempting to spread Catholicism to the indigenous Coahuiltecan people.
The best-known mission – San Antonio de Valero, now called The Alamo – later gained fame as a fort that was attacked a century later during Texas’ 1836 War for Independence from Mexico. Its Texan defenders were vastly outnumbered and eventually overrun, but their defiance has become a symbol of resistance.
The other four missions – Concepcion, Espada, San José and San Juan – highlight different aspects of 18th century life in San Antonio, from harvesting crops to observing religious rituals. Consider exploring them by bike; these are available for rent at each site.
Just a few miles away are other vestiges of New Spain’s influence in the 1700s. The stately Gothic-revival San Fernando Cathedral was founded by a group of 15 families from the Canary Islands in 1731, and the adjacent 1749 Spanish Governor’s Palace features dazzlingly white stucco stone walls and a lush tropical courtyard.
Duration: Four to five days
Route: Amarillo • Lubbock
Why go? To experience an underappreciated region of Texas that’s home to canyons, the ‘Mother Road’ of Route 66 and the state’s official American bison herd.
Travel considerations: Lubbock and Amarillo have major airports; a rental car from either will provide the freedom to explore the entire region.
Vast rock structures. Iconic wildlife. A cool art heritage. The Panhandle region of north-west Texas has everything that’s great about the Lone Star State, but with out the crowds.
First up is the Panhandle’s most fascinating attraction, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, near Amarillo. The main features of the USA’s second-largest canyon consist of impressive rock towers and huge walls of muted yellow, orange and red hues. A number of hiking and biking trails explore its jagged hoodoos, with the eight km round-trip walk to its famed Lighthouse rock found halfway down the park.
Route 66 passed through Amarillo in the mid-1900s and catered to a new demographic: vehicular travellers. Be sure to experience (and graffiti – it’s encouraged) the iconic Cadillac Ranch, ten classic cars from the golden age of American automobiles that have been buried hood-first in a corn field.
About 190km south is Lubbock, the Panhandle’s largest city (population circa 250,000). Known locally as the home of the huge Texas Tech University, Lubbock’s also noteworthy for its native son Buddy Holly, who helped revolutionise rock music; memorabilia, including his famous spectacles, are on display at the Buddy Holly Centre and Museum.
About 90 minutes’ drive north- east is Caprock Canyons State Park, home to the official State of Texas Bison Herd. They are the descendants of a herd created in 1878, to prevent these hunted animals’ extinction.
Here they roam freely, resulting in the odd buffalo jam on the park roads. Gaze into their chestnut-brown eyes from the safety of your car while soaking up the red hue of the surrounding canyonlands.
Duration: Two to three days
Why go? To explore a city that could fill more than one chapter in Texas’ history book.
Travel considerations: Dallas is located 32km from Dallas-Fort Worth International, which offers rental cars and public transportation to the city.
Dallas is the stuff of legends. The ‘Big D’, as its affectionately known, is famous for its contributions to popular culture – both through the iconic 1970s Dallas TV show, which American’s still gush over today, and the Dallas Cowboys American football team, whose cheerleaders are among the most celebrated in the NFL.
But Dallas holds a deeper place in the American psyche, as the location of President John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, as he was riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas’ Dealey Plaza.
Investigations concluded the fatal shots were fired from the sixth floor of the nearby Texas School Book Depository, which has been turned into a museum dedicated to Kennedy’s legacy. Its highlight is a glass-encased exhibit preserving the spot by the window where officials found three spent rifle shells, a sniper’s nest and a gun
On a happier historical note, Dallas is also home to the annual State Fair of Texas, held every September and October in Fair Park.
Where else can you eat a corndog in the shadow of a 17m ‘Big Tex’ cowboy statue before heading off to the stands to watch an American football game? Add a few fried Twinkies, some fried beer and one of the USA’s tallest ferris wheels (65m), and Dallas’ legacy really starts to loom large.
Duration: Three to five days
Why go? To experience progressive Texas via the city’s traditional museums and its entrepreneurial energy.
Travel destinations: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport does not have access to a public rail service, so you will have to hire a rental car or use a ride-share service.
It’s been referred to as the ‘blueberry in Texas’ vast red sea’ and as ‘the People’s Republic of Austin’. In many ways it’s another planet, and Austinites wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re proud about their progressive city – and for good reason. Austin has an energy and entrepreneurial spirit unmatched in many US cities.
Texas’ capital grows daily by more than 100 residents, drawn to the hip, laid-back vibe and creative atmosphere. Begin with a visit to the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art, with its impressive collection of Latin American, baroque and American paintings.
The adjacent Ransom Center also displays remarkable artefacts, including the earliest known surviving photograph and a 1450 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
A few blocks away is Austin’s crown jewel and its most-visited site, the Texas State Capitol. This pink granite edifice, dating to 1888, presides over bustling downtown Austin atop Texas’ version of Washington’s Capitol Hill. In true Texas style, its majestic dome was designed to be four and a half metres taller than that of the US Capitol.
While in Austin, make it a priority to sample the city’s legendary barbecue, a traditional slow-smoked culinary treasure. Barbecued beef brisket is a speciality of Texas, and the best place to experience it is at Franklin Barbecue (900 East 11th Street) – it’s worth the several hours’ wait.
For savoury pork ribs and sausage, go to La Barbecue (East Cesar Chavez Street) or Micklethwait Craft Meats, a trailer with outdoor tables on Rosewood Avenue.
Duration: Three to five days
Why go? To experience Texas’ largest city, the history of the moon landings and a wealth of natural history and art.
Travel considerations: Houston has two airports, but George Bush Intercontinental offers the best flight options and trusty public transportation.
Befitting Texas’ largest city (six million people and growing), Houston is known for its huge skyscrapers, humidity, oil money and, more importantly, its culinary scene.
It also has world-class travel attractions, and its immense international populace carries a cosmopolitan swagger reflecting its status as the new capital of ‘Southern cool’.
Houston’s museums set it apart from other US cities, so be sure to experience NASA’s Mission Control Room, the headquarters for the iconic July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Its recent restoration – including period details like aquamarine- coloured instrument panels and textured wallpaper – offers a look at the room where the words ‘That’s one small step for man...’ were first heard.
Space Center Houston also provides tram tours of other historic buildings and an out-of-this-world museum that showcases the space program’s many missions and all the celestial stories it has seen.
Across town, the Museum District features 19 different aspects of Houston’s cultural legacy. Spanning several kilometres, and with lush tree-lined canopies, the district covers the spectrum from the dinosaurs of the massive Museum of Natural Science to the unassuming Buffalo Soldiers Museum, dedicated to African-American history.
The nearby Museum of Fine Arts Houston contains artwork from all major continents, representing eras from antiquity to the postmodern. Meanwhile, the stainless-steel-encased contemporary Arts Museum of Houston contains provocative art with an avant-garde vibe.
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