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Go. See. Do! A Top 30 List for Texas Travelers

Whether you’re a frequent visitor to our fair state, or lucky enough to live here, have we got a traveler’s to-do list for you! Try these 30 sure bets for quintessential Texas experiences.

Highland Lakes

As the majestic moniker suggests, these six lakes (Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis, and Austin), formed from the Colorado River in Llano, Burnet, and Travis counties, rank high on the list of the state's best lakes. Their lure lies not only in their proximity to each other, but also in the seemingly countless ways to enjoy them. Water-sports-enthusiasts obviously love these reservoirs, but you can also ogle bald eagles and visit a vineyard on Buchanan; enjoy delicious fried catfish on a floating barge (or catch your own) on Inks; take a sightseeing cruise on Lake LBJ; watch drag-boat races on Marble Falls; slip and slide at a waterpark on Travis; and listen to live music as it wafts across the chilly waters of Lake Austin. There's something for everyone–from scuba divers to nudists!

Wildflowers

The state's annual spring fling enthralls thousands of wildflower-watchers in climes from Amarillo to Zapata. Texans celebrate the blooms with wildflower festivals (several dedicated just to bluebonnets), wildflower trails, wildflower workshops, and more (Texas Highways publishes a 16-page wildflower-photo extravaganza each April). While the Hill Country's scenic vistas receive much of the acclaim, all parts of the state offer an explosion of seasonal color. And the show doesn't stop with the arrival of summer. Texas fields abound with blooms almost year round. In September, look for giant blue sage, brown-eyed Susan, blackfoot daisy, sunflowers, and gayfeather.

Washington County

Texas was birthed at Washington-on-the-Brazos (now a state park) in 1836, when 59 feisty men signed a Declaration of Independence. In less than two months, the goal of freedom from Mexico had been achieved. Perhaps they were inspired by spring, which proves especially beautiful here as wildflowers riot across the fields. In Brenham, tour Blue Bell Creameries, and ride an antique carousel; enjoy gorgeous music at the International Festival-Institute in tiny Round Top; stroll the gardens of the Antique Rose Emporium in Independence; pet precious miniature horses, nurtured by nuns at the Monastery of St. Clare; and visit a century-old National Register cotton gin in Burton. At the state park, the Star of the Republic Museum and the Barrington Living History Farm will clue you in to Texas life in the early days.

Davis Mountains

One of the prettiest drives in Texas loops 74 miles through the Davis Mountains, the most extensive range completely within Texas. The loop passes scenic Davis Mountains State Park, the Prude Guest Ranch, the McDonald Observatory, and miles of rangeland where you can spot pronghorn antelope, mule deer, bobcats, and other wildlife. Visitors to the observatory are treated to solar viewings by day and, several evenings a week, "star parties," at which they can peer at the stars and planets in the clear night sky. The historic town of Fort Davis preserves the past at the frontier fort, which celebrates 150 years in October, and at other structures like the comfortable Limpia Hotel, built in 1912. Want to see blooming cacti and other plants and shrubs adapted to the area's arid climate? Visit the arboretum, greenhouse, and nature trails of the 500-acre Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.

Big Sky Country

From diving for freshwater pearls in the Concho River to gourmet dining at Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, the Big Sky country thrills travelers with unexpected pleasures. In San Angelo, immerse yourself in the 19th Century at Fort Concho National Historical Landmark, and then head for the exuberantly modern San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, with its fine collection of contemporary American ceramics, among other artworks. The city also offers eclectic shopping; don't miss The Old Chicken Farm Art Center. Abilene sites to see include Grace Museum (fine arts, historical, and children's museums, all-in-one) and Fort Phantom Hill. Fourteen miles south lies Buffalo Gap Historic Village, with more than a dozen buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. On weekends, living-history interpreters bring the Texas frontier to life.

Corpus Christi (and Padre Island)

The Sparkling City by the Sea is a must-see (and hear and touch and taste and smell), with a multitude of museums (from the U.S.S. Lexington Museum on the Bay and the Asian Cultures Museum to the Art Museum of South Texas, the Museum of Science and History, and the Selena Museum, which honors the late hometown superstar); the Texas State Aquarium and its Dolphin Bay! and Islands of Steel exhibits; the lush Botanical Gardens; and the beachy treats of nearby Padre Island (parks, resorts, and some 70 miles of undeveloped shoreline along the National Seashore). Annual events like Bayfest (Sep. 24-26, 2004) and the state's oldest jazz festival (Oct. 15-17, 2004) are shore bets, as well. Simple pleasures include strolling the marina's T-heads (fill up at a waterfront restaurant, or buy shrimp fresh off the boat), and cruising down Ocean Drive, lined with ritzy bay-side homes. Roll down your windows and let the seabreeze in!

High Plains

Two dramatic landforms–the Llano Estacado and Palo Duro Canyon–dominate this region, and passing through either conjures up Technicolor images of cowboys and cattle drives. Learn how the West was won at the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock. (For a total-immersion experience, attend the annual National Cowboy Symposium the weekend after Labor Day.) Dig even deeper into the past at Lubbock Lake Landmark, a world-famous archeological preserve. Also in Lubbock, check out the windmills at the American Wind Power Center, visit award-winning wineries, tour the Buddy Holly Center, and sample the continuing music scene in the city's Depot District. Sites in the Amarillo area range from the iconic Cadillac Ranch west of town, along historic Route 66, to the superb Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon. In the summertime, cap off a High Plains adventure by seeing the outdoor musical drama TEXAS Legacies in the majestic Pioneer Amphitheatre in Palo Duro Canyon.

German Hill Country

Ein, Zwei, Drei, Vier, Fünf…. Boerne, Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Comfort, Luckenbach…. 19th-Century German pioneers found their way to the beloved rivers and gently undulating landscape of Central Texas and created a fondly favored fusion of Europe and Texana. Bavaria meets bountiful bluebonnets. And Enchanted Rock, too. Willkommen, y'all.

Denison/Sherman/Lake Texoma

In bustling downtown Denison, it's hard to find a parking place on Saturdays. Chalk it up in part to the city's burgeoning arts community–galleries line downtown streets, along with antique shops, tearooms, and even a wine-tasting room. Other Denison attractions include Dwight D. Eisenhower's birthplace, Grayson County Frontier Village, and the Red River Railroad Museum. A few miles north lies Lake Texoma, one of the state's largest and most popular lakes. Nearby Sherman has its own attractions, including the Red River Historical Museum and the C.S. Roberts House, which anchors an area of beautiful Victorian homes. Kelly Square offers art galleries, antiques, and other specialty shops in a restored three-story, turn-of-the-20th-Century building.

Rodeos

Head 'em up and move 'em out! The town of Pecos (with some argument from a couple of those states out West) claims to have held the world's first rodeo, in 1883. Today, rope-'em-and-ride-'em events draw thousands of fans all across Texas. Some of the biggest and best take place in Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. If you want to see a rodeo, the best months are February, March, September, and October, but you won't have much trouble finding one whenever you travel. (In Mesquite, for example, a rodeo takes place every Friday and Saturday night, from April through September.)

Central Texas Barbecue

Llano. Elgin. Lockhart. Taylor. Luling. If it's smoked meat you crave–and we know you do–you've come to the right place. Life got you down? Head for a barbecue town. They do Q in Carolina and Mississippi and Memphis, too, but we're proud to be among the links-and-brisket kings and queens of the Lone Star State. Pintos and potato salad? Cobbler or banana pudding with that? Yeah! Us, too.

Big Bend

Out in West Texas, at the big bend of the Rio Grande, you'll find jaw-dropping scenery and unlimited outdoor recreation. The 801,000-acre national park includes massive canyons, the entire Chisos Mountains range, vast expanses of the Chihuahuan Desert, a 118-mile stretch of the Rio Grande, and 150 miles of unpaved roads. Rafters, hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and photographers love Big Bend. Stay at the Basin, see the Window, experience late-spring or summer showers followed by bloom–ing prickly pears, cholla, and ocotillos. The park harbors more than 58 endangered and threatened plant and animal species, and more than 430 species of birds. Nearby, don't miss more wonders at Big Bend Ranch State Park, Study Butte, Lajitas, Terlingua, and the River Road (FM 170).

Dallas/Fort Worth

So expansive, it has earned an ominous sounding, less-than-mellifluous name (Metroplex) that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But that's ok, because your taste buds will savor all the superlative offerings at the terrific restaurants and cafes that these two great Texas cities and their suburbs afford. Not to mention all the fantastic night life, museums, concerts, sporting events, the State Fair, shopping, and multitude of other attractions. Western authentic and urban sophisticate. Has Fort Worth ever crossed your mind? Have you ever seen Dallas at night? Well then, get to it.

South Padre Island

Do you love salt water, sand dunes, Gulf Coast critters, and fresh seafood? Welcome to South Padre Island! Beautiful beaches, warm waters, abundant sunshine, fishing, boating, and birdwatching make South Padre one of Texas' worst-kept secrets. Splash in the surf, horseback ride on the beach, learn about sea turtles, watch the dolphins, and squish your toes in the sand. A long walk on the beach never felt so good. And Mexico is a short drive away.

Laredo

Most Laredo visitors come to this border town for the sole purpose of shopping (and partying) in Nuevo Laredo, where they load up on hand-painted pottery, silver jewelry, and furniture fashioned from solid wood and wrought-iron–at prices unheard of in the United States. But long after your pocketbook has been depleted, there are still noteworthy sites to enjoy in this metropolitan mingling of countries. Get to know Laredo's century-old downtown on a trolley tour, learn about the area's rich history at the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, take in regional contemporary art at the Laredo Center for the Arts, explore the borderland's wildlife at the Lamar-Bruni Vergara Science Center, and call it a day at La Posada Hotel. As for eatin' and drinkin,' we can't say enough about La India, La Roca, Cotulla Style BBQ, and the many other indie eateries you'll find here.

Big Thicket

This national preserve covers nearly 100,000 acres within 12 separate units in southeast Texas. Enjoy the ecological diversity of plants and wildlife. It's a beautiful, tangled web that Mother Nature weaves of woods and water. Hike. Boat. Fish. Camp. Birdwatch. Of course, it's the BIG Thicket. This is Texas.

Houston

A rich gumbo of high and low culture, nonconformist chutzpah, big-city swagger, and surprisingly serene parks and neighborhoods, Houston vibrates with the energy of the 3 million souls who call this coastal corner of Texas home. It's colossal, yes. The traffic and humidity can be devilish. But if variety is your life's spice, look no farther than cosmopolitan Hugetown, the nation's 4th-largest metropolis. Museums. Theater. Opera. Retail to rival New York's. Hopping nightlife. Kid-friendly attractions like Space Center Houston and Six Flags. Mind-bogglingly diverse dining. Sports. A brand-new METRO light rail. And oh, yes–the beach is just 45 minutes away.

Galveston

Stroll along the Seawall, savor the seafood at Gaido's, and step into the 19th Century on the Strand. Ooh and aah at the architectural marvels of elegant Ashton Villa and the ornate Bishop's Palace, take in an opera or musical show at the Grand 1894 Opera House, then visit the Texas Seaport Museum and climb aboard Texas' 1877 Tall Ship, Elissa. Explore a rain–forest, go ice-skating, and find Nemo in the aquarium, all at Moody Gardens. Want to really get away from it all? Take a Carnival or Royal Caribbean cruise to a tropical port of call.

Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail

Birdwatchers, crow for joy! Texas offers some of the nation's premier birding, and its entire 400-mile coastline has been mapped, just for you (see map-ordering information on page 74 of the print issue). The Central Flyway passes smack-dab through the Lone Star State, and more than 600 species of birds nest in Texas or flap their wings vigorously as they fly through. Some sites on the Trail offer special lodging and rates.

Rio Grande Valley

For birders and other ecotourists, the subtropical swath of Texas known as the Rio Grande Valley is paradise. With dozens of preserves, natural areas, and refuges scattered from Laredo to South Padre Island, you'll find some of the best wildlife-viewing in the world. But linger long enough in this land of citrus and palms, and you'll discover the region's historic (and sometimes zany) soul. The Valley's bigger sisters–Brownsville, Harlingen, and McAllen–share roots but boast different personalities, as do the region's dozens of other multicultural towns. To really get to know the Valley, don't forget to: buy a bag of grapefruit at a roadside fruit stand; cross the border into Mexico at least once; and ask a few Valley residents where they like to eat (and heed their advice).

San Antonio

In San Antonio, you must remember the Alamo, along with many other not-to-be-forgotten sites. Those include the River Walk, four more 18th-Century Spanish missions, Market Square, the Spanish Governor's Palace, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Sea World, the Botanical Garden, three topnotch museums (San Antonio Museum of Art, the McNay Art Museum, and the Witte), and Brack-enridge Park, with its zoo, kiddie train, and Japanese Tea Garden. Newer attractions like the Alamodome, the SBC Center, and Sunset Station–not to mention colorful events like Fiesta each April and the Texas Folklife Festival each June–keep this vibrant and historic city one of the nation's most popular destinations.

Tex-Mex

Ah…Tex-Mex. Enchiladas, tacos, tamales, fajitas, chiles relleños–the list goes on. And then there are the sides–Spanish rice, refried beans, tostadas, guacamole, pico de gallo…. Deprive Texans of these savory foods for any length of time, and we become seriously depressed. Tourists often find themselves in the same fix once they get back home. Truth be told, Tex-Mex probably edges out even the Alamo on the list of top Lone Star attractions. Where to find good Tex-Mex? Just ask a local, in almost any town, in any part of the state.

Austin

The "Live Music Capital of the World" offers the South-by-Southwest music-and-film festival each March, while Sixth Street and dozens of music venues citywide jump and jive year round. Beautiful, spring-fed Barton Springs pool and two of Central Texas' six Highland Lakes–along with Town Lake, in the heart of downtown–attract "water babies" of all ages. The Capitol, the Texas State History Museum, the new Blanton Museum of Art (opening fall 2005), and the University of Texas campus all lie within walking distance of each other.

El Paso

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, you'll fall in love with this eccentric pearl. (Apologies to country superstar Marty Robbins, whose 1959 song "El Paso" won a Grammy.) If you like unexpected adventures, spend some time in this mountainous, arid, Southwestern classic, whose downtown–a discombobulating marriage of bold Art Deco architecture and dollar trinket stores–is worth exploring. And don't miss a ride on the Wyler Aerial Tramway, which whisks sightseers via Swiss gondola to the top of the Franklin Mountains. What else will you find in this desert jewel? A topnotch art museum, historic missions, stunning sunsets, shopping and history in Ciudad Juárez, Indian pictographs at near-by Hueco Tanks State Historic Site, and plenty of fine Tex-Mex food, which, in these parts, derives as much from New Mex. as Old Mex.

Hill Country Swimming Holes

You've gotta love a swimming hole when Texas temperatures rise, and the Hill Country is swimming with the best of them. Keep your cool in the pools at Krause Springs (near Spicewood), shaded by 1,000-year-old cypress trees. Answer the call of the 60-foot falls over a fern-cloaked grotto at Hamilton Pool Preserve in southwest Travis County. Cannonball into Wimberley's Blue Hole. Relish heavenly Devil's Waterhole at Inks Lake State Park on a hot summer day. And don't forget inviting slivers of rivers such as the Guadalupe, Blanco, Comal, Frio, and San Marcos. Take the plunge!

Jefferson area

Quaint with a capital "Q." This historic East Texas town boomed in the 19th Century. Though its population diminished considerably after the steamboat era, the good folks of this Marion County village had the insight and energy to preserve much of its charm. Gothic Southern atmosphere abounds with a pleasing retro feel. Big Cypress Bayou, primordial Caddo Lake, Lake O' the Pines, and the huge pottery and Christmas lights in nearby Marshall add to the area's appeal.

View El Capitan from Guadalupe peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

What could beat looking down on El Capitan and the Trans-Pecos from the top of Texas? Well, there’s the breathtaking fall color in McKittrick Canyon and the beauty of the “Bowl,” a high-country area where sweet-smelling pine trees and Douglas firs provide welcome shade. Rising majestically from the desert, the Guadalupes contain portions of the world’s largest Permian limestone fossil reef, a tremendous earth fault, lofty peaks, and the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak, at 8,749 feet. Scenic driving in the park is limited to one 4x4 road, but more than 80 miles of trails offer a range of opportunities for exploring, backpacking, wildlife viewing, and camping. Whatever you do, don’t forget to pack plenty of water!

Texas State Railroad State Park

The skinniest state park in Texas doles out a broad helping of nostalgia, with old-time steam-train excursions between Rusk/Pales-tine State Parks. The 50-mile round trip chugs and chuffs through fragrant forests and alongside wildflower meadows and pristine lakes. Special events include springtime dogwood-viewing and autumn color-viewing trips, a Victorian Christmas trip, Starlight Evening Excursions, and a comedy murder-mystery ride. You can also camp, picnic, hike, and fish at Rusk/Palestine State Parks. All aboard!

Lost Maples/Garner Area

Find yourself in a Hill Country paradise at Lost Maples State Natural Area, where in autumn the country’s southernmost pocket of bigtooth maples gleams scarlet and gold along the Sabinal River (for fall color, it’s best to visit this popular park on weekdays in October and November). Some 15 miles southwest, Garner State Park-goers spend summer days cooling off in the Frio River, and nights two-stepping under the stars at the Pavilion. Any time of year, a drive through this gorgeous chunk of the Hill Country (especially on US 83, FM 337, Texas 55, and FM 187), through towns like Concan, Leakey, Vanderpool, Utopia, and Camp Wood, offers arguably the most splendid scenery in the state.

Port Aransas & Rockport/Fulton

It’s the beach—enough said. Well, maybe not. Port A’s reputation as a sleepy fishing village has changed in recent years, what with the arrival of fancy nori-maki rolls and iced cappuccino to this 18-mile stretch of Mustang Island. But these sushi bars and coffee shops let you wear cutoffs and flip-flops to the table, and that’s the beauty of Port Aransas and its sisters on the mainland, Rockport and Fulton. It’s hard to be stressed out when you can spend your days collecting shells, beholding birds, biking on the beach, watching dolphins cavort in the Gulf, casting a line from the pier, kayaking the mangrove marshes, or sipping cold beers on a surfside patio. And that’s just for starters.

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From the September 2004 issue.

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