The arrival of summer inspires mixed emotions in Texas. There’s no getting around the heat of our most extreme season, a months-long series of blistering days that test the endurance of even the proudest and most stoic among us. But it’s the high summer temperatures—along with late sunsets, school vacations, and a blessed number of swimming holes—that also make the season special. For generations, Texans have embraced the summer not because it’s inevitable, but rather because it’s packed with opportunities for recreation, travel, and fun. It’s in that resilient spirit that we scoured the state to bring you our list of unbeatable activities to shunt the summertime blues and enjoy your best summer ever.
1. Scoops On!
As the sweltering summer takes a stranglehold across our fair land, we Texans don’t hesitate to beat a trail to the nearest freezer to chill down with a scoop of delicious and refreshing ice cream. While ice cream consumption doesn’t exactly take a nose-dive during the Texas winter, connoisseurs know there’s nothing like that first lick of creamy frozen dessert under a baking summer sun.
Lest you further delay sweet satisfaction, don’t forget to wrap your cone with that most essential summertime culinary accessory: a napkin. Besides the unpleasant possibility of stickiness, who would want to waste a single drip of the cold Texas treat? Summer simply isn’t complete without a scoop (or three) of your favorite ice cream. Whether that’s chocolate, vanilla, or a flavor you can only get during the summer (like Blue Bell’s keylime pie or Southern blackberry cobbler), there are few things more refreshing than a bowlful of ice cream when the mercury hits 100.
In July, creameries around the state celebrate National Ice Cream Month by releasing brand-new flavors for a limited time. Be sure to get them quickly, though. Just like the ice cream in that cone you’re holding in the summer sun, they disappear pretty fast.
Find information on touring the Blue Bell Creamery in Brenham.
2. Entertainment as big as Texas
Set against a 600-foot cliff, the outdoor musical drama TEXAS brings to life the story of the Panhandle in the 1800s. The show kicks off with a lone rider atop the cliff, carrying the Texas flag, followed on stage by actors, singers, and dancers portraying cowboys, ranchers, farmers, Comanches, thieves, schemers, and a wayward gold prospector—a cast of more than 60. After all, it takes a lot of people to tell a story this big.
Held in the Pioneer Amphitheater deep inside scenic Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the family-friendly production runs Tuesday through Sunday, June 1 to August 17. While daytime summer temperatures here hit the low 90s, nights pleasantly cool off to the low 70s.
The “official” state play covers authentic historic events in the settling of Texas, like the arrival of the railroad, plus legendary characters such as Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and cattleman Charles Goodnight. In addition to foot-stompin’ music, dance numbers, and horses, the show features fireworks, the Dancing Waters of Texas (a Lone Star twist on Las Vegas-style water fountain shows), and even a bolt of lightning. Come early for a pre-show barbecue dinner, served on the covered patio from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., and backstage tours lasting about 20 minutes.
For more information, call the TEXAS Box Office at 806/655-2181; texas-show.com.
3. Ski the Highland Lakes
With refreshing breezes and cool water, Texas lakes are a summer getaway for many who want to venture outdoors when weather conditions otherwise suggests holing up in air-conditioned confines. If you’re fortunate enough to have a motorboat at your disposal, one of the best ways to enjoy the lake is to go waterskiing (or wakeboarding, tubing, etc.). Just imagine: How can it be stultifyingly hot when you’re dripping wet and whipping across the lake at 25 miles per hour?
The chain of Colorado River reservoirs that comprise the Texas Highland Lakes—Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis, and Austin—are among the state’s best for waterskiing. Not only does the river cut through the scenic Hill Country, but also its winding nature gives the lakes a variety of pockets for skiing. While one area may be windy and choppy, another will be glassy smooth with protection from surrounding hills or cliffs.
Ryan Huie, owner of the SKI L.I.F.E ACADEMY ski school on Lake Austin, learned how to ski when he was five years old, behind his grandfather’s bass boat on Lake LBJ. His advice is to hit the lake at sunrise, before boat traffic and wind chop up the water; and to bend at the knees—not the hips—and keep your elbows straight. “I think the first thing is to always make sure you’re having fun, and if at some point it isn’t fun, take a break and let the beauty of the lake bring you back to center.”
4. Long live the drive-in
The saying “everything old is new again” is a fitting description for Texas’ drive-in movie theater industry. As younger generation rediscover the old cultural icon, there’s a trend of new and refurbished drive-ins opening around the state.
And why not? They’re nostalgic, but also good fun. What’s not to like about pulling up to the outdoor screen and catching a new release from the comfort of your car, lawn chair, picnic blanket, or pick-up bed? This is especially true in the summer, when the heat fades after sunset (hopefully), and the morning school bell is a distant memory to be forgotten until fall.
Drive-ins were routine entertainment in the 1950s and early 1960s, when there were nearly 400 such theaters in Texas. Their numbers dwindled over the years—succumbing to daylight saving time, real estate development, VCRs, and the like—and now only about 15 drive-ins operate in the state, some old and some new. On one end of the spectrum, there’s The Last Drive-in Picture Show in Gatesville, which has been operating since 1950. On the other, there’s the Coyote Drive-In in the Trinity Uptown area of Fort Worth. As of press time, the Coyote was scheduled to open three screens on a 20-acre property in mid-spring.
For more information, call 254/865-8445 for The Last Drive-In Picture Show, or visit coyotedrive-in.com for the Coyote.
5. Go galactic
In the heat of summer, we rely on simple but important pleasures to cool us off: ice-cold drinks, swimming holes, air-conditioning, and evening breezes for stargazing, to name a few. If you visit one of Texas’ many planetariums, stars and air-conditioning combine for a perfect summertime outing. (See www.texashighways.com/webextra for a list of Texas planetariums, which are found from Gainesville to El Paso.) Thanks to sophisticated technology, planetarium visitors can view constellations, auroras, and other celestial topics in 3-D, on domed screens, and in real time.
A related tool for exploring the universe, “Science on a Sphere”—a device designed by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) —made its Texas debut in 2008 at the International Museum of Art & Science in McAllen. (Two others now operate in Sugar Land and Rockport.) These digital globes—approximately six feet in diameter and animated by four projectors—demonstrate the human planet’s many mysteries, including animal migrations, hurricanes and tsunamis, melting sea ice, and the night sky.
“We debuted our sphere the night Hurricane Ike hit Galveston,” says McAllen Museum Educator Mario Lopez. “We were receiving live feeds from NOAA and watched the storm hit on the sphere. From that perspective, it doesn’t look menacing, but strangely beautiful.”
For information on the McAllen exhibit, call 956/682-1564; imasonline.org.
6. Paddle the Caddo
Exploring new territory by canoe or kayak is different from other modes of travel. There’s a serenity to gliding quietly through the water, less likely to startle wildlife. And the perspective is from a lower vantage point than that of hiking trails or roads.
Paddling is particularly liberating on Caddo Lake—the state’s only naturally occurring lake—where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recently opened a circuit of new water trails. The trails encompass more than 50 miles within scenic bottomland forest and bald cypress swamps, including on Caddo and Big Cypress Bayou, which feeds the lake.
It can be hot on Caddo in the summer, and it’s not a breezy place, but there’s an abundance of cypress shade. And if you’re on the Big Cypress Bayou, there are opportunities for swimming, tubing, and other water sports. Swimming in the lake’s murky backwaters is not recommended, because that’s where you’re more likely to encounter the local alligators.
The 10 new paddling trails range in distance from 2.4 miles to 8.8 miles. They’re all loops, a route made possible by the lack of current. Some of the trails leave from Backwater Jack’s R.V. Park near Jefferson, while the others are on Caddo Lake in the Uncertain area.
Learn more at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/boat/paddlingtrails.
7. Cast a line in Port Aransas
Identifying the best time to fish in Port Aransas is like asking a room full of kindergarteners to identify their favorite type of candy. But we have it on good authority that the summer months are hard to beat when it comes to fishing from Port A’s four piers and two jetties.
Rental equipment and bait are available from local shops, including a vendor on the county’s 1,200-foot Horace Cald-well Pier, which stretches out from the beach. You may catch any number of different fish, including redfish, speckled trout, black drum, Spanish mackerel, pompano, and even tarpon.
The South Jetty and North Jetty—which extend a mile into the Gulf—also provide excellent fishing, but anglers should be prepared to lose equipment to the nooks and crannies of the jetty’s granite boulders. “The jetties eat a lot of tackle,” says Glenn Martin, owner of Woody’s Sports Center in Port A. “You avoid that situation when you’re fishing from a pier.”
Morning is the best time to drop a line, because the water is calmer, the fish are feeding, and the weather is cooler. Martin says night fishing under the pier lights can also be good, because baitfish are attracted to the lights. During the day, it gets plenty hot, but the beauty of Port A is that a refreshing swim is never far away.
Find more Port Aransas information at portaransas.org. Find information on fishing licenses at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/business/licenses/online_sales.
The heart and soul of the Alamo City, the San Antonio River Walk once snaked through only a small section of the city’s center, a popular two-and-three-quarter-mile stretch flanked by bars, restaurants, hotels, and other attractions. Those amenities still draw crowds, but in recent years the River Walk has expanded to create a linear park that wends some 15 miles from Brackenridge Park all the way south to Mission Espada. Landscaping and trail improvements on the Mission stretch of the river are slated for completion later this summer. In the meantime, adventuresome folks on foot or on bicycles have the opportunity to watch as one of the nation’s newest urban attractions takes shape. Visit www.sanantonioriver.org for maps and more information.
In another coup for San Antonio, the state’s first bicycle-sharing program, San Antonio B-Cycle, launched here in 2011, featuring 35 bicycle kiosks and 300 bikes throughout the downtown area. You can check out a bike at the renovated Pearl Brewery complex, for example, explore for a few hours as you make your way south, then return it to the kiosk across town at the Blue Star Arts Complex.
9. Play ball!
Whether you’re an avid hardball fan, a hot-dog junkie, or a foul-ball hunter, no summer would be complete without a trip to the ballpark. In Texas, that’s especially true this year, when the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros will play in the same division for the first time ever.
Texas’ two Major League Baseball teams had never met more than six times in any given season before this one. Now that the Astros have moved to the American League West (where the Rangers have played since 1972), the cross-state rivals will play 19 games over six series from March through September. The winner of the season-long Lone Star Series claims the Silver Boot, which takes on new significance now that the teams are battling one another for a playoff spot. Time will tell who prevails between the rebuilding Astros and the mighty Rangers, who played in two of the past three World Series.
In Houston, catch the teams in air-conditioned Minute Maid Park. In Arlington, brave the heat at Rangers Ballpark, which cools off at night … doesn’t it?
10. Beach living, rental style
Renting a house or cottage on the beach provides the joys of coastal living minus many of the headaches. Just think, you can sunbathe and body-surf to your heart’s content, then head home without boarding up your windows or cleaning sandy floors.
One of South Padre’s most appealing beach rentals is The SandBox Inn, a two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with a spacious kitchen, a mesquite bar, a piano, and a pool table. Stepping outside, the cottage offers two decks for viewing the Gulf and the bay—and is
a mere half-block walk to the beach.
Even cooler, the yard contains a garden of sand sculptures, such as a life-sized cat and a guitar. The creator of those sculptures is cottage owner Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga, a sand artist who co-founded the island’s annual sand sculpture competition. SandBox guests can watch Sandy Feet at work on her latest sculptures, and book a private lesson.
If you need more space, consider the Coastal Colors beach house on Galveston Island. The four-bedroom, four-bath rental accommodates up to 16 guests. True to its name, Coastal Colors is a riot of color with a mix of contemporary and vintage furnishings. The turret-shaped master bedroom looks out on the Gulf, and nautical-themed bunk beds line the walls of two of the bedrooms. Two decks, a screened porch, and a dune walkover half-a-block away make enjoying the outdoors easy.
11. Climb Fort Davis
The secret is out: Texas’ mountainous Big Bend country can offer a summertime respite from high temperatures elsewhere in the state. And the town of Fort Davis, which claims a higher elevation (5,050 feet above sea level) than any other Texas town, often enjoys night summertime temperatures that dip into the 50s and 60s.
With numerous restaurants and accommodations options (including hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and guest ranches), Fort Davis makes a convenient base for exploration of the entire region—from Alpine and Marfa all the way south to Big Bend National Park.
Of course, once you’re in Fort Davis, you may not want to leave: Hiking awaits at Davis Mountains State Park, world-class stargazing draws eyes to the skies at the McDonald Observatory, 19th-Century military history is on display at Fort Davis National Historic Site, and shops throughout the pedestrian-friendly downtown area offer souvenirs as varied as hand-embroidered linens and cement jackrabbit sculptures.
For a rewarding half-day adventure, drive the 75-mile Davis Mountains Scenic Loop, a stretch of Texas 118 and Texas 166 that affords terrific panoramas, including a view of Mount Livermore, the highest peak of the Davis Mountains range.
For more on Fort Davis, contact the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce, 800/524-3015; fortdavis.com.
12. Have a Blast in Grapevine
Memorial Day through Labor Day, the town of Grapevine celebrates SummerBlast, an extended summer party complete with a free fireworks show over Lake Grapevine every Friday night at 9:30. Stake out a viewing spot at Meadowmere Park, Oak Grove Park, or atop the parking garage at the Gaylord Texan Resort for good views of the pyrotechnics.
SummerBlast, in its fifth year, follows a family-friendly theme as LEGOLAND Discovery Center—home to 2 million of the colorful plastic bricks—and the SEA LIFE Grapevine Aquarium stage special events all summer.
On weekends, the Grapevine Vintage Railroad steams to the Fort Worth Stockyards. Rumor has it that desperados board the train in search of valuables, but don’t worry, the “Great Train Robbery” turns into a fun, interactive experience that’s safe for the kids.
If you miss the train, catch a showdown between nine-foot-tall, mechanical would-be train robbers that emerge from the Grapevine Glockenspiel Tower shortly before noon and 6 p.m. every day.
A summer party wouldn’t be complete without water recreation, so head to the Great Wolf Lodge indoor waterpark or to Lake Grapevine to kayak, waterski, wind surf, fish, swim, or picnic.
For more information, call 800/457-6338; grapevinetexasusa.com.