The Texas Panhandle

While flat, grassy plains may not sound like an interesting place to take a vacation, the panhandle of Texas actually has stunning physical nature, a fascinating history, and great food and wine options. Visitors can easily spend a few days touring this part of Texas and exploring the delights of the “llano estacado”.

If rusty windmills and dusty oil rigs is how you picture west Texas, there’s been some changes in recent years

Lubbock

With a population of around a quarter million, Lubbock is perhaps most famous for being the home of Texas Tech University, and Buddy Holly. Even if you’re just passing through Lubbock on the way to somewhere else, it’s still worth a stop at the Buddy Holly Center, and a pass through the American Windmill Museum– the largest windmill museum in the world. And, you can’t leave town without passing by George Bush, to see what holiday costume he’s been dressed in. After a quick tour of the grounds of Texas Tech University, founded in 1923, it’s worth the drive out to the Llano Estacado Winery for a tour or a tasting (currently only open for curbside pick up due to Covid-19 restrictions).

Amarillo

Advancing farther north into the panhandle, the city of Amarillo has its share of quirky delights as well. For starters, the historic Route 66 runs right through town, and the shops and restaurants along that stretch of road reflect the architectural styles of the Route 66 heyday, ranging from vintage 20’s motels to 40’s service stations. The 13 blocks downtown are part of the National Register of Historic Places.

Historic 6th Street, Amarillo

If you’ve driven along any stretch of Texas highway, then you’ve probably seen signs for The Big Texan Steak Ranch. Yep, home of the 72 oz steak. Free…..if you can consume the entire meal (including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, roll, and the steak itself) in under one hour. Otherwise, you gotta pay for it, at a whopping cost of $72. For a list of winners, click here.

The 2nd Amendment Cowboy serves no purpose, really. But it’s fun to take a picture of

Just like the 72 oz steak, everything else in Amarillo is big too. You can visit the 22′ tall “2nd Amendment Cowboy”, just down the road from Cadillac Ranch. An art project born of a strange union between some hippie artists in San Francisco and a billionaire from Texas, Cadillac Ranch consists of ten classic Cadillacs, buried nose-down in the Texas dirt. The art installation is free of charge to visit, and is open every day of the year. Littered with discarded half-empty cans of spray paint, visitors are welcome to add their own tag to any of the vehicle and photograph them to their hearts’ content.

If you come back next week, it will look completely different

Palo Duro Canyon

After seeing some of the somewhat questionable works of man, it might be time for some nature. Just a few miles outside of Amarillo is the entrance to Palo Duro State Park, the second largest canyon in the United States. You can spend days wandering the trails by foot, horseback, or mountain bike, and camp under the stars at night in an RV, tent, or cabin. Spot deer, fox, longhorn cattle, and coyotes in the hour before dusk. In the summer, a musical titled “Texas!” has been entertaining crowds since the early 60’s. Preceded by a nightly barbecue and followed by fireworks, the show is definitely not something you want to miss if you are visiting in the summer months. If you know anyone who grew up in the state of Texas, you can bet they attended this show at least once as a kid (I know I did).

The High Plains

The Spanish called this region the “llano estacado”, which has frequently been translated to “staked plains”, but actually “stockaded plains” is referencing the high cliffs that form the boundary of the region. If you get off the highway and find yourself chasing down little-known sights such as the Texas-Oklahoma-New Mexico border monument, you’ll find that the Texas High Plains has a rhythm and a beauty all it’s own, no matter the season you visit.

With a little time on your hands and a GPS, you, too, can find this great monument at the end of a country road

South Padre Island, Brownsville, and a quick hop into Mexico

We had a four day weekend off of work this month, so Chris and I decided to spend a little time at the beach. We packed up our car and drove down to South Padre Island down in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. Now, the last time I was in SPI was 1997 and it was college spring break week- and I was there to see Vanilla Ice in concert. So I was interested to see how the island had changed over the last 20+ years.

South Padre Island, Texas

There is exactly one way to get onto South Padre Island, and that is via the Queen Isabella Causeway, from Port Isabel. You cannot enter the island from a more northern point, so just know that if you want to visit, you will need to go alllllllll the way down to the bottom of Texas to get there. From Austin, it took us about six hours. We arrived in time to grab an early dinner at Dirty Al’s, a Cajun-style seafood joint directly on the water. You can eat indoors or outside, and enjoy the Gulf breeze while watching the sailboats come in and out of the harbor. You can also book an island tour, sportfishing boat, or dolphin-spotting cruise from some of the businesses just steps away.

SPI Harbor

The entire south end of the island is Isla Blanca Park, run by Cameron County. To access those parts, you’ll need to pay a $12 day pass, or $5 for Veterans (you can also get a monthly or annual pass). Some of the cleanest beaches and best sunset-watching spots are down in Isla Blanca Park, as well as RV spots, cabanas, and a huge statue of “Cristo de los Pescadores”. But don’t worry. South Padre Island has plenty of free beaches in the mid-island and northern island sections.

Sunset at the Queen Isabella Causeway
There’s always fresh, cold beer on tap at the Padre Island Brewing Company

For eating, drinking, and partying, most people head mid-island to Clayton’s, Bar Louie, and The Lookout. These 3 open-air bars are always full, with food and drink specials, music, and plenty of sandy feet. At night there’s usually a DJ or a band playing at one or more of these venues. For a more mellow vibe, try a local brew at the PI Brewing Company.

But South Padre Island has plenty to do for nature lovers as well. You can visit Sea Turtle Inc, or the SPI Birding and Nature Center. A bit further north from town, there’s the Stables, the SPI Equestrian and Events Centre. You can ride horses and zipline at the South Padre Island adventure park, or visit the Kite Boarding Ranch. If all of these sound too adventurous to you, just go to the end of State Road 100, and visit the beautiful white sand dunes and less-visited beaches in the north of the island.

The surge was high this weekend due to Hurricane Delta!

While we were on SPI, a hurricane was affecting the tides throughout the Gulf of Mexico, so we took some time inland to explore a little as well. Just south of SPI you can visit the SpaceX launch site. Be warned: although only 6 or 7 miles south of SPI, it takes a while to get there- you’ll need to drive inland about 25 minutes, and then double back on another road to get to the space center (it’s just before Boca Chica State Park).

SpaceX Launch Site

And if you’re wondering- can you walk across the border to Mexico? The answer is yes. There are 3 international bridges located in Brownsville, Texas, linking to Matamoros, Mexico. We walked across the Gateway International Bridge with our passports and $1 in quarter for the toll. On the Mexican side, you can hop on a bus to pretty much anywhere in Mexico (prepare for some long rides), or just have a cerveza and some lunch, shop a little, and head on back. Just a block or two over the border is a large shop and restaurant called Garcia’s- they have great food and specials on Mexican products and liquors. They took our temperature before we entered and sanitized our hands. The line back into the US took a bit longer than the one heading south- prepare for a bit of a wait- but it only costs 25 cents. Not bad for an international trip!

Bienvenido a Mexico!

A Quick Trip through Houston and Galveston Island, Texas

Last week we visited Galveston Island for a couple of days, followed by a weekend in Houston. Whether you’re there for a week or just a few days, both cities have lots of fun and off-the-beaten-path things to do that won’t break your budget! Whether you’re a NASA fan or love lying on the beach, this area has you covered.

Johnson Space Center, Houston

Galveston Island

The Beach

Of course most people come to Galveston Island to have fun on the beach, and the good news is that most of Galveston’s beaches are free! Of the 32 miles of soft, sandy beaches, only Stewart Beach and East Beach charge a Continue reading “A Quick Trip through Houston and Galveston Island, Texas”