Fall is hands down one of the best times to experience the great state of Texas. Hurricane season is in the rear view mirror, there’s majestic foliage changing colors everywhere you turn, and your selfies won’t look like you just emerged from a swimming pool filled with sweat. That’s all to say, ‘tis the season for embarking on a good old-fashioned road trip. Here are 13 stellar Lone Star State getaway destinations within spittin’ distance of Houston.
Distance from Houston: 230 miles, 4 hours by car Naturally formed Caddo Lake headlines any journey to the East Texas Piney Woods. Dripping in Spanish moss, sprawling cypress trees, lush bayous, and wetlands, the labyrinth-like waterway is a paddler’s dream (it also looks other-worldly during the fall). Bust out your kayak or consider a spooky swamp tour aboard a 28-foot pontoon, then finish the day with a big platter of Catfish and Hushpuppies at the lakefront River Bend Restaurant. Bonus points: If you’re visiting the area around Halloween, you can also book a ghost walk over in historic Jefferson, a neighboring small town rumored to be one of the most haunted places in the country.
Distance from Houston: 290 miles, around 5 hours by car Announcement: THE LEAVES CHANGE COLOR HERE. We’re taking rust reds, deep golds, bright oranges, and emerald greens blanketing over 2,000 acres of this breathtaking Natural Area in Bandera and Real counties. Prime viewing time is mid-October to mid-November-that’s when you’ll want to hike the winding trails, listen to the trickling streams, bask in the crisp breeze, camp out under the stars, and ruin any and all semblance of being alone with nature by IG storying every single second of it. If you don’t post about fall in Texas, did it even happen?
Distance from Houston: 200 miles, 3 and a half hours by car A 200-mile straight shot north of Houston awaits Tyler, Texas, where you’ll find the gorgeous Tyler State Park. Expect trees that soar 100 feet into the sky, a 64-acre spring-fed lake, and all sorts of outdoorsy opportunities like kayaking, fishing, hiking, and, most importantly, camping and s’more-ing. Equally as important? The nearby Piney Woods Wine Trail, where a cluster of scenic vineyards and wineries can’t wait to crack open a bottle for you and yours.
Distance from Houston: 485 miles, 5 hours by car Considering Big Bend sits roughly 640 miles and 5 billion worlds away (qualifying it for far more than just a quick weekend road trip), Garner State Park is your best bet for a scenic adventure in the great outdoors. You won’t be floating the winding Frio River in the cooler seasons (it’s called the Frio for a reason), but you can take a hike through more than 1,700 acres of beautiful technicolor foliage. Hikers and bikers can enjoy 16 miles of picturesque trails, rife with wildlife viewing, a 30-foot-deep cave, rocky vistas, and towering shady oaks. Camping under the stars and cozying up by the fire is the way to go this time of year, but if that’s all a bit too rustic, you can always rent a stocked RV via RVshare or book yourself an adorable fully loaded cabin in the park (key word: fireplace).
Distance from Houston: 230 miles, 3 hours and 45 minutes by car Smack dab in the middle of beautiful Texas Hill Country lies a charming, romantic little village where you can get some R&R at a B&B, aided by a healthy dose of C&C-cabernet and cheese-because Fredericksburg is absolutely loaded with open-air wineries. Cruise down the wine road and you’ll find 19 operations within striking distance, including Narrow Path, Pedernales Cellars, Messina Hof, and Grape Creek Vineyards, AKA the “Tuscany of Texas.” Oktoberfest is the perfect time to experience the city’s German roots, taking place in the Marktplatz in historic downtown. Load up on sausages and German brews at The Auslander, get fancy with Duck Schnitzel and Flammkuchen at Otto’s German Bistro, and say “Prost!” with a few steins at Altstadt Brewery. When it comes time to sleep it all off, book a stay at the luxurious Hoffman Haus, Messina Hof Winery’s own Manor Haus retreat, or the off-the-radar Trois Estate, where suites and villas are carved right into the rocky landscape of Hill Country and offer dazzling views of another Hill Country must, Enchanted Rock. The beautiful Fredericksburg Herb Farm (with a bistro, gift shop, and garden) makes a nice, quiet next-day activity before your trip home.
Distance from Houston: 156 miles, around 2 hours and 15 minutes by car Know what’s always in season? Endlessly tender smoked meat-and this flavor-packed smoketown just happens to be one of the best places in the Lone Star to find it. Considering its proximity to Houston, this one’s a no-brainer, and you could even make it a day trip if you so please… just don’t forget to pack a cooler so you can bring a few platters of the good stuff back with you.
You need to tackle at least two of the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (open since 1948). At Black’s, third generation pitmaster Kent Black is slow smoking his barbecue with a simple rub and local Post Oak wood to put out showstoppers like the behemoth Beef Rib, a 9-inch-long bone cocooned by about 2 inches of fatty, marbled beef, and hand-stuffed and -tied sausages made from an 80-year-old recipe that has truly stood the test of time. Elsewhere, Kreuz rocks solid German-influenced barbecue (try the old world Smoked Wieners), and you can dive head-first into the holy Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage over at Smitty’s (throw in a Pork Chop or Shoulder Clod, while you’re at it). If you somehow have room for one more, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, opened by a Black’s alum in 1978, offers a drive-through peddling some of the region’s top barbecue sandwiches (feast and drive at your own risk).
Distance from Houston: 197 miles, around 3 hours by car Are the River Walk, the Alamo, and the Pearl touristy? Yes. Are they still cool to see if you’ve never been? You bet. Settle into a hotel along the River Walk and start with some early morning Breakfast Tacos and Potato Pancakes at local institution Schilo’s, or check into the Pearl District’s swanky Hotel Emma and check out the area’s badass lineup of restaurants, cafes, and bars. Those looking for a little historical action should definitely stop by the legendary Alamo to re-learn its epic story, then spend the rest of your time roaming the grounds of the city’s gorgeous Spanish colonial missions. Or, get absolutely no culture at all and spend your day raging at Six Flags Fiesta and SeaWorld, because stuff like that’s still fun. Eat like a local at the best of the best before popping into one of the city’s coolest bars afterwards for good measure. On your way out of town, grab Blackberry Toast, Quiche, and Ham and Egg Muffins at Bakery Lorraine, or visit the Pearl’s weekend morning Farmers Market for artisan snacks and coffee for the road.
Distance from Houston: 262 miles, around 4 hours by car Sitting in the shadow of its flashier cousin, this moderately sized city is also known as Cowtown, a moniker it picked up when late 19th-century drovers trailed over four million head of cattle through what was once considered a final stop for rest and supplies before crossing the Red River. See for yourself with a visit to the Historic Stockyards District, where you can get a true feel for cowboy culture, boots and all. Home to the Cowtown Coliseum, the country’s first indoor rodeo, you can catch the rodeo every Friday and Saturday night at 8 pm while cattle drives happen daily at 11:30 am and 4 pm (weather permitting). Get down on real-deal smoked meats at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que and pair zesty Margaritas with Tex-Mex staples at nearby cantina Joe T Garcia’s. Beyond the Stockyards, spend your night chowing down on Open-fire Grilled Oysters and Paella, Chicken-fried Steak, and Tomahawk Prime Rib at Woodshed Smokehouse, catching a flick al fresco at the Coyote Drive-In, or snagging one last taste of that cowpoke life with Smoked Brisket and Pinto Beans from Billy’s Oak Acres (plus some banana pudding, because cowboys like that, too).
Distance from Houston: 175 miles, around 2 hours and 40 minutes by car Live out your river rat dreams along either one of the two waterways running through this historic Hill Country town. The Comal is the shorter of the two: a beautiful, spring-fed river cascading along Landa Park, Downtown New Braunfels, and the world-famous Schlitterbahn Waterpark, before merging with its bigger sibling, the Guadalupe. The Comal hovers around 70 to 72 degrees year-round, offering seasonal floating and whenever-you-want kayaking. Lined by bald cypress trees and with rugged flows originating out of Canyon Lake, the Guadalupe River is the epicenter for Texas tubing when it’s warm and makes for a postcard-worthy hangout any time of year.
Phoenix is pretty great. There’s the burgeoning culinary scene, the diverse culture, the arts, of course, the sports, the great outdoors, and don’t forget about the more than 300 days of annual sunshine. We could really go on, and on, about how great this place is, but all of that greatness can blind you to all the excellence just outside it. The suburbs across The Valley are not to be missed. To encourage you to actually explore them, here’s what the best of ‘em have to offer.
Notably, Tempe is recognized as home to one of the largest universities in the country, Arizona State. But this Phoenix suburb is so much more than a college town, although it does add to its undeniable magic. Downtown Tempe plays hosts to epic arts festivals, dragon boat races, marathons and triathlons, and dozens of other events that all take place a short-distance from Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile long perennial reservoir and urban park that attracts cylicts, rowers, and active types. Break a sweat with a hike to the top of A Mountain and take in a panoramic sunset view. Or, just belly-up to the bar at one of Tempe’s innumerable craft breweries. Both are solid choices. And both can get you acquainted with this laidback Phoenix suburb.
Nearly half of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to open spaces and untamed desert. Outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, road cycling, horseback riding, and kayaking reign supreme here, and the city certainly leans toward an active, wellness-centered lifestyle. And while there’s no shortage of desert to explore, Scottsdale also claims some of the best spas in the world, award-winning restaurants, world-class golf courses, it’s the center stage for major events like luxury car auctions and sporting events, and it’s even got a bustling arts scene. This Phoenix suburb checks all of the boxes, really.
Not too long ago Gilbert was a sort of sleepy, far-away farm town. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Gilbert has grown exponentially, but its agricultural roots are still readily present in its personality and charm. Downtown Gilbert is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which have a local, farm-to-table approach, naturally. And then there’s Agritopia, a friendly neighborhood with its very own shared garden and community spaces that include Epicenter and BARNONE, where you can order a wood-fired pizza, a can of experimental natural wine, and camp out under a canopy of trees in the open-air. It’s practically a utopia.
A gateway to Horseshoe and Bartlett Lakes, Cave Creek’s position on the outskirts of Tonto National Forest makes it a primo spot for outdoor activities like biking and hiking and adventure by way of air balloon or horseback. Modern cowboys and gals can mosey over to The Buffalo Chip Saloon where bull riding and swing dancing are just part of a typical day. Additionally, Cave Creek has its own botanical garden, raptor rescue, and a gallery packed with person-sized crystals. And it’s all yours to discover.
Point your GPS east and you’ll arrive in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. Whether you’re after outdoor adventure, looking to explore the arts and culture scene, or searching for locally made ciders and craft beer, Mesa has it all. There’s a hip, growing downtown area lined with storefronts, restaurants, theaters, and tasting rooms. And if you’re game for a little outdoor recreation, Mesa is your jumping-off point to scenic Sonoran Desert trails including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, and San Tan Regional Park. Mesa is also just a short distance from The Salt River where you can cruise by wild horses and native wildlife via paddle board and Saguaro Lake is just up the road.
At the center of this Phoenix suburb is an expansive urban park and monumental water fountain that tops out at 560-feet. The fountain in Fountain Hills is larger than the Washington Monument, and it’s three times as high as Old Faithful. Pack a picnic and spread out in the park for an afternoon where you can traverse the walkable paths, cycle around the waterway, or play a competitive bout of frisbee golf. If you swing more towards traditional golf, there’s a shortlist of premier golf courses to tee-off at. And like many of the Phoenix suburbs here, Fountain Hills is surrounded by wide-open desert and scenic vistas just waiting to be explored.
Arizona sports teams including the Coyotes and Cardinals have home turf advantage in Glendale. Over the years Glendale has hosted three Super Bowl bouts and will host another in 2023. But Glendale’s not just a sports mecca for fans of professional football and hockey. This Phoenix suburb is homebase to Camelback Ranch, a modern ballpark with all the amenities where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field each season as part of Cactus League Spring Training. Take your time in Glendale into extra innings and visit Historic Old Town Glendale. Here you’ll encounter eclectic antique and vintage stores, restaurants, candy shops, and coffee houses.
Museums, urban parks, art galleries, and growing neighborhoods like Uptown Chandler and Downtown Chandler give this Phoenix suburb lots of appeal. Rows of palm trees line the Downtown area where you can start your day with a locally roasted coffee and organic breakfast bowl. Downtown Chandler regularly hosts community-focused events and it’s a popular hangout for craft beer drinkers. SanTan Brewery, Pedal Haus, and The Perch, with 40 beers on tap and tropical birds at every turn, all call this Phoenix suburb home.
Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based multimedia storyteller, photographer, and content creator. Her work has been featured in travel guides, national publications, and the social feeds of some stellar local restaurants. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram @hungryinphoenix.