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: 240 miles, 3 hours and 40 minutes by car
One of The Big D’s most epic annual attractions is the State Fair of Texas, which takes over town every fall (and is currently going down from September 24 to October 17). Catch Big Tex in the flesh and consume all the fried delicacies you can possibly handle, then enjoy the rest of what this polished metropolis has to offer. From hot restaurants and snazzy cocktail dens to charmingly dusty dive bars and endless seasonal activities (some including man’s best friend), DFW has all your vacation needs covered.
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: 165 miles, 2 hours and 40 minutes by car
Houston may have a love-hate relationship with little brother Austin, but we’re not too stubborn to admit that the capital of the Lone Star State offers a little taste of everything, from badass food and food truck parks to beer bars, epic outdoorsy activities, and a live music scene that draws folks from all over the planet. Make your way to the Greenbelt, a winding 12- mile trail perfect for biking, hiking, and ‘Graming. Later, pay a visit to Lady Bird Lake, where kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, and biking reign supreme, take in panoramic city views from atop Mount Bonnell, and, if the weather holds, pop by Barton Springs for a refreshing dip. Hungry? Set up a picnic at Zilker Park (home to the always-epic Austin City Limits festival), or hit up a host of barbeque legends, from la Barbecue to LeRoy and Lewis.
Distance from Houston: 165 miles, around 2 hours and 45 minutes by car
While there are plenty of excellent small towns worth the trip from Houston, San Marcos is clearly the coolest of them all. The low-key Hill Country college town has slowly but surely been making gains with its very own brand of quirkiness. You’ll want to check out the San Marcos River and all of the natural beauts that the area has to offer, including the 560-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area and Ringtail Ridge Greenspace ideal for mountain bike shredding. Before you head out, snag some fuel at the Saturday morning farmers market downtown, grab kolaches from Dos Gatos, or work on your buzz at Tantra Coffee. Afterward, refuel with suds from local breweries like Hops & Grain, Middleton Brewing, and AquaBrew. For a full meal, opt for Smoked Brisket from Hays Co. Bar-B-Que and Black’s BBQ or try Blue Dahlia, a stylish bistro that brought its open-faced Tartines, buttery Croissants, and Drunken Mussels straight from its original Austin home. As for lodging, skip the tired old chain hotels and treat yourself to a room at Kyle, Texas’ luxe Sage Hill Inn & Spa (15 minutes from San Marcos) or get off the grid at one of Getaway’s chicly appointed glamping cabins in Wimberly, about 20 minutes from the heart of downtown.
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: 50 miles, just under an hour by car
Galveston’s off-season is a picture-perfect time to visit. Plan a pampering stay at spots like near-two-centuries-old Tremont House, ritzy Hotel Galvez & Spa, or palatial San Luis Resort, or kick it old-school at throwback classics like Gaido’s Seaside Inn and Beachcomber Inn. If it happens to be a beach day, do the beach. Otherwise, spend your time strolling the historic Strand District (which looks especially festive as the holidays approach). The 70-block jewel is teeming with gorgeous Victorian buildings housing museums, boutiques, theaters, shops, and La King’s Confectionery, a retro sweets shop stocked with ice cream, dipped chocolates, and taffy (don’t forget your mask, of course). Hop around the island and you’ll find local dining gems like Mosquito Cafe, Shrimp ‘N Stuff, Porch Cafe, Rudy & Paco, and Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar. And before you leave, pick up a couple six-packs souvenirs from local favorite Galveston Island Brewing Company.
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.
Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest dance hall, is here to rock you all night long, while during the day, the historic district offers quaint antique and specialty shops peddling everything from cowboy hats and collectible books to custom salt scrubs, olive oils, and pickles. Tack on an order of Sizzling Fajitas at Cantina del Rio, Corn Fritters and Smoked Pork Chops at The River House, Sliders, Garlic Fries, and libations at Mozie’s, or legendary Texas eats like Chicken-fried Steak, Bacon-wrapped Jalapeños, and the “best” Wurst at Gristmill Restaurant, and you have yourself a day. Once you’ve digested, check out a Texas-style African safari, peep murals at an outdoor art museum, or descend into the Natural Bridge Caverns, located about 25 miles west of town. And before you get back on the highway, snag some housemade jerky from New Braunfels Smokehouse for the road.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.