There was a time when most Texans lived over yonder. But over the past century, the percentage of Texans living in rural areas versus urban areas flipped: Today, 85 percent of us live in cities, while only 15 percent live in the country, according to the Texas Demographic Center.
Texas is perhaps the most self-contained state in the union, with the mindset of an island continent: Anything you need, you can get right here. That includes the itinerary of a world traveler. To visit Paris, London, Palestine, Athens, and Dublin, your gas card is the only passport needed. Borders crossed: zero.
Our aim was not to present a definitive ranking of best small towns (that would take us years to agree on) but a collection of under-the-radar places that are forging new identities through revitalization, reinvention, or recovery from big setbacks. We wanted our list to inspire discovery, so we skipped the small towns that already have well-established claims to fame—Lockhart for barbecue, Round Top for antiques, Fredericksburg for wine and peaches, Bandera for cowboy culture.
In a state where the stars at night are known for being big and bright, summer is the optimal time for viewing the Milky Way, when it is high in the southern sky and viewable through much of the night. State parks—such as Pedernales Falls State Park near Johnson City, where the night sky reflects in the still waters of the Pedernales River—are often far enough from light pollution for decent observation. Some of the best state parks for nighttime viewing are Big Bend Ranch, Enchanted Rock, Copper Breaks, and South Llano River, which are all designated International Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association.
As the season winds down, you may feel like you’ve hit a wall on summertime travel. But maybe a “wall” is just what you need…
a Rockwall. With its vast lake, tasty food, and even a Texas-size mystery, this Dallas suburb is one wall you won’t mind running into.
If you love Texas outdoors, how could you not know the Frio?
Well, maybe you’re one of the millions of newcomers who just got to Texas. Or perhaps you’ve lived in Texas your entire life and, unlike all those people whose families have been vacationing on the Frio for generations, you have no clue what or where they are talking about. Never stepped foot in Garner State Park? Think Concan is in Mexico? Well, pull up a chair and scoot closer.
Each evening between late February and late October, as the sun hits the horizon line, experts estimate that somewhere between 750,000 and 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats leave the nooks and crannies of this downtown bridge’s interior to go a-hunting. And each evening over that same eight-month span, hundreds of people line the bridge’s walkway, as well as any open spaces nearby, to take it all in. Most locals suggest claiming space hours before sunset in order to get a good view. But a few hours in the hot sun with nothing to do but wait? That seemed like a situation that would violate all three of our family getaway hopes fairly quickly.
A lot of lore surrounds the naming of Devil’s Waterhole along a northeast branch of Inks Lake State Park near Burnet: One legend says the land’s previous owner was known to curse loudly whenever his wagon got stuck crossing it, while others believe Native Americans originally named it for its warmer waters. While the source of the name is unconfirmed, there’s no question that it’s a popular natural swimming area for daredevils. It can only be reached from inside the park by either hiking the quarter-mile Devil’s Waterhole Trail or by paddling along Inks Lake. Upon arrival, hikers and paddlers are greeted by the park’s metamorphic rock, Valley Spring Gneiss, with ledges rising up to 40 feet above the water.
Across Texas, murals in post offices and other buildings date to a New Deal-era federal program designed to put artists to work while beautifying public places with depictions of local culture. About 90 such murals survive in the state, including painter Ward Lockwood’s Texas Rangers in Camp in the post office in Hamilton, a Central Texas town. “From the spontaneous remarks of visitors in the post office, I am sure that the mural is the most popular one I have done,” once wrote the late artist, a member of the famed Taos Society of Artists who was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin when he created the work. Shauna Melde, a 33-year post office employee, says the painting remains popular. “People in Hamilton frequently say they remember coming in as kids and seeing the mural,” Melde says. —John Lumpkin
The fairgrounds draw horse racing fans from El Paso to Beaumont and Amarillo to McAllen. “People like watching the races here because they can get so close to the track,” says Billy Roeder, who recently retired after 28 years as a Gillespie County commissioner.
Join Amberly, Rich, and Luke as they head to the Piney Woods of East Texas in the June edition of “A Piece of Texas”.
Small quantities of a seaweed called sargassum wash ashore all year long. But every few years, beginning in April, the sargassum arrives en masse—a deluge of amber-colored stems, leaves, and tiny gas bladders that help the plants stay afloat (and pop when squeezed). This relatively unpredictable event seems to occur after huge blooms of sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean, some 2,000 or more miles away. While piles of sargassum might hinder swimming and sunbathing, they also provide opportunities for families and other beachcombers to find seahorses, strange shrimp, and other tiny creatures that hopped a ride to Texas.
Even when clouds loom, any day is a good day on Follett’s Island, which features about 11 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. Free access to the beach is available at multiple points between Surfside Beach and San Luis Pass along Bluewater Highway. During the summer, the water temperatures are usually a balmy low- to mid-80 degrees—perfect for fishing, swimming, horseback riding, birding, and camping on the beach.
There are few places in and around Texas where the visible fish—plus dolphins, peregrine falcons, and brilliant-pink roseate spoonbills—outnumber the people viewing them. The Laguna Madre is one of those places, the only body of water in the state that truly qualifies as extreme.