A man in a blue button-down shirt and small cowboy hat stands with his arms crossed in front of a theater with a red "Waco" sign on the front

© Todd White Stills and Motion

The first column I ever wrote for Texas Highways, way back in November 2010, was about Waco. I graduated from Baylor University and wanted to tell the world about this under-the-radar tourist destination on Interstate 35. I even donned an all-red workout outfit to eat a cheeseburger at the locally famous Health Camp restaurant. Since then, Waco has transformed into a Texas hotspot thanks to the Magnolia effect. The city still has the classics, including the Dr Pepper Museum and Cameron Park Zoo, but there are myriad new places to explore.

Waco Mammoth National Monument

When mammoths roamed the earth 65,000 years ago, a herd of Columbian mammoth mothers and their young met their fateful end in a flash flood that buried their skeletons for thousands of years. Their fossils were discovered in 1978, and their excavated bones are now part of a national park site in Waco. Visitors can see the remains of 16 mammoths along with an ancient camel and a saber-toothed cat.

Helberg Barbecue

Texas barbecue reaches new heights with owners Phillip and Yvette Helberg working the pit. Helberg started as a food truck but quickly turned into a brick-and-mortar eatery due to popular demand. The classic brisket, sausage, and ribs are nearly perfect, but don’t skip unexpected dishes like pesto-stuffed turkey or the daily specials, which sometimes include smoked meatloaf and housemade corn dogs.


Magnolia Market

Waco wouldn’t be booming like it is today without HGTV’s Fixer Upper and its magnetic hosts, Chip and Joanna Gaines. The “silos” are like Disney World for fans of the show. But even folks unaware of the hype can enjoy the home décor shopping, food trucks, and whiffle ball field. A strawberries ‘n’ cream cupcake from the on-site bakery will make any belly happy.


Waco Surf

While the waves off the Texas coast make for good sport, they’re no match for this action-packed water park that offers all the fun of the beach, river, and lake into one location. Wakeboarders can shred the cable park, where an overhead line pulls riders around the watery track. Surfers can carve the manmade waves with zero risk of shark bites. I chose to ride The Wedge slide, which launches riders 20 feet into the air at the end. I landed in the pool below with as much grace as a one-winged duck—then went for another round.


Shorty’s Pizza Shack

This tiny pizza joint has become a Waco institution. The walls and ceiling are covered with shirts, hats, and strange mementos left behind by customers. Shorty’s caters to college kids on a budget, but the cooks don’t scrimp on ingredients, and the dough is made fresh every day. I recommend a Shorty’s Pizza Pillow with their signature dough wrapped like a blanket around your choice of toppings. It’s sure to induce sweet (and savory) dreams.


So whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path,
I hope to see you on the road.

Chet Garner is the host of The Daytripper® travel show on PBS.
To view the Waco episode, visit thedaytripper.com.
Follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @chettripper.

From the October 2023 issue

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