Quick, name a song about summer.
Check out previous years’ Best Summer Ever lists—from snow cones to underground caverns.
Chances are, a Beach Boys tune popped into your head. Or perhaps that mellow tribute to quiet evenings, “Summer Breeze.” Maybe you started humming “School’s Out,” “Summertime Blues,” or “Hot Fun in the Summertime.”
Musicians have long celebrated summer and its mix of sun, fun, and freedom. And who wouldn’t want to sing about the season, especially in Texas, which offers so many tantalizing diversions? Whether taking in an outdoor concert or festival, hitting the water, learning a new sport or skill, watching (or catching) fish, or whooping it up at a rodeo, the days are longer, the temperature hotter, and the fun just better.
In the classic hit “In the Summertime,” the band Mungo Jerry sings, “Have a drive, go out and see what you can find.” We’ve done just that, rounding up a variety of activities across the state to help you make the most of this season, whether you prefer to spend it lounging on the beach or dancing in the streets. The sweet days of summer—now that’s something to sing about.
1. Find Nemo
Watching fish swim lowers your blood pressure, and gazing into expanses of cool, clear water is bound to be refreshing. After all, fish don’t sweat, right? Texas is home to multiple aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, meaning they provide excellent care for their animals while also contributing to conservation, education, and science.
At the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, highlights include seawater exhibits of otherworldly Pacific sea nettles, moon jellies, purple stripe jellies, and Atlantic sea nettles—safely behind glass (whew). The aquarium also features replicas of coral reefs at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located 100 miles off of the Texas coast. Feel the smoothness of a stingray at the touch pools, and fawn over the adorable otters. Call 800/477-4853. Check the website for updates on the Texas State Aquarium’s new Caribbean Journey building, including a 400,000-gallon shark habitat, scheduled to open in 2017.
See sharks, sloths, and sea turtles at the Dallas World Aquarium, a renovated downtown warehouse with tanks featuring coral reefs from around the world, as well as a 400,000-gallon, walk-through tunnel populated with sharks, rays, and sawfish of the Yucatan Peninsula. Don’t miss the eight-story Orinoco Secrets of the River exhibit, which simulates a South American rainforest environment; penguins in the South Africa exhibit; and Australasian birds, fish, and mammals (including a rare tree kangaroo) in Wilds of Borneo. Call 214/720-2224.
At Moody Gardens in Galveston, explore underwater worlds of the South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and Caribbean within a giant pyramid building that contains 1.5 million gallons of seawater aquariums. Call 800/582-4673.
2. Climb Every Wall
We love to climb rocks at locales such as Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Fredericksburg, the Barton Creek Greenbelt in Austin, and Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site in El Paso. But those rocks can get hot in the blaze of the Texas summer sun. That’s where indoor climbing gyms come in.
Numerous rock gyms around the state offer a variety of climbing wall options and types of climbing, all within air-conditioned, padded comfort. Climbers say gyms make a great place to start rock climbing or to hone your skills, because expert staff members can teach you proper technique and provide encouragement. Gyms also have the equipment you need, such as climbing shoes.
Besides being a lot of fun, climbing offers body strengthening and a cardiovascular workout. No particular fitness level is required to hit the climbing wall, although if you have some upper body strength to begin with you’ll find it easier to get started. Determination and a willingness to get bumped around a bit also help. Climbing coaches urge beginners to stick with it for a while, and to not give up when they fall or struggle. Making it to the top of a challenging wall provides a real sense of accomplishment, in addition to building up those muscles. Along with gyms, many Texas universities have climbing gyms in their recreation centers—hey, kids, another reason to go to college!
Search for rock gyms in your area, from Amarillo to Wylie, at www.indoorclimbing.com/texas.html.
3. A River Remote
Texas has nearly 191,000 miles of rivers and streams, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, providing adventurous travelers with plenty of opportunity to explore new perspectives of the Lone Star State. From the Neches River to the Colorado, Brazos, Devils, and Rio Grande, outfitters can recommend trips of various lengths and difficulties for those who want to navigate these public waterways beyond the sprawl of our cities and towns, past farms and ranches, and into the wilderness where roads just don’t go.
In East Texas, paddle 40 miles of the Neches River through the Big Thicket National Preserve. Eastex Canoe Trails provides canoes or kayaks, paddles, maps, shuttles, and their local expertise for the two-nights-plus outing. The outstanding scenery includes cypress and tupelo sloughs, oxbow lakes, and shores thick with mixed pine and hardwood forest. Camp on snow-white sandbars and watch for herons, egrets, and kingfishers on the shore—and if you’re really lucky, beaver or otter—as well as fish, turtles, and the occasional alligator. One-night Village Creek trips explore similar scenery, but are shorter and less remote. Call 409/385-4700.
For serious solitude and scenery, try a two-day float on the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park’s Santa Elena Canyon with Big Bend River Tours. Day one reaches the mouth of the canyon to set up camp on the sandy shore while guides prepare a campfire supper. With no man-made lights for miles, prepare to be awed by the stars. On day two, navigate the river through this 10-mile slash in the park’s Mesa de Anguila, where canyon walls top 1,500 feet and sometimes narrow to a 30-foot gap. Conditions are best in mid-July through October.
If your appetite for adventure remains unsated, venture into Big Bend National Park’s lower canyons and the 83 miles of Wild and Scenic River beyond. That’s at least seven days on the water with only one way out—downstream. Call 800/545-4240.
4. Rock Out(doors)
“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” wrote William Congreve in his 1697 play The Mourning Bride. It apparently has charms to soothe the overheated brow as well, if outdoor concerts across our state are any indication. Let music soothe you at KGSR’s Blues on the Green, a series of free concerts held periodically on Wednesdays from late May to early August in Austin’s Zilker Park. Large crowds spread out over the park’s expansive soccer fields for a mix of music styles from local and regional bands. Bring blankets, lawn chairs, ice chests, and
cash for treats like local coffees, sodas, and ice cream. Call 512/832-4000.
The Fort Worth Symphony Concert in the Gardens pairs the city’s symphony orchestra and its botanic garden near downtown for an eclectic selection of music—pop, bluegrass, symphony, and rock bands with symphony backing—starting at 8:15 on 16 weekend nights in June and July. Lawn seating costs $22 in advance and $27 at the gate for most shows.
The Dallas Arboretum’s Cool Thursdays concerts (pictured below) are held on a grassy, sloped lawn overlooking White Rock Lake, a crown jewel of the city. Gates open at 6 p.m. and music plays from 7:30 to 9:30 on Thursdays during the summer. Shows this May and June include tributes to Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Holly, and Bon Jovi, and on July 2, the Dallas Winds’ “Patriotic Tribute to America.” Guests are encouraged to bring picnic baskets and ice chests or take advantage of food trucks. Tickets are $27 for adults, with discounts for members, seniors, and children. Call 214/515-6615.
5. That’ll Float
Sometimes you feel like floating, effortlessly letting the water carry you wherever it flows. It’s a good thing someone invented lazy rivers, which not only do the work for you, but also bring you right back to where you started—where food and drink await mere steps away. Go ahead, float around one more time.
The Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort in San Antonio designed a lazy river (pictured here) with as much “river” in it as “lazy”—the 950-foot stream has a dark bottom to mimic the nearby Guadalupe River, and it meanders around islands of trees that offer plenty of natural shade. On your circuit, make a stop at a sandy beach, waterslide, swimming pools, or snack bars. Feel like more excitement? Try your hand at the FlowRider wave machine, staffed by full-time “flow pros” who make sure you catch a wave. Open only to resort guests. Call 210/647-1234.
JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa’s River Bluff water park includes a sunny, 1,100-foot lazy river that circles a grand cabana and pool deck. It also has a not-so-lazy, 650-foot swift water ride that swoops your tube around the curves, plus slides, and kid and adult pools. Open only to resort guests. Call 210/276-2500.
In Grapevine, the Gaylord Texan’s Paradise Springs—a 10-acre resort pool and lazy river complex—includes water features such as a winding waterslide, family lagoon, horseshoe-shaped heated pools, and a toddler pool, along with lawn games and sunbathing decks. Open only to resort guests. Call 817/778-1000.
6. Cinema Al Fresco
At drive-in theaters back in the 1950s and ’60s, screens were outdoors, but viewers mostly stayed in their cars. Many even watched the movie. Only a few drive-ins remain in Texas, but today, a new breed of outdoors movie theaters provides opportunities for watching stars on the screen beneath stars in the sky.
Trees lining the wooden fence around the walk-in Corral Theatre in Wimberley seem to jostle for a better view of the screen as they rustle in the breezes from the Blanco River. Grab a retro metal lawn chair or bring your own to catch $5 family-friendly movies—along with a river breeze. The gate opens at 7 p.m., and movies start at 8. Popcorn costs $1. Cash only. Call 512/847-5994.
In Port Isabel, the broad, white wall of the historic Port Isabel Lighthouse usually doubles as an outdoor screen for summer movies, but this year, renovation of the 1852 structure has moved free movies to the nearby lawn of the Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center. Movies take place at 9:30 p.m. on Fridays in June and July. Concessions are available, or you’re
welcome to bring your own. Call 956/943-7602.
At various locations statewide, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s Rolling Roadshow turns movies into theme events. Think of watching Jaws while floating in a lake—all the better to freak out—or listening to a live band appropriately paired with the movie. The summer 2015 roadshow schedule was pending as of press time. Call 512/861-7084.
7. Roper’s Delight
The sport of rodeo—named for the Spanish word for roundup—probably began when one cowboy said to another, “Bet I can rope better than you can,” and the response was, “Prove it.” The cowboys had fun, a crowd gathered, and the rest, as they say, is history. This being Texas, rodeos abound, many of them in the summer. Get some jeans and boots and check out one of these traditional events.
In the 1800s, the XIT Ranch sprawled across the Texas Panhandle, the largest fenced ranch in the world, and cowboys who worked on the famous spread have been gathering with their families since 1936 for the XIT Rodeo and Reunion. Since 1937, the event has been held in Dalhart’s Rita Blanca Park. This year’s event, taking place August 6-8, includes three nights of rodeos, free barbecue “feeds,” and dances at Rita Blanca Coliseum (performers include Cameron Nelson, Bart Crow, and Cody Johnson). There’s also a Saturday morning parade, tractor pulls, and a fiddling contest. With slack events starting earlier in the week, the rodeo swells Dalhart’s population of 8,000 by at least double. Call 806/244-5646.
Talk about hot fun in the summertime: The Stonewall Peach Jamboree and Rodeo—June 19-20 this year—blends local cowboy culture with the peach harvest. The weekend includes rodeo events, mutton busting, live music, and dances on Friday and Saturday nights. Bring your competitive spirit and appetite for events such as baking, peach-eating, and peach-pit-spitting contests, as well as washer-pitching and domino tournaments. Call 830/644-2735l.
At Cal Farley Boy’s Ranch, a residential safe haven for at-risk boys and girls located near Amarillo, the annual rodeo started in 1944 as a way to provide activities for the ranch’s residents and a show for visitors. Held September 5-6 this year, the event starts with AdventureFest and family activities at 10 a.m., followed by the rodeo at 2:30 p.m. The rodeo features boys and girls from the ranch showcasing such skills as goat tying, barrel racing, and bronc riding. Call 800/687-3722.
8. Summer Drama
Theater has been a summer tradition since old William was penning hits like Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Many a Texas thespian has cut his or her stage teeth in a summer production, as shows go on all around the state.
Among the rolling hills just down the road from Round Top, the University of Texas’ Shakespeare at Winedale program makes its home in an 1894 barn that has been renovated as a theater. The program stages plays by Shakespeare and others year-round. This summer, July 16 to August 9, catch Twelfth Night, Henry V, Pericles, or John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi on Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets cost $10, $5 for students. Call 512/471-4726.
Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston (pictured below) offers free outdoor entertainment, including movies, music, and stage performances, multiple nights of the week throughout the summer. Catch the Houston Grand Opera’s presentation of The Magic Flute on May 22 and 23, or one of the frequent matinee children’s performances, such as the Journey Through China V dance show on June 29. Bring your own food and drink, as well as blankets or lawn chairs for the amphitheater lawn. Reserved seats under an awning require tickets, available for free on a first-come, first-served basis the morning of a performance. Call 281/373-3386.
Since 1959, the Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater has presented free Broadway musicals under the stars near Barton Springs Pool in Austin. This year, Hairspray runs Thursdays through Sundays from July 10 to August 15, with shows starting at dusk (about 8:30). This musical comedy features big production numbers and soulful rhythm and blues. Bring a blanket and a picnic; no worries about the kids spilling the popcorn here. Call 512/479-9491.
9. Putt-Putt Paradise
Miniature golf courses have provided the setting for countless children’s birthday parties, first dates, and trips down memory lane. Across the state, these tranquil collections of windmill- and dinosaur-bedecked turf greens, bright blue water hazards, and colorful golf balls spring to life during summer vacation. Some facilities have taken the mini-golf concept to new heights, adding another reason to polish your putter this summer.
The 18-hole mini-golf course at Hill Country Golf and Guitar in Bee Cave, located on the outskirts of Austin, winds through natural landscaping and around an outdoor stage where local musicians play Thursday through Saturday nights, and on Sunday afternoons. Check out the music-themed menu at the Six String Grill, whose casual dining room, bar, and large outdoor deck overlook the course. Sing, swing, and sup all in one afternoon. Call 855/788-8555.
Miniature golf at Horseshoe Bay Resort’s Whitewater Putting Course is the real deal—18 holes, fairways, bunkers, water hazards, and Bermuda grass greens—laid out like a real course on a miniature scale. Each shot is played with a putter, but unlike a practice green, Whitewater is a fully landscaped, competitive course, and even lighted for night use. Open to resort guests and members. Call 830/598-3909.
Successive generations of Texans have made mini-golf memories on Garner State Park’s oak-shaded, 18-hole course, located just a few two-steps away from the park’s historic dance pavilion, which the Civilian Conservation Corps built on the bank of the Frio River in the late 1930s. Opened in the 1950s, the mini-golf course is operated by the park concessionaire, which also runs the park store, grill, and candy shop. Open from 10 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. daily during the summer, the course offers lights for nighttime play and lies within earshot of the dance pavilion’s jukebox. Call 830/232-4200.
10. Board, not bored
Boats? Where we’re going, we don’t need boats! Cable parks have been popping up around Texas for a few years now, offering opportunities for participants of all skill levels to wakeboard and ski while being pulled by elevated cables., located on 130 acres near the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, sports a cable system that can pull six riders around the lake at one time, with a variety of rails, jumps, and obstacles for boarders. Two-hour, four-hour, and day passes are available, as well as rental equipment, including helmets and life jackets. Call 512/298-9370.
Texas Ski Ranch near New Braunfels has three cable systems, a boat lake, and land-based skate and artificial-turf snow parks, making it possible to do just about anything on a board here. The Ranch offers coaching and beginner cables for newbies, and various jumps and other challenges for advanced riders. Retire to the on-site restaurant and bar afterward to toast your exploits. Call 830/627-2843.
WakeSport Ranch, located 30 miles from Fort Worth in Cresson, offers the complete wakeboarding experience on a lake with six cables, jumps, rails, obstacles, and 590-foot-long straight shots for real speed. For those who feel the need for speed on land, check out MotorSport Ranch, a 1.3-mile racetrack next door. Its DriveXotic program rents a Ferrari, Lamborghini, and other sports cars to visitors for seven-lap test runs. Call 817/366-7473.
WakeNation Houston, a cable park on a 12-acre lake, provides plenty of aqueous terrain for visitors to wakeboard, water ski, kneeboard, or wake skate. Sign the kids up for lessons, or turn them loose on the lake’s inflatable play scape—and brace yourself for their resistance when it’s time to go home. Call 281/431-4444.