Everything’s bigger in Texas: The 9 best road trips to take from Austin
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I think we can all agree there’s never been a better year to take a classic road trip.
With the threat of COVID-19 persisting across the globe, and face masks coupled with social distancing the norm for disease prevention, driving to a destination in a private vehicle is one of the most effective ways to enjoy a safe, comfortable vacation right now.
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For people who live in big cities with functional public transportation systems, finding and dusting off your driver’s license may be the first step of your road trip. But for many travelers across the United States, cars are often an integral part of daily life already, which makes hitting the road for a getaway that much easier.
If you’re looking for activities to keep you busy on weekends, here are some of my favorite road trips from Austin, Texas, organized by distance, as well as some suggestions for what to do when you get there.
Note that, in 2020, it’s imperative to check websites and social media updates beforehand to ensure that your destination is open and accepting visitors at the time you arrive. Many state parks and public areas require passes beforehand or impose a strict limit on the number of guests allowed at any given time, even during normal circumstances.
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There’s an old saying that “everything is bigger in Texas,” and what counts as a commute for a Texan may well qualify as a road trip in other states. From Conroe to Freeport, Katy to Baytown, the greater Houston area spans more than 100 miles north to south and over 50 miles east to west. The Dallas/Fort Worth metropolis isn’t much smaller, especially as suburban sprawl continues to spread, and San Antonio has expanded significantly as well in recent years.
Check out our guide for more road trip inspiration.
Big cities mean wide highways and fast speed limits: The 41-mile stretch of Texas Highway 130, just east of Austin, boasts a speed limit of 85 miles per hour — the fastest legal limit in the country.
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My hometown of Austin still retains vestiges of its small-town vibe, although locals already whisper about a future where Austin and San Antonio could morph into one giant megacity. And Austin is notorious for its daily traffic jams, at least during normal times: I’ve noticed that “rush hour” is really more of a three-hour ordeal, twice a day, between 7:30 to 10 a.m. and anywhere from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the afternoons and evenings.
But there’s so much to see in Texas beyond its major metropolitan areas. So, if you’re looking to ditch the hustle and bustle of big-city life, try any of these getaways for a day trip or a weekend escape.
For barbecue, the outdoors and small-town vibes
For many people, Buda, 15 miles south of Austin, is just a stopping place along the way to San Marcos and San Antonio — or these days, it could even be considered a super-south suburb of Austin, given the high cost of living within the city and the relatively affordable home prices in Buda. But this little town is more than just an extension of its northern sister. The motto is “breathe easy here,” and Buda, pronounced BYOO-dah, will help you do just that.
Antique hunters will love the downtown shops full of rare, exciting and vintage collectibles at old-timey prices. Shoppers of another ilk will enjoy the massive Cabela’s located right along Highway I-35, which is large enough to boast an entire street named in its honor. And despite Buda’s relatively small size, don’t underestimate either its culture or its voice: You can find karaoke, old-school arcade games, a soda fountain, delectable salsa and more within its 6 square miles.
The next time you find yourself crawling through traffic on Interstate 35, craving a spontaneous escape, just say no. Instead, hit your nearest exit and head east, toward Lockhart. Located just 25 minutes southeast of the Austin airport (AUS) and 33 miles east of the city, this small town is famous for barbecue. Back in the day, one family owned the spot in town … and then a family feud split them up into warring restaurants. Bad news for their family reunions; amazing for everyone who likes good smoke.
But there’s a lot more to Lockhart than just smoked meats. This “little city with a big heart,” as the town slogan goes, retains much of its wild cowboy roots and will show you an entirely different perspective on Texas, especially compared to Austin. Check out the Jail Museum for its take on Norman castellated architecture (a popular style for jails during the time period it was built in the mid-1800s). Golfers can look out on the rugged Texas scenery while enjoying a round of golf at the Lockhart State Park Golf Course, which also has an on-site swimming pool, campsite and fishing hole.
For beautiful scenery and cool water
When you think of a relaxing vacation near water, Texas may not be the first place that comes to mind. But the Central Texas “Hill Country” region in particular is peppered with a number of watering holes, lakes, rivers and creeks that help soothe the intensity of the summer heat, as well as hikes and trails galore.
Within city limits, you have the ever-popular Barton Springs, Bull Creek and Shoal Creek and their associated greenbelts, as well as Lady Bird Lake (formerly known as Town Lake). But if you’re looking for something a bit more off of the beaten path, head out a little farther into the Texas countryside to explore these alternative options.
Float down the San Marcos, Comal or Guadalupe rivers
If you’ve never been to Central Texas, I cannot state this strongly enough: Our summers get hot. Don’t come to visit or stay without being well-prepared for this aspect of reality. That being said, we have powerful air conditioning and relaxing outdoor activities — and floating down a gentle river, cold beverage of choice in hand, is a popular summer pastime.
When your friend says, “let’s go float the river this weekend,” make sure you clarify which river you plan to meet at, and even which rental spot you’re eyeing. That’s because there actually are three major rivers popular for floating in this area all roughly 30 to 40 miles south of Austin
There’s the spring-fed San Marcos, which is located in the eponymous town of San Marcos exactly halfway between Austin and San Antonio, where the extensive outlet malls are well worth a visit for some fun travel gear after you’re done floating; the short, spring-fed Comal, located in New Braunfels a little south of San Marcos; and the Guadalupe.
If you’ve never gone tubing before, here’s what to expect: You’ll be sitting in a giant inflatable tube, with all of your friends, and you’ll want to bring your own beverages. Many float rental places offer string you can use to tie your floats together into a large raft, and you might want to get an extra tube for your cooler of drinks to rest on. You’ll start upstream at the rental facility’s dock, float down to a certain stopping point, and then the facility will bus you back to your starting point.
Located about 45 minutes (35 miles) west of Austin, Krause Springs is a gorgeous, forested park and campsite with 32 natural springs, watering hole, trails, pools and a small waterfall. Perfect for a quick, easy day trip or a weekend getaway, you can pack a picnic lunch and some towels and spend the afternoon alternating between the cool, refreshing dips into the spring, and sunning yourself on the large rocks facing the watering hole.
Jacob’s Well Natural Area (about 35 miles southeast of Austin) surrounds an artesian spring that maintains a natural temperature of 68 degrees year-round. The hiking trails are free and open to the public, but swimming is only permitted between May 1 and Oct. 1 each year, and you’ll need to make reservations beforehand if you want to get in the water. You can also hike here, but the underwater caves can be dangerous, and are accessible only to licensed professionals.
Other amazing places to cool off in the summertime are Blue Hole and Hamilton Pool, both of which require reservations in advance as well. Blue Hole reopened on Aug. 12 after closing down due to COVID-19, while Hamilton Pool remains closed.
Enchanted Rock is an iconic monolith near Austin, about 95 miles to the west. A natural mound of pink granite with a very distinctive shape, there are a lot of outdoorsy ways to explore this spot. We recommend coming here in the fall for a hike, but because it’s a state park, it may be subject to coronavirus restrictions.
For antiques, drinks and local flair
Fredericksburg (just under 80 miles west of Austin) and the surrounding regions are at the heart of Central Texas wine country. Located just about a 1.5-hour drive from Austin, and recently called the “Texas version of Aspen” by Texas Monthly, this area is particularly beautiful in the springtime, with gorgeous wildflowers erupting from the otherwise green landscape. You can either drive out on your own, or opt for a winery that offers pick-up in Austin. If wine isn’t really your thing, Central Texas is also well known for its breweries and distilleries, including the ever-popular Deep Eddy vodka distillery just south of Austin.
Did someone say antiquing? Eighty miles east of Austin is Round Top, with all the vintage, collectible paraphernalia you could possibly want. This tiny, quirky town is an intriguing place to visit even under normal circumstances.
But a few times a year, Round Top explodes into antiquing heaven with the Round Top Antiques Show, which spans the better part of a week and draws visitors and sellers from all over the country. (If you’re looking for the store equivalent of the coolest grandparents’ attic in Austin, check out Uncommon Objects in south Austin.)
For an artsy desert experience
For a true road trip, go west — far west. About 430 miles west of Austin, to be exact.
Chances are, you may know a bit about Marfa, even if you think you haven’t. If you’ve ever seen the iconic “tiny Prada” store in the desert, it’s located just outside this little West Texas desert town. Originally founded as a railroad water stop in the 1880s, Marfa became a gathering place for artists and creatives starting in the early 1970s. Today, Marfa is a place for quirky hipster desert wonder. Located in the high desert 6.5 hours from Austin, the town offers an entirely different experience of Texas. Along the drive from Austin to Marfa, you’ll watch the landscape shift from hill country scrub to desert.
You can stay in the famous boho glamping hotel El Cosmico here, where you’ll likely stay in tents or a renovated vintage trailer. Alternatively, you can also find a lot of great Airbnb properties — including more campers. Frama Coffee at Tumbleweed Laundry is a hybrid laundromat-coffee shop — the perfect place to get some work done while simultaneously getting clean clothes.
Enjoy the vast skies at night from a vantage point at the McDonald Observatory, and don’t leave before driving 33 miles farther west to take a photo at the famous Prada art installation. If you’re heading back east, stop at a similar “tiny Target” installation 40 miles down Highway 90 on your way back.
While the tiny towns of Texas may not be very large, everything else is generally bigger, from the distances you’ll be driving to the sheer amount of open sky you’ll see on the road. This shortlist of destinations from Austin is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.
Featured photo by JB Manning/Shutterstock.
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