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50 Quick Getaways

Places to go when you absolutely, positively need a break—right now!

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers, Wendee Holtcamp and June Naylor

The problem with planning a trip—even a quick one—is that it can seem a lot like work. Schedules, budgets, to-do lists, packing lists, other people with opinions. It's time to tear up those lists and jump in the car. For those family members who lack spontaneity, wanderlust and/or spunk, try out this powerfully persuasive line: Road Trip! Our writers have done the work for you. All you need is this handy guide (oh, and maybe a cell phone to call for reservations). These getaways near Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin were selected with convenience in mind. Whether you're looking to hike, fish, birdwatch, or just gaze at something other than your computer, your next adventure is just a short drive down the road.

Houston Area

  1. Kemah with Kids Spend a weekend exploring the Kemah Boardwalk on Galveston Bay, just east of Clear Lake, with its waterfront restaurants, shopping, stingray reef and kids’ carnival activities. Dine at the Aquarium Restaurant surrounded by hundreds of colorful coral reef fish in a 50,000-gallon aquarium, or participate in the Marine Biologist for a Day program. Two great lodging options include the Palm Lodge Bed & Breakfast in nearby Seabrook on five forested acres, which provides complimentary bikes and binoculars to guests, or Kemah’s A White Texas Pelican B&B, where you can fish right off the private pier. Best time to go: Enjoy the festive tropical Christmas event with an annual Christmas Day sailboat parade, carolers and bell choirs. — WH

  2. Coral Reefs in Texas? Explore an underwater world off the Texas coast, including both natural and artificial reefs. Coral reefs in Texas? You bet! The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is the United States’ northernmost coral reef and offers a world-class scuba diving experience just 110 miles offshore. Perched on twin salt domes, the coral gardens are home to hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, eagle rays, sea stars, crabs and hundreds of colorful fish species. Ocean critters also flock to “artificial reefs” created by offshore oil rigs and shipwrecks, such as the V.A. Fogg, 35 miles from Freeport. Best time to go: August is very popular, with visibility best June through September. — WH

  3. Rent a Beach House in Galveston! Rent a beach house on Galveston Island for a lazy summer weekend. Build sandcastles and play in the surf by day, and then catch a sunset dolphin-watching cruise. Gregarious bottlenose dolphins feed, play and raise young all along the Texas coast. Galveston Elderhostel offers educational marine mammal programs for seniors 55 and older (409-740-4921). If you want to beat the heat, spend a day exploring Moody Gardens, with its larger-than-life IMAX films, rainforest pyramid and state-of-the-art aquarium with several penguin species and touch tanks. Best time to go: Summer. — WH

  4. Ski Conroe Spend a weekend at the wooded shores of Lake Conroe, popular with watersports enthusiasts who love motor boating, jet-skis, or pontoon boat rides. Lake Conroe offers fantastic fishing for largemouth bass, channel cats, bluegill and crappie. Rent a hotel suite or a lakeside villa or cottage at the Del Lago Waterfront Resort, set on 300 acres with a golf course, health spa, sand volleyball, tennis and racquetball courts, and boat rental or fishing expeditions. Take the Southern Empress, an 1800s-style sternwheeler riverboat, on the lake for lunch or supper dining and dancing. Best time to go: A great destination for summer watersports! — WH

  5. Paddle Spring Creek Neighboring Harris and Montgomery counties are actively acquiring forestland along both sides of Spring Creek to create a linear nature preserve of up to 12,000 acres — just minutes north of the Intercontinental Airport. In comparison, New York’s Central Park is only 843 acres. Several parks are now open along the creek, including Jesse Jones Park & Nature Center and Montgomery County Preserve. Launch a canoe at Jones Park in Humble and take out at Riley Fuzzel Road in Spring. Hike or birdwatch along the trails — the area provides habitat for Swainson’s warblers and the easternmost pair of green kingfisher yet documented. No camping yet, but lodging exists in nearby Humble, The Woodlands or Shenandoah. Best time to go: Catch Pioneer Day at Jones Park every November or Heritage Day in February — great family events — then go for a moonlight paddle with Southwest Paddlesports (www.paddle sports.com). — WH

  6. High on Birds Spend a weekend at the world-renowned birdwatching destination High Island. Four Houston Audubon Society sanctuaries preserve the coastal oak scrub and marsh. HAS offers guided hikes starting from the Boy Scout Woods headquarters. Don’t miss Clay Bottom Pond in the Smith Oaks Sanctuary in spring, home to a large rookery for roseate spoonbills, great white egrets, snowy egrets and white ibis. “This is one of the most accessible rookeries in the nation,” marvels Winnie Burkett, HAS sanctuaries manager. Seeing adorable pink fuzzy spoonbill chicks is worth a trip in itself. The Birder’s Haven Resort B&B in High Island caters to birdwatchers. Best time to go: Peak spring migration is mid-March through mid-May. Fall migration peaks in late September or October. — WH

  7. Like a Forest, but Thicker Escape to an earlier era when East Texas settlers lived in log cabins surrounded by lush Big Thicket forests. More than 180 bird species, 80 fish species, 50 reptiles and 30 amphibians dwell within these forests, but the Big Thicket’s true eminence comes from the stunning diversity of plant and tree species that grow here. Stay in one of the rustic log cabin B&Bs offered at Ethridge Farm or Pelt Farm — both located close to Kountze. Spend the weekend hiking the Big Thicket, including an unforgettable walk along Sundew Trail to see carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews in the nearby Hickory Creek Savannah Unit. Best time to go: April brings an array of flowering dogwood and orchids and is a good time to see pitcher plants. — WH

  8. Chain-O-Fun Built on a reclaimed 20th-century gravel mine, majestic Big Thicket forests have grown up around the 500-acre Chain-O-Lakes resort near Cleveland, with 43 cabins, most overlooking 250 acres of interconnected lakes. Owners Jimmy and Helena Smith share a genuine passion for the environment and manage an outdoor Shangri-la where families reconnect with nature — and each other. The resort has biking and hiking trails, fishing, canoeing, horseback riding and a spring-fed swimming lake. The world-class Hilltop Herb Farm Restaurant is worth a trip in itself. I spent Thanksgiving here with my kids and parents; we gazed at constellations, rode horses and saw a humongous snapping turtle; my 10-year-old son said it was one of the coolest things he’s ever done (and we’d just been to Australia). Best time to go: Catch some lovely fall colors and crisp weather October to November. — WH

  9. Wooded Bliss A wooded resort north of Houston, this upscale resort offers a great quick retreat from the busyness of life at a moment’s notice. It offers the standard resort amenities — golf, massage therapy, swimming pools and tennis courts — as well as access to more than 140 miles of hiking and biking trails throughout The Woodlands. “It’s very unique in that you feel like you’re not in the city,” says Marketing Associate Tenley Wood. “You’re surrounded by beautiful nature and you’re secluded, but at the same time if you want to go shopping or to a concert, everything is nearby.” The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion offers year-round open-air concerts, and Market Street with shops and restaurants is minutes away. Best time to go: The holiday season has several great events, including a Wonderland in the Woods culinary event that recreates a North Pole out of candy every November. — WH

  10. Birdy Bottomlands Thousands of acres of luxurious old-growth coastal forest — and a critical habitat for neotropical migratory birds — lie within an hour’s drive southeast from the heart of Houston. The Columbia Bottomlands line the southern portion of the Brazos, Colorado and San Bernard rivers and the rich coastal floodplains that lie in between. Birders worldwide refer to the Texas Gulf Coast as the “birdiest” place in the world, and the bottomlands play a large part: an estimated 27 – 29 million individual birds of 237 species migrate through the bottomlands each year. Go for a weekend without the kids at Roses and The River B&B on the banks of the San Bernard. Best time to go: Spring brings the opportunity to see multitudes of migrating birds. — WH

  11. Meditate, then Get Crabby Partner a trip to the Trinity National Wildlife Refuge with a stay at the nearby Langetree DUCK FARM Ecoresort — a nonprofit B&B in Liberty, with its meditation gardens, stone labyrinth and sustainably designed wood building. No, they don’t raise ducks; the name is an acronym for “Discovering, Understanding Creativity and Knowledge for a Farm Alternative Restoration Model.” The 21,000-acre Trinity NWR preserves incredible habitat for paddling and wildlife watching — bottomland hardwood forest, sloughs, tributaries and oxbow lakes (abandoned meanders of old river channels). Spanish moss drapes from ancient cypress trees and you can spot bald eagle, wood stork, osprey, swallow-tailed kite, vermilion flycatcher and prothonotary warbler. Or catch blue crabs in 1,000-acre Champion Lake. Best time to go: Trinity NWR has good crabbing in summer and best fishing during spring or fall; boats with engines less than 1 HP only. — WH

  12. Batty on the Bayou Take a weekend nature getaway in the middle of Houston, exploring Buffalo Bayou, where in 1836 the Allen brothers founded the city. Buffalo Bayou Partnership has begun a major effort to renovate, revitalize and clean up Buffalo Bayou, and efforts include several new parks, art projects and recreation opportunities along the bayou. Spend a day kayaking the forested corridor through the city, lessons included, followed by an evening watching thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from the Waugh Bridge — either by foot or on the Bayou Breeze pontoon boat. Stroll the new $15 million Sabine-to-Bagby Promenade and stay in the art-deco Modern B&B, 10 minutes away, with its fun architecture, art and organic food. Best time to go: Bats stay year-round, but pups fledge in fall. — WH 

  13. Hike ’til you Drop Spend a weekend backpacking through the Lone Star Hiking Trail of Sam Houston National Forest. At 128 miles, this is the longest continuous hiking trail in all of Texas. For a long hike, start west of the pristine 3,855-acre Little Lake Creek Wilderness Area and hike 17 miles east to Stubblefield Lake Recreation Area, or primitive camp in the forest. The luxuriant forest remains untrammeled by human habitation and roads. Dozens of moss-covered logs crisscross the landscape near a spring-fed creek, creating a lush, beautiful topography. Best time to go: Spring brings flowering dogwoods and redbuds bejeweled in purple. Fall brings some beautifully crisp nights. — WH

  14. Peachy Paddling Nearly 5,000 acres of wet, wild and wildlife-friendly bottomland hardwood forest just northeast of Houston, the underappreciated Lake Houston Park offers a restful respite from the noisy city on the banks of Peach Creek. Awaken to the sounds of pine warblers and pileated woodpeckers. Recently transferred from TPWD to the City of Houston, the park has primitive and group campsites, cabins, 12 miles of hiking trails and an interactive nature center. Explore sandy beaches along Peach Creek, or paddle all the way out to Lake Houston and the San Jacinto River. Best time to go: Participate in the 12-mile East Fork/West Fork Canoe Challenge — a mini adventure race from the park out to the San Jacinto River held every spring. — WH

  15. Horse Around in Huntsville Adjoining Sam Houston National Forest, heavily forested 2,000-acre Huntsville State Park offers a great and inexpensive family camping getaway, north of Houston off I-45. The park offers Eat N Rides, an old western tradition, consisting of a guided horseback trail ride ending with either a full breakfast or a hearty steak dinner. Spot lurking alligators as you canoe the 210-acre Lake Raven. This popular family camping spot offers canoe rentals, 19 miles of hiking trails and a swimming spot. Up for adventure? Try the Texas Jailbreak Adventure Race with running, orienteering, mountain biking and kayaking, or the Huntsville Classic for a true mountain biking challenge — both held in November. Best time to go: November for the Texas Jailbreak and the Huntsville Classic. Fall has the best weather for camping. — WH

  16. Pining for Stress Relief Angelina National Forest preserves one of the south’s only remaining old-growth longleaf pine forests at Boykin Springs campground. Less than 3 percent of the original 90 million acres of longleaf pine remain in the southeastern states. Look for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, swim in the 9-acre Boykin Lake, or hike the 5.5-mile Sawmill trail from the lush, cascading Boykin Springs to the open longleaf pines around Boutin Lake. Listen to the sound of rushing water along the first mile, which follows a creek, with a genuine Texas waterfall, as well as carnivorous pitcher plants along the way. This relatively isolated campground has hot showers and toilets. Best time to go: Fall or spring. — WH

  17. Whoop it up at Matagorda Sand dunes growing with morning glory, evening primrose and sea oats lend an air of soft beauty lost at more developed Texas beaches. Matagorda Island is arguably the state’s best place to find unusual, unbroken shells because no vehicles are allowed. Gather friends around a bonfire, or get away for a romantic weekend. Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area includes over 58,000 acres of public lands and is a reserve for 19 threatened and endangered species — including Aplomado falcons, horned lizards, sea turtles and whooping cranes. Outside of the group barracks, you must be prepared for primitive camping. Bring in all the food, water and supplies you need and tote out all garbage. Best time to go: December to February you may spot whoopers at the southern end of the island, closest to Aransas NWR. — WH

Resource Guide — Houston

  • Kemah (www.kemahboardwalk.com, 877-AT-KEMAH). Aquarium Restaurant (281-334-9010, www.aquariumrestaurants. com).Palm Lodge B&B (www.visitpalmlodge.com, 281-291-7513). A White Texas Pelican B&B (www.awhitetexaspelican.com, 281-538-3900).

  • Two operators take trips to Flower Gardens Banks NMS (flowergarden.noaa.gov, 409-621-5151) and rigs/shipwrecks: Fish-n-Divers (www.fishndivers.com, 713-304-2070) leaves from Galveston; Gulf Diving (www.gulf-diving.com, 979-233-4445) leaves from Freeport. Two-day packages include sleep-aboard option.

  • Beach rental companies: (www.bayreef.com, 800-527-7333), (www.sandnsea.com, 800-880-2554). Harbor Tours dolphin-watching (409-765-1700). Moody Gardens (www.moodygardens.com, 800-582-4673).

  • Del Lago (www.dellago.com, 800-Del Lago). Southern Empress (www.southernempress.com, 800-324-2229). For more condo rentals and lake information: Lake Conroe Visitor’s Bureau (www.lakeconroecvb.org, 936-538-7112).

  • Spring Creek Greenway (www.springcreekgreenway.org, info@springcreekgreenway.org, 936-539-7817), Jones Park (www.hcp4.net/jones).

  • Birder’s Haven Resort (409-286-5362), Bolivar Chamber of Commerce: (www.bolivarchamber.org). Houston Audubon Society (www.houstonaudubon.org). Get a Texas Coastal Birding Trail map (888-900-2597).

  • Big Thicket National Preserve (www.nps.gov/bith, 409-951-6725). Pelt Farm (www.peltfarm.com, 409-287-2279). Ethridge Farm (www.ethridgefarm.com, 409-898-2710).

  • Chain O’ Lakes Resort (832-397-4008, info@colresort.com, www.colresort.com).

  • Woodlands Resort (www.woodlandsresort.com, resortinfo@ thewoodlands.net, 800-433-2624).

  • Houston Wilderness has a map showing a dozen preserves throughout the Columbia bottomlands (www.houstonwilderness.org). Roses and the River B&B (rosesandtheriver.com, 800-610-1070, stay@rosesandtheriver.com). Brazosport Chamber of Commerce for other lodging options (www.brazosport.org, 979-285-2501).

  • Langetree Duck Farm (www.duckfarm.org, 936-587-4325), Trinity NWR (www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/trinityriver/index.html, 936-336-9786).

  • Buffalo Bayou Partnership, (www.buffalobayou.org, 713-752-0314); Modern B&B (www.modernbb.com, 800-462-4014).

  • Request a $7 trail map from the Sam Houston National Forest office (888-361-6908), Lone Star Hiking Trail Club (www.lshtclub.com).

  • Lake Houston Park (281-354-6881, houstonparks.org).

  • Huntsville State Park (936-295-5644, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/ huntsville/), Texas Jailbreak (www.solemracing.com), Huntsville Classic (www.bikelanehouston.com, 281-440-6100).

  • Angelina National Forest (936-639-8620, www.fs.fed.us/r8/texas/).

  • Matagorda Island WMA (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/matagordaisland, 979-244-6804), passenger ferry (512-983-2215).

Central Texas

  1. Enjoy the View on a Glass Bottom Boat Aquarena Springs in San Marcos once entertained visitors with glass bottom boat rides, a sky-ride tram, arcades and underwater shows. Today, the former theme park houses the Aquarena Texas River Center, an educational arm of Texas State University. Glass bottom boats still give guests an up-close look at underwater life within crystal-clear Spring Lake, fed by more than 1,000 springs that bubble up from the Edwards Aquifer. The Endangered Species Exhibit and Natural Aquarium contain four endangered species and other animals native to the springs and adjoining San Marcos River. From the floating Wetlands Boardwalk, keen eyes may spot cormorants, pied-bill grebes and other waterfowl. Another great outing in town: hike the scenic San Marcos River Walk, a 2.5-mile trail system that starts at the Greenhouse Interpretive Center. Best time to go: Avoid the crowds on weekdays. — SSR

  2. Hightail it to the Hills Remote and secluded, Red Corral Ranch — located between Wimberley and Blanco — offers 1,100 acres of rolling hills and wilderness. Kick back in a roomy cottage, an isolated cabin or a comfortable lodge room; explore foot trails that wind through live oak groves, past seasonal creeks and across grassy hillsides. White-tailed deer, gray foxes, coyotes, wild turkeys, armadillos, raccoons and many species of birds inhabit the ranch, including the golden-cheeked warbler. The cottages and cabin have stocked kitchens and outdoor grills (hot tubs, too), so bring some steaks and disappear for a weekend. Best time to go: Ranch open year-round; trails closed November and December. — SSR

  3. Camp with Eagles Hmm, should you pack the tent or just a suitcase? It’s your choice at Canyon of the Eagles, an eco-friendly getaway located on Lake Buchanan. Camp out for the weekend or book a comfortable cottage. Bonus: enjoy dinner and a spectacular view of the lake from the Canyon Room Restaurant. This 940-acre park also has a swimming pool, fishing docks and piers, 14 miles of nature trails and a lights-out observatory. Walk down to the lake and join a Vanishing Texas River Cruise, an ecological boat tour that runs along the rugged Colorado River canyon. Best time to go: Park open year-round. Take a river cruise November–March to see American bald eagles that nest in canyon cliffs above the lake. — SSR

  4. Get Wet in Wimberley Wow, for a small town, Wimberley has a lot to do: Climb up the stone steps to the summit of Old Baldy, one of two peaks located off Ranch Road 2325 in Woodcreek. Tour Bella Vista Ranch, the state’s first commercial olive oil company. Look for bargains at Market Day, with more than 450 vendors spread across 17 acres. Cool off in Blue Hole, rated among the state’s top swimming holes. Bring a blanket to watch a first-run movie at the Corral Theatre, an open-air big screen, or students performing Shakespeare Under the Stars at the outdoor EmilyAnn Theatre. Stay overnight at Dancing Waters Inn and see Jacob’s Well, believed to be the longest underwater cave in Texas. Best time to go: Summer weekends. Market Days at Lions Field held first Saturday, April–December. Corral Theatre open summer Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Shakespeare runs the first two weeks of August. Blue Hole open summer weekends only. — SSR

  5. Take a Lake Break Rent a cottage or an RV site, relax on Lake LBJ, a popular place to swim, boat and ski. On the northern shore, Sunset Point caters to RVers with lakeview sites that have full hookups, wireless Internet, picnic tables and concrete pads. On the southern shore, the LBJ Yacht Club at Granite Beach appeals to families with a water park, lakeside cottages, restaurant, boat rentals and guided fishing trips. Bonus outing: visit the Nightengale Archaeological Center on the northwest end of Lake LBJ. More than 171,000 artifacts have been unearthed at this state archeological landmark, which also features exhibits, a display of field excavations and an interpretive trail. Best time to go: Summer. Nightengale Archaeological Center tours given second and fourth Saturdays (2 – 5 p.m.), February through November (no admission fee). — SSR

  6. Lose Yourself at Lost Maples No matter the season, the scenery’s always spectacular at Lost Maples State Natural Area. Eleven miles of trails wind past rugged cliffs, flowing springs, wooded slopes and the Sabinal River. Backpack your gear, and camp at one of several secluded sites. Most visitors come in the fall to see the park’s famous bigtooth maples’ colorful foliage display. If you’re not into primitive camping, stay overnight at a nearby cabin, such as Foxfire Log Cabins and the Lodges at Lost Maples. Best time to go: Fall weekdays to see brilliant foliage. — SSR

  7. Fine Time among the Pines Luxury and wilderness intertwine at the 656-acre Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa near Bastrop. Here, you can hike in the afternoon and dine by candlelight at night. A hotel shuttle will bus you to adjoining McKinney Roughs Nature Park, where 15 miles of hiking/equestrian trails wind through the pines. Book a horseback ride at Hyatt’s stable or raft the Colorado River with an experienced guide. The resort’s water park features a 1,200-foot flowing river pool, a sandy beach, water slide, children’s pool and more. Other activities: golf, spa, fly-fishing, GPS scavenger hunts, live animal presentations, evening campfires and storytelling. Best time to go: Spring through fall. Some activities are offered weekends only. — SSR

  8. Sandy Beach, Hungry Bass Load up the fishing gear and head for Oak Thicket Park on warm-water Lake Fayette, one of the best bass fishing lakes in Central Texas. This LCRA-owned getaway has RV and tent sites, screened shelters with electricity and water, and furnished cabins — complete with satellite TVs, small refrigerators, microwaves, coffee makers and linens (some have kitchenettes, too). Kids love the park’s sandy beach and playscape. Bring some binoculars and hike the Rice-Osborne Bird and Nature Trail, which winds for a mile through the woods. Load up the bikes, too — a hike-and-bike trail connects Oak Thicket to nearby Park Prairie Park, another LCRA facility on Lake Fayette. Best time to go: Spring. — SSR

  9. Climb a Rock, Crash in a Cabin Warmer temperatures mean it’s time to climb the huge granite dome at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Or hike the 4-mile trail that winds around the formations. Along the way, you’ll likely spot squirrels, lizards, rabbits, white-tailed deer and other wildlife, not to mention a rich variety of vegetation. Afterward, spend some quiet nights in a cabin overlooking a creek at A Getaway Ranch. Call ahead to book a horseback ride. Dutch Mountain Ranch — which adjoins the state natural area — offers a secluded, Western-style lodge. Best time to go: Spring for wildflower viewing. State natural area closes after parking capacity fills, so arrive early on weekends. — SSR

  10. Pack your Peepers Pack the binoculars and explore trails at Kerrville-Schreiner Park, where you’ll see lots of white-tailed deer. Stay overnight in a mini cabin (heat/air, bunk beds, and a table — bring linens or a sleeping bag) or a secluded cabin with satellite television and kitchen (bring linens and towels). You can canoe or kayak on Flat Rock Lake, which straddles the park. Watch for birds, turtles and snakes as you paddle. If you’ve a hankering for some solitude, stay in a cabin at Stowers Ranch, an 11,000-acre spread located approximately 25 miles west of Kerrville. Spot birds, deer, exotic game and other wildlife along the ranch’s hiking trails. Best time to go: Spring. — SSR

  11. Weekday Getaway at Garner Bring a tube and float the crystal-clear Frio River at Garner State Park. During the summer, paddle boat and kayak rentals are available. Miles of hiking trails crisscross the park’s 1,484 rugged acres. On summer nights, jukebox dances at the concession building attract crowds. A miniature golf course is also lit for nighttime playing. Heads up: cabins, shelters and campsites here typically book up months in advance so you’ll likely have to find lodging elsewhere. Try Neal’s Lodges, Frio River Cabins and Utopia on the River, among others. Best time to go: Summer weekdays to avoid crowds. — SSR

  12. Scoot your Boots to Bandera Looking for a really different getaway? Head for Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” and pick from a slew of dude and guest ranches. Most include cowboy chow, evening campfires and horseback rides. At Running-R Ranch, wranglers lead rides into Hill Country State Natural Area, which stretches across some 5,400 scenic acres. Approximately 40 miles of multi-use trails there appeal to equestrians, hikers and mountain bikers. Find other area dude ranches at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hillcountry>. Best time to go: Spring and early summer when temperatures are cooler. — SSR

  13. Go Tubular in Gruene Take a day off and indulge yourself in a float trip on the Guadalupe River below Canyon Dam. Slather on the sunscreen, and pack a cooler (no glass!), then rent a tube or a raft in Gruene. Trips can run from one and a half hours up to six hours. Side trip: check out beautiful Landa Park on the Comal River in New Braunfels. The 196-acre city park has swimming pools, a miniature train, miniature golf course, paddle boats, nature trail and arboretum. Best time to go: Late spring and all summer. — SSR

  14. Succumb to Pine Power There’s something so soothing and addictive about being among pine trees. One visit to Bastrop State Park, and you’ll be hooked, too. Campsites and rustic cabins are an affordable way to stay the night. Cabins have air conditioning, linens, towels and kitchens with microwaves (but no utensils or dishes). Take a leisurely drive or bike ride along Park Road 1C, which winds 12 miles through the pines to Buescher State Park. Cast a line in the park’s lake or play a round at the Lost Pines Golf Club. A swimming pool and more than 10 miles of hiking trails will give the kids plenty to do during summer vacation. Best time to go: Spring and summer. — SSR

  15. Peace and Quiet in Castroville If you’re craving quiet, then stay at quaint Landmark Inn State Historic Site on the Medina River. Antiques, quilts and area rugs decorate the inn’s 10 comfortable rooms, which have no phones or TVs (hence the quiet!). Some share baths. Tour the grounds, which include a mill complex built in 1853 and a museum. Then hop on a park bike and pedal around the Alsatian (French-German) town of Castroville. You can rent the inn’s canoe for a modest fee or play some yard games, like croquet, badminton and horseshoes. For breakfast, savor Alsatian pastries and coffee in the parlor. Best time to go: March – May for wildflower viewing; October for mild temps. Summer weeknights are typically available. — SSR

  16. Round up the River Rats Families especially love Blanco State Park, where they can swim, tube, fish and canoe in the Blanco River. Anglers catch sunfish, catfish and bass (rainbow trout are stocked in winter months). Kids enjoy biking along park roads, hiking a short nature trail through the woods and burning energy at playgrounds. Towering pecan and cypress trees shade picnic tables that overlook the river. Campsites accommodate tent campers and RVers (screened shelters available, too). Downtown Blanco, located four blocks from the park, hosts a monthly market on the square. Lavender farms in the area welcome visitors. Best time to go: Spring and summer for wildflowers and swimming. Market Day is held third Saturday each month, April through November (second Saturday December). — SSR

  17. Birds and Barbecue Campsites along Clear Fork Creek and a nine-hole golf course draw folks to Lockhart State Park, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The view from the park’s hilltop refectory is worth a look. Tip: Lockhart’s best known for its barbecue joints, so pick up some for supper while you’re here. Check out nearby Palmetto State Park, where lush stands of dwarf palmettos thrive in the swampy woods. You’ll think you’re in the tropics! Birders, bring binoculars; more than 240 species have been spotted at Palmetto. Best time to go: Spring and summer. — SSR

 Resource Guide — central texas

  • Aquarena Texas Rivers Center (512-245-7570, www.aquarena.txstate.edu). San Marcos Parks and Recreation (512-393-8400). San Marcos Tourist Information (512-393-5900 or 888-200-5620, www.toursanmarcos.com).

  • Red Corral Ranch (866-833-4801, www.redcorralranch.com).

  • Canyon of the Eagles (512-334-2070 or 800-977-0081, www.canyonoftheeagles.com). Vanishing Texas River Cruise (512-756-6986 or 800-474-8374, www.vtrc.com).

  • Wimberley Visitors Center (512-847-2201, www.wimberley .org). Additional town information (www.visitwimberley.com). Bella Vista Ranch (512-847-6514, bvranch.com). EmilyAnn Theatre (www .emilyann.org). Blue Hole (512- 847-0025, www.friendsofbluehole.org). Dancing Waters Inn (512-847-9391, www.dancingwatersinn.com).

  • Sunset Point on Lake LBJ (830-798-8199, www.sunsetpoint lbj.com). Lake LBJ Yacht Club at Granite Beach (830-693-9172, www.lakelbjmarina.com). Nightengale Archaeological Center (830-598-5261 or 800-776-5272 ext. 6714, www.lcra.org/parks/natural_resource /nightengale.html).

  • Lost Maples State Natural Area (830-966-3413, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/lostmaples). Foxfire Log Cabins (830-966-2200 or 877-966-8200, www.foxfirecabins.com). Lodges at Lost Maples (877-216-5627, www.lostmaplescabins.com).

  • Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa (512-308-1234, lost pines.hyatt.com). McKinney Roughs Nature Park (512-303-5073 or 800-776-5272 ext. 8021, www.lcra.org/community/mckinney_roughs.html).

  • Oak Thicket Park (979-249-3504, www.lcra.org/parks/developed _parks/oak_thicket.html).

  • Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (325-247-3903, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/enchantedrock). Dutch Mountain Ranch (325-247-4074, www.centuryranchlodging.com). A Getaway Ranch (830-997-3169, www.agetawayranchtexas.com). 2

  • Kerrville-Schreiner Park (830-257-5392, www.tpwd.state.tx.us /kerrvilleschreiner). Kerrville Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-221-7958 or 830-792-3535, www.kerrvilletexascvb.com). Stowers Ranch (830-238-4346, www.stowersranch.com).

  • Garner State Park (830-232-6132, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/garner). Neal’s Lodges (830-232-6118, www.nealslodges.com). Frio River Cabins (830-232-5996, www.friorivercabins.com). Utopia on the River (830-966-2444, www.utopiaontheriver.com). More lodging: Texas Hill Country River Region (800-210-0380, www.thcrr.com) or Rio Frio Lodging (830-966-2320, www.friolodging.com).

  • Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-364-3833, www.banderacowboycapital.com). Hill Country State Natural Area (830-796-4413, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hillcountry)

  • New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce (800-572-2626).

  • Bastrop State Park (512-321-2101, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/bas trop).

  • Landmark Inn State Historic Site (830-931-2133, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landmarkinn). Castroville Chamber of Commerce (830-538-3142 or 800-778-6775, www.castroville.com)

  • Blanco State Park (830-833-4333, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/blanco). Chamber of Commerce (830-833-5101, www.blancochamber.com).

  • Lockhart State Park (512-398-3479, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/ lockhart). Lockhart Chamber of Commerce, (512-398-2818 or 877-519-7057, www.lockhartchamber.com). Palmetto State Park (830-672-3266, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/palmetto).

Dallas/Fort Worth Area

  1.  Heaven at Hell’s Gate Escape to the shores of Possum Kingdom Lake, about an hour west of Fort Worth, where the Cliffs Resort clings to the lake shores nearest the jaw-dropping rock formation called Hell’s Gate. You can reach the twin stone towers by rented boats from the resort’s marina, or you can stay on dry land and play the magnificent waterside golf course, followed by a Dead Sea salt glow or seaweed body wrap treatment at the spa. If you still have the energy, make the half-hour drive to the west side of the lake for a hike or to paddle a canoe around Possum Kingdom Lake State Park. Just be sure you’re back at your room’s patio in time for a magnificent sunset over the water. At dinner, tuck into jerk pork tenderloin, stuffed with pine nuts and manchego cheese, one of chef Chris Tomboni’s specialties at the resort’s Chaparral Grill. Best time to go: Spring, early summer and fall. — JN

  2. Watch Birds by Day, Stars at Night Head south of Glen Rose for a deluxe hideout known as Quail Ridge Ranch, thought to have the state’s largest black-capped vireo population on private land. Bring a small group of family and friends to the small lodge, perched on a scrubby hill and surrounded by native grasses, live oak and juniper. Sit around a fire pit after a customized dinner for your gang, or just watch the brilliant canopy of stars from your private porch. Pack your mountain bike, too. Make time, if you like, for a side trip to examine the dinosaur tracks in the riverbed at nearby Dinosaur Valley State Park. Best time to go: Spring and fall. — JN

  3. Denton’s Forest Hideaway You’ll forget you’re just seconds away from an interstate highway once you’re ensconced at the Wildwood Inn. Situated on the near-south side of Denton, this lovely bed-and-breakfast inn sits on four densely wooded acres that make you feel as though you’re deep in the countryside. You can curl up with a book in the shade, next to the serene swimming pool, or head to the courthouse square for a horse-drawn carriage ride and a poke around the antique shops. If you're feeling particularly energetic, drive just a short way south of town to take a hike on the six-mile Elm Fork Trail, a fairly new Corps of Engineers development with rolling terrain and plenty of country air. That’s assuming you can pull yourself away from the fireplace and whirlpool tub in your suite at the inn. On weekends, you’ll be pampered in the inn’s restaurant, where dinners include pan-seared duck with blackberry demiglace. Best time to go: Holidays, spring and fall. — JN

  4. Rest Up at the Ridge Just north of Denton at the town of Pilot Point, Lantana Ridge Lodge provides a retreat right on 30,000-acre Ray Roberts Lake. Done up in an Old West theme, the lodge offers a special for sweethearts — a four-course dinner in the gazebo when the weather’s nice or a candlelight table for two in the library on cooler nights, along with a stay in the honeymoon suite. Any night, you can find chef Heron Barbosa cooking up a mean steak at the lodge’s Bronze Buffalo Grill. Bring your horse, if you like, for boarding at the lodge’s Lone Star Hall and riding on 26 miles of equestrian trails. Consider also a hike on the 10-mile Ray Roberts Greenbelt that begins at the Ray Roberts Dam. It’s perfect for birding and mountain biking, too, and anglers fishing nearby can access the path at one of three trailheads. Best time to go: Fall. — JN

  5. Vintage-rich Village Yep, it’s in the shadows of jumbo jets taking off and landing at DFW Airport, but Grapevine’s historic Main Street seems as though it should be somewhere in a storybook. Each side of the charming thoroughfare boasts shops, theaters and cafes. Nearby, you can catch the Grapevine Vintage Railroad for a trip to Fort Worth. Along the shoreline of Grapevine Lake, you’ll find hiking, biking and equestrian trails of three to ten miles in length. If you’re looking for pampering, you can be spoiled rotten at the lavish Gaylord Texan Resort on Grapevine Lake, with plentiful shopping, a fancy nightclub, a fabulous steakhouse and a spa. Best time to go: Spring and early summer. — JN

  6. Up in Red River Country On the woodsy southern shores of Lake Texoma, roughly an hour and some change north of Dallas, the rejuvenated Tanglewood Resort packs a load of fun into a weekend. There are 18 holes of golf and plenty of tennis, croquet, volleyball, basketball and horseshoes. You can also rent bikes, ride Belgian horses, work out in the fitness center or get a massage in the spa. Want to hang out on the water? Book a guide for landing some of the stripers for which Texoma is famous, or reserve the Stardust, a luxury houseboat that rivals even the resort’s condos and villas for posh points. Best time to go: Summer. — JN

  7. Hood County Hangout One of the first Main Street projects in Texas, Granbury’s courthouse square has served as a model for the rest of the state since its renewal more than 20 years ago. Just a few blocks from Lake Granbury, a scenic reservoir on the Brazos River, the old downtown continues its joyful boom with a bevy of delightful little shops around the square, an opera house with a full calendar of plays and Broadway shows, a theater with an ongoing ’50s musical revue, a pretty country inn, a bookstore, ice cream parlor and a handful of yummy cafes. Don’t miss the gourmet cooking store called the Pan Handle, or a stay at the lakefront Captain’s House, an 1890s-era B&B inn, with its breakfast of Belgian bacon waffles with pecan-praline cream. If you can slip away for a couple of quiet hours, bring your fishing gear and try to hook some of the largemouth bass, catfish and striped bass for which Lake Granbury is famous. Best time to go: Spring, summer, winter holidays. — JN

  8. Longhorns and Butterflies Due west of Fort Worth on scenic U.S. 180, Albany may well offer you the best surprises in near West Texas. Part of the state’s official longhorn herd greets you at Fort Griffin State Park and Historic Site, where you can hike around the picturesque ruins of a hand-dug well, cavalry barracks, officers’ quarters, bakery, hospital and other fort buildings. In town, be sure to eat an unforgettable steak at the Fort Griffin Mercantile, buy vintage Texas maps and books at the Lynch Line shop, and visit the Old Jail Art Center, one of the nation’s richest small museums, right on the pretty Shackelford County Courthouse square. Stay at Stasney’s Cook Ranch, where you can take tours to look for bison, deer, wild boar and coyote, as well as migrating monarch butterflies in the fall and dozens upon dozens of birds heading to and from the Rio Grande Valley in fall and spring. Bring your mountain bike, too, to ride the ranch. Best time to go: Spring and fall for migrations. — JN

  9. Play Around at Whitney If you’re not playing on one of the two Bruce Lietzke-designed courses at White Bluff Resort on Lake Whitney, surely you’ve hooked up with a guide from the resort’s marina to make a day of catching striped bass and blue catfish. The marina can set you up for a day of sailing or water-skiing, if you choose, and the spa’s deep tissue massage will work out whatever kinks you brought along. But then, so will an afternoon or two of relaxing by the swimming pool — or simply gazing at the lake from the balcony of your rented condo. Pack a picnic for a day of picturesque hiking at nearby Lake Whitney State Park, too. Best time to go: Spring through fall. — JN

  10. Go Birding on a Horse Set aside an afternoon of horseback riding with Chad, head wrangler at the Wildcatter Ranch, found between Possum Kingdom Lake and the town of Graham. He’ll show you breathtaking views of the Brazos River from atop scenic, cedar-shrouded bluffs, and he’ll point out a number of resident and migratory birds — even a bald eagle, if you’re lucky. While you’re canoeing you’re likely to see a blue heron, and if you take a quiet break on hiking trails, be sure to watch for rabbits and turkey. On weekends in summer, the Wildcatter likes to host cowboy poetry nights, hayrides, campfires and chuckwagon cookouts. You can book a massage any time of year, and you’ll always be welcome to a sensational rib-eye at the ranch’s steakhouse. Check out the comfortable, luxurious rooms, each done in a Wild West theme pertinent to local history. Best time to go: Spring, summer and fall. — JN

  11. Embrace the Brazos By all means, bring your camera along to photograph the magnificent Suspension Bridge, spanning the mighty Brazos River in the middle of Waco. When you walk across the expanse, think of all it’s seen since its erection as the longest single-span suspension bridge west of the Mississippi in 1870; cattle drovers traveling the Chisholm Trail even used it to bring their herds across the river. Be sure to bring your mountain bike for riding on the 8-mile course winding through woods and vegetation, over limestone cliffs, alongside the Brazos and Bosque rivers and over natural springs in Waco's 416-acre Cameron Park. Or, you can walk the River Walk below to Fort Fisher Park, where you’ll visit the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. Don’t miss the gorgeous Armstrong-Browning Library on the Baylor University Campus, or a comfy night’s stay at the Cotton Palace, a B&B inn with six rooms and suites and a carriage house. Best time to go: Spring and fall. — JN

  12. Mind the Manor Just outside of Muenster, roughly an hour north of Fort Worth, you’ll find the most unlikely little countryside refuge that’s guaranteed to dispel your city stress — at least for the weekend. At the center of 14 pecan-studded acres, Elm Creek Manor — a century-old, three-story farmhouse — gives you a choice of rooms, suites and cottages in which to really unwind. Imported antiques fill every nook and cranny, while modern delights include wireless connectivity and DVD players. You can take breakfast in your room, book a candlelight dinner and treat yourself to a facial, hot rock massage, or reflexology session at the onsite spa. Take a short hike on the peaceful grounds, or enjoy a side trip to see the beautiful painted church in nearby Lindsay. Bring your fishing tackle for an early-morning jaunt to Moss Lake, about 15 miles northeast of Muenster, where the white, spotted and largemouth bass are almost always biting. Best time to go: Fall, winter and spring. — JN

  13. The Norse of Course Roughly midway between Waco and Glen Rose, you’ll find an unexpected treasure trove of European heritage at the town of Clifton. Head right to the Bosque Memorial Museum for a look at the Norwegian Collection, an exhibit that details settlement of the hearty Norse Community just down the road. You’ll also want to wander over to the Norwegian Historic District to take a tour of the pretty little Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, where Cleng Peerson, known as the Father of Norse Immigration to America, is buried in the churchyard. In the fall, there’s a Norse community dinner, and a heritage tour in early December. Nearby, watch for the golden-cheeked warbler at Meridian State Park, a good place to camp and to hike on limestone-rimmed trails circling the tree-lined lake. Best time to go: Late fall. — JN

  14. Fishing for Treasures Not that you ever needed to, but when was the last time you could have bought a baby goat, century-old wheelbarrow, wooden toilet seat with brass hinges, a new stoneware table setting and a funnel cake — all at one place? For most everyone, it’s the last time they went to First Monday Trade Days at Canton. Since the 1850s, it’s been one of the major marketplaces in the South to find people selling just about anything that can be hauled to and fro; you owe it to yourself to see why as many as 300,000 people show up to roam the acres of booths open on the weekend prior to the first Monday of the month. If you need a break in the action, take time out to catch (and release) some largemouth bass at nearby Purtis Creek State Park. Best time to go: Spring. — JN

  15. Doggone Fine Dogwoods Everyone thinks of visits to the city’s lovely rose gardens when Tyler is mentioned, but sometimes that’s at the expense of the excellent little Caldwell Zoo. Among residents well worth checking out are the black-footed penguins and the family of giraffes. New is a fabulous entryway populated by lemurs, monkeys and roseate spoonbills. From town, it’s just a short drive to Tyler State Park, a sweet spot for riding on a 13-mile mountain bike/hiking trail, canoeing, and ogling the graceful dogwood blooms in spring. Best time to go: Spring and fall. — JN

  16. Taking the Waters, Scaling the Rocks Another fine destination on U.S. 180 west is Mineral Wells, a town that seduced movie stars and other glitterati in its heyday, when the spectacular Baker Hotel offered curative waters at its spa. The hotel’s closed today, but you can drink the restorative elixir at the Famous Mineral Water Co., a few blocks north of the abandoned hotel. Bring along your climbing gear to scale the rust-colored rocks along the beautiful, shady shores at Mineral Wells State Park, or haul your bicycle or horse along to ride the Lake Mineral Wells State Trailway, a 20-mile path that follows an old rail bed to Weatherford. There’s good camping at the park, along with nice birding. Best time to go: Spring, summer and fall. — JN O

Resource Guide — Dallas/Fort worth

  • Cliffs Resort on Possum Kingdom Lake (888-335-8882 or 940-779-4500, www.thecliffsresort.com).

  • Quail Ridge Ranch (254-897-3618, www.quailridgeranch.com). Dinosaur Valley State Park (254-897-4588, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/dinosaurvalley).

  • Wildwood Inn (866-840-0713 or 940-243-4919, www.denton-wildwoodinn.com).

  • Lantana Ridge Lodge (940-686-0261, www.lantanalodge.net). Ray Roberts Lake State Park (940-686-2148, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/rayrobertslake)

  • Grapevine Tourism (817-410-3185). Gaylord Texan Resort (817-778-1000).

  • Tanglewood Resort (800-833-6569 or 903-786-2968, www.tanglewoodresort.com).

  • Granbury Convention & Visitors Bureau (817-573-5548 or 800-950-2212, www.granbury.org). Captain’s House B&B (817-579-5253).

  • Fort Griffin State Park and Historic Site (325-762-3592, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fortgriffin). Stasney’s Cook Ranch (888-762-2999, www.stasneyscookranch.com).

  • White Bluff Resort (888-335-8881 or 254-694-0304, www.white bluffresort.com). Lake Whitney State Park (254-694-3793, www.tpwd. state.tx.us/lakewhitney).

  • Wildcatter Ranch (940-549-3500, www.wildcatterranch.com).

  • Waco Tourist Information Center (800-922-6386 or 254-750-8696, www.wacocvb.com). Cotton Palace (254-753-7294, www.thecottonpalace.com).

  • Elm Creek Manor (877-356-2733 or 940-759-2100, www.elmcreekmanor.com).

  • Clifton Chamber of Commerce (254-675-3720, www.cliftontexas.org). Meridian State Park (254-435-2536, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/meridian).

  • First Monday Trade Days at Canton (903-567-6556, www.firstmondaycanton.com). Purtis Creek State Park (903-425-2332, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/purtiscreek).

  • Caldwell Zoo (903-593-0121, www.caldwellzoo.org). Tyler State Park (903-597-5338, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/tyler)

  • Famous Mineral Water Co. (940-325-8870). Lake Mineral Wells State Park (940-328-1171, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/lakeminerawells)

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