Texas, the second largest US state after Alaska, is an excellent destination for those who are looking to see the real America! Never been to the US before? Texas is a perfect state to start! Been to USA many times before? Even better! Texas will certainly still amaze you!
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We had a very limited time slot for this trip, exactly 1 week, and we went during the hottest time of the year – July. The average daily high temperature in July, in Texas, is 35°C. That was exactly what we ended up experiencing, and some days it even went up to +38°C! If you are looking for someplace warm, look no further, as even water in the Bay of Mexico is very warm, 32-34°C! It could also be a good idea to spend a bit more time there, as 1 week is simply not enough! Texas is twice the size of Germany, and slightly larger than France! Therefore, at the end of this article I’ll mention some of the places we didn’t get the chance to see this trip.
We flew to Texas through Frankfurt, via Condor, to Austin, the state capital. As we were planning to visit some of our friends , we headed to the so called “deep East Texas” around Nacogdoches, of course, not missing Houston and Johnson Space center on our way. We drove around 2300 km during this one week and the rental cost us 300 euros + gas. This was slightly more expensive than we have usually paid for our rentals in the US. You can read more about how to rent a car in the USA here.
I was visiting Texas for the second time (I had been to San Antonio – to the famous Alamo, SeaWorld and the zoo), Jekabs and my brother Maris (for whom this trip was graduation present) were in Texas for the first time, however, both of them have been to USA numerous times before, so they were familiar with how things work in the states! As we had two guys on the trip, we definitely visited quite a few more typically “male” attractions, and it was interesting to see places that Maris had picked, as I would have never gone there on my own! We also spent some time shopping for the guys, especially clothing – make sure you read the article about shopping tips in the USA!
Day 1 – Arrival
As we had quite a lot of time between the flights, we decided to go and see Frankfurt. A more detailed article on sightseeing is coming soon, but in the meantime, check out the free things and bonuses you can get, if you are staying at the airport!
Our flight was slightly delayed and we saw police talking sternly to a truly unruly passenger (who had just kicked a garbage can and was barely let on the flight later on – mostly because of his wife begging the police to let him go). While the spectacle was ongoing, the airline offered to upgrade to Premium Economy seats for 99 euros to anyone willing, but we didn’t opt for these and in the end each of us had 2 or 3 seats to ourselves – which is probably an even better deal than the premium seats! Condor is a relatively low cost airline, and while we had our luggage included in the price of the ticket, there were no headphones and only two movies to watch. Once we were done with the dinner, we went to sleep.
Unfortunately, due to the delay of the flight, we missed the opportunity to see 4th of July fireworks, but since it was rainy when we landed, we were not too upset. July in Texas is not only warm, but also very humid, and it rains nearly every day! But then it stops and gets back to the usual hot weather, so be prepared that you might need to wait a bit before proceeding to your next sightseeing spot, as it might be raining.
Hotel: Fairfield Inn & Suites Austin Northwest/The Domain Area, stayed for miles
Day 2 – Hamilton’s Pool, Reimer’s Ranch, Museum of the Weird, Capitol and bats
Hamilton’s Pool, and how we didn’t get to see it
After having a wonderful breakfast and discussing which sightseeing spot to start with, we decided to head to Hamilton’s Pool, one of the most famous swimming holes in the US. After one hour on the road, when we were nearly there, we saw a sign “Reservation Only”. Turns out, this is something we missed when researching this location! The next booking available was in 6 weeks time! Apparently, due to so many people visiting, bacterial contamination is a recurrent issue, and even with limited crowds, sometimes the pool is closed for swimming. As we were already nearby, we headed to Reimer’s Ranch instead. We did a little walk around Pedernales River. There weren’t too many people were here, but out of the few that we did see, some were hiking, some climbing, others using the bicycle pathway. The area is also used for controlled burning, so some places looked quite barren, almost like an alien landscape. We saw a few animals – colibri, lizards and also birds of prey. We tried to eat some cactus fruit , as we had seen those in some stores, and even previously tried them a long time ago. Somehow, we missed the fact that there were small needles on the fruit as well, that are nearly impossible to get out of fingers!
While we did see some mildly interesting things here at the ranch, it was not the most exciting location. Other nearby locations that I would recommend instead are, for example, Westcave, but that can only be accessed on the weekends with a guide. My best recommendation would be to try to get to Hamilton pools by reserving in advance.
Going to the Museum of the Weird
On the way back to the city, we stopped by a Walmart to buy some snacks for the road, and visited Denny’s, our usual stop in the USA (read this article about the best budget places to eat in the states). While on the highway, we discussed what is different about Texas, and the first thing we noted was the insane amount of boot stores! That’s when we decided we must visit one ourselves! Second thing we noted, are the churches. They are everywhere! Every couple hundred meters we saw some kind of church.
Soon, we arrived in Austin, and see the Texas State Capitol building in the distance, as the view is nice, we stop and turns out this is the more hipster area of Austin, South Congress, which has a lot of food trucks, restaurants and shops. At one of the intersections there is a guy dancing, during a hot summer’s day, and from the distance at first it looks like there are several people moving simultaneously, but turns out, the other people are just dolls that are connected with poles to the main dancer, and it looks like all of them are dancing in unison! The show is amazing and there is quite the audience around the dancer! We do feel sorry for the guy a bit, though, as it is so hot and he is in direct sunlight!
Our first stop on Austin is the Museum of the Weird, located downtown, from the look of surrounding places, a party area. We park without any problems (you can leave a car without any issues for a fee for several hours – and most meters accept cards!). The entrance fee to the museum is a steep $12, and to be honest, considering what we saw there, $5 would be a more appropriate price. The most interesting place in the museum was the gift shop that offers many quirky souvenirs (which you can enter for free)! The exhibit itself – if you have been to a medical museum, animal skeletons with two heads won’t surprise you, but judging by the hours of the place (til midnight) it mostly caters to bored party-goers from the surrounding bars.
Texas State Capitol
Next we are headed to Texas State Capitol just nearby, the main state building of the state. We only drive a few blocks but this is enough to see that there is poverty in this state as well. We have seen similar views in Florida that remains warm for most of the year too, attracting homeless people from other states.
The Capitol is open for visitors til 10pm and the entrance is free. In the evening the parking on the street is free as well. Surrounding the building is a beautiful green park, which is a pleasant change after yellow fields we have seen during the day. We get screened by a security guard at the entrance and soon we are inside the pleasantly cool building. The first stop is the rotunda with the dome seen from the outside. Portraits of former governors, including George Bush, line the walls.
You can walk through many rooms, for example, House Chamber. We really had fun noticing all the stars in the design, linking back to the state’s nickname “the lone star state” – there are stars on chandeliers, on the backs of the chairs, carpets, in marble and many more. “Lone Star State” refers to the former independent republic of Texas. Texans are very proud of their state and one is more likely to see the flag of Texas than US flying proudly!
As the sunset time is near, we are heading to our next destination – the bats of Austin! Over one million bats live under the bridge over Colorado river! It is just the young ones and their mothers who are here nesting, and in the middle of the summer, when the young start flying off to search for food on their own, the number of animals is incredible!
We get lucky, as we manage to grab a parking spot very near the bridge. We only truly understand that when we approach the bridge, as there are hundreds of people waiting already, and more and more approaching. Many are well prepared, with blankets and folding chairs. Others are kayaking, there are some on the tour boats and there is even food & drinks available from a vendor wheeling his cooler around. Bats come out near the sunset time, some say as early as thirty minutes before sunset, others say right after, so we show up early. We hear the bats for a while before they start coming out. Soon the first one flies out, and then another, and another, in a non-stop flow from under the bridge. As a guide told us on our trip in Curacao, don’t stand under the bats with your moth open in amazement, as this is one thing that surely does not taste like chicken! The air is pungent and we soon are eager to head off. Our next stop is quite far, in Houston, and we have a long drive ahead of us.
Hotel: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Pearland, stayed for miles
Day 3 – NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston
A dream come true – visiting the real space scientists!
We wake up late, as we had arrived after midnight, so instead of showing up for the opening of the Space Center Houston – NASA, we are there right before noon. Out plan was to spend half a day here, but soon we realize it is just not enough! Parking costs us $5, entrance is a steep $25, and we are in!
The first thing one should do, is to get in line for the “tram” tours from the opposite side of the building. We picked the tours based on what was interesting for us, and it was a mistake, as we should have just boarded whichever had the shortest waiting time! All tours take 1 hour (perhaps, only the 30 minute one is the one I wouldn’t recommend) and waiting in line takes just as long. On the day of the visit they had available:
- Mission Control Center + Saturn V rocket
- Astronaut Training Facility + Saturn V rocket
- Astronaut Training Pool – a special tour only available a few weeks every year.
We started with the Training Facility and we got lucky – we were the last ones to board the tram, as we would need to wait another 20-30 minutes for the next tram! The ride is in an open type of tram and golf cart crossover, so the tours are suspended during rain or lightning (and they really get suspended – we saw that in the afternoon!). During the ride you can learn about the history of the center and will see interesting objects on the way. Soon we are at the Training Facility which has life size models of actual space crafts for astronauts to learn to live in the environment!
Next we head to the Saturn V rocket, on the way stopping at the tree grove commemorating the lives lost. During the tour we hear several times the same sentence – astronauts have said that in the case of their death, the program should not be stopped, as the mission is more important than lives of a few people!
Saturn V hangar can be explored on your own. This is part of the tour that is the same in Mission Control or Astronaut Training facility ride. So we choose the next tour to the pool. Turns out, here another, large bus takes us to a different building quite far away from the main one. The tour itself is just 10 minutes, and the rest of the time is spend on the bus. While our guides are young students working here for the summer and they can’t answer every question we have, the tour is still very interesting, as it offers a glimpse into actual training facility. There is equipment at the bottom of an enormous pool, and for every hour spent in space outside a spacecraft, astronauts need six to eight hours of training in the pool. There is a special team of divers helping the astronauts diving in space suits (with air supply in special tubes). Some people wanted to leave the tour early as they did not expect it to take this long, but it was not permitted, as this is a government facility and the group had to attend together – so plan enough time for the tours!
Getting back, we felt quite tired but still wanted to hear Mission Updates with the newest information about current research and space exploration. This session was done by a very knowledgeable guy who then spent twenty minutes answering everyone’s questions. Also, note that NASA has some of the best gift shops I have ever seen in museums or exhibitions. I am not a crazy shopper, but this is a place where I always buy something!
After visiting the space center and looking for the nearest Denny’s, we accidentally find an incredibly beautiful alley of trees. It is amazing how some of the brightest travel memories can be form a place not mentioned in any of the guidebooks!
Next our plan is to go to Nacogdoches, which is 300 km away. We stop at a few stores on the way there to pick up the essentials (and do a little bit of shopping for the guys) and just as we are finally there, a storm rolls over the city. It is so bright and so loud that we spend some time just looking outside our motel door!
Hotel: Continental Inn & Suites Nacogdoches, we paid $68 per night with breakfast
Day 4 – The Oldest Town of Texas Nacogdoches, Kilgore East Texas Oil Museum, Rusk
Deep East Texas – Nacogdoches
We start with breakfast at the hotel, and for the first time during the trip we see really nice waffles in the shape of Texas! We have gotten really lucky with the hotels so far, while this one is more of a roadside motel, we still enjoy staying here! Today my brother is meeting up with his friends from Texas – three sisters from around here, while myself and Jekabs head to Nacogdoches to explore on our own.
There are not that many foreigners in Nacogdoches, and it’s a pity! As this area is the so called “deep” East Texas, not just because it is further East, but also because at the beginning of the 20th century it was somewhat lawless territory. Nacogdoches is the oldest town in Texas, and it even has an Old Town! While we are walking there in the middle of the summers day, with temperatures well over 35 C, it is quite empty. Once in a while a pickup truck passes and there are nearly no pedestrians.
We take a map from the information center and walk around to see the historic building and a cemetery that is a burial site for many famous Texan military people. Then we decide to take the city trail through a forest and hear water and children’s laughter – there is a water park on the opposite side of the forest, that’s where everyone is! Before heading to the next town, we find another Denny’s, luckily, there is no shortage of those!
Seeing the Real Oil Pumps
Since we are in Texas, we would really like to learn more about oil industry. Already driving here from Austin we tried to find a map of the pumps to see the famous scenery, pumps working endlessly somewhere in the middle of the field. We did find a map, but it seemed that those might be the modern pumps that look nothing like the ones we wanted to see! Soon, when heading to Kilgore, the largest oil area in USA after Alaska, we finally see the pumps, as rusty and old as we expected them to be! However, we thought the pumps to be bigger, but they are quite small. Otherwise the area is exactly like we imagined it to be – large ranches with large cows who have large horns (exactly like in the logos – long and to the side!)! Again, there is a storm on the way, and we started to get used to storms in Texas every day. It is July after all!
On our way to Kilgore, of course, we pass a dozen guns shops. Texans surely do like their guns and even young ladies here might own a few! We get to Kiloge East Texas Oil Museum that is dedicated to the history of oil discovery here. In this tiny town in 1930 life changed overnight. After discover of oil, in the first 24 hours the number on inhabitants increased from 500 to 8000! The museum is like an old street, where there is a barber shop, cafe, store and post office. The middle of the street looks like an enormous puddle of mud where there are horse carriages stuck and people trying to pass through.
Later we drive through the city to see the what remains of the towers that used to form the most productive one mile of drilling in the world. We even find some working pumps in the middle of the city that make that ancient screeching sound, just like in the movies!
Texas State Railroad – Rusk
As the evening is approaching, we drive to Rusk to see the famous old railroad, popular among train enthusiasts in America. This railroad was built by prison inmates to transport goods from Rusk to Palestine and it was 25 miles long. Now on the weekends you can take a historic tour, listening to music and eating fancy dinner. Supposedly, it is very beautiful in spring! If trains are not your thing but you like camping, it is possible to do that here as well – at the depot there are many camping places with the needed facilities!
When we reach the central square of Rusk city, it becomes very dark, as storm clouds are approaching. We are taking the final pictures from under a tree, when it starts pouring, and almost immediately a pick up truck stops near us as asks us – “do you folks need a ride?” This is what I call wild East Texas! While we did laugh about all the “y’all” and “howdy” even in written work, and we surely had our fun about the cowboy hats and boots, on this day we really feel like we like Texas, and for experienced travelers this place actually has much more to offer than New York!
When we are in our next town, Jacksonville, where we are only spending he night, we head to Walmart for a quick dinner shopping. Of course, we get stuck here or an hour, again!
Hotel: Holiday Inn Express Jacksonville, stayed for miles
Day 5 Big Thicket Preserve and going back to Houston
Cypresses in Water – Big Thicket Preserve
If our initial plan was to drive up to Hot Springs in Arizona, at this point we understand that it is just too far and we don’t have enough strength left to drive around this much in such heat. So we decide to stay in Texas only and explore the nature around here. We didn’t get a chance to see many of the parks we would like to, as some of the most impressive parks are on the opposite side of the state, near the border with Mexico. While the nature seems more like what we are used to, there is no lack of places to see!
We had not heard about Big Thicket Preserve before, but we find out there are many things to do here, for example, go kayaking. As we only decide to visit it on this day, unfortunately, it is not enough time to reserve a boat and we decide to hike the trails. Shortly before entering the park it starts to rain again, so we head to the ranger’s office and find out what are the top spots in the park. I always love talking to rangers in the parks! They are extremely knowledgeable and always are happy to share tips on how to explore the park in the limited time you have! We also check with them if we should really be worried about the snakes – but they just confirm what we already had though – as long as you don’t step on one, they won’t attack. We do end up seeing one on the trail later, but it is tiny and disappears before we snap a picture.
It is Sunday afternoon and we are on our own here. We see beautiful cypress trees that grow out of water, we see bushes and green forests and millions of mosquitoes. Good thing we have a repellent with us! We walked on the Kirby, Sundew and Pitcherplant trails where we saw lizards and butterflies! Soon it is time to head back to Houston, we just quickly drive back to Huntington to pick up Maris and drive 300km.
This time, instead of the usual Denny’s, we opt for Whataburger, a local Texan fast food chain. The size of the burger is very impressive – the smallest one is too big for an adult! But the taste does not impress us, and we decide to go to Denny’s next time instead.
Hotel: Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Houston Northwest, stayed for miles
Day 6 – Museums and Parks in Houston
For this day we had planned museums. As the weather is cloudy, we decide to quickly do a bit of shopping for the guys, send some postcards and only then head to Battleship Texas or USS Texas BB35. On the way we are met by yet another storm, black skies everywhere and soon it starts to pour! With the oil refinery towers at the horizon, the scene is apocalyptic – like one of those grim futures scenarios! Soon the clouds and the rain pass and we are at the ship, ready to explore!
Battleship Texas is one of only seven ships that were used in both World Wars and is the first battleship that was designated as a museum, as well as is a historic landmark in the US. Getting on board I really see that guys have different interest – I had not seen such an excitement from the guys for quite some time! They explored every nook and cranny on the ship, and really took great care to read the posters at the operation room, see the kitchen area, captain’s lunch room and climb all the towers. It again takes us much longer than planned, so we don’t have time to explore San Jacinto state battleground historic site on the opposite side of the road, but our friends who have been there, say it is worth a stop if you have the time!
The Houston Museum of Natural Science
Although it is not even late afternoon, streets of Houston become a giant traffic jam very quickly. We are standing in one spot and counting minutes – minutes we could have used at the museum! In the meantime, we can observe the surreal traffic organization here – sometimes there are roads on four levels one above another! I am happy that I am not driving at it is Jekabs at the wheel, as I don’t get excited about this traffic. Houston is also the only city during this trip where we are having issues with the GPS – every once in a while it would give us instructions to turn about 100m too late – I am quite certain I have seen one particular intersection at least five times now.
When we finally get to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we are informed that it will close in one hour. What to do! We run through the shells exhibit, latest acquisitions in the museum, check out the Sony photo awards finalists, explore dinosaur section and petrified forest, as well as get to Egyptian section (where are finally kicked out of, as the museum is really, really closing!). This museum is incredible, and I would say even one of the best ones I have ever attended worldwide. I wish I had about three hours more here!
After museum it is time to eat! We decide to check off another “mandatory” item from our list, going to Chinese All You can eat Buffet. The entrance is a steep 18 dollars, as it is the evening already, and we have been to better places, but for this evening it is enough.
Buffalo Bayou Park
Our evening walk is planned at Buffalo Bayou park, with a stunning view to the skyscrapers. It is pleasantly warm, there are quite a few people jogging, bicycling or walking their dogs. Perfect place for an evening outdoors! After that, we must head to the next stop – Galveston!
Hotel: Baymont by Wyndham Galveston, $105. Breakfast included, but it was so incredibly crowded with such a small seating area that we barely ate anything.
Day 7 – Galveston, Oil Rig Museum and Pelicans
Galveston Island – Oil Rig Museum
Galveston will be close to anyone who watches Big Bang Theory, as this is supposedly the place where Sheldon Cooper was born! The legend has it that he was born in a shopping mall, and right now there is a Ross Dress for Less at the same address! Of course, we went to check it out.
Our first sightseeing spot is the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum, located in a former rig, where you can go inside and explore the world of oil and extracting it from the ocean bed, as well as the impact on nature (it is not all bad – fish and corals love the new islands at sea!). We also had a lot of fun around the museum, as there is a small port where fishing boats would dock and sort the catch, and birds have fights to get the small fish! The big fish gets sorted into a separate bag, the shrimp goes in the box, but the little fish would be tossed out, so pelicans and seagulls fight it out who is the quickest! Pelicans usually get their prime spot by completely disregarding the seagulls and basically landing on top of them, and seagulls would be very quick and stuff themselves with fish and fly around with fishtails sticking out of their beak, unable to eat that quickly!
Which Beach to go to in Texas, Galveston?
Although our friends told us that Galveston is not the best place for going to the beach, since we are there and it is the summer, we decide to go for a swim anyway. We go to East Beach, where you can actually park outside the paid area for free (unless you want to drive right up to the beach), there is wifi, restrooms and showers as well! Unfortunately, the cafe is closed, and the food truck at the beach shuts down literally 10 seconds before we get to it, so even no ice cream for us.
But at least the swim is worth it! The water is extremely warm, must be some 34 degrees Celsius, and we go deeper it to find a bit cooler and more refreshing water! Later on we swim closer to the city, not too far from the amusement park, as the sun sets.
A totally different diner – Sonic
Before heading to our final night at the hotel, we explore yet another local Texan food place – diner Sonic. If I am familiar with the usual drive-thru where you place an order and pick it up at the next window, here you park in a designated spot, order at your own screen and then the food is brought to you. There are no bathrooms, no garbage cans, but meal will be hand delivered. But the food is surprisingly good! My brother really likes the pickle slushie and jalapeno’s, myself and Jekabs enjoy junior burgers and fries.
Our last stop is to buy one more suitcase, as we have bought a ton of stuff for the guys! Good thing we came with one suitcase to spare and don’t need to pay anything extra for this!
Hotel: Quality Inn & Suites NRG Park – Medical Center, $93, with breakfast.
Day 8 – The Health Museum and on the Way
Our final museum
The last day of our trip has come too quickly! Our only plan is to explore The Health Museum and pack, but on the way we remember – what about those boot stores? So we do get in one, and we are not disappointed! It is like the museum of the boots, where you can also buy the exhibits! Special snake skin boots cost $899 + tax, and of course, there are cheaper ones too – with skulls, flowers or regular cowboy boots!
The we head to the Health Museum, and it is also worth the stop! While it is mostly for younger children and the main attraction – the lab – is unfortunately fully booked by a group from Australia, we explore the sound bed, the enormous beating heart and the sound study! I also get a chance at playing the theremin!
To Austin airport
We must head back to Austin where our flight is from, and the drive is uneventful until we are nearly at the airport to fill up the tank and notice our car tyre looks horrible. It is barely holding together! When we give back the car, we are quite relieved that after 2300 km it is all ok and even with the tyre nearly gone, we are fine.
Our big road trip has come to an end, but we only saw a small part of Texas! In quite a few places we didn’t have enough time, and because of the large distances we couldn’t explore the whole state. Next time we would like to explore the other side of the state – see the Garner State Park/Utopia, Seminole Canyon State park and of course, the Big Bend National Park. We had considered going to Dallas as well, as Six Flags park is there, but we surely would have needed another week if not two for that! So don’t be afraid to plan 2 weeks or more just for Texas, you won’t be disappointed!
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