The Great Texas Road Trip

I love Texas. I’ve always wanted to see Texas. Texas is big. That’s a problem. The Great Texas Road Trip is my personal solution to that problem. It’s not a perfect solution, but it worked well for me, and I offer it as a template for anyone who desires to see the many sides of Texas.

Texas Map Trip

Texas has ten different geographical ecoregions. The following road trip touches or crosses all ten regions, allowing you to experience the diversity of Texas geography up close and personal. Along the way you spend time in two major cities as well as visit various historical sites (including the Alamo) and three beautiful natural parks. It’s not all of Texas – that’s impossible! But it is a pretty good representation of Texas, and all in just eight days.

– two-thousand miles
– ten geographical regions
– two cities
– three natural parks
– eight days


Personal background to the trip:

I first fell in love with Texas in the 1990’s when I saw the Lonesome Dove mini-series starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. I was hooked and immediately read all four novels in the series written by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove; Streets of Laredo; Dead Man’s Walk; Comanche Moon). I watched all five mini-series as well as the television series. From there I read McMurtry’s other western novels (The Berrybender Narratives; Boone’s Lick; Telegraph Days; The Last Kind Words Saloon) as well as his collection of essays about the state of Texas (In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas).

My love for Texas soon spilled over into a love for all things western. I read through the Louis L’Amour Sackett Series – seventeen novels which describe the settling of the west through the adventures of the fictional Sackett family across the generations. I began to read other western novels as well as histories of Texas and the Old West. I read Texas by James Michener, a sprawling 1,500-page historical novel spanning four and half centuries of Texas history. I had never particularly enjoyed western movies before, but now I couldn’t get enough. I caught up on old John Wayne movies and began watching both classic and modern westerns. I even enjoyed watching old western shows like Big Valley, Bonanza and Gunsmoke.

The idea for the road trip hit me while reading Larry McMurtry’s collection of essays about Texas. In chapter five, “A Look at the Last Frontier,” McMurtry describes how at age twenty-nine he embarked on a road trip to get a better understanding of his home state of Texas. McMurtry writes: “Early one warm, foggy November morning I left my home in Houston and headed south, toward Mexico. I had decided to drive first to Brownsville, in the far southeastern tip of the state; then I would turn north and drive for days and days until I eventually came to Texline, in the far northwestern corner. Such a route would expose me to almost fifteen hundred miles of Texas – enough, perhaps, to give me some inkling of what the state looked like.” (McMurtry, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, p. 99)

I had already visited the two border towns of Brownsville and El Paso. Brownsville is the town furthest east on the border, while El Paso is the town furthest west. My wife (Rosi) is of Mexican descent, and she has relatives in the Brownsville area. We visited El Paso back in 2009 on a work-related trip. Rosi and I have often talked about visiting San Antonio together. We also enjoy spending time on the road, seeing new things, having long, uninterrupted time for conversation and sharing.

So, building off McMurtry’s idea, I devised a trip that loops from Houston through San Antonio, down to Big Bend National Park in the south, up to Palo Duro Canyon in the north, and then returning to Houston through the Texas National Forest region – two-thousand miles, ten geographical regions, two cities and three natural parks in eight days. This is the Great Texas Road Trip!

Day 1: Tuesday (5/18/2021) – Houston

We began our road trip in Houston. Houston is the largest city in Texas, the fourth largest in the nation. We flew into Houston Intercontinental Airport from Fort Lauderdale at 9:00 a.m. and picked up our rental car at the airport. I made sure to get a car with high miles-per-gallon as we would be putting a lot of road behind us in the coming days. We then headed straight for the downtown area.

Downtown Houston is unique in that it has an underground tunnel system for walking the city. You arrive downtown, and it looks deserted at first. Where are all the people? Twenty feet underground in a set of interconnected pedestrian walkways that span ninety-five city blocks. The tunnels are air-conditioned and run for six miles connecting the various shops and businesses above ground. There are also plenty of shops and food courts in the tunnels themselves, similar to what you find in a mall.

We parked at the McKinney Place Garage on Main St. which offers direct access to the tunnels. Then we had fun just walking around and exploring the tunnels together. We stopped and had an excellent breakfast at Tacos a Go Go. Later, we exited the tunnels and walked around the nearly empty streets in the city above. We ate some pastries at a bakery shop and visited The Galleria with its stunning full-length skylight.

Houston Galleria

We liked downtown Houston. We found it clean, safe and easy to navigate by car or foot. Here are some links with more information about the underground tunnel system:

From there we checked into our hotel and headed to the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. The Arboretum has miles of peaceful, well-marked trails for walking and enjoying nature, including beautiful flowers and lots of birds.

For supper we ate at Ninfa’s restaurant, rated by America’s Test Kitchen as having the best fajitas. We had planned our whole day in Houston and even our hotel around this supper-stop, and Ninfa’s did not disappoint. I had the steak fajitas (best ever!), while Rosi enjoyed tamales.


There are plenty of other great things to do in Houston, but when you only have one day, you have to make choices. If we had more time, we would have loved to visit the Space Center. We found the tunnels, the Arboretum and Ninfa’s made for a great way to visit and get a feel for the city. On to San Antonio!


  • Tacos a Go Go – great little breakfast stop in the underground tunnels; we had the migas plate which was delicious.
  • Corner Bakery – We shared a yummy chocolate baby Bundt cake.
  • Ninfa’s – Ninfa’s invented fajitas back in 1983; best fajitas ever! We ate at the Uptown Houston location.
  • La Quinta Houston Greenway Plaza – a little run down and under construction, but our room was nice; we chose this hotel because it was close to Ninfa’s and close to I-10 for our trip out to San Antonio in the morning.

Day 2: Wednesday (5/19/2021) – Drive to San Antonio (200 miles; three hours)

We got up early and made our way to I-10 for our drive to San Antonio. The hotel wasn’t serving breakfast due to covid, so we stopped at a Panera and then hit the road.

Houston is part of the Gulf Prairies and Marshes ecoregion. Driving I-10 brings you across the southern tip of the Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairies regions while skirting the South Texas Plains to the south. There’s not much to see from I-10, but we would get a better view of the northern regions on the return loop to Houston.

Our first order of business was to find some music for the road. We decided not to listen to our personal music or playlists. Instead, we listened to local radio stations to get a further taste of Texas life. Scanning the radio stations, we settled on 90.5 WJIC, a Christian country radio station out of Houston. We are both Christians, and although I don’t listen to a lot of country music, it felt very Texas to us. We ended up listening to a lot of country music on the trip, both contemporary and classic, as well as various Mexican stations we found along the way. (By the end of the trip, I even began to recognize some of the country songs!)

Shortly into the drive we had our first GPS incident. Traffic was backed up on I-10 due to an accident, so the GPS re-routed us around the area using local streets. At one point we were driving through residential neighborhoods following the GPS’s recommended “best route.” I joked with Rosi that we would probably be driving along a dirt road before long trying to find our way back to the highway. Sure enough, five minutes later the GPS routed us down a dirt road along a field. The road eventually led us back to I-10 on the other side of the accident, and after driving through some flood waters (we didn’t see that coming!), we were back on the road and headed to San Antonio again.

We arrived in San Antonio early afternoon and checked in at the Inn on the Riverwalk where we had reservations for two nights. What a beautiful inn! We had the Riverwalk Suite with windows overlooking the Riverwalk just a few steps from the inn. The innkeepers gave us their recommendation for a good, local Mexican restaurant, and we walked to Rosario’s Mexican Cafe for a delicious lunch.

Inn on the Riverwalk

After lunch we explored the Riverwalk together. The Riverwalk is a beautiful area with several miles of long sloping walkways stretched along the San Antonio River connecting the various shops and restaurants along the way. We jumped on a boat tour with Go Rio Cruises where we enjoyed learning about the history of San Antonio and the Riverwalk. Our tour guide was Australian; he had a great sense of humor and an even better accent.

San Antonio Riverwalk

After the cruise, we headed to the Alamo. The chapel had just closed, but the outside grounds were open, and we walked around the courtyard viewing the various monuments and exhibits. This was an amazing moment for me. I was actually at the Alamo, the very heart of Texas history and so many books I had read. Some people say they are disappointed when they get to the Alamo because it is so much smaller than they imagined, but I was in Texas-heaven soaking up the atmosphere and the history of the place.

We did some shopping at Rivercenter Shops and then headed into town for smoothies before returning to the inn and settling in for the evening. The inn has a beautiful porch overlooking the Riverwalk. We sat on the porch together, relaxing, reading, watching the pedestrians on the paved walkways below. We went for a quick walk before bed and saw a tricolored heron walking along the river in the dark. Our dream of visiting San Antonio together had begun!


  • Rosario’s Mexican Cafe – small but delightful Mexican restaurant; great prices, friendly service and delicious, authentic food; we ate at the Southtown location.
  • Munchies – great smoothies, giant cups, priced well.
  • Inn on the Riverwalk – charming, rustic bed and breakfast; perfect place to stay in San Antonio; beautiful view right on the Riverwalk; easy walking distance to most places; home-cooked breakfast included!

Day 3: Thursday (5/20/2021) – San Antonio

This was one of the funnest days of the trip. The inn served us a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes, sausage and eggs. Then we walked over to the nearest B-Cycle dock and rented bikes for the day. San Antonio participates in a Bike Share Program where for a low fee you can borrow a bicycle from a dock (one hour at a time), ride it around town, and drop it off at another dock. There are both regular bicycles and e-bikes for rent. It’s perfect for short commutes and a great way to see the city. However, we had a different purpose in mind.

One of the main historical attractions at San Antonio is the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Most everyone has heard of the Alamo, but there are four other missions in San Antonio as well. From north to south these missions are: 1) Mission Concepción, 2) Mission San José, 3) Mission San Juan Capistrano, and 4) Mission Espada. Each of the missions are about 2-3 miles apart. Parking is available at each site, and it is easy to drive from one mission to the next.

San Antonio also has a beautiful Hike and Bike Trail for pedestrians and cyclists. Each of the missions is near the San Antonio River, and the trail winds along the river connecting you from one mission to the next. The trail even extends north to the Alamo on the other side of the Riverwalk.

We got two e-bikes from the B-Cycle dock and made our way to the Riverwalk where we began our trip southward towards Mission Concepción. It was a beautiful bike ride – peaceful, quiet, winding along the San Antonio River, observing various birds and wildlife along the way. Once you leave the main area, the concrete walls of the Riverwalk drop off. The river widens out, and you see it in all its natural beauty. The e-bikes helped with the hills and made for a more pleasant riding experience. Each of the missions has docks for your bike, so you can ride right up to the mission and dock your bike.

San Antonio Hike and Bike Trail

We had planned on visiting all four missions, but we only got to Mission Concepción and Mission San José. By that time, we knew we had better turn back or we would be too tired to complete the whole trip. If we were to do the whole thing over again, we would take a ride-share down to Mission Espada (the southern-most mission), and then just bike our way north from one mission to the next.

After the bike ride, we grabbed a quick lunch at Tito’s Mexican Restaurant and then headed to Historic Market Square for shopping and browsing. The Market Square area is the largest Mexican market in the United States. It is an outdoor plaza filled with shops and restaurants covering three blocks in downtown San Antonio. It feels like you have stepped through a portal and arrived in a marketplace somewhere in Mexico. We had a great time walking the plaza, browsing the shops for souvenirs and just enjoying the atmosphere. We got some churros and sat for a while before heading back to the inn.

We enjoyed the evening at the inn, sitting on the porch overlooking the Riverwalk. We made plans to visit the Alamo again in the morning before starting our drive to Big Bend National Park. We drove into town for fruit cups and agua fresca, then came back to the inn to take a stroll along the Riverwalk before retiring for the night. It was a great day!


  • Tito’s Mexican Restaurant – authentic Mexican; great food and service; large portions and reasonably priced.
  • Nieves – small place, but delicious fruit cups and agua fresca.
  • Inn at the Riverwalk – charming, rustic bed and breakfast; perfect place to stay in San Antonio; beautiful view right on the Riverwalk; easy walking distance to most places; home-cooked breakfast included!

Day 4: Friday (5/21/2021) – San Antonio; Drive to Big Bend National Park (400 miles; seven hours)

After breakfast at the inn, we checked out and headed back to the Alamo. Although we had visited the Alamo earlier, we were only able to see the outdoor sections. I still wanted to see the inside of the chapel. There was no cost for entry, but you did need to get free entry tickets marked for a specific time. We got our tickets and did some more browsing in nearby shops until our designated time.

Visiting the chapel was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Originally the chapel of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, the building became the focal part of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Although there were other structures at the Alamo, the chapel was the main building within the fort. The defenders built a long ramp up the center aisle to place two cannons up high along the walls. The final fighting of the battle took place here within the chapel walls. After reading so much about the Alamo, spending some time in the chapel was a very meaningful experience.


After we finished at the Alamo and did some more shopping, it was finally time to resume the road trip. I really loved San Antonio, and we hope to visit the city again. But we had seven hours of driving ahead of us to get to Big Bend National Park, so it was time to hit the road.


There are basically two ways to drive to Big Bend from San Antonio. I-10 is the fastest and the straightest. But we chose to take old I-90 to the south instead. Although I-10 is the faster route, there is not as much to see from the highway. I-90 winds its way through various small towns and runs right along the edge of the South Texas Plains to the south with the Edwards Plateau region to the north. So, we took the scenic route.

We ate at a Bill Miller’s Bar-B-Q for lunch. Then we began to wind our way across I-90 passing through the small towns of Castroville (pop. 3,009), Dunlay (pop. 119) and Hondo (pop. 9,251). The old train tracks followed us on the northern side of the road. (The town of Dunlay was named after a train conductor.)

Hondo was a hoot. Originally called Hondo City, it was named after the Spanish word for “deep.” The first thing you notice are the signs. You are greeted by a large, green welcome sign that says: “Welcome: This is God’s Country. Please don’t drive through it like Hell.” You continue to see “God’s Country” signs everywhere as you drive through town. There is a “God’s Country Pharmacy” and “Cowboy Church in God’s Country.” I got out of the car and Rosi took my picture under the sign at the train station.

Hondo Train Station

We enjoyed Hondo, although later when we got to Big Bend National Park (as we stood in awe of the grand vistas and rugged mountains), Rosi whispered to me, “Hondo may have the signs, but this is God’s country!”

Leaving Hondo, we continued west on I-90 passing through D’Hanis (pop. 733), Sabinal (pop. 1,534), Knippa (pop. 783) and Uvalde (pop. 16,154). We were in ranch country now. We drove a long stretch of road from Uvalde to Bracketville with nothing but ranches spread out one after another like churches in the Bible Belt. Bracketville (population 1,674) is another blink-and-you-miss-it town. Back in the 1800’s it served as a supply depot for Fort Clark. For many years, it was home base for the Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers were the first all African American regiments commissioned by the U.S. Army. Bracketville is also where you join the Texas Pecos Trail which we would follow along I-90 all the way to Sanderson.

Next, we drove through Del Rio (pop. 35,846). Del Rio is a border town right across from Ciudad Acuña in Mexico. There’s a place in the center of town where I-90 turns sharply to the north to follow the Rio Grande as you transition from the South Texas Plains into the Edwards Plateau – unless, of course, you miss the turn and continue driving straight as we did, in which case you run straight into the Port of Entry with a large sign proclaiming: “Last Chance to Turn Around Before Entering Mexico.” Mexico??!!??!! We didn’t know we were off course, and the sign caught us off guard. We made the fastest U-turn you ever saw and found our way back to I-90.

This next section of the trip was so beautiful for me. As you progress into the Edwards Plateau region, the landscape changes. Instead of the large ranches and plains, the ground gets harder, rockier, filling in with scraggly vegetation of prickly pear, creosote and mesquite. I was suddenly transported back into the old west from my novels, movies and history books. Even though we had already been in Texas for days, I turned to my wife and said, “I’m finally here!”

Edwards Plateau

There’s not much in the way of civilization along this part of the trek, just a few small towns. You pass through Comstock (pop. 475). You cross the Pecos River. You can’t really see the Rio Grande, but you know it’s right there tracking alongside you to the west.

You come closest to the Rio Grande in the town of Langtry (pop. 12). Langtry is a small town with a big claim to fame. This is where the famous Judge Roy Bean set up his saloon and practiced law. Bean is a colorful character who often shows up in the history and stories of the west It was fun to drive through his town, even though there wasn’t much to see.

After Langtry you leave the Rio Grande as the river veers west and I-90 continues northwest across the plateau. This is isolated country, just a few small towns along the way: Dryden (pop. 33) and Sanderson (pop. 774). At Sanderson you pass through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Located halfway between San Antonio and El Paso, Sanderson is the Cactus Capital of Texas and still has the feel of an old, western town.

We continued on I-90 west, leaving the Texas Pecos Trail which follows I-285 north to Fort Stockton. From here the landscape begins to change once again as you transition from the Edwards Plateau into the Trans-Pecos Mountains region. The terrain becomes even more rugged and desert-like, and we could see mountains in the distance. The heat increased considerably.

Our next stop was the town of Marathon (pop. 386), home of the historic Gage Hotel and gateway to Big Bend National Park. It was late afternoon, and according to the GPS, we were still an hour and a half away from our destination: Terlingua Ranch Lodge, nestled right on the edge of the park in the town of Terlingua (pop. 110).

Marathon is a small town, just a few hotels and a collection of buildings, but a lot of people stay here when they visit the park. It felt eerie to us, almost like a ghost town or a small town out of a movie set. We didn’t see anyone, although there were a bunch of cars parked out in front of Los Muertos Mexican Kitchen (“Mexican Kitchen of the Dead”).

If we had more time, we probably would have joined them, but we needed to get going so we stopped and picked up some sandwiches at the French Company Grocer. It was a small store tucked back off the main road, but the service was friendly, and the sandwiches were great. We filled the car with gas and ate the sandwiches on the road, eager to get to the lodge before dark.

Now, there are two sensible ways to get to the ranch from Marathon. The quickest way is to continue on I-90 to the city of Alpine (pop. 6,006), another gateway town and popular place for visitors to the park. From there it’s a straight shot down Highway 118 to the ranch on the western side of the park. Or you can take I-385 south from Marathon and loop your way through the whole park making your approach on Highway 118 from the south. Both routes are clearly marked on the map.

I tell you this because it would have been helpful information for me to know. I wasn’t looking at the map. I was just following the GPS. If you’ve ever been on a road trip, you already know that nothing good comes after the phrase, “I was just following the GPS.”

The GPS started us off all right. We headed south on I-385, happily munching our sandwiches, ready to rest at the lodge after a long day of driving. We entered Big Bend National Park from the east side and marveled at the mountains and scenery.

Big Bend Sign

It was evening and the park was officially closed for the day, but the road was still open for travelers. There was no one at the entrance booth to take our money. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anyone anywhere. We were alone in this desolate, rugged wilderness, just following the GPS. The GPS directed us to turn right on Marathon Road, which cuts west across the park and leads directly to the ranch twenty-five miles away. Only twenty-five miles to go – we were almost there!

Our first indication that something was wrong was the sign posted at the beginning of the road: “Four Wheel Drive Recommended.” Our rental car had four wheels, but I don’t think that’s what they meant. We looked at each other, shrugged, and ventured forward. We soon found ourselves on a narrow dirt road with so many rocks, ruts and depressions that we had to slow the car down to five mph just to keep going. We pushed on, hoping the road would smooth out but if anything, it just got worse.

I stopped the car, and we took stock of our situation. It was 7:30 p.m. Sunset was a little over an hour away. We were driving at a speed of five mph on a road that was twenty-five miles long. At this rate it would take us five hours to reach the lodge, and we wouldn’t get there until after midnight. We were on a road meant for four-wheelers, and our four-door Chevy Malibu sedan had maybe six inches of clearance from the road. We were in the middle of the desert with no cell phone reception and no one around to help us if we got stuck. This was not Disney World. There were no rest rooms, no park rangers, no lights – just Rosi, me, the desert and the car.

It was clear that going forward would not end well. So, we (somehow) turned the car around and inched our way back, retracing our path over the rocks and ruts in the road. We breathed a sigh of relief when we finally reached the main roadway.

I finally looked at the map and saw the two sensible ways to get to the lodge. It was too far now to drive all the way back to Marathon and loop around through Alpine to get to the lodge from the north. So, we continued our drive down the east side of the park and looped around to the lodge from the south. However, we were now fighting the clock. The sun was setting, and we didn’t want to be driving on these steep, winding roads through the mountains in the dark.

After a few more mishaps (the GPS initially dropped us off in the middle of nowhere; we encountered another dirt road), we finally rolled into the ranch well after dark and made our way to our cabin. It had been a long day of driving, and we were more than ready to bed down for the night.

Excursus: Big Bend National Park Night Sky

One of the things I was looking forward to on this trip was viewing the night sky from Big Bend. I have always loved the night sky. I got that from my father. My father is an amateur astronomer who loves the stars so much he built his own planetarium and observatory in our backyard when I was a kid. He gave planetarium shows to various school groups and clubs who would come to enjoy the show in the planetarium and then peer at the stars through the telescope in the observatory.

Big Bend is a class one rated International Dark Sky Park. It has the lowest light pollution of any place in the United States, and the dry desert air reduces haze, making for exceptionally clear skies. You are miles away from any major cities, and there are strict light restrictions in the park and the surrounding areas.

I currently live in Florida, just outside of Fort Lauderdale. The light pollution is horrible here, but I still like to go outside either late at night or early in the morning before the sun comes up to look at what stars I can. I have seen some dark skies before, mostly in New England when we would vacation as a family up near the Canadian border. I was looking forward to seeing the night sky at Big Bend to compare. We were only staying two nights, so I was really hoping for good conditions for viewing the stars.

Unfortunately, when we arrived, the sky was thick with clouds, and we couldn’t see anything at all. After fumbling our way to the cabin in the dark (due to the light restrictions), we got unpacked and ready for bed. I kept looking outside to see if the clouds were breaking but to no avail. Even after we went to bed, I got up a couple of times and peeked out the cabin door – still heavy cloud cover, although one time there was a single break in the clouds where I could glimpse a band of stars teasing me behind the clouds. Finally, I gave up, disappointed, but hopeful that conditions might be better the following night. It was well after midnight. I was exhausted, and I fell into a deep sleep.


4:30 a.m. – I open my eyes. The room is pitch black. Rosi is fast asleep. It is perfectly quiet. I’m not even sure why I’ve awoken. I think about looking outside again, but I am so tired and every instinct in my body is telling me to go back to sleep. I get up anyway. I quietly make my way across the cabin floor. I slowly open the door and step onto the porch. It is like stepping through the wardrobe into another world. The sky is perfectly clear. The air is still. There is not a single sound for miles. The clouds are gone, and I am finally viewing the night sky at Big Bend – a bewildering display of bright jewels on velvet, Christmas lights strung across the sky, the Milky Way a shimmering river of light stretching from horizon to horizon.

It is an impossible sky, full of beauty and contradiction. I have never seen a sky so dark and yet so bright at the same time. The sky is pitch black, and yet I can see everything around me. The moon is tucked behind the mountains. The lights around the ranch are turned off. All this light is coming from the stars. And the stars! They don’t look like any stars I’ve seen before. Each star hangs big and thick in the sky. The sky is huge, and yet it also feels small, claustrophobic, like it is crowding in around me. My mind reels, trying to take it all in.

I begin identifying the various stars and constellations. At home, I can only see a few of the most prominent stars, but here every star of every constellation is clearly visible. I begin with the Big Dipper which hangs prominently in the lower northwest sky. Using the two guide stars I make my way over to Polaris, the North Star, and trace the handle of the Little Dipper. Draco the Dragon winds his way between the two.

Moving west across the sky I observe Bootes and Hercules. The Corona Borealis is tucked in there. Hercules is almost straight overhead. Arcturus, the main star in Bootes, shines especially bright. Continuing to the southwest are Libra and Scorpius. Scorpius hangs ominously over the horizon. I can see the full length of his body, from the stinger in his tail to his fierce claws in front. Looking due south, I see Sagittarius and Capricornus with Aquila above and between them in the sky. Saturn shines brightly in their midst.

Looking towards the east, the Milky Way stretches the full length of the sky all the way from the southern to the northern horizon. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It is thick and white and creamy with so many stars. I scan its length with my binoculars and even more stars reveal themselves.

Looking to the northeast I see Jupiter, Aquarius and Pegasus. I watch some shooting stars over Aquarius, forerunners of the Delta Aquariids making an early appearance. Andromeda fills the horizon, followed by Cassiopeia and Cepheus with Cygnus the swan soaring high overhead. And then I am back to Polaris and the Little Dipper.

I spend an hour outside, looking at the stars, going through the constellations again and again, taking out my binoculars for closer views. I am in a desert bowl, surrounded by mountains looking up at the night sky. The sky is a picture; the Chisos Mountains are the frame; it is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. I watch and I worship, thanking God for his beautiful creation. Deeply content, I stumble back to bed and fall fast asleep.


I woke up several hours later and wondered if it was all a dream. I knew I saw it all, but somehow, I couldn’t hold the complete picture in my mind.

Later, just to make sure, I compared a star chart to what I remembered seeing. Yes, there was the Big Dipper on the northwest horizon. There was Scorpius to the south. There was the Milky Way stretching from north to south across the eastern sky. It was real. It’s as though I can review it all intellectually, but the experience was too big to fit in my mind. It’s amazing to think that this possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience for me was a regular nightly occurrence for most people just a couple hundred years ago.

When we returned home, I ordered a framed print of the night sky as seen from that location at that precise time. I hung it in my office right over the desk where I work. I am looking at it even now as I type this. It brings me great satisfaction.

Big Bend Night Sky


  • Bill Miller’s Bar-B-Q – excellent barbecue cooked over 100% hill country live oak wood in a brick pit.
  • French Company Grocer – tiny store off the beaten road but great sandwiches!
  • Terlingua Ranch Lodge – right next to Big Bend National Park; surrounded by mountains; clean cabins, comfortable beds; all-day café; great place to stay.

Day 5: Saturday (5/22/2021) – Big Bend National Park

When morning came, we stepped out on the porch to check our surroundings. We had arrived after dark, so this was our first time seeing the ranch in the daylight. The Chihuahuan Desert stretched for miles surrounded by mountains.

Terlingua Ranch Lodge

We walked over to the Bad Rabbit Café for breakfast. The Bad Rabbit is located right on the ranch and open for service all day. We loved the casual, down-to-earth atmosphere. The food and service were both great.

After breakfast I sat outside and chatted with one of the cooks. I told her how much I enjoyed breakfast. “Too bad you didn’t have one of my cinnamon rolls,” she said. “I make them myself – big as my hand.” She held out her hand for me, fingers extended.

“Oh well,” I replied, “maybe tomorrow.”

She shook her head sadly. “Nope. Takes me five hours just to make ’em.”

From there we slathered on sunscreen, packed plenty of water and left the ranch to explore Big Bend National Park. As we turned south on Highway 118, a lone tarantula scurried across the road in front of our car.

You really need several days to see all the main sights at Big Bend. We only had the one day, so we decided on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – a 30-mile route that takes you deep into the park all the way to Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande on the Mexican border. You can see plenty straight from your car, plus there are plenty of places to stop and explore along the way.

Our first stop was The Sam Nail Ranch. We hiked down a shady path to the remnants of the old homestead. There is an old but still functioning windmill nestled among the trees which pumps water out of the ground for the local wildlife. We sat on a bench and listened to the birds all around us in the trees, but it was hard to see any through the dense leaves.

Sam Nail Ranch

Next, we stopped at the Blue Creek Ranch Overlook to see the headquarters of the old Homer Wilson Ranch from above. There is a trail that leads down to the building, but it was already getting hot, so we decided to drive on.

Our next stop was the can’t-miss Sotol Vista Overlook. From here you can see the entire western side of the park, an incredible view that stretches for miles in every direction. Santa Elena Canyon is visible to the south, and with our binoculars we were able to see the rolling blue of the Rio Grande east of the canyon.

Sotol Vista Overlook

Next, we stopped at the Mule Ears Viewpoint. Here you have an excellent view of Mule Ears Peaks, one of the most distinctive views in the park. There is a trail leading down to a desert spring which we considered hiking until we read the following sign: “Mule Ears Spring Trail; 3.8 miles round trip; 880 feet cumulative elevation change; Bring plenty of water (minimum of 2-3 liters per person); Be aware of wildlife, such as snakes and mountain lions (maintain a safe distance).” It was already over 90 degrees, and with the length of the trail plus the elevation change (never mind the snakes and mountain lions), we thought it best to move on.

Mule Ears Viewpoint

Our next stop was the Castolon Historic District. Not much to see here, just a visitor center, camper store and some old farming equipment. This was an old ranger station, and they had some great photos and storyboards about the Texas Rangers who patrolled the border in this area.

We stopped at a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the Rio Grande and then finally reached Santa Elena Canyon. There were restrooms and plenty of parking here. We hiked a short trail down to the canyon. The Rio Grande is not very wide here. Visitors splashed in the water; some waded across to Mexico. Of course, you can’t get very far due to the 1,500-foot sheer vertical cliffs on the other side, carved out by the Rio Grande over centuries. No need for a wall here, nature already took care of that. The canyon walls were amazing – overpowering in their immensity, staggering in their height.

Santa Elena Canyon

We had hoped to take a lazy hike along the river through the canyon, but we didn’t realize there is a fairly steep climb over a rocky enclave before you reach the canyon trail. There are steps and a handrail, but we were both feeling the heat and didn’t want to overextend ourselves. So, we stayed by the river enjoying the view of the canyon and then headed back to the car.

Santa Elena Canyon

We checked the temperature (98 degrees!) and started our drive back through the park, marveling at the vast open spaces, the looming mountains, the unique rock formations and rugged terrain. We stopped at Panther Junction Visitor Center and then headed back to the ranch. Along the way we saw rabbits and roadrunners and a kit fox, the size of a cat, peering at us through the brush from the side of the road. The roadrunners were cute. They basically just run across the road in front of your car. We figured the kit fox was probably out looking for the roadrunners.

Back at the ranch we enjoyed a lazy late afternoon sitting on the porch, birdwatching, eating at the Bad Rabbit and sitting some more before eventually going to bed. It was our last night at Big Bend. I was hoping for another view of the stars, but the skies were clouded over. I kept checking and even got up at 4:30 a.m., but the clouds were unyielding. I was disappointed but grateful for the beautiful view I had the night before.

Rosi and I loved Big Bend National Park. It was some of the most desolate, rugged landscape we have ever seen. It’s a long drive to get there, but well worth the effort. We would love to return and explore the park more.


  • Bad Rabbit Café – great food; personal service and a down-home atmosphere.
  • Terlingua Ranch Lodge – right next to Big Bend National Park; surrounded by mountains; clean cabins, comfortable beds; all-day café; great place to stay.

Day 6: Sunday (5/23/2021) – Drive to Palo Duro Canyon (465 miles; eight hours)

After two nights at Big Bend, it was time to resume the “road” part of our trip. We had an ambitious stretch of driving ahead, so we got up early, ate breakfast at the Bad Rabbit and hit the road. Today’s journey would take us up along the western shoulder of Texas all the way north into the panhandle. Leaving the Chihuahua Desert, we would cross the Trans Pecos Mountains and then drive across the High Plains on our way to Palo Duro Canyon, just south of Amarillo. Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States, second only to the Grand Canyon, and we were very excited about seeing it.

We left the ranch and headed north on Highway 118. The first town we passed was Alpine (pop. 6,006), another popular place for people to stay when visiting Big Bend. From Alpine we turned east on US-67 which joins I-90 for about eight miles before turning to the north. Crossing the Davis Mountains, we stayed on US-67 until I-10 and then followed FM 1776 (we learned FM stands for “Farm to Market”) to I-20 in Monahans (pop. 7,618) located at the center of the Permian Basin.

This stretch of I-20 was probably the least interesting part of the trip. This is oil and gas country. We passed Permian processing plants and oil derricks working tirelessly in the fields. It was Sunday morning, so we listened to a local Pentecostal preacher on the radio. It was not our usual style, but we both enjoyed the message. We took I-20 through Odessa (pop. 993,120) to Midland (pop. 138,549) where we turned north on Highway 349. We liked Midland. Located halfway between El Paso and Fort Worth, it seemed like a good midsize town and a nice place to live.

Driving north on Highway 349 to US-87, we had now left the Trans-Pecos Mountains region and were officially on the High Plains of Texas. The High Plains occupy the northwest region of Texas, stretching from Odessa in the south to Amarillo in the north. The elevation ranges from about 2,800′ to 3,600′. It is one of the largest most completely flat areas on the planet. This is a short grass region with a mixture of oil fields, cattle grazing and agriculture. The crops are mostly wheat and corn, and we saw lots of grain elevators with chutes adjacent to railroad tracks for transport. There are little to no trees in most of the region, just long flat grasslands that seem to stretch on forever. Hundreds of giant windmills lined the eastern horizon powering the electrical grid, large blades keeping time with the wind.

One of our goals on this trip had to do with eating. We wanted to eat some great Mexican food, some authentic Texas barbecue and some great Texas steak. We had already checked the first two off our list, so now it was time for steak. We did an online search for best steakhouses in Lubbock (birthplace of Buddy Holly) but nothing really grabbed our attention. However, the Texas Rose Steakhouse in Canyon, TX, just south of Amarillo, had great reviews. We were staying in Canyon that night anyways, so we waved goodbye to Buddy Holly as we drove north on I-27 towards our destination.

We drove through Plainview, home of Jimmy Dean (the sausage, not the actor), and saw more grain chutes and elevators. Azteca Milling operates a large flour mill here that provides corn products for companies such as Maseca and Kraft. A large “Maseca Welcomes You” sign greeted us as we entered the city.

As we got closer to Canyon (pop. 15,305), we saw more and more cattle ranches, which was good because we were ready for steak. We passed through Tulia (pop. 4,690) and Happy, TX – “the Town without a Frown” (pop. 697). When we arrived at our Best Western in Canyon, we discovered that the Texas Rose Steakhouse was just next door. So, we checked into the hotel and walked over to the restaurant for supper. We both got the Ranch Hand, an 8-ounce Kansas City Strip prepared over a mesquite grill. It was one of the best steaks we have ever had.

After a nice walk around town, we drove to Palo Duro Canyon to view the canyon at sunset. The canyon was only a fifteen-minute drive from the hotel, but you would never know it. We drove across flat farmlands without a hint of any canyon ahead. Suddenly, at the very last minute, the farmland gives way to canyon (we wondered that the cows didn’t fall in!). We watched the light play over the canyon as the sun set in the west. Then we drove back to the hotel, tired after a long day of driving but excited over exploring the canyon in the morning. It was another great day on our Great Texas Road Trip.

Palo Duro Canyon at sunset


  • Bad Rabbit Café – great food; personal service and a down-home atmosphere.
  • Texas Rose Steakhouse – great atmosphere; friendly service; some of the best steaks we have ever eaten.
  • Best Western Palo Duro Canyon Inn and Suites – great place to stay; right next to the Texas Rose Steakhouse and just a fifteen-minute drive to the canyon; breakfast included; easily the nicest Best Western we have stayed at.

Day 7: Monday (5/24/2021) – Palo Duro Canyon; Drive to Kilgore (500 miles; nine hours)

We ate breakfast at the hotel and had a nice conversation with a gentleman from Abilene. He and his wife were also on a road trip. Their children had surprised them with a trip to Yellowstone Park for their 50th wedding anniversary. They had visited the canyon yesterday. As they headed north to their next destination, we headed back to Palo Duro Canyon (“the Grand Canyon of Texas”).

This is the third great canyon I’ve visited in the U.S. I visited the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon back in the 1980’s where I did some hiking. The nice thing about Palo Duro is you can actually drive down to the bottom of the canyon in your car. The road was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the days of the Great Depression. The paved road descends 800 feet from the rim to the floor, and there are more than sixteen miles of paved road where you can drive and explore the canyon or get out and hike various trails. It is a beautiful canyon, marked by red rock formations and steep cliffs, with juniper trees and scrub brush lining the walls and floor.

Palo Duro Canyon Road

The Lighthouse Trail is the most popular trail in the park and one that we considered taking. It is a three-mile trail that leads you to the Lighthouse, the most famous rock formation in the park. It is a fairly easy trail, although there is a steep climb at the end which leads you up to the 300-foot-high Lighthouse formation. Even though it is a fairly easy walk, the canyon gets extremely hot, so you have to bring plenty of water. We were warned that most heat-related injuries and deaths in the park take place along this trail.

We were fortunate to visit the park on an exceptionally cool morning. It was around 70 degrees when we got there and never got above 80. Unfortunately, all hiking trails were closed due to heavy rains previous to our arrival. We only had several hours to visit the park anyways, so we drove to the bottom and stopped at various scenic points along the way. When we first got out of the car, the air was cool and fresh, the strong scent of juniper in the air. We explored a brook by the side of the road; we parked at a camping ground where we did some bird watching; and we walked out over some flat red rocks that led to what looked like ancient cave dwellings.

Palo Duro Canyon Red Rocks

The canyon has a rich history. Various peoples have inhabited the canyon for about 12,000 years. The early peoples hunted giant bison and mammoth. The Apache, Comanche and Kiowa used the canyon in more recent times. The Battle of Palo Duro took place on September 28, 1874 when the 4th U.S. Cavalry launched a surprise attack on a camp of Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne dwelling in the canyon. The soldiers shot most of their 1,400 ponies and burned their teepees and provisions.

Charles Goodnight is also connected with the canyon’s history. Goodnight, a former Texas Ranger, figures prominently in the Old West, often appearing in the various stories relating to the period. Goodnight drove 1,600 Longhorn cattle to the canyon in 1876 and founded the JA Ranch there along with his partner, John Adair. At one time the ranch had over 100,000 head of cattle spread out over a million acres of grazing land. The ranch is still there today and run by descendants of Adair.

We stopped at the visitor center on the way out and were able to view the Lighthouse formation through our binoculars. There is also a scope at the center pointed right at the formation. It was a beautiful morning, and we wished we had more time to explore the canyon. But we had the longest drive of our trip ahead of us, so it was time to hit the road again.

Palo Duro Canyon Visitor Center

Today’s drive was also our most diverse, crossing five different ecoregions. We would descend the Rolling Plains region going through Wichita Falls; traverse the Cross Timbers and Blackland Prairies going through the Dallas-Fort Worth area; and then drive across the Post Oak Savannah into the Piney Woods region on the way to our hotel in Kilgore, just three hours north of Houston. We were hoping to see some wildflowers along the way, as we hadn’t seen many on our trip so far. It was late May, and we hoped we hadn’t come too late in the season.

We left the High Plains heading south on US-287. The flat grasslands gave way to rolling hills and rougher terrain as we made our way across the Rolling Plains. We noted the elevation of various towns along the way as tracked our descent: Clarendon (2,733′), Memphis (2,057′), Quanah (1,572′) and Wichita Falls (948′).

The town of Quanah is 8 miles south of the Red River, which forms the Oklahoma-Texas state border. The town is named after Quanah Parker, the famous Comanche chief and son of Cynthia Parker, a white woman who was kidnapped as a child and adopted by the Comanches. She lived among the Comanche for 24 years until she was rescued by Texas Rangers at the age of 34 and sent back to her family against her will. Sadly, she never readjusted to her original culture. Ten years later, after several failed attempts to escape and return to her Comanche family and children, she died by voluntary starvation.

Leaving Wichita Falls we entered the Cross Timbers and Prairies region. This is the primary ecoregion of north central Texas, originally named for the heavily timbered areas that broke up the plains making it difficult for travelers to cross the region. One early traveler journaled: “I shall not easily forget the mortal toil and vexations of the flesh and spirit that we underwent … in our wanderings through the Cross Timber. It was like struggling through forests of cast iron.” (Irving, Washington; A Tour of the Prairies; 1886) Many of these woodland areas have since been cleared for farming and ranching as well as city development. We didn’t see a lot of trees, and the ones we did see were quite short and stubby.

But we did see wildflowers. They burst on the scene, catching us by surprise. Suddenly there were wildflowers everywhere: wildflowers in the fields, wildflowers in the median, wildflowers along the sides of the road – bright yellows, soft oranges, deep reds, dainty blues, delicate pinks and whites, distinctive purples – a pointillist parade of color marching past the car window for mile after mile.

Texas Wildflowers

We continued on US-287 through a number of smaller towns with gas stations and restaurants until we finally reached the Dallas-Fort Worth Area, taking I-35 south to I-820 and turning east onto the expressway (Texas 183 TEXpress). This was the only major city driving for the trip, and we couldn’t have arrived at a worse time. We had pretty much avoided traffic and rain, but now we got hit by both – rush hour traffic and torrential downpours, flood watch conditions with multiple car accidents all around.

We got into a single lane expressway when I realized we were low on gas. Pro-tip: remember those smaller towns with gas stations leading up to the city? I highly recommend filling up your tank before getting stuck on the expressway during rush hour in the pouring rain. Somehow, we were able to maneuver off the expressway, get the gas we needed, and get back on – but it was no easy feat. The rain finally stopped, and we exited Dallas taking I-30 to US-80 heading east. We didn’t see much of Dallas due to the heavy rains, but we were glad to be on the other side.

We were now in the Blackland Prairies region which stretches from the Red River on the Oklahoma border all the way down to the South Texas Plains. This is a grassland area with some of the richest soil in the world. We immediately noticed how much taller the trees were on this side of the city. The smaller scrub trees west of Dallas gave way to patches of taller oak and elm on the east. We continued to see wildflowers as we left US-80 right before Terrell, following Highway 557 south to I-20 E.

We took I-20 east through Canton (pop. 3,805) heading towards Longview. Somewhere around Canton, we crossed over from the Black Prairies ecoregion into the Post Oak Savannah, another narrow region stretching from the Oklahoma border to the South Texas Plains. This is a transitional zone between the Blackland Prairies and the Piney Woods region. There is a lot of cattle ranching and hay production in this area. The trees continued to grow taller, and we saw scattered patches of post oak and elm.

Post Oak Piney Woods

About halfway between Canton and Longview, we entered the Piney Woods ecoregion. The landscape changed dramatically as we entered a heavily forested area composed of various hardwood trees of oak, elm and pine. The trees soared in height, and it felt more like we were in New England than in Texas. We left I-20 before Longview taking Highway 135 south into Kilgore (pop. 14,827) where we checked into our Best Western hotel and bedded down for our last night in Texas before flying home the next day.


  • This was a day of eating on the road. We stopped at a McDonald’s drive-through for lunch and grabbed some tamales at a gas station for supper.
  • Best Western Inn of Kilgore – nothing special; not as nice as the Best Western in Canyon.

Day 8: Tuesday (5/25/2021) – Sam Houston National Forest; Drive to airport (185 miles; three hours)

We chose Kilgore as our last stop for two reasons. First, we had an afternoon flight out of Houston, and Kilgore was only a three-hour drive to the airport. And then secondly, Kilgore sits just north of the Texas National Forest area. You don’t often think about Texas and trees, but Texas has four national forests (Angelina; Davy Crockett; Sabine; Sam Houston). All four are located in the Piney Woods region between Kilgore and Houston. We didn’t have a lot of time due to our afternoon flight, but I had read about a short hiking trail in Sam Houston National Forest that looked interesting, so we planned to stop there on our way to the airport.

We left Kilgore heading south on US-259. It was a pretty drive – forests, hills, wildflowers, residential areas, big lumber yards and small farms. We drove through Henderson (pop. 13,237) and veered south on US-59 just north of Nacogdoches (pop. 33,200; “the Oldest Town in Texas”). From there we drove through Angelina, the smallest of the four national forests and continued south through Lufkin (pop. 35,465), skirting between Davy Crocket National Forest to the west and Sabine National Forest to the east.

Our destination was “the Lone Star Hiking Trail to Double Lake via Trailhead #11.” The Lone Star Hiking Trail is a 96-mile-long hiking trail with an additional 32 miles of loop and crossover trails. It is the longest continuous hiking trail in the state of Texas. The particular hike we had planned was a brief 3.5-mile loop around a lake accessible via Trailhead #11 just south of Coldspring. The GPS guided us past Lake Livingston and through Coldspring to the trailhead located right off of FM-2025. Coldspring (pop. 1,029) was a cute town, full of old-Texas charm.

We parked the car at the trailhead and started down the trail but didn’t get very far. There were heavy rains the days before, and the trail was completely submerged. We had actually done a pretty good job avoiding the rain up to this point. Almost every place we stopped on the trip had heavy rains either the day before we arrived or the day after we left. We had originally planned the trip leaving on a Monday and flying back the following Monday. But when booking our flights, we changed it to a Tuesday-to-Tuesday trip instead. If we had stuck with our original schedule, we would have been rained out almost every day of the trip.

The Lone Star Hiking Trail to Double Lake via Trailhead #11

There are always two trips: the one you plan, and the one you get. We were disappointed we didn’t get to hike out to the lake, but we had some additional time now, so we drove around the back roads of Sam Houston National Forest. It was a beautiful area, very peaceful and quiet. Wildflowers lined the road. A red tail hawk swooped in front of the car as we drove through the forest. Finally, it was time to head to the airport.

And then we had one last surprise. On the way to the airport, we passed The Lonesome Dove Rustic Ranch on FM 2025 just outside of Cleveland. It was just a wedding reception venue, not a real ranch, but we stopped and took pictures. It was like coming full circle. My whole interest with Texas began with watching the Lonesome Dove mini-series, and it only seemed fitting that our last stop on the trip would be to take a picture in front of the Lonesome Dove sign.

Lonesome Dove

The Great Texas Road Trip was complete. We drove to the airport, dropped off the rental car and flew back to Florida, filled with new experiences, memories and stories. It was a great trip, and we look forward to visiting Texas again.

Final Thoughts on the Great Texas Road Trip

1) Route: Overall I am happy with the route we took. I wish we could have spent more time exploring the Gulf Prairies region and South Texas Plains, but we will save that for a future “Little Texas Road” trip (starting from Houston down the Gulf Coast through Corpus Christi, driving west along the eastern border towns to Laredo, back north through San Antonio and Austin, and then looping back to Houston for our flight home).

2) Places: We would have liked to spend some more time at Big Bend and Palo Duro Canyon. We also would have liked more time to stop and visit various historical sites along the way. But there is only so much you can do in eight days. Every trip involves trade-offs, and overall, we were happy with the choices we made in this area, too.

3) Time of year: If we were doing this again, I would plan the trip for April rather than May. April is a better season for wildflowers. Also, the weather would most likely be cooler, as the heat held us back from some hiking opportunities, especially in Big Bend.

4) Map vs GPS: I would make more use of maps along with the GPS. As it is, I spent more time looking at maps after the trip than either during or before. GPS is indispensable, but maps provide more context. They also suggest alternate routes that the GPS might miss. We would have avoided some mishaps along the way if we had the map out along with the GPS, especially in the Big Bend area. However, the mishaps become part of the memorable aspects of a trip, so, tradeoffs once again.

Those are some of the changes I would make if we were doing this again, but overall, I am very happy with the choices we made for the trip.

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