Still cherishing the memory that it was from 1836 to 1845 an independent nation, Texas stands proudly apart from the rest of the USA. While the sheer size of the state – 700 miles from east to west and more than 800 from top to bottom – gives it great geographical diversity, its 25 million residents are firmly bound together by a shared history and culture. Though the fervent state pride on show just about everywhere might seem a touch extreme to outsiders, Texas undeniably has a lot going for it.
The coastline of Texas curves southward more than 350 miles from Port Arthur, on the Louisiana border (a petrochemical town and birthplace of Janis Joplin) to the delta of the Rio Grande, which snakes northwest to form a 900-mile natural border with Mexico. Encompassed in this eastern section of the state is an interesting mix of big-city life and rural, backwoods culture.
The swampy, forested east is more like Louisiana than the pretty Hill Country or the agricultural plains of the northern Panhandle, while the tropical Gulf Coast has little in common with the mountainous deserts of the west. Changes in climate are dramatic: snow is common in the Panhandle, whereas the humidity of Houston is often unbearably thick.
There are 28 cities with a population of 100,000 or more, and each of the major tourist destinations is unique. Hispanic San Antonio, for example, with its Mexican population and rich history, has a laidback feel absent from commerce-driven Houston or Dallas, while trendy Austin revels in a lively music scene and an underground DIY ethos. One thing shared by the whole of Texas is state pride: Texas is a special place and its friendly residents know it.
Early inhabitants of Texas included the Caddo in the east and nomadic Coahuiltecans further south. The Comanche, who arrived from the Rockies in the 1600s, soon found themselves at war when the Spanish ventured in looking for gold. In the 1700s, the Spanish began to build missions and forts, although these had minimal impact on the indigenous population’s nomadic way of life. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, it took Texas as part of the deal. At first, the Mexicans were keen to open up their land and offered generous incentives to settlers. Stephen F. Austin established Anglo-American colonies in the Brazos and Colorado River valleys. However, the Mexican leader, Santa Anna, soon became alarmed by Anglo aspirations to autonomy, and his increasing restrictions led to the eight-month Texas Revolution of 1835–36.
The short-lived Republic of Texas, which included territory now in Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, served to define the state’s identity. In 1845, Texas joined the Union on the understanding that it could secede whenever it wished; this antiquated provision has resurfaced in modern-day Texas politics. The influence, especially in the north and east, of settlers from the Southern states and their attendant slave-centred cotton economy resulted in Texas joining the Confederacy during the Civil War (1860–65). During Reconstruction, settlers from both the North and the South began to pour in, and the phrase “Gone to Texas” was applied to anyone fleeing the law, bad debts or unhappy love affairs. This was also the period of the great cattle drives, when the longhorns roaming free in the south and west of Texas were rounded up and taken to the railroads in Kansas. The Texan – and national – fascination with the romantic myth of the cowboy has its roots in this. Today, his regalia – Stetson, boots and bandana – is virtually a state costume.
Along with ranching and agriculture, oil has been crucial. After the first big gusher in 1901, at Spindletop on the Gulf Coast, the focus of the Texas economy shifted almost overnight from agriculture toward rapid industrialization. Boom towns popped up as wildcatters chased the wells and millions of dollars were made as ranchers, who had previously thought their land only fit for cattle, sold out at vast profit. Today, Texas produces one-fifth of all the domestic oil in the United States, and the sight of nodding pump jacks is one of the state’s most potent images. But the state’s commitment to renewable energy is becoming a part of the landscape, too, as gleaming white wind turbines sprout up like mushrooms in the Panhandle-Plains region.
The Rio Grande, flowing through 1500ft-high canyons, makes a ninety-degree bend south of Marathon to form the southern border of BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK – thanks to its isolation, one of the least visited of the US national parks.
The Apache, who forced the Chisos out 300 years ago, believed that this hauntingly beautiful wilderness was used by the Great Spirit to dump all the rocks left over from the creation of the world; the Spanish, meanwhile, called it terra desconocida, “strange, unknown land”. A breathtaking 800,000-acre expanse of forested mountains and ocotillo-dotted desert, Big Bend has been home to ranchers, miners and smugglers, a last frontier for the true-grit pioneers of the American West.
Today, there is camping in designated areas, but much of the park remains barely charted territory. Its topography results in dramatic juxtapositions of desert and mountain, plant and animal life: mountain lions, black bears, roadrunners and javelinas (a bristly, grey hog-like creature with a snout and tusks) all roam free. Despite the dryness, tangles of pretty wild flowers and blossoming cacti erupt into colour each March and April. In the heightened security measures since September 11th, it has become illegal to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico.
West of the park headquarters a spur road leads south for about six miles, up into the Chisos Basin, which is ringed by dramatic peaks – the one gap in the rocky wall here is called the Window, looking out over the Chihuahuan Desert. Several of the park’s best hikes depart from either the road here or from the trailhead, near the store by the visitor centre.
An ideal morning outing in the Chisos Basin, this 4.8-mile out-and-back rises 1100ft through a series of moderate switchbacks to a ridge with breathtaking views of Juniper Canyon, the far rim and Mexico beyond.
From the Chisos Basin trailhead, the 12-mile loop hike to the South Rim is one of the most popular in the park, and the views deep into the interior of Mexico are humbling. Count on a gruelling 8hr – most of which will be completely exposed – or 10hr if you elect to include the rim trails.
For the serious (and experienced) hiker, the 13-mile loop hike to the river on the Marufo Vega trail is one of the most stunning in the entire National Park Service. It offers views of the Sierra del Carmen mountain range in Mexico and a descent into a rarely visited slick-rock canyon. Feral burros (wild donkeys) sometimes wail here at sunset, and subsistence Mexican farmers set up camps to harvest candelilla across the border. Pick up the topographical map of the trail from one of the visitor centres and check with a park ranger about the current conditions before setting out.
This gentle hour-long hike from the Rio Grande Village campsite leads past a wildlife-viewing platform before ending with expansive views of the river and nearby mountains.
At three separate stages within the park’s boundaries the river runs through gigantic canyons. The westernmost, Santa Elena, is the most common rafting trip, with mostly gentle Class II–III floats; outfitters are available at Terlingua.
Driving 20 miles southeast of Panther Junction brings you to the riverside Rio Grande Village – unless you choose to detour just before, to bathe in the natural hot springs that feed into the river. The hot springs can be reached via an easy 15-mile walk along the signposted dirt Hot Springs Rd.
The temperate climate of the verdant Davis Mountains, south of the junction of I-10 and I-20, makes them a popular summer destination for sweltering urban Texans. The eponymous state park, with its pleasant hiking trails, draws the most visitors to the range, while the McDonald Observatory to the northwest lures with the promise of world-class celestial views. South along Hwy-17, tiny Marfa is a windswept art community in the middle of the West Texas desert.
MARFA, a small, but thriving community 21 miles south of Fort Davis on Hwy-17, is the kind of place that it’s at once hard to imagine existing where it is but also existing anywhere else. It is very much a desert oasis, with a respected art scene pulling artists and the curious from afar in increasing numbers. It’s also a decidedly offbeat town, where chic designer shops and prefab galleries are offset by historic buildings that attest to its former role as a ranching centre. It all makes for a fascinating mix. Much more ethereal, the Marfa Lights, a few miles east of town, consistently draw crowds, even if the lights don’t always cooperate.
Back when Texas was still Tejas, EL PASO, the second-oldest settlement in the United States, was the main crossing on the Rio Grande. It still plays that role today, its 600,000 residents joining with another 1.7 million across the river in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to form the largest binational (and bilingual) megalopolis in North America. At first sight it’s not an especially pretty place – massive railyards fill up much of downtown, the belching smelters of copper mills line the riverfront and the northern reaches are taken up by the giant Fort Bliss military base. Its dramatic setting, however, where the Franklin Mountains meet the Chihuahuan Desert, gives it a certain bold pioneer edge, bearing more relation to old rather than new Mexico, with little of the pastel softness of the Southwest USA. El Paso is also the home of Tony Lama, makers of top-quality cowboy boots, available at substantial discounts at outlets across town.
While it’s tempting to cross the border here into Mexico, remember that escalating drug wars have turned Juarez into one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Downtown El Paso’s character is shaped by the US–Mexico border. In times past, outlaws and exiles from either side of the border would take refuge across the river, and today’s traffic remains considerable and not entirely uncontroversial. Manual labourers come north to find undocumented jobs, and US companies secretly dump their toxic waste on the south side. Drugs are a major issue, too. The border itself, the Rio Grande, has caused its share of disagreements: the river changed course quite often in the 1800s, and it was not until the 1960s, when it was run through a concrete channel, that it was made permanent.
An attractive 55-acre park, the Chamizal National Memorial, on the east side of downtown off Paisano Drive, was built to commemorate the settling of the border dispute; it has a small museum (Tues–Sat 10am–5pm; free). Elsewhere, the small but engrossing Border Patrol Museum, 4315 Transmountain Drive (Tues–Sat 9am–5pm; free), explains the work of the patrollers and highlights the ingenuity of smugglers.
On the Rio Grande, the Cordova Bridge – or Bridge of the Americas – heads across into Mexico, where there’s a larger park and a number of museums; there are no formalities, so long as you have a multiple-entry visa for the USA and don’t travel more than twenty or so miles south of the border. Crossing here is free; at the three other bridges – two downtown and one near the Ysleta Mission – you have to pay a 35¢ fee.
Often dismissed as some kind of poor relation to Dallas, friendly FORT WORTH in fact has a buzz largely missing from its neighbour 35 miles to the east. Distinctly Western in character and history, in the 1870s it was a stop on the great cattle drive to Kansas, the Chisholm Trail, and when the railroads arrived it became a livestock market in its own right. Cowboys and outlaws populated the city in its early years and much of that character remains. But while the cattle trade is still a major industry and the Stockyards provide a stimulating, atmospheric slice of Old West life, Fort Worth also prides itself on excellent museums – the best in the state – and a compact, bustling and walker-friendly downtown. Looking toward the future, the city is also undertaking the massive Trinity River Master Plan, which will include one of the largest urban parks in the US, and trails and greenways along the Trinity River.
Look at the number of condo developments along the Gulf Coast and you will see that this is a major getaway destination. The climate ranges from balmy at Galveston to subtropical at the Mexican border. Devastating hurricanes in 1900 and again in 2008 all but levelled Galveston; recovery is ongoing, but the old, salty city still offers history, shopping and low-key relief from Houston. Corpus Christi makes the best base to explore the relatively unspoiled northern beaches of Padre Island National Seashore.
The rolling hills, lakes and valleys of the HILL COUNTRY, north and west of Austin and San Antonio, were inhabited mostly by Apache and Comanche until after statehood in 1845, when German and Scandinavian settlers arrived. Many of the log-cabin farming communities they established are still here, such as New Braunfels (famous for its sausages and pastries, and, more recently, its watersports), Fredericksburg and Luckenbach. You may still hear German spoken, and the German influence is also felt in local food and music; conjunto, for example, is a blend of Tex-Mex and accordion music. The whole region is a popular retreat and resort area, with some wonderful hill views and lake swimming, and some good places to camp.
LAREDO, population 200,000, is situated at the southern terminus of I-35 (the northern terminus is 1600 miles to the north in Duluth, MN). A busy bridge connects the USA to Mexico at the bottom of Convent Avenue, where a major Border Patrol presence exists. As battles between Mexican drug cartels have escalated in recent years, Laredo and its sister city across the border have garnered a violent reputation – most of the real risk is in Mexico though.
The focus of Laredo’s main square is the pretty St Augustin Cathedral, a couple of blocks north of the Rio Grande at 200 St Augustin Ave, containing a modernist mural of the Crucifixion; there’s a pleasant stone grotto outside. Otherwise, there’s not much to do other than eat, drink and take in the atmosphere: this city, perhaps more than any other in Texas, reflects a strong Latino influence, evident in everything from the food to blaring hip-hop music.
Heading southeast from Laredo down US-83 (called the Zapata Hwy) you pass through the Rio Grande Valley, a subtropical slice of South Texas decidedly well removed from the typical state itinerary. Actually a delta prone to flooding, the 180-mile-long valley contains few immediately identifiable sights, though a string of atmospheric farming communities, with tiny downtowns that have barely been touched in two hundred years, more than warrant a trip this far south.
Inhabitants of the Panhandle, the northernmost part of the state, call it “the real Texas”. On a map, it appears as a rectangular appendix bordering Oklahoma and New Mexico. A starkly romantic agricultural landscape strewn with tumbleweeds and mesquite trees, it fulfils the fantasy of what Texas should look like. When Coronado’s expedition passed this way in the sixteenth century, the gold-seekers drove stakes into the ground across the vast and unchanging vista, despairing of otherwise finding their way home – hence the name Llano Estacado, or staked plains, which persists today (the Panhandle is the southernmost portion of the Great Plains).
Once the buffalo – and the natives – had been driven away from what was seen as uninhabitable frontier country, the Panhandle in the 1870s began to yield great natural resources. Helium, especially in Amarillo, as well as oil and agriculture, have brought wealth to the region, which is also home to large ranches.
The Panhandle holds few actual tourist attractions – its real appeal is its barren, rural beauty. But music has deep roots in the area, too. Songwriters such as Bob Wills, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks all grew up here.
Lubbock’s claim to world fame is as the birthplace of Buddy Holly. Inspired by the blues and country music of his childhood – and a seminal encounter with the young Elvis Presley, gigging in Lubbock at the Cotton Club – Buddy Holly was one of rock’n’roll’s first singer-songwriters. The Holly sound, characterized by steady strumming guitar, rapid drumming and his trademark hiccupping vocals, was made famous by hits such as Peggy Sue, Not Fade Away and That’ll Be the Day. Buddy was killed at 22 in the Iowa plane crash of February 3, 1959 (“The Day the Music Died”), that also claimed the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Don’t leave town without visiting the Buddy Holly Center, 1801 Crickets Ave (buddyhollycenter.org), an impressive space that holds a collection of Holly memorabilia, including the black glasses he wore on the day he died.
Across the street from the center is the Buddy Holly Statue, an 8ft bronze figure that’s the focal point of the Buddy and Maria Elena Holly Plaza. Buddy’s grave is in Lubbock’s cemetery at the end of 34th Street; take the right fork inside the gate, and the grave, decorated with flowers and guitar picks, is on the left.