Travel

Perfect Road Trips for When You Need to Escape Houston

We’re going to go ahead and guess this wasn’t the summer (or the year) you had planned. But that doesn't mean you can't still get a little travel in. These weekend getaways are all within road-tripping distance from Houston, with outdoorsy adventures, safe social distancing options, and IRL ways to explore the beautiful state of Texas. Pack your masks, sanitizer, sunscreen, and bug spray (because you’re not too far from Houston) and hit the road for what is likely the wildest ride you’ve had in months.

Frio River at Garner State Park
Frio River at Garner State Park | Richard A McMillin/Shutterstock

Garner State Park, Texas

Distance from Houston: 485 miles, 5 hours by car
With Big Bend roughly 640 miles and 5 billion worlds away (qualifying it for far more than just a quick weekend road trip), Garner State Park is your best bet for a scenic adventure in the Great Outdoors. Camping is the way to go (just make sure to don a mask and load up on provisions at Buc-ee’s on the way), with campsites open for advanced reservation and offering amenities like picnic tables, outdoor grills, fire pits, and water and electricity. If that’s a bit too rusticated for you, try glamping at the full-on lodges, which feature kitchens, bathrooms, beds, and most importantly, A/C. In the dog days of summer, you’ll want to beat the heat and float the frio, which boasts chilly spring-fed waters and a much more peaceful experience than some of those other, rowdier Texas waterways. The winding, 2.9-mile river takes you through thousands of acres of scenic Hill Country terrai. Tubing companies have been temporarily shut down, but you can still BYOT to float.
 
Once cooler weather finally arrives (and the leaves change color), take a hike through the park’s 1,700+ acres of beautiful foliage. Hikers and bikers can enjoy 16 miles of picturesque trails, with wildlife viewing, a 30-foot-deep cave, breathtaking rock overlooks, and towering, shady oaks. Sleep under the stars, and cozy up next to the fire.

Austin, Texas

Distance from Houston: 165 miles, 2 hours and 40 minutes by car 
Houston has a love/hate relationship with Austin, but we’re not too stubborn to admit that the capital of the Lone Star State offers a little taste of everything: from badass food and food truck parks to epic outdoorsy activities (and, once the world returns, there’ll also be live music, cool bars, and a nightlife that you’ll most definitely want to experience, too).

The mammoth natural pool and grotto Hamilton Pool and in-city waterhole Barton Springs may be closed; but there are plenty of other socially distant naturey options. Make your way to the Greenbelt, a winding 12+ mile trail where you can bike, hike, swim, and 'Gram; pay a visit to Lady Bird Lake for kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and one-way hiking and biking; catch the panoramic city views from Mount Bonnell; or have a 6-feet-away-from-others picnic at Zilker Park. Takeout barbecue makes for a mighty fine picnic, and Austin plays home to a host of barbeque legends, from Franklin Barbecue to la Barbecue, plus more top picks for takeout and delivery. Before you head back to H-town, hit up our 15 Actually Cool Things to Do in Quarantine guide for more; then snag some road trip fuel in the form of brunch.

San Marcos

Distance from Houston: 165 miles, around 2 hours and 45 minutes by car
While there are plenty of excellent small towns worth the trip from Houston, San Marcos is the coolest of them all. The low-key Hill Country college town has slowly but surely been making gains on Austin with its very own brand of hippie weirdness.

The city’s crown jewel, the spring-fed San Marcos River, and its riverfront parks are temporarily closed for floating; but you can keep your eye out for updates and in the meantime, experience all of the other natural beauts that San Marcos has to offer, including the 560-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area and Ringtail Ridge Greenspace perfect for mountain biking. Snag some hiking fuel at the Saturday morning farmers market in Downtown or grab kolache from Dos Gatos; and afterward, refuel with suds from local breweries including Hops & Grain, Middleton Brewing, and AquaBrew. Hungry? Go for smoked brisket at Hays Co. Bar-B-Que or the San Marcos outpost of Black’s BBQ; or try Blue Dahlia, a stylish bistro that has brought its open-faced tartines, butter croissants, and drunken mussels straight from its original home in Austin. Before you leave, grab some Tantra Coffee for the way back.

Fredericksburg, Texas

Distance from Houston: 230 miles, 3 hours and 45 minutes by car
Smack in the middle of the beautiful Texas Hill Country lies a charming, romantic little town where you can get some R&R at a B&B. But perhaps most importantly, you can do so with some C&C -- cabernet and cheese -- because Fredericksburg is absolutely loaded with open-air wineries.

You can stay just a block off Main Street at luxury B&B Hoffman Haus; cozy up in a romantic retreat in Messina Hof Winery’s Manor Haus; get pampered at Magnolia House; stay in a cottage at the Fredericksburg Herb Farm; or go off-the-radar at Trois Estate. The village of suites and villas is carved right into the rocky landscape of Hill Country, and it offers dazzling views of Enchanted Rock: a massive pink batholith that’s one of the choicest spots to catch those ultra-sexy, big and bright Texas stars. Take the wine road and you’ll find 19 wineries within striking distance, including Pedernales Cellars (book a tasting tour with masks), Messina Hof (open for curbside and delivery), and Grape Creek Vineyards (tasting tickets available for purchase), aka the “Tuscany of Texas.” After you’ve had your fill of wine and cheese, stroll the historic Main Street in Old Town Fredericksburg to find shops, art galleries, cafes, and bakeries (pop into Fredericksburg Pie Company if it's open), and even more tasting rooms. Dinner featuring things like foie gras and duck schnitzel is served nightly at Otto’s (reservations required); you’ll find charred pulpo and grilled lamb rack at Vaudeville (where you can order to-go); and meals come with a side of live music at Hilltop Cafe and Silver Creek Beer Garden & Grille. The beautiful Fredericksburg Herb Farm (with a bistro, gift shop, and garden) makes a nice, quiet next-day activity. In season (peak in April), you’ll want to snap pics in the Texas bluebonnets of the Willow City Loop before the drive home.

Lockhart, Texas

Distance from Houston: 156 miles, around 2 hours and 15 minutes by car
Missing family and friends. Worried about the health and safety of your loved ones and quite frankly, the state of the world. It’s an understatement to say that life is tough for many right now. You know what may help ease the tension, if even just a little bit? Some good old fashioned smoked meat, and this flavor-packed smoketown is one of the best places in the Lone Star to find it.

You could even make your visit a day trip if you so please… just don’t forget to pack a cooler so you can bring some of the good stuff home. While you’re here, you need to tackle at least two of the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (open since 1948). At Black’s, third generation pitmaster Kent Black is slow smoking his barbecue with a simple rub and local Post Oak wood, and dine-in, takeout, and curbside are all available. Choose the behemoth beef rib, packing a 9-inch-long bone with around 2 inches of fatty, marbled beef cocooning it; and don’t forget the hand-stuffed and -tied homemade sausage (original, garlic, or jalapeno-cheddar), made from an 80-year-old recipe that has stood the test of time. Kreuz is seating customers both indoors and outside, and putting out some solid German-influenced barbecue while they’re at it (try the Old World-style smoked wieners). Head to Smitty’s for Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, fresh from the black soot covered  pit, and throw on a pork chop or shoulder clod. Dine in the socially distanced dining room, grab some to-go, or hit the fresh meat department and cold sausage if you’d rather cook at home. If you have one more stop in you, Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978) offers a drive-thru and barbecue sandwiches.

Galveston Pleasure Pier
Galveston Pleasure Pier | Ramiro Reyna Jr/Shutterstock

Galveston Island, Texas

Distance from Houston: 50 miles, just under an hour by car
Love it or hate it, Galveston is the closest beach we’ve got here in Houston (and we actually do love it). Here’s how you can love it, too: 

Plan a luxurious stay at spots like the 1839 Tremont House or ritzy Hotel Galvez & Spa; or try Airbnb/Vrbo for more space and distance. Many of the island’s favorite eateries are still open for dine-in and/or takeout and delivery, including local gems Mosquito Cafe, Shrimp 'N Stuff, Porch Cafe, Rudy & Paco, and Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar. If it’s a beach day, do the beach; otherwise, you can spend your time strolling the historic Strand District, a 70-block jewel where you’ll find gorgeous Victorian buildings housing museums, boutiques, theaters, shops, and La King’s Confectionary, an old-timey sweets shop where you’ll be picking up some ice cream, dipped chocolates, and taffy (don’t forget your mask, of course). Before you leave the island, pickup some six-packs to-go at the local Galveston Island Brewing Company.

San Antonio, Texas

Distance from Houston: 197 miles, around 3 hours by car
With sanitizing stations and regular disinfecting, The River Walk is open for visitors. Set up at a hotel right on the River Walk and start with some early morning breakfast tacos and potato pancakes at local institution Schilo’s; then take a short trip over to walk by the legendary Alamo to re-learn its epic story (its currently closed for visitors, but you can snap some shots of it while staring into the sun). The rest of your day can be spent checking out the grounds of gorgeous Spanish colonial missions. Or, you can get absolutely no culture at all, and spend your day at Six Flags Fiesta or SeaWorld (wear your masks, y’all). Head back to the tourist trappy still cool River Walk for enchiladas and guac at Acenar; or check to see which of these non-River Walk restaurants may be open for dine-in rezzies. On your way out, grab blackberry toasts, quiche, and ham and egg muffins at Bakery Lorraine; or visit the weekend morning Farmers Market to pick up artisan snacks and local coffee for the road.

Fort Worth, Texas

Distance from Houston: 262 miles, around 4 hours by car
Sitting in the shadow of its flashier cousin, Dallas (which yes, you should also take a road trip to visit sometime), is a big-small town known as Fort Worth --- aka Cowtown, a moniker it picked up when drovers trailed over four million head of cattle through it between 1866 and 1890, a final stop for rest and supplies before crossing the Red River into Indian Territory.

You’ll see why it’s named as such when you visit the Historic Stockyards District, where you can get a true feel for cowboy culture -- boots, required masks, and all. Home to the Cowtown Coliseum, the country’s first indoor rodeo, you can visit the Stockyards to see the rodeo every Friday and Saturday night at 8pm (tickets are limited), and cattle drives daily at 11:30am and 4pm (weather permitting). Get down on real-deal smoked meats at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que and margs/Tex Mex staples at the nearby Joe T Garcia’s. Beyond the Stockyards, you can spend your night dining on open-fire grilled oysters and paella, chicken-fried steak, and tomahawk prime rib at Woodshed Smokehouse (also available to-go); catching a flick at the old school drive-in theater, the Coyote Drive-In; or snagging one last taste of that cowboy life with smoked brisket and pinto beans at Billy’s Oak Acres (and some banana pudding, because cowboys like that, too).

New Braunfels, Texas

Distance from Houston: 175 miles, around 2 hours and 40 minutes by car
You have your choice of living that river life along one of the two waterways running through this historic Hill Country town. The Comal is the shorter of the two: a beautiful, spring-fed river that flows through Landa Park, Downtown New Braunfels, and Schlitterbahn Waterpark before merging with its bigger cousin, the Guadalupe. Its waters sit at a steady 70 to 72 degrees year-round, offering in-season floating and whenever-you-want kayaking. The Guadalupe River is the epicenter for Texas summer tubing that’s equal parts fun and gorgeous. Lined by bald cypress trees and with rugged flows originating out of Canyon Lake, you can take 2, 3, and 6-hour floats, or go fishing, swimming, and paddling. You’ll have to bring your own equipment and rent a cabin or condo on the river to get access to a legal entrance and exit points, as the public access points are currently closed as to not overcrowd the rivers. 

While Texas’ oldest dance hall -- Gruene Hall -- is currently closed, you can still head over to the historic district to check out antique and specialty shops rocking real deal cowboy hats, Old World books, custom salt scrubs, olive oils, and pickles. Finish the day with sizzling fajitas at Cantina del Rio; wine, dine, and jam on corn fritters and smoked pork chop at The River House; go for sliders, garlic fries, and libations at Mozie’s; or dig into legendary Texas eats like CFS, battered and bacon wrapped jalapeños, and the “best” wurst at Gristmill Restaurant. You can also visit a Texas-style African safari, check out the murals at an Outdoor Art Museum, or journey your way through the Natural Bridge Caverns, located around 25 miles west of town. Before you get back on the highway, pick up some jerky from the New Braunfels Smokehouse for the ride home.

South Padre Island

Distance from Houston: 375 miles, around 6 hours by car
When you hear South Padre Island, you probably think of belligerent Spring Breakers crushing Tecates on their foreheads. But this blissful island escape is so much more than that.

With 34 miles of white sands and the clearest emerald waters in the state (and dolphins!), South Padre Island is the crown jewel of Texas beachfronts. On the southernmost tip of the island you’ll find another rarity: a mile-long, unspoiled beach at Isla Blanca Park. Pitch a tent there for a more serene stay, or try renting a whole beachhouse. Drinking on the beach is allowed on South Padre (but glass isn’t), sack a cooler, and enjoy the sands before trying your hand at kite-surfing. Grab-and-go service is still offered at popular beach bars like Clayton’s and Wanna Wanna; and other island favorites include build-your-own ceviche spot Ceviche Ceviche, Tex-Mex haven Chilitto Pikin, and sunset-worthy restaurants Laguna Bob’s, Pier 19, and Louie’s Backyard. Just make sure to grab some of the best fried seafood you’ve ever had at Dirty Al’s before your trek home.

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Brooke Viggiano is a Houston-based writer who suddenly really needs a weekend getaway. For now, you can staycation with her on IG @brookiefafa or on Twitter @brookeviggiano.