Who can resist the fun of loading up the family car for a romp through Central Texas? Its vast ruggedness—comprised of hills and plateaus, limestone and granite, caverns and tributaries—is rich with history, towns and natural wonderment no matter which way you go (not to mention some pretty good cuisine, too). And since every good thing is better in threes, we bring you a trio of fun and easy day-trip destinations from Austin. Take your pick or try all three!
Roughly a hundred miles north from Austin and home to the Baylor Bears, Waco is a mid-sized city threaded by the beautiful Brazos and Bosque rivers, with Lake Waco nestled nearby. It also offers-up the Waco Mammoth National Monument, a five-acre site with an enclosed dig shelter that reveals the sub-fossil remains of several Columbian mammoths that roamed this region about 65 million years ago. Activities at America’s newest national park include trail walking, a dig box and bird watching. Admission to the park is free; a nominal fee applies to the guided tour of the mammoth dig site.
Another must-see in Waco is the Cameron Park Zoo. With more than 1,700 animals from 300 different species, you’ll see (at a minimum) bald eagles, tortoises, bears, giraffes, rhinos, lions and even a komodo dragon! Grab lunch at either of the cafes at the zoo before washing it down with some old fashioned soda at the Dr Pepper Museum. Located in downtown Waco, the museum’s exhibits take you back in time to the birth of the oldest major soft drink in America and keeps some of us humming, “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper…”
Head east of Austin for about 90 miles, and you’ll hit the county seat of Washington County once known as Hickory Grove. Here, of great significance to our state, is the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Site, where the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico was signed in 1836. Tour the Star of the Republic Museum and Independence Hall, then engage in “life as it was” at the Barrington Living History Farm.
Next local stop on your must-see (or must-taste!) list is Bluebell Creamery. Learn about the lip-smacking goodness of this century-old delight and shop the Country Store and Ice Cream Parlor. Finally, a short 24-minute drive southeast of Brenham is another kind of peek back in time at Newman’s Castle. With a moat and 3,000-lb. drawbridge, you’ll certainly feel the spirit of old world charm and oh, “keep yer eyes peeled for them gators!” Note: depending on the time of year, an added perk to your drive to Brenham via Highway 290 is a stunning display of Texas wildflowers. Got your camera?
Enjoy the flavor of true Texas Hill Country as you depart west from Austin and head toward Johnson City, about 60 miles. Who knew amid all that expansive Texas backroad view that here you can hook up with your own 3D avatar and explore the amazement at the Hill Country Science Mill? Ever heard of a fractalarium, a mindball or a paludarium? How ‘bout a cell phone disco? Admit it, your interest is piqued—so go on in!
Next, take your sharpened mind and imagination down the road to Stonewall, about 15 minutes. Enter the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site; tour the visitor center to gain an appreciation of our 36th president’s life and influences. Another must-see at the site is the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Early 20th century life is keenly demonstrated with time-period artifacts and staff who embody what life was like on a working farm. Take a refreshing breath and hit the road one more time, still heading west, about 30 miles into Fredericksburg. At first site you’ll notice the array of shopping and eating establishments; they abound! But make a special point to visit the National Museum of the Pacific War, home of the Admiral Nimitz Museum. Situated on six acres in the heart of this town, three separate museums “honor Admiral Nimitz and all who served in the Pacific War.”
Paula Halloum is a writer, photographer and mother of three who lives in Austin.