Houston, the USA’s fourth-largest metropolis, can seem so huge that thoughts of the myriad sights and landscapes just beyond its edges often fade from your mind’s eye.
But if you are in Houston for a few days, a day trip to some of the exceptional cities, museums, beaches, lakes and wildernesses nearby will make your time here a truly memorable one.
These thirteen best day trips take you around the compass clockwise from north to west. So there will be something to enthral you whichever direction you are bound, family day trips from Houston to romantic day trips from Houston, beaches to barbecue joints, wetlands to wild islands, famous battlegrounds to beautiful bayous and arresting art museums to space-age sights.
Sam Houston National Forest
The arboreal adventure playground of Sam Houston National Forest is the biggest of Texas’ four main national forests, spilling over 255 emerald-green square miles. Top choice amongst the many outdoor activities here is the 128-mile Lone Star Trail, the state’s longest wilderness hike, which links the three distinct areas of the forest. There are myriad other connecting hiking and biking trails and at the three key recreation areas are picnicking places, lake swimming and watersports. The sense of remoteness is remarkable given you are a mere one-hour drive north of Houston.
Lake Livingston State Park
This, one of Texas’ largest lakes at 130 square miles of surface area and more than 450 miles of shoreline, is primarily famous for excellent white bass fishing. But it brushes the eastern edge of Sam Houston National Forest and amongst the woods winsomely hemming the lake are great hiking paths, especially throughout lovely Lake Livingston State Park in the southeast corner. At the park’s southern end you can still reconnoitre the remains of the ghost town of Swartout. This countrified escape lies just 1¼ hours north from Houston.
Anahuac Wildlife Refuge
The Anahuac Wildlife Refuge is one of the Texas mainland coast’s most wondrous wildlife sanctuaries: a 37,000-acre zone of prairies and bayou-riven coastal marshes where the fauna features alligators (it is one of the best spots in the USA to spy the toothy creatures), coyotes, bobcats, river otters, feral hogs, swamp rabbits, mottled ducks and snow geese. The latter descend in tens of thousands during winter months: an absolutely mesmeric sight. Trails fan out around the main refuge entrance near Shoveler Pond; the visitor center on Lake Anahuac just off I-10 is 45 minutes east of Houston.
Stark Museum of Art
The city of Orange might be small but the Stark Museum of Art is immensely significant on a national scale: it houses one of the biggest assemblages of art and artefacts pertaining to the American Old West. Paintings, sculpture, prints and texts comprise a collection featuring works by greats of the genre like Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell. The couple that collected most of these works, William and Miriam Stark, lived nearby in a now-restored 1890s Queen Anne-style wooden house filled with more of their cache of unique decorative objects. The museum is 1¾ hours east of Houston.
Sea Rim State Park
Snug against the Louisiana border is this 4000-acre wetland wildlife haven, protecting fauna from American alligators to river otters, coyote and ghost crabs but most renowned for its stupendous birdlife, being on a major migratory route. Avian highlights include roseate spoonbills, snowy and cattle egrets and many heron varieties. The Gambusia Nature Trail boardwalk transports you grippingly close to some of the best wildlife, kayakers can paddle umpteen unspoilt waterways and mire meets surf in a spectacular sandy swathe of shoreline ranking amongst the best beaches in Texas. The park is 1¾ hours east of Houston.
San Jacinto Battleground Historic Site
The spot where Texas won independence from Mexico, in the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution in 1836, is dramatically marked with the San Jacinto Monument and surrounding site, which runs to 1100 acres. The 567-foot monument is the world’s tallest stone column and capped in a Lone Star, Texas’ easily identifiable symbol. At 500 feet up, the observation deck has the region’s best birds-eye views, including of the Battleship USS Texas, a 27,000-tonne veteran vessel of both World Wars once considered the world’s most dangerous weapon, and of Houston’s skyline beyond. A museum also retells the story of Texas’ road to freedom. The site is 30 minutes’ drive southeast of Downtown.
Space Center Houston
Space Center Houston, attached to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is the closest most of us will ever get to a moon landing. The captivating interactive museum explores the past, present and future of space missions. The Apollo and Shuttle programs were not launched from Houston, but much of the planning, control and training happened here. The best bit comes when you get whizzed to Mission Control (yep, as in ‘Houston, we have a problem’) and to see the Astronaut Training Facility. You may also get to clock the control room currently used to monitor the International Space Station. Set aside several hours for your visit. Unsurprisingly, this is the most popular attraction with international tourists in the wider Houston area, and just 30 minutes southeast of Downtown.
No trip to this part of Texas would be complete without a jaunt to the fascinating mishmash of attractions at Galveston. Balanced on a barrier island blessed with long sandy beaches, this is the local seaside resort of choice and a great family day trip from Houston, as well as being a history-entrenched city replete with handsome Victorian-era buildings, museums and scrumptious seafood restaurants. For sun and sand, the San Luis Pass Pocket Park Beaches are prettiest whilst East Beach is the place for partying. For an old-fashioned taste of the 19th-century glory days here, hit the city’s Strand Historic District. You can do justice to some of the beaches and still absorb a portion of the historic charm in a day trip, as all this is one hour southeast of Houston.
If you fancy hassle-free sea air without Galveston’s crowds, the pleasant settlement of Surfside Beach hogs a ravishing expanse of blonde sand on the Gulf of Mexico coast. The surf, as the name intimates, is some of the state’s most consistent, and there are a smattering of places to eat. As you bear northeast along the sand you will find wilder, undeveloped strand, but the whole area seems quite quiet and low-key. Surfside Beach is one hour south of Houston.
If you want to get as far away as possible in feel from Houston for the day, this is where to come. Matagorda Island is only accessible by chartered boat – or your own craft – from Port O’ Connor and when you arrive here, there is nothing: nothing save entrancing wilderness wrapped by dreamy empty sandy beaches all the way down the island’s 38-mile length. A lighthouse is the only hallmark of civilisation; otherwise it is you and a magnificent menagerie of wildlife that can include bald eagles, alligators, coyotes and much more. Bring everything you need for the journey, including drinking water. The island is three hours southwest of Houston via Port O’ Connor, including road and boat time.
It was at the Alamo, where a Texas army outnumbered almost ten to one fought valiantly against Mexican troops to their deaths, that the tide turned in the Texas Revolution. Many Texans, incensed by bloodshed that day, enlisted and spurred the state on to gain independence from Mexico following the Battle of San Jacinto under two months later. Little Gonzales supplied 32 of Texas’ 200-odd fated Alamo force and Gonzales Memorial Museum remembers them with a wealth of revolutionary artefacts. The city is thus a must-see for Texan history buffs, but also a brilliant base for forays into the nearby prairie region, a montage of hills, oak and pecan forests and slow-flowing rivers where superb kayaking beckons. Gonzales is a two-hour motor west of Houston.
Texas is all sizzlingly superlative where barbecue is concerned, but the Lone Star State lauds little Lockhart above everywhere else as the Holy Grail of grilled meat. There are three key pit stops for barbecue devotees: Kreuz Market and Smitty’s Market, both run by siblings that went their separate grilling ways after a family dispute, and Black’s Barbecue, supposedly the state’s oldest family-run barbecue restaurant and serving sensational brisket since 1932. Come with your appetite, which will hopefully get worked up on the 2¾-hour drive west from Houston.
A beguiling indigo-hued lupine native to Texas and Northern Mexico, the bluebonnet is the official state flower, but you do not see it just anywhere. Prepossessing Brenham, however, is swaddled in fields of the pretty little things and known as Texas’ bluebonnet capital, with a wildflower trail around the region taking you to where the finest flora flourishes. But you should tarry in the cute downtown too, lined as it is with independent boutiques and antique shops. The sweetest attraction is delightfully old-fashioned Bluebell Creameries, producers of the unofficial state ice cream, with a visitor center, shop, café and 50-something divine flavours to keep you amused. What with all the ice cream and flowers, this makes one of the most romantic day trips from Houston, 1¼ hours southeast of here.
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