Texas is big – very big. But Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso are easy-to-reach launchpads for scenic road trips across the state. Just be ready for some lonely roads, particularly in West Texas.

These are six of our favorite road trips in the Lone Star State, from the kitschy charms of Route 66 in the Panhandle Plains to the windswept beaches of the Gulf Coast. Top tip? Brake for dance halls and BBQ joints – wherever you are.

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1. Hill Country

Best scenic road trip
Austin–San Antonio; 200 miles 

The Hill Country is one of the prettiest regions in Texas, especially in spring when wildflowers bloom along the roadside. In Austin, soak up the live music and food truck scene – and watch the bats swoop out from beneath the South Congress Bridge – before heading west to Dripping Springs. Dubbed the Gateway to the Hill Country, this welcoming small town is home to Jester King Brewery, Treaty Oak Distilling and Hamilton Pool Preserve. Wine country begins here too.

Swing north to the Lyndon B Johnson National Historic Park, which spotlights the 36th president’s local roots across two historic towns: Johnson City and Stonewall. Continue north to hike up the 425ft granite dome – part of an enormous underground batholith – at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area then dip south to explore antique shops and museums in German-settled Fredericksburg. After walking the caverns in Boerne, conclude in San Antonio, where The Alamo and the gorgeous River Walk anchor downtown.

Planning tip: Get your Texas playlist ready with these tunes: New San Antonio Rose by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys; Luckenbach, Texas by Waylon Jennings; On the Road Again by Willie Nelson; Amarillo by Morning by George Strait; What I Like about Texas by Jerry Jeff Walker & Gary P Nunn; Miles and Miles of Texas by Asleep at the Wheel; El Paso by Marty Robbins; Waltz Across Texas by Ernest Tubbs; Corpus Christi Bay by Robert Earl Keen; God Blessed Texas by Little Texas.

Human observing Milky way at Balanced Rock, Big Bend National park, Texas
Star-gazing delights await you at Big Bend National Park, Texas © Wisanu Boonrawd / Shutterstock

2. Big Bend Loop

Best off-the-beaten-path road trip
El Paso–El Paso; 900 miles

The Big Bend region of West Texas isn’t the middle of nowhere, but it might be next door. Murals pack a visual punch in El Paso, a scrappy starting point for exploring West Texas. A drive east through the high desert leads to remote Guadalupe Mountains National Park, home of the highest peak in Texas. Cool off in the spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park then settle in for world-class stargazing at the McDonald Observatory in tiny Fort Davis.

A battered school desk attracts intrepid hikers to the top of Hancock Hill in Alpine, which qualifies as a metropolis around here. Swing through Marathon before driving into the heart of Big Bend National Park. Stargazing, hiking in the Chisos Mountains, and admiring Santa Elena Canyon are just a few of the highlights here.

The Rio Grande feels like your sidekick while driving scenic FM 170 west through Big Bend Ranch State Park. With minimalist art, mysterious lights, and tasty Marfalafel on offer, the city of Marfa is the right kind of weird. And just as you think you’re driving back into normal on your return to El Paso, Prada Marfa rises up from the desert to say, “Not quite yet.”

3. Houston & the Gulf Coast

Best road trip for beaches
Houston–South Padre Island; 600 miles 

A drive along the Gulf Coast delivers birdwatching, kayaking, coastal conviviality and oh-so-many beaches. Immerse yourself in Houston's culture and cuisine, then pull over for Space Center Houston – where the tram passes the Apollo Mission Control Center – on your drive to the coast. The first stop on the Gulf is Galveston, a barrier island where sunny beaches and old-school Southern charm reign supreme. Whooping cranes winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge while galleries and restaurants shine in pedestrian-friendly Rockport.

Kick back in winsome Port Aransas, a small beach town with a big personality. Escape the crowds at Padre Island National Seashore, where you can kayak and windsurf and also drive on the beach. Explore museums and the aquarium in Corpus Christi, then drive south for an end-of-trip embrace of festive beach living on South Padre Island. Although it might be a touch too festive during spring break.

Local tip: Let the Texas landscape surprise you. No less than 35 ecoregions exist here. Contrary to stereotypes, white-sand beaches, soaring pine forests and snowcapped mountains are all part of the picture. Indigenous birds, mammals and alligators outnumber the head of cattle here. All told, the natural attractions are a major reason to visit Texas.

Colorful graffitied cars half buried in the ground at Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo
Colorful graffitied cars buried hood first in the desert at Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo © Nick Fox / Shutterstock

4. Route 66 & the Texas Panhandle Loop

Best road trip for American kitsch
Amarillo–Amarillo; 450 miles 

This windswept drive tackles the Mother Road and the Panhandle Plains with breezy, and we mean breezy, aplomb. About halfway between Chicago and Los Angeles on the old Route 66, Amarillo is a cattle town with a kitschy side – just step inside the neon-fronted Big Texan Steak Ranch. As numerous billboards attest, diners can earn a free 72oz steak – if they can eat it in an hour!

On your drive east on Route 66, pull over for the Leaning Water Tower and the World's Tallest Cross in Groom, the barbed wire museum in McLean and the U-Drop Inn in Shamrock – it was the model for Ramone’s Body Shop in the Pixar movie Cars.

Drop south across the plains to explore the magnificent Palo Duro Canyon, the second-largest canyon in the US behind the Grand Canyon. Lubbock is home to the Buddy Holly Center, which honors the rockabilly legend, and the fantastic Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. Drive north to complete the loop at Cadillac Ranch, where 10 Cadillacs are buried hood-first on the windy plains on the western outskirts of Amarillo. Route 66 runs for 177 miles across Texas, often overlapping with I-40.

5. Fort Worth, Dallas & Northeast Texas

Best road trip for quintessential Texas
Fort Worth–Jefferson; 250 miles 

Stockyards, museums, oil derricks and outdoor adventure. This road trip is all Texas. Explore the historic stockyards in Fort Worth, a stopover for cattle drives on the Chisholm Trail, then dive into art and history in Dallas, a posh oil industry hub. The city is also home to the Sixth Floor Museum, which delves into the assassination of JFK here in 1963.

From Dallas, drive east through Northeast Texas, a region known as the Piney Woods due to its extensive pine forests. Roses and spring azaleas bring manicured charm to Tyler while oil wells bring money to mind in Kilgore. The beauty gets wild – and slightly eerie – among the moss-covered cypress trees in swampy Caddo Lake, which branches off into bayous and tributaries ready-made for adventurous paddlers. Unwind in charismatic Jefferson, a wild riverboat town in the 1800s now known for its Greek-revival homes, brick streets, and gentile Southern spirit.

Local tip: Stretch your legs in Dallas. The major art and history sights are concentrated blissfully close together, something you'll appreciate given the overall sprawl. Downtown museums and Arts District attractions nearby are in areas easily traversed either by walking or taking the McKinney Ave trolley.

A worker with firewood for the never-ending barbecue fire at Smitty's Market in Lockhart, Texas
A worker with firewood for the never-ending barbecue fire at Smitty's Market in Lockhart, Texas © Kris Davidson / Lonely Planet

6. Texas BBQ and Dance Halls

Best road trip for a rollicking fun time
Austin–Gruene; 100 miles, 350 miles if you take the detour

Two things Texas does extremely well? BBQ and dance halls. This road trip may not be the most scenic or the most direct, but it is a blast. Bring a portable chair and rest your legs while waiting in the line at Franklin BBQ in Austin – you’re gonna need ‘em at full strength later with all the two-stepping going on at the legendary Broken Spoke. Head west to the Hill Country for dancing at Mercer Dance Hall in Driftwood then dig in the next day at Salt Lick, where the indecisive should go for the family-style all-you-can-eat platter.

Swing southeast for a BBQ quadruple-threat in Lockhart. Designated the BBQ capital of Texas by the state legislature, it’s home to Black’s Barbecue, Kreuz Market (don’t ask for sauce or a fork), Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Q and Smitty’s Market. When your belly is full, it's just a 45-minute drive southwest to the worn wooden dance floor at Gruene Hall. Open since 1878, it’s the oldest continually operating dance hall in Texas. Music nightly. Beer cold. Happiness assured.

Detour: It’s a 75-mile haul northwest from Driftwood to Llano for brisket at Louie Mueller, which opened in 1949, and at Cooper’s Old Time Pit BBQ, which opened in 1963. But hey, they’re Texas classics and worth a trip if you’re serious about your BBQ. Stop by Enchanted Rock State Natural Area on your drive south to tiny Luckenbach. Made famous by Willie and Waylon’s catchy tune, Luckenbach is home to another beloved dance hall. It’s also a laid-back place to sip a beer under the oak trees on a lazy afternoon.

This article was first published November 2020 and updated August 2023

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