Fall is hands down one of the best times to experience the great state of Texas. Hurricane season is in the rear view mirror, there’s majestic foliage changing colors everywhere you turn, and your selfies won’t look like you just emerged from a swimming pool filled with sweat. That’s all to say, ‘tis the season for embarking on a good old-fashioned road trip. Here are 13 stellar Lone Star State getaway destinations within spittin’ distance of Houston.
Distance from Houston: 230 miles, 4 hours by car Naturally formed Caddo Lake headlines any journey to the East Texas Piney Woods. Dripping in Spanish moss, sprawling cypress trees, lush bayous, and wetlands, the labyrinth-like waterway is a paddler’s dream (it also looks other-worldly during the fall). Bust out your kayak or consider a spooky swamp tour aboard a 28-foot pontoon, then finish the day with a big platter of Catfish and Hushpuppies at the lakefront River Bend Restaurant. Bonus points: If you’re visiting the area around Halloween, you can also book a ghost walk over in historic Jefferson, a neighboring small town rumored to be one of the most haunted places in the country.
Distance from Houston: 290 miles, around 5 hours by car Announcement: THE LEAVES CHANGE COLOR HERE. We’re taking rust reds, deep golds, bright oranges, and emerald greens blanketing over 2,000 acres of this breathtaking Natural Area in Bandera and Real counties. Prime viewing time is mid-October to mid-November-that’s when you’ll want to hike the winding trails, listen to the trickling streams, bask in the crisp breeze, camp out under the stars, and ruin any and all semblance of being alone with nature by IG storying every single second of it. If you don’t post about fall in Texas, did it even happen?
Distance from Houston: 200 miles, 3 and a half hours by car A 200-mile straight shot north of Houston awaits Tyler, Texas, where you’ll find the gorgeous Tyler State Park. Expect trees that soar 100 feet into the sky, a 64-acre spring-fed lake, and all sorts of outdoorsy opportunities like kayaking, fishing, hiking, and, most importantly, camping and s’more-ing. Equally as important? The nearby Piney Woods Wine Trail, where a cluster of scenic vineyards and wineries can’t wait to crack open a bottle for you and yours.
Distance from Houston: 485 miles, 5 hours by car Considering Big Bend sits 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. You won’t be floating the winding Frio River in the cooler seasons (it’s called the Frio for a reason), but you can take a hike through more than 1,700 acres of beautiful technicolor foliage. Hikers and bikers can enjoy 16 miles of picturesque trails, rife with wildlife viewing, a 30-foot-deep cave, rocky vistas, and towering shady oaks. Camping under the stars and cozying up by the fire is the way to go this time of year, but if that’s all a bit too rustic, you can always rent a stocked RV via RVshare or book yourself an adorable fully loaded cabin in the park (key word: fireplace).
Distance from Houston: 230 miles, 3 hours and 45 minutes by car Smack dab in the middle of beautiful Texas Hill Country lies a charming, romantic little village where you can get some R&R at a B&B, aided by a healthy dose of C&C-cabernet and cheese-because Fredericksburg is absolutely loaded with open-air wineries. Cruise down the wine road and you’ll find 19 operations within striking distance, including Narrow Path, Pedernales Cellars, Messina Hof, and Grape Creek Vineyards, AKA the “Tuscany of Texas.” Oktoberfest is the perfect time to experience the city’s German roots, taking place in the Marktplatz in historic downtown. Load up on sausages and German brews at The Auslander, get fancy with Duck Schnitzel and Flammkuchen at Otto’s German Bistro, and say “Prost!” with a few steins at Altstadt Brewery. When it comes time to sleep it all off, book a stay at the luxurious Hoffman Haus, Messina Hof Winery’s own Manor Haus retreat, or the off-the-radar Trois Estate, where suites and villas are carved right into the rocky landscape of Hill Country and offer dazzling views of another Hill Country must, Enchanted Rock. The beautiful Fredericksburg Herb Farm (with a bistro, gift shop, and garden) makes a nice, quiet next-day activity before your trip home.
Distance from Houston: 156 miles, around 2 hours and 15 minutes by car Know what’s always in season? Endlessly tender smoked meat-and this flavor-packed smoketown just happens to be one of the best places in the Lone Star to find it. Considering its proximity to Houston, this one’s a no-brainer, and you could even make it a day trip if you so please… just don’t forget to pack a cooler so you can bring a few platters of the good stuff back with you.
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 to put out showstoppers like the behemoth Beef Rib, a 9-inch-long bone cocooned by about 2 inches of fatty, marbled beef, and hand-stuffed and -tied sausages made from an 80-year-old recipe that has truly stood the test of time. Elsewhere, Kreuz rocks solid German-influenced barbecue (try the old world Smoked Wieners), and you can dive head-first into the holy Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage over at Smitty’s (throw in a Pork Chop or Shoulder Clod, while you’re at it). If you somehow have room for one more, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, opened by a Black’s alum in 1978, offers a drive-through peddling some of the region’s top barbecue sandwiches (feast and drive at your own risk).
Distance from Houston: 197 miles, around 3 hours by car Are the River Walk, the Alamo, and the Pearl touristy? Yes. Are they still cool to see if you’ve never been? You bet. Settle into a hotel along the River Walk and start with some early morning Breakfast Tacos and Potato Pancakes at local institution Schilo’s, or check into the Pearl District’s swanky Hotel Emma and check out the area’s badass lineup of restaurants, cafes, and bars. Those looking for a little historical action should definitely stop by the legendary Alamo to re-learn its epic story, then spend the rest of your time roaming the grounds of the city’s gorgeous Spanish colonial missions. Or, get absolutely no culture at all and spend your day raging at Six Flags Fiesta and SeaWorld, because stuff like that’s still fun. Eat like a local at the best of the best before popping into one of the city’s coolest bars afterwards for good measure. On your way out of town, grab Blackberry Toast, Quiche, and Ham and Egg Muffins at Bakery Lorraine, or visit the Pearl’s weekend morning Farmers Market for artisan snacks and coffee for the road.
Distance from Houston: 262 miles, around 4 hours by car Sitting in the shadow of its flashier cousin, this moderately sized city is also known as Cowtown, a moniker it picked up when late 19th-century drovers trailed over four million head of cattle through what was once considered a final stop for rest and supplies before crossing the Red River. See for yourself with a visit to the Historic Stockyards District, where you can get a true feel for cowboy culture, boots and all. Home to the Cowtown Coliseum, the country’s first indoor rodeo, you can catch the rodeo every Friday and Saturday night at 8 pm while cattle drives happen daily at 11:30 am and 4 pm (weather permitting). Get down on real-deal smoked meats at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que and pair zesty Margaritas with Tex-Mex staples at nearby cantina Joe T Garcia’s. Beyond the Stockyards, spend your night chowing down on Open-fire Grilled Oysters and Paella, Chicken-fried Steak, and Tomahawk Prime Rib at Woodshed Smokehouse, catching a flick al fresco at the Coyote Drive-In, or snagging one last taste of that cowpoke life with Smoked Brisket and Pinto Beans from Billy’s Oak Acres (plus some banana pudding, because cowboys like that, too).
Distance from Houston: 175 miles, around 2 hours and 40 minutes by car Live out your river rat dreams along either 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 cascading along Landa Park, Downtown New Braunfels, and the world-famous Schlitterbahn Waterpark, before merging with its bigger sibling, the Guadalupe. The Comal hovers around 70 to 72 degrees year-round, offering seasonal floating and whenever-you-want kayaking. Lined by bald cypress trees and with rugged flows originating out of Canyon Lake, the Guadalupe River is the epicenter for Texas tubing when it’s warm and makes for a postcard-worthy hangout any time of year.
“Idaho is like the new Colorado, and Sun Valley is like the new Aspen,” a woman leaned over and said as we began our descent into Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, Idaho. “Everyone’s coming here now.”
Similar to Aspen-which has seen an unprecedented influx of transplants from around the country since the pandemic began-Sun Valley has served as Idaho’s venerable ski town ever since it was established as the country’s first designated ski resort in 1936. But those same snow-covered mountains people swish down all winter look awfully pretty come summertime, surrounded by the nearby Sawtooth Mountain range and set within the sweeping Wood River Valley.
Celebrities, artists, and fiercely passionate locals have long been a part of the fabric of this town ever since Ernest Hemingway was invited to live and write in the Sun Valley Lodge in 1939.
“Many celebrities were invited to come for free.” actress and Sun Valley resident Ali Larter told me at The Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) in April. “Hemingway was one of the first famous people to come and help build up what this mountain town was, and it’s become a part of what makes this valley the creative hub that it continues to be even today.”
Sun Valley’s caché remains alive and well, with its contingent of laid-back locals, cool bars, restaurants, and always-sunny Sun Valley vibes. While the secret about this idyllic mountain town may be out, Aspen, I can assure you, it is not. From spending some time soaking in the local hot springs to visiting a few of Hemingway’s favourite haunts, here are all the ways to enjoy Hollywood’s favourite mountain town, no matter the season.
Walk in Hemingway’s footprints or drink amid the flowers
With 50 peaks, 300 lakes and rivers, and 250-miles of trails, wherever you are in Sun Valley, adventure isn’t far behind.
A good place to get your bearings is the White Cloud Trail. One of the most popular hiking loops at a leisurely 2.5 miles, it’s a short walk or bike ride from the Sun Valley resort area. As you make your way along the trail, plan to stop by the Hemingway Memorial, which is a fantastic place to soak in some views.
About four miles down the Wood River Trail is the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, which makes for a lovely bike-ride destination. The garden is a beautiful place to spend a few hours, especially in the summer when numerous events take place, like tours, wine tastings, and cocktail evenings.
Spend the morning soaking in local hot springs or angling for rainbows
Just 10 miles west of downtown Ketchum on Warm Springs Road, Frenchman’s Bend is the best place to soak in local hot springs. This shallow spring has long been a local Sun Valley hot spot, though it’s very much not clothing optional, so skinny dippers beware.
But getting hot and pruny isn’t the only way to enjoy the water here. Stretching 137-miles long and running directly through Sun Valley, Big Wood River is a great spot to go white water rafting in nearby Stanley or try your hand at fly fishing.
If you’re angling to get out and catch those elusive rainbows, try a guided fishing trip or even a women’s intro to fly fishing clinic with Sun Valley Outfitters. Big Wood is known for wild trout, though Silver Creek Preserve is another excellent spot (and a Hemingway favourite).
Eat homey dishes in cozy settings
Sun Valley’s food scene rivals that of any big city, starting with coffee and a ham and cheese croissant at Konditorei. Otherwise head straight for The Kneadery for a country frittata and ultimate Belgian waffles topped with whipped cream in downtown Ketchum.
Walk it all off before heading to Warfield Distillery & Brewery, which serves up some of the best elevated pub food. The beautiful rooftop is perfect for drinking in the views over downtown Ketchum and Baldy mountain. Don’t miss the signature Warfield Burger and Bacon Blue Ridge Salad and save some room for the carrot cake if you can.
Set on a side street in downtown Ketchum, The Covey‘s hearth style, seasonally inspired menu more than delivers when it comes to homemade pastas and some of the best locally caught trout you’ve ever had. It’s also got a killer wine list and a gorgeous new outdoor garden to enjoy it all in. If push comes to shove, don’t be afraid to post up at the bar, where you can chat with some of Sun Valley’s coolest team of locals and longtime friends who own and operate this awesome spot.
Rickshaw is the cozy [read: tiny] neighbourhood joint to satisfy all your Asian- fusion cravings. The Korean Fried Chicken (KFC), Chiang Mai Curry Noodles, and Green Papaya Salad are cooked to chef-kiss perfection. Just note that this place packs up quick and reservations can be tough to come by, so if you can’t get a spot, grab your food to go and post up for a picnic in any of the nearby parks.
One absolute can’t miss when you’re in Ketchum is the chance to guzzle down schooners at Grumpy’s, a true Sun Valley legend. You can sit out front and enjoy the chilli fries and beers, but you’ll be missing out on the indoor ambience of this time-capsule-of-a-ski-town dive.
There’s no shortage of high-end boutiques in and around the Sun Valley Resort and downtown Ketchum, but for a real taste of local goodness, Gold Mine Thrift Store is considered the ultimate choice for all your thrifting needs. There’re always gems to be found here and it’s an added bonus that all of the proceeds go towards The Community Library next door.
The Sun Valley Lodge is the go-to spot for a five-star stay in Sun Valley. Dating back to 1936, it’s also the former residence of Ernest Hemingway, whose room here is said to still house his typewriter.
The hotel’s pool area and bowling alley are always buzzing with activity, but if you’re in the mood for some bonafide “me time,” head straight to The Spa at Sun Valley, where a spin inside one of their “Experience Showers” in the locker room is enough to make you a believer in the power of one really good shower.
Right across the courtyard from The Lodge, the Sun Valley Inn is a bit more rustic than its glamorous counterpart-but recently remodelled and offering access to all of the same amenities as the Lodge at a fraction of the cost, the Inn is a more economical way to stay in the resort area.
Just off Main Street in Ketchum, Limelight Hotel is the perfect, pet-friendly place to stay if you want to be in the heart of the action. Word to the wise, snag a room with balcony views over Baldy, and don’t miss a chance to wind down with a dip in the pool and hot tubs.
Michelle Gross is a travel, food and lifestyle writer who loves a small-town vibe. An alum of the University of Colorado Boulder, she spends a lot of time enjoying the great outdoors. This summer you’ll most likely find her on a paddleboard or on her porch in Beaufort, South Carolina.