Travel

13 Perfect Fall Road Trips for When You Need to Escape Houston

Cue up your best Spotify playlist and pack all the snacks-it's go time.

Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock
Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock
Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock

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.

Adventures On Wheels/Shutterstock
Adventures On Wheels/Shutterstock
Adventures On Wheels/Shutterstock

Caddo Lake State Park, Texas

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.

Richard A McMillin/Shutterstock
Richard A McMillin/Shutterstock
Richard A McMillin/Shutterstock

Lost Maples State Natural Area, Texas

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?

Patricia Marroquin/Shutterstock
Patricia Marroquin/Shutterstock
Patricia Marroquin/Shutterstock

Dallas, Texas

Distance from Houston: 240 miles, 3 hours and 40 minutes by car
One of The Big D’s most epic annual attractions is the State Fair of Texas, which takes over town every fall (and is currently going down from September 24 to October 17). Catch Big Tex in the flesh and consume all the fried delicacies you can possibly handle, then enjoy the rest of what this polished metropolis has to offer. From hot restaurants and snazzy cocktail dens to charmingly dusty dive bars and endless seasonal activities (some including man’s best friend), DFW has all your vacation needs covered.

Tyler State Park - Texas Parks and Wildlife
Tyler State Park – Texas Parks and Wildlife
Tyler State Park – Texas Parks and Wildlife

Tyler, Texas

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.

Garner State Park News + Events - Texas Parks and Wildlife
Garner State Park News + Events – Texas Parks and Wildlife
Garner State Park News + Events – Texas Parks and Wildlife

Garner State Park, Texas

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).

Photo by Charles Reagan Hackleman
Photo by Charles Reagan Hackleman
Photo by Charles Reagan Hackleman

Austin, Texas

Distance from Houston: 165 miles, 2 hours and 40 minutes by car
Houston may have a love-hate relationship with little brother 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 beer bars, epic outdoorsy activities, and a live music scene that draws folks from all over the planet. Make your way to the Greenbelt, a winding 12- mile trail perfect for biking, hiking, and ‘Graming. Later, pay a visit to Lady Bird Lake, where kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, and biking reign supreme, take in panoramic city views from atop Mount Bonnell, and, if the weather holds, pop by Barton Springs for a refreshing dip. Hungry? Set up a picnic at Zilker Park (home to the always-epic Austin City Limits festival), or hit up a host of barbeque legends, from la Barbecue to LeRoy and Lewis.

Photo courtesy of Getaway
Photo courtesy of Getaway
Photo courtesy of Getaway

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 clearly the coolest of them all. The low-key Hill Country college town has slowly but surely been making gains with its very own brand of quirkiness. You’ll want to check out the San Marcos River and all of the natural beauts that the area has to offer, including the 560-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area and Ringtail Ridge Greenspace ideal for mountain bike shredding. Before you head out, snag some fuel at the Saturday morning farmers market downtown, grab kolaches from Dos Gatos, or work on your buzz at Tantra Coffee. Afterward, refuel with suds from local breweries like Hops & Grain, Middleton Brewing, and AquaBrew. For a full meal, opt for Smoked Brisket from Hays Co. Bar-B-Que and Black’s BBQ or try Blue Dahlia, a stylish bistro that brought its open-faced Tartines, buttery Croissants, and Drunken Mussels straight from its original Austin home. As for lodging, skip the tired old chain hotels and treat yourself to a room at Kyle, Texas’ luxe Sage Hill Inn & Spa (15 minutes from San Marcos) or get off the grid at one of Getaway’s chicly appointed glamping cabins in Wimberly, about 20 minutes from the heart of downtown.

Wine Road 290
Wine Road 290
Wine Road 290

Fredericksburg, Texas

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.

Black's BBQ
Black’s BBQ
Black’s BBQ

Lockhart, Texas

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).

Ramiro Reyna Jr/Shutterstock
Ramiro Reyna Jr/Shutterstock
Ramiro Reyna Jr/Shutterstock

Galveston Island, Texas

Distance from Houston: 50 miles, just under an hour by car
Galveston’s off-season is a picture-perfect time to visit. Plan a pampering stay at spots like near-two-centuries-old Tremont House, ritzy Hotel Galvez & Spa, or palatial San Luis Resort, or kick it old-school at throwback classics like Gaido’s Seaside Inn and Beachcomber Inn. If it happens to be a beach day, do the beach. Otherwise, spend your time strolling the historic Strand District (which looks especially festive as the holidays approach). The 70-block jewel is teeming with gorgeous Victorian buildings housing museums, boutiques, theaters, shops, and La King’s Confectionery, a retro sweets shop stocked with ice cream, dipped chocolates, and taffy (don’t forget your mask, of course). Hop around the island and you’ll find local dining gems like Mosquito Cafe, Shrimp ‘N Stuff, Porch Cafe, Rudy & Paco, and Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar. And before you leave, pick up a couple six-packs souvenirs from local favorite Galveston Island Brewing Company.

Hotel Emma
Hotel Emma
Hotel Emma

San Antonio, Texas

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.

Stockyards Heritage
Stockyards Heritage
Stockyards Heritage

Fort Worth, Texas

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).

Photo courtesy of Schlitterbahn Waterpark
Photo courtesy of Schlitterbahn Waterpark
Photo courtesy of Schlitterbahn Waterpark

New Braunfels, Texas

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.

Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest dance hall, is here to rock you all night long, while during the day, the historic district offers quaint antique and specialty shops peddling everything from cowboy hats and collectible books to custom salt scrubs, olive oils, and pickles. Tack on an order of Sizzling Fajitas at Cantina del Rio, Corn Fritters and Smoked Pork Chops at The River House, Sliders, Garlic Fries, and libations at Mozie’s, or legendary Texas eats like Chicken-fried Steak, Bacon-wrapped Jalapeños, and the “best” Wurst at Gristmill Restaurant, and you have yourself a day. Once you’ve digested, check out a Texas-style African safari, peep murals at an outdoor art museum, or descend into the Natural Bridge Caverns, located about 25 miles west of town. And before you get back on the highway, snag some housemade jerky from New Braunfels Smokehouse for the road.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

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.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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