You know Texas for the Alamo, the theme parks, the Texas-sized malls and the miles of beaches. But even for long-time travelers to the Lone Star State there are plenty of attractions that you just might’ve missed. Have you examined the world’s largest pecan? Stood within the eternal Stonehenge circle? Hiked a stone mountain that some believe is haunted? From the deserts of West Texas to the piney woods of the eastern reaches of the state, you’ll find plenty of unique and unusual attractions in Texas – including some that are just downright quirky.
Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo
Drivers will be looking up as they take the long and winding road through Houston. Artist David Adickes has recently completed his tribute to the Beatles in which the three members of the Fab Four stand at 36 feet high. Originally the sculptures were on display at the artist’s studios; this fall they will be moved to a permanent position along I-10 at the Shephers Exit. The Beatles never played in Houston but they nevertheless stand tall.
The capital city of Austin is a little batty … literally. Downtown’s Congress Avenue Bridge is home to the nation’s largest urban colony of bats. Here the shores of Lake Lady Bird (formerly Town Lake) fill with onlookers every evening from March through October to take part in one of the city’s most unique activities: bat watching. At sunset, over 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats make their nightly exodus to feed on the insects of central Texas; residents and locals alike gather to watch the event. The best viewing areas are the hike-and-bike trail, the bridge and a free bat viewing area in the parking lot of the Austin American-Statesman at 305 South Congress Avenue on the south shore of the lake; here informative kiosks provide details on these seasonal bridge residents.
Just north of Austin, a far different mammal takes center stage in the small town of Hutto. The Central Texas community has fallen in love with hippos … so much so that it now boasts over 150 statues of the beasts ranging from a 14,000-pound hippo at Hutto High School to smaller “yard hippos” in front of many businesses and private homes.
Why the hippos? According to local legend, around 1915, a hippo escaped from a circus train while near Hutto and was recovered in a nearby creek. The residents seemed to fall in love with the idea of hippos and soon named their football team the Hutto Hippos (complete with the only hippo football mascot in Texas). A later effort encouraged the addition of hippo yard art and today just about every block of the city contains at least one hippo.
History and Mystery
In West Texas, the town of Marfa is home to Texas’s most unusual phenomena. Here, nine miles east of town, folks gather to view the mysterious Marfa lights, the cause of which has never been explained. A historic marker identifies the spot where the lights over the Chinati Mountains have been seen for centuries. Pioneers reported the lights back in the 1880s but years earlier Apaches had told tales of these glowing orbs. Today, visitors can go to a special viewing area outside of town; it fills with cars nightly as curious onlookers come in hopes of a glimpse of the lights, which resemble car headlights appearing over an area with no roads. Search the horizon for the mysterious lights, which are seen year-round (but not every night).
In the Hill Country near Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is one of the state’s most distinctive natural attractions. The country’s second largest stone formation after Georgia’s Stone Mountain, Enchanted Rock looms over Texas as a massive bald mountain of pink granite. Everything about the rock, from its name to its legends, is enchanted. Rumors about the rock have been plentiful: It glows in the dark; human sacrifices were held on its smooth granite surface; it moans at night; it hides veins of gold and diamonds; it’s haunted. An American Indian legend told of a young Indian woman who was brought to the apex of the stone by her father, an ambitious chieftain. Eager to win the favor of his gods, he sacrificed his daughter. Too late he learned that the offering was condemned. As punishment, the gods commanded his unhappy spirit to wander forever the surface of Enchanted Rock.
Some say spirits – specifically the spirit of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning – wander at the Armstrong-Browning Museum on the campus of Waco’s Baylor University. This library houses the world’s largest collection of Robert and Elizabeth Browning memorabilia, gathered from around the globe and placed in this specially constructed library. Although the famous authors never set foot in the facility, which is open to the public, some believe Elizabeth’s ghost likes to occasionally visit the building that holds so many of her special belongings.
36 feet high tribute to the Beatles, Houston
No one would be surprised if less content ghosts haunt the halls of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. This unique facility is the home of “Old Sparky,” the famous electrical chair that ended the sentence of 361 prisoners. Other exhibits showcase prisoner artwork, contraband that’s been recovered in the walls of the maximum security prison and a new exhibit telling the stories of both prisoners and employees of the prison system.
Imitation or Innovation?
Just about every visitor to San Antonio makes a stop at the Alamo. The shrine to Texas independence is located downtown and surrounded by buildings and city streets, not exactly as it was during the fateful battle. For that, you have to travel west to Brackettville, home of the Alamo Village. Remember John Wayne’s version of The Alamo? It was filmed here in a replica of the Texas shrine that you can still tour today. Alamo Village is sometimes called the movie capital of Texas – and for good reason. Walk among its streets and you’ll recognize buildings used in commercials, TV shows and many movies, as well as the popular TV mini-series Lonesome Dove. The village also includes a Wild West town, used frequently as a movie and TV set. Do not be surprised to see famous faces here; the park remains open even when movies are being shot. Take a tour of the buildings, some featuring movable walls to facilitate the work of film crews. You will see a bank that’s been the scene of numerous movie holdups, a working carriage shop, the John Wayne museum and a church that even “explodes” on cue!
For all the Texas pride in the Lone Star State, Jolly Old England seems to be the theme for many attractions. West of Kerrville near the small town of Hunt, Stonehenge II, a replica of England’s famous monoliths, stands on private land. The attraction, located in the middle of a pasture, draws visitors who come to stand within the stone circle. The site has also grown to include two moai, replicas of the famous heads of Easter Island.
In Odessa, the works of the bard are featured at the 400-seat The Globe of the Great Southwest, a replica of England’s Globe Theatre, located at Odessa College. To top off the experience, travelers can also visit a replica of the Anne Hathaway Cottage at the site. (And, while you’re in Odessa, don’t miss another unique site: the Odessa meteor crater. Formed over 20,000 years ago, this crater – which ranks as the nation’s second largest – can be viewed by travelers visiting the Odessa Meteor Crater Museum west of town.)
The Globe of the Great Southwest, Odessa
The European theme continues in the North Texas town of Paris, home of, you guessed it, a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Standing 65 feet tall, the tower may not be as tall as it French cousin but it has one distinction that’s truly Texan: It’s crowned with a red cowboy hat.
From France you travel all the way to China – or at least to the town of Katy, located west of Houston – for a visit to the Forbidden Gardens. Guided tours take visitors to view a replica of the third century BC 6,000-piece terra cotta army, duplicated at one-third of the original scale. Also at this fascinating attraction, visitors tour the Forbidden City, a 1/20th scale model of the palaces built in Beijing in the 15th century that was originally forbidden to be seen by the public.
Art, Texas Style
Sure Texas has plenty of traditional art museums, including some that have received worldwide acclaim, but you won’t find anything else in the state (or elsewhere) that quite compares with Houston’s The Orange Show. This monument to a dream was built by Houston postal worker Jefferson Davis McKissack; working alone, he created a 3,000-square-foot monument to his favorite fruit, the orange. The site includes a wishing well and a museum that includes found items such as tractor seats and mannequins. After McKissack’s death, a nonprofit group was created and has run it ever since as one of the country’s top examples of folk art and architecture. The foundation also funds the Art Car Weekend, which has grown to draw 250 fabulously decorated art cars and over 200,000 spectators every May.
Folk art takes a completely different turn up in the Panhandle at the famous Cadillac Ranch. Here an Amarillo businessman buried 10 new Cadillacs nose down in the middle of a large pasture in the 1960s as a gift to his wife. The elements, grazing cattle, and graffiti artists have all had their way with the vehicles through the years – it’s up to you to decide if the ranch is art or an eyesore.
Big, Bigger, Biggest
Of course, in a state where bigger is better, you sometimes have to be really big to get attention. Across the Lone Star State, travelers find more than the usual share of gargantuan statues, perfect backdrops for a family vacation photo.
Seguin‘s claim to fame.
What was once the world’s largest fire hydrant stands in Beaumont at the Fire Museum of Texas. (It held the record when erected in 1999 but within two years larger hydrants were erected in Canada and South Carolina. Who knew there was such a demand for jumbo fire hydrants?) This one might no longer be the record holder but it certainly has a unique history; this 24-foot-tall working hydrant was placed here by Walt Disney Studios to celebrate the re-release of 101 Dalmatians. In true dalmation style, the hydrant is, of course, white with black spots.
The hydrant may have lost its place in the record books but other titles still stand tall in Texas. Local produce is a favorite subject across the state. Look for the world’s largest pecan, a concrete statue on the downtown square in Seguin, southeast of Austin. The world’s largest watermelon (a painted watertower) stands above the nearby city of Luling and, south of San Antonio, Poteet claims the world’s largest strawberry. Not to mention, since fishing is tops in Port Isabel, the world’s longest fly fishing rod proudly spans over 71 feet in this coastal community in far south Texas.
Of course, critters also play a big part in Texas lore so grab the camera for a look at the world’s biggest rattlesnake, a statue that stands at the Freer Chamber of Commerce, about 110 miles south of San Antonio and home of the Official Rattlesnake Roundup of Texas held every May. Also in South Texas, Hidalgo is a real example of taking lemons and making lemonade; after it was proclaimed the place where killer bees first entered the country in 1990, the city erected the world’s largest killer bee statue. Far more cute and cuddly, the world’s largest jackrabbit hails from Odessa and what was long called the world’s largest roadrunner, Paisano Pete, stands in mid stride in Fort Stockton.
For more information about Texas travel including a state travel guide and highway map, call (800) 8888-TEX or visit www.TravelTex.com.
About the Authors
Paris Permenter and John Bigley, a husband-wife team of travel writers, are the authors of numerous guides to Texas including Day Trips from Austin. From their home base near Austin, Paris and John publish TexasTripper.com, an on-line guide to travel in the Lone Star State.