By Carolina Keating
The temperature is rising and the days are getting longer, which can only mean one thing – summer vacation season is here. If you find yourself searching for that perfect getaway but don’t have the funds or vacation days to jet to a far away location, don’t fret. There are plenty of fun, budget-friendly options less than a day’s drive away.
Emily Lutz, executive director of the Brazos Trail Region of the Texas Heritage Trails Program, has no shortage of ideas for local families looking to explore. “There are just so many great things to do in this area,” she says excitedly while running through an impressively long list of potential destinations.
The Texas Heritage Trails are a network of 10 scenic driving trails that highlight interesting historical landmarks in Texas. The program was launched in 1968 in an effort to motivate Texas residents to get out and explore local attractions outside of major cities. After a few years, the program was mostly forgotten.
“It kind of fell into nothingness until the late ‘90s,” says Lutz. In 1997, the Texas Historical Commission was tasked with creating a heritage tourism program and decided to use the old trails to promote scenic and historic destinations throughout Texas. Since then, the trails have been a significant contributor to the $2.26 billion heritage tourism business in Texas.
There are 10 trails, although Lutz describes them more as regions, which cover the entire state. Lutz is in charge of the Brazos Trail Region, which stretches roughly from College Station to Waco to Round Rock.
Though not far from home for most of us, Lutz says the George Bush Presidential Library & Museum is one of the biggest attractions in the Brazos Region.
As far as museums go, Lutz recommends the Williamson Museum in Georgetown, which explores local history, the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco (that one seems self explanatory), the Children’s Museum of the Brazos Valley, the Brazos Valley African American Museum, and the Mayborn Museum in Waco, a science and discovery museum that is part of Baylor University.
While in Waco, be sure to stop by the Cameron Park Zoo. “It’s amazing. It’s an award-winning zoo that is extremely popular,” says Lutz. “It is all about local animals and a little bit about the history of the area.”
If you want to head in the Bastrop or Smithville direction, you will also find plenty to keep the family occupied. “There is a ton to do out there as far as nature,” says Lutz. Cool off from the summer heat by tubing or kayaking down the river in Bastrop or camp in Bastrop State Park and hike the local trails.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Smithville has some Hollywood glamour to offer. The 1998 romantic drama Hope Floats, starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr., was filmed in Smithville and the house used in the film is a popular tourist destination. Additionally, the 2011 Oscar nominated film The Tree of Life, which starred Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, was also filmed in Smithville.
If you are looking for something a little quirkier, take a drive over to the tiny town of Hico. “It is an hour northwest of Waco and it’s the cutest little small town I have ever seen,” says Lutz. Hico’s claim to fame is that the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid lived and died there instead of being shot and killed in New Mexico like most people believe. Although the claim is unsubstantiated, it makes for a fun legend and an interesting museum.
Some of Lutz’s final suggestions included stopping for kolaches in West and enjoying the wildflowers in Grimes County and Brenham. Navasota and Brenham both have destination friendly downtown areas.
If none of those things tickle your fancy, Lutz recommends using the Texas Heritage Trails as a guide for finding something interesting. “We include information on historic houses and information about how to travel through regions,” she says. “We support downtowns and try to highlight local businesses. There are lots of really great B&B’s, places to shop, and local art.”
Regardless of where you decide to spend your summer vacation, Lutz thinks it is important to appreciate the history that abounds in our own backyard. “It is really important to get out and see the things in your own community. You would be surprised at the amount of people that live in this region and never see some of these things,” says Lutz. “It is fun and interesting and the history and heritage of Texas are important.”