Hit the road on a bicycle, and you get a completely different perspective than riding in a car along the same route. The scenery looks vastly different from a small boat on the water, where a river sets your route and speed, than from the shore. Aircraft a few thousand feet high offer a view you can’t get any other way, along with the singular combination of the quiet of the sky and the thrill of speed. A horse not only goes places no road can, it also provides pleasant company along the way; plus, a horse does most of the work for you.
These experiences can be had across Texas, on your own or with established outfitters. Here are four excellent adventures featuring alternate modes of transport to get you started, along with suggestions for other opportunities that will move you.
Nothing beats sightseeing from a bicycle. Pedaling down a country road, you feel the breeze on your face and sun on your skin, smell the grass and flowers, and hear the birds and rustling leaves. A bike makes it easy to stop and linger or take a scenic detour. All that plus some exercise, too.
All you really need is a bike and back roads with light traffic. But on a guided tour, someone else figures out the route, packs the snacks and even brings the bicycle. Texas Bike Tours creates custom itineraries for guided bike rides throughout the Hill Country, from a few hours to a few days. Owner Deaton Bednar says one popular route goes from Fredericksburg to Comfort.
Wendy and Kevin Parker of Houston spent a half day making the 32-mile ride, complete with a picnic and plenty of other stops. Their daughter Kennedy, 5, came along in a bike trailer.
“My husband and I love to bike and wanted to expose our daughter to biking somewhere outside of the city,” Wendy says. “We spread trips up to 60 miles over four or five days, riding around Fredericksburg and out through the Hill Country. Deaton even let my daughter jump into the van when Kevin got tired of pulling her.”
That’s another benefit of a guided tour: the sag wagon. One followed the Parkers the entire way and took the family’s luggage to Camp Comfort, where they spent the night. Their route followed scenic ranch roads along the Pedernales River, past old log cabins, farms, alpacas, donkeys and goats. The last leg into Comfort provided impressive views and a roller coaster of small hills, ending with lunch at High’s Café & Store.
“We totally had a blast,” Wendy says. They plan to do another trip once Kennedy can ride her own bike, counting on the sag wagon option.
From their home in England, Elizabeth and Daniel Piercey plan annual walking holidays to remote parts of Europe. They discovered Texas a couple of years ago when they added a few extra days to a Houston business trip. “We have to admit that we discovered the allure of Texas quite by chance,” Daniel says.
“Cycling in the Hill Country gave us a chance to slow down, relax, see the country at closer range and spend some time with (and get to know) a few locals,” he says. “Texans, so we’ve heard, like to talk, and we found this to be true. Maybe it is the lack of hurry, but people seem happy to share their thoughts.”
Those seeking a shorter taste of two-wheeled sightseeing can pedal miles of roads and trails at Resaca de la Palma State Park near Brownsville, where bike rentals are available. If it’s all about miles and speed, Bike Night at Circuit of the Americas near Austin turns riders loose on the 3.4-mile, 20-turn race-track from 6 p.m. until dark every Tuesday, March until July. Participants must register on-site or online, and rentals are available.
Travelers flock to San Antonio to see its famous River Walk. Those who stay on the shores of the San Antonio River are missing the boat.
The San Antonio River Authority and partners have been restoring the river south of downtown, returning natural contours and planting thousands of trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Enjoy the results in a kayak rented from Mission Adventure Tours at Espada Park or the King William District, on routes of 2, 3 or 4 miles, on your own or guided.
Teresa Maslonka has paddled with Mission Adventure Tours several times. “The amount of wildness incorporated into this city is phenomenal,” she says. “On the river, you’re in the city but feel like you’re away from it. We saw all different kinds of birds, turtles and other wildlife, and it is so different from being on the sidewalk looking at the river.”
A guided trip not only puts those without experience at ease, but the guides also share knowledge about the river’s abundant wildlife. Single- and two-person kayaks are available and friendly dogs welcomed.
A more urban experience awaits on one of Go Rio Cruises’ San Antonio River Walk rides. Thirty-five-minute tours depart from several spots along the River Walk every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and food and drinks are welcome aboard. Boat captains point out the sights in this historic-meets-modern area: the former circa-1850 school for boys, now the Omni La Mansión del Rio River Walk hotel; the Hyatt Regency San Antonio hotel, designed to avoid casting a shadow on the nearby Alamo; the first restaurant to offer riverside dining, now available at dozens of establishments; and a series of bridges spanning the river.
Go Rio also offers a boat shuttle service with 13 designated stops, from downtown through the Museum Reach section of the river north of downtown to the Pearl District. The shuttle offers a great way to see the sights, including a lock-and-dam system that takes a boat about seven minutes to go through.
You can experience other Texas cities from the water as well. Get a boat’s-eye view of the birds and marine life of Galveston Bay and its historic port with Galveston Harbor Tours, and see the bustling maritime industry along the Houston Ship Channel on the Sam Houston Boat Tour’s free 90-minute voyage. Rent a kayak or canoe at Backwoods Paddlesports to see the Fort Worth skyline from the Trinity River.
As the sun sets over the toothy horizon of the Davis Mountains, riders finish up their supper and gather around a campfire. The swish of horses’ tails blends with the crackle of the fire and rustle of the breeze. Stars fill the expanse of sky above and invite lingering, but soon the lure of cushy bedrolls proves too much. After all, tomorrow brings another full day of riding with Texas Horseback Adventures, based in Alpine.
“Every day out there, it’s the best thing, the sheer beauty of the property and the amazing opportunity to ride through it,” says Margaret O’Donnell, who has taken a number of overnight trips. “It is so relaxing to come back in the evening to sit and watch the horses then the sunset and eat a beautiful meal. People are stunned by the beauty of the skies and sunsets out here.”
Opportunities like this ride on the open range, where you can disappear into a landscape with no trails or fences, are few and far between. Riders spend the night at cow camps on a vast ranch, striking out each day to explore the terrain of canyons, peaks and open country. Owner and guide Missy Cantrell chooses routes based on riders’ experience and desires and says it’s all about giving them an authentic experience. Days include about six hours of riding, with a break for lunch with a view.
Along the way, riders see native plants, roadrunners and other wildlife, and signs of mountain lions and bears. “We saw mule deer and javelina and heard coyotes at night,” O’Donnell says. “The views are to die for. You can see forever.”
Days in the saddle and nights in a tepee aren’t for everyone, of course. Those with a hankering for just a few hours astride a steed have many options around the state, including guided rides with Elm Creek Stables near Garner State Park with views of the Frio River canyon. There are also excursions through the dramatic landscape of Palo Duro Canyon with Old West Stables. Or channel your inner Fabio with a ride on the beach at sunset, courtesy of Stables at South Padre Island.
A Pair of Wings
From 1,000 feet in the air, the world looks bigger and cleaner, its flaws less visible. Soaring above Mustang Island, the wide ribbon of sand and colorful clusters of people, umbrellas, chairs and beach towels become a work of art. Waves in the Gulf of Mexico draw sparkling lines of white, and ships on the blue water look like toys.
Texan Warbird Adventures offers this unique perspective from a World War II-era Navy T-6 Texan, a low-wing, open-cockpit plane known as “the pilot maker” for its role preparing pilots for combat. Retired Navy pilot and private aviation enthusiast Trey Hayden and his wife, Brandie, bought the plane about four years ago and started the tour company to share the thrill of flight, the history of the aircraft and Corpus Christi’s connection to military flying. George H.W. Bush, Neil Armstrong and John McCain all passed through Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.
Local resident Barry Phillips celebrated a recent birthday with a T-6 tour, flying over the Intracoastal Waterway and Port Aransas Ferry, down the beach, over Corpus Christi Bay and downtown, past the iconic Harbor Bridge and USS Lexington aircraft carrier, now a museum.
“Over the beach, you can see people playing in the surf and on the sand. The sand was white and the water was clear and green,” Phillips says. “We made a few circles over the Lexington and saw the same type of plane as the one we were in parked on the deck, a bright yellow one.”
“The open cockpit is the coolest thing. With the canopy open, you feel the air blowing, smell the salt air,” says Patrick Kaufer, another recent passenger. “It is very enjoyable and different. You get to see something that not a lot of people get to see. The Lexington, as big as it is, looks tiny from the air.”
More than 600 T-6 Texans still ply the skies, but only a few offer rides to the public. “I loved the idea of riding in an old plane,” Phillips says. “It looked like something out of a museum, but it’s clear the Haydens take wonderful care of it. Their love of what they’re doing really shows.”
See more of Melissa Gaskill’s work at melissagaskill.blogspot.com.