Best Day Trips From Houston: Under-the-Radar Spots Worth the Drive — From a Secret Castle to a BoomtownBY Annie Gallay
You don't need to head to Europe to see a castle. Just mosey on over to Belleville to catch a view of Newman's Castle, complete with turrets, a moat and drawbridge, and even a dungeon.
Wildflowers stretch out as far as the eye can see at Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge.
The five-mile long Texas City Dike is ideal for catching catfish and trout.
George Observatory is far from the city lights, offering a view of the night sky you won't find anywhere else.
George Ranch Historical Park provides a peek into four generations of life on the frontier.
Spindletop is throwback to Boomtown times.
The painted churches of Schulenburg are historic beauties, elaborate works left by Czech and German immigrants.
The wildflowers are in bloom across Texas, the weather is getting gorgeous and there are enough hidden treasures within a 100-mile radius of Houston to make for many enticing day trips that provide a happy diversion from your regular weekend rounds.
It’s the perfect time to hit the road.
Beyond the totally familiar Moody Gardens, Johnson Space Center and Blue Bell ice cream headquarters, day trip opportunities include visiting a full-blown castle; exploring a replica boomtown; viewing rhinos and endangered prairie chickens; and exploring a historic battleground.
Follow PaperCity’s guide below to find some lesser-known spots to spend an afternoon. Mileage is estimated from Downtown Houston.
These are the best day trips from Houston:
Gladys City Boomtown Museum at Lamar University
5550 Jimmy Simmons Blvd., Beaumont
If your most recent day off was a bust, you’re definitely due for a boom. Head on over to this boomtown reproduction. The museum is dedicated to depicting late 19th and early 20th century living during the Spindletop oil boom. Highlight is the re-enactment of the Lucas Gusher, a two-minute eruption of high-flying water that emulates the 1901 gusher that spewed a stream of oil 100 feet high.
Visitors can take self-guided tours through 15 replica buildings, viewing all sorts of relics. Imagine what life was like as you stroll through a livery stable, saloon, post office, general store and more. It’s a Gulf Coast throwback to a town that was founded in 1892.
The Painted Churches of Texas
Czech and German immigrants settling in Central Texas in the 1800s recalled their Old World heritage when building churches that were replete with elaborate painting embellishing the walls, altars, ceilings and arches of the otherwise simple, often wooden, structures. While there are more than 20 painted churches in the region, four are within easy access of Schulenburg, located halfway between Houston and San Antonio.
St. Mary’s Church in Praha is a perfect example. Built in 1895, the plain stone facade belies the richly stenciled and painted interior. The churches can be visited on one’s own or via guided tours available through the Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce.
Whether you want to wander or worship, they’re worth the trip.
1041 Old Hwy. 6, Bellville
Who knew there was a convincing medieval castle lurking in the gently rolling terrain near Bellville? Hello, Mike Newman who spent eight years, starting in 1998, constructing his dream home so authentic to the period that it boasts a 3,000 pound drawbridge, a chapel, a great hall for dining and celebrations, an interior courtyard and five corner turrets.
The man behind the popular Newman’s Bakery, tucked in the middle of Bellville, opens his castle, which truly is his home, for public tours six days a week. You can take your time perusing this hidden gem by setting up an appointment at the bakery.
The tour includes a box lunch. Just be careful — there is a dungeon, after all.
Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge
When we think about endangered species, our minds often jump to exotic creatures continents away. But Texas has its own critically threatened animal population: the Attwater prairie chicken. The refuge is home to one of the last populations of the ground-dwelling grouse, native to the coastal prairie ecosystem.
Visitors can explore this federally protected refuge to get a glimpse of these feathered critters, along with hundreds of other birds like the scissor-tailed flycatcher and pretty-in-pink roseate spoonbill. Rich with wildlife, the refuge is home to American alligators, spiny softshell turtles, white-tailed deer, coyotes and far too many snakes.
This time of year, wildflowers abound ranging from Indian paintbrush to bluebonnets.
Texas City Dike
Kick back for a peaceful day of fishing or playing at the beach at this landmark-status levee, first built in 1915. At nearly five miles long, the Texas City Dike gives visitors a lot of space to spread out and take in the view of Galveston Island to one side and the Bolivar Peninsula on the other.
The dike boasts four boat ramps, picnic shelters, piers and one wheelchair-accessible pier. And the sunsets are said to be epic when seen from the breezy dike.
San Jacinto Battleground
1 Monument Circle, La Porte
It’s only a short drive to a site with a long history. This battleground is a Texas treasure: It’s where independence was won. You can trace the land where Texian troops surprised the Mexican army and shouted the famous words, “Remember the Alamo!”
Or if a bird’s-eye view is more your speed, ride the elevator 489 feet up to the San Jacinto Monument’s observation floor for a spectacular view of the city and the Port of Houston, one of the busiest in the world. The San Jacinto Museum of History is a treat that has preserved 400 years of early Texas history.
Entry to the monument and museum is free. However, there is a charge for accessing the observation floor and viewing the patriotic documentary Texas Forever!
More recent history can be relived aboard the Battleship Texas , which served in both world wars. Visitors can can prowl the decks in the footsteps of U.S. war heroes and go below decks to explore the engine room, the oh-so-tight sleeping quarters and medical facilities.
Truly a park facility, the battleground offers picnic tables and grills, a picnic pavilion and opportunities for hiking, nature watching and geocaching.
21901 FM 762, Needville
This Houston Museum of Natural Science offshoot is nestled in the heart of Brazos Bend State Park, far from city lights thus allowing amazing views of the starlit sky even before you look through any of the three domed telescopes. Star of the observatory is the 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope, one of the largest in the country.
Depending on the season, nighttime visitors can view in unprecedented clarity of the Milky Way, meteors, Saturn’s rings and more.
The observatory, open every Saturday to those with reservations and for groups during the week, features a number of diversions including the Discovery Dome Planetarium, the meteorites exhibition and the Expedition Center, where groups are “transported” to the moon or Mars in special learning expeditions.
Before you take a peek at the Andromeda Galaxy through the west telescope, you can amble through the park to catch a glimpse of alligators and armadillos.
George Ranch Historical Park
10215 FM 762, Richmond
More than 100 years of Texas history is explored on this 20,000-acre working ranch, which operates in a living history partnership with the Fort Bend History Association and the George Foundation.
Frontier family life is at the forefront of the George Ranch experience where costumed interpreters guide visitors through ranch history. Activities including touring four distinct homesites, dating from the 1830s; strolling the half-mile George Ranch Heritage Trail loop that meanders along Dry Creek; observing a blacksmith at his anvil; watching cowboys rope and sort cattle — and on Saturdays you can have lunch.
Bayou Wildlife Zoo
5050 FM Road 517, Alvin
Get up close and personal with exotic animals on tram tours across the wildlife park’s 80 acres where the animals roam freely Check out the ring-tailed lemurs, Bactrian camels, scimitar-horned Oryx and in all more than 500 animals and birds from 60 different species. You’ll even spot white rhinos on your visit.
In addition to the natural habitats, the zoo features three monkey islands, alligator ponds, a petting zoo and pony rides. Visitors are welcome to bring their lunch and relax for a while in the covered picnic area.