How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Texas

If the Lone Star State is nothing else, it's big. Really big.
Ask someone who's never been there to describe Texas, and she'll probably spin you some yarn about a dude in a hat trotting around on a horse in search of a beer.
And this native Texan isn't about to deny the possibility of that thirsty, dusty, hat-wearing guy, but the truth is Texas is big enough to offer a little bit of everything ... certainly much more than just a piece of the Wild West.
You've got your desert, your mountains, your prairies, your piney woods, your hill country, your coast and everything in between.
But before you jump in your car with a map and a hankering to see what the Lone Star State has to offer, know this: You might be staying for a while.
Just to give you an idea of the kind of driving we're talking about, consider this: You could cruise from New York City to Chicago in less time than it would take you to go from the Panhandle town of Amarillo to the Mexican border town of Brownsville.
El Paso is closer to San Diego than it is to Marshall, a town near where Texas meets Louisiana.
But if you've got the inclination and the time, you're sure to find something to suit you in the 28th state. You've just got to know where to look.
Fort Worth
If it's cowboys you're after (and not the just football kind), mosey on over to Fort Worth. Located about 30 miles west of Dallas, Fort Worth — known by most as Cowtown, a nickname earned largely due to the city's historical ties to the Chisholm Cattle Trail — offers visitors an authentic taste of the Old West.
Cowtown's claim to fame is the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District. Here $11 ($8 for the kids) will get you admittance to the Stockyards Championship Rodeo at Cowtown Coliseum every Friday and Saturday night.
The event features everything from bull riding to breakaway roping to a calf scramble for the kiddies. It's a fantastic way for the whole family to enjoy a night out on the town, Texas-style.
And travelers looking to belly up to the bar might enjoy a night out at Billy Bob's Texas, Fort Worth's most famous live music and live bull riding venue — no mechanical bulls here.
Billy Bob's routinely hosts the hottest names in country music and other acts, and is a great place to bust out the boots and boogie like it's your job.
Down the road from the Old West atmosphere of Fort Worth you have the sleek, cosmopolitan, big-city feel (read: a place to shop your face off) of Dallas.
Home to Neiman Marcus and a slew of other fun places to drop a buck or $200, Dallas is the perfect place to dine, drink and spend your paycheck.
In fact, people often forget that Texas is home to three of America's 10 biggest cities: Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. So if you're craving an urban adventure, Texas has it covered — and at a fraction of the cost of many of the country's other heavily populated destinations.
Austin sits in the hill country about 200 miles south of Dallas. It's hip, laid-back and positively overflowing with some of the most eccentric Texans you will meet.
And as the capital city, it's also a great place to learn a thing or two about the Lone Star State.
By forking over a paltry $5.50 ($3 for kids) to gain entrance into the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, you can morph into the undisputed champion of Texas trivia, with the ability to fire off gems like "Texas used to be its own country, so it is the only state that was admitted into the union by treaty instead of territorial annexation" and "The Texas State Capital building is actually taller than the nation's Capitol in Washington, D.C." at a moment's notice.
This knowledge is sure to help you impress the aforementioned eccentric natives when you hit the bars on Sixth Street.
Austin is famous for its nightlife and live music scene. One can always find the most in-demand bands and artists putting on a show in the city's numerous acclaimed live music venues.
Every September, the Austin City Limits Music Festival draws more than 60,000 music lovers to see 130 bands. The likes of Coldplay, Sheryl Crow, The Pixies and Oasis to Texas favorites like Willie Nelson and the Old 97's play every imaginable genre for three days.
Tickets are a little steep at $115 for a three-day pass, but most festival aficionados will tell you it's well worth it.
And if music doesn't do it for you, Austin also has bats. That's right. Austin has the largest urban bat population of any city in North America.
Every March, the bats gather under the Congress Avenue Bridge, where they stay until November; their population peaks at nearly 1.5 million in August.
Bat fans gather every evening to watch the creepy critters fill they sky as they spill out in a spooky cloud to forage for bugs. And it doesn't cost a thing.
New Braunfels
Vacationers looking to make a splash should head down to Schlitterbahn, routinely voted America's No. 1 water park by the Travel Channel and Amusement Today, in New Braunfels — just about an hour's drive from Austin.
Schlitterbahn is really a water resort. It's huge. The oddly named playground features more rides than you can shake a stick at, winding river rapids and tons of activities for kids, many of which are fueled with natural spring water from the Comal River.
The park is only open from late April to mid-September, and all-day adult admission costs $34.50 ($28.50 for kids).
Probably the most famous attraction is the Master Blaster (also voted the best water ride in the country), a one-of-a-kind water roller coaster that actually propels you uphill and down. But the park is so big even your favorite 'fraidy cat can find something to do here.
Like New Braunfels, there are lots of little Texas towns in the hill country of distinct German descent.
Fredericksburg is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War, the country's only institution dedicated solely to telling the stories of the battles of the Pacific Theater during World War II.
The museum offers 34,000 square feet of exhibit space as well as an impressive collection of both Japanese and Allied aircraft, tanks, guns and other large artifacts on display. With admission costing only $6 for adults, it is a must-see for history buffs.
The Seashore
And a trip to Texas wouldn't be complete without a ranch tour and a visit to the state's sparkling seashore. King Ranch, located just about an hour south of Corpus Christi, is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island.
Visitors can take guided historical and agricultural tours for $8 ($4 for kids) to learn a little bit about the modern-day workings of a ranch.
Those who have a particular part of ranch life they want to know more about (horses, cattle, farming — you name it) can book special interest tours focusing on their specific inquiries. The ranch also offers nature tours, popular with bird watchers and outdoorsy-types alike.
Beach bums, however, will want to visit Corpus Christi and the Padre Island National Seashore, home to some of the world's finest sport fishing and some seriously yummy gulf shrimp.
Padre Island features beaches that stretch more than 130 miles along the Gulf of Mexico, and it's a favorite among both nature lovers and partygoers.
In fact, the farther south you travel on Padre, the bigger the parties get.
South Padre Island — just 30 minutes north of the border — is the Lone Star State's mecca for Spring Break partiers.
Sun-loving students, along with camera crews from MTV's Spring Break shows and E!'s "Wild On," can be found living it up on the island whenever the weather heats up and school lets out.
And like all of the good things in life, a day at the beach is always free.
There are so many things to see and so many characters to meet in the Lone Star State, you might never want to leave.
But as many a bumper sticker can attest, you may not be a native Texan, but you got there as soon as you could.
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