Rio Grande Valley
Why: Now that I’m a birder (okay, so I’ve gone birding once, but I’m already hooked), I’m itching to get back down to South Texas for the annual invasion of millions of winged creatures, particularly waterfowl, as they ride the northerly winds straight through two major flyways en route to warmer winter roosts.
Where: As its name suggests, the World Birding Center is a good place to start—make that “places” plural, as there are nine WBC sites, which stretch from Roma Bluffs to South Padre Island. Another particularly bird-y spot is Laguna Atasoca National Wildlife Refuge, near Los Fresnos, where I spotted nearly forty species in just a couple hours’ time in the “off season” (read: the summer).
When: Birding enthusiasts from around the world will converge in Harlingen from November 4 to 8 for the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, which features dozens of field trips organized by theme (“Valley Raptors,” “Seedeater Sojurn,” “Parrots of the Area”) and locale (Aplomado Alley down Old Port Isabel Road, the Kleberg wetlands, the Estero Llano Grande).
Why: Leaf peeping! Though it sounds vaguely illegal, this autumnal activity is more than encouraged in this East Texas town, where the evergreen Pineywoods serve as a dramatic backdrop for the sweet gums and oaks and maples as they turn red and orange and gold.
Where: There’s a self-guided driving tour—a 55-mile loop—that starts and ends at the Athens Partnership Center and takes you along Henderson County back roads and past a number of local sightseeing stops, like the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, Lake Athens, and the East Texas Arboretum. Also plan a pit stop at NY-TX Zipline Adventures to go whizzing (but hopefully not wizzing) through the pines.
When: Prime peeping time in these parts is typically mid- to late-November, but it never hurts to call the tourism office (888-294-2847) to check before heading this way.
Why: I don’t always eat deep-fried cheeseburgers or chicken-fried lobster, but when I do, it’ll be under the approving eye of Big Tex during the State Fair of Texas. The 24-day soiree officially heralds the beginning of our collective cooling off period and gives us plenty of diversions—the football games, the concerts, the Dentzel Carousel—to coax us out of the air-conditioned bunkers we’ve been hiding in all summer. (Speaking of AC, you may also want to tack on a trip to the city’s most visited tourist attraction for a little art and commerce while you’re in town.)
When: The State Fair runs until October 18, but things’ll get particularly lively on Saturday, October 10, when the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners square off in the Red River Showdown.
Angelina National Forest
Why: Hiking is actually pleasurable when you’re not sweating buckets, and this 153,179-acre forest—one of four national forests in the state—offers some particularly lovely walks along trails shaded by longleaf and loblolly and shortleaf pines.
Where: Head for the Sawmill Hiking Trail, a five-and-a-half-mile round-tripper that’ll take you past the ruins of the old Aldridge Sawmill. If you’re a bass fisher, then your truck, with boat in tow, is likely already pointed in the direction of the Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
Why: In my opinion, the best time to make a beeline for the Texas coast is right now when temperatures are still balmy (but not blistering) and tourists are scarce. Okay, so maybe not all of the beach bars will be open and the restaurants will keep strange hours, but off-season rates will more than make a fall trip worth your while.
Where: I’ve got a soft spot for Port A’s small-town charms, in general, and the quiet shoreline of San José Island (accessible only by the Jetty Boat), in particular.