Things To Do In Waco And Surrounding Areas

Explore Central Texas: Start in Waco and find gems around the area

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Gas prices have been going up as we move into summertime, and that could mean having to reconsider those longer trips.

So now may be as good a time as ever to keep it closer to home and explore the nearby places and things that you might be taking for granted.

Even in Waco, when is the last time you enjoyed the outdoors of Cameron Park or visited the animals in the Cameron Park Zoo? Have you gotten a Dr Pepper float after touring the Dr Pepper Museum? Did you enlighten yourself with tales of the Texas Rangers at the museum, or learn about Lone Star legends at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame? Have you explored the Mayborn Museum lately?

But if you believe you need a break from Waco, there are plenty of places to explore nearby, be it McGregor, Gatesville, Clifton, Georgetown, Salado, West, Hillsboro, Lake Whitney – most less than an hour’s drive away. Each has its own charms and appeal.

We’ll touch on that a bit in the pages that follow, but ultimately it’s up to you to make the effort and get out there.

Downtown Waco continues to be revitalized and more people are examining what downtown and its shops and restaurants have to offer. The Waco Hippodome has been expanding as part of the renovation going on throughout downtown.

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The renovated Waco Hippodrome on Austin Avenue is a centerpiece of the revitalized downtown area. Photo by Rod Aydelotte

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While there is plenty to see and learn inside the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute, the Dr Pepper-themed model train display is a favorite for all ages. Photo by Ken Sury

The popularity of “Fixer Upper” and the Magnolia effect on Waco cannot be understated. The Dr Pepper Museum has seen its visitor numbers swell because of its proximity to the Silos. But while “Fixer Upper” may have been a catalyst, visitors learn they is so much more to the Waco area.

Many residents might forget there’s a national monument here. The Waco Mammoth National Monument, 6220 Steinbeck Bend, became part of the National Park System in 2015. The fossils of 24 Columbian mammoths and other mammals from the Pleistocene Epoch have been uncovered at the site.

Nature lovers can’t be disappointed with Waco’s amenities. Cameron Park has often been referred to as a jewel in the city. The 416-acre park offers draws bikers, hikers and runners to its trails and the sidewalks along the picturesque Brazos River. The disc golf course brings others to to experience the park.

Waco is fortunate to have a great facility in the Cameron Park Zoo, bringing creatures from across the world into our backyard.

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Kayakers pass beneath the Waco Suspension Bridge as they enjoy their time on the Brazos River. Paddleboarding has become a popular method of traversing the river as well. Photo by Jerry Larson

The Brazos River becomes increasingly popular during the summer for boaters, kayakers and a growing contingent of paddleboarders who row their way across the water. In the fall, sailgating to Baylor football games at McLane Stadium fills the waterways.

The Waco Suspension Bridge, as well as the ALICO building, are the most iconic structures to Waco. Indian Spring Park hosts a multitude of events throughout the year. The large statues that depict the cattle drives of the Chisholm Trail add to the ambience of Indian Spring Park.

Venture across the city and let the kids delight in the rides at Lions Park, especially the miniature train that pulls into Broken Toe Junction.

Sometimes it’s worth being reminded what your city has to offer, not just to visitors but the people who live here. And it’s a lot shorter drive.

Gatesville

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The Coryell County Courthouse is often photographer by visitors because of its majestic architecture. Photo by Texas A&M AgriLife

Looking for a less-hectic pace? A trip to Gatesville, just 40 minutes west of Waco on U.S. Highway 84, might be the ticket. It has a friendly, small-town atmosphere that still offers visitors plenty to see and do.

One of the most recognizable and photographed landmarks in town is the Coryell County Courthouse on the historic square. It was built with limestone quarried from just west of town across the Leon River and dedicated in 1907.

A block off the square, the Coryell Museum and Historical Center, 718 Main St., is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and admission is free. The museum houses the town’s claim to fame as the Spur Capital of Texas with the world’s largest collection of spurs. The 10,000 sets include spurs from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

The large museum also houses exhibits that give a glimpse of life in the past, including an old-time doctor’s office, gas station, beauty shop, blacksmith shop, soda fountain, post office and school room. Notable items include the original old log jail, a Model T and an old printing press.

Outdoor recreation is plentiful, with two large public parks in the downtown area. Raby Park, at Eighth and Bridge Street, is home to a free splash park, playground and picnic areas along a shady creek. The city pool and skate park are adjacent to the park. Faunt LeRoy Park can be found at the end of South Seventh Street on the banks of the Leon River. It is connected to Raby Park by a walking trail and has a huge playing field, playground, volleyball court and two horseshoe pits. A disc golf course runs through the two parks.

At the edge of town, along Highway 36 sits The Last Drive-In Picture Show, which opened in 1950 and still offers first-run movies nightly. Weekend admission prices of $10 per carload for a double feature, make it a great bargain and a fun experience for the family.

The Gatesville Country Music Hall of Fame in the City Auditorium at 110 N. Eighth St. offers a free show at 7 p.m. on the third Friday of each month featuring the house band and rotating guest performers one block from The Feed Mill.

Gatesville offers some unique shopping experiences. Visitors will be amazed at the selection of furniture, pottery and gifts available at The Parrot Mexican Imports, one block off Main Street, just behind The Parrot’s Nest Boutique, which offers stylish and affordable clothing and accessories.Vintage Royalty has children’s clothing, jewelry, handbags, gifts and more. On the square, Hinds & Marcus Fine Jewelers specializes in custom pieces and restoration by a master jeweler, and features ready-made jewelry and watches in a variety of price ranges.

A full listing of dining and shopping options along with a calendar of events is online at www.VisitGatesvilleTX.com.

Clifton

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Clifton’s Art Alley in the 300 block between Third and Fifth streets is eye-catching with its colorful design. Photo by Clifton Chamber of Commerce

One can’t mention the city of Clifton without thinking about its art and its Norwegian heritage.

The town of about 3,500 some 35 miles northwest of Waco was designated as the Norwegian Capital of Texas by the state Legislature in 1997. The town was settled by Norwegian immigrants in the mid-19th century.

The Texas Commission on the Arts bestowed on Clifton recognition as a Cultural Arts District in 2011, which it continues to embrace today.

The Bosque Arts Center, 215 College Hill Drive, has been the home for all types of the arts. It is housed in the former three-story Clifton Lutheran College, built in 1923. The Bosque Arts Center gallery’s permanent collection includes works by nationally acclaimed Bosque County artists Martin Grelle, Bruce Greene, Tony Eubanks, George Hallmark and George Boutwell, among others.

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Sculptor Jack Walker works on one of his pieces. A number of renowned artists have made Clifton their home. Photo by Clifton Chamber of Commerce

Next to the main brick structure is the Tin Building Theatre, which hosts plays and other live performances throughout the year.

The art in Clifton goes beyond the walls of the Bosque Art Center. Statues are in Heritage Plaza and the downtown area even has Art Alley, which has vibrant murals painted on the exterior walls in the alley in the 300 block between Third and Fifth streets. That stretch of Art Alley includes The Cell Block, a converted 1930s-era two-cell jail that is now a one-bedroom, one-bath place to stay with a decidedly unique interior.

When it comes to heritage, the influence of Clifton’s Norwegian culture is evident. The Cleng Peerson Highway (Farm-to-Market Road 219, also Fifth Street) runs from Clifton to nearby Norse. Peerson, known as the “Father of Norwegian Immigration to America,” is buried in the cemetery at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Norse.

Between Clifton and Cranfills Gap on Bosque County Road 4145 is the St. Olaf Lutheran Church, known as the “Rock Church” for its exterior.

Clifton celebrates its Norwegian heritage with a Christmas tour the first Saturday of December.

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St. Olaf Lutheran Church, built in 1886 by Norwegian settlers, is called the Rock Church. It is near Cranfills Gap on Bosque County Road 1445. Photo by Clifton Chamber of Commerce

One of the newer additions to the city is Market at the Mill at 324 W. Third St., which took the defunct Dansby Feed Mills and turned it into a new venue for hosting wedding, parties, reunions and concerts.

Nearby is the Santa Fe Depot Museum filled with railroad items from Edwin Olsen’s collection.

Last year upscale dining in the city returned with the opening of Sinclair in the former Mitchell’s Grille location at 215 W. Third St. Co-owned by chef Sonya Cote and Curtis and Kaye Robinson Callaway, the restaurant was a Sinclair gas station before it closed years ago and was reborn first as Mitchell’s Grille in 2011.

The Cliftex Theatre, 306 W. Fifth St., still has that old-time feel but now has digital projection for a better viewing experience. The theater is in its 102nd year of continuous operation.

Car buffs may want to visit on a Saturday to check out the vintage vehicles displayed at the Clifton Classic Chassis Auto Museum, 406 W. Fifth St. Special appointments on other days can be scheduled.

The Bosque Museum, 301 S. Avenue Q, showcases Bosque County history. It houses the Horn Shelter Exhibit, which reproduces an area near the Brazos River where the remains of an adult male and child, along with burial goods, all more than 11,000 years old, were found. The Horn Shelter is considered among the most significant prehistoric finds in North America.

The city has more than 200 acres of public parks to enjoy. The largest is City Park, which runs alongside the Bosque River and extends north and south from Farm-to-Market Road 219. It has parts of the original stone structure built in 1933-34 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Olsen Park, 1103 N. Key St., has a large Olympic-style swimming pool as well as a kiddie pool, in addition to a playground and walking trail.

Lake Whitney

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Lake Whitney State Park offers families a chance to enjoy the outdoors, whether it’s along the shoreline or in the water. Photo by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Fishermen, nature lovers and adventurous folks might find a trip to Lake Whitney a gret choice.

The 37-square-mile lake is home to terrific fishing, especially striped bass and catfish. There’s more than 225 miles of shoreline, and the numerous limestone cliffs circling the lake make it a popular spot for the daring cliff jumpers.

Lake Whitney State Park is on the south end of the lake. It has more than 100 campsites for both tent and RV camping. The state park also has a swim area (though no lifeguard) for those wanting to enjoy the water that way.

The park hosts an annual youth fishing tournament on the first Saturday of June.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Brazos River in 1951, creating Lake Whitney. The dam helps with flood control and its hydroelectric turbines produce electrical power.

There is no shortage of activities inside Lake Whitney State Park. Visitors can go camping, hiking, mountain biking or picnicking within the park. Those who are birding fans will be happy to know that park officials say 194 species of birds have been sighted at Lake Whitney, from raptors to songbirds and obviously, waterfowl. Don’t forget your binoculars.

Nature trails allow visitors to explore the park, getting the opportunity to spot not just the birds but plant life and wildlife such as white-tailed deer, armadillos, raccoons and skunks.

Rangers offer scheduled hikes or visitors can do it themselves by picking up a trail guide at the park office.

While the lake is the featured attraction in the area, visitors can find numerous options for shopping, including antique stores, and eating in the area, which includes Whitney and Laguna Park.

Lake Whitney is home to several resorts for those who plan on making their stay last a while longer.

Families seeking water fun beyond Lake Whitney, may want to check out the Bosque Resort Water Park in Laguna Park.

The river tube ride is the main feature. Rent an inner tube and choose from three “Texas Twister” slides of varying slopes and speeds. From there, float on a lengthy lazy river that deposits you in the main lake.

The lake is surrounded by a sandy beach and palm trees. Kids can play volleyball in the water. Adults may be more inclined to watch from a lounge chair in a cabana or float over to the swim-up bar. Check it out at www.bosqueresort.com.

A trip to Lake Whitney is a great choice for water lovers.

Georgetown

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Georgetown’s downtown square has loads of shops and eateries for visitors to enjoy. Photo by Ruby Ximenez

Georgetown is understandably proud of its beautiful square, which benefited from a huge downtown restoration program begun in 1982.

The city was the first in Texas to win the Great American Main Street Award in 1997, celebrating the town’s preservation of historical sites and helping others experience its history.

Downtown Georgetown has plenty to offer visitors. Tourists can visit Southwestern University (the oldest chartered one in Texas), the historic downtown courthouse, or the Williamson Museum on the Square with free guided tours Friday and Saturday afternoons, where curators retell the fascinating story of the first successful KKK trials there in 1923.

Performing arts connoisseurs will enjoy plays/musicals at The Palace Theatre and Playhouse at 810 S. Austin Ave., a community theater using top local talent.

Art lovers have nine galleries in town to peruse, especially the Art Center at 816 S Main St., the city’s centerpiece of culture, a renovated 123-year-old firehouse. Visitors are advised to keep their eyes open for sculptures around the square and the city library as well as freelancer artists painting outside near the courthouse.

The area has plenty of attractions, parks and water spots, including Inner Space Cavern, the Blue Hole Park swimming hole and lagoon bordered by limestone bluffs along the San Gabriel River and Lake Georgetown three miles west of town.

In addition to the Blue Hole, other area parks have unique offerings. Berry Springs Park & Preserve out on County Road 152 is gorgeous and free. A trail winds past streams, playgrounds, pecan trees and fishing spots.

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Families can enjoy Inner Space Cavern, getting a chance to explore the various cave formations created over thousands of years. Photo by Ruby Ximenez

Inner Space Cavern right off Interstate 35 thrills families who get to explore the cave system.

Disc golfers can enjoy to Rivery Park’s 18 holes off Highway 29 and Cedar Hollow Road on Rancho Bueno Drive or the nine at Pinnacle Park or San Gabriel Park. Children may choose to hit the Downtown Splash Pad located outside the Art Center or the San Jose Splash Pad at its namesake park. Georgetown also has five outdoor pools.

The city has a plenty of meal choices, and dozens of restaurants will tempt any palate from Cajun and Creole to home cooking, award-winning pizza burgers, vegan/vegetarian, delicious sweets and, yes, barbecue.

The Monument Café features various lunch specials with the soup of the day, vegetables and dessert from 11 a.m. until they’re gone.

The list of local beverage options are Rentsch Brewery, the Georgetown Winery and Grape Creek Vineyards, the latter two featuring wine-tasting tours and informal drinks indoors or out with musicians performing on weekends.

Family-run Rentsch also features live music in its beer garden and tours of its expanded brewery, which underwent a big renovation three years ago.

Merchants on the square stay open late the first Friday of each month with a variety of shops. Local artisans are featured in many shops, including Nate Funmaker, a veteran hatmaker at Nathaniel’s Custom Hats at 111 E. Seventh St.

It can take more than a day to experience all that Georgetown has.

Content Credit:  Waco Tribune-Herald