Southern Texas isn’t necessarily the first place people think of for a road trip. But folks with an adventurous spirit can find some fun in the area’s small towns and border communities, and the bigger cities like Corpus Christi and San Antonio.
And if you venture more into the southwestern part of the state, Big Bend National Park is an awesome attraction.
After traveling extensively in this area, I’ve put together two ideal routes for a south Texas road trip. Both start and end in San Antonio.
Let’s go over my two recommended routes for a road trip in south Texas, with photos and descriptions of some of the places you can stop along the way!
Don’t forget to stream my road trip playlist while you’re driving!
South Texas Road Trip #1: San Antonio to South Padre Island via Corpus Christi
Distance: 821 miles
Drive time: 14 hours
Days needed: 5-10 days
Highlights: San Antonio, Corpus Christi, South Padre Island, Laredo
Recommended Hotels: Hotel Gibbs Downtown Riverwalk (San Antonio), Capri Beach Hotel (Corpus Christi), La Copa Inn Beach Hotel (South Padre Island), Family Garden Inn & Suites (Laredo)
The most popular South Texas road trip heads south from San Antonio to South Padre Island, with a stop in Corpus Christi in between. Let’s go over the highlights.
As a tourist destination, San Antonio isn’t as popular as Texas cities like Dallas and Austin. But it has a lot of cool places to see.
The San Antonio Riverwalk definitely livens up the downtown area. Hop on board the river cruise and join all these smiling faces.
And of course, there’s the famous Alamo. I did not have a great experience there, but it still attracts million of visitors eager to learn about its history.
The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is also worth visiting. It’s like a large zoo, but the animals here have more space to roam. You stay in your car, so it’s like a drive-thru safari.
Other attractions in San Antonio include Natural Bridge Caverns, the Japanese Tea Gardens, the Botanical Garden, McNay Art Museum, and the Briscoe Western Art Museum.
Two hours after leaving San Antonio, you’ll reach Corpus Christi. More than 300,000 people live in this city on the Gulf of Mexico.
Attractions here include the USS Lexington Museum, the Texas State Aquarium, and several good beaches on Padre Island.
But the highlight for me is the Selena Museum, a facility dedicated to the life and career of iconic Tejano singer Selena, whose life was tragically cut short at age 23.
Selena lived in Corpus Christi, and this museum in her recording studio features photos, awards, Platinum records, and clothing she wore.
There’s also an outdoor memorial downtown with a life-size statue of Selena.
South Padre Island
For years, South Padre Island has been the number one spring break party destination in Texas for college students.
That remains true, but the area has resorts that cater to families as well. It has some of the best sandy beaches in the state and attractions like the Birding and Nature Center, the Sea Turtle Inc. conservation center, and the Gravity Park go-kart and fun center.
South Padre Island has lots of great outdoor activities, including dolphin-watching, parasailing, snorkeling, jet skiing, and more.
After South Padre, you have two options: Drive back up to San Antonio the way you came, or head west for a longer drive through farm country and border towns.
Let’s presume you’re heading west and discuss some of the towns along the way.
Harlingen is a city of 70,000 just west of South Padre Island. See the Iwo Jima monument at the Marine Military Academy, the History of Mexico and Mankind Mural, or the art galleries and museums downtown.
McAllen and Mission
While driving through McAllen, consider stopping at the International Museum of Art & Science.
This part of southern Texas has a lot of quiet two-land roads and dead grass.
Located right on the Rio Grande, the small city of Roma was a busy shipping port on the river in the 1800s.
The Roma Historic District is noteworthy for its historic buildings made of sandstone, limestone, and brick. This district is officially designated a National Historic Landmark.
The biggest city in this stretch of the South Texas road trip is Laredo, another border city with a Spanish colonial feel.
Walk around San Augustin Plaza to see historic markers and check out the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, one of many stops on the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail.
Laredo would be a good place to spend a night. The city has lots of gift shops selling Mexican goods, and plenty of great Mexican restaurants as well.
Driving through this part of southern Texas, you’ll encounter a lot of farms, although not all of them are thriving. This one tried some wishful thinking on the precipitation front.
From Laredo, you could drive north right back to San Antonio. For a more extensive road trip, drive instead to Eagle Pass.
This border city of 28,000 doesn’t have a ton of tourist attractions, but you will find the Fort Duncan Museum on the site of a former U.S. Army base.
Hispanic residents make up 95% of the Eagle Pass population, so as you might expect, the city has some incredible authentic Mexican restaurants.
But for U.S. residents who aren’t used to driving in Mexico, I’d recommend staying in Texas and heading back east to Uvalde.
Before it became known for one very unfortunate school tragedy, I had visited Uvalde with a close friend who grew up there.
I found some interesting thrift shops with lots of great antiques. And this really strange street sign. Which way do we go?
The quirkiest thing about Uvalde is the trees in the middle of streets. There aren’t a ton of trees growing in this hot environment, so instead of cutting down these rare ones, they force you to drive around them.
There’s also the Briscoe-Garner Museum, which honors two notable Uvalde residents: former U.S. Vice President Jack Garner and former Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe.
Depart Uvalde and head back to San Antonio to complete the journey. The drive is 90 minutes, with just a couple small towns on the way. And you’ve completed the road trip through southern Texas!
South Texas Road Trip #2: San Antonio to Big Bend, Terlingua and Marfa
Distance: 1015 miles
Drive time: 16.5 hours
Days needed: 5-10
Highlights: San Antonio, Big Bend National Park, Terlingua, Marfa
Recommended Hotels: Hotel Gibbs Downtown Riverwalk (San Antonio), Terlingua Ranch Lodge (Big Bend/Terlingua), Hotel Paisano (Marfa), Deluxe Inn (Fort Stockton)
This route is basically a Big Bend National Park road trip from San Antonio. It passes through Uvalde again on the way there, then loops back and returns on I-10.
There aren’t as many big cities on this South Texas road trip, but there are some quirky small towns, plus that iconic national park.
Let’s go over the highlights.
San Antonio & Uvalde
Again, we’re starting in San Antonio and driving through Uvalde. See road trip #1 for a list of things to do in each of these cities.
The drive to Big Bend will include long stretches of desolate road and a couple small towns.
This is downtown D’Hanis, Texas. There’s one main street and a few houses on the street behind it. Population: 548.
The most noteworthy stop between Uvalde and Big Bend is Del Rio, a city of 35,000.
Popular activities in this area include the Whitehead Memorial Museum frontier village, the Amistad National Recreation Area, and the Val Verde Winery.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is a gem. The park has a number of different environments, from desert to higher-elevation sections with mountains and forests.
The park goes right to the Mexican border at the Rio Grande. You can see the river and even swim in it at certain places.
I recommend driving to Santa Elena Canyon. This is one of the most dramatic sections of the park, as the river carves a gorge through the 1500-foot-high rock walls.
Look at this view! The mountain on the left is Mexico, and the mountain on the right is the USA.
Big Bend has a lot of other great hikes, plus a natural hot spring along the border. Give yourself 2-3 days in Big Bend to see everything.
Just to the west of Big Bend NP is the old mining town of Terlingua. It’s often referred to as a ghost town, although this isn’t the case. There are plenty of houses and businesses here.
Terlingua does have a small section of abandoned buildings though, and that’s where the ghost town reference comes in.
You can walk through some of the ruins of old structures and explore the historic cemetery.
Terlingua has a handful of bars and restaurants, plus some lodges and bunkhouses, so it’s a good place to stay overnight while exploring Big Bend.
After leaving Terlingua and Big Bend, stopping in Marfa is a must. This little town has become the artsy capital of west Texas.
It’s most famous for Prada Marfa, a fake Prada store on the side of the road that’s really just an art piece. Tourists stop here for fun Instagram photos all the time.
The rest of Marfa is just as artsy. You’ll find murals, street art, museums, and other interesting sights.
After Marfa, head up to I-10 and drive straight back to San Antonio.
DETOUR OPTION: You could drive a couple more hours north to reach the underrated Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which features slot canyons and majestic desert peaks.
The biggest city along this stretch of the interstate is Fort Stockton. Check out Historic Fort Stockton, with four original buildings from the 1870s.
And don’t miss the giant roadrunner statue at Main Street and E Dickinson Blvd.
The drive from Fort Stockton is about 4.5 hours, and you’re back to San Antonio. Mission accomplished!
Southern Texas Road Trip Photos
Want to see more photos? I took lots of interesting and funny pics while driving around southern Texas.
If you’re wondering what Darth Vader is up to these days, he’s patrolling the city’s marquee tourist attraction, the San Antonio Riverwalk.
You have to root for the snow cone vendor outside the Alamo. I’m guessing she does lots of business on hot days.
How come nobody is stopping to give me a lift? I love these signs because they reveal both paranoia and lack of confidence in local jail security.
The cotton fields are prolific in this part of the state.
Look at this grave from the cemetery in Uvalde. How bizarre that they actually wrote “assassinated by Indians” on his stone.
One advantage of living in Texas is the opportunity to grow warm-weather foods like avocados, pomegranates, figs and oranges.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was not used to walking out to the backyard to get a snack. So I took advantage of the opportunity to munch on some freshly-collected pecans at my friend’s house.
The many antiques stores in the area were part cowboy, part Mexican.
The sheep say hello.
One of the family houses in D’Hanis apparently has a pet deer. It wandered around in the front yard along with the family dogs. The pet deer brought back memories for me.
America all the way!
I’ve been trying to figure out whether “Bargins & Blessings” is some sort of pun or just a misspelling.
No diving into this tiny little creek. As if anybody would.
A short hike provided a reminder that there are dangerous creatures in the wild. Look at that old snake skin!
Another of my favorite San Antonio experiences was this entity called the Beethoven Dance Band performing in a plaza. Their music was very catchy.
Feeding the very hungry zebras through my car window at the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch in San Antonio. This place truly is a drive thru safari zoo!
Extreme ostrich close-up at the wildlife ranch!
One of my favorite sights in San Antonio was the bizarre and awesome Toilet Seat Art Museum. Every state had its own toilet seat.
Unfortunately, following the passing of its founder, the Toilet Seat Art Museum was relocated from San Antonio to The Colony, a city north of Dallas. So it’s no longer a part of this road trip. But it’s still worth the detour!
Do you have any suggestions for other places to stop on a South Texas road trip?