From cowboy museums to red rock canyons to Route 66, this region offers a true variety of family activities. No wonder Texans take so much pride in their state.
When you think of great museum cities with plenty of family-friendly activities, Amarillo in the heart of the Texas Panhandle may not come to mind, but it should. The surrounding area boasts a number of informative museums including Texas’ largest devoted to history, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, in neighbouring Canyon.
In addition to history, horseback riding, theater, shopping, and artistic eccentricity also await. Very impressive for an area whose claim to fame in 1893 was a population of 500-600 humans and 50,000 head of cattle.
Museum-Hopping Around the Panhandle
Any history buffs in your family could spend the whole day at Texas largest history museum exploring the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (806/651-2244) located at 2503 4th Avenue, Canyon, 79015. It’s dedicated to the rugged settlers of Texas’ northwest region. Permanent exhibits include Fine Art, Transportation, Petroleum, Palaeontology and Geology (dinosaurs!), and Western Heritage. Thanks to this interesting combination, visitors can view a triceratops skull, a 1903 Model A Ford, and the only permanent gallery of Texas art in the state, all under one roof.
Especially notable is the Don D. Harrington Petroleum Wing at the Panhandle-Plains recreates the oil boom of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Highlights of this exhibit include an authentic 1920s wooden cable tool drilling rig and the circa 1930s Cal’s Filling Station. Also at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, you can stroll (literally) back in time (imaginatively) within the new interactive environment, People of the Plains. Here, all ages can explore the streets of Pioneer Town and visit the school, blacksmith shop, millinery, livery stable and, of course, the local saloon.
Future scientists will enjoy the Don Harrington Discovery Center and Space Theater (806/355-9547), located on the grounds of the Harrington Regional Medical Center on 1200 Street Drive, Amarillo, 79106. This is a family-oriented, hands-on science, human body, and technology museum. The Space Theater adds new excitement to the Center’s planetarium. Amarillo is the former Helium Capitol of the World, so it’s only fitting that in front of the Center is the Helium Monument and time capsule, commemorating the 100th anniversary of this inert gas’s discovery.
So if you’re in Texas, where are the horses? Start your search with some background at the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center and Museum (2601 I-40 East at Quarter Horse Dr., Amarilli, 79106; 806/376-5181) with displays, videos, temporary exhibits, a research center, and the Quarter Horse Hall of Fame. This museum celebrates the oldest equine breed in America. Visitors can view Oliver Saddle Shop’s handcrafted presidential saddle, commissioned by Tennessee cattleman Lee McCormick, on display at the museum until President George W. Bush leaves office. If you’re a lucky summer visitor, you may even spy a real quarter horse or two in the adjacent outdoor arena.
Cow-Poking Around the Palo Duro Canyon
If being in Amarillo makes you yearn further to be a cowpoke, then you are in luck. Cowboy Morning at the Figure 3 Ranch (800/658-2613, 806/944-5562) was developed by former politician Tom Christian and his wife Anne to give tourists a taste of cowboy life on the Plains. A breath-taking journey by horse-drawn wagon takes participants to a campfire meal on the rim of the Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in America. There, you can try your hand at roping, branding or getting down and dirty by entering the cow chip-throwing contest.
If after all that adventure, your family members still have a mad desire to be John Wayne or Calamity Jane, then you must mount a horse from the Old West Stables (11450 Park Rd. 5, Canyon, 79015; 806/488-2180). With this outfitter, visitors ride the trails and get a different perspective from the base of the Palo Duro Canyon. Be forewarned–wear long pants. Palo Duro is Spanish for “hard wood,” which refers to the canyon’s many juniper trees that may scratch as you maneuver through the narrow passageways.
Experience the Arts in the Open Air
After all that riding around among the juniper trees, an outdoor theater production could make a restful but engaging evening activity. During the summer months, Palo Duro Canyon State Park and the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation present “Texas Legacies,” an epic amphitheater performance that entertains and educates about the history of ordinary life in Texas. The Heritage Foundation is in its 40th season of presenting quality stage productions about Texas history, and this relatively new show promises to please.
Speaking of entertainment, here’s an attraction of the roadside variety. The Cadillac Ranch is not a car dealership on the Plains, but a collection of 10 old, graffiti-adorned Cadillacs buried nose down in a field. This artistic endeavour is the brainchild of Stanley Marsh 3, an eccentric resident of Amarillo. His homage to the American luxury car is located at Interstate 40 at Arnot Road, west of Amarillo’s city limits. Just follow the other tourists–don’t bother looking for a sign because there isn’t one, which is rather ironic since Marsh’s other hobby is posting signs with quotes and nonsensical sayings all over town.
Historic Route 66 in general has numerous antique shops along the way, offering a less bizarre afternoon of browsing, if desired. Other sites to see in the Amarillo area include the elegantly restored Santa Fe Building, Elkins Ranch (806/488-2100), which hosts cattle drives for Old Hands and City Slickers alike, and the new Splash Amarillo (806/376-4477) water park.
Where to Hang Your Hat
Amarillo has over 30 hotels and motels including the locally owned, upscale Ambassador (3100 I-40 West, Amarillo, 79102; 800/358-6161), where Oprah’s celebrity guests stayed during her infamous trial for allegedly slandering the cattle industry.
The Big Texan Hotel (7701 Interstate 40 East, Amarillo, 79118; 806/372-5000) promises the best hospitality in the West, big comfy beds, big time family entertainment in The Big Texan Opry and a really big rattlesnake on display in their gift shop. Make sure to say howdy to Hody “Long Bow” Porterfield, who takes great pride in regaling guests with Native American legends and lore. If you ask nice, he may take you to his tepee on The Big Texan’s grounds.
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