52 Road Trips

School’s Out! 6 Kid-Friendly Summer Road Trips

Parental guidance is suggested.

By John Lomax April 30, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Part dude ranch, part mini-Schlitterbahn, Neal’s Lodges in Concan is a vacation spot for kids and parents alike. Photo courtesy Neil’s Lodges.

For 88 years, Neal’s Lodges in Concan (an hour west of San Antonio on the southern edge of the high Hill Country) has been one of Texas’s most popular riverside destinations. Its swimming hole, shaded by centuries-old cypresses and lined by enormous boulders for diving and sunning, is one of the best in the state. While the crystal-clear, always chilly waters of the aptly named Frio River might not be as consistently swift as those in wetter parts of the state, tubers find the rugged canyon scenery far more breathtaking than, say, New Braunfels, and the area’s birdlife astounds in both variety and abundance.

Neal’s is now part dude ranch, offering hayrides and horseback treks, and part mini-Schlitterbahn—last year, the owners installed an enormous waterslide. In other words, the kids won’t be bored and neither will you (especially if you get a babysitter and hit the on-premise roadhouse, Joe Jimmy’s, which features a vast dance floor and live honky-tonk and classic-rock bands on weekends).

The place offers an assortment of digs, with everything from tent camping and rustic cabins with bunk beds on screened-in porches to modern ranch-style homes and palatial mountain-side chalets. An on-premise store offers firewood, tubing supplies, and foodstuffs, while Neal’s Cafe serves up amazing vistas from its cliff-top patio and dishes out hearty breakfasts, giant chicken-frieds, and burgers and steaks. 

Tubing on the Frio River. Photo courtesy Joseph King.

There’s not much reason to leave the Frio or the Neal’s compound once ensconced, but if you’re there between April and September, a nearby ranch hosts a breathtaking bat cave viewing every day at dusk. Roughly 10 to 12 million members of the Mexican free-tailed variety billow from beneath an escarpment, filling the Texas skies, their ranks thinned periodically by acrobatic swooping hawks, which pick off a few each night without ever touching the ground. Trust me, you won’t forget the spectacle as long as you live. (Ask for details at Neal’s grocery store/office—the ranch is about 10 minutes away.) Day-trip options include the Mexican border towns of Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuna, each of which are less than two hours away (ask about local conditions before you venture over). 

Neal’s Lodges

Frio Bat Cave

Dinosaur Valley State Park

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

Shell’s Restaurant

Luther Hotel

Six Flags Over Texas

Hurricane Harbor

Alley Cats

River Legacy Living Science Center

Rangers Ballpark

Cowboys Stadium

Tom’s Burgers & Grill

Still, my favorite part of visiting Concan is the campfire and the tales told around it under the twinkling grandeur of the Milky Way. After 88 years, Neal’s is the Hill Country family retreat to beat. 

Also Consider

For young paleontologists and wildlife enthusiasts, Glen Rose, an hour southwest of Dallas, is your best bet. When the Paluxy River is sufficiently low at Dinosaur Valley State Park, it offers up views of some of the world’s best-preserved tracks of the earth’s largest animals. In town, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center features more than 1,000 endangered and rare animals in near-natural settings, which you can view and feed from your car. You can also sleep among the antelope and sandhill cranes at Fossil Rim’s Foothill Safari Camp, which offers tent-cabins like those in the Serengeti.… Meanwhile, from the sandcastles to the surf, suds, and sunburns: no Texas summer is complete without at least a few days at the beach. For pretty sand and green seas, make the three-and-a-half-hour drive south to Port Aransas. For families, condos are the best bet (the cute in-town cabins are the cheapest). At dinnertime, head to Shell’s Restaurant for pasta and seafood.…  Step back into the middle of the last century in coastal Matagorda County and Palacios, where the old-school Luther Hotel, the last of the wood-frame guest palaces on the Texas Gulf Coast, awaits. Unplug the family from its devices and take pleasure in the small stuff, like climbing a palm tree in Palacios City Park, watching the shrimp fleet coming in to port, or sipping a cocktail on the hotel veranda. Your very own trip to Bountiful awaits.…

Bandera signals your true arrival in the Texas of myth. Though only about 50 miles northwest of San Antonio, the terrain is notably more rugged—fitting for the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” which features twice-weekly rodeos on the outskirts of town through the summer. The surrounding hills abound with dude ranches ranging from rustic to luxe, all offering 24-hour cowboy experiences, including trail rides through the cinematically Texan terrain and chuck wagon grub for all.… And let’s be honest: if ever a city were built for family getaways, it’s Arlington. Six Flags Over Texas, the Hurricane Harbor water park, bowling at Alley Cats, exploring at River Legacy Living Science Center, baseball at Rangers Ballpark (or playtime in its air-conditioned Kid Zone), football at the brand-new Cowboys Stadium—it’s all right there and right off the freeway. Treat the kids to a Ruffles potato chip–battered chicken-fried steak at retro-cool Tom’s Burgers & Grill and crash at one of the many area hotels offering free breakfast, pools, and playgrounds.

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