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Friday, February 23, 2024 — Houston, TX

Driving-distance trips to make over break

Illustrated by Chloe Xu

By Morgan Gage     2/1/22 10:51pm

The city of Houston and the state it calls home are bustling with places to explore and things to do, offering many ways to spend the upcoming spring recess, spring break and the rare weekend without reading to catch up on or problem sets to complete. Consider stepping away from Rice campus and the museum district to go on one of these trips, all accessible by car, to fill your spare time.

Camp or backpack in a Texas state park

With Rice’s recreation center boasting an array of outdoor gear for rent, camping or backpacking in a Texas state park is just an Outdoor Adventure Center appointment and a car ride away. From Enchanted Rock in the hill country to Caddo Lake State Park – home to the only natural lake in Texas – the second-largest state in the United States is home to 80 state parks, each with unique features. For those who don’t want to commit to an overnight stay, state parks are still options for a day trip.

A roughly 45-minute drive from campus, Brazos Bend State Park offers campsites with electricity, water and restrooms with showers nearby. The park boasts about 5,000 acres of bottomland and coastal prairie southwest of Houston, with diversity in plant and animal life, from white-tailed deer to alligators. (Check out their alligator safety tips.) It’s an attractive outing for people who want to experience Houston-area wetlands and native prairie grasses. Guests can embark on hikes, make a trip to the nature center or wildlife observation deck and visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s George observatory, which is open on Saturdays from 3 to 10 p.m. 

If the 5,000 acres of Brazos Bend isn’t enough to sate someone’s appetite for the outdoors, Big Bend Ranch State Park in west Texas encompasses 300,000 acres of land and is just shy of a nine-hour drive from campus. With the Rio Grande accessible in the park, visitors can canoe along the river or take a swim in the nearby hot springs that are only a quarter mile walk from the parking lot. Would-be archaeologists can visit the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, and hiking enthusiasts can explore the trails, like the 1.7 mile round-trip walk into the Santa Elena Canyon. For adventurers who decide to make the lengthy drive out west, Big Bend Ranch presents an opportunity for a cross-Texas roadtrip.

Explore the Natural Bridge Caverns

Make the roughly three-hour drive to the Natural Bridge Caverns State Park to venture below the earth’s surface and see natural underground rock formations in the largest cavern system in Texas. For students who were never able to fit an introductory geology course into their schedule, this could be a more entertaining way to remember the difference between stalagmite and stalactite without any exams attached. When the weather turns warmer, visitors can also witness the flight of Bracken Bats at night.

Above the surface, there are still plenty of ways to occupy one’s time. Try outdoor mazes, rope courses and ziplining to get a taste of adrenaline that midterm anxiety doesn’t quite offer. There are fossil discovery options, too. Texas in fact offers fossil enthusiasts more sites to explore, like Dinosaur Valley State Park, Mineral Wells Fossil Park and the Waco Mammoth National Monument, home to the largest known concentration of mammoths to have died in one event.

Pose for photos with the Eiffel Tower

Can’t afford a trip to France? No problem. Texas offers a Paris of its own. Paris, Texas is over a five-hour drive from Rice but much closer than the European alternative. The town even has an Eiffel Tower of its own, topped with a cowboy hat as a reminder of its home state. 

Unveiled in 1995, the Eiffel Tower replica was originally dubbed “the second largest Eiffel Tower in the second largest Paris.” The moniker proved problematic when another replica debuted in Paris, Tennessee around the same time and stood five feet taller than its Texan counterpart. However, everything is bigger in Texas, so the cowboy hat was added atop the replica to address the height discrepancy (at least until another replica was built in Las Vegas).

While in this Northeast Texas town, visitors can also check out local historical sites and the town square. Among the landmarks are several homes that survived the 1916 fire that destroyed 264 acres of land and countless buildings. 

Visit nearby Galveston

While the Kemah Boardwalk and Moody Gardens give the opportunity to relive childhood amusement park dreams, Galveston is an escape from Houston that caters to a variety of interests just around an hour from campus. Visit the stretches of beaches along the Galveston Bay when the weather is tolerable for an attempt at a beach getaway, or explore the city’s historical district, known simply as the Strand, which stretches down to the wharf and is home to museums, restaurants and shops. 

For Victorian architecture enthusiasts, the Bishop’s House (also referred to as Gresham’s Castle) is a former private residence built in 1893 that is now open to the public as a museum. An in-depth tour available to book on Saturday mornings allows visitors to take in the woodwork, furnishings and everything else all the house has to offer, from the attic to basement. Moody Mansion offers more Victorian architecture as well as grounds covered in tropical plants and vintage Cadillacs on view. 

Take a dip in Jacob’s Well

Jacob’s Well, just over a three-hour drive from campus, greets casual swimmers and adventurous rock jumpers year after year. However, it’s perhaps more infamously known for its network of caves that often prove deadly to thrill-seeking scuba divers. Don’t take this as a hearty endorsement to sample all that the pond and second-largest fully submerged cave in Texas offers!

For those who don’t want to get wet, there are trails close by. Hiking-only hours are offered from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. each morning. Reservations for swimming are required, and the swimming season spans from May through October. Visitors are able to look around at no charge and without a reservation year-round.

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