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Worthwhile short trips: Explore what Central Texas towns can offer

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The gorgeous Coryell County Courthouse on the square in Gatesville was built with limestone quarried nearby. Photo by Ken Sury.

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Art Alley in Clifton exemplifies the love of art evident in the town with this vibrant mural in the alley between Third and Fifth streets. Local towns have a wealth of treasures to explore. Photo by Ken Sury.

With fuel prices higher than we’ve seen in years, maybe a long cross-country car trip isn’t in the plans or the budget this summer. Still, you’d like to get out of Waco and see something new and different, if just for the day.

Thankfully there’s plenty of nearby options of things to do and places to explore that be accomplished on a single fill-up of gas.

It’s a chance to reconnect with a family trip at whatever pace you choose, and it won’t break the bank.

This is in no way a complete list of the places to experience on a short drive outside of Waco, but it might provide a starting point. You can always expand from that and explore Central Texas as your heart desires.

It’s perfectly fine to hop in your car, pick a compass direction and go, but if you are one of those folks who prefers to plan ahead, then check out websites for convention and visitors bureaus or the chambers of commerce for some insight.

Museums, parks, restaurants usually have their own websites or Facebook pages that can provide additional information.

By all means, enjoy the trip.

McGregor

One of the easiest trips out of town can be a quick drive west on U.S. Highway 84 to McGregor, which is seeing a surge in growth, and recently developed its first large subdivision in decades.

Part of that growth is due to SpaceX’s rocket-testing site outside of town. The site will grow even more with a rocket production facility in the works.

Residents and visitors have to contend with the noise and shaking from the rocket tests, but SpaceX has been working to lessen the volume of those disruptions.

Smaller rumbles come from Amtrak and other trains that travel through a section of town.

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Amsler Park is a picturesque setting in McGregor. Its 32 acres include a pond, playground, nine-hole disc golf course and the aquatics center open in the summer. Photo by Ken Sury.

McGregor’s Exchange Event Center is a welcome addition for hosting events and fundraisers.

There are several options for shopping and eating and the Magnolia House, featured on the third season of “Fixer Upper” is a comfy retreat for groups up to eight.

McGregor has five city parks, which offer everything from volleyball to horseshoe matches, jogging and fishing. Amsler Park is a 32-acre site that now includes a nine-hole disc golf course and the aquatic center that is open during the summer months. The Amsler Park Aquatic Center opens June 3 for the summer season.

Among the long-standing traditions in McGregor is Founders Day, held the third weekend in September. It kicks off with a barbecue cookoff and concert Friday night and starts Saturday with a 5K race and parade. The evening ends with a street dance.

Gatesville

If you choose to continue through McGregor on Highway 84, add about a half-hour to your travel time to experience what Gatesville has to offer.

The Coryell County Courthouse on the town square is considered to be among the most beautiful courthouses Texas. It was built with limestone quarried from west of town across the Leon River. The courthouse was dedicated in 1907.

Just off the town square is the Coryell Museum and Historical Center at 718 Main St. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed.

The museum has what is believed to be the world’s largest collection of spurs (there are 10,000 sets), including ones from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

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The Coryell Museum and Historical Center in Gatesville is believed to have the largest collection of spurs in the world, approximately 10,000 sets. Photo by Ken Sury.

Gov. Rick Perry in 2001 signed a bill officially naming the city as the “Spur Capital of Texas” in honor of former Gatesville High School teacher Lloyd Mitchell’s spur donation. The large museum also houses a “Days of Old” exhibit and the original, one-room log jail.

Also on Main Street (near the intersection of Main and Business Highway 36) you’ll spot the red tile roof of the old Cotton Belt Depot, built in 1910 and used until railroad service ended for the city in the mid-’70s. The county hub of commerce was to be torn down when the route was abandoned, but local citizens responded with a major renovation project, financed by donations from more than 400 citizens and businesses.

Renovation was completed in December 1983. It is now the home of the Gatesville Chamber of Commerce and the site of Market Days on the second Saturday morning of each month.

Shoppers can go on a treasure hunt around town at a number of stores featuring antiques and collectibles. One the shopping is done, the kids are likely more than ready for fun, and the town has two jewels side by side to fit the bill: Raby Park, which is two blocks off the main drag on Eighth Street, and Faunt Le Roy Park just down the hill on Seventh Street, connected by a walking trail along the creek.

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Raby Park in Gatesville has plenty of open space as well as a free splash park, disc golf course, playground and picnic areas along a shaded creek. Photo by Ken Sury.

Raby Park is home to a free splash park, playground and picnic areas along a shady creek. It has lots of wide open space for playing. It also has an 18-hole disc golf course and city pool on the land.

Faunt Le Roy RV Park has hookups for a $20 daily rental, which can be booked through the police department at 200 N. Eighth Street (call 254-865-2226).

The park also has a huge playing field, a large creek complete with climbing trees and a large school-style playground with a volleyball court near two horseshoe pits (bring your own horseshoes however).

Nearby are group picnic tables and a one-mile hiking course. The parks offer a challenging disc golf course. The Gatesville Country Club at 1308 Golf Course just off Lovers Lane features an 18-hole semi-private course with elevated tees, tree-lined fairways, a canyon and water hazards on seven holes to challenge duffers.

By the end of the day, everyone should be starving, so it’s time to try out one of Gatesville’s hometown restaurants.

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The Last Drive-In Picture Show on the edge of town in Gatesville shows first-run movies on the outdoor screen and has an indoor cinema. Photo by Ken Sury.

The Gatesville Country Music Hall of Fame in the city auditorium at 110 N. Eighth St. offers a free show at 7 p.m. the third Friday of each month, featuring the house band and rotating guest performers.

Gatesville is home to a rarity these days: the drive-in movie theater.

The Last Drive-In Picture Show, which opened as the Circle Drive-In back in 1950, is one of eight “mo-peds” in America (with both an outdoor for vehicles and a sit-down indoor theater). Open every day except Christmas Eve, it offers double features on first-run pictures starting at 8:30 p.m.

The drive-in remains a family-oriented venue with a snack bar, audio provided on FM radio, and films for $10 (cash only) a carload on Fridays and Saturdays and $5 per car all other evenings. No R-rated movies are shown outdoors.

Major events in Gatesville include a 4th of July fireworks show with a family-fun celebration, the rodeo the last week of July and the Spurfest Festival & Car Show in September.

Clifton

Two things are readily apparent to visitors of Clifton: the town embraces art and its Norwegian heritage.

Clifton sits about miles northwest of Waco on State Highway 6. The Texas Legislature in 1997 designated the town as the Norwegian Capital of Texas. It was settled by Norwegian immigrants in the mid-19th century.

In 2011, the Texas Commission on the Arts bestowed on Clifton recognition as a Cultural Arts District. Clifton expanded its activity in the arts with a designation in 2020 from the Texas Film Commission as a certified Film Friendly Texas community.

Angela Smith, director of Clifton Main Street and a Clifton native, said what makes Clifton a great place to visit is its small-town Texas feel and the opportunity to shop, eat and soak in the culture.

She headed up efforts to achieve the film designation. The Bosque Film Society was established and it produced an independent short film that has been selected so far to be shown at two film festivals.

Summer activities will heat up in the city on June 10-11 with the annual Clifton rodeo and parade and the popular quilt show at the Bosque Arts Center. Fireworks will return in July with the Fourth on the Bosque event, though it will be held on Saturday, July 2, in City Park.

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The life-size bronze sculpture “On the Banks of the Bosque” by cowboy artist and resident Bruce Greene is an impressive focus for Heritage Plaza in Clifton. Photo by Clifton Chamber of Commerce.

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, which was 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.

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

Art in Clifton extends beyond the walls of the Bosque Art Center. Statues are placed in Heritage Plaza and the downtown area has Art Alley, which has vibrant murals painted on the walls of buildings in the alley along the 300 block between Third and Fifth streets.

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.

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 outside Clifton near Cranfills Gap on Bosque County Road 1445. Photo by Clifton Chamber of Commerce.

When it comes to keeping the past alive but updated, the Cliftex Theatre, 306 W. Fifth St., has that old-time aura but now has digital projection. The theater has been operating since 1916.

Car buffs may want to plan a visit on a weekend to check out the vintage vehicles on display at the 22,000-square-foot Clifton Classic Chassis Auto Museum and Golden Age Gallery of Art, 406 W. Fifth St. Beyond the vehicles is a variety of modern and classical art, including a collection of artifacts dating back to the Olmec, Aztec and Mayan periods.

Museum hours are 1 to 3 p.m. Friday by appointment and Saturday noon to 5 p.m. 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.

West

While Clifton embraces its Norwegian heritage, a short drive north on Interstate 35 puts visitors smack in Czech Country in West.

While the Czech celebration is biggest during Westfest on Labor Day weekend, it’s always on display in town. You want authentic kolaches? Everyone along the interstate is familiar with the longtime Czech Stop on the northbound access road and Slovacek’s on the southbound side. Equally good is Gerik’s Ole Czech Bakery just off the interstate along the main road into town at 505 W. Oak St.

Local-owned restaurants provide numerous options along Main Street.

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The spring-fed Playdium Pool in West is a popular spot for beating the summer heat. It is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Photo by Ken Sury.

The History of West Museum, 112 E. Oak St., is free to the public (donations are welcome) and is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It has exhibits that showcase early ancestors, businesses, churches, city leaders, farming and ranching, the military and the impact of Czech culture on West.

Summertime is the time to cool off in the huge spring-fed West Playdium Pool, built after World War II and continues to draw visitors from throughout the area. The popular pool is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

Georgetown

Georgetown might well can lay claim to the title “Most Beautiful Square in Texas.”

The longest trip on our list, Georgetown is found south on Interstate 35 about a hour away.

A massive downtown restoration program was 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.

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. Keep your eyes open for sculptures around the square and the city library as well as freelancers painting outside near the courthouse.

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Families can enjoy Inner Space Cavern near Georgetown and explore the various cave formations created over thousands of years. Photo by Ruby Ximenez.

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.

Disc golfers flock 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, while the kids will want to romp in the Downtown Splash Pad located outside the Art Center or the San Jose Splash Pad at its namesake park. Georgetown has five outdoor pools.

Now it’s on to not being hungry. Any town this size has plenty of meal choices, and dozens of restaurants will tempt any palate from Cajun and Creole to home cooking, pizza, burgers, vegan/vegetarian and, of course, barbecue.

The merchants on the square stay open late the first Friday of each month with a plethora of shops. 

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