Like George Strait says, “Amarillo’s on my mind.” There’s a good reason for Amarillo to be on the mind of any traveler looking for a unique place to visit. It’s a bit quirky and filled with fun, culture and food, Texas style. What would you expect from a town perched on the original Mother Road, Route 66?
Here are some of my favorite Amarillo attractions. Start with Palo Duro Canyon State Park. From the flat land around Amarillo, drive 27 miles southeast to the canyon. Once you enter the park, the views are breathtaking. So many colors and shapes. The 120-miles-long canyon is second only to the Grand Canyon in the United States.
Early Spanish explorers named the canyon “Palo Duro,” meaning “hard wood” because the area is filled with mesquite and juniper trees. The cliffs and formations are variations of reds and oranges with some buff mixed in. The mesquite trees were a bright green and the juniper a darker shade.
Each formation in the canyon is different. There are hoodoos, mushroom-shaped columns of sedimentary rock jutting out of the canyon floor, as well as ruffle, which early Spanish explorers named “Spanish Skirts,” and many unnamed but beautiful.
The flowers are beautiful here also. Not the big showy display of a botanical garden or the lushness of a jungle, but the blooms standing alone on barren sand or rock are very eye-catching.
The best place to get acquainted with the park, the canyon and their history is at the Visitors Center. There is a nice museum of natural and historical facts about the canyon.
You can get up close and personal with the park by staying at its campground or cabins. If you visit from June through August, you can see Texas, The State Play of Texas, at the Pioneer amphitheater, carved out of a natural basin in the canyon.
On Route 66, RVs are a big deal. So is Jack Sisemore RV Museum. It’s tucked away behind Jack’s RV sales and service at 4341 Canyon Drive. Step inside, and you’re back in the past. The jukebox, set in a recreation of a 1950s diner, plays Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino or Elvis.
The Lampsteed Kampkar was sold as a kit to fit the Model T Ford chassis. Once assembled, the rear compartment folded like a Pullman train car and became two double beds. When folded upright, the bed frame’s center section formed a pair of bench seats. You could buy this RV for only $535 back in 1921. Don’t even ask what it’s worth today. It was created by two of the least likely RV partners you can imagine, Anheuser-Busch (the producer of one of the most dangerous things you can drink while cruising along in an RV) and Samuel B. Lambert, whose father was part of the Listerine company. (Maybe they figured you could gargle Listerine if you drank “what made Milwaukee famous” while driving the RV.)
Then, there’s the big 1948 Flxible. This one may look familiar to Robin Williams fans since it was the actual one used in the movie RV.
The nostalgia continues with a shiny, like new 1962 Airstream, the little aluminum 1946 Teardrop or the teensy red and white 1953 Fleetwood Travel trailer.
Since the horse was transporting Texans long before RVs, you can bet there’s a museum dedicated to that noble beast. It’s the Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum. In spite of the cowboy getting top billing, it was really the American Quarter Horse that won the west.
Start with the film in the Ken & Laina Banks Theater to learn the history of this animal. You can get the “inside story” with the X-ray exhibit. Kids of all ages will fall in love with “Doc” the vet and “Two Bits” the horse there for his check-up.
Whether you’re a novice who wants to learn the difference between “Western” and “English” style or a serious scholar who wants to research the reason each inductee earned a place in this Hall of Fame, you’ll love this museum.
Panhandle Plains Historical Museum calls itself “The Smithsonian with a Texas accent.” It is a fantastic museum located on the Texas A&M University campus in Canyon, Texas, so it definitely has a Texas accent.
This museum takes on the past 14,000 years and 26,000 miles of rugged Texas panhandle. It began as a bits-and-pieces museum during the Great Depression and continued to grow. Today, it’s the largest history museum in Texas, housing over two million artifacts.
From the prehistoric creatures that roamed the plains on to the indigenous people and the Comanche that called this land home, the museum moves on to the era of the stagecoach and the Wild West.
This is Texas, so there’s Samuel Colt’s Peacemaker, the gun that won the west, the Remington Revolver and many more. You can get a grip on one of Samuel Colt’s original Peacemakers or a Remington revolver. They’re replicas, but these interactive pieces have the feel of the real guns.
Panhandle Plains Historical Museum recently opened a new Pioneer Town that covers life in the Texas Panhandle from 1890 to 1910. You can see the village church or visit a Chinese laundry.
The transportation section goes from stagecoach to classic cars. One of my favorites is the 1910 Zimmerman, the first Zimmerman brought into Texas. Zimmermans are among the rarest of American-made autos. They really were horseless carriages made from old buggy components. There are classic cars and classic Burma Shave Signs.
The People of the Plains represented here are as varied as the exhibits – European settler, native dweller, cowboy, oilman, farmer, rancher and more.
Even dining gets quirky in Amarillo. The Big Texan is fun and food wrapped in one gaudy package. If Miss Kitty had dinner with Marshal Dillon, they’d dine here. It resembles a western movie set. There’s a life-sized windmill, cowboy paraphernalia, and a huge plastic bull out front with a sign offering “Free 72-Ounce Steak.”
Pretty much everyone is dressed as a Gunsmoke extra, either cowboys or bar girls, so to blend in wear jeans, a Stetson and, naturally, boots.
The dining room is classic Old West décor, wagon wheels, revolvers, mounted animal heads, imitation gas lights and a mural with an Indian teepee. The upstairs balcony tables are set behind red drapes.
Cowboy musicians roam around playing requests. The massive grills where two grillers are turning out steaks at the speed of light sits right in front of a table set for anyone wishing to try for that free steak.
If you want that “free” steak the sign promised, all you have to do is eat a 72-oz piece of meat with all the trimmings…in one hour. The age range on those who have gotten free steak goes from an 11-year-old boy to a 69-year-old grandmother.
The most spectacular win was in April 2015 when Molly Schuyler tucked away three of the 72-ounce steaks accompanied by salads, baked potatoes, shrimp cocktails, and rolls in 20 minutes. She broke all records and won a grand prize of $5,000.
It’s a bit kinky and pure Texas, but they’ve been doing it right for the past 55 years. R.J. Bob Lee opened it in 1960 on the Mother Road, Route 66 and began the tradition his sons carry on today. In 1970, he realized the new highway, Interstate 40, was going to divert much of the traffic from Route 66, so he moved the restaurant to its present location.
Owners Bobby and Danny have an onsite brewery where Danny and brewmaster, Tom Money, brew 11 Texas-style beers. There’s also a motel designed to look like an old western town. Maybe it’s where Miss Kitty and Marshal Dillon rendezvous after dinner, assuming they would have enough energy left if they went for the free steak. It’s so-very-Texas; even the motel pool is shaped like the state, and there’s a “Horse Motel” where the marshal can leave Old Buck.
For groups of four or more at local lodgings or the RV park, The Big Texan will send their black limo, complete with bull horns, for pick-ups and returns. It’s perfect if you plan to party hardy.
Like they say down there, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.”