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“Step Into the Real Texas,” they like to say in Amarillo, Texas. While Amarillo is the largest city in the Texas panhandle, it is even one of the dozen largest cities in Texas. “Real Texas,” I gather, means avoiding the hustle and mayhem of the big city and appreciating the people, things, and surroundings.
While Amarillo residents definitely have Texas pride, the city is actually physically much closer to much of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado than Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. “Real Texas,” then, means most of the world’s image of the American West: large ranches, cattle herds, and actual cowboys.
Amarillo grew up around the cattle business and, in fact, hosted a huge trial between cattle ranchers and Oprah Winfrey in the 1990s. The courthouse where the “mad cow” drama took place is certainly among the things to do in Amarillo for many visitors.
While I do not include the courthouse in this list (it does have some cool architectural elements), I did find 8 other great Amarillo attractions I think you will like.
8 Great Things to Do in Amarillo, Texas
When I found out I was going to visit Amarillo, seeing Cadillac Ranch was what I most looked forward to. Although I did not visit Cadillac Ranch with my group of travel writers—because of my delayed United Airlines flight—my friends at Visit Amarillo shuttled me there during our free afternoon time the next day. Thank you Eric and Hope!
Cadillac Ranch is iconic Americana, representing the heyday of Cadillac and post war USA. It is the very essence of Route 66 although actually not physically located on historic Route 66. The ten classic Cadillacs (1949 to 1963 models) were installed in 1974.
Stanley Marsh III created Cadillac Ranch on his own farmland. Marsh was very creative and encouraged creativity in the community; his quirky signs can still be found around town. He was a successful business guy in Amarillo, owned a TV station, big landholder, and cattle rancher, and died two years ago.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch
The Big Texan is home of the free 72 oz steak. Before hot dog eating contests and other gastronomy competitions, the 72 oz steak dinner was the original eating challenge. Anyone who finishes eating the 72 oz steak dinner within one hour does not pay for their meal. Thousands have attempted the feat and victors are entered into the 72 oz Hall of Fame.
The Big Texan property has a motel (resembles an old Wild West main street), Texas shaped swimming pool, horse hotel, brewery, patio for live music, stretch limos with longhorns on the hood, and massive gift shop. Do not miss the live rattlesnake in the gift shop.
The RV Museum opened two years ago and is located at Jack Sisemore Traveland (which has been open for 42 years). The RV Museum primarily includes Americana from the personal collection of Jack and Trent (his son), attained over 30-40 years. Jack told me that the theme of the museum is “passion for the road” and “the experience on the road with families.”
Prized items include:
- the first known Airstream, from 1935. It was a kit, people built their own trailers then. It was owned by one family for 81 years and traveled 500,000 miles
- 1948 Flxible, “Happy Max” from the movie RV
- 1927 Lampsteed Kampkar
- 1936 Alma, not restored, but original. Found in a barn.
The RV Museum is free. People all over the country bring and send items to the Sisemores. Step back in time, reminisce, and enjoy the progression of the RV industry from its inception until now.
American Quarter Horse Museum
American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum showcases the colorful history and modern activities of the world’s most popular breed of horse and the people who played a major role in its history.
Quarter horses are “America’s Horse” and help settled the US West. The horses you see in rodeos, on ranches, and in Westerns (TV and movies) are quarter horses, whereas “racing” horses are thoroughbreds—although quarter horses have their own races (the All-american Futurity is similar to the Triple Crown but is a quicker race and offers more money).
Changing, one-of-a-kind exhibits are on display year-round. AQHA maintains the world’s largest equine breed registry (6 million entries) and membership organization. The floor of the main entrance is etched with quarter horse foundation bloodlines, extending back to Janus, a Colonial America import considered a founding stallion.
Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon was selected #1 on Fodors 2014 top ten state parks in USA. Visit Amarillo really spoiled our group, arranging for us to witness a glorious sunrise followed by a Chuckwagon style breakfast. Afterward we had some time to explore a few hiking trails.
Amarillo Community Market
Amarillo Community Market is in its first year of operation. All vendors are from within 150 miles of Amarillo. Over 80 vendors were selling food, goods, and services on the Saturday I attended.
One vendor displayed jars of jam with interesting flavor combos. I said Hello to the man setting up. He said, “this is my wife’s project.” I asked where she is. He said, “She coaches volleyball and the season just started.” We joked a bit but he said he loves being part of the market.
A booth with book art was particularly impressive and popular. The teen girl in charge said she started doing the book art as an entrepreneurial project for school. I asked how many she has sold and she said, “I dunno. So many.” Some of the designs are elaborate so I asked which is harder, the words or the symbols. She said “all the same, the size of the book, the number of pages, determines the time and effort.”
Historic Route 66
The San Jacinto neighborhood, 4 to 5 blocks of 6th Avenue, is Amarillo’s historic Route 66 area. While there are some quirky and funky gems to find along this stretch—like the Lile Gallery, where they produce elegant jewelry from broken Cadillac Ranch pieces—it is not full-blown Route 66 mania. My Visit Amarillo host told me that Amarillo should be striving to be like Albuquerque, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, with appreciation for Route 66 history.
Golden Light Cafe is one of the oldest continuously operating cafes along Route 66, perhaps the oldest. It opened in 1946 and is still at its original location. The chili cheese fries were absolutely amazing and my green chili burger was really good.
Another neighborhood highlight is “The Nat.” The Natatorium is a huge space which was once the city pool (1920s) then a night club (1940s), and now houses dozens of antique and crafts vendors. But just walking along 6th Avenue (yes, it is Avenue, not Street like in the Route 66 sign), you will see plenty of cool wall murals, Route 66 relics (like Sinclair dinosaurs), and nostalgia.
More than 100 full size American Quarter Horse statues can be found around Amarillo. Hoof Prints promotes public art in Amarillo and helps raise money for Center City, which runs the American Community Market. Here are pictures of two Hoof Prints horse statues and perhaps you will find all the others when you visit Amarillo.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Amarillo?
Note: I and a half dozen other travel journalists were hosted by Visit Amarillo, before the Travel Media Showcase conference in August 2016, as an opportunity to explore and learn about Amarillo, Texas and share our favorite findings with our network.