When you’re heading to west Texas you expect to find cowboys, steaks, and dusty highways. While there are plenty of cowboy boots and Stetsons around town, there are also some surprises. From larger-than-life art to a nostalgic collection of RVs chronicling road trips of yesteryear, to a canyon with such spectacular sunrises even a late sleeper like me was willing to get up early to experience them. Here are some of my favorite Amarillo experiences offering something for almost every traveler.
Jack Sisemore’s RV Museum
Selling RVs for more than 40 years to camping enthusiasts in West Texas and beyond, the Jack Sisemore family knows how to hook customers up with the ideal home on wheels. But while the customers were browsing the lot and main showroom, I went out the back door and discovered a true treasure. Jack began collecting vintage RVs over 25 years ago. He’s turned his collection into a nostalgic chronicle of road trips of yesteryear. The collection includes the first Itasca motor home ever built, the oldest Fleetwood in existence, the Flxible Bus from the movie “RV” starring Robin Williams, and many others from the 1930s through the 1970s. The clever displays took me back to the days of cross-country road trips in a 1970s cargo van my Daddy customized himself—which, by the way, isn’t on display anywhere with its shag carpeting and well-used bean bag chairs.
The Mother Road
It makes sense that Amarillo would be home to an RV museum because this city also harbors a coveted stretch of the “Mother Road.” Route 66 passes through the town in the San Jacinto Heights District along Sixth Avenue. On a street lined with locally-owned specialty shops, galleries, and restaurants, you’ll also find iconic Route 66 signs—an ideal place for selfies.
While exploring, be sure to refuel at the Golden Light Café. Since 1946, this establishment has been serving up the best burgers in town. It started with Chester “Pop” Ray and his wife, Louise, a few booths, some hamburger meat, and buns. It grew into a local favorite. Today, the Golden Light’s fifth owner is still serving the same great burgers to some of the same customers Pop served. Stop in for a burger and while you’re there, order the Flagstaff Pie—a full platter of Fritos smothered with chili, cheese, and onions then garnished with lettuce and tomato.
In 1974, some folks drove 10 Cadillacs into a field along the original Route 66, half-buried them nose-down in the dirt and created an American icon—the Cadillac Ranch. They face west in a line, chronologically from the 1949 Club Sedan to the 1963 Sedan de Ville, their tail fins held high for all to see. The brainchild of the Ant Farm out of San Francisco, the exhibit is a tribute to the rise and fall of American culture – just like the rise and fall of the Cadillac tail fin.
When the Cadillacs were buried minimal thought was given to preservation. As a result, most of the cars no longer have doors, tail lights, bumpers, and other not-so-necessary parts. Initially, people would scratch their names into the paint. Today people from all over the world come to view the Cadillacs and make their own personalized marks with spray paint. No one really knows how many people have been to Cadillac Ranch, but it’s estimated that over 40,000 cars travel through Amarillo every day, and over half of them drive by the Cadillac Ranch, which is visible from the highway. Business is booming at the nearby Home Depot where the country’s spray paint sales are the highest.
The Big Texan
Down the road a few miles from Cadillac Ranch awaits the Big Texan Steak Ranch and Microbrewery. Trust me when I say you can’t miss it—and you shouldn’t. It’s everything a Texas steakhouse should be and more. So. Much. More. There’s a 54-room motel that looks like an old west town. Be sure to check out the Texas-shaped swimming pool. And should you be traveling with your horse (yes, it happens) there is the Big Texan Horse Hotel with covered sand bottom stalls where you can check in your equine.
But the Big Texan’s claim to fame is its 72-ounce steak challenge. If you’re up for the beefy challenge, you’ll be seated on the stage for all to witness your gluttony. Finish the entire steak and it’s free. Be sure to wash it down with a sample flight of the outstanding variety of beers brewed onsite. And it wouldn’t be a true Texas experience without sampling the fried calf mountain oysters. If you don’t know what that is, Google it, because I’m not telling you here.
Palo Duro Canyon
A surprise find, the Palo Duro Canyon claims the title of the second largest canyon in the USA surpassed in size only by the Grand Canyon. Explore the rugged beauty of the canyon by foot, mountain bike, horse, or car on more than 30 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Camping is popular here with a range of options available from cabins to primitive sites. And in the summer months, you can catch the live show of TEXAS at the outdoor Pioneer Amphitheater nestled among the rocks. The show chronicles the stories, struggles, and triumphs of early settlers with singing, dancing, humor, and fireworks.
But the best show comes early in the morning. Setting an alarm to wake up before the sun comes up is something I typically avoid, but believe me when I say, you want to be on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon for sunrise. As the sun breaks the horizon, shades of pink and orange illuminate the canyon’s rugged landscape. And it is stunning.