Up in the panhandle of Texas sits the city of Amarillo, with a population of nearly 200,000. It straddles I-40 and is the gateway to New Mexico in the west and Oklahoma to the east. But this is an intriguing and historical setting on the high plains that is worth including in your travel itinerary. Here are nine things to do while visiting Amarillo!
1. Spend Some Time On The Beautiful High Plains In The Texas Panhandle
Amarillo sits at an elevation of about 3,600 feet. It’s a deceptive altitude increase when coming from Oklahoma City. There are no mountains in sight, only vast plains for miles. It is a stunning landscape vista. I immediately thought of cowboys and cattle trails as I drove closer. Much of the area around the city includes working ranches. To experience this life, you might want to head over to Cowboys and Cowgirls of the West for an authentic western horseback riding experience, complete with a chuckwagon meal. You’ll find them near the Palo Duro Canyon (more on that later) and riders of all experience levels will have fun. If getting on a horse is not your style, then drive the Texas 335 highway loop around the city. You’ll have expansive views of the high plains including the area bordering Palo Duro canyons to the south and the Lake Meredith Canyons to the north. Tall prairie grass, rolling hills, and clusters of Cottonwoods fill the vista.
2. Get Your Kicks On Historic Route 66
Historic Route 66 comes through Amarillo on its way south from Oklahoma and continues westward to New Mexico. Interstate 40 is a replacement highway, but the original mother road can be found outside the city both east and west as well as inside city limits. Check out the original highway about 30 minutes east of Amarillo in Conway. It’s designated as a national historic site. Here you’ll find the Bug Ranch — Volkswagen Beetle cars that are positioned like dominos in the ground. It’s a parallel attraction to the Cadillac Ranch. Inside Amarillo, Route 66 runs the entire width of the city. The Historic District on 6th Street is the only publicly designated area. Going farther west outside of the city, about 45 minutes from Amarillo, you’ll hit the midpoint of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. The marker has become a popular photo stop. The retro Midway Cafe is across the road from the midpoint in the town of Adrian.
3. Eat At The Big Texan Steak Ranch
An iconic reminder of Route 66 is The Big Texan. Opened in 1960, their current claim to fame is the 72-ounce steak challenge. If you can eat it in 60 minutes, your meal is free — otherwise it’s $72. Included in the meal which must also be consumed are three shrimp, rolls, and a salad. About eight people a month actually succeed in completing the challenge. You will sit on a platform at a huge table in the middle of the dining room and sit under a red LED countdown clock. If no one is doing the challenge, strolling cowboys with guitars will sing at your table. The Big Texan is total kitsch. In the gift shop, you’ll find all things Texan as well as a live rattlesnake in a glass cage. Finally, you can call for a free ride to the restaurant. You’ll be picked up in an old limo with longhorn steer horns adorning the hood. Yee-hah!
4. Stop And Marvel At The Cadillac Ranch, An American Roadside Oddity
About 10 minutes outside of Amarillo, on I-40/Route 66, is the iconic Cadillac Ranch. Created as an art installation and tourist attraction in 1974, this unusual display attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. It’s free and you can buy a souvenir from the gift shop. The main attraction, other than actually seeing 10 Cadillac cars buried halfway into the ground with their tail fins up, is that graffiti is encouraged. In what has become a popular activity, people bring their own spray paint, or buy it at the gift shop, and paint some graffiti on the cars. The cars are in a field and there is nothing else to deface. People from around the world come to take pictures, paint, and marvel at this long-running, group art project. The cars are barely recognizable due to the thousands of layers of paint on them, but the fins are a testament to the timelessness of this public art project.
5. Explore Hiking, Driving, And Camping In Palo Duro
This is the jewel of Amarillo. Second in size only to the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro is an amazing geologic formation and breathtaking wilderness. On the flat plains, you don’t expect anything other than flat land. Suddenly, a rim to the earth appears and the canyon goes down 2,800-plus feet to the floor. There are mesas on the rim, mountains surrounding the canyon, caves and rock formations within, and unbelievable scenery from inside the canyon. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is a very busy place and is open year-round. Day tickets for entering are $8 per person. There are several hundred campsites within the park for tents and RVs. There is even an equestrian campground with horse trails.
The history of the park centers on a terrible winter war in 1874 between the U.S. Cavalry and the Indigenous Native American population. Eventually, the land was bought by a private individual and used commercially. The owners sold the land to the state of Texas in 1933 and the Civilian Conservation Corp created roadways and cleared campgrounds that exist today. It’s a 10 percent driving grade down to the floor but worth the effort. You can drive a 16-mile loop around the canyon floor with plenty of pull-off sites and picnic tables to take in the view, or park and walk one of the many trails.
Pro Tip: West Texas is very dry and hot. Be sure to come prepared with plenty of water and a hat. There is one gift shop on the canyon floor and, if needed, water is available in spigots at campgrounds.
6. Wander Through The RV Museum
Only in Texas would someone devote a huge indoor space to house dozens of old RVs as a museum. In the collection, there’s a 1935 Airstream believed to be the oldest one in existence. In addition to the RVs on display, there are vintage motorcycles and cars in the collection. It is closed for the 2021 winter and will reopen in March 2022. The museum is free.
7. Experience The Texas Panhandle War Memorial
This is a museum, education center, and outdoor park dedicated to honoring all veterans of U.S. wars. Inside, for a $5 entrance fee, you can see educational exhibits chronicling wars. Outside, you may stroll the grounds for free and see some amazing military equipment. There is a Super Saber jet fighter, the first used by the military, a Hughey helicopter from the Vietnam War, and an actual piece of the flight deck from the USS Arizona which was the first ship lost at the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The park is quite lovely and unassuming given it is in the midst of a residential area.
8. Enjoy Delicious Local Fare
Amarillo has a decidedly laid-back feel to its restaurant scene. I’ve already described The Big Texan steak restaurant. A favorite place in town is the Coyote Bluff Cafe. It’s described as a hole-in-the-wall but gets rave reviews for its burgers and chili-cheese fries. For great Mexican, street, and vegan food, you must try Yellow City Street Food. It’s chef-owned and operated. Yellow City started with street tacos, and now serves a highly-rated variety of dishes. There are plenty of local, authentic Mexican and Texas BBQ places to try as well.
Pro Tip: From April to September, take in a Double-A minor league baseball game. The Amarillo Sod Poodles play in the downtown ballpark. Sod Poodle is a colloquial name for prairie dogs which are everywhere in west Texas. It’s a beautiful new ballpark that opened in 2019.
9. Visit The Remains Of Historic Route 66 On 6th Street
This is a nostalgic tip of the hat to what once was in Amarillo. The Historic Route 66 District features live music and bars at night, but during the day, it is pretty sleepy. This stretch of 6th Street is not in a great part of town but is worth visiting to support the local shops and restaurants that keep things going. The oldest restaurant in Amarillo is here — The Golden Light Cafe/Cantina. They serve burgers and lots of peppers. The locals flock here for lunch. The district has coffee shops and curiosity shops along a five- or six-block stretch that make it the perfect place for a midday stroll. Street parking is free.
Pro Tip: Amarillo is a place you drive to, and that means traveling I-40 which is crowded with truck traffic. When there is a wind advisory, take it seriously. Trucks are known to swerve and even tip over when the gusts blow. There are several wind channels that cross the road (well-marked) and wind gusts can be challenging for even the most seasoned drivers.