A stay in this folksy, unpretentious town 73 miles west of Houston wouldn't be complete without a visit to its most famous resident, the Blue Bell Creameries . Take a 45-minute tour to learn how milk is turned into treats like mint-chocolate-chip ice cream and good old homemade vanilla, the company's best-seller. And before you leave, be sure to get your complimentary scoop (Loop 577 off U.S. 290 East, 979-830-2197 or 800-327-8135; tours weekdays only, call for schedule; $3, children 614 $2, 5 and under free). Newish double-digits might think they're too old for merry-go-rounds, but after one peek at the Antique Carousel, housed in a sixteen-sided structure built in the thirties by the WPA, they'll be begging for a ride. Dating from the turn of the century, the carousel boasts 24 hand-carved wooden jumpers—painted in aquas, pinks, and blues—with real horsehair tails, plus eight benches for adults. Once the old-timey music starts and the lights begin to flash, you'll wish grown-ups were allowed to saddle up too (Fireman's Park, 902 N. Park, 979-337-7250; reserve the carousel a week in advance; only children 13 and under may ride the horses; minimum $35 per hour, for up to 35 people).
Due south of Amarillo, this may be a regular little town, but its claim to fame is anything but small. Your budding geologist will have a field day at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, examining the canyon's multicolored rock layers, the oldest dating back 250 million years (from town, go east on Texas Highway 217 for 12 miles; 806-488-2227; open daily; $3, children 12 and under free; call for camping fees). The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is the largest history museum in Texas, packed with more than three million artifacts, from a skeleton of a saber-toothed cat to a 1903 Model A Ford. Be sure to take a walk down the pioneer village's main street, with its authentic reproductions of a millinery shop, a newspaper office, and more. After seeing the bare old schoolhouse, the kids may decide they don't have it so bad after all (2503 Fourth Avenue, on the campus of West Texas A&M; 806-651-2244; open daily; $4, children 412 $1, 3 and under free).
This quiet West Texas town has a frontier feel. Its star attraction is the nearby McDonald Observatory (below), with three magnificent domes perched atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes and some of the world's largest telescopes, including the Hobby-Eberly. Introduce the youngsters to the wonders of the night sky (sans light pollution) at a star party (from town, go north on Texas Highway 118 for 16 miles; 432-426-3640; guided tours daily, star parties Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday—call or go to mcdonaldobservatory.org for times; tour plus star party $10, children 612 $9, 5 and under free, family $30). Visiting a real-life nineteenth-century fort is way better than draping the furniture with blankets and playing cowboys and Indians. At the Fort Davis National Historic Site, once a frontier military post, you can tour four restored buildings and see cooking utensils, newspapers, and other things soldiers used during the 1880's. The kids will have fun playing games in which they hunt for various objects around the fort, which was built in 1854 to protect the San AntonioEl Paso Road and was the home of African American infantry and cavalry troopers—called Buffalo Soldiers—from 1867 to 1885 (in the center of town along Texas highways 17 and 118, 432-426-3224; open daily; $3). Exploring Davis Mountains State Park on foot, mountain bike, or horseback (BYOH) will keep your young'uns occupied for hours. When everyone is exhausted, hop in the car and take the Skyline Drive to two overlooks with vistas of several mountain ranges, including the Chinatis, 75 miles away (from town, head north on Texas Highway 17 for 1 mile, then turn west onto Texas Highway 118 North and go 3 miles to park entrance; 432-426-3337; open daily; $3, children 12 and under free; call for camping fees).