Whenever I tell anyone that I grew up in Amarillo, I always get the same response: “Really? I’ve been there! I drove through on my way to (insert epic, cross-country destination here). Isn’t that where they have that twenty-pound steak for free?” Amarillo’s central location on Interstate 40 makes it a prime stopping point for travelers who need gas, food, or lodging. What is most disappointing, though, is that no one realizes what treasures this Panhandle city holds, from the obvious tourist attractions to some not-so-obvious places.
True, Amarillo does have a large steak advertised along the highway, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. However, it isn’t twenty pounds. The Big Texan Steak Ranch (I-40E, between Lakeside and Whitaker; 800-657-7177; bigtexan.com) is by far the most recognized attraction on Interstate 40. It’s true you can get the 72-ounce steak without paying a cent, but only when you devour the entire slab of meat plus all the trimmings within an hour. Billboards that entice travelers to take the challenge begin appearing as far away from Amarillo as three hundred miles in any direction. The Big Texan, which opened in 1959, is a sure stop (if only to snap a photo).
Another must-see spot in the Amarillo-Canyon region is Palo Duro Canyon State Park (Texas Highway 217, 25 miles south of Amarillo; 800-792-1112), the second largest canyon in the nation (the Grand Canyon holds the number one title). Palo Duro’s beauty (you can see the different colors of stone along the canyon walls) and rugged landscape make it the ideal spot for a day trip of hiking, biking, or horseback riding. You can also camp overnight in one of the park’s many camping areas. Start your day with the good chuck wagon grub and campfire coffee at the famous Cowboy Morning Breakfast at the Figure 3 Ranch on the rim of the canyon (by reservation only, 800-658-2613). At night, don’t miss the production of Texas (800-655-2181; texasmusicaldrama.com), performed in the beautiful outdoor amphitheater right in the park. The show, which has been relaying the story of the Panhandle pioneers for 36 years, begins around eight-thirty every night (except Wednesdays) June 7 through August 19. (A barbecue dinner is served beforehand; $6.50 for adults and $5.50 for children.)
Also in Canyon is the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (West Texas A&M University campus, 2503 Fourth Avenue; 806-651-2244; panhandleplains.org), which has been touted as the largest history museum in the state. Although the museum remains open, on August 25, the public will be able to see the results of an eighteen-month $6.1 million renovation that included an improved Pioneer Hall, which will serve as an orientation area. In conjuntion, a new exhibit titled, People of the Plains: Experiments in Living, will explore more than 14,000 years of human habitation in the Southern Great Plains, and three new galleries will showcase Western art and house pieces from the permanent collection.
If you want to put another notch in your museum-tour belt, stop in at the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center and Museum (2601 I-40E, exit 72A; www.aqha.com). Located directly next to the world headquarters for the association for the most popular breed of horse, this museum boasts beautiful works of art, live horse demonstrations, and hands-on attractions. Until Labor Day, check out Horse Town, a family-friendly exhibit that teaches hoof care, horse nutrition, and provides little-known horse trivia. You can also stop in at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame (located inside the center and museum), where you can track down some famous quarter horses and the men and women who made the breed great.
Well known attractions aside, Amarillo proffers other points of interest for tourists and those just passing through. Wolflin Village shopping center (I-40 and Georgia) offers boutique shopping at its finest: Barnes Jewelry (fine china and gifts, plus shiny baubles), Boots and Jeans (the region’s largest Western store), Et Cetera (a Mackenzie-Childs retailer), Et Cetera Child (across the way, but worth the trip), Little Brown House (eclectic gifts for all ages), Casual Gourmet (kitchen gadgets, plus foods and cheeses), Top Notch Outfitters (men’s and women’s apparel), or Martha Smith Fine Linens. Be sure to begin your day of shopping with breakfast or brunch at the popular Village Bakery Cafe (2606 W. Twenty-second; 806-358-1358), which serves homemade waffles, pastries, and quiches, made fresh daily.
Heading north on Georgia, you’ll come across the historic Route 66—or what locals call Sixth Street. The first thing you will notice as you turn west onto Sixth is the Nat Ballroom (2705 W. Sixth; 806-371-8685)—its castlelike exterior makes it difficult to ignore. The Nat, originally called the Natatorium, opened in July 1922 as a swimming pool and was taken over in 1926 by J. D. Tucker, who promptly turned the pool into a dance hall. If that conjures up images from It’s A Wonderful Life, it would only be right—the pool is still underneath the floor. It wasn’t designed to retract, so dancing on it was a dry and safe bet. The noteworthy facade was constructed at the beginning of the Depression, and in 1935, the Nat Cafe was added to the north side of the building. Dining and dancing became a regular Saturday night event for Amarillo residents, and big-name players like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Perry Como graced the stage. The Nat is now home to one of the greatest antiques stores in the city, but when needed, the dance hall is cleared for some serious rug cutting. The Dixie Chicks, Joe Ely, and Asleep at the Wheel have played the Nat of late, allowing folks to take a spin on what is still considered one of the best dance floors around.
Lining the rest of Sixth are antiques stores like the Mustard Seed (3323 W. Sixth; 806-376-9209) as well as two eateries you should be aware of: the Shack at Ocho Rios (3020 W. Sixth; 806-374-6522), where you’ll find some of the world’s best Jamaican food north of the Caribbean, and the Golden Light Cafe (2908 W. Sixth; 806-374-9237), an Amarillo institution that has been serving up burgers and fries, Frito pies, and homemade chili for 56 years. The Beer Garden out back, complete with foliage and misters for those too-warm Panhandle nights, showcases live music on the weekends. Of course, no great institution is without regulars. It’s been said that you can set your watch by their arrivals.
Amarillo being no exception, the best way to explore is to set out, map in hand, on your own. Go crazy. Get lost. Wind your way around back roads and out-of-the-way streets. Amarillo is a relatively easy city to navigate. You just might find some hidden treasures of your own.