Out of all the stops we made during our Route 66 trip, one was hands-down my teenage daughter’s favorite. She got to spray paint, explore and take lots of fun photos having the place all to herself almost the entire time we were there.
So many travelers pass up the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas without even knowing it’s there and they’re definitely missing out.
If you’re looking for a cuter, smaller scale roadside attraction than the famous Cadillac Ranch, the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas is for you.
Also known as the Bug Ranch, VW Ranch and Bug Farm, it may be less famous and quit a bit smaller than it’s Cadillac Ranch inspiration, but it’s just as fun…maybe a bit more. It’s certainly less crowded!
But it didn’t always look this way.
The Longhorn Trading Post and Rattlesnake Ranch and gas station was opened by the Crutchfield family in 1967 on I-40 to lure tourists traveling down Route 66. The abandoned Conway Motel and Café sits on the next lot.
Unfortunately by 1970 more than half of the population of the small town moved away. In 200 Conway only had 20 citizens, and two years later Love’s Truck Stop was built on the opposite site of I-40 taking away much of the business the Crutchfields depended on.
The owner plotted a parody on Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch to bring travelers back across the overpass. Using off-road equipment, Crutchfield buried five Volkswagon Beetles nose down in the ground outside his shop.
He built it, and they came…at the ready with their spray paint cans. The new attraction drew the attention of media and tourists, but wasn’t quite enough to safe the business. The family abandoned the decades old business in 2003, but the VWs remained – bumpers in the air.
We pulled into the parking area at the Bug Ranch, avoiding the broken asphalt and potholes, to discover there was only one other person on site. A nice surprise after the crowds at the Cadillac a couple of days before!
As we piled out of the car getting our camera gear ready, the man came over to give a friendly warning not to climb into the Bugs and uttered the word that will always get me to take notice, “Snakes.”
He asked me if I wanted to see one, and of course I said yes! As we leaned slowly into the cab of the first car body we could easily see a slithering occupant that would prefer the tourists leave him alone. Enough said (and seen). We thanked the man for the heads up, and he drove away.
Luckily just because we weren’t going to climb inside the cars didn’t mean we couldn’t still paint on them (cautiously) and take lots of photos – which is why we were there.
We wandered around the VWs with a few leftover spray paint cans from our visit to the Cadillac, happy to take our time. Just like the Cadillac, the cars were mere shells without windows or tires. A few still had doors, though they were permanently open due to the combination of weathering and paint.
What is it about VW Bugs? Even when they are in scrap metal shape, they’re still so darn cute! And I think all of the colorful paint made them even more so.
After adding our little bit of color to the metal canvases, we moved on to the other antique car on the lot. This one was still in an upright position and had seats, though they aren’t ones that would have been comfortable to sit in for more than a moment. I carefully checked for slithering residents before hopping in for a quick photo – because I couldn’t resist. But please note, I’m not suggesting that you do the same!
There were three buildings accessible on the lot as well, and countless people have visited and left their marks. The one closet to the cars was in the most intact condition, but wasn’t very intriguing after an initial look around.
The two other buildings, which had served as a curio shop and gas station years ago, had obviously enticed more visitors to come inside and let their creative juices flow.
Barn swallows have nested inside the curio shop and swooped at us protectively if we got too close to their nests, so we gave them plenty of room. Someone’s note on an old table top that “Birds don’t exist” made us chuckle since we had just been dive-bombed by some feathered residents.
Earlier visitors had left artistic and not-so-artistic contributions, Bible verses, poems and jokes. It was obvious that some had come prepared with a plan and some (like us) just shot from the hip.
My daughter couldn’t resist spray painting some positive messages for others to find, and taking in the designs left by others.
There were more rooms past the main area, but due to the ceiling caving in and piles of what was probably insulation we didn’t venture back in that area.
While she was adding her graduation year to some old theatre seats outside, I spotted a family with young kids near the VWs and wandered over to share the snake warning with them.
Their horrified expressions told me they had already been inside the vehicles. They said they had put one child at a time inside the one where a snake was clearly visible if you looked, and taken several photos. Yikes! They considered themselves lucky, but decided to get the heck out of there and on down the road.
The abandoned gas station had the least graffiti, though there was quite a bit there including warnings of a zombie apocalypse. (Good to know!) There were also quite a few dangling electrical wires that, though I’m certain weren’t hooked up to anything any more, I would definitely not want small children (or distracted adults) around.
All in all, the three of us had a good time exploring the property and actually stayed quite a bit longer there than we originally planned. Even if you can swing in for a couple of minutes though, I’d recommend it. Where else will you see a field of VWs planted in a row? These Bugs have fun written all over them – literally! To find the Slug Bug Ranch and leave your own mark, take Exit 96 off I-40 and turn south. It’s open and easy to find, just about 30 miles outside of Amarillo.
Rev your engines and head out to Combine City for a chuckle-worthy spoof of Amarillo’s famous Cadillac Ranch.
Even though I went in search of this unusual sight about ten miles southeast of Amarillo, seeing it in person brought to mind visions of Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen out tractor-tipping in the animated Pixar movie ‘Cars.’
See the resemblance? Gotta love people with a sense of humor and the gumption to make a vision come true! And…just for the record…this installation began several years before the 2006 movie was released.
If a Cadillac buried bumper-up in the ground is considered art…why not a tractor?
In 2002 when Orville Ladehoff finished stripping the all the usual parts from his 1970 combine, he didn’t think it was worth the effort to cut the ‘carcass’ up to sell for scrap. His wife Gracie suggested that he just bury it…and that gave Orville an idea.
After digging a hole with his backhoe, the farmer slid the combine in with the front end rearing upward. Since the two-acre field he executed this feat in is next to Farm to Market Road 1151, other locals quickly noticed, and began bringing their own worn out combines to add to Orville’s collection.
He even purchased a few more, stripped them of parts and brought them to the ‘herd’ as well. The collection dates from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The last of the fourteen combines from to be planted (Orville prefers that word to “buried”) was in February 2008. But visitors still come to take photos – even senior photos, writers still pen articles about it, and the field of up-ended combines is still bringing smiles to all those who seek it out.
Read more about the Cadillac Ranch that inspired Combine City here.
If you’ve heard one thing about the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it’s probably about the challenge: eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour and your meal is free.
While that may sound like a deal to a hungry cowboy, there’s actually a specific list of eleven rules that must be followed. There’s actually a “full meal” surrounding the 72 oz. steak that has to be eaten including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll with butter. It’s a twin meal to the champion of the very first competition at the restaurant consumed.
Holy Heartburn, Batman!
When Bob “R.J.” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch in 1960, on the iconic Route 66 touting “huge, Texas-size steaks,” many of his regular customers were cowboys who came for dinner after working in a nearby stockyard. Lee noticed that out-of-town visitors were fascinated while watching these Texans try to “out eat” each other.
As the story goes, one Friday night in 1962, Lee pushed several tables together in the center of the dining room, sat all the voracious cowboys together and told them he wanted to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. The cost would be $5 per participant, and whoever won got to keep everybody’s entry fee.
These cowboys obviously had no intention of turning down the dare.
One fellow with a hearty appetite downed two steaks in just ten minutes…but he didn’t stop there. He requested a salad and shrimp cocktail with his third steak, and a baked potato and bread roll with his fourth and fifth. By the time the hour was up, he had devoured all the sides and four and a half pounds of steak (72 ounces).
In response to the cheering crowd, the excited Lee stood on a chair and shouted that from that day forward, anyone who could eat the entire 72 oz dinner in one hour would get it for FREE…and the famous challenge was born.
It became the restaurant’s biggest claim to fame and was advertised on billboards from Arkansas to Arizona.
In the early 1970s when Highway 40 replaced Route 66 as the major thoroughfare, Lee and his family purchased land alongside the new highway to build a bigger, expanded version of his steak house dream.
The original cowboy sign that greeted visitors for years was moved to its new location by helicopter! That would have been a sight!
If you take the steak-eating challenge today, you are seated at a table on a stage platform in the restaurant, so everyone can watch your progress as the large digital clock above you counts down the hour allowed. Want to see if anyone is attempting it right now? Check out the live stream of the challenge table here.
Now, I had no intention of attempting such madness, but I did want to check out the restaurant. I wasn’t prepared for how fun and HUGE it is!
Pulling in to park between the steak house and it’s Old West theme hotel next door, visitors are greeted by the legendary cowboy sign as well as a towering statue of a boot wearing dinosaur propped in two-story tall sticks of fireworks.
Wait….what? A dinosaur? Well, you just know there’s a story there too! Bobby and Danny Lee, “R.J.”s sons who now run the business share memories of seeing dinosaur statues on a special vacation that took their family across the historic Route 66. “Dino” smiles down on their patrons to remind them that “it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.”
When you venture inside, be prepared to wait for your table at this popular restaurant. Once they hand you your pager, don’t just sit and wait for heaven’s sake…explore!
Out back is a large covered beer garden (they have their own craft brewery on site) with live music, old-fashioned games, photo opps that include a stagecoach, huge rocking chair, 18-foot-tall cowboy boot and more.
Inside try your luck at a carnival style shooting gallery where you can take aim at western targets like rattlesnakes, bad guys and bobcats as well as Frankentein, zombies and Dracula. Who needs Halloween?
Outside be sure to check out the Texas-shape swimming pool, the motel, a horse hotel (yes, actually for horses), and RV park. And be sure to look down, because this attraction’s attention to details goes right down to imprinting cattle brands in the sidewalks.
The gift shop has every version of a kitschy souvenir that you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. The night we were there, it was so crowded with tourists looking for that silly something to commemorate their visit that we needed to scoot sideways down the aisles to make any progress. (These are the times a good sense of humor comes in handy!)
Once our pager alerted us it was time to chow down, the hostess lead my family into an immense, two-story dining room where chandeliers of antlers and wagon wheels hang from the ceiling.
We felt like we were walking onto a saloon set soundstage of Bonanza or Gunsmoke, complete with swinging doors, taxidermy mounts, spindle railings, and the cowboy-hat-wearing waitstaff.
Just about everything – including the margaritas – are garnished with some of the biggest jalapenos I’ve ever seen.
While we waited for our food we enjoyed the two gentlemen who strolled the dining room playing western classics tableside for the diners. I kept my fingers crossed they would come our way, and lucky for us they did, asking for requests. (A personal note here: please be sure to tip entertainment like this as the tips usually make up the majority if not all of what they are paid for the pleasure they bring!)
Kids meals are served in a cowboy hat that the kids can keep as a souvenir. My teenage daughter wasn’t hungry enough to eat one of the over-sized meals and asked if she could order from a children’s menu. The waitress smiled and said she could as long as she agreed to put on the hat afterward. Good sport that she is, she agreed and did…and no, she would NOT give me permission to post that particular photo.
I couldn’t resist getting the southern classic chicken friend steak and have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was relieved that it wasn’t plate-sized as well, but still couldn’t finish it off.
The vintage look Route 66 / Texan Steak House pattern china was a great touch as well and didn’t go unappreciated.
If you have any room left for ice cream after all that…they have an ice cream bar in the main, too! Be sure to at least stop long enough to taste a sample…it’s worth it. Then you can wobble back to your car.
Generations of visitors have come The Big Texan and often share photos with the owners. It’s a tasty tradition. Bobby says he never tires of hearing their stories.
Just a note: one fun thing we didn’t find out about in time is a complimentary limo service to and from the restaurant! The Big Texan offers a complimentary limo pickup from most hotels, motels, and RV parks in Amarillo, as well as Cavender’s Boot City, and The Starbuck’s on I40 and Grand. Not just any limo, of course! A stereotypical limousine complete with longhorns mounted on the front. Pick-ups start at 4:00 and they drive customers home until everyone they brought is delivered safely back where they are staying. Check their website for the number to make a reservation for this unique shuttle.
For someone who, as a little girl, devoured anything having to do with the Old West the Big Texan was like stepping into a little slice of good-humored heaven…even before the food arrived. As a kid I would have eaten it up. But it was just as much fun as an adult.
I highly suggest putting the Big Texan Steak Ranch at the top of your to-do list when you visit Amarillo. Just be sure to bring your appetite!
I thought that when people referred to Palo Duro as the “Grand Canyon of Texas” they were probably overstating things . . . until I saw it for myself.
The second largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 820 feet deep. It’s the second largest park in the state park system – 28,000 acres (over 45 square miles) with 28 miles of hiking, biking and horse trails. That’s a lot of territory!
People have inhabited the canyon for about 12,000 years, and its history includes exciting chapters like Comanches and the Goodnight Trail. But This time around our family just focused on the absolute beauty of nature.
Texas bought the land for the park in 1933. Civilian Conservation Corps workers spent five years creating the park, a cabin for their home base, the winding road to the canyon floor, the CCC Trail, and the El Coronado Lodge (now the Visitor Center). The craftsmen used local stone and wood for building materials and furniture, and forged decorative metal ornaments.
After our morning ride along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon (more about that in my last post) we headed to the state park, ready to see more of the stunning scenery. Initially, we intended to swing in for a short visit since we knew the clothes we were wearing (long sleeved shirts, jeans and boots) were perfect for riding, but not for hiking. Once there though, the views lured us further and further into the canyon, anxious to see what was next.
Just a couple of miles inside the entrance, we made our first stop at the visitor’s center (the original the El Coronado Lodge) that was built by the CCC, so it was fitting that exhibits included some fascinating relics of the Corps’ days in the canyon. There’s also a small gift shop, though I’ll mention a more “souvenir-y” option later in this post.
The vistas from the vantage point outside of the lodge were so enchanting, we knew we had to go at least a bit further into the park.
We took Park Road 5 which winds down to the canyon floor, circles clockwise in a 16 mile loop and slowly climbs back up to the rim.
The first, short trail we ventured out on was relatively easy, but it was quickly apparent that at 11:00 a.m. it was already too hot (in addition to inappropriate clothing) for us to take on any of the longer trails. We were still fairly close to the rim, and the canyon floor would be about twenty degrees hotter!
The view from even the least challenging trails are more than worth the effort and heat!
Each one we investigated offered increasingly impressive scenery.
Some of the trails were quite rocky and others were red dirt that I would have expected more in Oklahoma.
Four geologic layers are exposed on the canyon walls, that seem to change color depending on the time of day and season of year – just one of the reasons Palo Duro draws so many amateur and professional photographers.
Once I heard the erosion features referred to as “Mexican skirts” it was hard to get that image out of my mind. It’s really appropriate, don’t you think?
The park provides enough diversity in its habitats to be a comfortable home to quite a variety of wildlife, in addition to part of the state herd of longhorns. Coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed and mule deer, and many species of snakes and lizards. We saw several roadrunners darting across the terrain, which reminded me of living in El Paso when I was little – and the birds seemed to be everywhere.
You might even spot some wild turkeys. Did you know that a group of turkeys is called a “rafter?” There’s your trivia for the day!
Two threatened species also live in the canyon: the Palo Duro mouse (which only lives in three Texas counties) and the Texas horned lizard (the State Reptile of Texas).
Along our driving route we passed several picnic and camping areas. When I return for my next visit (and make no mistake about it…there WILL be a next visit!) I’d love to stay in one of the cabins on site. Imagine waking up to these views.
One of the most pleasant surprises we encountered was fields or wildflowers, as well as individual flooring plants that had stubbornly pushed their way up through the dry dirt. In central and south Texas many wildflowers were already past season in June.
Indian blanket, American basket-flower (shown in photo), sunflower, paperflower, blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats grama, buffalograss, sand sage, yucca and prickly pear cactus decorated the canyon floor and made the area appear to be more of a place for living creatures than desolate and empty.
Even though we traveled the majority of the distance by car, we drank a LOT of water. Staying hydrated in the canyon (which can reach 130 degrees in summer) is non-negotiable!
But if you think this vast canyon, however arid, couldn’t possibly be romantic I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Sharing this grandeur (not a word I use lightly) with the ones you love is a memorable experience.
We pulled over one last time at the base of the canyon to check out the trailhead for the famous Lighthouse formation.
The Lighthouse Trail is the most well-known trail in Palo Duro Canyon. It’s considered a moderate hike ( 2.72 miles each way) but having arrived during the heat of the day without the proper shoes, we vowed to return at another time to venture off to see unusual 310 foot tall formation. I walked just around the initial bend of the trail to take a photo (though far away) of the lighthouse, which looked small in the distance.
The park has posted multiple warnings about the danger of heat and dehydration at the head of the trail, and even staffed a tent with a ranger to provide information and advice to people before they set out. Although I certainly didn’t envy her, it was impressive how seriously they took visitors’ safety.
By that time we had worked up an appetite and exhausted our water supply, so we headed to the Palo Duro Trading Post on the rim for a late lunch. They don’t serve anything fancy, but you know those times you’re so hungry everything taste like the BEST (fill in the food blank) ever? Yep, it was one of those days. The staff was friendly, service fast and tables clean. Hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs seemed like the find of the day. And the ice cream? C’mon…what do YOU think?
The Trading Post also offered a fun variety of souvenirs from T-shirts to mugs to jewelry, all very reasonably priced.
Happy with our visit and satisfied appetites, we left the park to go back to the hotel to take off those boots and give our feet a rest before heading out to see more of Amarillo.
If you only have time to visit one place in the Texas Panhandle (and that would be a shame), Palo Duro Canyon State Park should be that place.
When you go, remember to:
Bring and drink water
Wear sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing
Have your camera ready
Bring and drink water
Pick up a map before you head out
Wear comfortable, supportive shoes
And…you guessed it…bring and drink plenty of water!
Do you prefer to hike, bike or drive through sites like this beautiful state park? I’m interested to know!
When most people from other states of countries think of Texas, visions of cowboys riding their horses past oil wells usually come to mind. So it was no surprise to meet a young honeymooning couple from Germany when we showed up for our trail ride at a ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. They wanted to do something they thought would be a typical Texas experience – and riding horses was just the ticket.
And honestly, you’ll never see me turning down a chance to ride horses. I had been looking forward to this particular ride since booking it a few weeks before our trip down Route 66. When I was researching horseback riding options in Palo Duro, one in particular caught my eye because it wasn’t the usual nose to tail ride…you know, where the horses walk in a single file as close together as possible in single file?
Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West operates on the Los Cedros Ranch on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon – the second largest canyon in the United States. Horseback is an incredible way to see this breathtaking natural wonder.
The ranch offers one, two or three hour rides. I chose the earliest time slot (8:30 a.m.) for a two hour ride for three reasons: it gave us a nice length of time in the saddle; the morning light was better for photographs; and the canyon becomes very hot quickly once the sun is up. That meant we needed to leave our hotel early enough to arrive at the ranch by about 8:15.
When we arrived at the ranch, we were greeted by the young ladies that would be leading our ride: Sierra, Kensi and Halee. Young and friendly, it was also immediately apparent that they were also knowledgable horsewomen and experienced guides.
Our group of six (my family of three, the honeymooners and a local college professor) were welcomed into a small bunkhouse type building where we were offered cold water and a briefing about how the ride would proceed. A quick look around the room included cowhide covered furniture and a bulletin board with great tidbits of information including local restaurants the crew recommended. True Texas hospitality.
Safety measures were covered (my daughter is under 18, so was required to wear a helmet) as well as an overview of the types of terrains we would cover. We were encouraged to “stray” from the worn trail if we wanted as long as we basically stayed in the area of the group. Much to our delight we were also told that the ride would be stopping at two picture perfect locations along the rim.
When you make reservations for a ride online, you are asked for specific information such as riding experience and weight, so that an appropriate horse can be chosen for you to use. Our little “posse” had everything from experienced (me) to one of the honeymooners who was a first time rider. Everyone was made to feel extremely comfortable about the process regardless.
Once were were all assisted into the saddles of the beautiful Quarter Horses, we set out on our adventure. Along the way, the girls chatted about the canyon, the horses’ different personalities, and funny things that have happened on different rides. Sierra gave us some fascinating background history about the canyon along the way in a manner that felt much more like a friend talking with us than a tour guide.
The ride proceeded at an easy pace beginning with watering the horses at a large tank, and starting out into the prairie grass region. It wasn’t long before we saw our first glimpses of the canyon, that became more stunning the closer we rode. We paused in several places to take in the view and, as promised, the girls offered to take photos of the riders at two particularly beautiful vistas.
They pointed out a part of the canyon where coyotes live, the theatre in the base of the canyon where the park’s performance is held in summer months, and even dismounted to chase (unsuccessfully) a few horned toads to show us…which kept us laughing. They were so committed to making sure their guests had a great time!
Eventually it was time to head back, and we watered the horses again on the way. Everyone was visiting like old friends, having shared such a memorable experience. When we got back to the bunkhouse, the owner of the ranch, Phyllis Nickum, was there to greet us with cold water and a chat.
It was sad to call it a day when the ride was over, even though it was getting quite warm (I felt a bit sorry for the guest who were arriving for the later ride). As a quick aside, most of the horse tack and equipment for Los Cedros is custom made at Oliver’s Saddles of Amarillo, the oldest family owned saddlery in Texas. We were each given a Texas shaped keychain made by Oliver’s after our ride as a souvenir, which was such a nice touch to the visit.
We saw and did so many fun and interesting things along the section of Route 66 that we traveled on this trip, but the Cowgirls and Cowboys of the West experience is one that I can’t wait to go back and experience again.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the Amarillo area, do yourself a favor, and leave time in your schedule for a visit to Los Cedros. Their website has detailed information about the different rides offered, proper attire and the background of the ranch.