After a few years of uncertainty about travel plans, many people were anxious to take some vacation time this summer. However, a surge in gas prices and looming recession put a damper on some of those plans.
Luckily, local travel experts say in Wichita Falls and the surrounding North Texas area, there are a great many entertainment and activities right in our own backyard.
Getting away from it all does not mean having to drive or fly a great distance. In just a few-minutes' drive, you could be picking out locally grown produce, watching a live theater show, exploring nature, or enjoying a glass of award-winning wine.
Gas prices got you down? Try a 'staycation' in Wichita Falls
Claire Spivey with the Texas Department of Transportation Wichita Falls Travel Center said the COVID-19 pandemic started a resurgence in the interest in outdoor travel as well as "staycations," where people enjoyed activities closer to home.
She said while people nationwide still wanted to travel during that time, they looked for opportunities like federal and state parks, rivers, lakes and the coasts for socially distanced enjoyment.
While the threat of COVID has lessened, Spivey said the love of nature and the outdoors remains strong with a continued interest in outdoor-related trips.
Along the same lines, recreational-vehicle travel also saw an uptick, and interest remains strong, as people opt for their own home-on-wheels, rather than sharing a crowded plane or bus.
There are numerous outdoor spots near Wichita Falls including Texas State Parks like Lake Arrowhead, Fort Richardson in Jacksboro, Mineral Wells and Lake Texoma.
The Wichita Falls TxDOT travel center is one of 12 centers in Texas and is a hub for great travel information.
Along with maps and brochures, the center employs knowledgeable staff, like Spivey, who can assist travelers in planning the perfect trip - either near home or a little farther down the road.
Dozens of travel destinations near Wichita Falls
Adele Lewis, a public information officer with TxDOT, said Wichita Falls sits in a prime location with dozens of travel hot spots within an hour or two.
Wichita Falls itself has phenomenal places for shopping, dining and historic sites. Dallas and Fort Worth are a couple hours to the southeast, and nearby towns like Quanah, Vernon, Seymour and Henrietta have museums, classic car displays and other unique attractions.
Wichita Falls has activities for children and their families including Castaway Cove Waterpark, the Riverbend Nature Center, a splash pad, several playgrounds and parks and the city’s nearly complete hike/bike trail. The trail will be approximately 25 miles when finished and will make a loop around the city.
Lewis said the Wichita Falls’ downtown area is growing quickly and can be a day-trip destination all by itself. Start with a morning at the Farmers Market where you can find locally grown fruits and vegetables, handmade baked goods, candles, soaps and more. Later in the day, grab a meal at one of the many local restaurants and catch a live performance at the Wichita Theatre or Backdoor Theatre.
During the week in the summer, the Farmers Market is open Tuesday and Thursday mornings and the After Hours Art Walk, the first Thursday of the month through the season, is another hit with local artists and craftspeople showing their wares.
Wineries, vineyards popular in North Texas area
Another growing attraction is the number of vineyards and wineries in the North Texas area.
“Right next door, but worlds away,” is the motto of the Horseshoe Bend Cellars Vineyard and Winery. Owners Scott and Linda Poenitzsch were looking forward to the next chapter in their lives when they happened upon the winery in Iowa Park.
In 2017, the couple were interested in running a winery after visiting others near the Metroplex and the St. Jo region.
As luck would have it, an internet search showed a vineyard in Iowa Park and the former owners were looking to sell.
After gathering the needed permits, undergoing some renovations and a name change, they were open for business in March of 2018.
Scott Poenitzsch said they revamped the feel and philosophy of the location. Rather than being just a shop and tasting room, they wanted a more relaxing experience where visitors feel like part of the family, stayed a while and enjoyed themselves.
He said as soon as they saw the land, they knew Horseshoe Bend was some place special. While it’s just 10 minutes outside of Wichita Falls, you would not know it while you are there.
The land is surrounded with tall green trees and the only sounds are the breeze whispering through the leaves and perhaps the occasional horse whinny.
Gabriele Poenitzsch, Scott’s daughter and general manager of the business, said they have added a host of events to get people out to the vineyards on a regular basis.
Social media has been a huge boost for visibility and they have an Instagram reach of about 80,000 in the past month.
One of the most popular additions to the vineyard is their murder mystery dinners.
Visitors come out for the themed event (past events have been 1920s-themed, vampires, 1950s, wedding, and coming soon is a masquerade theme) dressed as characters and participate in an interactive “who-done-it” dinner with a multi-course meal and wine pairings.
Another tremendously popular attraction at Horseshoe Bend is the Harvest Hosts program.
Through the program, recreational-vehicle enthusiasts stay the night at any one of thousands of participating wineries, breweries, distilleries, farms and other attractions.
Poenitzsch said the first year they joined Harvest Hosts in 2019, they expected maybe 20-30 participants. That year they had 119 Harvest Host visitors, 254 came the next year and they had 356 Harvest Host participants in 2021.
Gabriele said visitors wanted more events throughout the week, and they answered.
They have local artists come out for painting sessions with local eats and wine pairings. Future plans include music concerts, live paintings, yoga in the vineyard and a garden party.
While the wine tasting itself is, of course, an adult activity, Poenitzsch said the location is family-friendly with games and activities for the little ones, 75-acres of natural land to explore with a walking trail to the lake and feeding time for their mascot, a horse named Oreo.
Horseshoe Bend is part of the Cross Timbers Wine Trail of the North Texas area which also includes cities like Denton, St. Jo and Gainesville.
Scott Poenitzsch said they have visitors from all over the world, but many are also from right here in the Wichita Falls area.
His business, he said, is one part farmer, another chemist and yet another is the customer interaction. Poenitzsch and Gabriele both say the best part is engaging with customers and making them feel at home.
While they are visiting Horseshoe Bend, Poenitzsch said people often ask about other things to do in the Wichita Falls area and he loves making recommendations for downtown activities.
Poenitzsch said they are more than willing to help visitors fall in love with the area, showing them the best way to get to the iconic Wichita Falls waterfalls, sharing the history of the Littlest Skyscraper, and providing information about the Farmers Market.
Downtown has numerous choices for other wineries including 6th Street Winery, OG Cellars and Hook & Ladder. There is a recently opened distillery, the Speakeasy Distillery and a local beer brewery, Wichita Falls Brewing Company.
How to learn more about traveling in North Texas
For travelers looking to explore more of the great state of Texas, TxDOT travel centers have a great deal of information and there are other sources online:
Traveltexas.com – Travelers can look up any city or region and find places to go and things to do.
Drivetexas.org – Provides driving information like construction areas, traffic delays, road closures, weather information and road conditions.
Another tool from TxDOT is calling 1-800-452-9292 for road conditions and travel information. The number is especially usual when on the road and looking at a website is not an option.
Discoverwichitafalls.com – Has information specific to Wichita Falls including an events calendar, history of the city, and information about things to do including antiquing, biking, drinks/dining, camping, coffee and family fun. The site includes a fun interactive trip planner.
If getting out of town is a must, Spivey said a road trip is still one of the best ways to have a great adventure while seeing all that Texas has to offer.
There are 12 travel information centers throughout the state that provide maps, brochures, guides, discount coupons and great information from trained travel counselors.
Spivey said Texas is a large state, and travel can be intimidating when people do not know where to start. Travel counselors can help people discover new places, find the best deals, lodging and activities for their group.
“We love to load you down with ideas – this is the place to come,” Spivey said.
Claire Kowalick, a senior journalist for the Times Record News, covers local government, military and MSU Texas. If you have a news tip, contact Claire at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Wichita Falls Times Record News: Wichita Falls businesses provide summer fun without the travel expense