Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


The Waco Suspension Bridge, completed in 1870, crosses the Brazos River near downtown. • Photo by Sonja Sommerfeld / TPWD


Deep in the Heart of Texas

From the Brazos to the Bosque to Baylor, Waco’s an attraction-packed destination.

By Traci Anderson • Photos by Sonja Sommerfeld

“This isn’t fun for anyone but 5-year-olds,” my 21-year-old son grumbles. He’s hungry and slightly annoyed at his younger brother, who’s repeatedly trying to encase himself in a giant soap bubble.

“Give me the handle,” he demands, and laughs delightedly as he draws a 6-foot-high bubble up over his brother’s head, grumpiness forgotten.

We’re on the campus of Baylor University in the Discovery Center of the Mayborn Museum, and, by design, it really is fun for 5-year-olds. A field trip has just cleared out, and no one stops my adult sons from letting their inner children free. They tap out simple tunes on a walk-on piano, refract colored lasers across walls, project their movements as life-sized stick figures and try to out-squeeze a boa constrictor pound for pound. (They fail at that last bit, in case you were wondering.)

On the first floor, there’s a version of the Waco Mammoth National Monument. We’ve been to the actual monument before, but this is just as entrancing, walking on glass flooring suspended far above the fossil replicas. We pass through halls housing Cretaceous giants and oddities of nature and peek inside life-sized dioramas of the flora and fauna of Texas. The boys play a video game at each exhibit, excited that unveiling all the clues will garner them a prize in the gift shop.

“I would have loved playing this game when I was a kid,” one tells the other wistfully and without a trace of sarcasm.

We started our day in Waco in a less chaotic fashion. Just north of the city is Homestead Craft Village, the public face of a 550-acre farm operated by an agrarian collective. I’ve heard that Cafe Homestead, their on-site, farm-to-table restaurant, is worth what is often a long wait. A line of cars waiting to turn in after us bears this out, but we’re seated quickly and enjoy over-easy eggs with yolks so rich they’re almost orange.

After that hearty breakfast, we walk around the village. In the gristmill, flour is ground from organically grown grain, powered by a working water wheel. A 15-foot-long canoe is hand-created, strip by strip, from western cedar in the woodworking shop. And, as we enter the pottery shop, we see several children learning how to work with clay. We try for a hayride but learn that the horse is just not cooperating today.

The Waco Hippodrome Theatre has been part of Waco’s cultural life for more than 100 years.

Heading back into Waco, we stop at Lula Jane’s for dessert. The bakery is packed; moms with strollers, a work group with laptops and some college students jockey for tables in the bright space.

Opened in 2012, Lula Jane’s is a harbinger of revitalization in this historically black neighborhood. A free pop-up art festival, Art on Elm, happens here each April. A charter academy occupies the former campus of Paul Quinn College, brilliant colors adorn the midcentury architecture of the East Waco Library, and Elm Avenue itself is a straight shot to the Doris Miller Memorial along the banks of the mighty Brazos River.

As we finish up our treats, I add must-dos to the day’s itinerary. I’m something of a planner by nature, and I’ve stumbled onto Waco’s official “Heart of Texas” app. A Things To Do screen lets me browse places that intrigue us, then add them to My Plan. I have to admit, My Plan is already overflowing, but since the app maps out each stop with point-by-point directions, I feel confident that we can fit it all in.

Leaving Lula Jane’s, we follow Elm Avenue across the river to the Downtown Cultural District. Many savvy home decorating aficionados will immediately associate the Cultural District with Magnolia Market at the Silos. And indeed, a national craze of home renovation — not to mention shiplap — got its start here with HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines, but the country chic charm isn’t really in the wheelhouse of my two college students.

We backtrack toward the Brazos and find ourselves staring at a behemoth of a building made of red brick and mullioned windows that covers a city block. A Waco landmark, the former McLendon Hardware Company was built in 1908. Today it’s home to Spice Village, a collection of boutique shops and vendors spreading across the entire top floor. The boys cannot get enough. They dart from display to display — heathered T-shirts overprinted with pithy phrases, engraved silver flasks, wooden carvings shaped like bears. They find something they like everywhere they look.

While they’re testing an array of scented beard oils — and no, neither of them has one — a woman unexpectedly holds out two tins of hair pomade and asks, “My grandson is 16, which one of these should I get?” The boys oblige with helpful advice.

The steps of Jacob’s Ladder climb a hillside in Cameron Park.

Baylor’s Mayborn Museum offers natural history exhibits and hands-on discovery rooms.

The Lake Waco Wetlands are a haven for wildlife and nature lovers.

Cafe Homestead serves farm-to-table food at an organic farming community.

On the other side of Baylor University, we devour old-fashioned burgers at tiny Cupp’s Drive-Inn. Like much of what we encounter in Waco, this place has been around for a while (since 1947), and they’ve clearly worked out the right recipe for a superior cheeseburger on a beautifully toasted bun.

Needing to walk off some calories, we head to the far side of town to the Lake Waco Wetlands. We come in from the south; as we cross the lake, the water tapers off to the horizon where the Waco Dam holds back the flow. It’s entirely unexpected to see this expanse of water suddenly appear, but this water is the reason the wetlands exist.

At the turn of the 21st century, the water level of Lake Waco was raised by 20,000 acre-feet, and significant wildlife habitat was lost. To mitigate this, the City of Waco partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to construct a wetlands covering 180 acres. The wetlands naturally treat 11 million gallons of water a day, in addition to providing a variety of habitats, including marsh, riparian forest, upland forest and open water.

A network of trails fans out through the wetlands. Pontoon walkways end in piers and bird blinds, perfect for catching a glimpse of a soaring raptor or paddling duck. Nora Schell, program coordinator, tells us that 20 duck species are routinely sighted here, along with herons, owls, woodpeckers, wrens and other species that use the wetlands as a food source and for breeding.

The wetlands are upstream of Lake Waco and are not on the Brazos but are instead along the Bosque River — the North Bosque, to be precise. The North Bosque passes the wetlands and feeds into Lake Waco. As it curves around below the lake, the Bosque meets the Brazos in one small part of the very large Cameron Park.

Something that the casual Waco visitor or a Silos-bound fan may never realize is the extent of Waco’s park system. The city maintains more than 1,200 acres across 60 public parks. As we move around the city it’s clear that green space is never far away, and Cameron Park offers more green space than most.

My family, even with multiple visits to the Cameron Park Zoo under our belt, is continually surprised at the size of the park. One of the largest city parks in the state, it boasts access to multiple playgrounds, sports fields, pavilions, two rivers, vertiginous cliff views and 20 miles of intricately laid trails on its 400 acres.

It’s so large, in fact, that we aren’t sure exactly where the Bosque and the Brazos merge. Luckily, as we stop at Lover’s Leap to take in the sweeping views of the Bosque, park ranger Nestor Leon is able to give us an idea of where we need to go.

Reaching that spot, we sit on the bank and watch pleasure boaters and anglers leave trailing wakes in the water. It’s a bit of an anticlimax after seeing the same boats from Lover’s Leap, but it’s also peaceful here. The two rivers meet, intertwine and move along downstream.

Nestor suggested one other stop, Circle Point, boasting another breathtaking panoramic view, and the spiraling path to its raised observation point adds a touch of zen. From here, we can see parts of the Cultural District. East Elm lies within view and, just at the edge of our visible line of sight, we see McLane Stadium, home of the Baylor Bears.

We stop to chat with another family we pass. The Kulaba Hanan family live here in Waco and visit the park as often as they can.

“Almost every Saturday,” Mr. Hanan tells us. They see a lot of young adults on the trails and pathways, as well as families. Daughter Danielle loves it here.

“The park is full of secret trails,” she confides to us. “You can always find a new one you’ve never noticed before.”

We settle back in for the drive home, the boys starting their playlist on the radio while my husband navigates my turns out of the park and onto the highway. Our day in Waco has been more than full and, while it’s true that we didn’t hit up everything on My Plan, I’ve saved the rest in my app for future visits.

Waco, as it turns out, is much like its beautiful park — there’s always something new to see that you’ve never noticed before.




Mayborn Museum


Homestead Craft Village


Spice Village

(956) 761-4511

Lake Waco Wetlands


Art on Elm


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