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Sky High TEXAS Sports arenas score big ARIZONA Ride the Grand Canyon Railway OKLAHOMA See bats, boomers, bison and more Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta


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CONTENTS

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TEXAS & SOUTHWEST

NATIVE LANDS Explore American Indian ruins and monuments

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona ELIXIRPIX/GETTY IMAGES


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

CONTENTS 42

FEATURES

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This is a product of

TAKE FLIGHT Albuquerque, N.M., hosts the world’s largest hot air balloon fest

COWBOY CULTURE Authentic Texas rodeos keep the tradition alive

EDITORIAL DIRECTOR Jeanette Barrett-Stokes jbstokes@usatoday.com

CREATIVE DIRECTOR Jerald Council jcouncil@usatoday.com

MANAGING EDITOR Michelle Washington mjwashington@usatoday.com

THE REGION

Minute Maid Park, Houston

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TEXAS

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The Lone Star State’s stadiums are a sports fan’s paradise

Galveston Island and Padre Island offer miles of coastline

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San Antonio’s hopping beer scene is worth a taste

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Fill up on culture and cuisine with these flavorful tours

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ARIZONA

ALEX BIERENS DE HAAN/HOUSTON ASTROS

UP FRONT The Grand Canyon Railway offers one-of-a-kind views

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Have a grand time at these entertaining casinos

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Explore the many ways to enjoy the state capital

ADDISON DOTY

6 10 ON THE COVER

AWESOME ANIMALS From apes to zebras, animals abound at Southwest zoos

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NEW MEXICO Casinos and golf courses are a winning combo

Hot air balloons fly high in the sky at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. GETTY IMAGES

EDITORS Amy Sinatra Ayres Sara Schwartz Barbara Vandenburgh Debbie Williams ISSUE DESIGNER Miranda Pellicano DESIGNERS Amira Martin Gina Toole Saunders Lisa M. Zilka INTERN Jordan Pecar CONTRIBUTING WRITERS Matt Alderton, Diane Bair, Brian Barth, Jennifer Boren, Luisa Colón, Rosalind Cummings-Yeates, Ashley Day, Dawn Gilbertson, Trevor Hughes, Rina Rapuano, Monica Rhor, Pamela Wright

ADVERTISING VP, ADVERTISING Patrick Burke | (703) 854-5914 pburke@usatoday.com

ACCOUNT DIRECTOR Justine Madden | (703) 854-5444 jmadden@usatoday.com

MYRIAD MUSEUMS Learn about pottery, pianos, Prohibition and more

ISSUE EDITOR Tracy Scott Forson

FINANCE Billing Coordinator Julie Marco ISSN#0734-7456 A USA TODAY Network publication, Gannett Co. Inc.

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LOOKING GLASS Dine while surrounded by the serenity of the sea

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OKLAHOMA Find mountain boomers, bats and bison in the Sooner State

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Amazing Museums Discover cowboys, music, mob bosses and more

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By Tracy Scott Forson OT ALL MUSEUMS ARE created equal, and many in the nation’s Southwest stand out for their distinct themes and cultural significance. From prehistoric times to Prohibition crimes, here are six that offer experiences that educate and entertain:

NATIONAL COWBOY & WESTERN HERITAGE MUSEUM

NATIONAL COWBOY & WESTERN HERITAGE MUSEUM

Oklahoma City Founded in 1955, this museum collects, preserves and exhibits Western art and artifacts. Permanent exhibits display Native American relics, Victorian firearms, cowboy attire, a replica of a turn-of-the-century cattle town and dramatic paintings depicting frontier life. More than 10 million visitors have toured the facility, which features an interactive Children’s Cowboy Corral and the Museum Grill, where barbecue brisket is on the menu. ▶ nationalcowboymuseum.org

KEMP DAVIS

THE WITTE MUSEUM

NATIONAL COWBOY & WESTERN HERITAGE MUSEUM

San Antonio For more than 90 years, this San Antonio mainstay has helped preserve the area’s culture and history. A dinosaur gallery, featuring preserved footprints, is among the permanent exhibits. Visitors can also learn more about the state’s flora and fauna, such as the American bison, and get a glimpse of how our prehistoric ancestors lived. Through Jan. 6, the museum will celebrate the city’s tricentennial with a special Confluence and Culture exhibition that tells San Antonio’s story through seven immersive galleries. ▶ wittemuseum.org


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THE MOB MUSEUM

THE VOX AGENCY

Las Vegas The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement opened on Valentine’s Day 2012, the anniversary of the 1929 massacre in Chicago where Al Capone’s gang members shot and killed several members of Bugs Moran’s gang. Three floors of exhibits cover the days of Prohibition to suspected drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s modern-day reign. Take the back staircase to be transported to The Underground, a Roaring ’20s speakeasy where a well-stocked bar awaits. ▶ themobmuseum.org

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MUSEUM OF INDIAN ARTS & CULTURE

Santa Fe, N.M. This museum’s collection of archaeological artifacts is the largest of its kind in New Mexico, housing approximately 35,000 items, including textiles, pottery and jewelry. The museum offers weekend lecture series and special morning programs for adults, and students can enjoy tours that offer in-depth looks at exhibits and practices, such as weaving and pottery. Check out the online exhibits featuring paintings, jewelry and other exquisitely decorated works of art. ▶ indianartsandculture.org

JESSICA HERNANDEZ

DISCOVERY GATEWAY CHILDREN’S MUSEUM JESSICA SAVIDGE/MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MUSEUM

MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MUSEUM

Phoenix Even when there are no musical acts gracing the stage (and there often are), there are plenty of reasons to stop by this melodious museum. See more than 16,000 instruments and associated objects from Nigeria, Bolivia, Peru, India and countries on nearly every continent. Woodwinds, strings, percussion and brass are all represented in this 80,000-square-foot homage to musical instruments. If more contemporary American music is your forte, don’t miss items owned by such legends as John Lennon and Elvis Presley. ▶ mim.org

Salt Lake City Kids can read, climb, explore and learn while enjoying interactive exhibits. There’s an obstacle course, giant construction blocks, a lending library, a sensory room and more. Children 7 and older can test their mettle riding SkyCycle, a bicycle apparatus on a 30-foot track suspended 15 feet in the air, that teaches the principles of counterbalance and center of gravity. ▶ discoverygateway.org


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Animal Overload Visit these six zoos for a wild good time

By Monica Rhor

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HAT MAKES A ZOO

extraordinary? That all depends on what you’re looking for. In search of a quick day trip with the kids? Then the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, with its nearly 1,200 animals, may fit the bill.

LAUREN WESTER; MAP: GETTY IMAGES

Are you a travel buff looking for an up-close-and-personal visit with all manner of feathered friends? Then Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City is for you. How about a habitat that takes you to the African savanna without ever leaving Texas? Check out the Fort Worth Zoo. All across the Southwest you can find a dazzling array of wildlife and habitats. Here’s a sampling of a few:

TRACY AVIARY

Salt Lake City As the oldest aviary in the country, the Tracy Aviary is a birdUT watcher’s paradise, with more than 400 birds spanning 130 species, says spokeswoman Lauren Wester. Nestled among verdant gardens are toucans, American eagles, hornbills and sandhill cranes. Visitors can see newly hatched baby flamingos or Andy the Andean condor, the aviary’s unofficial mascot, who turns 60 in 2019. Feed flamingos and pelicans; prepare food for owls, hawks and vultures; and release ladybugs in the Treasures of the Rainforest exhibit. ▶ tracyaviary.org

Lion Habitat Ranch

ANDREA JOHNSON; MAP: GETTY IMAGES

OKLAHOMA CITY ZOO AND BOTANICAL GARDEN

Oklahoma City The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden recently joined forces with KultureCity, a movement to improve accessibility for autistic children and others with special needs, to become one of a few zoos certified as “sensory inclusive.” Complimentary calming tools such as fidget toys, weighted lap blankets and noise-canceling headphones are available at no additional cost, as are designated quiet zones. A forthcoming Sanctuary Asia habitat will introduce Asian elephants and Indian rhinos to the zoo, joining a bevy of animals that include pygmy hippos, clouded leopards, flamingo hatchlings and red river hog piglets. ▶ okczoo.org OK

LION HABITAT RANCH


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FORT WORTH ZOO Fort Worth, Texas The Fort Worth Zoo is TX consistently ranked among the country’s best. One reason: Exhibits such as the African Savanna, which opened this April and includes underwater hippo viewing and rhino yards. A mixed-species exhibit with giraffes, zebras, kudus, springboks, ostriches and pelicans lets guests “stand eyeto-eye with the giraffe and feed them from the observation deck,” notes public relations manager Avery Elander. With 540 species, 68 of which are endangered or threatened, Fort Worth Zoo also has the distinction of being the only one in the country with all four great ape species — gorillas, orangutans, bonobos and chimpanzees — and one of the few housing two species of rhino. ▶ fortworthzoo.org JEREMY ENLOW; MAP: GETTY IMAGES

JESSEY CHERNE-DURKIN; MAP: GETTY IMAGES

ABQ BIOPARK ZOO Albuquerque, N.M. Albuquerque’s ABQ BioPark Zoo NM offers visitors a global experience, with areas featuring wildlife from Africa, Asia, Australia and tropical regions. Among its 900 animals are monkeys, lions, elephants, koalas, kangaroos, tigers and jaguars. The BioPark also works to conserve endangered wildlife, participating in survival plans for 29 different species, such as white rhinos and orangutans, and serving as an elephant breeding facility. After your walk on the wild side, stop by the botanical garden (about 2 miles away) for its BUGarium, filled with extensive bug and arthropod exhibits. Then, relax on the shore of Tingley Beach, just a mile from the zoo. ▶ cabq.gov

LION HABITAT RANCH; MAP: GETTY IMAGES

ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM; MAP: GETTY IMAGES

LION HABITAT RANCH Henderson, Nev. NV There’s plenty of wild living in Las Vegas, but a wildlife zoo can be a little tougher to find. Just minutes from the Strip, Lion Habitat Ranch began in 1989 as a sanctuary for the famed MGM Resort lions and is now home to emus, ostriches, a giraffe named Ozzie and, of course, the big cats. About 36 lions, all descendants of MGM royalty, live on the ranch, where visitors delight in hearing the roars of the pride. For a one-of-a-kind souvenir, pop into the gift shop and purchase a painting created by Ozzie. For an additional fee, visitors can feed the giraffe and lions. ▶ lionhabitatranch.org

ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM Tucson, Ariz. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum melds a zoo, botanical garden, art gallery and natural history museum under a bright blue canopy of sky. Walking paths guide visitors through the 97-acre attraction to see desert habitats, one of the world’s largest regional mineral collections and a hummingbird aviary. Eighty-five percent of the museum experience is outdoors, providing a unique glimpse of life in the wild. It is home to more than 230 animal species, and live presentations highlight native mammals, birds, poisonous reptiles and raptors. There are also 16 gardens, and the Ironwood Gallery displays works of art that focus on conservation and wildlife. ▶ desertmuseum.org AZ


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Feasting with the Fishes Dive into these aquatic dining experiences By Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

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OCEANS BALLROOM Draper, Utah Located under the same roof as Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, Oceans Ballroom provides an unusual event space punctuated by a 300,000-gallon shark exhibit containing seven different shark species as well as stingrays, unicornfish and sea turtles. When the space hosts weddings or corporate events, Shelby Dobson, associate director of marketing and public relations for the aquarium, says, “A lot of people comment that they are wowed by the shark exhibit, and it can make it challenging to pay attention to a speaker!” ▶ thelivingplanet.com

PROVIDED BY LOVELAND LIVING PLANET AQUARIUM; GETTY IMAGES (3)

AQUARIUM RESTAURANT

SHARK REEF CAFE

LIGHTHOUSE CAFE

Houston Inside Houston’s Downtown Aquarium complex, Aquarium Restaurant’s highlight is a 150,000-gallon tank showcasing shovelnose guitarfish, reticulated rays and giant groupers. Dim lighting enhances the underwater atmosphere, and the menu serves seafood dishes such as calamari, gumbo and shrimp tacos. ▶ aquariumrestaurants.com

Albuquerque, N.M. Head to Albuquerque Biological Park to enjoy a zoo, botanical garden, beach and aquarium. At the aquarium, grab a bite at the Shark Reef Cafe. A gigantic aquarium wraps around the restaurant, with smaller tanks lining the walls so every diner has a great view of sharks and sea turtles as they nibble on green chile cheeseburgers and other sandwich and salad options. If you’re lucky, you might even view divers feeding the fish as you sit at your table. ▶ cabq.gov/culturalservices/biopark

Scottsdale, Ariz. It’s all about hands-on experiences at the Lighthouse Cafe, situated inside the Odysea Aquarium. From the scarlet-colored lighthouse entrance to the touch pool filled with turtles and small rays, guests get an interactive ocean experience. Screens reflecting marine life hang along the walls, and diners can order locally sourced items, including a Southwest chicken wrap or a barbecue brisket grilled cheese sandwich. ▶ odyseaaquarium.com


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MORE TO SEA OKLAHOMA AQUARIUM Check out the Shark Adventure, Extreme Fishes and Aquatic Oklahoma exhibits at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks, Okla., about 12 miles south of Tulsa. Its newest addition, Sea Turtle Island, opened in 2017, and its 56,000-gallon tank is home to two 300-pound loggerhead sea turtles. ▶ okaquarium.org

PROVIDED BY MERMAID LOUNGE

MERMAID LOUNGE

Las Vegas Fairytale dreams come to life in a 117,000-gallon aquarium brimming with 400 candy-colored tropical fish against a silvery mermaid backdrop at the Mermaid Lounge in Las Vegas. Iridescent aquamarine wall fixtures and fishtail chairs emblazoned with names like Nemo and Moby Dick complete the maritime magic. Sit amongst the coral and enjoy shrimp cocktail, battered cod and shimmery beverages. The theme may be fanciful, but this place is strictly for diners 21 and older. ▶ silvertoncasino.com/dine

TEXAS STATE AQUARIUM This Corpus Christi landmark displays more than 460 species, with many opportunities for its 500,000 annual visitors to touch and interact with animals. Highlights include a sprawling Caribbean exhibit that features coral reefs and jungles, a 4D theater and feeding encounters with sharks and flamingos. ▶ texasstateaquarium.org SEAQUEST UTAH Interactive exhibits from around the world are the hallmark of this aquarium located in Layton, Utah.

Visitors can explore the sea life of myriad ecosystems spanning five continents, including exhibits that mimic the Amazon Rainforest, the California coast and the Mayan jungle. ▶ utah.visitseaquest.com SEA LIFE ARIZONA Dip into an interactive tide pool with sea urchins or step inside the Bay of Rays at the Sea Life aquarium in Tempe, Ariz. Don’t miss Critter Canyon, where Lancelot the snake and Mojave the tortoise await. ▶ visitsealife.com/arizona SHARK REEF AQUARIUM AT MANDALAY BAY You’ll feel like you’re splashing into the ocean when you come face to face with a golden crocodile and sand tiger shark at the Shark Reef Aquarium in Las Vegas. A heightened sensory experience is the focus here, with a 1.3 million-gallon shipwreck supplying a 360-degree perspective. ▶ sharkreef.com


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

10,000year-old destination

HUECO TANKS STATE PARK & HISTORIC SITE El Paso, Texas

Apache rock art, Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site

CHRIS ANTHONY/GETTY IMAGES

TRAVEL BACK IN TIME Explore ancient Native American lands in the Southwest By Luisa Colón

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HE SOUTHWEST IS FAMOUS for its

natural wonders, including (but certainly not limited to) the stunning rock layers of Arizona’s Grand Canyon and the rippled, sparkling dunes of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument. The magic of the region is such that you can straddle four states at once at the Four Corners Monument where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona intersect. But perhaps the Southwest’s most extraordinary features are those that allow visitors to travel back in time, via the ancient dwellings of Native Americans who lived, thrived and innovated there ... and who continue to inspire.

Native American roots in Texas run deep: The state takes its name from the Caddo Indian word for friend. Sites such as the Caddo Mounds offer insight into life on the settlement. Similarly, much can be learned at Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site, which was the heart of several communities, including the Jornada Mogollon and Apache peoples, as well as a destination for others who traveled in the Chihuahuan Desert. (Today, the sacred site is used for gatherings by the Tigua Indians.) But villages at Hueco Tanks functioned on a dramatically different landscape: rock basins, or huecos, which collected rainwater and the granite mountains that surround them. Present-day visitors can marvel at the extensive rock imagery left by their predecessors over the course of 1,500 years. Enjoy stargazing, camping and hiking (there’s also an interpretive center and a park store). ▶ tpwd.texas.gov/ state-parks/huecotanks


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Gather in a Great Kiva

AZTEC RUINS NATIONAL MONUMENT Aztec, N.M.

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

A more than 800-year-old high-rise

MONTEZUMA CASTLE NATIONAL MONUMENT Camp Verde, Ariz. Set in a towering limestone cliff, the Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona may not be aptly named — early explorers mistook it for an Aztec structure and named it after Aztec ruler Montezuma — but it never fails to

astound. The stunning ancient dwelling is now known to have been inhabited by the Sinagua Indians almost a thousand years ago, and the “castle” is actually an early kind of apartment complex: five stories tall and containing approximately 20 rooms. Among the first declared national monuments in the U.S., the site now features a museum and gift shop; and the Montezuma Well (a limestone sinkhole replenished by an underground stream) is just about 10 miles away. ▶ nps.gov/moca

This spectacular site was originally (and mistakenly) attributed to Aztec culture, but these ruins are actually ancestral Puebloan structures. Self-guided and ranger-led tours (check ahead of time for ranger availability) take visitors through the sprawling ancient community. See the oldest and largest reconstructed Great Kiva, or Pueblo Indian ceremonial chamber — a cavernous space half below ground and made luminous by natural light — where religious and political gatherings were held. ▶ nps.gov/azru

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SPIRO MOUNDS ARCHAEOLOGICAL CENTER

Travel through time

SPIRO MOUNDS ARCHAEOLOGICAL CENTER Spiro, Okla. The only prehistoric archaeological site in Oklahoma that’s open to the public, Spiro Mounds spans 150 acres bordering the Arkansas River and provides an expansive window into thousands of years of history, culture and community. Spiro Mounds was used as a permanent settlement from A.D. 800

until A.D. 1450, with the city being inhabited for another 150 years. Excavation during the 1930s caused the location to become known as the “King Tut of the Arkansas Valley” because of its abundance of incredible artifacts — but also led to tremendous losses as some artifacts were destroyed or sold around the world. Today, Spiro Mounds is protected and owned by the Oklahoma Historical Society and includes exhibits as well as trails, tours and special events. ▶ okhistory.org/ sites/spiromounds

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TRAVEL BACK IN TIME

Explore prehistoric villages

HOVENWEEP NATIONAL MONUMENT Colorado and Utah

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Where the past meets the present EDGE OF THE CEDARS STATE PARK Blanding, Utah Consider Edge of the Cedars State Park a bit of a work in progress over the last thousand years. The first occupants were ancestral Puebloans, who are believed

to have occupied the site in the ninth and 10th centuries. A new community made the space their home — adding an underground kiva structure (accessible to the public by ladder), the central pueblo and surrounding unit pueblos — and lived there until about A.D. 1125. Not only does Edge of the Cedars State Park boast the most extensive collection of regional pottery and artifacts in the

Four Corners, but a repository (available for educational purposes only) was completed in 1994. The most recent additions to the grounds are beautiful sculptures by Utah-based artist Joe Pachak. A standout is Sun Marker, a stunning piece that blends the enduring intrigue of archaeoastronomy with artistic expression. ▶ stateparks.utah. gov/parks/edge-ofthe-cedars/

Stretching across the boundaries of Colorado and Utah, Hovenweep National Monument is home to six prehistoric villages and varied architecture that remains a testament to the skillful, innovative and far-reaching vision of the ancestral Puebloan farming culture. There are towers and kivas, dams and granaries — sights to behold in all seasons, whether dusted with snowfall in the winter or bursting with wildflowers in spring. And yearround, the monument lies beneath night skies that reveal breathtaking celestial vistas such as the Milky Way. ▶ nps.gov/hove

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The Hidden Cave revealed

GRIMES POINT ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE Fallon, Nev. Thousands of years before family garages or self-storage units, early Native Americans stored their belongings in what is now called Hidden Cave, located at the Grimes Point Archaeological Site in Nevada. Multiple excavations were

required to reveal the contents of Hidden Cave and make its amazing artifacts — food remains, tools and bones, to name a few — available to the public (through Churchill County Museum guided tours). Also at Grimes Point: a quarter-mile self-guided trail that features petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings). Displayed on massive boulders that shimmer beguilingly with desert varnish (a naturally occurring black coating), these ancient carvings are an age-old mystery. ▶ blm.gov/visit/grimespoint-hidden-cave-site

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Albuquerque’s hot air balloon festival is picture-perfect By Trevor Hughes

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SANTA FE'S NEWEST CASINO

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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 2017

FLIGHT

TREVOR HUGHES; GETTY IMAGES

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ith the roar of a propane burner, our hot air balloon lifts into the sky as hundreds of cheering spectators look up, and I look down — because tucked into the wicker basket at my feet is a dog. Bandit, it turns out, routinely rides with balloon pilot Jeff Haliczer as they fly around the country. “He likes to stick his nose out and watch what’s going on below,” Haliczer says with a smile, between blasts on the burner. Bandit and I have that in common at the moment, as Haliczer’s colorful balloon carries us aloft. The burners pour more warm air into the nylon envelope and suddenly we’re 1,000

feet above the ground, looking down on thousands of spectators and sailing among hundreds of balloons at the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. An estimated 600 hot air balloons dotted the sky during 2017’s event, and hundreds of thousands of people looked skyward to watch the earlymorning launches, evening balloon glows and fireworks shows. The 47th edition of the nine-day event is scheduled for Oct. 6-14, 2018, and may see even greater attendance. Tom Garrity, the fiesta’s media relations director, points to an independent survey showing last year’s gathering included roughly 211,300 Albuquerque residents and

572,000 out-of-state guests. The event had a total economic impact of nearly $173 million on metro Albuquerque’s businesses, according to the study. Beyond private businesses, the event pumped an estimated $5.7 million into state coffers, $3.5 million for the city of Albuquerque and $826,735 for Bernalillo County. Garrity says a key to success is that events reflect the brand of the community because visitors want unique, authentic experiences. “Roswell and UFOs, Hatch and green chile, Spanish Market at Santa Fe — those are just a few events CONTI NUED

SAVE THE DATE Mark your calendar for Albuquerque’s annual International Balloon Fiesta OCT. 6-14, 2018


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White Sands National Monument

TAKE FLIGHT

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RISE TO THE OCCASION Albuquerque’s annual International Balloon Fiesta may be New Mexico’s largest, but it’s not the state’s only event that launches colorful contraptions and thrill-seeking adventurers into the atmosphere. Here are more of the state’s aerial events: SAN JUAN RIVER BALLOON RALLY Bloomfield, June 15-17 Float down the river from above during the annual, three-day San Juan River Balloon Rally. If the crowds of the Albuquerque balloon fest seem overwhelming, this may be more your speed. Fewer than 20 balloons typically participate in this event. ▶ bloomfieldchamber.info TREVOR HUGHES

Balloonists look for a landing spot while soaring among brightly colored vessels dotting the sky during the 2017 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

that reflect something authentic about the magical scene in every direction. Pilots fly community and enhance their brand,” he for about an hour, riding the air currents that adds. move in different directions depending on The fiesta, organizers say, is the world’s the altitude, before finding somewhere to most-photographed event, with an estimated set down. While I’m shooting away, Haliczer 25 million pictures taken during the week. decides to land on the field from which we Canon, the photography company, is a departed. It’s a big, flat, grassy area — no major sponsor, and attendees jostle trees or power lines here. for shots as balloons inflate and The balloon touches down and depart. Organizers encourage then bounces back up, hopping More than everyone to share their photos another 30 feet before Haliczer 750,000 people on social media, and sponsors spills even more hot air and our attended the offer prizes for the best photos. basket thumps onto the grass, 2017 festival. Looking around, it’s easy to and bystanders run over to hold For more, visit understand why so many photos us down. Bandit is unfazed; balloonfiesta.com get taken: The clear blue skies, although, he starts whining to the sunrises and lack of nighttime get out of the basket. He’s antsy, light pollution make for stunning Haliczer says, to check out whatever photographs. Oh, and gorgeous balloons new smells might be out there. peacefully floating over rivers and autumnAs we wait for Haliczer’s crew to drive over gold trees provide ample opportunity to take with a trailer, he pulls a cord that releases the Instagram-worthy shots. hot air from inside the balloon and the nylon Haliczer and Bandit look down as we cruise begins collapsing to the ground. over backyards filled with waving residents, “Good flight,” he says. power lines and trees that seem close enough Good flight, indeed. to touch. We pass other balloonists doing Jason Gibbs contributed to this article. the same, all of us taking pictures of the

GREAT AMERICAN DUCK RACE Deming, Aug. 25-26 A balloon rally has been part of this annual event since 1981, and next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Duck Race, which also includes a carnival, skating competition, softball tournaments and a car show. ▶ demingduckrace.com WHITE SANDS BALLOON INVITATIONAL Alamogordo, Sept. 15-16 More than 30 balloons participated in the 2017 White Sands balloon event that has drawn as many as 2,000 people to the national monument. Spectators can watch colorful balloons floating against the backdrop of blue sky and white landscape in the Chihuahuan Desert. ▶ alamogordo.com BALLOONS AND TUNES Artesia, Nov. 3-4 Some spend the first week of November celebrating All Saints’ Day or Day of the Dead, but balloon pilots in Artesia recognize it as the time for the annual Balloons and Tunes festival. A local high school band provides the music during the Saturday night festivities. ▶ artesiachamber.com


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

See buckaroos in action at an authentic Texas rodeo

Friday and Saturday nights, year-round

By Matt Alderton

o many, cowboys are caricatures — clichés in hats and boots. They show up in period films, countrymusic videos and nostalgic advertisements for cigarettes and spirits. They don’t drive cattle; they drive sales. Not so in Texas. Because it has more cattle than any other U.S. state — 12.3 million, to be exact — cowboying here is serious business. One of the best ways to experience cowboy culture

is to visit an authentic Texas rodeo, the origins of which date back to the 19th century, when cowboys drove cattle hundreds of miles north from Texas to railheads in Kansas for shipment to far-off stockyards. Flush with cash, the cowboys would celebrate successful sojourns by wagering who could ride best or rope fastest. They’d pool their money, then compete for the pot. Rodeos today work largely the same: Cowboys pay to compete in events like bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, barrel racing and bull riding, and the winners

STOCKYARDS CHAMPIONSHIP RODEO

receive cash prizes. “First and foremost, rodeo is a sporting event,” says Kathryn Siefker, a curator at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, where a special exhibit on Texas rodeos — Rodeo! The Exhibition — runs through Jan. 27, 2019. “The cowboys and cowgirls who participate are athletes at the top of their field.” What is serious competition for performers is pure entertainment for spectators. And like everything else in Texas, the fun is supersized. Here are five rollicking rodeos worth experiencing firsthand:

Many Texas towns have a rodeo every year, but Fort Worth has two each week. The Stockyards Championship Rodeo is located in the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District, where the attractions — including a twice-daily cattle drive — pay tribute to the American West. The rodeo is a central hub for cowboys traveling the national circuit, says Joe Hub Baker, who produces the rodeos and says its biggest asset is that it’s open to amateurs and professionals. “You can show up on a Saturday night and see a 17-year-old novice going up against a 35-year-old world champion,” Baker says. “It’s a great David-versus-Goliath kind of environment ... so if you’re going to get up from your seat, you’d better do it at intermission.” ▶ stockyardsrodeo.com

DAVID ROTH; GETTY IMAGES


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HOUSTON LIVESTOCK SHOW AND RODEO Feb. 25 to March 17, 2019

Houston is Texas’ largest city, so it should come as no surprise that it hosts the state’s largest rodeo: the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which attracts 2.4 million people every year. Nightly, there’s a two-hour rodeo followed by a blockbuster concert; George Strait will headline next year’s grand finale event. With LED lights and giant high-definition screens, this is the Las Vegas of Texas rodeos. “It’s a production that rivals just about anything else you’d ever go to,” says Joel Cowley, the rodeo’s president and CEO. ▶ rodeohouston.com

IMPULSE PHOTOGRAPHY; GETTY IMAGES


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

RODEO AUSTIN March 16–30, 2019

Austin is known for its live music, delectable food trucks and quirky attractions. As it turns out, so is Rodeo Austin, the city’s annual event, which features more than 100 live music performances during its 15-day run. “We have lots of live music, a beer and wine garden and a showcase of local Texas products in our Taste of Texas tent,” says marketing coordinator Lindsay Leyden. “This year, we also brought a little bit of (Austin’s famous Graffiti Park) to our fairgrounds with large murals by local artists. We want our fairgoers to be able to see what’s unique about Austin by visiting us.” ▶ rodeoaustin.com

MARK MATSON

TEJAS RODEO COMPANY Saturday nights, March through November

The NBA isn’t the only place to find “Spurs” in San Antonio. The Tejas Rodeo Company, located in Bulverde, 30 miles north of San Antonio, has old wagons, a mechanical bull and an on-site steakhouse where guests can graze on ranch-raised beef. Leading the 90-minute rodeo is retired bull rider Yancey James, who hosts the show on horseback inside a covered arena. Afterward, there’s a dance with country music where rodeogoers can two-step until 1 a.m. “What really sets us apart is our venue,” says James, co-owner of the Tejas Rodeo Company. “The seating here is so unique that spectators are up-close and personal with the performers. You can see the sweat pouring down their faces.” ▶ tejasrodeo.com

JOHN T. MOHAR

SAN ANGELO STOCK SHOW RODEO Feb. 1–17, 2019

San Angelo is a small city with a big rodeo. The San Angelo Stock Show & Rodeo has an 86 year history, starting as a fat stock show in the ‘30s. Held every February, it now runs for 17 consecutive days during which the sole focus is rodeo. No concert. Just competition. And yet, there’s still just as much showmanship as sportsmanship. “At all the other big rodeos, for instance, the announcer is in a box watching from the sidelines,” says Siefker. “In San Angelo, he’s actually on horseback in the arena, which gives the rodeo a different feel.” There are also some serious pyrotechnics, which make this rodeo lit. Literally. ▶ sanangelorodeo.com

SAN ANGELO STOCK SHOW & RODEO; GETTY IMAGES


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THE REGION

TEXAS

Enjoy island beaches, beer, awesome sports arenas and food tours

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ARIZONA

Ride the rails, roll the dice and fly above Phoenix

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NEW MEXICO

Golf courses near casinos are a major score

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OKLAHOMA

See elephants, elk, eagles and more Sooner State wildlife

HAPPY TRICENTENNIAL San Antonio, home of the Alamo, one of the most recognizable 18th-century fortresses in the U.S., is celebrating its 300-year history in 2018. To join the party, visit sanantonio300.org.

SEAN PAVONE PHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY IMAGES


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | BEACHES

ND; N ND D;; D SOUTH PADRE ISLAND; GE GES ES MAP: GETTY IMAGES

Sun, Sand, Sea Explore two of Texas’ best beach islands

T

EXAS IS KNOWN FOR

cowboys, barbecue and football, but its sparkling coastlines are often overlooked. That’s a shame, because the Gulf Coast has a lot to offer its visitors. Whether you’re a beachcomber, birdwatcher, spring breaker or adventurer, South Padre and Galveston islands have exactly what you’re looking for and prove the old adage that everything’s bigger in Texas.

GALVESTON ISLAND Texas

Galveston Island

About an hour’s drive from Houston, Galveston is a quick escape for Texans. City-dwellers are lured not only by the island’s 32 miles of shoreline, but also by its assortment of restaurants and classic fish houses, resort hotels, antique stores, museums, downtown shopping and quiet neighborhoods dotted with Victorian homes. Destruction from the Great Storm of 1900 led to the building of Galveston’s protective and signature beachfront structure: a 10.4-mile seawall. It claims to have the world’s longest continuous sidewalk and is often packed with joggers, bicyclists, skaters and those who love to walk along the shoreline without sand between

their toes. On Galveston’s eastern edge, adults flock to East Beach for its beach parties, festivals, live bands and even an annual sand castle competition. Nearby Stewart Beach is a good choice for families and activities such as volleyball tournaments. Kids will love Galveston Island’s historic Pleasure Pier, featuring the 1,246-foot Iron Shark roller coaster. Or take a ride on the 100-foot-tall Galaxy Wheel and watch its spectacular nightly LED light show. Don’t forget to bring your furry family members along. All of the beaches on Galveston Island are pet-friendly.

VADIM TROSHKIN; GALVESTON ISLAND CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU

The bright and colorful Galaxy Wheel is a well-known landmark on Galveston Island’s Pleasure Pier.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | BEACHES

Exploring South Padre Island beach via catamaran is a popular pastime.

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND Texas

South Padre Island

Visitors who make it all the way down to South Padre Island, located off the tip of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, are thrilled by the white-sand beaches and clear surf. One of the nation’s southernmost tourist locations, this barrier island is known for its spring break crowds, but the emerald- and aquamarine-hued waters also lure families year-round, particularly “snow bird” retirees in winter. About 30 miles long and a half-mile wide, South Padre Island is a key destination for birders who flock to see herons, egrets, yellow-

billed loons and more of the area’s more than 300 bird species during spring and fall migrations. Exploring via catamaran is a popular activity on South Padre. Dolphin sightings are common off the coast. Enjoy surf fishing with the family or visit Andy Bowie County Park on the island’s northern edge, which has a playground, picnic pavilions and concession stands. Plan to spend the entire day. Visitors can kiteboard in the afternoon while taking in some rays and end the day riding on horseback at sunset.

THE CITY OF SOUTH PADRE ISLAND (3); MAP: GETTY IMAGES


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | STADIUMS

d dium an NRG Sta trodome NRG As

NRG ASTRODOME

NRG Astrodome MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES; PROVIDED BY NRG PARK

Awesome Arenas The ‘Everything is Bigger in Texas’ saying holds true for the state’s stadiums By Brian Barth

F

ROM AT&T STADIUM, AKA “Jerry

World,” home of the Dallas Cowboys, to Houston’s “Eighth Wonder of the World” — as locals refer to the Astrodome — the Lone Star State is a sports fan’s paradise. Call him biased, but Jeff Balke is darned sure there is no better place to be a sports fan than Texas. Houston is particularly blessed, says the journalist and co-author of Houston Rockets: Celebrating 50 Seasons, a book honoring

his hometown’s NBA franchise. “We’ve had a stadium renaissance here over the last 20 years,” he says, ticking off eight venues that have been built. Three of those — Minute Maid Park (MLB), Toyota Center (NBA and American Hockey League) and BBVA Compass Stadium (Major League Soccer, National Women’s Soccer League and Texas Southern football) — are within a short walk of each other in the downtown Ballpark District; a fourth — NRG Stadium (NFL) — is a 10-minute ride away on METRORail, the city’s light rail system. All are worth the trip.

Houston Next door to NRG Stadium is the NRG Astrodome, Balke’s hands-down favorite venue. The iconic midcentury structure ushered in the modern stadium era when it opened more than 50 years ago. It was the first fully enclosed, airconditioned stadium of its size, and the first to utilize artificial turf. It’s not possible to take in a game there at the moment, however. The facility, recently designated as a historic landmark, is undergoing a massive renovation, which is expected to be completed in 2020. But you can still admire it from the outside, says Balke, adding that some of his fellow Houstonians now enjoy a part of the Astrodome at home. “They offered the old seats for sale and people here bought them like they were gold bullion,” he says. “I know folks who now sit on Astrodome chairs in their living room.”


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | STADIUMS

AT&T STADIUM

Arlington “A palace,” says Balke of what has become known in Texas simply as “Jerry World,” after the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones. “There’s no other word for it.” Completed in 2009, the 80,000-seat AT&T Stadium is the world’s largest dome stadium, and one of the most expensive ever built. In addition to the main attraction — the five-time Super Bowl champs — the venue was ranked the third best in the NFL by Sporting News and hosts a world-class contemporary art collection and dining options ranging from pretzels and beer to ritzy fine dining at the membersonly Stadium Club restaurant. TIM WARNER/GETTY IMAGES

MINUTE MAID PARK

Houston Balke’s other favorite Texas stadium, though built in 2000, has a “classic, old-school feel,” he says, compared with the Astrodome’s futuristic vibe. There’s natural grass and red brick galore, but the vibe also comes from the fact that the architecture integrates portions of Union Station, Houston’s turn-of-the-century rail depot, which once occupied the site. There’s even a full-size replica of a 19th-century locomotive that runs along one wall. The 41,000-seat retractable-roof facility anchors Houston’s Ballpark district, a sports-themed section of downtown that’s buzzing with new loft-style condos, bars, restaurants and amenities for the whole family. CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES

BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | STADIUMS

KYLE FIELD

College Station Fans of the Aggies, Texas A&M’s football team, have earned a reputation as some of the rowdiest, and most loyal, in the nation. They maintain a tradition known as the 12th Man, which involves standing throughout the game in support of the 11 players on the field. A recent $425 million expansion of the 1927 venue brought the capacity up to more than 102,000, making it one of the largest college football stadiums in the country, and adding perks more often seen at professional sports stadiums. Be sure to check out the Hall of Champions, a 30,000-square-foot exhibition hall devoted to Aggie sports, and don’t leave without sampling the stadium’s signature food: chicken-fried hot dogs.

BOB LEVEY/ GETTY IMAGES

Leroy Sane of Manchester City competes in the International Champions Cup against Manchester United at NRG Stadium in 2017. AARON M. SPRECHER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

NRG STADIUM

GLEN JOHNSON/TEXAS A&M ATHLETICS

Planes fly in formation over a large screen at Kyle Field on the campus of Texas A&M.

Houston Of course, sporting events are commonplace at NRG Stadium, but that’s not all the space is used for. For starters, there’s the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a monthlong extravaganza that doubles as a music festival. Since opening in 2002, NRG Stadium has also hosted monster truck events, a slew of high-profile international soccer matches, two NCAA Final Fours and two Super Bowls. It is the only NFL venue with a retractable roof that can be configured to utilize a 125,000-square-foot space, from which Lady Gaga once rappelled during a Super Bowl halftime show.

DARRELL K ROYAL-TEXAS MEMORIAL STADIUM

In the middle of the day or night, Texas Longhorns cheerleaders and players take to the field to represent for their school and the city of Austin. TIM WARNER/GETTY IMAGES (2)

Austin The 100,000-seat home of the University of Texas Longhorns is among the largest college football stadiums in the nation. Built in 1924, there are few frills, other than the Red McCombs Red Zone, a special field-side seating area with its own food court and the largest high-definition video screen in collegiate sports. But you’ll find plenty of spirit, which seems to translate into a significant home field advantage for the Longhorns: The team has won more than 75 percent of its games played in the arena. While you’re in town, be sure to say hello to Big Bertha, the Texas Longhorns Band’s 96-year-old, 8-foot diameter bass drum, which can be found in the concourse at the north end zone.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | SAN ANTONIO

San Antonio Suds City’s growing beer scene demands a taste By Ashley Day

I

F YOU’RE A BEER drinker, no trip is complete without a taste of the local brews. San Antonio’s beer scene is a lively one, full of hopping pubs and award-winning brews. If you count yourself a fan, enjoy a pint — or five — at these local breweries.

ERIC W. POHL

JOMANDO CRUZ

RANGER CREEK BREWING & DISTILLING

FREETAIL BREWING CO.

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling opened in an industrial area of San Antonio in 2010. The tasting room is open on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons, and tours are offered on Saturdays. Ranger Creek serves six beers on tap, and its canned San Antonio Lager was named Best Munich Helle 2017 at Chicago’s World Beer Championships. The city’s first “brewstillery” also makes three whiskeys: a rye, a bourbon and a mesquite-smoked whiskey. The tasting room is surrounded by aging barrels and hosts community events such as crawfish boils and televised game-viewing parties. ▶ drinkrangercreek.com

Freetail Brewing Co. operates a brewpub, open daily, and a tasting room, open Wednesdays through Sundays. Established in 2008, Freetail offers five core beers, half a dozen seasonals and five reserve beers. Taste an American amber ale, a German-style lager, a Belgian-style wheat and an IPA. Growlers, pitchers, pints and six-packs are available, as well as tours and events such as yoga and crawfish boils. In 2017, Freetail won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for a cellared vintage of its signature La Muerta imperial stout. ▶ freetailbrewing.com


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | SAN ANTONIO

ALAMO BEER COMPANY Alamo Beer Company opened its doors in 2015 on the city’s east side. Sample five brews from eight options on tap with a flight shaped like the historic Alamo mission. Inside, the tap room offers beer hall-style seating, retail and special activities such as Beer, Bacon and Bingo on Thursdays. Alamo’s beer garden boasts plenty of seating where guests can enjoy live music, and the yard features games such as cornhole and giant Jenga. Tours of the brewing facility are offered Thursdays and Saturdays. ▶ alamobeer.com ALAMO BEER COMPANY

WEATHERED SOULS BREWING CO.

KEVIN G. SAUNDERS

WEATHERED SOULS BREWING CO.

BUSTED SANDAL BREWING COMPANY

Weathered Souls Brewing Co. makes ales, porters, stouts and IPAs, with flights, growlers, pints and kegs available. The tap room opened in the Embassy Oaks Shopping Center in 2016 and is open daily, with the brewing in view and a patio for alfresco sipping. Every Thursday, Weathered Souls presents a small-batch special release, and the brewery recently began offering food items including burgers, flatbread pizzas and nachos. ▶ weatheredsouls.beer

Busted Sandal Brewing Company brews five year-round beers, including an ale, witbier, IPA, porter and Mexican lager. A special release, Roccoco Imperial Coconut Brown Ale, is made with 100 pounds of toasted coconut. Fans can purchase growlers, six-packs and cases. Visit the northwest city brewpub, open since 2013, Wednesdays through Sundays, with free tours available. ▶ bustedsandalbrewing.com


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | FOOD TOURS

Tastes of Texas Tour the cultures and cuisines of the Lone Star State

S

By Jordan Pecar IGHTSEEING AND SAMPLING AUTHENTIC

regional tastes are typically at the top of any traveler’s vacation to-do list. Luckily, you can accomplish both with a local food tour. A culinary voyage through Texas includes a diverse array of dishes. These neighborhood-focused food explorations make visitors feel like members of the community and give locals an opportunity to venture out and rediscover parts of town that they might have otherwise overlooked. If you’ve got a craving for Texas fare, fill up during these memorable food tours:

THE FLAVORS OF H-TOWN Montrose Food Tour The Montrose neighborhood — once a hub for street musicians and art studios — is now home to world-class restaurants, local boutiques, art galleries and the occasional tattoo shop. “Our Montrose Dine Around combines a cultural, historical and architectural tour,” says tour guide Chad Richards. Guests dine at four critically acclaimed restaurants to sample regional Mexican, Italian and traditional Houston cuisine with a modern twist. ▶ tasteofhoustonfoodtours.com

The Heights Food Tour This two-part tour is a nearly four-hour stroll around the historic yet developing Houston Heights neighborhood. Part one focuses on the White Oak section and part two explores 19th Street, both of which are immersed in the local arts scene. Guests will learn about the eclectic culture of the area and fill up on fare from several restaurants. ▶ tasteofhoustonfoodtours.com

Food Tours of America GETTY IMAGES; THOMAS GARZA PHOTOGRAPHY

DALLAS DINING Food Tours of America Food Tours of America offers a range of options servicing three districts within the city. “Take in the best Dallas sights on a walking tour of Uptown, Dallas’ trendiest neighborhood; artsy Deep Ellum with its jazz roots and colorful murals; or the JFK assassination area and JFK memorial for history buffs,” says owner Jodi Philippson. Among the restaurants you might visit: Baboush, Stirr, TNT Tacos and Tequila and Upside, the rooftop lounge at Canopy by Hilton. Whichever experience you choose, Philippson says you’re guaranteed four to six generous food tastings — enough for lunch or dinner. ▶ foodtoursofamerica.com

Taste of Bishop Arts District Tour DALLAS BITES

Taste of Bishop Arts District Tour Presented by Dallas Bites! Food Tours, the Bishop Arts District walking tour showcases what owner Jeanine Stevens calls “one of the most colorful and historic neighborhoods in Dallas.” Every Sunday, a well-versed foodie guides this nearly four-hour excursion featuring five local eateries — three savory and two sweet. Each tour features different restaurants, but Lockhart Smokehouse, Parker Barrow’s Craft House and Deli, Dallas Grilled Cheese Co. and Cretia’s bakery are oft-frequented favorites. Along the way, participants get familiar with neighborhood attractions including the colorful Batgirl mural honoring one-time Oak Cliff resident and actress Yvonne Craig and Bishop Street Market — a store that stands in the spot where a favorite locale of legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow once stood. ▶ dallasbitesfoodtours.com


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION TEXAS | FOOD TOURS SAVORY SAN ANTONIO SA Food Tours SA Food Tours’ Downtown Delicacy walking adventure offers a glimpse of central San Antonio through its evolving food scene. Co-owner Jordan Gonzales says, “You’ll enjoy Cuban sliders while overlooking a stunning section of the River Walk (and) experience a tangy twist as you watch one of San Antonio’s favorite dishes prepared for you right at your table. And of course, you’ll get a sample of what San Antonio’s best known for: Tex-Mex.” Along the way, there are stops at historical sites made famous by former presidents and movie stars, and a photo op in front of the Alamo. ▶ safoodtours.com

San Antonio Detours The three-hour Taste San Antonio Food Tour offered by San Antonio Detours veers away from the typical local stops, introducing you to diverse neighborhoods throughout the city. Starting at historic Travis Park, patrons travel in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van to indulge in an appetizer at one location, entrée at a second and desserts at the third.

Austin Eats Food Tours

▶ sanantoniodetours.com

ALEXANDER SOUTH NC

San Antonio Detours CHRYSTINA STRAUGHAN PHOTOGRAPHY

SA Food Tours S.A. FOODIE

Austin Eats Food Tours ALEXANDER SOUTH NC

APPETITE FOR AUSTIN Twisted Texas Tour The three-hour Brunch Bus tour turns into a party, where local musicians perform for hungry patrons as they explore the Austin brunch scene. Expect to stop at three Austin bistros for specialties such as breakfast tacos, Czech kolaches, and chicken and waffles. Plus, each stop offers an adult beverage. ▶ twistedtexastour.com

San Antonio Detours CHRYSTINA STRAUGHAN PHOTOGRAPHY

Austin Eats Food Tours Each Friday at 4 p.m., the East Austin Happy Hour Food Tour explores a budding part of town that operations manager Adam Boles says even some Austinites are not familiar with. This three-hour, 21-and-up tour hits four to five locally owned restaurants and bars. Boles explains, “From local favorite watering holes like Whisler’s to brand-new, high-end eateries like Suerte, the East Austin walking tour has something for everyone.” ▶ austineatsfoodtours.com


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION ARIZONA | GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Grand Canyon Railway train in Williams, Ariz. TREVOR HUGHES

Old West Spirit

Experience the Grand Canyon while riding the rails By Trevor Hughes

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HERE COMES A MOMENT when a cowboy is singing campfire songs and “bandits” are riding alongside our train when I think to myself: This isn’t how national park visits usually go. But that’s the whole point of taking the historic Grand Canyon Railway. It not only allows me to skip the sometimes lengthy lines to enter Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona; the train drops me off steps from my hotel on the canyon rim and collects me again the next afternoon. The aforementioned vocal performance is quite good, and one of the attendants is handing out glasses of sparkling wine to travelers in the luxury car as we roll along the tracks. Inaugurated in 1901 as our growing nation moved west over the rails, the Grand Canyon Railway Grand Canyon Railway today carries CHRIS JOHNSON/GETTY IMAGES nearly 20,000 passengers annually between the town of Williams, Ariz., and the canyon rim. The train uses historic cars, including refurbished Pullman coaches, to ferry hundreds of riders at a time from where the tracks meet Historic Route 66. Railroads played a major role in helping Americans reach the first national parks, particularly the Grand Canyon, and it’s easy to feel that history as the locomotives haul CONTINUED


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION ARIZONA | GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

SKY-HIGH EXPECTATIONS

GRAND CANYON WEST

PHOTOS BY TREVOR HUGHES

There is plenty to see on the Grand Canyon Railway, including masked “bandits” and desert landscapes.

the cars across the high plains and through the ponderosa forest to reach the place President Theodore Roosevelt called “the one great sight which every American should see.” The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway completed the Grand Canyon tracks in 1901, replacing an eight-hour stagecoach ride from Flagstaff, Ariz., with what today is an unforgettable 65-mile rail journey about two hours long. Riding with me are tourists from around the world. Many have taken Amtrak from their home states, and others are riding a train for the first time. Some are accustomed to commuting on trains, so the chance to take a truly scenic ride is appreciated.

“I commute every day, but it’s nothing like this,” says Kelly Bornmann, a teacher who lives near Princeton, N.J. “This is such a beautiful way to see the country.” Sitting in the observation car, Bornmann and her husband, Carl, mapped out their Grand Canyon visit in comfort as the expansive forest gave way to the vast plains. Outside, old homesteads weathered away, and cows grazed on spring grasses as the steel wheels rolled along the tracks. The Bornmanns have a practical reason for choosing the train: Riders bypass park entrance lines that can stretch an hour or more during peak times. But Carl Bornmann adds, “This totally

captures the Old West spirit.” Many of America’s national parks are reachable by train; although, few trips are as breathtaking and as easy as the Grand Canyon Railway ride. The Alaska Railroad offers daily summer service to Denali National Park and Preserve from Anchorage and Fairbanks, and Amtrak has summer service to Glacier National Park in Montana. “The national parks and the national railroad network are intertwined, both in history and, today, in ease of access,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says. “It’s the best way to go places and see them without having to worry about the 18-wheeler in your rearview mirror.”

While some visitors may enjoy the methodical chug of a train making its way along the rim of the Grand Canyon, others may opt to fly over it at top speed on a zip line, taking in the views in a blur. Zip lines at Grand Canyon West are now available from the people who brought you the Skywalk — that transparent walkway jutting out over a cliff at the West Rim. Riders soar nearly 1,000 feet above the canyon floor, attaining speeds of 50 mph and more. Four riders at a time can experience each zip line, allowing them to race side-by-side from one tower to the next. Most will start with the 1,100-foot-long zip line before tackling the slightly steeper 2,100-foot-long cable. Tickets are available on-site only. The price includes shuttle transportation from the parking area to Eagle Point, Guano Point and Hualapai Ranch, and the opportunity to meet travel ambassadors from the Hualapai Tribe, a federally recognized Indian tribe in northwestern Arizona. Last year, the West Rim and Skywalk drew more than 1 million visitors. The zip lines can carry up to 350,000 people annually. — Scott Craven

For prices and more information, visit grandcanyonwest.com.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION ARIZONA | CASINOS

Best Bets

Visit these top Arizona casinos By Dawn Gilbertson

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HEN THE GAMING BUG bites, but Vegas isn’t in your plans, the Grand Canyon State offers plenty of casino options. At these luxe resorts and hotels, you’ll find friendly dealers, spacious accommodations, upscale dining and plenty of gambling fun from slots to table games, bingo and more.

TWIN ARROWS NAVAJO CASINO RESORT

TWIN ARROWS NAVAJO CASINO RESORT This Navajo Nation casino in Flagstaff offers a gaming room that doesn’t feel cramped. Hotel rooms are first-class, with interactive entertainment systems, satellite programming and high-speed internet. Dining includes the upscale Zenith Steakhouse and more casual Arrows Sports Bar, Grand Falls Buffet and Four Elements Cafe. ▶ twinarrows.com


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION ARIZONA | CASINOS

PROVIDED BY GILA RIVER CASINOS

LONE BUTTE CASINO

JASON ROEHNER/GILA RIVER CASINOS

VEE QUIVA HOTEL AND CASINO Opened in 2013 on the Gila River Reservation near Laveen, this venue has an airy gambling floor with more than 900 slot machines, four bars and six restaurants, including Ditka’s Restaurant, Fatburger and Panda Express. Frank Lloyd Wrightinspired designs and lighting add to the atmosphere. Enjoy the 550-seat bingo hall or take your chances at one of the 30-plus table games. There’s a 90-room boutique hotel, plus a large entertainment venue that attracts national acts. ▶ wingilariver.com/vee-quiva

CLIFF CASTLE CASINO HOTEL

If you’re not the gambling sort, another casino run by the Gila River Indian tribe in Chandler has four lounges including Cascade, the only one featuring live music, to occupy your time while you wait for your friends to win big and buy you a celebratory round. That might take some time with 24 table games and more than 800 slot machines to keep players busy. Dining options include Cities Bar & Grille, Panda Express and more. ▶ wingilariver.com/lone-butte

EMMANUEL LOZANO/THE (ARIZONA) REPUBLIC

HARRAH’S AK-CHIN HOTEL AND CASINO This 300-room hotel near Maricopa has more than 1,000 slot machines. The pool has a popular, shaded swim-up bar and the casino features keno, blackjack, poker and more. Dining options include a buffet, the Oak & Fork wine bar, Agave’s Restaurant and more. ▶ harrahsakchin.com

TOM BERGERON

CLIFF CASTLE CASINO HOTEL

CASINO DEL SOL

You can bring the kids to this familyfriendly destination in Camp Verde. While parents enjoy slots, blackjack and poker, children can enjoy the Orbits Arcade or tire out at the Kids Quest child-care area. If family time is on the itinerary, the whole gang can join in the fun at Shake, Rattle and Bowl. Restaurants range from the upscale Storytellers to the more casual Three Sisters Market, Johnny Rockets and Mountain Springs Buffet. Local and national performers take the stage at the indoor Dragonfly Nightclub and the outdoor Stargazer Pavilion. ▶ cliffcastlecasinohotel.com

The history of gaming at this Tuscon resort began with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe’s bingo nights. Now, the Casino of the Sun, still owned and operated by the tribe, boasts more than 1,300 slot machines, a multitude of table games and a bingo hall that holds 600 players. Enjoy live entertainment in the lounges and explore dining options that include PY Steakhouse and Fiesta International Buffet. The 215-room hotel offers a spa and packages that include golf at the Sewailo Golf Club. ▶ casinodelsol.com

PROVIDED BY GILA RIVER CASINOS

WILD HORSE PASS HOTEL & CASINO With more than 1,000 slot machines, Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, also operated by the Gila River Indian community, feels a lot like Las Vegas, right down to the trendy nightclub Chrome, and a theater that hosts national entertainment. A walkway around the casino’s perimeter is ringed with restaurants, including Ling & Louie’s and Shula’s Steak House. Some hotel rooms offer balconies overlooking the pool. Cabanas are available for rent. One plus: You don’t have to walk through the casino to get to your room. ▶ wingilariver.com/wild-horse-pass


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION ARIZONA | PHOENIX

EXPLORE THE MOUNTAINS

ARIZONA OUTDOOR FUN; GETTY IMAGES

Adventure Time

Whether you’re into speed, heights or horses, head to Phoenix to enjoy the great outdoors By Rina Rapuano

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T’S NO ACCIDENT THAT Phoenix is often referred to as the Valley of the Sun. Summer temperatures can easily climb above 100 degrees, making midday outdoor activities fairly unpleasant, which is why winter and early spring are the perfect times to check out this beguiling city, when average highs

hover in the high 60s and low 70s. So, while many of us are bundled up and cursing the cold wind and slippery sleet, Phoenicians and lucky tourists are living their best lives with days full of outdoor adventure and nights spent enjoying relaxing resorts and world-class cuisine. These three fantastic Phoenix experiences are ones you will want to cross off your bucket list:

If you love driving, spectacular mountain views, Native American ruins and things that go “vroom,” sign up for a trip through the picturesque Bradshaw Mountains in the Sonoran Desert with Arizona Outdoor Fun Adventures (arizonaoutdoorfun. com). If you’ve never driven a utility vehicle, think of it as a four-person golf cart on steroids. Those age 16 and older with a driver’s license can get behind the wheel, and because the guide makes stops for water and the opportunity to take in the scenery every 2 to 3 miles, passengers can take turns driving. A highlight of my tour was the stop that required a fairly easy scramble up some rocks that revealed breathtaking vistas surrounding Native American ruins. Our guide told us what is known about the area’s ancient tribes, pointing out plants they used and explaining the elaborate canal system they developed. Details: Tours start at $125 per person, depending on the time frame and whether you want to include a stop at the shooting range or a ghost town. Note: These tours aren’t recommended for anyone with neck or back issues because of the bumpy ride.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION ARIZONA | PHOENIX

HOT AIR EXPEDITIONS; ILLUSTRATION: LISA M. ZILKA

FLOAT ACROSS THE DESERT A hot air balloon ride is pretty high on most travel wish lists, and tour host and pilot Craig Kennedy says he couldn’t be happier that he traded a career in TV news for the chance to witness everything from marriage proposals to the scattering of loved ones’ ashes while soaring over northern Phoenix. Hot Air Expeditions (hotairexpeditions.com) is one of a few companies that provides the peaceful yet thrilling experience of hovering

over desert, hills, coyotes and javelinas in a festive rainbow balloon. After touchdown, the crew sets up tables for an alfresco toast with bubbly and snacks — often with a gorgeous sunset in the distance if you’re taking a tour from November to March, when it’s cool enough to schedule evening flights. Kennedy says even acrophobes can enjoy this experience: “I don’t think I’ve ever met a soul, even if they were afraid of heights, who said, ‘I will never do that again.’”

Details: Depending on the day’s conditions, a tour generally runs about an hour, and the balloon can climb 1,000 to 5,000 feet. Kennedy recommends that travelers schedule their rides as early in their trips as possible in case Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. “No one wants to fly more than we do, but we would much rather break hearts than break parts,” he jokes. “If the weather’s not right, we will always wait for another day.” Rides start at $179 per adult and $129 per child, age 5-12.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION ARIZONA | PHOENIX

EMBRACE YOUR INNER COWBOY Forget everything you know about horsebackriding excursions with bored horses that have memorized well-worn trails. The experience at Fort McDowell Adventures (fortmcdowell adventures.com) feels more like you’re starring in a Western movie — complete with a splashy walk through the Verde River and sightings of wild horses and roaming calves found among the 25,000 acres of hilly desert located on the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Reservation. You may actually learn a few useful horseback-riding skills, too, such as what to do when your horse takes an unscheduled break to munch on a favorite sprig of foliage. Our tour guide, a colorful character named Biscuit, walked the perfect line between entertaining and instructive. Troy Haviland, owner of the stables at Fort McDowell Adventures, says quirkiness is practically part of the job description. “You have to have a sense of humor to do this — or be a little bit crazy,” he says. The animals also have personality in spades. “It’s a live animal — it’s got a mind of its own,” says Haviland. Details: Horseback rides cost $40 to $100 per person, depending on several factors, such as the length of the ride and season. And there’s rarely trouble unless participants don’t listen carefully. “It’s a highadventure thing,” Haviland cautions. “I can honestly tell you that 99 percent of problems with any horse is operator error. Very rarely is it just the horses.”

GETTY IMAGES; FORT MCDOWELL ADVENTURES


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION NEW MEXICO | GOLF

Casinos and Courses

Make your wagers on either the tables or the links — it all pays off!

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By Jennifer Boren

HEN IT COMES TO casinos, Vegas typically comes to mind, and when

one thinks of lush green courses, the arid desert doesn’t seem the most likely spot. However, if you’ve ever been to the scenic Southwest, or are lucky enough to live there, then you know that some of the most beautiful courses and casinos can be found in New Mexico. And with the dry climate, you don’t even have to break a sweat in the warm temps. Check out these top casino and golf destinations from USA TODAY’s 10Best:

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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION NEW MEXICO | GOLF

A WINNING HAND

All of these resorts are located on tribal pueblo lands, creating jobs, bolstering the economy and making it possible for the next generation of Native Americans to stay on their ancestral homeland.

Sandia Resort and Casino

TWIN WARRIORS GOLF CLUB AND SANTA ANA STAR CASINO Lauded as the sixth-best golf course in New Mexico by Golf Digest, Twin Warriors Golf Club, adjacent to the Santa Ana Casino, hosted the 2009 PGA Championship. Wonderful gourmet food with Southwestern flair can be found at the adjacent Prairie Star restaurant and nearby is the Santa Ana Star Casino. After trying your hand at live poker, table games or more than 1,600 slot machines, enjoy The Stage nightclub.

BLACK MESA GOLF CLUB

BLACK MESA GOLF CLUB Less than 30 minutes north of Santa Fe is the stunning Black Mesa Golf Club, and when you arrive, you’ll see how it got its name and accolades from Links Magazine as being “one of the most spectacular courses anywhere.” With incredible views of the valley, the backdrop for this course is like no other. Rolling greens and fairways perfectly situated in and amongst the box canyons and arroyos will have you coming back. The nearby Santa Claran Hotel Casino offers all the gaming action. Visit the Santa Clara Pueblo and the Puye Cliff Dwellings while there.

BUFFALO THUNDER RESORT AND CASINO

BUFFALO THUNDER RESORT AND CASINO Santa Fe’s Buffalo Thunder resort and casino is located in the heart of the Pojoaque Valley. This beautiful hotel in its picturesque setting, houses a nearly 70,000-square-foot casino with a plush poker room, 18 gaming tables and 1,200 slot machines. The Hale Irwin-designed Towa Golf Club has three nine-hole courses with dramatic elevation changes, and one hole featuring the only island green in New Mexico.

Twin Warriors Golf Club and Santa Ana Star Casino

SANDIA RESORT AND CASINO The Sandia Resort and Casino (owned by the Pueblo of Sandia) in Albuquerque boasts 140,000 square feet of gaming inside a beautifully decorated interior with floor to ceiling stunning views of the Sandia Mountains. Bien Shur, the ninth-floor wraparound patio bar and lounge, offers spectacular views of the golf course, mountains and the city. The golf pavilion, a pueblo-style clubhouse, is a great spot to catch a bite to eat after a round or enjoy a visit to the pro shop. Weekday rates for an 18-hole game range from $49 to $86 depending on the time you want to tee off.

GETTY IMAGES (3); SANDIA RESORT AND CASINO; TWIN WARRIORS GOLF CLUB


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION OKLAHOMA | WILDLIFE

BISON The American bison (also known as buffalo) is the official mammal of Oklahoma. Among the places to encounter them: the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. The 39,000 acres, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, are home to about 2,700 free-ranging bison.

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Where the Wild Things Are Bats, bison and mountain boomers abound in the Sooner State

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By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright KLAHOMA’S PARKS AND WILDERNESS areas play host to an array of colorful critters and

boisterous bird life. Think roadrunners, white pelicans, eagles, elk, bats, mountain boomers … and elephants? “Visitors are pretty astonished to discover the incredible variety of wildlife that exists in this state,” says Jena Donnell of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Here’s a look at what’s wild in Oklahoma and where to find it:

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ROADRUNNERS “Beep-beep?” Contrary to what Looney Tunes would have you believe, roadrunners actually make a “coo” noise. These fleet-footed members of the cuckoo family can sprint up to 20 mph and can be spotted all over the state, but are most common in the western half.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION OKLAHOMA | WILDLIFE

WHITE PELICANS

OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Thousands of these birds congregate in Oklahoma during migration seasons from February to May and September to November. The best viewing is at Grand Lake, home of the annual Pelican Festival (Oct. 10-13, 2018). Other optimal locations for pelicanwatching include Lake Overholser in Oklahoma City, the Arkansas River in Tulsa and Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in Jet.

ELK

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MOUNTAIN BOOMERS In some states, “mountain boomers” are squirrels; elsewhere, they’re apples. In Oklahoma, the term refers to the eastern collared lizard, the state’s official reptile. Known to grow about a foot (and that’s mostly tail), mountain boomers prefer rocky outcroppings. View these vividly hued reptiles at Roman Nose State Park, Gloss Mountain State Park, Alabaster Caverns State Park and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

WICHITA MOUNTAINS WILDLIFE REFUGE

If you’ve ever heard a bugling elk, it’s a sound you won’t soon forget: It starts as a deep roar and rises to a screech, as male elk vie for females during the fall mating season. To hear the bugling in the elk’s natural habitat, take a guided tour of Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in September.

AND ABOUT THOSE ELEPHANTS…

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BATS Oklahomans go batty for bats in July, when participants of Selman Bat Watch view hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from caves to devour insects at the Selman Bat Cave Wildlife Management Area. (Register from late May to early June for this popular excursion.) Oklahoma is home to 20-plus varieties of insect-eating bats; many of them are migrating species that depart for the winter.

ENDANGERED ARK FOUNDATION

They’re not Oklahoma natives (you probably guessed that), but the Asian elephants at the Endangered Ark Foundation in Hugo have local ties: The town served as a winter home to several circuses. Many of the elephants at this sanctuary — they make up the secondlargest herd of Asian elephants in the U.S. — are retired circus animals. Public tours are available on Fridays and Saturdays.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

Profile for STUDIO Gannett

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