Waco Texas: A guide to the attractions of this Heart of Texas town

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Rodeos, corn dogs at the fair, the zoo and sunny afternoon picnics in the park conjure up those long, halcyon days of summer. In the city of Waco, located in the "Heart of Texas", visitors will find those iconic American experiences and more in this appealing western town.

Waco, Texas, located between Dallas and Austin, is a small city, yet it features many excellent family-friendly attractions and metropolitan amenities. From the Waco Mammoth National Monument and the Heart O' Texas Fair & Rodeo, to the world-class, natural-habitat Cameron Park Zoo, you find fun and exciting things to do year-round.

Museums of Waco

The Waco Mammoth National Monument, located on Steinbeck Ben Road, was designated a National Monument by President Obama in 2015 and it became a new unit of the National Park System. Located by the Bosque River, this fascinating site was originally discovered in 1978 by two men who found an unusual bone and took it to nearby Baylor University's Strecker Museum. The bone turned out to be a Columbian Mammoth femur, a Pleistocene Epoch (Ice Age) species that became extinct over 10,000 years ago.

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After 20-years of excavation at the site, the nation's only recorded discovery of a nursery heard of Columbian Mammoths was uncovered, along with a Western camel, saber-toothed cat and several additional animals as well.

These huge Mammoths are believed to have drowned together in a natural event and then covered by a mudslide when the area was a savannah between 65,000 and 72,000 years ago. Today, most of the excavated bones are housed at Baylor University's Mayborn Museum Complex. However, the site features a climate-controlled dig shelter with a suspended walkway that provides an overhead view of several females and a bull mammoth, as well as a Western camel. The site is astonishing and the bones clearly show the size of these 20,000-pound mammoths that reached about 13-feet in height.

The guided tours for the excavation site start in the Visitor Contact Center and lead guests to the dig site while providing intriguing history of the area and the mammoths. In addition, the center features a cool gift shop, picnic area and trails.

Waco's Mayborn Museum Complex is an impressive, 143,000 square-feet, two-story building of enticing hands-on activities that will thrill the entire family. This large complex features 17 discovery rooms, an outdoor exhibit with nine buildings and a natural history wing with 5 different exhibition rooms.

If you're interested in natural history, Strecker's Cabinets of Curiosities room displays fascinating artifacts in period-style showcases with an interactive touch screen to learn about the items. Continue through the natural history wing and you'll find the Waco Mammoth Site that displays the amazing original casts of the mammoth fossils, located beneath a glass floor for clear viewing. After you're finished exploring the natural history area, visit the TV News and Weather/Communications rooms. Visitors stand in front of a green screen and discover how TV weather news broadcasters use monitors to show and forecast climate conditions, as well as see themselves on TV.

Mayborn's second floor is a blast for kids and adults to play, create and learn at the same time. These fun and interesting sections feature interactive rooms, such as Water & Bubbles, Sound, Optic and Simple Machines. Each room provides visitors a hands-on opportunity to explore everything from making life-size bubbles to creating a tornado in a whirlwind machine. Make sure to allow several hours to visit the museum and especially the outdoor Historic Village with a schoolhouse, barn & smithy.

Read more about Waco Texas at http://www.offbeattravel.com/waco-texas.html

Head to Cameron Park for the Zoo or a Picnic Along the River

The Cameron Park Zoo, located in lovely Cameron Park along the Brazos River, is one of the best mid-sized zoos in the country. This fantastic, 52-acre awarding wining zoo has created fabulous natural habitats in lush settings that enable their global animal species to thrive and flourish. Moreover, visitors love the zoo's picturesque waterfalls, enormous ponds, tree-lined bridges and natural shelters that afford excellent views of the animals in a natural setting.

Do you love big cats? Stop by and say "Hi" to the zoo's Sumatran Tiger Kucing, or the African Lioness Shamfa who has birthed three cubs at Cameron Park (now living at other zoos). Did you know Orangutans can Skype? The zoo's hand-reared males and females can, with help from their trainers, especially Mukah. The zoo's trainers set up programs for the apes to touch the computer screen and interact with apps while seeing animals from other zoos and even schoolchildren on Skype calls. The orangutans are highly intelligent and the Skype calls captivate them and enrich their lives through communication and interaction. In addition to the Cameron Park Zoo's regular animal exhibits, visitors can participate (extra cost) in several different "Behind The Scenes At The Zoo" programs. These wonderful programs get you up close and personal with animals such as, the zoo's White Rhino Ethel, who enjoys a vigorous petting on her side and Jenny the Giraffe who likes to be fed veggie treats.

If you want to enjoy a picnic at a beautiful park, Cameron Park is about a five-minute walk from the zoo and meanders along the Brazos River. There are numerous locations in the park perfect for your afternoon repast and walking trails as well. Stop by Miss Nellie's "Pretty Place" fountain at the park for a refreshing ankle dip on a hot day.

Rodeo and a Craft Village

Read more about Waco Texas at http://www.offbeattravel.com/waco-texas.html
Rodeos are great fun and add a county fair in the mix and you have the Waco Heart 'O Texas Fair & Rodeo. The rodeo and fair takes place in early October for nine days and visitors flock from across the country to the event to see the exciting pro rodeo finals. Even kids get in the action at the rodeo with the cute Mutton Bustin' competition that features little kids trying to stay on sheep as they enter the rodeo arena. Of course, the thrilling event proffers all of the adult traditional rodeo favorites such as steer wrestling, barrel racing, team roping, saddle bronc riding and bull riding. In addition, the lively fair includes great concerts, midway carnival rides, as well as livestock shows and much more.

Craft villages are growing across the country as more artisans join in a community to work and focus on traditional crafts. The Homestead Heritage Traditional Crafts Village, located a few miles north of downtown Waco, is a model example of time-honored skills. The village is comprised of furniture makers, potters, seamstresses, soap-makers blacksmiths, musicians, and quilters etc., who make everything by hand traditionally. The self-sufficient agrarian village has a great vibe and the community artisans make the best quality goods in a peaceful, country setting. Visitors can often watch the artisans at their trade and browse through the shops that offer amazing products. If you're hungry, consider lunch at the village's cafe, where grass-fed beef and farm-raised vegetables grace the menu.

Dr Pepper and the Waco Connection

What's better than a ice-cold soda on a hot day? Waco's fun Dr. Pepper Museum, located on South 5th Street pays tribute to this popular soft drink with the jingle that asks, "Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper too, Dr. Pepper. The catchy TV commercial still reverberates in the memories of Americans over the age of 40; and the tasty iconic soda has been quenching the public's thirst since 1885. The museum offers public tours and presents one of the finest collections of soft drink memorabilia in the world.

The origin of Dr. Pepper began right in Waco, Texas and was created by Charles Alderton, a young pharmacist working at Morrison's Old Corner Drug Store. The Dr. Pepper tour provides an interesting history of Alderton and the creation of his famous soda, as well as providing intriguing memorabilia that spans two floors with archives, exhibits and collections that will captivate you. After your tour, head to the museum's old-fashioned soda fountain and try a delicious Dr. Pepper ice cream float or peruse the gift shop for that perfect Dr. Pepper souvenir.

If You Go

Waco, Texas is an enjoyable and exciting city to explore and offers visitors a wide and varied palette of culture, entertainment, attractions and heritage.

Make sure to visit the city's excellent tourism site Waco Heart of Texas that provides comprehensive information on the above attractions, dining and accommodations.

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Patrice RapleePatrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site OffbeatTravel.com and is a regular contributor on travel radio shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: April 29, 2016

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