I’ll sum up much of the fall season in Dallas – you can wander around a pumpkin patch in shorts.
The weather goes from a Texas summer’s blazing temperatures to drier, still-warm days with a hint of crispness in early morning and at night. The further east you go in the state, the more lush it is, although a riot of true fall colors (by New England standards) is still hard to find.
North Texas residents are so happy to break free of baking in the heat and smacking at bugs that they are positively giddy about spending their fall weekend in Dallas doing autumnal outdoor activities. Here are two classic Big D experiences plus a place to take care of that post-pumpkin-patch appetite:
Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden
From late September till the end of October, it is fall festival time at the Dallas Arboretum. Blazing orange and gold marigolds are all blooming at once. Over 90,000 pumpkins, gourds, and squash are arranged, stacked, scattered, and displayed at the entrance and along pathways.
Most of the garden areas, however, are still green, only now you can enjoy them at a reasonable temperature. The crepe myrtles are looking a little peaked, but there is still plenty of color elsewhere.
Purple globe amaranth near the Jonsson Color Garden are a madhouse of butterflies.
One of my favorites was this multi-colored pepper plant….
There is a small food and vegetable garden – A Tasteful Place – that offers samples of food made from local plants. The day we were there they offered applesauce, apple cobbler, and beer from a Dallas area craft brewery.
Weekends can be pretty crowded, but if you’re persistent you can find little hideaways to tuck in and people-watch. We saw several quinceañera groups out taking photos; the green gardens made a beautiful backdrop to their spectacular Cinderella dresses.
The main draw in fall, however, is the elaborate Pumpkin Village.
This year’s theme (it changes each year) was It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, complete with topiary Peanuts characters.
The buildings were cleverly made with little rings on the outside to house pumpkin and gourd arrangements, and interior walls were covered with Peanuts characters, many drawn in their Halloween costumes.
Where do all of the thousands of pumpkins and gourds come from?
The Pumpkin Capital of Texas, of course: Floydada TX northeast of Lubbock.
Check the Arboretum website for a variety of entrance fee and parking discounts (teachers, bring your school ID and get in free.)
Go on a weekday if you can. There is something happening on the grounds every day – Wine Down Wednesday, anyone? – and it’s much less crowded.
If you have to go on a weekend, go early. The light will be better for those pumpkin photos, too.
Annual State Fair of Texas
Fair Park in Dallas is an enormous, sprawling venue. Designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1986, it is a 277-acre complex that includes one of the largest collections of Art Deco art and architecture in the world.
There are museums and facilities there that operate year-round, but the big draw is the State Fair of Texas in the fall.
Once of the main Fair Park entrances always includes 55-foot-tall “Official Greeter” Big Tex on a raised roundabout; read his fun history here.
His clothes are remade every year.
From the Fair website:
“His outfit is sewn in the original Dickies plant that opened in 1922 at 509 West Vickery in Fort Worth…. His Western shirt runs a size 200 x 325 (neck x sleeve). An average man’s size is 16 x 32. He has a 33-ft. 9-in. chest, 11-ft. neck and shoulders measuring 13-ft. His sleeves measure 27-ft. The buttons are 3 ½-in. in diameter.
It takes a team of Dickies sewing experts two weeks to make the shirt. It has to be durable enough to withstand a month out in the elements, so Dickies makes it out of awning material with venting slits in the material so the wind can blow through it….
Big Tex’s jeans size are 434 x 240 (waist x inseam). It takes 100 yds. of fabric to make them; they weigh 100 lbs. and have 3.5-in. rivets. It takes a week to make the cowboy’s jeans, which are replicas of Dickies popular 5-pocket jeans made from Dickies denim provided by Mount Vernon Mills in Trion, GA.”
Of course, at a state fair you have to go find the weird, fun stuff, like butter sculptures….
There are huge livestock, swine, horse, and poultry barns; the heart of any county, regional, or state fair and most certainly an important part of the one in Texas. Animal-related events include pig races, cow milking demonstrations, horse shows, and a birthing barn.
Even if you miss a specific demonstration or show, there are practices and competitions going on pretty much continuously. Families and FFA (Future Farmers of America) groups have some elaborate setups in the barns, including cots and coolers of food, because they spend so much time there during the Fair.
We saw several shirts and pressed Western jeans hanging up in protective dry-cleaning bags, because the young people showing their carefully-groomed animals have to look good, too.
I liked the Creative Arts building, with the most imaginative arts and crafts you’ve ever seen including those butter sculptures. My Dallas great-aunt used to win ribbons for the dried flower arrangements she submitted to the Fair crafts competition.
The GO TEXAN pavilion is all about Texas agriculture, foods, and commercial products. There’s a whole store inside the building where you can buy Texas-made foods with names like It’s Jerky, Y’All (which is actually plant-based.)
There is a Texas town called Mineral Wells that used to be a place to take the “healing waters.” It is undergoing a revitalization today, and you can still drink the water and bathe in it.
If you can’t make it to Mineral Wells in person, they now bottle their “Crazy Water” and sell it. Go here to pick the mineral level that your taste buds can tolerate. I had to smile when I saw it in the GO TEXAN shop.
We ate ridiculous fried food, watched the nightly parade, listened to some live music, and then schlepped our exhausted selves back to our parking lot via the biggest, brightest, loudest midway I’ve ever seen.
My top tip is to buy a Fair season pass online early in the year. We picked up two for US$55 total, a LOT cheaper than buying at the gate and it gives you the flexibility to go on any day, multiple times. As with the Arboretum, visit on a weekday if you can.
Stop at a Classic Dallas Eatery Like El Fenix
There is a nice cafe at the Arboretum, but after tromping through millions of marigolds, I had such a hankering for a late lunch of Tex-Mex.
There is more than one El Fenix restaurant in Dallas, but I like going to the oldest one, near downtown on McKinney. The restaurant was first established in 1918 by the Martinez family, and pioneered many of the dishes we call Tex-Mex today.
The waitstaff is gracious and efficient, the food comes lightning-fast, and it just feels homey.
That’s my classic fall weekend in Dallas – the State Fair, the Arboretum fall festival, and a combination plate at El Fenix in there somewhere. What about you? Let us know in the comments how you’d spend September or October in Big D.
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