Texas is roughly spade shaped. The vast expanse of the state contains great regional differences (the distance from Beaumont to El Paso is greater than that from New York to Chicago).East Texas
East Texas—the land between the Sabine and Trinity rivers—is Southern in character, with pine-covered hills, cypress swamps, and remnants of the great cotton plantations founded before the Civil War. Cotton farming has been supplemented by diversified agriculture, including rice cultivation; almost all of the state's huge rice crop comes from East Texas, and even the industrial cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur are surrounded by rice fields. The inland pines still supply a lumbering industry; Huntsville, Lufkin, and Nacogdoches are important lumber towns. The real wealth of East Texas, however, comes from its immense, rich oil fields. Longview is an oil center, and Tyler is the headquarters of the East Texas Oil Field. Oil is also the economic linchpin of Beaumont and Port Arthur and the basis for much of the heavy industry that crowds the Gulf Coast.
The industrial heart of the coastal area is Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation. Houston's development was spearheaded by the digging (1912–14) of a ship canal to the Gulf of Mexico, and the city today is the nation's second largest port in tonnage handled. Other Gulf ports in Texas are Galveston, Texas City, Brazosport (formerly Freeport), Port Lavaca, Corpus Christi, and Brownsville.
The S Gulf Coast is a popular tourist area, and some of the ports, such as Galveston and Corpus Christi, have economies dependent on both heavy industry and tourism. Brownsville, the southernmost Texas city and the terminus of the Intracoastal Waterway, is also the shipping center for the intensively farmed and irrigated Winter Garden section along the lower Rio Grande, where citrus fruits and winter vegetables are grown.
The long stretch of plains along the Rio Grande valley is largely given over to cattle ranching. Texas has c.1,000 mi (1,610 km) of border with Mexico. Some S and W Texas towns are bilingual, and in some areas persons of Mexican descent make up the majority of the population. Laredo is the most important gateway here to Mexico, with an excellent highway to Mexico City and important over-the-border commerce.
The first region to be farmed when Americans came to Texas in the 1820s was the bottomland of the lower Brazos and the Colorado, but not until settlers moved into the rolling blackland prairies of central and N central Texas was the agricultural wealth of the area realized. The heart of this region is the trading and shipping center of Waco; at the southwest extremity is San Antonio, the commercial center of a wide cotton, grain, and cattle country belt. To the north, Dallas and the neighboring city of Fort Worth together form one of the most rapidly developing U.S. metropolitan areas. Their oil-refining, grain-milling, and cotton- and food-processing capabilities have been supplemented since World War II by aircraft-manufacturing and computer and electronics industries.
The Balcones Escarpment marks the western margin of the Gulf Coastal Plain; in central Texas the line is visible in a series of waterfalls and rough, tree-covered hills. To the west lie the south central plains and the Edwards Plateau; they are essentially extensions of the Great Plains but are sharply divided from the high, windswept, and canyon-cut Llano Estacado (Staked Plain) in the W Panhandle by the erosive division of the Cap Rock Escarpment.
No traces of the subtropical lushness of the Gulf Coastal Plain are found in these regions; the climate is semiarid, with occasional blizzards blowing across the flat land in winter. The Red River area, including the farming and oil center of Wichita Falls, can have extreme cold in winter, though without the severity that is intermittently experienced in Amarillo, the commercial center of the Panhandle, or in the dry-farming area around Lubbock. Cattle raising began here in the late 1870s (settlers were slow in coming to the High Plains), and huge ranches vie with extensive wheat and cotton farms for domination of the treeless land. Oil and grain, however, have revolutionized the economy of this section of the state.
All of West Texas (that part of the state west of long. 100°W) is semiarid. South of the Panhandle lie the rolling plains around Abilene, a region cultivated in cotton, sorghum, and wheat and the site of oil fields discovered in the 1940s. The dry fields of West Texas are still given over to ranching, except for small irrigated areas that can be farmed. San Angelo serves as the commercial center of this area. The Midland-Odessa oil patch lies northeast of the Pecos River and is part of the Permian (West Texas) Basin, an oil field that extends into SE New Mexico.
The land beyond the Pecos River, rising to the mountains with high, sweeping plains and rough uplands, offers the finest scenery of Texas. There are found the Davis Mts. and Guadalupe Peak, the highest point (8,751 ft/2,667 m) in the state. The wilderness of the Big Bend of the Rio Grande is typical of the barrenness of most of this area, where water and people are almost equally scarce. El Paso, with diverse industries and major cross-border trade with Mexico, is a population oasis in the region.
The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center is in the Houston area. Other places of interest in the state include Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Amistad and Lake Meredith national recreation areas, Padre Island National Seashore, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park (see National Parks and Monuments, table), and Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge, winter home of the whooping crane. Austin is the capital; Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio are the largest cities.