Ever since Ulysses S Grant made Yellowstone the USA’s first national park, visitors have flocked to these protected places of pristine natural beauty. National parks are time capsules where we can step into the buckled shoes of the Pilgrims and see the American landscape as it was for millennia before urban development. So if the hustle and bustle of the big city is getting overwhelming, why not consider a trip out to one of these locations, and fill your lungs with fresh air while enjoying the tranquility of these stunning natural wonders.
Big Bend National Park
Taking its name from the bend in the Rio Grande where it is located, Big Bend National Park has some of the most spectacular views to be found anywhere in the USA. It’s a good idea to plan your itinerary beforehand, as the park is far too big to see in one day. However, there are some advantages to its size: it officially has the darkest skies in mainland North America, and is perfect for stargazing. Big Bend is about an eight-hour drive from Houston, so plan for either a very early start, or to stay overnight somewhere nearby.
Not far from the urban jungle of Houston, Big Thicket’s system of waterways has created a lush environment rich in biodiversity, granting it the nickname ‘the biological crossroads of North America’. Big Thicket is a must-see for visitors to Houston – the convergence of different ecosystems means there’s an outstanding variety of flora and fauna on show, and it’s also less than two hour’s drive away, making it a perfect escape from the overwhelming intensity of the big city experience.
This park is home to a rich variety of wildlife and the terrain is well loved by hikers, but its main feature is the reservoir, which has made Amistad a year-round destination for anyone looking for fishing, swimming, sailing or even scuba diving. If it’s something you can do in a boat, you can do it here. At just under five hours by car it’s a long journey, but the park does have camping facilities if you wish to stay overnight.
For a mixture of nature and culture, step into the shoes of a frontier explorer when you explore this massive route extending all the way from Louisiana, following the route of a Spanish colonial road that leads all the way to Mexico City. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of history to be unearthed here, including forts, churches, museums and many other landmarks and parks. Fort Boggy Park is less than two hour’s drive from Houston and a good starting point for this trail.
For inquisitive ornithologists, Sheldon Lake provides a fantastic opportunity to familiarize yourself with local bird life. Rangers are also on hand to give talks and tours about the wetlands and parkland and provide expert info on the diverse local wildlife. The recently opened 82ft observation tower gives amazing views over the surrounding area, even as far as downtown Houston.
The distinctive red flint that makes up these rocky hillsides was used thousands of years ago by mammoth hunters. Native Americans also had settlements here and mined this useful resource. A lot of history can still be seen in the quarries and the landscape, and in the hikes, ranger-led tours and museums of this Texan landmark. At a nine-hour car journey this is the furthest park on the list, but the halfway point from Houston is Fort Worth, an excellent stopping-off point for an overnight journey.