From rolling plains and parched deserts to beaches and swamps, Texas’ geography is vast and diverse. Some of the best places to see this natural beauty are state parks, which help preserve treasured outdoor areas. We have 10 of the best Lone Star state parks to share with you.
With more than 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares), Big Bend Ranch State Park is Texas’ largest state park. Located in far West Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border, the park is a haven for adventure junkies. Visitors can hike, mountain-bike, and go horseback riding through the 238 miles (383 km) of multi-use trails; also Rio Grande river access means floating, fishing, and rafting. Forty-eight species of mammals have been found in the park, and more than 300 species of birds have been recorded as well. Keep an eye out for snakes, bats, mountain lions, mule deer, jackrabbits, lizards, native bighorn sheep, and more. All campsites (except backcountry sites) can be reached by vehicle, but be aware that some roads require four-wheel-drive or high clearance. A bunkhouse that accommodates up to 30 people is also available for lodging.
Known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the U.S., located in the Texas Panhandle. The canyon is about 120 miles (193 km) long and 20 miles (32 km) wide and began forming a million years ago. Rock layers that you can see as you descend to the floor show that the oldest part of the canyon is about 250 million years old. Visitors can explore by foot, car, and mountain bike, although horseback riders have the most fun with roughly 1,500 acres (more than 30 miles – 48 km) of trails set aside for horses. There are two other trails available for hikers and mountain bikers. In the summer, an outdoor musical drama about the lives of early settlers runs at Pioneer Amphitheater in the park. Campsites with water and electricity are available, as well as primitive drive-up sites and backpack camping areas. Seven cabins are also available.
In the Texas Hill Country, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Fredericksburg, sits Enchanted Rock, a monstrous pink granite dome that soars 425 feet (129.5 meters) above base elevation of the park. The dome was created by a large pool of magma about a billion years ago, which eventually turned to granite as it pushed itself toward the surface and cooled. Visitors trek here to climb Enchanted Rock, which is like climbing the stairs of a 30- or 40-story building. Visitors can also hike nearly 11 miles (17 km) of trails, backpack, camp, rock climb, bird watch, and stargaze (the park is a designated International Dark Sky park). A word of warning: the park often closes due to capacity, so be sure to plan ahead and check the park’s website for more information.
Originally forming underwater, Longhorn Caverns offers cave tours that inform visitors about the area’s rich history and geology. Research shows that the cave has provided shelter since prehistoric times. In the mid-1800s, settlers used the cave to manufacture gunpowder for the Civil War and in the 1920s, the cave served as a speakeasy and dance hall. Aside from the stories, visitors delight in the gorgeous cave formations, sinkholes, rock carvings, and rooms filled with glittering crystals. Longhorn Caverns State Park is located about an hour and a half northwest from the hustle-and-bustle of Austin.
For those looking for vivid fall foliage in Texas, Lost Maples State Natural Area is the place to be. The park, located about two hours northwest of San Antonio, protects an isolated, uncommon stand of Uvalde Bigtooth maples that produce picture-perfect views of the colors of autumn. The foliage is always dependent on weather, so check the park’s Fall Foliage report. The park also has more than 10 miles (16 km) of trails, including a loop to the top of a 2,200-foot (670-meter) cliff, 30 campsites with water and electricity, and six primitive campsites. Hiking, fishing, geocaching, birding, and other activities are also available.
Two hours northwest of Austin lies a hiker’s oasis in Colorado Bend State Park. Not only does the park offer 35 miles (56 km) of hiking trails and bike paths, but there’s also the beautiful 70-foot (21-meter) waterfall, Gorman Falls. Visitors can take a guided tour of Gorman Falls, and enjoy a two-hour, 3/4-mile, round-trip hike. The park also includes Spicewood Springs – a nice place to cool off – and cavern tours of nearby caves. There are 155 bird species in the park, and camping is available. When parking is full at Colorado Bend, the park closes for up to four hours, so plan accordingly.
Children and adults alike love to play paleontologist for a day and a great place to do so is Dinosaur Valley State Park, about an hour southwest of Fort Worth. Around 113 million years ago, this area was home to herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs, whose footprints were preserved in the mud. Today, visitors can walk along the bed of the Paluxy River and see these tracks, which belonged to therapods (a smaller relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex) and sauropods (similar to a Brachiosaurus). Birders can see two species of endangered birds in the park: the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo. Hiking, mountain biking, fishing, swimming, horseback riding, and geocaching are also available. There are 20 miles (32 km) of trails to explore and campsites for backpacking and regular camping.
For those wanting to try out a new sport, Monahans Sandhills State Park is just the place. Located about 30 minutes west of Odessa, this park has 3,840 acres (1,553 hectares) of sand dunes, some reaching 70 feet (21 meters) high. The park is a small portion of a dune field that extends farther into Texas and New Mexico. Here, visitors can rent sand toboggans and disks for ripping down the dunes at park headquarters or strap on a snowboard and “surf” down the dunes. There’s also an 800-acre (323 hectare) equestrian area and a trailer parking area. Three campsites are available.
Stretching 18 miles (28 km) from Port Aransas to Corpus Christi, Mustang Island was named for the wild horses that once roamed the island. Today, the barrier island is home to Mustang Island State Park, where visitors can soak up the sun, catch a wave, mountain bike, fish, overnight at one of its 100 campsites, and more. Kayakers can head out on the Mustang Island State Park Paddling Trail, which offers 20 miles (32 km) of trails and birding opportunities. Two species of sea turtles, juvenile Atlantic green sea turtles and the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, visit the island, so guests can watch for them – just don’t touch. The Kemp’s ridley is the most endangered and smallest sea turtle. Visitors should notify Texas Parks and Wildlife staff immediately if a sea turtle is spotted on the beach.
A natural lake, Caddo Lake State Park embodies true East Texas geography. A network of bayous sits idly underneath towering bald cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, creating a picturesque portion of the 26,810-acre (10,850-hectare) lake. Visitors can fish or paddle these waters, which are home to more than 70 species of fish. Canoes are available to rent in the park, or guests can bring their own and explore more than 50 miles (80 km) of paddling trails in the Caddo Lake area. Full disclosure, there are alligators in these waters, along with beavers, minks, and other wildlife. Boating is also allowed, and hiking and geocaching are plentiful. Campers can choose from 46 campsites, a screened shelter, or one of nine cabins.