Photo by Craig Stocks Arts/Shutterstock
Photo by jesmo5/Shutterstock
At 300,000 acres, Big Bend Ranch State Park is the largest state park in Texas.
Desert mountains, sandy beaches, clear blue rivers, and deep canyons. The Lone Star State has it all—and you can find it in a state park.
Texans often fight the misperception that their home state is nothing but high desert dressed with tumbleweeds and a few cities—I mean, how many of us were asked if we rode a horse to school by people from out of the state? But as a native of the Lone Star State, I can say for certain: It’s one of the most geographically diverse states in the union—it is the largest state in the contiguous United States, after all—with a thriving state park system to match that has more than 80 different sites across the state to explore.
Officially established in 1923, Texas’s state park system was loosely modeled on the United States’ national parks. When Texas was annexed into the U.S. in 1845, the state government stipulated that Texas must retain control over its public lands, so when the country’s national park movement was first gathering steam in 1916, very little land was allocated to the federal government. There’s now a grand total of 603,748 acres of Texas state parks to traverse, so there’s a little something for every type of adventurer.
Here are the 10 best Texas state parks to visit:
If you ask any Texan what they think of when they hear the words “west Texas,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is Big Bend National Park (or, alternatively, the cool little art town in the middle of nowhere, Marfa). But about 140 miles north of Big Bend country are the Davis Mountains, which are geologically classified as a “sky island”—an isolated mountain range surrounded by a radically different lowland. The mountains were created 35 million years ago after a series of violent volcanic eruptions, which gave the area a large outcropping of rare (for Texas) igneous rock, like granite. The park offers a variety of hiking and biking trails, horseback riding corridors, plus what the park fondly calls the “best little bird blind in Texas.” Thanks to the state park’s proximity to the McDonald Observatory, the area enjoys mandatory dark skies, making it an ideal spot for stargazing.
Davis Mountains State Park isn’t known only for its outdoor activities. One of the most distinctive hotel options in the area is the Indian Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. The pueblo-style lodge functions as a full-service hotel and has 39 rooms and a dreamy swimming pool.
Lost Maples State Natural Area is one of the most popular parks in the state, for good reason. It’s the best spot in Texas to experience real autumn colors, thanks to a special species of Uvalde bigtooth maples that turn brilliant shades of scarlet and apricot orange at the first hint of fall. Yes, tidal waves of tourists and influencers do descend on the area every year, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting. There are only 10 miles of trails within the park, and most lookie-loos stick to the shorter trails like the Maple Trail or East-West Trail, while the 3.5-mile West Trail promises tranquility—and smaller crowds. This part of the Hill Country is famous for its small towns with big personalities, so consider dancing the night away at a honky-tonk in Leakey or Bandera. Vanderpool is a key stop on the famous, 100-mile Twisted Sisters’ motorcycle route, so you’re likely to hear and see a few hogs revving by, especially in the cooler months of the spring and fall when bikers can bust out their leather gear without breaking a sweat.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is often overshadowed by its spectacular national cousin, Big Bend National Park. But just a few minutes down Highway 170 (which, by the way, was named one of the most scenic drives in the country) is this state park—the biggest in Texas at a whopping 300,000 acres. Admittedly, Big Bend Ranch State Park is not for the faint of heart: There’s only primitive (a campsite with no water or electricity, but can be driven to) and backcountry (campsites with no water or electricity either, but require a hike to reach) camping in the park. Because of its size and remoteness, it offers little in the way of amenities. What the park does have is 238 miles of multiuse trails for hiking, biking, and riding horses. Bring plenty of water—temperatures can reach as high as 130 degrees in the summer, so plan your visit for sometime during late November to early March. Due to its proximity to the McDonald Observatory, this west Texas park also makes a great place to stargaze.
For an extra dose of personality, add a stop in Terlingua to your trip. The famous revitalized “ghost town” serves up some serious western-inspired grub, drinks, and music at the Starlight Theatre.
Seminole Canyon State Park sits along the old two-lane Highway 90, once the primary way of traveling by car to and from west Texas before I-10 was built. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, this is the place to be. In the chaparral region of Texas that’s sandwiched between the Hill Country and the high desert, the park and the surrounding area were once inhabited by the Seminole people.
The park is well known for its pictographs, aka rock paintings, in two river grottoes, the Panther Cave and the Fate Bell Shelter. The Panther Cave, named for its leaping panther painting, dates back at least 7,000 years. The Fate Bell Shelter is thought to house some of the oldest cave paintings in North America; ancient Indigenous artifacts were found when the area was first excavated in 1932.
There are plentiful water and electricity camping spots around the park—but stock up on ample provisions before heading out. There isn’t much in Comstock: a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, a gas station, and a diner that looks like it hasn’t opened its doors since 1970. Be sure to buy all the food, snacks, and water you need from the H-E-B (a grocery store chain fiercely beloved by Texans) in Uvalde.
As any Texan knows, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is a must-visit park. You can see what makes the region special from miles away along the drive on Ranch Road 965—a gargantuan hunk of pink granite that’s completely unique to Texas. (The state capitol is made of the same rock.) Geologically, the unusual formation is known as a monadnock, a hill of bedrock that rises above its surroundings. The stunning monolith has always had a mystical ambience. Before the area was colonized by Spanish and Anglo settlers, the Plains Native Americans who frequented the area called the formation the “Singing Rock.” When the granite would cool from Texas’s ultra-hot summer temperatures as the sun went down, the stone would moan and groan as it shrank in the cool night air. If you’re lucky, you can still catch this phenomenon during a sunset hike.
There are 11 miles of trails in the Enchanted Rock State Natural area; the most popular hike goes straight up to the top of the rock, the Summit Trail. The “trail” (there are few ways to mark a path on bare rock) can be slippery at times, but the view of the Hill Country at the apex makes the near vertical trek worth it. Because this hike is up a hunk of granite, the trail has little to no shade or vegetation, so be prepared with hats, sunscreen, and plenty of water.
I think it’s fair to say that tubing is most Texans’ favorite summer pastime. There are almost 185,000 miles of rivers in the state, though few lakes—in fact, Inks Lake isn’t even a natural lake. It was created during the 1930s by damming the Colorado River. Since the lake is manmade, it enjoys a constant water level year round and the surrounding regions are less vulnerable to flooding.
Although swimming is the most popular activity at Inks Lake State Park, there are also nine miles of trails. When Valley Spring Creek is running, visitors can check out the waterfall just upstream of the lake. The park is also a designated geocaching location for those with a love for outdoor scavenger hunts. If you’d like to sit back and relax on the water with a cool drink and try your luck with a pole and some tackle, the lake is stocked with catfish, sunfish, and several species of bass.
On your way to Inks Lake, consider a detour to the town of Marble Falls, which is home to the Blue Bonnet Cafe, a local diner famous for its wide variety of house-made pies.
With all due respect to the Panhandle, there is admittedly not a lot to see in that region besides pancake-flat prairie and cows . . . except the second-largest canyon system in the United States! Sometimes referred to as “Texas’s Grand Canyon,” Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long and 800 feet deep. (For reference, the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and 6,000 feet deep.) Visitors to Palo Duro Canyon State Park can enjoy more than 30 miles of trails, which they can explore by car, bike, horse, or on foot.
The stratified canyon walls show that the rock is about 250 million years old. You can also see rare hoodoos (dazzling, thin spires of rock that have nothing to do with voodoo, sadly) in the area. At the park, you can expect to run into a wide variety of wildlife, from wild turkeys, meadowlarks, and bobcats to the endangered Texas horned lizard. For a real taste of the Wild West, consider making the 90-mile journey from Palo Duro down to Caprock Canyons State Park where a large herd of Southern Plains bison roam a 700-acre open range.
OK, so calling Port Aransas Texas’s best beach may be a controversial statement—South Padre Island is regularly flooded with spring breakers each year, Galveston enjoys a steady stream of tourists, and let’s not forget Latina superstar Selena’s hometown of Corpus Christi. But this Texan will say it and say it again: Port Aransas easily beats them all. And if you’re into fishing, the reel-’em-in heaven of Rockport, Texas, is only 18 miles away from this island community.
What makes Port Aransas so special? Think small-town Texas with charming coastal vibes and the whitest, fluffiest sand your toes will ever have the pleasure of knowing. Plus, being located on the barrier island, the area enjoys an ecosystem populated by seabirds, 600 species of saltwater fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and even a few alligators. One of the best places to experience the island’s environment is Mustang Island State Park.
The park has five miles of coastline where visitors are encouraged to camp, bird-watch, kayak, fish, or simply play in the surf. Camping here is a little different than in most Texas state parks—though there is a designated camping area with electric hookups, guests can also camp primitive-style directly on the sand near the surf with the appropriate permits.
Dinosaur Valley State Park’s name says it all—this place has dinosaurs, or at least the remnants of them. More than 113 million years ago during Earth’s Cretaceous period, the land in and around Glen Rose, Texas, was part of an ancient shoreline and, as the footprints indicate, a pair of dinosaurs walked through the area. Over the past million years, the climate and geography of what is now Texas changed dramatically, and the rockbed eroded to expose the footprints. Now you can hike alongside the dinosaur footprints on the Limestone Ledge Trail, an ancient path that a few sauropods carved out millions of years ago.
There are more than 19 miles of other trails to explore in the park, and visitors are encouraged to bring their horses to the 100-acre South Primitive Area. Other activities include fishing, swimming, mountain biking, and geocaching. Fun fact: In addition to being a state park, Dinosaur Valley is also a National Natural Landmark.
Barton Springs in Austin is indisputably one of Texas’s favorite swimming pools thanks to its year-round chilly temperatures and convenient location in the heart of the capital. But if Balmorhea were a little closer to central Texas, it would definitely be a fierce competitor. It offers a sizable spring-fed pool that hovers around 72 to 76 degrees all year, right smack in the middle of the desert.
Before the Civilian Conservation Corps built the concrete swimming pool and cabins in the 1930s, the San Solomon Springs provided water for local wildlife and hunter gatherers, who are believed to have first made their appearance in the area around 11,000 years ago. During the 1800s, cattle ranchers and railroad workers often used the springs. Now, the pool is most commonly frequented by Texans looking to escape the oppressive summer heat in an appealing desert landscape. Visitors can swim, snorkel, and scuba dive at the pool, which hosts two endangered species of fish: the Pecos gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish. Though Balmorhea State Park is a bit out of the way from any major city (the nearest one—Odessa, Texas—is 116 miles away), getting to take a dip in the turquoise gem of the west Texas desert is an experience not to be missed.
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