Before You Go:
To reserve a campsite or find out more about our state parks, visit tpwd.state.tx.us or call 512-389-8900.
The Texas State Park Pass allows unlimited visits to state parks and historic sites for one year—for you and as many guests as can fit in a noncommercial vehicle—as well as discounts on camping fees and park store merchandise; $60, available at most parks or by calling 512-389-8900.
Gaze at the stars
COPPER BREAKS STATE PARK If you stand in the Big Pond Camping Area here, the closest neighboring towns are Quanah, twelve miles to the north, and Crowell, eight miles to the south. Wichita Falls, the nearest city of any size, is eighty miles away. Which is to say that the bright lights of the big (and small) cities won’t interfere with the dark canvas of the night sky, making this remote, family-friendly park ideal for stargazing. If you’re no Galileo, not to worry: Once a month from April through October, Copper Breaks hosts a Star Walk, when—using only the green beam of a laser pointer—a knowledgeable volunteer singles out stars, planets, and constellations, like a giant game of connect the dots, while explaining the science and lore behind these heavenly bodies. Once your naked eye has made out everything from Cassiopeia to the International Space Station, take a peek through the 25-inch Dobsonian telescopes at some of our closest neighboring galaxies, only light-years away. Between Quanah and Crowell on Texas Highway 6, 940-839-4331; $2, senior discount, under 13 free. Call for Star Walks schedule; free with park admission. S.H.
Stroll through the forest primeval
PALMETTO STATE PARK The three trails here are short, but they pack such a primordial punch that you’ll be tempted to slip out of your hiking boots and prance barefoot down the sandy paths (loincloth optional). Sure, man has had an impact on these 270 acres: The natural gas that once made the mud boil has been siphoned off, and a few fairy-tale stone structures built in the thirties by the Civilian Conservation Corps dot the landscape. But the mood is still decidedly primitive. As I ambled through the forest of dwarf palmettos in this sometime swamp, with cardinals, painted buntings, and American crows zipping about in the ancient elms and cottonwoods that towered above, I swore I could hear jungle drums—but it was just a group of schoolkids thundering across a boardwalk. Six miles southeast of Luling off U.S. 183, 830-672-3266; $2, senior discount, under 13 free. S.B.
Do absolutely nothing
BALMORHEA STATE PARK On the supermarket checkout stand recently, a magazine cover asked, “Is leisure a radical activity?” If so, here’s my revolutionary regimen: Forget work, the Democrats, your mother, the Republicans, and mad cows. Grab the books you got for Christmas and that stack of unread New Yorkers, and head straight to this desert oasis, where the San Solomon Springs Courts await you. Tucked into a small stand of oak trees, this single-story motel with white adobe walls and a red-tile roof emanates calm. Its simply furnished rooms are cool, dark, and airy, part hobbit hole and part cruise ship—perfect for hiding from the world on a voyage to nowhere. The famous spring-fed swimming pool is a few yards away on the other side of the park, so you don’t have to worry about what to do or where to go. Your work here is to relax. Lie on the bed with your head in a book or rest by the pool with your head in the clouds—or vice versa. When you feel like a break, dive into the pool and chase turtles through the underwater greenery. From Fort Stockton, head west on Interstate 10 for about fifty miles, then south on Texas Highway 17 for about seven miles; 432-375-2370; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. Pool open from 8 a.m. until 2 hours before sunset. Rooms with 2 double beds are $50 to $60 per night for two people; for reservations, call 512-389-8900. C.L.
Ride the rails
TEXAS STATE RAILROAD STATE HISTORICAL PARK There’s a Back to the Future experience waiting for you deep within the Piney Woods. No, you won’t need a DeLorean or a flux capacitor. Just hop aboard one of the restored steam trains that chug along the 25-mile track between Rusk and Palestine. From the steps of the turn-of-the-century-style depot, attendants in denim overalls with a red handkerchief in their back pocket bid you adieu as the whistle blows two toots. Enjoy the piped-in train-themed music and something sweet from the food car as you travel along at 25 miles an hour, mesmerized by the clickety-clack, the passing pines, and, during the last half of this month, the flowering dogwoods, all the while feeling that your T-shirt and jeans aren’t quite dressy enough for this old-fashioned trip back in time. Depots off U.S. 84 at the end of Park Road 70 in Palestine and the end of Park Road 76 in Rusk, 903-683-2561; call for schedule, reservations recommended. Four-and-a-half-hour round-trip $16, ages 3 through 12 $10 ($22 and $14 in a climate-controlled car); one-way trip $11, ages 3 through 12 $7 ($15 and $11 in a climate-controlled car); under 3 free. S.H.
DEVIL’S SINKHOLE STATE NATURAL AREA Finally, a little after sundown, a small bat—a whitish-gray shape against the gloom—came fluttering out of the fifty-foot-wide circular chasm beneath us. A lone bat heralds the nightly exodus of several million of its kin—Mexican free-tails whose summer residence is this cave, the sinkhole of the park’s name and the largest single-chamber cavern in Texas. Gradually, more bats followed the first, and the five of us who had joined this night’s tour—and who had been waiting more than two hours for the show to begin—could hear, from way down below, the eerie sound of many hundreds of thousands of wings beating. As the trickle became a stream, an owl suddenly swooped across the cave mouth and seized an unlucky bat. Then, as if the all-clear had been sounded,