21 miles southwest of Abilene
Yurts so good? That’s the opinion at Abilene State Park, which has built three of these nifty shelters, distinguished by their circular shape and gently domed top. With bunk beds, a sofa, and a microwave, a yurt might be the best way for families to enjoy the shady campsites and short nature trails at this park. But even if you can’t stay overnight, the lovely CCC-built swimming pool is reason enough to visit.
On Park Road 23, in Blanco
What a summer that was! We swam in the spring-fed Blanco River, played volleyball, and fed the ducks with leftover apple crumble from the Deutsch Apple after we couldn’t eat any more. In the evenings we danced and danced at Kendalia, Fischer, and Gruene halls, and when we returned to camp, we stayed up and watched the stars and talked all night. And you can too.
1.5 miles east of Karnack
It may not be the largest freshwater lake in the South—that would be Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. But regardless of the statistics, Caddo Lake is a wonder of the world that is still a mysterious backwater. The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, since the park fronts onto Big Cypress Bayou three miles from open water. But a paddle around the swamps of Saw Mill Pond and a hike through the hardwood forest will give you a sense of this extraordinary place.
1331 McKelligon Canyon Road, in El Paso
Let’s give thanks that the 1979 legislature had the vision to pass a law protecting this forbiddingly hot, dusty, dry, and spiky slice of ancient-beyond-imagination rock, El Paso’s elephant of a memento mori. Hike, bike, drive, or ride the tram to the ridge and survey three states, two countries, and the asphalt scab of human enterprise, all overwhelmed by the vastness of sun and sky.
10 miles northeast of Rockport
There’s a lot to do on the Gulf—Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Mustang and Padre islands, Rockport and Corpus Christi—and this speck of a park across Copano Bay from Rockport makes a great base for coastal explorations. If it’s windy, camp in the woods on the mainland, and if the bugs are biting, move to the island sites. Want to relax? Borrow some tackle from the rangers and spend a few hours on the fishing pier.
25 miles northwest of San Antonio
This state natural area just south of Helotes sprawls across 8,624 acres of classic Balcones Escarpment that surely would have been subdivision before long. As it is, San Antonians now have a first-class hiking and biking destination to call their own, with many miles of trails leading off the Joe Johnston route, an old military highway. The park is day-use only; consider the lovely Landmark Inn at Castroville if you want to make a weekend of it.
9 miles west of Burnet
Watching the sun rise from a canoe on what is by far the prettiest of the Highland Lakes is something close to heaven. Enjoy nature, fishing, a round of golf, hiking, and jumping from the rocks into Devil’s Waterhole at Inks Lake, the park that’s cuter than a kitten on YouTube. Bonus: Stay cool in one of 22 air-conditioned cabins.
Palo Duro Canyon
20 miles south of Amarillo
When she was only 25 years old, long before her move to New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe taught elementary school in Amarillo and so fell in love with Palo Duro that she came back to the area to join the faculty of West Texas State, in Canyon. She wrote that it was a “burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color,” which about sums it up. The park has stables, trails, campsites, and the Pioneer Amphitheater, home of the musical Texas, but the real reason to be here is to marvel at so much dramatic natural beauty.
4 miles north of Eustace
A few well-shaded campsites by a small lake in a wood northwest of Athens are all it takes to make a little oasis of peaceful pleasure. Designed for anglers, the lake is kept well stocked with largemouth bass, crappie, and catfish, and, don’t forget, you don’t need no stinkin’ license to fish here, since the entire body of water is contained within the park. Bye-bye, cruel world. Hello, Purtis Creek.
9 miles west of Comstock
The famous panther at this small park is one of a treasure trove of rock paintings that the dry desert air has preserved on the canyon walls for thousands of years. Visit Wednesdays through Sundays to tour the Fate Bell pictographs, or sign up for the popular quarterly Presa Canyon overnight trip, a strenuous hike (with your tent) into an area that is normally off-limits.