This Land is Your Land
From Caprock Canyons to Matagorda Island, from the piney forests to the Gulf Coast marshes, the state parks of Texas were made for you and me. What's the best way to enjoy them when the weather is perfect for an outdoor adventure? With a canoe. Or a bike. Or a tent. Or a good book. Presenting our favorite things to do in some of our favorite places on earth.
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, the air was suddenly thick with bats spiraling up counterclockwise from the deep darkness. Awe-struck, we watched for an hour as they scattered into the night sky over the Edwards Plateau in search of their own supper. Tours are arranged through the Devil’s Sinkhole Society (830-683-2287) and meet at the park’s visitors center in Rocksprings (101 N. Sweeten). Wednesday through Sunday April through October; $10, senior discount, children 5 through 12 $6, under 5 free; reservations required. No camping. C.L.
Commune with kingfishers
BENTSEN-RIO GRANDE VALLEY STATE PARK This place is for the birds. So much so, in fact, that RV campers have been given the boot; all 142 drive-in campsites have been closed to make this 588-acre patch of woodland a more bird-friendly environment. So while there will be fewer happy campers here, there should be even more happy birders, who flock from around the globe to catch a glimpse of a dorky-looking chachalaca, a great kiskadee with its bandit mask and striking yellow belly, migrating red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, and hundreds of other species. Avian-inspired park upgrades include improved nature trails, deluxe blinds overlooking feeding stations, and a hawk-viewing tower. With the completion this spring of a new visitors center just north of the park, Bentsen-Rio Grande will become the hub for the activities of the World Birding Center, a collection of nine Valley-area birding sites totaling 10,000 acres. Though the park is known for its drive-by birding, I got out of my car for a closer look at the action around the oxbow lake. I was rewarded for braving the voracious clouds of mosquitoes by a ringed kingfisher that landed on a branch right in front of me with a spectacular flash of red-white-and-bluish plumage. I felt like saluting. Six miles southwest of Mission, at the end of FM 2062; 956-585-1107; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. S.B.
Catch a speckled trout at night
COPANO BAY STATE FISHING PIER After dark, people are attracted to the lights on the pier like huge flightless moths—moths with lots of fishing gear. They cluster in the evenly spaced pools of light along this 1.6-mile former causeway, snagging speckled trout, sand trout, and redfish from the fertile bay waters. The pier-based camps of these nocturnal anglers attest to their patience and their obsession: cots and folding chairs, propane heaters and grills, ice chests full of goodies and live bait. When one kid showed me the two speckled trout he’d caught, his enthusiasm—the likes of which I thought existed only in Disney movies from the sixties—almost made me, the queen of squeamish, want to skewer a live shrimp on a hook and try my luck. Five miles north of Rockport on Texas Highway 35, 361-729-7762. No license required; fishing fee $2 per rod and reel. S.B.
BRAZOS BEND STATE PARK Considering that Brazos Bend is home to two or three hundred adult American alligators more than six feet long, I was more concerned that I’d trip over one than that I wouldn’t see one. But these creatures can be elusive, especially when scattered across nearly five thousand acres of shallow lakes, wooded bogs, and forests of moss-covered oaks. Because they are cold-blooded, alligators must constantly self-regulate their body temperature by basking in the sun or hunkering down in the water, and park naturalist David Heinicke had told me that the best time to spy them is on a warm spring or fall day following a cool spell that has chilled the water below their comfort zone. Conditions were near prime when I took a two-hour stroll around Elm and Forty-Acre lakes in October, and I counted six gators half submerged in the lily pad stew. A baguette-size youngster sharing a log with a daring (or stupid) turtle was my favorite reptilian still life. (And I do mean still; if the little guy hadn’t blinked, I’d have thought the turtle had killed him.) About twenty miles south of Richmond on FM 762, 979-553-5101; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. S.B.
Take in the sunset
PALO DURO CANYON STATE PARK When it comes to natural wonders, my jaw drops just like the next gal’s. And believe me, “spectacular” only begins to describe this rugged eight-hundred-foot-deep canyon carved into the flat Panhandle land millions of years ago by that little creek that could, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. When I was there in November, the huge parking lot was empty and the only other visitors I encountered were a family of deer. (Be prepared for crowds if you go during the summer, when Palo Duro hosts thousands who come for the spectacle of the musical Texas Legacies.) Happy to have some alone time with the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” I walked the three-mile Lighthouse Trail to the park’s signature rock formation, stopping on my way back to watch the sunset. The sprawling West Texas sky, laced with wisps of cloud, put on quite a light show. A jaw-dropping one, in fact. Twelve miles east of Canyon on Texas Highway 217, 806-488-2227; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. S.H.
Search for seashells
MATAGORDA ISLAND STATE PARK I never thought I’d tire of picking up sand dollars, but it happened on Matagorda Island. Because you can get there only via the passenger ferry out of Port O’Connor (a worthy adventure in itself) or by private boat, the beach—a whopping 38 miles of it—is off-limits to the caravans of shell-smashing vehicles that cruise most of the Texas coast. You won’t find any mollycoddling services either; take your own drinking water, food, shade, bug spray, and sunscreen. Although the park offers a shuttle service from the dock to the Gulf side of the island and the 1852 cast-iron lighthouse, I had brought along my bicycle and quickly distanced myself from my fellow ferry passengers, most of whom stayed dockside to fish anyway. For hours, with only laughing gulls and plovers for company, I searched the beach for treasures, loading my bike basket with shells, a foam fisherman’s float, and a curvaceous green bottle stamped vino italia. But my favorite find was one I couldn’t take home—an afternoon of seaside solitude. Call for ferry schedule; reservations required (512-389-8900); $16 round-trip, under 13 $9. Shuttle $2 round-trip, children 6 through 12 $1, under 6 free. S.B.
Paddle your own canoe
CADDO LAKE STATE PARK If I were a writer of mysteries, this place would be my muse. The labyrinth of sloughs studded with cypress knees, the dripping Spanish moss overhead, the fall colors reflected in the glassy water, the creature that trolls the backwaters waiting to grab small children—well, maybe not that last one, but the rest would be a fine setting for a tale of intrigue, adventure, and long-buried secrets. As I canoed the waters of this East Texas fantasy world, following offshoot sloughs that beckoned me deeper into the swampy woods, I imagined alligators lurking in every clump of lily pads. Then Mother Nature cut my idyll short with a drenching thunderstorm, and—feeling vulnerable in my aluminum canoe—I decided it was time to bail. From Karnack, head north on Texas Highway 43 for about one mile, then east on FM 2198 for half a mile to Park Road 2; 903-679-3351; $2, senior discount, under 13 free. Canoes can be rented in the park at Caddo Canoe Rentals and Boat Tours (903-679-3743); open every day but Wednesday from March through November, weekends only December through February. S.H.
Bike the backcountry
DEVILS RIVER STATE NATURAL AREA Most of the visitors here are kayakers making the two-day trip from Bakers Crossing, through Val Verde County, to Lake Amistad. But only a tiny part of the park borders the river: Behind the bluffs along the bank lie 20,000 acres of hardscrabble backcountry, irresistible to those of us who like our isolation active. A twelve-mile hike-and-bike loop promised the chance to test myself against this harsh terrain. The trail, an old jeep track, rises gently at first—cottontails and quail leaped from the brush as I rode through the morning mist—but soon climbs steeply to a ridge, where I was rewarded with a sweeping view of the place where West Texas and the Hill Country meet. The jeep track stops at the halfway point, and from there on I had to lug my mountain bike over the ankle bustingest, wheel-bucklingest ground I’ve ever come across. The markers here blend into the rocks, so do not continue until you have spotted the next one; several times I wondered if I would see my campsite again. Though it took me ten hours to cover twelve miles, I saw no one, I had a close encounter with the fragility of existence, and I survived. Mission accomplished. From Del Rio, go north on Texas Highway 277 for about 45 miles, turn left on Dolan Creek Road, and follow it for 18.6 miles to the park entrance; 830-395-2133; $3, under 13 free. C.L.
COLORADO BEND STATE PARK Twenty percent of Texas is karst, areas where the limestone has slowly dissolved to form all kinds of fissures and cavities. In fact, there are at least six thousand caves and sinkholes in the state, the longest extending more than twenty miles and the deepest descending more than five hundred feet. Texas has several famous show caves—the Caverns of Sonora, for example—but in this park’s “wild” caves, you can find out if the down and dirty joys of spelunking are for you. Wild caves have no illumination or walkways; you need a flashlight and good boots in these strange dark places, which are home to bats and ancient tiny blind things. Daddy-long-legs-like arachnids bob up and down in alarm when you shine your light on them, and troglobitic amphipods, little shrimplike creatures, scrabble around in silent pools. The fearless can bump their heads on a crawling tour; the rest of us can ramble through the relatively spacious Gorman Cave. From Lampasas, go west on FM 580 for about 24 miles to Bend, turn left at the stop sign, and follow County Road 442 for 10 miles to the park office; 325-628-3240; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. Walking tours (2 1 / 2 to 3 hours) Saturday and Sunday at 9:15 a.m., $10; call for schedule and price of self-guided crawling tours (3 to 4 hours). Reservations required. C.L.
Hike and bike
CAPROCK CANYONS STATE PARK “If horses shouldn’t go here, then I’m not so sure fiftysomethings should either,” said my fifty-something father as we passed a no-equines-beyond-this-point marker along the multi-use Upper Canyon Trail. Up and down we hiked (learning that when signs indicate steep inclines, they mean it), stopping to admire the views of juniper-and-mesquite-dotted red-rock escarpment and to drink plenty of water. We even climbed our way into a cave filled with ferns. Six miles later, back at our starting point, we agreed that a rental car had never looked so good. The next day, after a good night’s rest, we rode our bikes on a 17-mile adventure along the Caprock Canyons Trailway, an abandoned rail line that takes you across trestles and through tunnels. While horses are welcome on the entire 64-mile gravel course, my dad again found himself wondering if the same access should be given to fiftysomethings. Three miles north of Quitaque on FM 1065, 806-455-1492; $2, senior discount, under 13 free. Take your own mountain bike; the Caprock Home Center, 126-128 West Main, Quitaque (806-455-1193), offers a shuttle to the South Plains entrance of the trailway; $25 for groups of up to four. S.H.
BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK Even though I could only just make out Redford—about ten miles away—through the haze, the view from the edge of the Tapado Canyon was spectacular. Layers of rock drop hundreds of feet into a deep valley, where a few lonely trees are growing. The park is a wild place, and sights like this canyon and the famous Madrid Falls are impossible to find without a guide, so I had signed up for one of the four-wheel-drive tours of the backcountry given by the park rangers two or three times a month. From my vantage point, I marveled at the tenacity of the ranchers who worked this land before air conditioning and trucks; the ground is dotted with rusted water pipes and broken windmills, the evidence of their struggle. My guide pointed out an old barbed-wire fence that runs down an impossibly steep slope and ends at the point where the rock plunges vertically to the canyon floor. To the south I spied a faint path winding its arduous way to the top of the mesa—the cowboys’ road home after a night on the town. From Presidio, head east on FM 170 for about 6 miles, turn left on Casa Piedra Road and drive for 7 miles, then turn right at the sign and continue for 25 miles; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. Tours by appointment; 432-229-3416; $75 a person. C.L.
Surf the sand
MONAHANS SANDHILLS STATE PARK You can’t snowboard in Texas, but you can sand-surf, sort of. While this sounds about as much fun as grass-skiing, it is in fact a serious sport of baggy-shorted dudes from Death Valley to Libya, where you can surf 650-foot dunes in the Sahara Desert. Sliding down the up-to-70-foot drifts at Monahans sitting on a plastic disk would bore those major-league buzz-seekers, but it provides enough thrills for the rest of us, kids and adults alike. So the next time you’re making the long haul across West Texas, you might buy a few moments of silence from any cranky little people in your car by promising to stop off here. The sliding is best after a rain or early in the morning, when the dew has packed down the sand. Off Interstate 20 five miles east of Monahans, 432-943-2092; $2, senior discount, under 13 free. Sand disk rental $1 an hour, sand board rental $2 an hour. C.L.
Storm the battlefield
SAN JACINTO MONUMENT Foot-high letters carved into the base of the monument declare that the brief but bloody skirmish fought here on April 21, 1836—when Sam Houston’s small band of Texians defeated the Mexican army under Santa Anna—was no less than “one of the decisive battles of the world.” If that seems a bit overblown, consider the victory’s domino effect. Once free from Mexico, Texas was soon annexed by the United States, which in turn triggered border disputes that led to the Mexican War, which resulted in the United States’ acquiring nearly a million square miles of territory. While all of it is not visible from the observation deck of the 570-foot-high limestone obelisk, you can see downtown Houston, the Fred G. Hartman Bridge linking Baytown and LaPorte, the battleship Texas, and a vast petrochemical wonderland. In a few years, park planners hope you’ll also see the surrounding grounds—now a recreation area with picnic tables and a reflecting pond—returned to their natural state at the time of the battle. Meanwhile, get your history fix in the museum, where you’ll find such disparate artifacts as a tiny wooden heart and cross whittled by Sam Houston and a knee buckle taken from Santa Anna after his capture. About 22 miles east of Houston off Texas Highway 225, 281-479-2421. Monument, museum, and battleground open daily 9 to 6; free. Observation deck $3, under 12 $2. No camping. S.B.
Wade in dinosaur tracks
DINOSAUR VALLEY STATE PARK Considering the swarms of Homo metroplexus who inundate this park on summer weekends, you may wish that a troop of snaggletoothed Acrocanthosaurus would once again swagger down the Paluxy River and clear the crowds. Until that DNA cloning thing is perfected, however, you’ll have to content yourself with wading in the paw prints these enormous carnivorous reptiles and their even larger prey, the Pleurocoelus, left behind 113 million years ago in mud that later hardened into the limestone river bottom. Three of the four major sites are not only well marked on the park map but heralded with pointers, info-packed kiosks, and “Track” signs poking up out of the shallow water. Sighting tubes allow lazy trackers to spy the prints without even leaving the parking lots. Take the trouble to find the fourth site, just east of the campsites, and you’ll be rewarded with a flurry of tracks that’ll make you think those rowdy reptiles threw a brink-of-extinction dance party. From U.S. 67 five miles west of Glen Rose, take FM 205 north for four miles; 254-897-4588; $5, under 13 free. S.B.
Pack a picnic
MONUMENT HILL AND KREISCHE BREWERY STATE HISTORIC SITES Even the most mundane family picnic takes on epic significance at this history-rich spot. Here among the moss-draped oaks and manicured lawns, on a two-hundred-foot cliff overlooking the Colorado River, sits a granite tomb marked by a limestone monolith and guarded by a very stern, sword-wielding angel. It holds the remains of Texans killed in border disputes with Mexico: the members of the Dawson Expedition, who died while fighting in San Antonio in 1842, and sixteen unlucky members of the Mier Expedition, who were executed the following year at Rancho Salado, Mexico, after drawing the infamous black beans. If their fate begins to cast a pall over your gathering, a short walk down a gravel trail will lead you to a relic from a more fun-loving past: the ruins of the brewery built during the 1860’s by stone-mason-turned-brewmaster Heinrich Kreische. He engineered the three-story sandstone structure so that the water from the spring it straddled could be used for cooling and cleaning as well as in his popular Bluff Beer. One mile south of downtown La Grange off Texas Highway 77, 979-968-5658; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. Access to brewery limited to one-hour tours on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.; $2, students $1, under 6 free. No camping. S.B.
Relive the past
LANDMARK INN STATE HISTORIC SITE The ebb and flow of history has left its mark on the Landmark Inn, set where the road west crosses the Medina River just outside San Antonio. The pecan bottoms bordering the Medina would be familiar to the Comanches and Apaches who threatened the early settlers—among them César Monod, from Switzerland, who built the first store on this site in 1849. Mexican and Anglo armies halted here before marching off to fight Indians and each other; immigrants heading for the California gold fields rested here; and at times the store served as a post office and a hotel. A gristmill on the grounds later housed a cotton gin and, in the twenties, a hydroelectric plant supplying electricity to Castroville, the French-German agricultural community that had grown up around this crossroads. Now the store is a museum and bed-and-breakfast, spotless and brimming with Old World charm. Ride one of the complimentary bicycles across U.S. 90 into Castroville’s sleepy streets, where 150-year-old cottages doze under shady oaks and restaurants serve artery-clogging Alsatian cuisine that will send you wobbling back to the inn for a nap. 402 E. Florence, Castroville; 830-931-2133; $1, under 13 free; museum free. Rooms $60 to $75 a night. No camping. C.L.
Admire ancient art
HUECO TANKS STATE HISTORIC SITE When I first visited Hueco Tanks, in the early nineties, I scrambled freely over these huge boulder piles. I tried not to damage the rock paintings that I came across, but others had not been so conscientious; the few pictographs I saw were almost obliterated. As climbers flocked to this “world-class bouldering destination,” the problem escalated, and Texas Parks and Wildlife eventually restricted access to the site and began trying to raise awareness of the paintings’ cultural value. Now the only way to see the best pictographs is to take a tour, as I did in May. The knowledge and enthusiasm of our volunteer guide, Diana Rosch, made for an entertaining and educational morning. We saw hunting scenes, otherworldly-looking gods drawn in vivid oranges and dark reds more than a thousand years ago by early Native Americans, and a great battle panorama featuring Europeans on horseback, most likely painted by Apaches at the end of the nineteenth century. From El Paso, take U.S. 62/180 east for about thirty miles, turn left on Hueco Tanks Road (RR 2775), and continue for about eight miles; 915-857-1135. Two-hour pictograph tours Wednesday through Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. September through April, 9 and 2 May through August; $4, senior discount, under 13 free; reservations recommended. C.L.
Canoe through paradise
INKS LAKE STATE PARK Inks Lake, the smallest and prettiest of the Highland Lakes, is also the “gneiss”-est, set as it is in the rough hills carved from this sparkly pink, granitelike rock by the Colorado River. This park—wrapped around the eastern side of the lake—is a bucolic paradise of cedar and oak forests teeming with a classic assortment of Central Texas wildlife. It offers nature walks, geology hikes, and, my choice, a canoe tour to the Devil’s Waterhole, a narrow inlet at the eastern end of the lake. For two hours our little flotilla followed the ranger around while he pointed out unusual rock outcrops, wood duck nesting sites, and a blue heron rookery. On our return journey, we beached our craft and went ashore, where the stony soil was strewn with broken arrowheads. I’m told the Devil’s Waterhole got its name from the land’s previous owner, who was given to cursing vociferously whenever his wagon got stuck crossing the inlet. From Burnet, take Texas Highway 29 west for about nine miles, then turn left on Park Road 4; 512-793-2223; $4, senior discount, under 13 free. Canoe tours most Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m.; $6 (includes canoe rental), reservations recommended. C.L.
Pedal in peace
LAKE MINERAL WELLS STATE PARK AND TRAILWAY The overwhelming number of options here can trigger an involuntary Goldilocks response. Rock climbing in the slot canyon called Penitentiary Hollow? Too hard. Cowboy poetry by the campfire? Too soft. Biking the 22-mile trailway? Too long. Pedal boating on Lake Mineral Wells? Just right. From the dock at the park store, a rambling stone building that evokes memories of summer camp, you can strike out for the far shores with a picnic or leisurely circle the nearby island looking for snoozing great blue herons. And since no ski boats or Jet Skis are allowed on this diminutive 646-acre lake, you needn’t worry about anybody rocking your world. On U.S. 180 four miles east of Mineral Wells, 940-328-1171; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. Canoes, kayaks, pedal boats, and rowboats can be rented at the park store (940-325-7152); $10 an hour to $35 a day; open Friday through Sunday through May 31, open daily thereafter (closed Thanksgiving through February); call for hours. S.B.
Pitch a tent
SOUTH LLANO RIVER STATE PARK You’ll find something for every member of the family at this compact, 520-acre Hill Country park. Kids can swim or go tubing in the river; teenagers can canoe, bike, or hike; Dad can fish for perch, catfish, and bass; the grandparents can bird-watch from the RV; and Mom can have a moment of peace strolling through the stately pecan grove that makes this lush bottomland so special. Behind the shady campground—equipped with restrooms, showers, and water and electric hookups—lies the Walter Buck Wildlife Management Area, another 2,000 acres of rough limestone, with many more miles of hike-and-bike trails to explore. From October through March, several hundred Rio Grande turkeys take up residence in the pecans, and much of the park is off-limits, though the campgrounds stay open and you can watch the turkeys strut from behind observation blinds. From Junction, head south on U.S. 377 for about five miles, then turn left on Park Road 73; 325-446-3994; $2, senior discount, under 13 free. Tube rental only ($1 a day). Camping $7 for walk-in sites, $13 for back-into sites (prices per site, 8 people maximum). C.L.
Boat the Big Thicket
VILLAGE CREEK STATE PARK These 1,050 acres of bottomland forest and mysterious swamp provide a fascinating window into the mythical Big Thicket. Because the Thicket is an absurdity of ecological convergence (where desert meets swamp meets forest meets plain), there’s no telling what you may see as you canoe the murky waters of Village Creek; local flora and fauna include river otters, alligators, water moccasins, and such exotic plants as the carnivorous bladderwort. As I passed beachlike white sandbars and cypress sloughs that tempted me to explore—and overhanging limbs that put my paddling skills to the test—I fell completely under the spell of this peaceful, otherworldly place. Sixteen miles north of Beaumont on FM 3513, 409-755-7322; $2, senior discount, under 13 free. Call for information on canoe outfitters. S.H.
Skim the surface
SEA RIM STATE PARK You fully expect a dutiful park ranger to hand you a life jacket before he takes you on a boat ride, but industrial-strength earmuffs and goggles? Don’t ask questions. Just put ’em on, even if they make you look like a geek, because you’re about to blast off into the marshlands here aboard a waterborne rocket ship known as an airboat. As you whiz through narrow channels and across brackish lakes, keep your begoggled eyes peeled for denizens of the estuary. Alligators, caught sunbathing, slip from the banks. Veritable conventions of great blue herons graze the marsh’s crustacean smorgasbord. Roseate spoonbills congregate over the early-bird special. When conditions are right (clear, shallow water), you can even spot redfish lollygagging below the surface. Twenty miles south of Port Arthur on Texas Highway 87, 409-971-2559; $2, senior discount, under 13 free. Airboat rides at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday in March, April, September, and October, and Wednesday through Sunday from May through August; $14, ages 6 through 10 $9, under 6 free; reservations required. S.B.
Ride a European cable car
WYLER AERIAL TRAMWAY Aboard this tramway, it’s easy to imagine yourself high in the Alps, where every mountain sports a cable car and a ski lodge. The cosmopolitan experience starts with the road up to the base station, a smooth slalom straight out of The Italian Job. Cheerful orange cable cars—Swiss-made, bien sûr—run up to the top of Ranger Peak, two thousand feet above downtown El Paso, where the high desert wind will blow the cobwebs away. For a quarter you can take in the two-nation, three-state, five-star view through one of the high-powered binocular telescopes on the observation platform. Of course, if this were really Europe, the gift shop would be a bar, and you could toast the city with a dry martini. At the western end of McKinley Avenue in El Paso, 915-566-6622. Thursday through Monday noon to 6 p.m. (ticket sales until 5 p.m.), extended hours on weekends and holidays; $7, under 13 $4. No camping. C.L.
Get your hands dirty
BRIGHT LEAF STATE NATURAL AREA If you’ve ever uttered an unkind word about the state of some of Texas’s parks (and you know who you are), then it’s time to put your muscle where your mouth is. And there are plenty of volunteer opportunities out there to let you do so. To find out how I could lend a hand in my neck of the woods, I got in touch with Jeff Hershey, Bright Leaf’s program administrator, who coordinates the volunteer efforts for this 217-acre park nestled in the heart of Austin. (Located in the hills overlooking Lake Austin, Bright Leaf was left to Parks and Wildlife by Georgia B. Lucas when she passed away, in 1994.) If I wanted to carve a trail through the pristine landscape of juniper and oak, Hershey would hook me up with the Central Texas Trail Tamers. If I showed an interest in leading interpretive hikes that would point out such local residents as golden-cheeked warblers, he would introduce me to the Friends of Bright Leaf State Natural Area (most parks have similar support groups), who would train me as a docent. In fact, it turns out I could do just about anything—except complain. 4301 Old Bull Creek Road, Austin; 512-459-7269; access by appointment only. Central Texas Trail Tamers, 512-698-4381. S.H.
Survive a single track
CEDAR HILL STATE PARK This park is like a 1,826-acre chunk of the Hill Country—complete with limestone cliffs—that broke loose, blew north, and wedged itself snugly against the Dallas ‘burbs alongside Joe Pool Reservoir. You can practically smell the burgers frying at the neighboring fast-food joints, even when you’re pedaling the far-flung reaches of its mountain bike trail. The scenic, single-track path is notoriously taxing: The first mile alone—up, up, and up—will quickly weed out the weak-of-lung and flabby-of-thigh. Plucky survivors then face more long uphills, steep descents through grassy prairies, and an endless series of technical trials, like tricky creek crossings and downhill zigzags around many hard, immovable trees. Afterward, as you soak your wounded body in the lake, be sure to thank (or curse) DORBA, the Dallas Off-Road Bike Association, which created this trail of torturous fun. (Note: The trail is closed when the ground is wet or even damp.) On FM 1382 (off U.S. 67), about ten miles southwest of downtown Dallas; 972-291-3900; $5, senior discount, under 13 free. S.B.
Stay in a historic cabin
BASTROP STATE PARK I want to know: Where do you buy cabin seeds? Although everyone insists that the cozy stone-and-wood cottages here were built in the thirties by the Civilian Conservation Corps, I can’t shake my initial impression that they simply sprouted from the pine-needle carpet like some kind of rare architectural mushroom. The random way the rustic cabins are clustered around a tiny lake deep in the Lost Pines adds to this botanical illusion. On closer inspection, however, the CCC claim is supported by many irresistible craftsmen’s touches, such as mullioned wood windows, hand-wrought iron hinges on heavy pine doors, and arched stone fireplaces on whose mantels are carved cryptic philosophies (“No man sees his shadow who faces the sun”) or advice that seems especially timely today (“Mud thrown is ground lost”). One mile east of Bastrop on Texas Highway 21, 512-321-2101; $3, senior discount, under 13 free. Thirteen cabins, from $65 a night for one bedroom (two people) to $152 for four bedrooms with a screened porch (eight people), two-night minimum on weekends; to reserve a cabin, call 512-389-8900. S.B.