Texas might have a lower percentage of public land than almost any other state, but the variety of its options—from the coast to the canyons—is staggering. In honor of the centennial of the Texas State Parks system, Texas Monthly staffers chose their favorite parks for everything from vigorous hikes to gentle sea breezes.
Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale
One of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pools, Balmorhea offers a swimming experience that might feel more like Caribbean than Texan, with schools of fish swaying and turtles paddling in the gin-clear water. Just brace yourself for the brisk temperature, which hovers between 72 and 76 degrees.
Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park, Mission
Arguably among the top birding destinations on the planet, this pocket of the Rio Grande Valley teems with vibrantly hued tropical creatures. You might spot a chacalaca, a great kiskadee, or a green jay, any of which would appear right at home in the Amazon jungle. Climb the two-story hawk observation tower for a spectacular view. Along with more than 360 avian species are bobcats nosing through the brush.
Big Bend Ranch State Park, Terlingua
Leave any signs of civilization in the dust as you navigate miles of primitive dirt roads through the mountainous Chihuahuan Desert, preferably in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance. The only other souls you might spot are a few javelina, jackrabbits, or desert cottontails, so make sure to bring some spare tires just in case.
Best River Swimming
Blanco State Park, Blanco
Patrolled by Muscovy ducks and turtles known as red-eared sliders, this one-mile section of the spring-fed Blanco River is often calm and mostly shallow, making it ideal for leisurely lap swimming. Just watch out for young cannonballers.
Best Wildlife Spotting
Brazos Bend State Park, Needville
Alligators roam free less than an hour south of downtown Houston in this wonderland of diverse ecosystems. The tallgrass prairies, hardwood forests, and mossy swamps attract more than three hundred species of birds as well as white-tailed deer, feral pigs, and bobcats. The gators—at least 250 of which exceed six feet in length—often sunbathe alongside the 37 miles of trails here.
Caddo Lake State Park, Karnack
Here, in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas, you’re one canoe rental away from entering a Spanish moss–draped swampland thick with secrets. Paddle your way in between ancient bald cypresses and explore the backwaters and hidden bayous that make up the largest naturally formed lake in the state.
Best Adrenaline-Fueled Hikes
Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway, Quitaque
A two-thousand-pound behemoth of a bison might be lurking around the next bend on your hike here. This remote piece of the Panhandle, located about two hours southeast of Amarillo, still feels like the wild frontier. Marvel at red rocks, watch the official Texas State Bison Herd up close (but not too close, as the rangers make sure to warn you), or see bats emerge from the Clarity Tunnel at dusk.
Colorado Bend State Park, Bend
Strap on a head lamp and crawl into the darkness to explore some of this park’s more than four hundred caves (with help from an expert guide, of course). Or stay aboveground and make the three-mile round-trip hike to Gorman Falls, an otherworldly, seventy-foot-tall spectacle with lush ferns and vibrant moss that seem to appear out of nowhere.
Devils River State Natural Area, Del Rio
Twenty-two miles on a rough road will bring you from arid, ocotillo-covered hills down to the mostly untouched, ultra-clear waters of the Devils River, where serious paddlers can embark on an adventurous journey.
Dinosaur Valley State Park, Glen Rose
Take a literal step back in time in this park, about an hour southwest of Fort Worth, by standing in the fossilized footprints in the bottom of the Paluxy River made by sauropods and theropods about 113 million years ago.
Best Scenic Drive
Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis
About halfway between Fort Stockton and Van Horn, dip down off Interstate 10 to a tract of the Trans-Pecos where desert meets mountain in spectacular fashion. On the scenic Skyline Drive, catch views of the rolling grasslands, scrubby hills, and forested “sky island” pinnacles that distinguish the Davis Mountains.
Best Place for Reunions
Garner State Park, Concan
Where else can you play minigolf, two-step under the stars, and make the iconic hike up Old Baldy to gaze down at the Frio River below? On summer weekends, multigenerational families gather on the riverbank for picnics and hours of floating and splashing in the chilly water at this iconic park.
Best Sea Breeze
Goose Island State Park, Rockport
The stately branches of the Big Tree, one of the largest live oaks on the globe, have stood watch over Goose Island State Park, near Rockport, for more than a thousand years. Generations of Texas kids have learned to fish from the pier here, which stretches over the water for more than 1,600 feet. Whooping cranes snack on crabs and berries nearby in the winter, and the sound of waves crashing on the shore will lull you to sleep in the beachside campground.
Best Family Activities
Guadalupe River State Park, Spring Branch
There is no better way to while away a lazy summer afternoon than by soaking in the cool, calm waters of the Guadalupe River at this park, about forty miles north of San Antonio. As you sit in your tube, a soft breeze stirs the bald cypress branches overhead, and the sound of water burbling over the rocks will lull you into a happy stupor. Though the campground is sizable, with nearly one hundred spots, it’s big enough to rarely feel crowded.
Best Campsite Scenery
Inks Lake State Park, Burnet
Many of the campsites at Inks Lake, in the Central Texas town of Burnet, are right on the water. String a hammock up between the trees to watch the sunset, or set sail on your paddleboard or kayak directly from camp. Undergo a Texan rite of passage when you leap from a rocky cliff into the Devil’s Waterhole, or just watch from the shore as swimmers cheer on kids who are working up the nerve to jump.
Lost Maples State Natural Area, Vanderpool
Who says we don’t have seasons in Texas? Vibrant crimson, orange, and yellow foliage bursts into color along the upper Sabinal River each fall, less than two hours northwest of San Antonio. Follow the park on Facebook and Instagram, where rangers post updates that will help you time your trip to see the colors at their peak. Lost Maples also has eleven miles of hiking trails, with scenic views of the Sabinal River and some steep climbs into the hills above.
Best Hidden Gem
Palmetto State Park, Gonzales
Everything about this park, in Gonzales County southeast of Luling, is unexpected—from the river otters that munch on crawfish in a quiet portion of the San Marcos River to the lush, namesake palmettos that grow along the hiking trails. Graceful curtains of Spanish moss hang from branches over bogs and lagoons, making a stroll through the swamp feel truly otherworldly.
Most Jaw-dropping Vistas
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Canyon
You don’t have to go farther than the visitors center, with its large picture windows, to take in the grandeur of the country’s second-largest canyon. But to really explore the caprock depths of this majestic park, you’ll want to hike some of its thirty-plus miles of trails, including the path toward the towering rock formation known as the Lighthouse.
Sea Rim State Park, Sabine Pass
As you paddle narrow, marsh-lined corridors of glassy water in this remote coastal park, you might be lulled into believing you’re in your own world—until an alligator surfaces in front of your kayak and reminds you that you most certainly are not.
Best Summer Camp Vibes
Tyler State Park, Tyler
Meander down trails with names like Whispering Pines, traverse a postcard-perfect lake in an aqua-colored paddleboat, and grab an ice-cream sandwich at the Silver Canoe, a general store straight out of a Wes Anderson movie at this slice of paradise in the Pine Curtain.