Studies have shown that even bite-size tastes of the great outdoors contribute to our kids’ psychological well-being and sense of self-worth. Thanks to the efforts of Texas Children in Nature, you can find dozens of outdoorsy activities across the state. (Check out its site, naturerockstexas.org, to find the parks and green spaces in your neck of the woods.) But while an afternoon in a neighborhood park or playground is better than nothing, when it comes to re-wilding your child, I say, “Go big or go home.”
Here’s why: from the dramatic heights of the Davis Mountains to the shaded bayous of the Piney Woods, exploring Texas’s natural marvels will create the sort of indelible family memories that will instill a lifelong interest in the great outdoors. And as journalist and back-to-nature advocate Richard Louv put it to me, “Nobody wants to be the last generation that spends time in nature.” So when you’re ready to tackle an adventure beyond your backyard, head out on these epic but accessible expeditions.
Estero Llano Grande State Park
Outside Weslaco, the Estero Llano Grande State Park is one of nine World Birding Center locations spread throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a migratory hot spot where nearly five hundred species of birds have been counted. The bucolic refuge and its mere 230 acres are ideal for first-time wildlife watchers as well as young listers hoping to impress their birding buddies. The park’s wetlands are home to a riot of waders and waterfowl, including the threatened wood stork and the colorful roseate spoonbill, in addition to bright borderland draws like the green jay and groove-billed ani. Over in the gardens, little lepidopterists can chase some three hundred species of butterflies and also spy on the critters that congregate on the shores of the shallow lake, easily viewed from nearby blinds. Take advantage of the ranger-led activities too, particularly if you’re not that confident in your ability to identify the 1,100 local plant species that you’ll pass on the undemanding hikes. theworldbirdingcenter.com
Spanning more than 26,000 acres across the Texas-Louisiana border, Caddo Lake is considered to be one of the largest naturally formed lakes in the South. The swampy wetland is also a Rorschach test of ecological wonder, particularly for young ones paddling along its serpentine shoreline past centuries-old bald cypresses draped in Spanish moss and through bayous carpeted with lily pads. At Caddo Lake State Park (tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/caddo-lake), you can rent a canoe or borrow fishing equipment to cast a line for one of the lake’s 71 species of fish. If you’d prefer to hitch a ride, call up local guide John Winn, the owner of Caddo Outback Tours caddolaketours.com), and arrange a cruise through alligator habitat on his eighteen-foot Go-Devil boat. Pro tip: be sure to request the “really swampy” route.
Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center
The 1.2-acre, cypress-ringed pond at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, near Athens, is an unintimidating place for student anglers to try their luck. Depending on the season, they might be casting for catfish, largemouth bass, or rainbow trout—no license required. But the fun doesn’t stop after a few flopping fish are pulled from the water. There are aquariums filled with more than fifty fish species and kids can watch a scuba diver hand-feed sturgeon, bass, and gar in a 26,000-gallon tank during the daily dive show. Over in the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, future Bassmaster pros can learn about famous guides and sport-fishing pioneers, then go wide-eyed at the taxidermied specimens of some of the largest fish ever caught in Texas. tpwd.texas.gov/spdest/visitorcenters/tffc/
Palmetto State Park
The thick undergrowth and remnant dwarf palmettos that give Palmetto State Park its name lend it the kind of primordial vibe that kid campers will find spellbinding, whether you’re throwing up a tent amid the neotropical scenery or flipping on the A/C in the six-person cabin. Like any good family campsite (of which the 270-acre park has nineteen), there’s a range of diversions within striking distance: an oxbow lake for swimming (or tubing or pedal-boating), four miles of trails for hiking, a Civilian Conservation Corps–built pavilion for picnicking, and a stretch of the San Marcos River for paddling. And then there’s the wildlife, which includes scuttling armadillos, flying squirrels, a remarkable array of birds, and the occasional snake, which means you’ll get to convey the importance of always checking your tent for holes. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/palmetto
“Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above.” Whether your family prefers Gene Autry’s or David Byrne’s version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” the whole gang will be channeling the song’s refrain as you drive up the highest strip of highway in Texas to get to the University of Texas’s acclaimed astronomy facility way up in the Davis Mountains. Located on Mount Locke, nearly seven thousand feet above sea level, the McDonald Observatory sits beneath some of the darkest night skies in the Lower 48, which makes it one of the best places in the world for contemplating the cosmos. At the thrice-weekly star parties, city kids will learn how to identify constellations they’ve likely never seen and peer through powerful telescopes to spot planets, satellites, and distant nebulae. If the night viewings are too far past your brood’s bedtime, try the early-evening twilight program or one of the guided daytime tours, which highlight the current research being done at the facility and show off live telescopic projections of the sun. mcdonaldobservatory.org
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
It may not be Mount Everest, but there is something momentous about climbing Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot pink-granite batholith that rises from the Hill Country just north of Fredericksburg. A trip to the top of the ancient dome is no less than a rite of passage for any Texan, which is why the park gets a little zoolike on weekends—in other words, it might be worth pulling the kids out of school for a weekday visit. Though it’s a good starter climb, clocking in at about an hour and a half round-trip, you’ll want to watch your charges—and your own step—up the steeper stretches. Outfitters like White Star Mountain Guides (wsmg.co) are best if you’ve got budding rock climbers looking for a more technical trek, but even tiny tots can manage the flatter, four-mile hiking trail around the formation’s base. They may even wind up chasing the same spiritual visions that once guided the Apache and Comanche to this mystical place. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/enchanted-rock
Natural Bridge Caverns
Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of regional subterranean erosion, Texas boasts nearly three thousand underground geological features. But among the known caves and karst hollows across the state, none have the wow factor of the Natural Bridge show caves just outside San Antonio. Not long after the caverns were discovered on a private ranch by four St. Mary’s University students, in 1960, the landowners, the Wuest family, opened their otherworldly attraction to visitors. Outfitted with staircases, paved walkways, and plenty of lighting, it’s just right for first-time spelunkers who may still be scared of the dark. The 35,000-square-foot Hall of the Mountain King, with its sparkling calcite crystals, will captivate young and old alike, while risk-takers can head off on a three-to-four-hour guided exploration of undeveloped caves. Back aboveground, a zip-line course and a new maze all but guarantee your kids will be tuckered out on the way home. naturalbridgecaverns.com
Padre Island National Seashore
Even the youngest among us are hardwired with that innate desire to soak up the sun and wade into the surf, which is why you should introduce your Thoreau Jr. to the charms of Padre Island National Seashore as early and often as possible. Just a half hour from Corpus Christi, the planet’s longest barrier island boasts seventy miles of mostly pristine white-sand beaches. Whereas South Padre is strewn with resort-town amusements, this stretch of seashore is wholly undeveloped. If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can venture several miles down island to Little Shell and Big Shell beaches, which draw beachcombers from around the world, thanks to the scads of cockles, lightning whelks, and sand dollars that wash up there. If you’ve got adolescent adrenaline junkies, head to Bird Island Basin on the bay side for windsurfing lessons in the hypersaline Laguna Madre. During summer’s peak hatchling season, stick close to the Malaquite Visitor Center, where you can watch as thousands of endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle babies make their way to the sea. nps.gov/pais