Forty-six enamel pins adorn a canvas banner hanging on my bedroom wall. Collected over a decade of camping and hiking trips, each one evokes a small but powerful memory. When I look at the red leaf that represents Lost Maples State Natural Area, I can smell cinnamon buns baking in a Dutch oven nestled in campfire coals on a chilly Hill Country morning. A grinning skeleton in an inner tube takes me back to a lazy summer day floating the Frio River at Garner State Park, not far from Lost Maples. There’s a pin depicting Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, in Fredericksburg, where my flashlight beam caught a glimpse of a ringtail cat. The image of a shorebird reminds me of shrimping in the bay at Galveston Island State Park and netting only a couple piddly catches, which we fried up in butter, nonetheless. I can still taste them.
Reflecting on these moments reminds me how lucky I am to live in Texas, where a $70 annual park pass gives me access to such an abundance of natural wonders. In our 88 state parks and natural areas, you can play nine holes of golf (Lockhart, in Central Texas), admire rock art painted four thousand years ago (Seminole Canyon, in the state’s southwest corner), or pitch your tent on a floating campsite in a marsh off the Gulf of Mexico (Sea Rim, in far southeast Texas). You can canoe through eerie canopies of Spanish moss at Caddo Lake State Park, near the Louisiana border, or tackle some of the best bouldering on the planet at El Paso’s Hueco Tanks.
The breadth and beauty of our parks, which cover more than 640,000 acres across the state, are undeniable, and we’re enjoying them more than ever. The number of visitors surged by 37 percent from 2020 to 2021, when it hit a record high of almost 10 million. Some of that spike was a temporary result of the pandemic shutdowns, which led stir-crazy Texans to seek refuge outdoors, but most of it has been sustained. Last year, 9.6 million day-trippers and campers flocked to the parks.
But as the state system celebrates its centennial this year, the problems are clear. With more than 30 million residents (and growing by about 1,000 newcomers a day), Texas is the second-most populous state, but it has less public land than almost any other. (Only Kansas and Nebraska have a lower percentage of public land as total acreage.) More than 96 percent of Texas is privately owned, compared with 49 percent in California. Snagging a weekend camping spot or even a day pass at the most popular parks is now a feat akin to scoring Beyoncé tickets. Texas Parks and Wildlife has been chronically underfunded, a problem that was thrown into stark relief as the state’s population boomed over the past two decades. In 2019 TPWD estimated the cost of addressing its maintenance backlog—crumbling buildings, potholed roads—at $781 million.
Somehow, TPWD must accommodate all its new visitors while still preserving and protecting vulnerable animals, plants, and ecosystems. In a 2001 report commissioned by the agency, Texas Tech University researchers found that the state would need to add 1.2 million more acres of parkland by 2030 merely to keep up with population growth. Texas is nowhere close to that goal, having added only about 14,000 acres across five new parks over the past twenty years. That number will rise by about 70,000 acres thanks to five new parks and natural areas (and one expansion) that are set to welcome visitors within the next eleven years. Soaring real estate prices have made acquiring new parkland, which has always been a logistical nightmare, more challenging than ever before. David Yoskowitz, who became TPWD’s executive director in November, says addressing this problem is his main priority. “In 2050, by the most aggressive numbers, we’ll have twenty-five million more people in the state,” he says. “Demand for our natural areas is already high, and we’re having a tough time meeting that.”
Writer Wallace Stegner famously called the national parks America’s “best idea,” arguing that nothing is more democratic than protecting the wild places that belong to all of us. It’s a similar sentiment that can be felt when belting out our state song, “Texas, Our Texas” (“O Empire wide and glorious, You stand supremely blest”). Recently, I went on a leisurely hike at McKinney Falls State Park, near my home in Austin, with my six-month-old son babbling happily in a carrier on my chest. At one point, both of us paused to look up as a red-tailed hawk swooped over our heads. How, I wondered, do we protect what we have while ensuring that all of us, including new Texans like my son, can access and enjoy it?
The birthplace of the Texas parks system, Mother Neff State Park, is unremarkable at first glance—no hidden waterfalls, majestic vistas, or exotic creatures. Its four hundred acres are tucked away in a part of Texas not known for its natural beauty, about halfway between Waco and Temple off Interstate 35. The Leon River—a muddy, homely tributary of the Brazos River—meanders through this region when it’s not clogged up with logjams. Fifteen minutes from the park is a town called Flat, which more or less sums things up.
But on the cold and drizzly December morning when I visited, it didn’t take me long to uncover the park’s delights. The plants in the pollinator garden were wearing their Christmas best: crimson blooms of Turk’s-cap and cherry sage added a dash of color to the winter landscape, and coralberry bushes were strung with the plump, bright berries that are a favorite snack of thrushes and cedar waxwings. Silver bluestem, one of the dozens of native prairie grasses that thrive here, rippled in the wind. A white-tailed deer munched on some, blinking at me as I walked by.
With a “Welcome to Mother Neff,” Melissa Chadwick, the soft-spoken park superintendent, invited me to climb into her white pickup for a tour. An avid birder, she was wearing wooden cardinal earrings that jostled with each bump in the road. We passed a playground, complete with a giant armadillo for kids to climb on (a favorite of Chadwick’s eight-year-old daughter), and entered the forest that occupies about half of the park. Flocks of jewel-toned painted buntings alight here in the summer. Despite its modest size, the park encompasses three geographic zones: the prairie, limestone escarpment and canyons, and bottomland in the Leon River floodplain, where a large, graceful pavilion called the Rock Tabernacle stands.
In this spot, under shady pecan trees, the Neff family hosted picnics from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Isabella “Mother” Neff and her husband, Noah, had married in Virginia before seeking their fortune in Texas, where they had nine children and farmed cotton and subsistence crops. After Noah and two of the children died of typhoid fever, Isabella opened some of the family land to visitors. This six-mile stretch of riverbank became known as Neff Park, where, starting in 1925, hundreds of Texans would come for culture-based social gatherings called chautauquas—a trend sweeping the nation at the time that brought enriching programming to small towns. (At one such event here in 1929, the entertainment included a lecture on “The Passing of the Texas Cowboy” and a performance by the Ukulele Yodelers.)
Isabella was a successful farmer, and over time, the family’s fortunes grew. When she died, in 1921, she left Neff Park to the community for “religious, educational, fraternal, and political purposes.” That same year, her youngest son, Pat, a prominent lawyer, began his first term as governor. Inspired by his mother’s generosity, he made the establishment of a state parks system a top goal. Neff was one of the first Texas politicians to campaign by car, putting six thousand miles on his Model T while crisscrossing the state. Once elected, he continued his travels—on one 1924 trip, he toured 24 proposed park sites in eighteen counties, giving as many as six speeches per day. “The people should have these breathing spots, where they can enjoy nature in stream and tree, in rock and rill,” he said in 1922. “These are valuable things in this world that do not bear the dollar mark.”
On that last point, the legislature agreed, though maybe not quite the way Neff intended. In 1923, at his urging, lawmakers created the State Parks Board, which later became TPWD. But they refused to fund the new agency, forcing it to rely heavily on philanthropy and to generate its own revenue—a model that, to a lesser extent, holds today. All parkland had to be donated; not one dollar was appropriated for park operations or staff. The attitude echoed a sentiment first expressed by Tyler representative E. W. Smith in 1893, when the Daughters of the Republic of Texas begged lawmakers to fund the first state park, at San Jacinto. “Texas is not now in the mood, nor in the proper financial condition, to undertake such work,” Smith scoffed.
If Texas wasn’t in the mood to pay for parks in 1893, it really wasn’t in the mood in 1929, when the Great Depression hit. But in the throes of the economic crisis, the nascent state and national parks systems got an unexpected boost: the Civilian Conservation Corps, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ingenious idea to get Americans back to work building roads, cabins, and other structures in the parks as well as planting trees and improving conservation efforts. From 1933 to 1942, the program sent three million young men to public land nationwide; 50,000 of them served in Texas. As we drove through Mother Neff’s campground, Chadwick pointed out a marker on the spot where their barracks stood. “There were close to three hundred CCC men here,” she says. The work they did by hand—carving wooden furniture, constructing cabins, installing iron railings—has stood the test of time. The CCC’s imprint is found across the state parks, including at one of the system’s jewels, the gleaming Indian Lodge, in Davis Mountains State Park, in Fort Davis. Each of its adobe bricks was smoothed into shape and dried in the desert sun.
Steering her pickup back toward the visitors center, Chadwick listed the many challenges facing Mother Neff. Drought, floods, and logjams necessitate constant repairs; a portion of the park remains closed as a result. Invasive weeds threaten to choke out native grasses.
As superintendent, Chadwick is essentially the mayor of a small town, managing a staff of seven and planning events and budgets, even making sure her park hosts (the volunteers who staff the campgrounds) have cleaning supplies for the bathrooms. When the pandemic brought a surge in visitors, it became even harder to keep up. The work remains fulfilling, though. “There’s so much healing in nature,” she says. “Mother Neff invited the community out, and we still try to—oh, look!” She pointed to a hummingbird in a nearby branch, a broad-tailed species rarely spotted here in winter. We sat in blissful silence, watching the small blur of iridescent green.
It is increasingly hard to find quietude in marquee destinations such as Enchanted Rock and Garner. If you truly want to get lost in the wild, your best bet is to head west, to Big Bend Ranch State Park, miles from anywhere in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. At 313,000 acres, it’s by far our biggest state park, and also one of the least visited. On a trip there a few summers ago, my husband, Chris, and I had the sprawling campground to ourselves. (The ranger who checked us in said he hadn’t met another visitor all day and seemed generally starved for human contact.) We hiked the otherworldly Closed Canyon, its awe-inspiring cathedral walls soaring as high as 150 feet. This slot canyon has no trail, per se, just a narrow space to wend your way between the rocks. A tarantula was hanging out, unmoving, in one crevice; in another, a desert marigold bloomed. Having just learned from our new ranger friend that this canyon was 28 million years old, I felt very small, like one of the grasshoppers buzzing around my boots. The sensation returned in the wee hours of the next morning, when Chris, an astronomy buff, woke me at 2 a.m. to watch the Perseid meteor shower. Whatever worries I’d brought from home shrank to nothing as we cozied up in our hammock, watching star after star zip across the sky.
The following day, during the nine-hour drive home, a never-ending procession of gates and fences passed by my car window, demarcating the massive private ranches that much of rural Texas is parceled into. When I first moved here after growing up in Pennsylvania, I was taken aback by all those forbidding gates and “KEEP OUT” signs (and by the bizarrely common sight of zebras, ostriches, and antelope wandering on the other side of the fence). In Texas the land rolls on forever, but almost all of it is gated off.
Understanding why means going back to 1844, when Texas submitted a treaty of annexation to join the Union. The soon-to-be-state had $10 million of debt. Texans hoped the federal government would cancel that in exchange for 175 million acres of land, but Congress rejected the proposal. When Texas officially became the twenty-eighth state the following year, a joint resolution spelled out the terms: the Lone Star State would keep both its debt and its public land. This was highly unusual. Up to that point, every other state, other than the thirteen colonies, had given land to the federal government upon joining the Union. Congress eventually agreed to cancel Texas’s debt in exchange for territory outside of the state’s borders, but the other half of the deal didn’t change. Texas then sold most of its land to settlers. As a result of this historical oddity, creating new state parks has always been a challenge—one that can be met only by persuading landowners to donate their acreage or buying it from them at a competitive price.
Jeff Francell knows this problem well. As the director of land protection at the Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy, he’s spent decades cutting deals with landowners. The nonprofit has long helped TPWD identify and buy acreage to turn into parks. This is how Enchanted Rock, one of the most popular natural areas in the system, with more than 300,000 visitors a year, came to be in 1984. Over his career, he has seen attitudes about the environment change. Landowners are more conservation-minded these days, he says.
“Twenty years ago, Texans thought the land was limitless,” Francell says. “With the growth [in population] we’ve seen, even rural landowners understand that our wide-open spaces are a finite resource.” This is in part because the cost of land has skyrocketed, making it harder for conservationists to make a winning bid. “Prices shot up during the pandemic, and when we had something to offer, it often wasn’t enough,” he adds. The latest victim of this dilemma (and of sprawling development in North Texas) is Fairfield Lake State Park, southeast of Dallas, which closed this February after landowner Vistra Corp. rejected TPWD’s efforts to retain or buy out the longtime lease and instead sold the land to a developer of luxury homes. Just last year, a record 82,000 visitors enjoyed the 47-year-old park, known for its fishing and trails.
Thankfully, Fairfield Lake is an outlier. Francell and his fellow environmentalists have a rousing success story in the Palo Pinto Mountains, a bucolic 4,871-acre tract eighty miles west of Fort Worth that is set to open late this year. The $7 million price tag for the Palo Pinto property was just the first hurdle. “Buying the land is often the cheapest part of the process,” Francell points out. Building roads, trails, wastewater systems, and other infrastructure adds to the bill. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, TPWD’s philanthropic nonprofit, called on private donors to help raise an impressive $9 million for Palo Pinto.
Another new park, Powderhorn, is set to open in 2029. One of the biggest conservation projects in state history, the huge sanctuary of Powderhorn Ranch includes 17,000 acres on the coast of Matagorda Bay. A coalition of nonprofits and donors joined TPWD in raising money for Powderhorn, which cost an unprecedented $50 million—the largest amount ever raised for a conservation land acquisition in Texas. A significant portion of those funds came from fines that BP and Transocean paid after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in 2010. The majority of the parkland, some 15,000 acres, is a wildlife-management area that’s off-limits to the public except for occasional tours. In the remaining 2,000 acres, fishing, camping, and kayaking opportunities will abound. This stretch of coastal prairie is also a hot spot for migrating waterfowl, so it’s likely to be a major draw for birders.
In the more immediate pipeline are other projects drawing on a mix of public and private funding. First up is an expansion of Devils River State Natural Area, a legendary paddling destination in Southwest Texas with turquoise waters, which is set to open next year. In 2026 the new Albert and Bessie Kronkosky State Natural Area, northwest of San Antonio, will give the booming Hill Country region a much-needed outlet. The Kronkoskys, a San Antonio couple who avoided the limelight, left more than 3,700 hilly acres just west of Boerne to the state in their wills. Visitors might catch glimpses of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler or the Texas spring salamander. In West Texas, Chinati Mountains State Natural Area will add almost 39,000 pristine acres northwest of Big Bend Ranch in 2032. Finally, the 1,700-acre Davis Hill State Natural Area, expected to open in 2034, will include a white-sand beach along the Trinity River, less than an hour east of Houston.
“All these places will be special,” says Rodney Franklin, TPWD’s director of state parks. “The diversity of the opportunities that will be offered to our folks—that’s what’s exciting to me.” Franklin has been rising through the ranks since joining the agency at the age of sixteen, when he took a summer job mowing, painting, and giving tours at the Sam Bell Maxey House historic site, in his East Texas hometown of Paris. He ran me through the numbers: his annual budget is $100 million for 88 parks, encompassing 640,000 acres and 1,400 employees. With nearly 10 million people now visiting the parks each year, his team struggles mightily to make room for them all. He frequently hears complaints about the difficulty of reserving a campsite or a day pass and points to the agency’s new Camping This Weekend online tool, designed to help travelers find last-minute spots.
Franklin also urges Texans to think beyond well-known destinations and Instagrammable vistas. “We have a lot of people coming to a few of our highly visited parks,” he says, noting that the most popular, Garner, draws crowds of more than half a million annually. “I ask folks, ‘Have you explored the possibility of going to Lake Bob Sandlin [near Pittsburg], Palmetto [near Gonzales], or Daingerfield [near Texarkana]?’ You might discover a new favorite place, if you do a little exploring.”
Texas has a state park for every age, interest, and ability level. These days, with a baby in tow, I’ve enjoyed my easy hikes at McKinney Falls, twenty minutes from my house. At the TPWD headquarters there, I met up with Yoskowitz, who’d recently finished his first month on the job as executive director. An economist by training, he spent most of his career in Corpus Christi, at Texas A&M’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, and is an avid fisherman who’s passionate about aquatic issues. Drought and flooding, as well as the impact of climate change on flora and fauna such as mangroves and whooping cranes, are frequently on his mind. “It’s important for Texas to start thinking of itself as a coastal state, rather than a state with a coast,” Yoskowitz says.
Despite the challenges he faces in his new role, he has reason to be optimistic about the future. In 2019, by an unprecedented 88 percent margin, Texas voters passed a constitutional amendment to close a loophole in the sporting goods sales tax. Parks were always supposed to get 94 percent of tax revenue from the sale of fishing rods, basketballs, and the like (although from 1996 to 2007, this was capped at $32 million a year). But lawmakers often spent the money on other things, resulting in that $781 million maintenance backlog. Four years after Proposition 5 passed, TPWD is still chipping away at those long-delayed projects, but the overall picture is “tremendously better,” Yoskowitz says. For decades, park rangers scrambled to keep the lights on; now they can dream bigger.
Political support for those dreams appears to be growing. In a February speech, Governor Greg Abbott called for Texas to invest in new parkland. “Yes, we want Texas to grow. Yes, we want Texas to prosper,” Abbott said. “But we can do that while at the very same time conserving the beautiful parks that we have and adding to them to make Texas even more appealing to future generations.” A bipartisan group is pushing for lawmakers to spend $1 billion of the $33 billion budget surplus on parkland acquisition; senator Tan Parker, a Republican from Flower Mound, was expected to file a bill that would dedicate those funds. “It’s pretty rare for us to agree with Governor Abbott, but we’ll take it,” says Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas, adding that the campaign has a broad range of supporters including actor Ethan Hawke and Trump donor Doug Deason. “The stars are aligning for Texas to make a big investment.”
It was pitch dark when Chris and I arrived at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, thirty miles south of Amarillo, for our first post-baby getaway. An owl hooted in the distance as we crunched our way down a gravel path to our lodging in the canyon, which is the nation’s second largest after the Grand Canyon. A paved road built by the CCC takes vehicles right to the bottom, where you can choose from a slate of options ranging from $12-a-night campsites to $300-a-night glamping cabins. We splurged on the latter. The hot breakfast, ice cream, and s’mores kit provided by the nearby trading post all felt luxurious, but the stunning view of the canyon walls from our private porch was definitely the best feature. Only Garner sees more visitors than Palo Duro, though most of the canyon’s 442,000 annual visitors are from outside the state, and the majority come in the summer. One of the draws for those vacationers is TEXAS, a beloved and corny 58-year-old tradition in which local actors stage a live musical history at an outdoor amphitheater.
During our January visit, the campground was empty. Despite the comfortable bed and cozy firelight, it took me a while to fall asleep. Near midnight, I crept out to the porch and saw that the clouds had drifted away. There were so many stars that a flashlight was unnecessary. Through binoculars, I spotted a faint green smudge in the northern sky: the comet ZTF, which was making its first trip over Earth in 50,000 years. I stared at the smudge and sipped a cup of peppermint tea, feeling the same comforting sense of cosmic insignificance that had come over me in Big Bend Ranch years earlier.
“Last night I loved the starlight—the dark—the wind and the miles and miles of the thin strip of dark that is land—it was wonderfully big,” the artist Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in a 1916 letter. She spent a few years near Palo Duro, teaching in the nearby town of Canyon and painting the landscape in her spare time. Feeling wonderfully small, I finished my tea, went inside, and slept dreamlessly until 10 a.m.
The next day, after a windy, invigorating six-mile hike on the famous Lighthouse Trail, we drove to Caprock Canyons State Park, passing through tiny Happy (motto: “The Town Without a Frown”). Caprock is home to the official state bison herd, which comprises a couple hundred of the last living southern plains bison. From the car, I watched one scratch its belly on a post by the campground, closing its eyes in bliss like a house cat. Caprock is one of the state’s most remote and rugged parks, with temperatures that can hit triple digits by May. Office manager Rebecca Birkenfeld says that her team performs more than three hundred wilderness rescues per year, most of them heat-related. “During the pandemic, our rescues were up one hundred percent,” she says. “It was almost like people went out with reckless abandon.” (Big Bend Ranch also reported a similar increase in the number of rescues from 2019 to 2020, as novices headed into the backcountry; Enchanted Rock experienced a 49 percent rise in the same period.) Birkenfeld worries that too many inexperienced hikers now rely on their phones to navigate. “I’ve had college kids ask me what a map is,” she says.
Chris and I set out to hike Birkenfeld’s favorite trail, the Upper South Prong. We passed under sandstone cliffs and hoodoos, which were a more intense red than at Palo Duro, and stopped to marvel at shimmery veins of satin spar gypsum, a white stone soft enough to crumble in our palms. Three miles in, we rested in an arroyo, laughing as we ate a weird lunch of beef jerky and Snapple we’d picked up from the gas station outside the park.
A century after Pat Neff called for the creation of a state parks system to give Texans “breathing spots,” the wilderness has undoubtedly become a little less wild and a lot more crowded. But it’s still possible to find quiet spaces. Sitting with snacks in hand, Chris and I daydreamed about future trips before falling into a companionable silence. On the way out, I stopped at the visitors center to add a bison pin to my collection.
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Empire, Wide and Glorious.” Subscribe today.