I travel Texas so much that when I wake up some mornings, it takes a few seconds for me to remember where I am. Camping in Big Bend? Holed up in a cabin in the Piney Woods? But when the coronavirus pandemic hit the state in March, six upcoming spring trips were wiped from my calendar. Like most everyone else, I stayed home.
As I found ways to exercise outside in Austin while sheltering in place, I discovered that adventure still awaits, no travel required. Just find a spot close by with room to roam. State parks are a great option if you live near one; although they were closed for a while, they began reopening April 20 for day use, with restrictions: you must reserve a day pass in advance, wear face masks at all times, limit your party to five people max, and stay at least six feet away from people not in your group. An Alert Map on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website provides updated information.
Depending on where you reside, you can paddle a river or whiz past wildflowers on your bike. Barring that, you can watch birds from just about anywhere. To help you through this time of no travel, here are some suggestions for places to get in touch with Mother Nature while safely practicing social distancing. When the quarantine lifts, you can use this guide to help you explore the quiet corners of Texas.
Head to Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metro Park for some of the best birding in the city. More than 230 species have been spotted at the nearly-four-hundred-acre riverside park, including kingfishers, herons, hawks, egrets, ospreys, and, recently, a visitor rarely seen in North America, except for Alaska, called a white wagtail. The black-and-white bird, which apparently flew off course during migration, was spotted in February and March strolling the gravel bar below Longhorn Dam. “The good thing about birds is they’re really kind of all over the place,” says Rich Kostecke, the director of research and planning at the Nature Conservancy in Texas. “Even if you just go out into your backyard, you’re likely going to see some birds. Any day a new species could pop up as they start pushing north.”
The Trinity River Audubon Center, ten miles south of downtown Dallas, is closed through April 30. When it reopens, the center’s AT&T Trail, which runs between the center and a trailhead at Elam Road, is 4.3 miles of prime birdwatching territory. The center was built on a former illegal dump site and now draws an array of hawks, owls, ducks, hummingbirds, finches, and buntings.
(Editor’s Note: Franklin Mountains State Park remains closed as of April 20.) The Tom Mays Unit, on the western slopes of the sprawling, 27,000-acre Franklin Mountains State Park, makes a fine gateway to the prickly expanse of desert surrounding the city. You can hike through canyons, soak up expansive views, and admire striking red-rock landscapes. Rather explore on two wheels? Head to the Chuck Heinrich Memorial Park access point, on the east side of the Franklins, for superb biking and slightly gentler slopes. “Our trails are, relatively speaking, underutilized,” says Don Baumgardt, who in normal times leads guided trips in the area as a volunteer. “There are more than one hundred miles of trails in the park, so people are not going to have a problem social distancing.”
If it reopens as scheduled on May 1, you can take your kayak or canoe to Armand Bayou Nature Center, in Pasadena, where you can drop a boat into a cool, green oasis of water fringed with elephant’s ear and cypress trees. Keep an eye out for alligators, and remember that the depth changes depending on the tide. It’s a favorite training ground for local endurance canoe racers like Joel Truitt, a former brewer at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, who spends hours exploring the bayou and adjacent Mud Lake and Clear Lake.
If you’d prefer to stay on land, hop onto the Buffalo Bayou trail system, which, when complete, will provide twenty miles of paved and gravel trail linking a series of parks to downtown. Although visitors centers, play areas, and the dog park are closed for now, the trail itself remains open. “You can find what feel like remote areas in the middle of downtown Houston,” Truitt says.
Equestrians and trail runners have room to ramble at Hill Country State Natural Area, near Bandera, where creek bottoms and rugged canyons crisscross more than five thousand acres of lush meadows and yucca- and prickly-pear-dotted terrain. Louise Merrick deeded her old ranch to the state in the seventies, attracting visitors who come with their four-hoofed friends to explore forty miles of equestrian trails. Don’t have a horse? Mountain bikes and hiking boots are welcome too.
Downtown, hop on a bicycle to explore the Mission Trails hike-and-bike route, which links a string of Spanish colonial missions. But instead of starting at the Alamo, begin at Mission Concepción and pedal south, toward the river. The eight-mile trail connects the Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada missions, as well as a gristmill and a 270-year-old irrigation system with a dam and aqueduct.
Now’s the time to get in on the gravel-riding boom. The bicycles, which are beefier than a road bike but lighter than a mountain bike, can handle rural gravel roads, where cyclists don’t have to worry so much about cars whizzing past at high speeds. Sure, you’ll have to deal with sand and washboard stretches of country roads, but that’s what makes it fun. The gravel roads around Castell, just west of Llano, are home to the annual Castell Grind, the biggest organized gravel ride in the state (delayed this year from April until October).
Is road cycling more your thing? Pedal the Willow City Loop, near Fredericksburg, for an up-close view of spring wildflowers. Park in Willow City—which is basically a bar called Harry’s on the Loop (temporarily closed), a historic school, and a herd of goats—then ride west until you reach Texas Highway 16. Turn right, blast down the big hill, and hang another right onto the Willow City Loop. Now comes the real fun: cruising along a two-lane highway that weaves among craggy boulders, crosses a few creeks, and winds past pastures of Indian blankets, wine cups, bluebonnets, and poppies. Just prepare for the giant hill at the end of the 21-mile route, and note that the land alongside the road is private.
I could spend days walking portions of the seventy-mile stretch of beach at Padre Island National Seashore, in Corpus Christi, nesting ground for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and home to some 380 species of birds, where I always break to run into the surf every now and then. The visitors center is closed, but beach access is open for day use, from the end of Park Road 22 all the way south to Mansfield Channel—that’s sixty miles to spread out, folks.
Or head to the Port O’Connor Paddling Trail, part of a statewide network of paddling routes, where you can explore the back bays of Matagorda Island, watching cranes wade on spindly legs and pelicans flap overhead. Put your boat in the water at the end of 16th Street and paddle across the channel (watch for barges) into a twisty network of bayous and pathways through the marshes along the edge of Espiritu Santo Bay and Saluria Bayou.
If water’s your thing (it is mine), plan a day at Possum Kingdom Lake, located ninety miles west of Fort Worth. Possum Kingdom State Park is open, and there you’ll find a series of dreamy, cliff-lined inlets where you can float or swim laps on a warm day. The best part? The clarity of the water. Stare into the blue long enough and you’ll see a bass or crappie glide past.
I once spent a day admiring green jays and chachalacas at Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park, the headquarters of the World Birding Center, in Mission. With the help of a guide, I spotted a burrowing owl tucked in a row of onions in a nearby field, outside the park’s boundaries. In all, about 360 bird species have been sighted in the palm-lined resacas and riverside woodlands of the birding center, a network of nine birding sites, including Bentsen, along a 120-mile stretch of river road. (As of this writing, several of the other sites, including the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, are temporarily closed.)
It’s still closed as of April 20, but Big Bend Ranch State Park is one of my favorite secluded spots. It’s not hard to lose yourself among a lunar landscape of prickly plants and rambling, rocky trails, perfect for mountain biking. You might launch yourself into a cactus or clatter over a hill of glistening white crystal rocks, and you’ll probably walk away with scratches and stab wounds, but those will quickly fade. Access the park’s best single-track trails from the trailhead across the road from the Barton Warnock Visitor Center, just west of Terlingua.
Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based journalist who specializes in outdoor adventure and recreation.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Going the Social Distance.” Subscribe today.