20 Places to Experience the Great Outdoors in Texas

Encompassing more than 260 million acres, Texas is huge. Deciding where to go on your road trip throughout the Lone Star state can be a daunting task, so here are 20 state and national parks worth a visit.

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Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: JEREMY PAWLOWSKI

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: JEREMY PAWLOWSKI

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Photo By: Jeremy Pawlowski

Big Bend National Park

The crown jewel of all the parks in Texas, Big Bend National Park is situated on the Rio Grande River in the southwestern portion of the state. Containing more than 800,000 acres of beautiful Texas land, there are endless possibilities to fill your time. What makes this park unique are the differences in landscape and climate from one portion of the park to another. Spend your morning in the cool crisp air of the Chisos Mountain Range, traversing mountain tops that offer spectacular views for miles and miles. Have lunch on sandy river banks of Santa Elena Canyon surrounded by towering walls that have been etched into existence through years of erosion. Watch the sunset over Mexico while you take a dip in the 105-degree hot springs located on the Rio Grande River. Big Bend National Park is truly the best of all the Texas Parks.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Did you know that the second largest canyon in the United States is actually in Texas? While it is certainly smaller than the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon State Park is still a wonder that needs to be experienced. Driving down the winding switchbacks you feel smaller and smaller as the giant red rock canyon walls keep growing taller. Once at the bottom of this 120-mile long canyon, spend your time exploring and hiking through the natural caves and hoodoos.

Jacob's Well

A true Texas treasure, Jacob’s Well is a place that has been attracting outdoorsman, environmentalists and daredevils for years. In the past, you were able to just pull up to the well and head right to the water, but due to its growth in popularity, you now have to make a reservation in advance. Although it is an added hassle, this keeps the crowds at bay and the proceeds go to keeping the park clean. Looking down at Jacob’s Well can best be described as staring into the abyss. While it is only 12 feet wide, the cave is more than 30 feet straight down before breaking off into various offshoots; some of which reach depths of 120 feet.

Caddo Lake State Park

This is as close to a true “Southern” park as you will get in Texas. Sharing a shore with Louisiana, Caddo Lake is the quintessential picture of the bayou. Giant cypress trees with low hanging Spanish moss and lily pad-filled channels make this place downright spooky at dusk and dawn. Experience the lake from more than just the banks and rent a canoe to paddle yourself through the endless alcoves and lily pads; just watch out for gators!

Monahans Sandhill State Park

The panhandle conjures up what most people picture when they think of Texas; endless highways, tumbleweeds and churning oil wells. Located right outside of Odessa, Monahans Sandhills State Park is right in the middle of this scene. But rising like waves above the windmills are the giant sand dunes of this park. Like a mirage, the flat and desolate landscape gives way to the smooth and rolling hills of sand. While there are no real hiking trails, this is a great park to spend a few hours at. If you have kids (or you’re a kid at heart), rent saucers from the park store, grab a bar of wax and slide down the dunes.

McKinney Falls State Park

McKinney Falls State Park is the perfect getaway if you’re visiting or live in Austin. Just 10 miles from downtown, you can easily take an hour or two out of your day to enjoy all the park has to offer. With numerous waterfalls, natural swimming pools, hiking trails and bouldering rocks, this park is a great option for an afternoon escape.

Pedernales Falls State Park

Pedernales State Park has two different parts that are worth checking out. The first is a picturesque stream that slowly babbles through the grass and trees and offers a respite from the Texas heat. You’ll see some swinging into the deeper portions from rope swings hung long ago, but I’d recommend finding one of the natural “tubs” that form due to the current, and just sit back and relax. The second part of this park is a bit more upstream, but after a short hike, you’ll be greeted with a Mars-like landscape, with the added bonus of more water. Smooth limestone, extensively carved pathways and secret caves formed from years and years of flowing water make this park an easy place to spend your entire day.

Bastrop State Park

In 2011, the town of Bastrop experienced a devastating wildfire burning more than 34,356 acres, 5,850 of which were part of the State Park. Walking through the paths and trails, the destruction is still evident; remnants of the tall pines that once filled the forest now stand as burnt shells of themselves. Since the fire, the regrowth of the park has been an astonishing sight to see, every time there are a few more saplings and a few more flowers. Visit this park, not because it is the best or the biggest, but rather to witness how nature can rebuild itself.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

For thousands of years, people have gathered on and revered the magic of Enchanted Rock. Pulling up to this giant pink granite dome rising above the earth, the largest of such in the United States, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular parks in the state. The Summit Trail is the main attraction, and after hiking to the top, you’re rewarded with a 360-degree view of the surrounding Hill Country. In addition to hiking, Enchanted Rock also offers rock climbing and has multiple caves that you can explore.

Davis Mountains State Park

Popular activities in this park include backpacking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. But the sweeping views of the vast west Texas landscape are reason enough to visit the Davis Mountains. Stretching more than 2,700 miles, this park is also connected to the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Fort Davis is a history buff's dream with 24 restored buildings and more than 100 ruins. The fun doesn’t have to stop at dusk out here! When the sun goes down, head ten miles north and visit McDonalds Observatory, which is home to the fifth largest telescope in the world.

Mustang Island State Park

Located on the Gulf Coast, Mustang Island State Park breaks all of the Texas stereotypes and gives way to a scene more akin to something you might see on the coast of California or Florida. Here you’ll find miles of sandy beaches, kites flying high in the air, people catching waves with their surfboards and boogie boards, and campfires burning in sand pits late into the night; and best of all, you can drive your car right up to your beachfront campsite. Although it can be quite crowded during the summer months, the wind and waves drown out the noise from other campers.

Austin Greenbelt

While technically not a State or National Park, the greenbelt that runs through Austin is a Texas treasure. Miles of trails offer city dwellers a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of daily life. With entrances all over the city, it’s easy to hop on your mountain bike or lace up your hiking boots and find some solitude.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

One of only two national parks in the whole state, this park is home to Guadalupe Peak. At 8,751 feet, it is the highest point in Texas. While they do have a small campground at the base of the mountains, this park is fully enjoyed by getting a backcountry permit. With permit in hand, you can beat the heat and start your hike up to the peak later in the afternoon. About a mile from the peak, there's a small primitive campground where you can pitch your tent and be the first to hit the trail in the morning. With the head start, you can watch the sunrise from the top of Texas in complete solitude. While Guadalupe Mountains National Park has endless miles of hikes for those of all abilities, if you have the time to complete the 9-mile roundtrip hike to the peak, it’s definitely a Texas bucket list item.

Guadalupe River State Park

Guadalupe River State Park has more than four miles of river frontage, making it the perfect summertime retreat in Texas. The shallow river meanders at a slow pace through colorful and towering cypress trees and is best viewed from a tube, just make sure you have a friend park at the end so you don’t have to walk all the back to your campsite.

Canyon Lake

A mecca for watersports in Texas, Canyon Lake is the perfect place to rent a boat or a jet ski and enjoy more than 8,000 acres of water. Unlike the other parks on this list, Canyon Lake is run and maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. While the eight campgrounds located around the lake may not have all the amenities of a state-run park, they are also far less crowded and don’t require reservations in advance.

Inks Lake

One of six lakes in the Highland Lakes chain, Inks Lake is a favorite of many Texans because the water level never changes here, making it the perfect place to spend a long weekend in peak summer. You can camp, fish, swim and even rent a canoe or paddleboard from the park store. If you’re not easily scared of heights, head to the portion of the park called Devil's Waterhole, climb up to the 40-foot cliff and take a leap in!

Huntsville State Park

Only an hour north of Houston, you can find this outdoorsman paradise. Among the piney woods of East Texas, you can spend hours fishing, hiking or birding. Huntsville State Park is home to more than 218 varieties of birds, and with the help of guided ranger tours, you can cross species off your field checklist.

Caprock Canyons State Park

Palo Duro Canyon can admittedly be a little busy during peak season, and if you can’t get a reservation for a campsite, Caprock Canyons is your best alternative. With a very similar landscape to its big brother, you can still hike and mountain bike among the miles of red rock trails, without the crowds. What makes this park truly unique is that it's home to the state's only bison herd. These majestic animals still roam free within the park and often come right up to your car while driving through, just be prepared to wait in traffic as these lumbering animals take their time crossing the road.

South Llano River State Park

South Llano River State Park is a serene and peaceful place to go camping. With more than 60 campsites this Texas park is one of the easier ones to get a reservation. Once there you can swim, canoe and tube down the river or hike and bike on any of the 18 miles of trails. The real draw of this park comes when the sun goes down and the stars come out. In early 2017, South Llano River was named an official International Dark Sky Park. The park scored a three on the Bortle Scale which ranks skies from 1-9, with one being the darkest. So book yourself a campsite, look up and marvel at the show in one the darkest places in the state.

Amistad National Recreation Area

If you want to experience true freedom, this is the place for you. Even at other parks where you don’t have to stick to a certain trail, you still have to pay a small entry fee or get a permit, this is not the case at Amistad National Recreation Area. Find a place to launch and just go - no permits, no fees, no reservations. While it is known for its sport fishing, Amistad is best enjoyed from a simple kayak. The entire shoreline of this lake is recreation land, and it is completely legal to set up camp wherever you chose. Spend the day exploring the endless amounts of channels, find your way to some of the Native American Petroglyphs, or simply lay down a towel and soak up the South Texas sun. After a day on the water, find a good spot and pitch your tent to enjoy complete solitude.

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