4 Must-See State and National Parks in Texas

Texas’ more than 100 state and national parks are ripe for exploration. Collectively, they feature a geological, scenic and cultural mix unlike any other in the U.S. — from the vast desert and canyons in the southwest, to the rolling, wildflower-laden hills in the central region, to the swamps and cypress trees in the east. Whether you’re a landscape photographer, bird-watcher, rock-climber, through-hiker, camper or someone who just enjoys pulling up a chair and sitting awhile, Texas has the park for you. Here’s a guide to four of our favorites in the Lone Star State.


Big Bend National and State Parks

In West Texas — home to both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park — you’ll experience breathtaking sunsets and night skies, courtesy of little to no light pollution. No matter the time of year, you can find regional fare, traditional music, remote camping opportunities and authentic communities with desert roots from long ago.

Hikers in the Chisos Mountains are treated to stunning views including Texas purple sage — the state’s official native shrub — which blooms several times throughout the year.

How to get there: Fly into El Paso International Airport and pick up your rental car. Add SiriusXM to your rental, get your country music fix by tuning in to The Highway (channel 56) and settle in for a 300-mile drive southeast.

Where to stay: Inside the park, stay at Chisos Mountains Lodge or one of the many campgrounds; or outside, venture to neighboring communities like Study Butte or Lajitas — the Gage Hotel in Marathon, in particular, is highly acclaimed by TripAdvisor, Texas Highways and Condé Nast Traveler. Terlingua’s Big Bend Holiday Hotel has a handful of accommodations that showcase stone architecture and other Southwestern signatures.

What to see: The state and national parks are — two distinct areas separated in the middle by as little as half a mile — boast more than 1,700 square miles of desert terrain to explore. You’ll find the Rio Grande, narrow slot canyons, high desert vistas and a few of the state’s tallest mountains. A strenuous 10.5-mile up-and-back hike to Emory Peak, rising nearly 8,000 feet — including a quarter-mile steep climb at the top — yields 360-degree views.

What to do: River Road — a 51-mile stretch of Big Bend’s backcountry along the Rio Grande — has been called one of the most scenic drives in the country. You’ll pass old Western movie sets between Lajitas and Presidio and countless opportunities to pull over and hike or take photos, and you’ll likely come across a pack of javelinas (resembling wild pigs) and a tumbleweed or two. The Rio Grande borders Texas and Mexico and provides endless recreational options for river buffs; you can kayak, raft or canoe — as multiday outings, an overnight or a day trip. You can also unleash your inner cowboy or cowgirl and traverse the Texas desert on horseback.

Where to eat: Go to La Posada Milagro in Terlingua for breakfast and lunch, including coffee, amazing homemade tamales, salsa verde and people-watching; Starlight Theater in Terlingua for dinner; Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant in the park, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, though its chicken-fried steak is a staple; and Lajitas General Store in Lajitas, to grab a sandwich to enjoy at a vista point later.

How to plan for weather: Conditions can change rapidly in Big Bend — even a 110-degree summer day can plummet to the 60s when a storm rolls through, and winter nights can drop to near freezing — so pack appropriate clothes and get acquainted with your rental car’s wipers and other key features.

Garner State Park

Hill Country in Central Texas is a remarkably beautiful, rural part of the state that’s well worth the journey along its back roads (or farm-to-market roads, as they’re commonly called in Texas). In spring, wildflowers such as Indian paintbrushes and bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, color the countryside in every direction. German influences make for many delightful driving detours — in Fredericksburg, you’ll find all kinds of kolaches and live polka music.

The Frio River winds 2.9 miles through Garner State Park, drawing visitors for swimming, floating on inner tubes, paddleboarding and kayaking.

How to get there: Fly into San Antonio International Airport and drive about 100 miles west.

Where to stay: There are numerous options for cabins and camps within the state park; alternatively, nearby communities, such as Leakey, Concan and Utopia, have accommodations for couples and families. Check out availability at River Bluff Cabins.

What to see: The Frio River — jade-hued and flowing through the park — is one of the state’s most scenic waterways. Bald cypress trees that line the banks can live up to 600 years! Not to be outdone, the rock formations, formed 65 million years ago, are a haven for those who appreciate geology.

What to do: You can hike, bike, float, camp and even dance under the Texas stars. Since the 1940s, Garner State Park has developed a reputation for the dances it hosts every night from Memorial Day through mid-August. Floating the river in an inner tube has long been a tradition, too — the park provides a shuttle service, as well as equipment rental if you don’t have your own tube. If geocaching is your thing, there are more than a dozen buried treasures along the river banks to locate and log.

Where to eat: Though the park offers basic concessions, plan to pick up some traditional German sausages along the drive into the park and grill out at your campsite. In nearby Tarpley, stop by Mac and Ernie’s for brunch, lunch or dinner. Famous for its cabrito burger, the roadside eatery has a diverse menu featuring everything from quail to homemade ice cream (try the salted caramel if it’s on the menu, which changes frequently).

How to plan for weather: Hill Country is generally hot in the summer and can reach freezing temperatures in the winter. Be sure to have enough water on hand in the summer months, and come prepared with layers for winter nights when the temperatures drop.

Caddo Lake State Park

With its wildlife, vegetation, small-town culture, cuisine and swampy surroundings, the Caddo Lake area in East Texas provides a unique perspective of the Lone Star State.

At Caddo State Park, more than 50 miles of paddling trails take canoers and kayakers through groves of bald cypress trees

How to get there: Fly into Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and drive 192 miles east to Caddo Lake State Park, which straddles the Texas and Louisiana border. (If you plan to stick around Dallas for a bit, be sure to check out our guide for foodies, art lovers and shoppers.)

Where to stay: Within the park, there are 46 campsites and a handful of historic cabins to call your home away from home. Outside the park, cabin options abound in nearby Uncertain and Karnack.

What to see: The nearly 27,000-acre Caddo Lake is a wildly beautiful marshland. Giant groves of cypress trees draped in Spanish moss are a defining element of the local landscape — and they also provide shade from the sun. You’re likely to see alligators, too, so read the park’s alligator safety tips before heading out.

What to do: Fishing is rich at Caddo Lake — more than 70 species of fish inhabit the waters — and you can even borrow rods, reels and other gear with a valid fishing license. Explorers can enjoy a few short hikes (the Caddo Forest Trail is a beautiful 0.66-mile jaunt to the edge of Saw Mill Pond) or canoe and kayak through more than 50 miles of paddling trails (the 3.8-mile Cathedral Paddling Trail goes by some of the oldest trees in the park).

Where to eat: In Karnack, the River Bend waterfront eatery has deck seating and regional dishes such as alligator (and gator eggs), crabcakes and fried green tomatoes. Big Pines Lodge, also in Karnack, offers catfish and fried alligator.

How to plan for weather: Not surprisingly, summer can be hot and humid in the swamp. Stay hydrated and wear moisture-wicking clothes to help keep cool and dry during the hottest months of the year.

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About the Author

Ashley M. Halligan is a copywriter, editor and journalist who specializes in travel and technology. She’s been published by Backpacker Magazine, Alaska Magazine, Texas Lifestyle Magazine, Irish Examinerand Reuters. She also founded Pilgrim Magazine, a narrative-inspired travel publication. You can follow her travels on Instagram: @contemporarypilgrim and @pilgrimmagazine.