Park or Play for A Week or A Day at Texas’ Great National & State Parks
By Janis Turk
Photography courtesy of Big Bend National Park, Enchanted Rock State Park by Siggi Ragnar
I saw miles and miles of Texas, as the old cowboy song goes, and many of the loveliest parts I’ve seen rest in Texas’ picturesque national and state parks. Scattered like bluebonnet seeds along the highways, Texas’ 16 National Parks and 51 State Parks offer family camping adventures, RV stays, family hikes, and starry nights. So which to see first? Depends on what part of Texas appeals to you.
Big Bend National Park
One of the most beautiful places in the Lone Star State and one of the nation’s largest state parks is Big Bend National Park, home to the entire Chisos Mountains range. The park comprises 801,163 acres (that’s 1,251.8 square miles). For more than 1,000 miles, the Rio Grande/Río Bravo edges the park as a boundary of the United States-Mexico border. The largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the U.S., the park was named after a bend the Rio Grande. Home to scenic camping spots, rustic cabins, RV hookups, and lots of hiking trails, Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote of all national parks. Be sure to book lodging in advance if you’re interested in camping in what may be Texas’ best-loved park. While there, stop for lunch in the historic “ghost town” of Terlingua, check out the Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon, visit the Cottonwood General Store, and check out Terlingua Trading Company. There’s even a quilt shop, Quilts by Marguerite, as you drive into town.
Davis Mountains State Park
Another glorious place to stay when traveling through the high mountains of West Texas is Davis Mountains State Park, a remote destination for hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. There, guests can camp, enjoy a scenic drive through the mountains, stargaze, and study nature. Stay at its campsites or at Indian Lodge, a historic 39-room motel with a restaurant and swimming pool. Nearby visit Fort Davis National Historic Site: one of the best-surviving examples of an Indian Wars’ frontier military post. Star lovers should visit the McDonald Observatory, open Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon until 5 p.m., and closed Sundays and Mondays. Check in at the Frank N Bash Visitor Center.
THE HIGH PLAINS
Palo Duro Canyon
Just southeast of Amarillo by Canyon, Texas, visit the Lone Star State’s own version of the Grand Canyon, albeit on a smaller scale. Palo Duro Canyon is a stunning place to camp, picnic, and hike. It’s also home each summer to a grand musical theater production, TEXAS! Kids and adults alike will love this enchanting show beneath the stars produced by the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation at the outdoor Pioneer Amphitheater. Deep in the Canyon, its rock walls serve as a dramatic backdrop used in the show. Performed Tuesdays through Sundays, June through August, it’s a family-friendly “musical romance of Texas panhandle history” with patriotic-themed fireworks ending. A barbecue chuck wagon dinner is offered, as is a souvenir shop.
Paint Rock Pictographs
While driving back from Palo Duro Canyon toward San Antonio on State Highway 83, you may pass the tiny hamlet of Paint Rock, Texas, home to the historic Paint Rock Pictographs. As the site rests on private land, you’ll need to call ahead to reserve a visit. There you’ll see nearly 1,000-year-old pictographs on a limestone cliff towering 70-feet high along the Concho River. Hundreds portray animal and human figures, curious geometric shapes, and ancient handprints. The kids will be fascinated, and so will you.
THE HILL COUNTRY
Pedernales Falls State Park
Pedernales is a picturesque Hill Country site along the river at Pedernales River, set about 10 miles east of Johnson City. A fun place for swimming, tubing, wading, and fishing, the park also features picnic areas and campsites, plus nearly 20 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, 10 miles of equestrian trails, and 14 miles of backpacking trails. There’s even a park store with camping staples, souvenirs, and ice.
Enchanted Rock State Park
Enchanted Rock is another Hill Country treasure. This enormous 425-foot high batholith is a pink granite mountain regally standing amid gently sloping hills outside Fredericksburg. Stay at the nearby Trois Estate inn and wedding venue, with spectacular views of Enchanted Rock, where guests can view starry night skies from a rooftop patio and then climb Enchanted Rock the next day.
Lost Maples State Natural Area
A favorite drive is through Lost Maples State Park, where Texans flock each fall to see our finest autumn colors. There, leaves of Uvalde Bigtooth Maple trees dazzle, set against blue skies with a spectacular show of red, orange, and yellow leaves. With more than 10 miles of trails, including a loop along the top of a 2,200-foot cliff, this is a lovely place for hiking or staying in one of 30 camping spots with water and electric hookups. Walk, take photos, fish, go birding, stargaze, and enjoy nature at its colorful best. However, Lost Maples is lovely year-round.
Caddo Lake State Park
Caddo Lake somehow seems more like it’s part of Louisiana than Texas. This gorgeous park offers a serene place to canoe or kayak in the shade of Bald cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. The lake features a maze of bayous, sloughs, and ponds and is home to alligators—so read alligator safety tips on the park website before going. Stay in one of 46 campsites, in a screened shelter, or in a historic cabin (several are ADA accessible). Paddle the park’s waterways or go fishing. This park is popular with birdwatchers, too. See the cypress trees rising from beneath bayou waters. What a place for photographers to capture its beauty with their cameras.