From mountains and canyons to forests and swamps, the vast scale of Texas provides so many natural wonders. Across the Lone Star State, there are 87 state parks, natural areas, and historic sites currently operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).
The first parks were opened to the public in the 1930s and the newest, Old Tunnel State Park, an old railroad tunnel that provides a seasonal home for 3 million bats, opened in 2012.
TPWD also has plans to develop five sites into future state parks. The latest acquisition is the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch. This property is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled coastal prairie in the state. A coalition of conservation groups made this purchase possible in 2014. Most of this tract is part of the Powderhorn Wildlife Management Area but 2,253 acres will be developed as a state park.
Other sites TPWD plan to develop into state parks includes:
- Albert & Bessie Kronkosky State Natural Area (Hill Country southeast of Kerrville)
- Chinati Mountains State Natural Area (northwest of Big Bend Ranch State Park)
- Davis Hill State Natural Area (east of Houston)
- Palo Pinto Mountains State Park (west of Fort Worth)
Fairfield Lake State Park, meanwhile, closed permanently closes at the end of February. Located 70 miles east of Waco, Vistra Energy owned the land and leased it to the state at no cost. The company sold the land to Todd Interests who plans to transform the park into an exclusive community with multi-million dollar homes and a private golf course.
TPWD splits the state into seven natural regions, each of which is home to several state parks. The Prairies & Lakes region is home to 22 parks, more than any other region. The South Texas Plains region is home to the fewest, with seven parks.
Across the system, state parks welcomed more than nine million visitors in 2022. The Prairies & Lakes region recorded the most visitors with more than 3.1 million across its 22 parks.
The Hill Country region welcomed more than 2.3 million visitors across 16 parks while the Pineywoods and Panhandle Plains regions each saw more than one million visitors.
State parks in the Big Bend Country region saw the fewest number of visitors with around 464,000. Those numbers do not include visitors to Big Bend National Park which alone saw more than half a million visitors in 2021, a record high for the park.
In 1923, the state park board of directors met for the first time. Before then, Gov. Pat Neff developed what became Mother Neff State Park perched on the Leon River southwest of Waco. His mother, Isabella Neff, had donated the original six acres for the park in 1921.
Below I showcase my favorite Tezas State Parks. Note that these are not the best state parks. I haven’t sampled them all. I’ve never, for instance, been to enormous Big Bend Ranch State Park as much as I love the nearby Big Bend National Park.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
Where: Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 16710 RR 965, Fredericksburg
The Nature Conservancy of Texas was involved in acquiring this striking 425-foot granite dome or batholith in the Llano Uplift region. The hike up the main face is moderately challenging for the fit. Each year that passes, though, climbs like this daunts me a bit more. The the rock climbing spots are alluring for those so inclined.
Numerous legends are associated with this spot that held spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples. This is our version of Australia’s Uluru (Ayers Rock). Be prepared: It can get windy up there.
Goose Island State Park
Where: Goose Island State Park 202 S. Palmetto St., Rockport
Bounded by the waters of the St. Charles, Copano, and Aransas bays, 314-acre Goose Island State Park is a coastal delight. Popular with Winter Texans during winter months, birders during spring and fall migration, and campers year-round, Goose Island State Park is located 10 miles north of Rockport-Fulton, off State Highway 35.
Goose Island State Park is best known for two celebrated residents, one of which is the Big Tree—an enormous 1,000-year-old coastal live oak that has survived prairie fires, Civil War battles, and hurricanes. With a height of 44 feet, a circumference of 35 feet, and a crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017) for more than 1,000 years.
The other resident is the rare endangered whooping crane that returns to the area every winter.
Monahans Sandhills State Park
Where: Park Rd. 41, Monahans
You can surf on the Gulf Coast in Texas but you can also surf at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. A virtual island in a Permian Basin sea, the narrow strip of dunes runs for 200 miles from just south of Monahans north into New Mexico and creates a unique habitat that’s home to a variety of wildlife and supports one of the world’s largest oak forests—albeit the oaks themselves are of the diminutive variety. The Harvard oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above three feet in height even though their root structure may extend as deep as 70 to 90 feet in the dunes.
The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and RV camping and a favorite activity of many visitors, sand surfing. Rent sand disks to surf the dunes or bring your horse and check out the 800-acre equestrian area. Just make sure you mark off “surfed in a desert” from your travel bucket list.
Balmorhea State Park
Where: Balmorhea State Park, 9207 Texas 17, Toyahvale
Before the Civilian Conservation Corps built the concrete swimming pool and cabins in the 1930s, the San Solomon Springs provided water for local wildlife and hunter gatherers who are believed to have first made their appearance in the area around 11,000 years ago. During the 1800s, cattle ranchers and railroad workers often used the springs.
Now, the pool is most commonly frequented by Texans looking to escape the oppressive summer heat in an appealing desert landscape. Visitors can swim, snorkel, and scuba dive at the pool which hosts two endangered species of fish: the Pecos gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish. Though Balmorhea State Park is a bit out of the way from any major city (the nearest one—Odessa, Texas—is 116 miles away), getting to take a dip in the turquoise gem of the west Texas desert is an experience not to be missed.
Davis Mountains State Park
Where: Davis Mountains State Park, Texas 118, Fort Davis
If you ask any Texan what they think of when they hear the words West Texas, the first thing that probably comes to mind is Big Bend National Park (or, alternatively, the cool little art town in the middle of nowhere, Marfa). But about 140 miles north of Big Bend country are the Davis Mountains which are geologically classified as a sky island—an isolated mountain range connecting two very different regions.
Thanks to the state park’s proximity to the McDonald Observatory, the area enjoys mandatory dark skies making it an ideal spot for stargazing.
Davis Mountains State Park isn’t known only for its outdoor activities. One of the most distinctive hotel options in the area is the Indian Lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. The pueblo-style lodge functions as a full-service hotel and has 39 rooms and a dreamy swimming pool.
Guadalupe River State Park
Where: 3350 Park Road 31, Spring Branch
When the temperatures start to creep into the triple digits, there’s no better place to cool off than tubing along four miles of the Guadalupe River. Swimming, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing are also allowed. Another highlight is the Guadalupe River State Park Paddling Trail which begins in the park. During the cooler months, hike or bike the 13 miles of trails; geocaching and bird watching are also popular activities. There are over 90 campsites available. Guided tours are also offered for the Honey Creek Natural Area, a 1.5-mile spring-fed creek and natural area adjacent to the park.
McKinney Falls State Park
Where: 5808 McKinney Falls Parkway, Austin
This Austin-area state park is an adventure playground with ample opportunities to hike, bike, geocache, camp, or go bouldering. Many of the park’s historic attractions are along Onion Creek including the remains of an 1852 gristmill and horse trainer’s cabin. Don’t forget to take a photo with Old Baldy, one of the oldest bald cypress trees on public land in the state. At roughly 500 years old, Old Baldy clocks in at 103 feet tall.
The creek cascades over limestone ledges and volcanic ash at the upper and lower falls. The rushing water makes it easy to forget you’re only 13 miles from downtown Austin. In addition, there are nine miles of trails to explore inside the park. The hard-surfaced 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail is a must because it’s suitable for road bikes and strollers. There’s also an all-terrain wheelchair (that must be reserved in advance) available for visitors.
Blanco State Park
Where: 101 Park Road 23. Blanco
Continuing with water spots, the Falls Dam area at Blanco State Park is the perfect location to beat the heat. This park is off Highway 281 in the city of Blanco and beyond camping and swimming you can also rent tubes here to enjoy the river in a different fashion.
This small park hugs a one-mile stretch of the river. On the water you can swim, fish, paddle, or boat. On land, you can picnic, hike, camp, watch for wildlife, and geocache.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the picnic pavilion with its stone walks and stairs to the river. CCC boys also built picnic tables and benches, stone dams and bridges, all during an 11-month period in 1933 and 1934. Reserve the CCC-built picnic area or pavilion for your next group gathering.
Goliad State Park & Historic Site
Where: 108 Park Road 6, Goliad
Follow the footsteps of Native Americans and Spanish explorers at the unique Goliad State Park & Historic Site. The centerpiece is the whitewashed Mission Espíritu, a 1749 Spanish mission restored in 1930 by the CCC. Explore the nearby ruins of Mission Nuestra Señora del Rosario, El Camino Real de los Tejas Visitors Center, and the birthplace of General Ignacio Zaragoza, a Mexican general famous for defeating the French in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, the origin of Cinco de Mayo.
Covering 276 acres along the San Antonio River, there is no shortage of recreation opportunities from paddling to fishing. The 6.6-mile Goliad Paddling Trail passes through the park which serves as a take-out point. Borrow some fishing gear from the park headquarters to try your luck catching catfish, bass, and sunfish. A series of short walking trails line the river providing an up-close view of the park’s sites. Camping is also available. Before leaving the town of Goliad, stop by the nearby ruins of Presidio La Bahía, a former Spanish fort.
Palmetto State Park
Where: 78 Park Road 11 South, Gonzales
If you’re looking for the perfect spot for a weekend getaway there’s no better place than the tropical oasis of Palmetto State Park. The ecosystems of both eastern and western species merge at this Central Texas Park resulting in a plethora of diverse animals and plants. The 270.3-acre park is named for the dwarf palmetto, a species of palm native to the eastern and southeastern regions of the state. Birders often flock to this park which is part of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Over 240 species of birds have been observed in the park.
The San Marcos River winds through the park with ample opportunities for paddling, swimming, and fishing. Other water features include an oxbow lake and swamps. Fishing gear is available for loan at the park while kayaks and paddleboards can be rented from Paddle EZ for use on the lake only.
Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site
Where: 199 Park Road 52, Stonewall
Spend the day exploring this unique historical site. Visit the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Walk 1.2 miles of trails, passing bison, longhorns, wildflowers, creeks, and historic cabins.
Tour the adjacent LBJ Ranch for an in-depth history lesson. Start with a self-guided driving tour of the ranch where he was born, lived, died, and was buried. In addition, visitors can stop at the family cemetery, ranch house, known as the Texas White House, and his former airplane hangar which now houses one of the park’s two visitor centers.
The expansive 1,570-acre property also includes the Johnson Settlement where his grandfather and great-uncle established a 1860s cattle operation. Several buildings are intact including their log cabin, barns, cooler house and a windmill. Before visiting, download the free National Park Service app for an audio tour of the drive.
Lockhart State Park
Where: 2012 State Park Road, Lockhart
Come for the barbecue, camp at the state park. Yes, there’s a place to walk off all the brisket and sausage you devoured downtown in Lockhart. The state park has something for everyone—a pool and great hiking for the family and a 9-hole golf course built by the Works Progress Administration and the CCC over 80 years ago for the adults and, of course, great camping.
Bastrop State Park
Where: 100 Park Road 1A, Bastrop
There’s a common misconception that because of 2011’s massive wildfire, Bastrop State Park is a dead park. It’s actually the total opposite. The park interpreter there, Kristen Williams, likes to describe it as a living laboratory. Where else can you see nature’s rebirth up close and personal? The glorious lost pines are growing back in bunches along the Red Trail and there’s plenty of other stuff for families at Bastrop—fishing, camping, a pool, and a new playground, to name a few.
Bike or drive scenic Park Road 1C between Bastrop and Buescher state parks. The hilly 12-mile road takes you through recovering and forested areas of the Lost Pines. Turn down the radio and enjoy this quiet drive. Share the road! The speed limit is 30 miles per hour.
Texas State Parks Pass
Consider purchasing a Texas State Parks Pass. For those planning to visit multiple state parks near San Antonio, consider purchasing an annual Texas State Parks Pass for $70. The pass waives the entry fee for you and others in your vehicle at over 80 Texas state parks. Otherwise, an entry fee is charged per person. Additionally, the pass provides discount rates on camping and equipment rentals.
Texas Spoken Friendly
No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.