10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

In the Lone Star State, find natural springs, granite batholiths, and even gypsum sand dunes

Texas is known for big skies, wide-open spaces, and starry nights. Parts of it bristle with cacti. Others glisten with swampy, tea-colored water. Along the coast, endangered sea turtles nest along sandy beaches, towering cypress trees lean over cool green rivers, and fossilized dinosaur bones poke out of dry creek beds.

Every corner of the Lone Star State serves up its own version of Texas terrain, from mountains to beaches and well beyond. And less than five percent of its land is publicly owned. In all, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department oversees nearly 100 parks, historic sites, and natural areas across the state. The National Parks Service operates 16 more public spaces including national parks, monuments, recreation areas, preserves, trails, and memorials. Below, I’ve picked 10 of my favorite state and national parks in Texas to plan a trip around.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale

It’s hard to imagine finding a giant blue-green swimming hole swirling with fish in the middle of a desert but that’s what beckons at Balmorhea State Park where more than 15 million gallons of water flow daily from San Solomon Springs into a 25-foot deep pool with a natural bottom. Native Americans, early explorers, and passing U.S. soldiers have all watered up here and in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps turned the desert wetland into the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now, it’s popular with land-locked scuba divers, swimmers, and anyone looking to take a flying leap off a 7-foot 3-inch-high diving board. It’s also home to two small endangered species of fish: the Comanche Springs pupfish and Pecos gambusia.

Related: Everything’s Bigger in Texas: Best Road Trips from Houston, San Antonio, and Austin

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, far West Texas

At first blush, Big Bend National Park in far West Texas looks desolate and uninviting. But get out and hike its prickly folds, armed with plants that poke, scrape, and stab, and you’ll discover spectacular geologic formations and a diverse range of inhabitants from javelina to tarantulas, black bear, snakes, and mountain lions.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backpack the South Rim high in the Chisos Mountains at the center of the park, raft the café-au-lait-colored water of the Rio Grande or explore the desert floor and the old farming and ranching ruins it holds. The largest of the national parks in Texas, Big Bend sprawls over 801,100 acres, so one thing you won’t find is big crowds. Peak season is November through April—no surprise, as temperatures can soar to over 100 degrees in summer.

Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Thicket National Preserve, near Beaumont

Four types of carnivorous plants live in the Big Thicket and chances are you’ll be able to watch one of them turn an unsuspecting insect into a slow-cooked meal if you visit. But first, stop by the preserve’s visitor center to get the lay of the land at this diverse park which is made up of non-contiguous units that cover 113,114 acres of land and water in seven counties.

Related: 10 Things You Need To See and Do At Least Once In Texas

Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll find sections of longleaf pine forest, swampy bayous, and wetland savannas, crisscrossed by about 40 miles of hiking trails including a few wooden boardwalks that take you past carnivorous pitcher plants. Paddlers can explore the waterways by kayak or canoe, too. Just remember to bring the bug spray.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, near Fredericksburg

Enchanted Rock looms like a giant pink onion, half-buried in the Hill Country scrub. It formed a billion years ago when a pool of magma pushed up through the earth’s surface and hardened into a granite batholith. Most visitors make the 30- or 45-minute beeline to the top of the 425-foot dome passing fragile vernal pools where water collects in shallow pits providing a home for freshwater shrimp.

Enchanted Rock State Enchanted Area© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But don’t miss the loop trail that encircles the main attraction. Pitch a tent in the primitive sites alongside Moss Lake and watch the sun cast a rosy glow on the rock—and maybe catch the eerie creaking and groaning that some report hearing at night.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goose Island State Park, near Rockport

Lapping water and Gulf breezes: We must be on the coast! Goose Island offers camping, fishing, and birding along St. Charles and Aransas bays. Camp, fish, hike, geocache, go boating and observe and take photos of wildlife, especially birds. Fish from shore, boat, or the 1,620-foot long fishing pier.

Related: Spotlight on Texas: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose from 44 campsites by the bay or 57 sites nestled under oak trees, all with water and electricity. Every camping loop has restrooms with showers. Be sure to visit the Big Tree which has been standing sentinel on the coast for centuries and has withstood several major hurricanes.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, Johnson City, and Stonewall

If you’re looking for a history lesson during your next park outing, consider Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park a two-in-one immersion into rural Texas life in the 1950s. First, tour the grounds of President Johnson’s boyhood home in Johnson City then drive 14 miles to the LBJ Ranch and Texas White House where you can drive past his birthplace, a show barn, a small schoolhouse, and the Texas White House (which is temporarily closed to indoor tours due to structural issues).

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you make the rounds, imagine the former president known for pulling pranks on his guests—like the time he loaded dignitaries into a vehicle, rolled it down a hill, and into a pond, hollering that the brakes had given out. He didn’t tell them it was an amphibious vehicle designed to drive on roads and float in the water. Time your visit for early spring to coincide with the annual bluebonnet display.

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, near Mission

In the Rio Grande Valley, you’ll find wonderful bird-watching opportunities. Approximately 360 species of birds have been spotted at Bentsen-Rio Grande. Butterflies, javelinas, bobcats, and more have also been seen at the park.

Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will definitely want to bring your binoculars for birding with you. Like many other state parks, nature is the most intriguing part of the journey. Cars are not allowed to park on-site to help preserve nature. You can leave your car at headquarters and explore on bike, foot, or even tram.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore, Corpus Christi

Grab your swimsuit and aim for Padre Island National Seashore which hugs 70 miles of the Texas Gulf Coast on the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world.

Related: Absolutely Best State Parks from San Antonio

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Splash in the ocean, admire birds (including the Pepto Bismol-colored Roseate spoonbill), sail, fish, and, during the summer, watch Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchlings dash across the sand as scientists release them into the wild. Many a Spanish ship met its fate off the coastline here and visitors can park an RV or pitch a tent on the beach.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McKinney Falls State Park, Austin

Listen to Onion Creek flowing over limestone ledges and splashing into pools. Follow trails winding through the Hill Country woods. Explore the remains of an early Texas homestead and a very old rock shelter. All of this lies within Austin’s city limits at McKinney Falls State Park.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of the park as Austin’s backyard; we’re just 13 miles from the state capitol. Here you can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek. Hike or bike nearly nine miles of trails. The 2.8-mile Onion Creek Hike and Bike Trail have a hard surface, good for strollers and road bikes.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park, near Pecos

A mystical place where the wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys, Mon­a­hans Sandhills offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as a close-up view of a unique desert environment. These natural sand dunes are ever-changing and worth stomping around after a few hours behind the wheel.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop here for a picnic or sled down the swirling dunes on rentable plastic lids if you’re so inclined. Entry is $4. And spend the night at one of the 26 camping sites with water and electric hookups, a picnic table, and shelter. Camping is $15 nightly plus the entry fee.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

There is this place that is for the birds and is all about the birds, where you will find some of the best birding while RVing

Good morning. It’s Saturday and you deserve some good news, so we’re pleased to inform you that a Laysan albatross named Wisdom has successively hatched yet another chick at Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian archipelago. Discovered by biologists in 1956, Wisdom is at least 70 years old making her the world’s oldest known wild bird. She still flies as many as 1,000 miles in a single foraging expedition.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wisdom’s latest chick successfully hatched in February, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in the Pacific Islands. Wisdom laid her egg sometime during the last few days of November according to the wildlife agency. Soon after, Wisdom returned to sea to forage and her mate Akeakamai took over incubation duties. The pair have been hatching and raising chicks together since at least 2012, the wildlife agency said.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the past decade, Wisdom has been astounding researchers and winning fans with her longevity and devotion to raising her young. She has flown millions of miles in her life but returns to her same nest every year on Midway Atoll, the world’s largest colony of albatrosses. To feed her hatchlings, Wisdom and her mate take turns flying as much as 1,000 miles on a single outing spending days foraging for food along the ocean’s surface.

Ladder-backed wooepecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every year, millions of albatrosses which normally have only one mate in their life, all come home to Midway around October. If all goes well couples reunite and then team up to incubate a single egg and feed their new chick. Midway’s two flat islands act as giant landing strips for albatrosses and millions of other seabirds which rely on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to raise their young. This year’s albatross chicks will make their first flights in early summer.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the past, biologists have said Wisdom possesses a unique set of skills that have let her have a long and productive life soaring over the Pacific Ocean. When she was first banded, Dwight Eisenhower was in the middle of his two-term presidency.

Her advice to the younger generation? Think before you tweet.

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not fitting the stereotype of the avid birdwatcher that travels to the most exotic corners of the globe, many RVers simply want to be where the birds are. Not wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest scopes, peering through the most expensive binoculars, and checking another bird off the official life list, I carry my mid-priced super-zoom camera and take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color. That’s what draws me and many other snowbirds to South Texas.

Roseate spoonbills and ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this ecowonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S. Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay, black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured above), roseate spoonbill (pictured above), and the Altamira oriole (pictured above)

Cassin’s kingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After all, The Valley offers not just one but a total of nine World Birding Centers and is located at the convergence of two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi.

Often referred to as The Texas Tropics, this area is very popular, too, with snowbirds from the Midwest and Central Canada. However, these winter tourists are not simply referred to as snowbirds but affectionately dubbed Winter Texans. After all, these birdwatchers and winter visitors are very important to the area’s economy, so they are, indeed, welcomed.

Rose-breasted grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center. The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 325 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

Plain chachalaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds. As the trolley rounds the bend into the park visitors are frequently greeted by a sizable flock of the loud and raucous plain chachalaca (see above), a brown, chicken-like species that’s found only in this part of the country.

To assist the casual birder Bentsen offers a series of bird blinds strategically placed near various feeding stations. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities.

Yellow-crowned night herons © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. All you need to do is sit and watch the show as the birds keep coming to feed. We sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter repeatedly without disturbing the birds.

Yellow-breasted great kiskadees swooped down in front of us and drank from the small pool of water. This flycatcher has black and white stripes on its crown and sides, appears to be a kind of cross between a kingfisher and a meadowlark, and attracts attention by its incessant “kis-ka-dee” calls.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green jays (pictured above) postured and fluttered at the feeders. This beautiful bird is, indeed, green-breasted (unlike our blue jay), with green wings, but there’s also some white, yellow, and blue plumage. This bird’s flashy coloring, boisterous nature, dry, throaty rattle, and frequent “cheh-chehcheh-cheh” call make it very easy to spot.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A golden-fronted woodpecker (see above) fed at the peanut butter log. Barred with black and white above and buff below, the male has red restricted to the cap; nape orange; forecrown yellow; the female lacks red but has an orange nape. Its voice is a loud churrrr; the call a burry chuck-chuck-chuck.

Another World Birding Center located in McAllen, is at Quinta Mazatlan, a historic 1930s Spanish Revival adobe hacienda that’s surrounded by 15 acres of lush tropical landscape and several birding trails.

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, and roseate spoonbill.

The warm winter climate and the awesome bird watching attract Winter Texans to The Valley and keep them returning year after year. We’ll be back, Hope to see you there.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Rio Grande Valley: Birds, Birds, and More Birds

More than 500 bird species have been documented throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley offers the ultimate birder’s paradise.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower Rio Grande Valley — the ancient delta of the river from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico — contains resacas or oxbow lakes, Tamaulipan thorn woodlands, marshes, wetlands, and forest. Thanks to these diverse habitats and the Valley’s location on the Central Flyway of migrating birds, more than 500 bird species have been recorded in this area, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay (pictured above), black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured below), roseate spoonbill, and the Altamira oriole (pictured below).

Altamira Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Less than 5 percent of the area’s natural habitat remains, however. In the late 1990s, that alarming fact spurred the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, six local communities, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch the creation of the World Birding Center. Today, the World Birding Center consists of nine individual sites, including three state parks: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, Estero Llano Grande, and Resaca de la Palma.

Yellow-rumped Warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Together, the parks safeguard nearly 2,200 acres that are home to hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife — places for visitors to experience nature and the landscape of the Valley close to its original state.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 355 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies that have been recorded there, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

Tufted Titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These 798 acres once resembled the patchwork of many state parks, with tent and RV campers and day-trippers driving in and out. But its transformation to a World Birding Center site included elimination of all traffic except bicycles and a park tram that makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.

Fulvous-whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking into Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park we’re serenaded to a cacophony of calls from trees lining the road — the loud and raucous clatter of plain chachalacas (pictured below), squawks of woodpeckers, and cooing of doves.

Plain Chachalacas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To assist the casual birder Bentsen offers a series of bird blinds strategically placed near various feeding stations. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. All you need to do is sit and watch the show as the birds keep coming to feed. We sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter repeatedly without disturbing the birds.

Clay-colored Robin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout the park, bird feeders hang in open areas, mobbed by brilliantly colored green jays, golden-fronted woodpeckers, and great kiskadees with lemon-yellow bellies. Other birds sighted at the park include the eastern screech-owl and yellow-rumped warblers.

Great Kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Resaca Vieja Trail winds through trees and brush alive with cheeps, chirps, and squawks; the platform at Kingfisher Overlook surveys a large oxbow lake. On the far side of the park, the 1.8-mile Rio Grande Trail winds to the edge of the country, the Rio Grande, although it’s difficult to see through the thick brush.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the two-story-high Hawk Tower, though, there’s a bird’s-eye view (pun intended) of nearby Mexico and the tree canopy. In addition to resident raptors such as white-tailed kites and gray hawks, many other species migrate past the tower during spring and fall, including Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks.

Black-vented Oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Great Parks to Observe Animals and Birds

The RV lifestyle offers numerous opportunities to get back to nature

National, state, and regional/county parks are havens for a variety of animals and birds that can easily seen by the casual camper or day visitor.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Prairie dog © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

If you want to see bison without the crowds of Yellowstone, this park in North Dakota is truly amazing. You might see a bison slide down the steep sides and cross the nearby river. During our visit, a bison grazed along the roadside. It is always enjoyable to watch prairie dogs pop out of their holes in the prairie dog towns at several locations in the park. Pronghorns, mule deer, white-tail deer, jack rabbits, and wild horses are frequently seen either from a car ride or a hike. Other animals include elk, coyotes, bobcats, and porcupines.

Catalina State Park, Arizona


Javelina or collared peccary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. Commonly encountered species of wildlife include javelin, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and various reptiles.

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Bison roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Custer State Park is a South Dakota State Park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills. The park encompasses 71,000 acres of spectacular terrain and an abundance of wildlife. A herd of 1,300 bison roams freely throughout the park, often stopping traffic along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. Annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of people to Custer State Park every September. Besides bison, Custer State Park is home to pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As part of the World Birding Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is a world-class destination for bird-watching. The Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth with more than 525 species documented in this unique place. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park alone has an impressive list of 358 species recorded within the park’s boundaries. Birders have a chance to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the Green Jay and the Golden-fronted Woodpecker to the Great Kiskadee and the Altamira Oriole.

Jasper National Park, Alberta

Rocky Mountain Goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and part of UNESCO’s Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. For many visitors, a trip to Jasper is about seeing wildlife. The Canadian Rockies support 277 species of birds and 53 different species of mammals including elk (wapiti), white-tailed and mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black and grizzly bears, coyotes, wolves, beavers, porcupines, cougars, wolverines, hoary marmots, and Columbia ground squirrels.

Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina

Birds at Edisto © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Edisto Beach State Park is a part of the ACE Basin buffer zone around the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve. The ACE Basin boundaries include the watersheds of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. The park also offers access to the Atlantic Ocean and beach. It also provides access to the saltwater marsh and creeks.

The park is a nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles. Other wildlife includes white-tailed deer, raccoon, and opossum. The best area for bird watching is along the trails in the park. Water fowl can also be spotted along the beach or marsh areas.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park occupies almost 200 acres around Homosassa Spring, which is the primary source for the Homosassa River. The Wildlife Park includes the Wildlife Walk and paved trails for wildlife viewing. The park’s central feature is the main spring, where you can view the spring from the Fish Bowl floating underwater observatory that offers an underwater view of the spring and the fish and manatees. The Park also includes a large number of native animals in natural settings.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb