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

Ultimate Collection of National Parks Perfect for Snowbirds

Allergic to snow, ice, and sub-freezing temperatures?

Escape to a national park that offers sweeping panoramas, hiking trails, and wildlife sightings along with warm temperatures and lots to do and explore. These destinations do not require you to worry about frostbite or snow.

Looking for a new hiking or backpacking adventure? Big Bend, Joshua Tree, and Saguaro national parks can be great destinations. Padre Island National Seashores is a great spot to plant your beach chair and read a good book while the waves wash ashore. What follows is the ultimate list of national parks for RVing snowbirds.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Great for: Backpacking, birding, hiking, night skies

Deep in West Texas on the border with Mexico, Big Bend is far off the beaten path but the rewards make the effort worthwhile. The winter months are best to visit to avoid the searing heat of summer. It is the prime backpacking season and for those seeking to push themselves, the park’s Outer Mountain Loop awaits. If you don’t have desert backpacking experience, try an overnight from the Homer Wilson Ranch or in the high country of the Chisos Mountains. Either, or both, will give you a good sample of the Outer Loop experience. Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park with impressive night skies.

Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas

Great for: Birding, paddling, backcountry camping

Located about two hours from Houston, the preserve has no developed campgrounds and no entrance stations; only a few short roads—most of them unpaved—even extend into the park. As a result the best way to enjoy the Big Thicket is on foot or via the water but it’s easy to explore via short walks or float trips. There are creeks, bayous, and rivers that combined offer more than 300 miles to explore by canoe or kayak at Big Thicket which boasts three official Texas Paddling Trails that range from 5 to 21 miles in length. When you’re out paddling, don’t forget your binoculars to help with identifying birds in the preserve.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Great for: Kayaking/canoeing, birding

There are crown jewels in the National Park System, and then there are the overlooked parks. Congaree is one of the latter. What can you say about a place that’s an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, a National Natural Landmark, a federally designated Wilderness Area, and an Outstanding National Resource Waters designee? Located in the middle of South Carolina, just a half-hour’s drive from the capital city of Columbia, Congaree preserves the largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest. Although this nearly 27,000-acre park has around 600 acres of piney uplands including about 200 acres of valuable longleaf pine habitat, its ecological centerpiece is a virtually pristine 12,000-acre tract of floodplain forest. The bottomlands of the Congaree Swamp are mantled with bald cypress, tupelo, laurel oak, sweet gum, water hickory, loblolly pine, and other trees inclined to grow to unusually large size.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Great for: Birding, beach combing, history, hiking

Cumberland Island National Seashore embraces a pastoral coastal setting on Georgia’s longest barrier island. It’s a place rich in human history, features settings attractive to both birdlife and loggerhead sea turtles, embraces dense maritime forests and salt marshes, and claims nearly 10,000 acres of officially designated wilderness. One of America’s most beautiful Atlantic beaches often rewards strollers with sand dollars and shells. Visits to the northern portion of the island offer visitors the opportunity of stepping inside the intimate First African American Church where on a September day in 1996 John Kennedy, Jr. married Carolyn Bessette. Cumberland Island is a world away from what most have experienced in America’s more popular national parks.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Great for: Bouldering, birding, desert botany, hiking, camping, history of ranchers and miners

If you’re fascinated by desert botany, an avid birder, enjoy bouldering, or want to learn a bit about those who tried to tame the rugged desert landscape of Southern California, Joshua Tree meets the bill. It can be magical and astonishing, intriguing and interesting, but the landscape also doesn’t suffer those who come unprepared. There are 800,000 acres to explore in Joshua Tree and much of it is wilderness. It’s the place where the Sonoran Desert meets the Mojave Desert, a place where slight differences in elevation make huge differences in moisture and plant life. Desert sunsets always seem to be amazing. Joshua trees of many sizes and grotesque shapes silhouette themselves against colorful sky. And, as the sun drops into the horizon, temperature drop too.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sagauro National Park, Arizona

Great for: Hiking, birding, Sonoran Desert botany

Despite its arid appearance, Saguaro boasts a rich and diverse landscape. Its namesake cacti aren’t the only desert dwellers in the park. There also are prickly pear, barrel, octillo, mesquite, and cholla. Wildlife includes jackrabbits, coyotes, bobcats, coatimundi, Gila monsters, black bears, and javelina. Winter months in the park are decidedly more comfortable, temperature-wise, than July and August. The milder temperatures encourage exploration of the park on foot. Though the park is less than 100,000 acres in size, split in two districts (Rincon Mountain District and Tuscon Mountin District), you can find solitude by heading out early in the morning or late in the afternoon to catch the evening sunset.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im