12 of the Best State Parks for Winter Camping

Parks contain the magic of life. Pass it on.

National Parks are a treasure and worth putting on your travel list. But while you’re dreaming, consider adding State Parks, too. It takes a little planning (every state has a different reservation system) but well worth the effort.

You may dream of seeing the geysers of Yellowstone or the overwhelming greatness of the Grand Canyon but chances are you have a handful of little wonders in your backyard. State parks like Dead Horse Point in Utah hold their own against the neighboring Arches National Park (or Canyonlands, for that matter) while California’s Anza-Borrego State Park is arguably just as wild as the well-known Joshua Tree National Park. Plus, state parks tend to be less crowded and more affordable, two things that bode well for overnight guests.

Meaher State Park, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a well-developed RV site with all the bells and whistles or a wooded tent spot far from any sort of road or development, there’s a state park campsite for you. To lend a hand—there are over 10,000 state parks, after all—I’ve profiled a list of some of the best campsites in state parks that are known for their popularity and unique beauty.

No matter your level of camping expertise, spend the night beneath a canopy of stars and awake to a wondrous landscape when you park your RV or pitch a tent at some of America’s beautiful campgrounds from the beaches to the desert to the mountains.

Before I dive in, take a moment to review the following state park camping tips.

Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Park Camping Tips

State parks may not see the heavy traffic of national parks but in most cases, you’ll still want to plan to secure your camping spot. Each state runs its own reservation system which may be online, via phone, or even in person. And some parks are first-come, first served, so you won’t want to show up too late in the day.

Before you pack up and head out, make sure to research the available amenities— some state park campgrounds are extremely primitive requiring you to pack in your own water and pack out your trash while others have full RV hookups, hot showers, and laundry.

Related article: The 10 Best State Park Camping For Snowbirds

And finally, be sure to respect any wildlife you encounter, manage your campfire responsibly, and follow the principles of Leave No Trace.

Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Park Camping Reservations

Making reservations at state parks, especially when planning a trip that crosses multiple states, can be both complex and frustrating. Each state, and in some cases, individual parks, makes its own rules for when and how they’ll take reservations for camping sites.

Georgia State Parks allow for reservations up to 13 months in advance and require a 50 percent deposit for most reservations. Reservations can be made over the phone or online. Mississippi’s state parks have one of the most generous reservation windows and can be booked 24 months in advance. The parks also welcome walk-ins when there is availability. The vast majority of Alaska State Park campgrounds are first-come, first-served, with a few exceptions.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher State Park, Alabama

This 1,327-acre park is situated in the wetlands of north Mobile Bay and is a day-use, picnicking, and scenic park with modern camping hook-ups for overnight visitors. Meaher’s boat ramp and fishing pier will appeal to every fisherman and a self-guided walk on the boardwalk will give visitors an up-close view of the beautiful Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher’s campground has 61 RV campsites with 20-, 30-, and 50-amp electrical connections as well as water and sewer hook-ups. There are 10 improved tent sites with water and 20-amp electrical connections. The park also has four cozy bay-side cabins (one is handicap accessible) overlooking Ducker Bay. The campground features a modern bathhouse with laundry facilities.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona

Located near the Superstition Mountains and about 40 miles east of Phoenix is Arizona’s Lost Dutchman State Park. As you might suspect, the park is full of towering red rock formations, cacti, and enough hiking trails to keep you occupied for days.

Related article: I’m Dreaming of a State Park Christmas…

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The campground has 135 sites and three group camping areas: 68 sites with electric (20/30/50 amp service) and water and the remainder of non-hookup sites on paved roads for tents or RVs. Every site has a picnic table and a fire pit with an adjustable grill gate. There are no size restrictions on RVs. Well-mannered pets on leashes are welcome but please pick after your pets.

Campsite reservations are available. There is a $5 non-refundable reservation fee per campsite.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

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 invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina offers 120 campsites with electric and water hookups. Each campsite has a picnic table and BBQ grill. Roads and parking slips are paved. Campgrounds have modern flush restrooms with hot, clean showers, and RV dump stations are available in the park. There is no limit on the length of RVs at this park, but reservations are limited to 14 consecutive nights.

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Myakka River State Park, Florida

Seven miles of paved road wind through shady hammocks, along grassy marshes, and the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. See wildlife up-close on a 45-minute boat tour. The Myakka Canopy Walkway provides easy access to observe life in the treetops of an oak/palm hammock. The walkway is suspended 25 feet above the ground and extends 100 feet through the hammock canopy.

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers 76 campsites with water and electric service, most sites have 30 amps. A wastewater dump station is located near Old Prairie campground. All campsites are located within 40 yards of restroom facilities with hot showers. All sites are dirt base; few sites have vegetation buffers. Six primitive campsites are located along 37 miles of trails.

Highlands Hammock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highlands Hammock State Park, Florida

Supporting a beautiful yet delicate ecosystem, central Florida’s Highlands Hammock possesses a unique collection of plant and animal life. With more rare and endemic species than any other Florida State Park, Highlands Hammock is a place where wilderness and history are preserved. The park features 15 distinct natural communities in its more than 9,000 acres with a diversity of habitat for wading birds, raptors, songbirds, migratory birds, and ducks. 

Highlands Hammock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eight of the nine trails are located on the loop drive and visitors can easily extend their walks as several connect via a bridge or catwalk. Trails run through hydric hammock, cypress swamp, hardwood swamp, and pine flatwoods. Be sure to travel the 3-mile bike loop or take the tram for those who prefer to sit back and leisurely take it all in.  

Related article: The Absolutely Best State Park Camping for Snowbirds

The family campground offers water and electric hookups, a dump station, access to restrooms with shower facilities, laundry, and dishwashing areas. Campsites have picnic tables and fire rings. Sites vary from being open and sunny to partially or fully shaded and range in length from 20 to 50 feet. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance. In addition primitive tent camping and youth camping areas are available.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia

Entering the enchanting Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders—Stephen C. Foster State Park presents an incredible display of diverse wildlife, unique scenic views, and rousing outdoor adventure. Canoeing or kayaking through the swamp is the park’s main attraction. It’s an otherworldly experience gliding through the reflections of Spanish moss dangling from the trees above. Turtles, deer, wood storks, herons, and black bears are a few of the creatures you may see here but the most frequent sighting is the American Alligator.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers 66 RV and tent campsites with electricity as well as nine two-bedroom cottages that can hold 6 to 8 people. In addition 10 Eco Lodge bedrooms are available for rent. The RV sites range in size from 15 and 25-foot back-ins to 50-foot pull-through sites.

Galveston Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston Island State Park, Texas

With both beach and bay sides, Galveston Island State Park offers activities for every coast lover. You can swim, fish, picnic, bird watch, hike, mountain bike, paddle, camp, geocache, study nature, or just relax! Hike or bike four miles of trails through the park’s varied habitats. Stop at the observation platform or photo blinds, and stroll boardwalks over dunes and marshes.

Galveston Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20 water and electric (50/30-amp hookup) sites are available on the bayside of the park with 1.5 miles of beach to explore. Sites are close together with a communal pavilion and shared ground fire rings. Restrooms with showers are about 150 yards away. These sites are for RV camping only. Weekly and monthly camping rates are available from November to February.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park, Texas

Many folks come here to swim, but the park is more than a great swimming hole. With four miles of river frontage, the Guadalupe River takes center stage at the park. Step away from the river to find the more peaceful areas. On the river you can swim, fish, tube, and canoe. While on land you can camp, hike, ride mountain bikes or horses, picnic, geocache, and bird watching. Explore 13 miles of hike and bike trails. Trails range from the 2.86-mile Painted Bunting Trail to the 0.3 Mile River Overlook Trail which leads you to a scenic overlook of the river.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides 85 water and electric campsites and nine walk-in tent sites. Turkey Sink Campground offers 48 sites with 50 amp electric service. Cedar Sage Campgrounds offers 37 sites with 30 amp electricity. Campground amenities include a picnic table, fire ring with grill, tent pad with restrooms with showers located nearby.

Goliad River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goliad State Park, Texas

The whitewashed walls of Mission Espíritu Santo tower over the park. Workers with the Civilian Con­ser­vation Corps restored this Spanish colonial-era mission in the 1930s. Tour the colorful chapel and exhibits, ring the church bell and learn about the mission’s ranching heritage.

Take a drive west to visit the ruins of Mission Rosario. Stop by El Camino Real de Los Tejas Visitors Center which features exhibits on the historic Spanish “King’s Road.” Just a short walk south on the Angel of Goliad Trail, you’ll learn the story of Ignacio Seguin Zaragoza, the hero of the Battle of Puebla at the Zaragoza Birthplace State Historic Site.

Goliad River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Set up camp at Goliad. Located toward the front of the park near the Mission, the Karankawa camping area offers 20 pull-through sites with enough space to accommodate most large RVs. All sites offer full hookups with 20/30/50 amp electric service, a picnic table, a lantern post, and a fire ring with a removable grill. Restrooms with showers are located nearby.

Goliad River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Jacales Camping Area located near the Group Hall offers 14 sites with 20/30/50 amp electricity and water. These sites are suitable both tent and RV camping. Restrooms with showers are located nearby.

Also, there are 14 sites are in the Vaquero and Longhorn tent camping areas along the banks of San Antonio River and 10 walk-in tent sites in the Jacales Camping Area. 

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart State Park, Texas

Spend a relaxing night camping under the stars. Tee off on the historic golf course built by the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps over 80 years ago. Look for geocaches and wildlife while exploring the hiking trails. Stroll the easy Clear Fork Trail for views of the creek, plants, wild­life, and check dams built by the CCC to create fishing holes. Or hike the short but challenging Persimmon Trail. Try your luck fishing in Clear Fork Creek year-round and swimming in the pool in summer. Pick up a souvenir at our park store. Drive into Lockhart, the Barbecue Capital of Texas.

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reserve a campsite with water and electricity or full hookups. Eight full hookup sites with 30/50-am electricity are available. These sites can now accommodate RVs up to 40 feet and are in the Fairway View Camping Area. Eight sites with 30-amp electric and water are also available. These sites are in a wooded area with large trees along a creek and are in the Clear Fork Creek Camping Area. Campground amenities include a picnic table, fire ring, upright grill, and washroom with showers nearby. A dump station is located nearby.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palmetto State Park, Texas

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps. Hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos. Canoe the San Marcos River. The river has a steady current but no rapids; check river conditions at the park. Bring your canoe and arrange your shuttles.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose one of our 19 tent sites or 17 RV sites. The RV sites are long back-ins and offer a 30/50 amp electric and water hookup, picnic table, outdoor grill, fire ring, and lantern post. Restrooms with showers are located nearby. The maximum length of the vehicle is 65 feet. The tenting sites have enough space for families with multiple tents or families camping together. Or rent the air-conditioned cabin (for up to six people). The cabin is next to the San Marcos River near the small fishing pond and four-acre lake with a pathway down to the river for fishing and swimming.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park, Utah

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers year-round. Quail Creek reservoir was completed in 1985 to provide irrigation and culinary water to the St. George area. Most of the water in the reservoir does not come from Quail Creek but is diverted from the Virgin River and transported through a buried pipeline.

Related article: The Absolutely Best State Park for RVers

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two dams form the reservoir. The main dam is an earth-fill embankment dam. The south dam is a roller-compacted concrete dam, constructed to replace the original earth-fill dam that failed in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1989.

The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet, so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass, which is also stocked, and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek offers nine partial hookup sites, 13 standard sites, and one group camping area.

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

12 of the Best State Parks for Spring Camping

Parks contain the magic of life. Pass it on.

National Parks are a treasure and worth putting on your travel list. But while you’re dreaming, consider adding State Parks, too. It takes a little planning (every state has a different reservation system) but is well worth the effort.

You may dream of seeing the geysers of Yellowstone or the overwhelming greatness of the Grand Canyon but chances are you have a handful of little wonders in your backyard. State parks like Dead Horse Point in Utah hold their own against the neighboring Arches National Park (or Canyonlands, for that matter) while California’s Anza-Borrego State Park is arguably just as wild as the well-known Joshua Tree National Park. Plus, state parks tend to be less crowded and more affordable, two things that bode well for overnight guests.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a well-developed RV site with all the bells and whistles or a wooded tent spot far from any sort of road or development, there’s a state park campsite for you. To lend a hand—there are over 10,000 state parks, after all—I’ve profiled a list of some of the best campsites in state parks that are known for their popularity and unique beauty.

No matter your level of camping expertise, spend the night beneath a canopy of stars and awake to a wondrous landscape when you park your RV or pitch a tent at some of America’s beautiful campgrounds from the beaches to the desert to the mountains.

Before I dive in, take a moment to review the following state park camping tips.

Palm Canyon Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Park Camping Tips

State parks may not see the heavy traffic of national parks but in most cases you’ll still want to plan ahead to secure your camping spot. Each state runs its own reservation system which may be online, via phone, or even in-person. And some parks are first-come, first-served, so you won’t want to show up too late in the day.

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before you pack up and head out, make sure to research the available amenities— some state park campgrounds are extremely primitive requiring you to pack in your own water and pack out your trash while others have full RV hookups, hot showers, and laundry.

And finally, be sure to respect any wildlife you encounter, manage your campfire responsibly, and follow the principles of Leave No Trace.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State Park Camping Reservations

Making reservations at state parks, especially when planning a trip that crosses multiple states, can be both complex and frustrating. Each state, and in some cases, individual parks, make their own rules for when and how they’ll take reservations for camping sites.

Georgia State Parks allow for reservations up to 13 months in advance and require a 50 percent deposit for most reservations. Reservations can be made over the phone or online. Mississippi’s state parks have one of the most generous reservation windows and can be booked 24 months in advance. The parks also welcome walk-ins when there is availability. The vast majority of Alaska State Park campgrounds are first-come, first-served, with a few exceptions.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park. Enjoy the view as you hike the trails that wind up the peak and often in the spring, overlook a sea of wildflowers. The park offers a visitor center with exhibits and a park store, a playground, historical markers, a campground, and picnic areas. Many hiking trails traverse the desert landscape and offer hikers both scenic and challenging hikes.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park’s campground offers 85 electric sites for both tent and RV camping. Four sites are handicapped-accessible. No water or sewer hookups are available. Access to all sites is paved. Sites are fairly level and are located in a natural Sonoran Desert setting.

Related Article: The 15 Best State Parks for RV Camping

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Arizona

The story of the park’s name begins with the Ireys family who came to Arizona from Minnesota looking for a ranch to buy in the late 1940s. At one of the ranches they discovered a large dead horse lying by the road. After two days of viewing ranches, Dad Ireys asked the kids which ranch they liked the best. The kids said, “the one with the dead horse, dad!” The Ireys family chose the name Dead Horse Ranch and later, in 1973, when Arizona State Parks acquired the park, the Ireys made retaining the name a condition of sale.

There are three lagoons within the park that offer great fishing and a place to watch the area aquatic wildlife and birds. All three lagoons have trails that navigate their circumference and are full of a variety of sport fish. 

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 100 spacious sites grace the grounds of this riverfront getaway in the Verde Valley. The campground consists of four loops that each have varying numbers of spots available for you to stay. Most campsites are RV accessible with hookups. Many of the pull through sites can accommodate RVs up to 65 feet long. The spacious campgrounds give quick access to most of the park features like trails, playground, lakes, and the Verde River. Clean, accessible restrooms and showers are available at the campgrounds and near the lagoons. A dump station is available. 

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eight one-room cabins are available who would rather not do so in the campground. All eight cabins have electricity, lighting, and heating/cooling but there is no water available. These dry cabins are however situated close to a clean restroom with showers. 

Palm Canyon Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Spanning more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is California’s largest park and one of the best places for camping. A diverse desert landscape the park encompassing 12 wilderness areas rich with flora and fauna. Enjoy incredible hikes, crimson sunsets, and starlit nights, and view metal dragons, dinosaurs, and giant grasshoppers.

Palm Canyon Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finding accurate and complete information on Anza Borrego camping can be difficult to track down. There are basically two ways to camp in Anza Borrego: 1) in established campgrounds which come with varying degrees of amenities and cost, or 2) in dispersed camping areas where you can set up camp where you like in accordance with a few rules set by the state park system.

Palm Canyon Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are a dozen established campgrounds in Anza Borrego Desert including eight primitive, first-come, first-served campgrounds which are free but offer few amenities and four developed campgrounds that offer more amenities to varying degrees.

Palm Canyon Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Borrego Palm Canyon Campground is divided into three sections. Two of the sections offer tent and RV camping with no hookups. The third section offers full hookups.

Tamarisk Grove Campground offers 27 camping sites. The campground’s amenities include coin-operated showers, non-potable water (don’t drink it), flush toilets. Each site has a picnic table with a shade ramada as well as a fire pit with a metal grill.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laura S. Walker State Park, Georgia

Wander among the pines at Laura S. Walker, the first state park named for a woman, an oasis that shares many features with the unique Okefenokee Swamp. This park is home to fascinating creatures and plants including alligators and carnivorous pitcher plants. Walking along the lake’s edge and nature trail, visitors may spot the shy gopher tortoise, saw palmettos, yellow shafted flickers, warblers, owls, and great blue herons.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s lake offers opportunities for fishing, swimming and boating, and kayaks and bicycles are available for rent. The Lakes 18-hole golf course features a clubhouse, golf pro, and junior/senior rates.

Related Article: 16 of the Best State Parks in America

The park offers 44 electric campsites suitable for RVs, six cottages, and one group camping area. Sites are back-ins and pull-through and range from 25 to 40 feet in length.

Roosevelt State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi

A variety of recreational activities and facilities are available at Roosevelt State Park. Facilities for use include: visitor center, banquet hall, meeting rooms, game room, performing arts and media center, picnic area, picnic pavilions, playgrounds, disc golf, softball field, swimming pool and water slide, tennis courts, and nature trails. Fishing, boating, and water skiing are available on Shadow Lake, a 150 acre fresh water lake.

Roosevelt State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 109 campsites available for RV camping which features picnic tables and grills. 27 campsites include electricity and water hook-ups. 82 sites have electricity, water, and sewer hook-ups. Many campsites feature views of Shadow Lake and some feature water front access. Campground roads and RV pads are paved.

Roosevelt State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All of the RV pads are within easy access of a central sewage dumping station and a bathhouse with hot showers. Washers and dryers are located at the bathhouse in each campground.

The park also offers primitive tent sites, 15 vacation cabins, motel, and a group camp facility.

Edisto Beach State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina

Rich in Native American history, Edisto Beach on Edisto Island is one of four oceanfront state parks in South Carolina. Edisto Beach State Park features trails for hiking and biking that provide a wonderful tour of the park. The park’s environmental education center is a “green” building with exhibits that highlight the natural history of Edisto Island and the surrounding ACE Basin.

Edisto Beach State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A series of short and mostly level trails wind through Edisto Island’s maritime forest of live oak, hanging Spanish moss, and palmetto trees. During your walk you may see white-tailed deer, osprey, or alligators, and may even catch a glimpse of the wary bobcats. Two picnic shelters are available on a first-come, first-served basis for family or other group gatherings at no charge.

Edisto Beach State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping with water and electrical hookups is available ocean-side or near the salt marsh. Several sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet. Each campground is convenient to restrooms with hot showers.Edisto Beach offers 112 standard campsites with water and 20/30/50 amp electrical service. A dump station is available.

Edisto Beach State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: Please be aware that because of the dynamic location of the park, the water has a high salt content. The water is treated by the Town of Edisto Beach and deemed safe to drink from the Department of Health and Safety. The Town of Edisto Beach does have a water filling station, which allows you to fill up to five gallons per day. Bottled water is also available at the local filling stations and grocery stores.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas

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. You can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. Take the Rock Shelter Trail (only for hikers) to see where early visitors camped.

McKinney Falls State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay at one of 81 campsites (all with water and electric hookups). 12 sites offer 50-amp electricity while the remaining 69 sites offer 30-amp electric service. Other amenities include a picnic table, fire ring with grill, lantern post, tent pad, and restrooms with showers located nearby. A dump station is available.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart State Park, Texas

Spend a relaxing night camping under the stars. Tee off on the historic golf course built by the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps over 80 years ago. Look for geocaches and wildlife while exploring the hiking trails. Stroll the easy Clear Fork Trail for views of the creek, plants, wild­life, and check dams built by the CCC to create fishing holes. Or hike the short but challenging Persimmon Trail. Try your luck fishing in Clear Fork Creek year-round and swim in the pool in summer. Pick up a souvenir at our park store. Drive into Lockhart, the Barbecue Capital of Texas.

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reserve a campsite with water and electricity or full hookups. Eight full hookup sites with 30/50-am electric are available. These sites can now accommodate RVs up to 40 feet and are in the Fairway View Camping Area. Eight sites with 30-amp electric and water are also available. These sites are in a wooded area with large trees along a creek and are in the Clear Fork Creek Camping Area. Campground amenities include picnic table, fire ring, upright grill, and washroom with showers nearby. Dump station located nearby.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palmetto State Park, Texas

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps. Hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding, or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos. Canoe the San Marcos River. The river has a steady current but no rapids; check river conditions at the park. Bring your own canoe and arrange your own shuttles.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose one of 19 tent sites or 17 RV sites. The RV sites are long back-ins and offer 30/50 amp electric and water hookup, picnic table, outdoor grill, fire ring, and lantern post. Restrooms with showers are located nearby. The maximum length of vehicle is 65 feet. The tenting sites have enough space for families with multiple tents or families camping together. Or rent the air-conditioned cabin (for up to six people). The cabin is next to the San Marcos River near the small fishing pond and four-acre lake with a pathway down to the river for fishing and swimming.

Related Article: America’s Best State Parks

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Lake State Park, Utah

Known as Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. Utah Lake State Park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding. 

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newly renovated facilities include four boat launch ramps, marina, boat slips, courtesy docks, modern restrooms, visitor center, showers, campsites, a fishing area for the physically challenged, and sewage disposal and fish cleaning stations.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and power hookups. The campground is located on the east side of the lake. All campsites are available for reservation on a four-month rolling basis.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, Utah

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. The park offers a wealth of technical routes for rock climbers and mountain biking.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

The park includes a developed campground with RV sites, six with partial hookups.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia

Just 15 minutes from the town of Front Royal awaits a state park that can only be described as lovely. This park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east. A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access, and a car-top boat launch make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists. With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ten riverfront tent campsites, an RV campground with water and electric sites, cabins, recreational yurts, six-bedroom lodge, and a group campground are available. Camping is year-round. Shenandoah River’s developed campground has 31 sites with water and electric hookups suitable for RVs up to 60 feet long. The campground has centrally located restrooms with hot showers. Sites have fire-rings, picnic tables, and lantern holders. Twenty-six sites are back-in and five are pull-through. All sites are specifically reserved.

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

Linger Awhile in Luling

The home of the Watermelon Thump is rich in history, barbecue, and parks

Those traveling on Interstate 10 through Texas may know Luling only as a favored Buc-ee’s pit stop on the highway. But for this Winter Texan, Luling offers a glimpse of the slow pace and friendliness of small-town life.

Luling watermelon water tower © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A stop in Luling is a favored stop when heading east or west on I-10 between Houston and San Antonio. Each time I see that big watermelon water tower, I long to stay a spell. My love of small-town life never waned and now I’m heading to Luling with time to linger for a while! 

The WatermelonThump.com website counter ticks off the days until the annual Thump. It was June 24-27 this year after a cancellation due to the pandemic in 2020. It all started back in 1954 when a Luling principal offered up an idea to promote the Luling watermelon crop. A local high school student won a contest with a name for the event that conjures up fun: the Thump. The Thump now draws 30,000 visitors to 5,500-resident Luling each year.

Watermelon Shop in Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How do you thump a watermelon, anyway? The name comes from the practice of hitting (thumping) the watermelon to listen to the sound for juicy ripeness.

As for the capital “T” Thump, there are too many activities to name. The newly crowned Thump Queen presides over the big parade. Other highlights of the four days of activities include a carnival, concert/dances, food booths, beer garden, children’s entertainment, and a marketplace. There are seed-spitting and melon-eating contests and an auction of the biggest melons weighing in at up to 80 pounds. People eat dripping slices of melon and fan themselves on benches, passing the time of day while wildly laughing children run around like it wasn’t boiling hot, chunking watermelon rinds at each other.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The history of the town itself began in 1874 as the far western stop of the Sunset Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad and gathering place for cattle-driving cowboys on the Chisholm Trail. Those hooligans were so unruly that Luling became known as “the toughest town in Texas” until the drives ended in the 1880s. Luling was a quiet cotton town until oil was discovered.

In 1922 Edgar B. Davis brought in Rafael Rios #1 which proved to be part of one of the most significant oil fields ever discovered in the state. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the discovery of the Edwards Lime. It set off vigorous exploration to find the lucrative shallow production.

Oil pump jack © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Almost overnight, Luling was transformed from a railroad town of 500 to an oil town of 5,000. Tents filled every vacant area with roughnecks and their families. “Rag Town” as they called it came with every kind of good and bad-makeshift saloons, restaurants, and even a shooting gallery as entertainment.

Central Texas Oil Patch Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Work was hard and living even harder but the dream that unfolded was a microcosm of Texas history. It was a time when a community of farmers and their families responded to the coming of the railroad only to have their lives changed forever by the discovery of oil. By 1924, the oilfield was pumping 11 million barrels of oil annually.

To acknowledge and embrace the importance of oil to the Luling economy, the town’s pumpjacks are painted with all kinds of characters including a cow jumping over the moon and a little girl eating—what else?—a watermelon.

Central Texas Oilpatch Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Founded in 1990 as a non-profit educational foundation, the Luling Oil Museum is designed to preserve and honor the memories of the vibrant life and times during the oil boom in the Central Texas oil patch. The Luling Oil Museum houses tools used in the oil industry and examples of oil production technology from the past. Various artifacts and documents trace the development of the oil industry in Luling and the Central Texas area. Whether your interest is in learning more about an oil town, the oil industry, and the people instrumental in the growth of the oil industry, or the rich cultural heritage of Central Texas, the Luling Oil Museum has something to offer you.

Central Texas Oilpatch Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the oil industry’s importance has faded in this crossroads town, Luling is more vibrant than ever. Luling Main Street is a community group that seeks to revitalize Davis Street and the downtown area with parks, signage, facade design, murals, planters, and decorative crosswalks.

The highlight of my visit to the charming shops along Davis Street began by following my nose to the original City Market BBQ. I’m thrilled to see no long line for this legendary joint and hurry on back to the pit room to place my order. They keep it nice and simple: brisket, ribs, and sausage. That’s it.

City Market BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soon my brown bag is stuffed with smoky pork ribs and fall-apart brisket (with a huge burnt end, to my delight), a whole dill pickle, a big slice of onion, and sweet pickles/cauliflower from the big jar. The sausage “links” are each their own little tasty ring. I don’t often categorize barbecue as “adorable,” but these sausage bracelets fit that description.

City Market BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each of Texas’ famed barbecue places has its own customs. Try not to look like a newbie and just follow along. At City Market, you pay for your to-go meat in the back then return to the front counter to buy sauce, beans, or a few other items. For some, it’s all about the sauce and City Market offers the orange vinegary kind, not too sweet. Best of all, the price for the whole feast is about half of what I paid at an inferior place in Katy only a week earlier.

San Marcos River in Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Marcos River runs through Luling and its history. Early settlers harnessed the river’s power by building several mills along it to run the community’s gristmill. The Zedler Mill is the last surviving one, built in 1874 by three men from Tennessee who added a cotton gin and water wheel (to power their machine shop) to the stone dam. It was purchased by the Zedler family and other investors in 1885; Zedler bought out his partners in 1888.

Modernizations happened through the years but as late as the 1950s, the mill was still turning out chicken feed for livestock and fine cornmeal for Luling’s dinner tables. But the mill shut down soon after and fell into disrepair.

Renovated Zedler Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around 2002, Luling bought the property; the Zedler Mill Foundation and the city invested more than $1.5 million to improve and restore the mill buildings in a new city park. Today the park is a beautiful site for family outings and fun in the water. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and partners put together the Zedler Mill Paddling Trail along with the two- to four-hour trip. Examine the inventive mill components and marvel at how they used the power of the river so effectively long ago. 

San Marcos River and Zedler Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A mere 8 miles southeast of Luling but still along the San Marcos River lies a tropical treasure of a state park, Palmetto. After you pass the aforementioned Buc-ee’s (pick up some trail snacks), drive past it a mile or two until you see the brown sign for Palmetto State Park. Roll down the windows to enjoy the cool-down as the two-lane road winds under shade trees that intertwine across the top, forming a canopy.

Along the road from Luling to Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t be puzzled by the signs of non-park life when you emerge from the shade—you’ll soon see park signage directing you to headquarters, the fishing dock, campgrounds, and a variety of trails. Everything looks so photo-worthy. If you’re looking for more than just a day trip extends your retreat with a night or two of camping or a stay in the park’s quaint cabin.

The first thing I look for at a park is a trail to hike and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto State Park offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive Trail have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life some seen almost nowhere else in Texas. Riotous birdsong is Palmetto’s soundtrack. The 270-acre park has attracted 240 species of birds, including an invasion of hummingbirds each spring. In the fall, look for butterflies everywhere. Fox squirrels and a variety of wildlife inhabit the park due to the presence of the river nearby.

The park is graced by the presence of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) buildings including a refectory made of sandstone that seems to rise out of the ground and once had a thatched palm roof. A water tower on the park’s interpretive trail was unique for its time supplying fresh water to all the campsites.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, everywhere you look is the park’s namesake plants adding a tropical feeling, unlike the surrounding Texas countryside. Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants from which the park gets its name surround the park’s swamp. These palmettos grow in East and Southeast Texas as well as the Palmetto State (South Carolina) and much of the southeastern US. The state park boasts the westernmost stand of dwarf palmettos in the country.
I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I linger in Luling rather than just passing through.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

I didn’t drive eleven hours across the state of Texas to watch my cholesterol.

― Robb Walsh

Palmetto State Park: Nature-filled Getaway in Central Texas

This small park offers a large amount of fun, both on water and land

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Along the entrance road to Palmetto © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life, some seen almost nowhere else in Texas.

Back in the early 1930s, a small piece of that swamp, midway between Gonzales and Luling, became Palmetto State Park. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) efforts to blend nature into their construction, the park today looks almost as natural as it did eight decades ago.

San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just an hour from Austin or San Antonio and two hours from Houston, this picturesque park is a short drive for many Texans and easily accessible off of Interstate 10. If you’re looking for more than just a day trip, extend your retreat with a night or two of camping or a stay in the park’s quaint cabin.

You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps.

CCC-built picnic pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On land, hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos. Host a gathering at the park’s CCC-built picnic pavilion which has an air-conditioned kitchen. 

Choose one of the 19 tent sites or 18 RV sites. Camp with up to 99 of your friends at the secluded group site. Or rent our air-conditioned cabin (for up to six people).

Hiking trail at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first thing I look for at a park is a trail to hike and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto State Park offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive Trail have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

A swamp at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life some, seen almost nowhere else in Texas. Riotous birdsong is Palmetto’s soundtrack. The 270-acre park has attracted 240 species of birds, including an invasion of hummingbirds each spring. In the fall, look for butterflies everywhere. Fox squirrels and a variety of wildlife inhabit the park due to the presence of the river nearby.

Palmetto at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, everywhere you look is the park’s namesake plants adding a tropical feeling, unlike the surrounding Texas countryside. Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants from which the park gets its name surround the park’s swamp. These palmettos grow in East and Southeast Texas as well as the Palmetto State (South Carolina) and much of the southeastern US. The state park boasts the westernmost stand of dwarf palmettos in the country.
The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. The Mesquite Flats Trail offers a look at the drier, savannah-like parts of the park where prickly pear cactus finds a home.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you get finished exploring the park on land, enjoy the water. The always-fun Oxbow Lake offers calm water to cast a fishing line in search of catfish or sunfish. Try out a paddleboat, kayak, or canoe, or take a swim in the cool water. The San Marcos River low-water crossing is a great place to either splash around in the water or take a tube for a 20- to 30-minute float around the park. Make sure you check river conditions with park staff.

CCC-built pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Marcos River is one of the most popular recreational rivers in Texas. The river arises from Aquarena Springs within the city limits of San Marcos and flows approximately 75 miles through heavily wooded banks to join the Guadalupe River. A wide variety of water types including a few rapids, many small riffles and an abundance of clear, quiet pools are present. The average width of the stream is 30 feet; however, it narrows between steep banks in its lower reaches. In periods of low water, numerous log jams are found, especially downriver.

San Marcos River at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good point of entry is Luling City Park, located adjacent to State Highway 80, just east of the city limits. The park provides about one-half mile of shoreline and camping is permitted.

Paddlers will enjoy a gentle family-friendly ride on this quiet river lined with beautiful trees and wildlife. Since private land borders the river, put-in and take-out points are limited.

CCC-built pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Didn’t bring gear? The park staff has you covered with rentals of life jackets, kayaks, canoes, tubes, and hydro-cycles (basically bikes with pontoons). The park also participates in the tackle loaner program allowing you to borrow fishing poles free of charge.

The staff and volunteers at Palmetto State Park are eager to show you a safe and relaxing experience. Make sure you check in with them at park headquarters on your way in. While you’re there, pick up a souvenir at the well-stocked park store.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Entrance Fee: $3 daily

Camping Fee: $12-$20 + daily entrance fee

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

Fun Outdoor Getaways You Can Easily Hit from 25 Cities

Take a short drive to a different world

One thing the pandemic has taught us—beyond how much we hate Zoom—is that nature is not a luxury. It is essential for human survival. And while many city folks have gained a new appreciation for the outdoors, you don’t have to commit to some epic cross-country RV trip just to get some fresh air.

With that in mind, we searched the country for the best outdoor getaways—national parks, national forests, state parks, and the like—to find seven iconic destinations within easy driving distance of major US cities. Regardless of your level of experience in the outdoor world, these spots offer natural beauty and invigorating adventure in spades. Now hit the road already.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Close to: Washington DC (70 miles), Baltimore (108 miles), Pittsburg (214 miles), Philadelphia (250 miles)

While most well known for its sensational displays of fall foliage, this nature-packed park just outside DC makes for one great urban escape any time of year. The 105-mile Skyline Drive running the length of the park is Shenandoah’s most famous asset but the park also boasts nearly 200,000 acres of backcountry camping and numerous waterfalls, views of which you’ll share with black bears, red-tailed hawks, and the full slate of charming wildlife forest creatures. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Mathews Arm Campground (MP: 22.1), Big Meadows Campground (MP: 51.2), Loft Mountain Campground (MP: 79.5)

Coolest pit stop: Charlottesville is one of the most beautiful towns in America—and it’s just 37 miles from Shenandoah and home to the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s home of Monticello, and the picture-perfect pedestrian Historic Downtown Mall, C-ville’s more than worthy of a pit stop.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Forest, California

Close to: Los Angeles (128 miles), San Jose (234 miles), Sacramento (257 miles), San Francisco (279 miles), Las Vegas (285 miles)

National parks may protect some of the best-known natural landmarks but national forests have just as remarkable landscapes. The U.S. Forest Service manages 154 national forests including Sequoia. Named for the world’s largest trees, Sequoia National Forest has the greatest concentration of giant sequoia groves in the world. One of America’s finest national forests features a gargantuan 1.1 million acres in three counties of Southern California and offers an abundance of recreation opportunities for people to enjoy. The Forest offers 52 developed campgrounds, hiking on more than 1,147 miles of trails including 47 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail, over 314,448 acres of wilderness, 222 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, 2,617 rivers and streams, world-class whitewater rapids, 158 ponds and lakes, boating, fishing, biking, horseback riding, and more.

River Run RV Park, Bakersfield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: River Run RV Park (Bakersfield), Orange Groove RV Park (Bakersfield), Bakersfield RV Resort (Bakersfield)

Coolest pit stop: As you drive on Generals Highway between the Lodgepole area in Sequoia National Park and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, you will pass by several popular areas within the national forest. Here, you will find access to campgrounds, Buck Rock Lookout, the Big Meadows area, Jennie Lakes Wilderness, and Montecito Sequoia Lodge.

Oak Creek Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coconino National Forest, Arizona

Close to: Phoenix (134 miles), Tucson (203 miles), Las Vegas (267 miles), Albuquerque (290 miles)

This unsung 1.8-million-acre national forest has a little bit of everything for the outdoor enthusiast. From mountains like the famous San Francisco Peaks and the Grand Canyon-Esque Oak Creek Canyon to the magnificent Zion-like desert landscapes of Red Rock Crossing and Arizona’s largest natural lake (Mormon Lake), one thing you won’t be here is bored. Pack some extra energy if you wanna see it all. 

Grand Canyon Railway RV Park, Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Black Barts RV Park (Flagstaff), Grand Canyon Railway RV Park (Williams), Distant Drums RV Resort (Camp Verde)

Coolest pit stop: Flagstaff brings a wintery vibe to challenge your notions of what Arizona is all about. If that’s not enough, you’ve also got Route 66 running west of town as well as the nearby freakishly beautiful artsy paradise of Sedona. This road trip basically plans itself.

Cradle of Forestry, Pisgah National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

Close to: Charlotte (126 miles), Knoxville (137 miles), Atlanta (173 miles), Chattanooga (248 miles)

While the iconic Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the foliage-packed Blue Ridge Parkway are perhaps the most-well known nature retreats around these parts, the lesser-visited Pisgah National Forest outside Asheville remains content to fly under the radar. Explore the forest for top-tier wildflower-dotted mountain landscapes, verdant rolling hills, and serene waterfalls in addition to vibrant swimming holes and rushing whitewater. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Asheville Bear Creek RV Park (Asheville), Asheville West KOA (Asheville), Mama Gertie’s Hideaway Campground (Swannanoa)

Coolest pit stop: The national forest is only 30 minutes outside Asheville, so there’s no reason not to visit one of America’s best mountain towns. When you’re done with all the craft and stuff there, nearby Chimney Rock State Park makes another excellent diversion for heart-stirring mountain vistas.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Close to: San Diego (87 miles), Los Angeles (151 miles), Phoenix (372 miles)

This sprawling 600,000-acre state park between San Diego and Palm Springs has appeared in fewer movies than spotlight-hogging Joshua Tree National Park but manages equal levels of awe. While known for its trippy metal sculptures of dinosaurs and other strange creatures, the park has so much more to offer than a cool Instagram backdrop. Observe desert bighorn sheep, hike the trails, and, when you get tired, head back to your camping site at Palm Canyon and revel in some of the country’s most mind-blowing stars in the night skies.

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, The Springs at Borrego RV Resort & Golf Course

Coolest pit stop: Slab City—an off-the-grid community that’s flush with eccentric desert art and even more eccentric characters—always makes for an interesting stopover. Be sure to check out man-made Salvation Mountain and wander the eerily beautiful Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea while you’re here.

Adirondack Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adirondack Park, New York

Close to: New York City (214 miles), Boston (234 miles), Buffalo (268 miles)

Clocking in at a mind-boggling 6.1 million acres—more than twice the size of Yellowstone— Adirondack Park’s nearly endless list of attractions includes more than 10,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers, and 200,000 acres of forest. Explore iconic mountain towns like Lake Placid, scale some mountains, do some canoeing, or just kick back and relax: You’ve heard of Adirondack chairs, right? 

Village of Lake George © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Lake George Riverside Campground (Lake George), North Pole Resorts (Wilmington), Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park at Paradise Pines Camping Resort (North Hudson)

Coolest pit stop: Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont makes for a nice diversion on the route from Boston or NYC. Serious question: Has there ever been a bad time to visit Vermont?

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palmetto State Park, Texas

Close to: Austin (56 miles), San Antonio (64 miles), Houston (142 miles), Corpus Christie (146 miles), Dallas (247 miles)

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water (including the San Marcos River), Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

This small park offers a large amount of fun, both on water and land. You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps. Hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Palmetto State Park offers 18 RV and tent camping sites

Coolest pit stop: Luling is home to the Luling Oil Museum and is renowned for watermelons, barbecue, and colorfully decorated pump jacks. Texans know Gonzales as the “Cradle of Texas History” where the first shots were fired for Texas Independence. If you’re hankering for barbecue, head north to Lockhart, the official Barbecue Capital of Texas.

Worth Pondering…

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.

—John Muir

Tropical Paradise: Palmetto State Park

Palmetto State Park offers a nature-filled getaway in Central Texas

If you were to blindfold a person and drive him into the lush undergrowth of the 270-acre park, it’s likely he’d be clueless as to his whereabouts. Studded with dense clusters of dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake plant species, shaded by a moss-draped canopy of ancient live oak trees, Palmetto State Park is Texas’ own version of a subtropical jungle. At the end of the park’s entrance road the landscape vividly plummets into the water-carved vista of the San Marcos River.

Along the entrance road to Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back in the mid-30s, a small piece of that swamp 13 miles northwest of Gonzales—and nine miles southeast of Luling—became Palmetto State Park. The park abuts the San Marcos River and also has a four-acre oxbow lake. 

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful stone buildings in the park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s.

A tropical paradise, Palmetto is an unusual botanical area that resembles the tropics more than Central Texas. The ranges of eastern and western species merge, resulting in an astounding diversity of plant and animal life. Most notably, a stand of dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants is found around the park’s ephemeral swamp.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These ground-hugging, trunkless palms normally are found in the moist forests of East Texas and Louisiana, as well as much of the southeastern US. The extensive stand in Palmetto State Park was isolated thousands of years ago, considerably west of its natural range.

Wildlife frequently seen in the park includes white-tailed deer, armadillos, squirrels, raccoons, and over 200 species of birds including wild turkeys and several species of warblers.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s what you wouldn’t expect to see that makes this park special: a swampy wetlands. And it’s not just any old wetlands. The Ottine Swamp, named for the small town just outside the park’s gates, is a primeval wonderland of towering trees, peaty bogs, and warm springs.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crouch at the edge of a lagoon, as the spring-fed ponds are called locally, and the sweet scent of wild onion wafts skyward. Spanish moss drips from elm, hackberry, and cottonwood trees. Trumpet vines and wild grape twist around gnarled trunks and climb toward the canopy. Everywhere, palmetto palm fronds rustle in the breeze. These dwarf palmettos give the swamp an otherworldly atmosphere.

Activities include camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, birding, nature study, pedal boat and canoe rentals, swimming, tubing, and canoeing.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the first thing we look for at a state park is a trail to hike, and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive trails have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We hiked the Palmetto Trail loop, careful—as a large sign warns—to watch for snakes. We marveled at the sheer greenness of the place, and the profusion of fan-shaped palm leaves.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River, where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. The Mesquite Flats Trail offers a look at the drier, savannah-like parts of the park, where prickly pear cactus finds a home.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you’re finished exploring the park on land, enjoy the water. The always-fun Oxbow Lake offers calm water to cast a fishing line in search of catfish or sunfish. Try out a paddleboat, kayak, or canoe, or take a swim in the cool water. The San Marcos River low-water crossing is a great place to either splash around in the water or take a tube for a 20- to 30-minute float around the park.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boaters can put in the river at Luling City Park and travel 14 miles to Palmetto, portaging around one dam along the way. Put-in and take-out points are limited, as the river is mostly bordered by private land. There are no rapids, but almost always a steady current. Check river conditions at the park. For this trip, bring your own canoe and prearrange your shuttles.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers wishing to stay overnight or longer, the park provides great camping facilities. The campground is clean and quiet, and the stars at night are … well, you know the song.

Overnight stays are very reasonable with campsites rates ranging from $18-$20 plus the $3 per person park entrance fee. One campsite offering 30/50-amp electric service, water, and sewer is available for $20 nightly; 17 sites offering 30/50-amp electric service and water are available for $18. Weekly rates are available.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

As we explore America by RV, surprises await at every turn of the road. Natural beauty abounds when least expected.