It’s official, summer is almost upon us, and unfortunately, the Covid pandemic that’s stolen one precious summer away is still here. Thanks to the vaccine, however, you won’t have to spend it alone indoors. One summer activity that meets CDC guidelines if you have been vaccinated (and if you haven’t, as long as you go alone) is exploring the underrated gems of Texas: our state parks. Texas has an overwhelming number of state parks, eighty-nine in total, but through exhaustive research, and a little personal experience, I’ve narrowed it down to the top 10 (in no particular order).
The first park on the list is McKinney Falls State Park, located in Austin, just 13 miles away from the capitol building (and UT!). McKinney Falls is probably most well known for its waterfalls and boasts a variety of wildlife and outdoor activities. The park also has 81 campsites with electricity plugs and running water, and six refurbished cabins.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park can be found in Amarillo, Texas, and is home to both the second largest canyon in the United States and the famed musical “Texas!”, which takes place in the amphitheater. Visitors can spend the day hiking down into the canyon or exploring it on horseback. There is also a guided tour of the canyon floor available on horseback. If sleeping on the ground isn’t your forte, Palo Duro also offers glamping.
Colorado Bend State Park is two hours north of Austin and has the beautiful Gorman Falls, a 70-foot tall waterfall. The park also has 35 miles of trails, cave tours, fishing and paddling, and the Spicewood Springs. One exciting highlight of Colorado State Park is that it offers “back to nature camping”, which includes campsites that you can walk to, drive to, or hike to, and have a rinse off and open-air shower and composting toilets.
Why drive all the way to New Mexico for white sands when Monahans Sand Hills State Park is located right in Monahans, Texas, near Odessa? The Monahans park has dunes for days, with some reaching up to fifty feet tall. You can explore the dunes on foot or even on horseback and rent sand disks for some summer sledding. Monahan's park has no set trails, allowing for free exploration, but the park urges visitors to remain aware of their surroundings, especially in the summertime.
Dinosaur Valley State Park is my personal favorite on the list, located in Glen Rose, Texas, outside of Fort Worth. Real dinosaur tracks can be found in the Paluxy River inside the park, which are left from when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. You can even walk inside the dinosaur tracks in the river, although they are very easy to slip and fall on (I learned this the hard way). There are also many different trails to explore, as well as kayaking and fishing in the river. An additional plus is that the Fossil Rim Nature Center is located close by, where visitors can feed, and most likely get licked by, giraffes and view all sorts of wildlife up close.
Guadalupe River State Park is just a short drive away from both Austin and San Antonio, and has 85 campsites with both water and electricity and the magnificent Guadalupe River. Camping is especially lucrative at Guadalupe, because the Texas Park Outfitters provide camping equipment rental and setup. The river is perfect for tubing, kayaking, and fishing, with fishing gear available to rent at the park. Or, if none of those activities sound appealing, you can just enjoy a relaxing swim!
Garner State Park, located in Concan, Texas, is home to the picturesque Frio River, where park goers enjoy tubing, paddle boarding, swimming, kayaking, and fishing. The park also offers mini-golf, biking, screen shelters, and cabins. However, one of the biggest draws to Garner is the jukebox dance that occurs every summer since the 1940s.
The Lost Maples State Natural Area is well known for its Uvalde bigtooth maples and bright scenic fall colors, but there are plenty of other things to do during the summer (although the park is definitely worth a visit in the fall). Visitors can go hiking, swimming, fishing, and birding and explore the Sabinal River and canyons. Lost Maples State Natural Area is two hours north of San Antonio.
Caddo Lake State Park, located in Karnack, Texas, is different from its fellow state parks. Instead of exploring the park by foot, kayas and canoes are available for rental. The water is framed by beautiful bald cypress trees and Spanish moss. If that isn’t convincing enough to pay Caddo Lake a visit, the park is also home to alligators.
Longhorn Cavern State Park is only an hour and a half drive from Austin and contains a geological wonder: the mile-long Longhorn Cavern. While admission to the park is free, there is also a paid guided tour option. There is also hiking available outside the cave.
If this article has inspired you to visit some of the beautiful state parks of Texas, make sure to check online availability and make some online reservations because the parks are yet not operating at 100 percent capacity. Oh, and have fun!