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Best places to hike in Texas in the winter

The Lighthouse Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. | Photo by Abigail O’Donnell–stock.adobe.com The Lighthouse Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. | Photo by Abigail O’Donnell–stock.adobe.com

Hiking is a perfect way to kick off your commitment to a healthy new year in Texas, especially now that summer’s heat and crowds have given way to cooler temps and fewer visitors. We’ve curated this list of must-do hiking spots that are ideal for exploring the flora and fauna unique to the various Lone Star State ecosystems, from the Piney Woods of East Texas to the lush grottoes of Hill Country and the canyons and mountains in the western parts of the state.

Note that many parks have restrictions in place as a result of the pandemic, such as mandatory reservations or timed visits. Check websites in advance of your outing to ensure you’ll be able to hike.

1. Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center, Round Mountain

(830) 825-3442; westcave.org.

Know before you go: Reservations are required. You can book a one-hour guided hike to the grotto for a household group of up to four people for $60.

A grotto with a small waterfall, ferns, and moss at Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center in Round Mountain. | Photo by Laurence Parent/Laurence Parent Photography

A grotto with a small waterfall, ferns, and moss at Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center in Round Mountain. | Photo by Laurence Parent/Laurence Parent Photography

The grottoes and natural pools of Texas Hill Country offer an otherworldly glimpse of the earth’s hidden geological secrets. Curtains of water softly falling over caverns covered with lush plants create an Edenesque experience that’s worth the drive (and the wait for a reservation). A guide will escort your small group on a 15-minute hike down into the canyon, where you can enjoy the beauty of the waterfall, cave, and grotto—a renewing experience that is appropriate to kick off the new year. And bonus: Winter is the less crowded time of year to visit. Also worth a stop while you’re in the area is Hamilton Pool. Swimming is currently not permitted (you might not feel like going for a dip in January or February, anyway), but the grotto and its 40-foot waterfall have earned a spot on many a bucket list.

2. Estero Llano Grande State Park, Weslaco

(956) 565-3919; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/estero-llano-grande.

Know before you go: Reservations (texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com) for day passes can be made up to 30 days in advance; $5 per person.

Birders on the boardwalk at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. | Photo by Larry Ditto/Larry Ditto Nature Photography

Birders on the boardwalk at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. | Photo by Larry Ditto/Larry Ditto Nature Photography

Part of the World Birding Center, a network of nine distinct locations in the Rio Grande Valley, Estero Llano Grande is beloved by birders who come armed with checklists of “must-see” North American birds that are likely to be spotted only in this region. Rent a pair of binoculars from the park store for $3 before setting off on your hike. Birding season runs from November through mid-May. Resident American alligators hang out in the aptly named Alligator Lake, and it’s fun to try to spot Common Pauraque birds on the ground. If you’re interested in more nearby World Birding Center stops, check out Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park at the Texas/Mexico border and Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen.

3. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Near Fredericksburg

(830) 685-3636; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/enchanted-rock.

Know before you go: Reservations (texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com) are recommended; $8 per person.

A hiker heads towards the batholith, a pinkish dome that's the main attraction at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Fredericksburg. | Photo by Jonathan–stock.adobe.com

A hiker heads towards the batholith, a pinkish dome that's the main attraction at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Fredericksburg. | Photo by Jonathan–stock.adobe.com

You can’t miss the main attraction at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area: a massive pinkish dome rising from the earth. It’s technically a batholith, an igneous rock formation that was created when magma rose from the earth’s crust. Texans consider the Summit Trail’s steep climb to the top a worthy fitness challenge (it’s the equivalent of climbing the stairs of a 30- to 40-story building), but the trails that snake around the base of the batholith are equally rewarding and suitable for various fitness levels. The busiest season is April through October, so going in winter is a great option to avoid crowds. See if you can spot the vibrant crayon-colored Painted Bunting, a frequent feathered visitor to this park in spring, summer, and fall.

4. Palo Duro Canyon State Park, near Canyon

(806) 488-2227; palodurocanyon.com.

Know before you go: Reservations are recommended (texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com); $8 for adults.

The famous Lighthouse Rock at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. | Photo by Martina Birnbaum/stock.adobe.com

The famous Lighthouse Rock at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. | Photo by Martina Birnbaum/stock.adobe.com

Located about a half-hour drive from Amarillo is the second-largest canyon in the United States. A hike through Palo Duro Canyon becomes a study in geology and history, tracing the layers of rock that go back to the Permian Age some 250 million years ago. The canyon was home to southern Plains Indians for centuries, followed later by the arrival of ranchers led by Charles Goodnight. The rock formations on the Juniper/Riverside Trail and the Lighthouse Trail look like multicolored Spanish skirts. Most trails are rated as easy or moderate hikes of one to two hours, and you can also arrange to go horseback riding in the canyon. Winter may bring brisk winds (and even snow), so be prepared with layers of warm clothing.

5. Big Bend National Park

(432) 477-2251; nps.gov/bibe/index.htm.

Know before you go: Reservations are not required to enter the park, but fees are collected at the entrance; $30 per vehicle. Check the park’s website for information about any possible closures.

View of the Window and Chisos Mountains Basin from the summit. | Photo by Laurence Parent/Laurence Parent Photography

View of the Window and Chisos Mountains Basin from the summit. | Photo by Laurence Parent/Laurence Parent Photography

Big Bend National Park tops many Texas hikers’ wish lists for a reason: The varied trails provide views that you won’t see anywhere else in the United States. Peak season is November through April, and the winter months can be on the chilly side—daytime temperatures in January and February usually hang in the low to mid-60s. For a strenuous climb, explore the South Rim Trail, a 14.5-mile hike that spans the Chisos Basin and leads up the mountain ridge for a panoramic view of the mountains. A more moderate option is the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which gives visitors a classic view of Terlingua Creek nestled between mountain cliffs. The Hot Spring and some other features of the park have been closed due to COVID-19, so check for updated information before you go.

READ MORE: 6 must-see spots in Big Bend National Park

6. Davy Crockett National Forest, Kennard

(936) 655-2299; fs.usda.gov/detail/texas/about-forest/districts/?cid=fswdev3_008441.

Know before you go: No reservations are required for hiking. Parking is $5 per car.

Trek through the Big Slough boardwalk at the Davy Crockett National Forest in Kennard. | Photo by Laurence Parent/Laurence Parent Photography

Trek through the Big Slough boardwalk at the Davy Crockett National Forest in Kennard. | Photo by Laurence Parent/Laurence Parent Photography

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky.” If you’re searching for nature’s poetry to be inspired for 2021, you’ll find it in abundance throughout Davy Crockett National Forest in East Texas, where towering pines stand tall and proud. A logging site prior to the 1920s, the 160,000-acre preserve allows you to challenge yourself to the 20-mile Four C National Recreation Trail, named for the old ­­ Central Coal and Coke Company logging operation, which ends at Neches Bluff Overlook.

7. Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso

(512) 389-8900; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/franklin-mountains.

Know before you go: Reservations (texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com) for day use are advised (but not required) and can be made up to 30 days prior to your visit; $5 per person. Be prepared for rugged terrain, and bring plenty of water.

Explore high-desert mountains at Franklin Mountains State Park. | Photo by Cynthia J. Drake

Explore high-desert mountains at Franklin Mountains State Park. | Photo by Cynthia J. Drake

The satisfying crunch of rocks underfoot as you scale El Paso’s Franklin Mountains gives cadence to your journey to the summit, where you can take in spectacular views not only of the city of El Paso, but also of nearby Mexico and New Mexico. For high adventure, you might try biking the Franklin Mountains (not for novices) or exploring the mountain’s secret caves. During normal, nonpandemic times, there are regular bimonthly themed hikes with park staff; you may wish to arrange a hike with a local guide.

Cynthia J. Drake is an Austin-based travel writer who is on a mission to visit as many of Texas' 87 state parks as she can.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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