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7 family-friendly outdoor vacations in Texas

Lake Bastrop North Shore Park Canoe the calm waters at Lake Bastrop North Shore Park. | Photo by LCRA Parks

Big doses of sunshine and fresh air not only do wonders for the body and soul, but playing together outside also remains a surefire route to family bonding. Whether you’re splashing around in a lake or biking along a trail, the great outdoors has a way of bringing people together. Here are seven places around the Lone Star State for you and your family to romp—either on sand, lakes, or rivers, or in a spectacular canyon.

1. Port Aransas

Cool off by the community pool complex at Cinnamon Shore South. | Photo courtesy Cinnamon Shore

Cool off by the community pool complex at Cinnamon Shore South. | Photo courtesy Cinnamon Shore

To reach Port A, as locals and longtime fans call it, take a free, five-minute ferry ride from Aransas Pass. From the deck, look out for frolicking dolphins. The town anchors the north end of Mustang Island, where most restaurants, watering holes, and shops are situated. Rent a beach buggy/golf cart to make the trip between the beach, your lodging, and the town.

Things to do: Take to the water on a personal watercraft, a stand-up paddleboard, a kayak, or even a kiteboard. You can also sign up for surf camp, build sandcastles, and fish from the jetties or a charter boat. Dolphin-watching boat trips are a must. Check out Boots the alligator at the local nature center. Golfers will want to hit the nine-hole, Arnold Palmer–designed course framed by dunes and native sea oats at Palmilla Beach Golf Club.

Where to stay and eat: Cinnamon Shore rental homes and condos face the Gulf of Mexico, and you can hang by a pool, too, and watch movies on the lawn at night. Likewise at nearby Sunflower Beach, stylish villas, condos, and cabins are an easy walk to beach or pool. Eat at Shell’s Pasta and Seafood, Tortuga’s Saltwater Grill, and Dylan’s Coal Oven Pizzeria.

2. Mount Vernon

Kayakers at the Deer Lake Cabins Ranch Resort. | Photo by Deer Lake Cabins Ranch Resort

Kayakers at the Deer Lake Cabins Ranch Resort. | Photo by Deer Lake Cabins Ranch Resort

About 100 miles northeast of Dallas, Deer Lake Cabins Ranch Resort carved out an 800-acre preserve in woodsy countryside for family getaways. The only thing you have to decide is whether to do it all or just sit beside the sparkling lake and do nothing. Bonus: The resort is dog-friendly.

Things to do: Consider taking off-road vehicles along 15 miles of nature trails. Putter around lakes in a trolling-motor fishing boat or go pedal boating, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding. Ride a horse or feed farm animals. Play basketball, bocce ball, sand volleyball, or sign everyone up for an escape room challenge.

Where to stay and eat: Pick a ranch house, lake house, or cabin, each in a rustic but comfortable design, for families of four to 16. Cowboy cookouts are offered weekly; otherwise, families prepare meals in their own kitchens.

3. Palo Duro Canyon

All cabins at Doves Rest Resort overlook Palo Duro Canyon. | Photo courtesy of Doves Rest Resort

All cabins at Doves Rest Resort overlook Palo Duro Canyon. | Photo courtesy of Doves Rest Resort

Palo Duro Canyon is the most spectacular site in the Texas Panhandle and perhaps the whole state. Cut over millions of years by fierce winds and the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, this magnificent gash in the earth measures 800 feet deep at the canyon floor. The state park offers more than 16 miles of paved road and views of rust-colored formations and canyon walls, washed in wide swaths of scrubby green desert flora.

Things to do: Hikers and mountain bikers love the trails crisscrossing the park; the route to the Lighthouse formation ranks as the most popular, measuring about 6 miles long, round-trip. Take plenty of drinking water on every outing. Book a horseback-riding adventure with Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West, where canyon-rim trails on Los Cedros Ranch take you to stunning vistas. On summer nights, the musical drama Texas is performed in the park amphitheater.

Where to stay and eat: For ample comfort and lots of room, Doves Rest Cabins sit right on the edge of the canyon. New cabins designed in wood, rock, and stucco range from one to four bedrooms, each with a kitchen (or kitchenette), living area, and patio with a fireplace—and some with a laundry room and hot tub; all allow pets. Make your own meals, or head into the town of Canyon to eat at Joe Taco and get a cappuccino at Palace Coffee Company.

4. Frio River

Floating in inner tubes on the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country. | Photo courtesy Visit Uvalde County

Floating in inner tubes on the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country. | Photo courtesy Visit Uvalde County

The spring-fed, crystal-clear Frio River cuts a north-to-south pathway between the bucolic towns of Leakey and Concan, about 85 miles west of San Antonio in the Hill Country. Two-lane roads cut through the wild, rocky landscape where traffic—and, sometimes, cell phone service—is but a distant memory.

Things to do: Drift in an inner tube for a few hours in the cool water beneath shady trees. Kayak in the river or throw a fishing line; remember to pack a picnic. Hike in Lost Maples State Natural Area for breathtaking views. Bring your boots for line dancing in little saloons. On summer nights, watch millions of bats take flight at dusk.

Where to stay and eat: Riverside cabins range from basic digs to fancier sorts. Garner State Park has popular cabins, and Neal’s Lodges has been a favorite for nearly a century. Good food awaits at Neal’s restaurant, as well as at Lost Maples Café in nearby Utopia.

5. Lake LBJ

Explore underground caves at Longhorn Cavern State Park. | Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife

Explore underground caves at Longhorn Cavern State Park. | Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife

Northwest of Austin, in the Highland Lakes’ sparkling chain, is 6,500-acre Lake LBJ, known for barbecue, wineries, hiking, fishing, waterskiing, and luxury golf-resort stays. Horseshoe Bay’s 7,000 lakefront acres offer three spectacular courses and a fun retreat for non-golfers, too.

Things to do: In addition to golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones, Horseshoe Bay offers white-sand beaches, boating, multiple swimming pools, and a kids’ club. Take the Wild Cave Tour at nearby Longhorn Cavern State Park.

Where to stay and eat: Spend time at the Horseshoe Bay Resort’s spa, eat at the resort’s barbecue restaurant, or sign up for a Hill Country winery tour.

Read more: 8 unique ways to exercise outdoors in Austin, Texas

6. Lake Bastrop

Stay in a fully furnished Airstream at Lake Bastrop North Shore Park. | Photo by LCRA Parks

Stay in a fully furnished Airstream at Lake Bastrop North Shore Park. | Photo by LCRA Parks

Just east of Austin, a gently rolling landscape dotted with farms and forest unfolds around a pretty, 900-acre lake known for bass fishing and swimming. Lower Colorado River Authority parks on the north and south shore connect along a 3.5-mile trail, giving you double the options.

Things to do: Days pass quickly with miniature golf, sand volleyball, picnicking, kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, and biking.

Where to stay and eat: Glamping was never better than in one of five fully equipped Airstreams, complete with outdoor patios, gas grill, and fire pit. Safari tents and furnished cabins round out the lodgings, all with views of the lake. Plan to cook out, or head into Bastrop for comfort food at Maxine’s Café or steaks at Piney Creek Chop House.

7. Caddo Lake

Parks specialist Charles C. Hubbard leads interpretive programs for Caddo Lake State Park. | Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife

Parks specialist Charles C. Hubbard leads interpretive programs for Caddo Lake State Park. | Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife

In the state’s northeast corner, Caddo Lake offers escapism in its primeval bayous, sloughs, and coves, shadowed by Spanish moss–draped cypress trees and deep woods. You’ll keep company with owls, turtles, and—some legends say—sasquatches.

Things to do: Hire a fishing guide to explore the best spots to catch bass, or book an entertaining 90-minute outing on Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours. Kayak and canoe rentals get you on the water, too, where you’ll want to keep an eye out for alligators. Enjoy time on hiking trails in Caddo Lake State Park, where picnic areas abound.

Where to stay and eat: The updated, historic stone cabins at the state park are charming, if basic, while rental cabins like Frog Town, on the lake’s north end at Potter’s Point, provide more modern comfort. Eat catfish and hushpuppies at Big Pines Lodge near the town of Uncertain, and shop for groceries at Caddo Lake General Store.

June Naylor is an award-winning travel journalist, dining critic, and food writer based in Fort Worth. Follow her adventures at junenaylor.com.

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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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