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8 must-see national parks, preserves, and monuments in Texas

San Juan Mission National Park, San Antonio, TX Originally founded in 1716, Mission San Juan was transferred from eastern Texas to its present location at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in 1731. | Photo by Joseph Sohm/stock.adobe.com

“Beauty belongs to all the people,” President Lyndon B. Johnson once said during his tenure, signing one of many pieces of legislation protecting and beautifying public lands for the enjoyment of Americans for generations to come.

As a result of the commitment of many conservationists and forward-thinkers, including LBJ and first lady “Lady Bird” Johnson, Texas now boasts a wealth of rugged landscapes, from sparkling seashores to breathtaking canyons and historic missions, for all the people.

Though Big Bend National Park is perhaps the most well-known of our national parklands, here are eight additional national parks, preserves, and monuments to add to your list of must-see Texas sites.

Read more: 6 must-see spots in Big Bend National Park

1. Waco Mammoth National Monument 

Waco

A male Columbian mammoth fossil uncovered at Waco Mammoth National Monument in Waco, Texas. | Photo by Arpad Benedek / Alamy Stock Photo

A male Columbian mammoth fossil uncovered at Waco Mammoth National Monument in Waco, Texas. | Photo by Arpad Benedek / Alamy Stock Photo

One of Texas’ most unusual national treasures is Waco Mammoth National Monument, where paleontologists are still discovering remains from Columbian mammoths and other Ice Age animals. In 1978, while searching for fossils and arrowheads, two men discovered a large pit of bones, which belonged to a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths. It was the first place in the U.S. where such a discovery has occurred. The site was designated as a national monument by President Barack Obama in 2015. Visitors can see an active fossil site, as well as learn about the lives of Columbian mammoths and their reign in central Texas more than 65,000 years ago.

2. Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Johnson City

Hill Country wildflowers blanket the field in front of the former president’s boyhood home, which is preserved at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Johnson City. | Photo by Alamy Stock Photo

Hill Country wildflowers blanket the field in front of the former president’s boyhood home, which is preserved at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Johnson City. | Photo by Alamy Stock Photo

Visitors can roam the 600-acre grounds where LBJ lived, worked, and played at his “Texas White House”—the Hill Country outpost where he worked when not in Washington, D.C. Though the home itself is currently closed to visitors pending renovations, tourists can peek at the one-room schoolhouse where he attended starting at age 4, as well as the family’s cemetery and “Air Force One-Half,” one of Johnson’s five aircraft that he used during his vice presidency and presidency. Along the way, marvel at the landscape from which Johnson took inspiration, from the tree-lined banks of the Pedernales River to the herd of Hereford cattle (from the same bloodlines of the original cows that grazed here during Johnson’s life). The National Park Service’s free app can aid your self-guided driving tour, and you can also get a glimpse inside his ranch.

3. Padre Island National Seashore

North Padre Island

Camping is first-come, first-serve at Padre Island National Seashore. Campers must have a permit, which can be obtained from kiosks at campground entrances. | Photo by Irina K/stock.adobe.com

Camping is first-come, first-serve at Padre Island National Seashore. Campers must have a permit, which can be obtained from kiosks at campground entrances. | Photo by Irina K/stock.adobe.com

Though it may not get top billing among famous beaches across the globe, Padre Island National Seashore boasts the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world, with 70 miles of coastal land on the Gulf of Mexico. In 1962, it received its National Seashore designation by President John F. Kennedy, and in 1968, it was dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson. And if you ask most Texans, it’s one of our favorite vacation spots. Beachgoers and birders alike enjoy visiting this sanctuary, hoping to catch a wave or a glimpse of some of the more than 380 bird species. The seashore is also home to the protected Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which nests here from mid-March through August each year.

4. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

San Antonio

The largest of the missions, Mission San José is known as the "Queen of the Missions." | Photo by Raluca Lungociu/stock.adobe.com

The largest of the missions, Mission San José is known as the "Queen of the Missions." | Photo by Raluca Lungociu/stock.adobe.com

Though many folks might heed the famous battle cry to “Remember the Alamo!” the collection of four additional missions outside of the city center provide an even richer insight into the changes that arrived in south Texas throughout the centuries. Each of the missions—Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Espada—offers its own glimpse into the religious and cultural landscape. The missions have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They’re spaced approximately 2.5 miles apart, and a bicycle path connects them. You can also kayak past the missions along the San Antonio River. The missions are free to visit.

5. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Salt Flat

A hiker looks on from the top of Lost Peak, on the north end of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat. | Photo by Donna Ikenberry/Art Directors/Alamy Stock Photo

A hiker looks on from the top of Lost Peak, on the north end of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat. | Photo by Donna Ikenberry/Art Directors/Alamy Stock Photo

Part of the desert/mountain area of Far West Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park comprises more than 86,000 acres of land spanning the Texas/New Mexico border, including the four highest mountain peaks in the state. Outdoor adventurers love hiking and camping in this park, which offers fall leaves, spring wildflowers, and views of canyons and cascading springs.

6. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Fritch

Quarry tours are available daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. | Photo by traveller70/stock.adobe.com

Quarry tours are available daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. | Photo by traveller70/stock.adobe.com

Located in the Texas Panhandle region about 45 minutes northeast of Amarillo are two national park system neighbors: Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument and Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. The Alibates Flint Quarries were crucially important to the earliest inhabitants of this region, beginning thousands of years ago with the Clovis people, who were thought to make use of the flint for chipped-stone tools. Visitors can also view petroglyphs carved into the rock at Alibates. After you’ve explored Alibates, head over to Lake Meredith to enjoy the cool Canadian River–fed reservoir water or to camp.

7. Big Thicket National Preserve

Kountze

You can paddle through the cypress-tupelo slough at the Big Thicket National Preserve. | Photo by Imogen Warren/stock.adobe.com

You can paddle through the cypress-tupelo slough at the Big Thicket National Preserve. | Photo by Imogen Warren/stock.adobe.com

As you explore Big Thicket National Preserve in southeast Texas, make your way through nine distinct ecosystems, from Louisiana-style bayous to the thick pine forests characteristic of East Texas’ Piney Woods region. This national preserve, once a prized retreat for bear hunters from several bands of American Indians, now offers 40 miles of hiking trails and three officially designated paddling trails for canoeists and kayakers.

Read more: Road-tripping into the Big Thicket National Preserve


8. Amistad National Recreation Area

Del Rio

A bridge stretches across the Amistad Reservoir, a man-made lake that's part of the Amistad National Recreation Area in Del Rio.  | Photo by Mathew Risley/stock.adobe.com

A bridge stretches across the Amistad Reservoir, a man-made lake that's part of the Amistad National Recreation Area in Del Rio. | Photo by Mathew Risley/stock.adobe.com

From the Spanish word for “friendship,” Amistad National Recreation Area reflects the partnership between the United States and Mexico, which resides on the other side of this reservoir. Amistad’s 851 miles of shoreline extend from the Rio Grande to the Pecos River and Devils River, offering fishing, boating, hiking, and camping. The park also offers two rock art sites where visitors can see pictographs dating back more than 5,000 years.

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.

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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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