Miles and miles of natural wonder in Texas promise recreational bounty that’s second to none. You’ll find great adventures throughout the state—in desert mountains, in ancient cypress sloughs, and along sandy beaches. Here are 10 sure-to-please options, from adrenaline-fueled expeditions to family-friendly outings.
1. Climb the peak
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, about 100 miles east of El Paso, has more than 80 miles of hiking trails crisscrossing the high country. The 8.5-mile round-trip trek to Guadalupe Peak, the state’s highest point at 8,751 feet, ranks as the best. The sturdy climb rises 3,000 feet above the desert and through pine forests. Hundred-mile views and bragging rights reward those who make it to the top. 7-day entry passes are $10 per adult.
Good to know: Be prepared for inclement weather. High winds occur, especially from November through March. Summer months are hot. It typically takes 6 to 8 hours to complete the hike. Interested in the main park campground at Pine Canyon? Make a reservation online before you go.
2. Go with the flow
As the Rio Grande cuts through Big Bend National Park in West Texas, it carves deep, remote, and scenic canyons. For paddlers, the 1- to 3-day trip down Santa Elena Canyon beneath towering 1,500-foot limestone cliffs is unrivaled in its rugged beauty and isolation. Park entrance fees are $30 per non-commercial vehicle, $25 per non-commercial motorcycle, or $15 per individuals.
“It’s the best whitewater in the state,” says Charlie Angell of Angell Expeditions, who has been guiding tours in the park since 2008. “And all the best campsites are in the canyon.”
Good to know: Water levels vary throughout the year, with fall monsoons bringing the most reliable rapids. Angell Expeditions offers several trip options. For independent boaters, park staff can provide permits and help sort out logistics.
3. See stars
The University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory, in West Texas’ Davis Mountains, is one of the world’s best spots for stargazing. It’s home to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the largest in the U.S. The program got a boost last year with the establishment of the new Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, covering 15,000 square miles. Adults, $3.
Good to know: A 2-hour Star Party on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights includes constellation tours and telescope views of nebulae, remote planets, and more.
4. Roam among wildlife
See deer and antelope play at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, 60 miles southeast of Fort Worth in Glen Rose. But there’s much more to do at this longstanding nonprofit conservation facility, which has 1,200 animals representing 50 species, including black and white rhinos, giraffes, and semi-endangered African hoofstock such as mountain bongos and oryx.
As a longtime member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the center also has beneficial breeding programs for various animals, including cheetahs and red wolves. Tickets start at $29.95 for adults.
Good to know: Self-driving tours offer a great introduction to the park. However, take the behind-the-scenes tour for more in-depth information on its many species and to view animals not seen on the main grounds.
5. Boat on a bayou
Texas has more than 7,000 lakes, but few of them are natural ones, which makes Caddo Lake even more of a wonder. A trip to this cypress-filled wetland on the Texas-Louisiana border promises a primordial experience. It’s rife with alligators and birds, including wood storks in summer and migrating songbirds in the spring and fall.
Fishing here is quality, too. Buy tackle and snacks at Johnson Ranch Marina, on the outskirts of the small town of Uncertain. The marina also offers tours in shallow-draft outboard boats that are suited to the swamp. For larger groups, less-nimble pontoon boats are used. Park entrance fee is $4 per adult.
Good to know: Not far from Johnson Ranch Marina, charming Caddo Lake State Park has hiking paths, campsites, and comfortable cabins. The Civilian Conservation Corps built some structures and trails here 90 years ago.
6. Hang 10
The shape of the Continental Shelf off South Padre Island in South Texas makes for bigger, more consistent waves than in other Texas surfing spots, such as Galveston and Surfside.
“South Padre is a magical place,” says Gene Gore, a pioneering surfer who has run the South Padre Surf Company since 1995. “We have blue water, not brown like you find on the Upper Coast, and you can paddle out and have the waves to yourself.”
It’s never too late to give surfing a try: Gore has taught students ranging in age from 6 to 65.
Good to know: Surf’s up year-round on South Padre, with most surfers heading to Beach Park at Isla Blanca. South Padre Surf specializes in lessons and provides boards only for students. For rentals or retail shopping, try Island Native Surf Shop.
7. Catch some big ones
Bass get all the glory in Texas, but the state is also home to the southernmost trout stream in the Lower 48—the lovely, cypress-lined Guadalupe River tailwaters below Canyon Dam in the Hill Country.
Between November and March, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) teams up with the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit anglers conservation association, to stock more than 20,000 brown and rainbow trout there. You can catch trout up to 20 inches and longer year-round, as long as the water below the dam stays cool.
Good to know: Anglers tend to favor fly-fishing on the Guadalupe. A guided trip is a great option for those new to the sport or those hoping for an Instagram-worthy catch. Action Angler, the only streamside fly shop on the river, offers trips as well as tips and lessons.
8. Explore the other Grand Canyon
A world away from the Rocky Mountains, Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long and 20 miles wide. It’s an astounding landscape carved by the headwaters of the Red River deep into the high plains of the Panhandle near Amarillo. The canyon’s north end opened as a state park in 1934, offering bikers, hikers, and horseback riders miles of looping trails.
One trail should be on every Texan’s bucket list: the 5.7-mile round-trip trek to the Lighthouse. The 300-foot hoodoo is arguably the state’s most famous rock formation. Park entrance fee is $8 per adult.
Good to know: The 1,500-acre park fills up on weekends and holidays, so use the TPWD reservation system (512-389-8900) to secure day passes and campsites.
9. Cool off
Barton Springs Pool, Austin’s preferred swimming hole, is a restorative oasis in downtown’s Zilker Park. The pool is fed by natural, underground springs that keep the water around 68 to 70 degrees. Those temps attract hard-core swimmers year-round and students during spring break. Come summertime, you’ll find the broadest swath of Austinites relaxing on the grassy slope south of the pool and taking a dip in its healing waters.
Good to know: The 3-acre attraction can get crowded, making parking hard to come by. Avoid that problem by hopping on the free city shuttle that runs on weekends from the garage at One Texas Center, about 2 miles away.
Show up early to swim laps (the pool is open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.). Entry is free from the end of October through mid-March. Entrance fees from mid-March through October are $5 for adult Austin resident, $9 for non-resident.
10. Saddle up and ride
Ask cyclists where to find Texas’ best mountain bike trails and settle in for a heated debate. That said, Flat Rock Ranch near the small Hill Country town of Comfort packs more sweaty, adrenaline-fueled fun into its 29 miles of singletrack than nearly anywhere else in the state. Think long, lung-searing climbs, “enduro-style” downhills, and several creek crossings.
Adding to this true Lone Star experience, Flat Rock is a working ranch with cows, goats, and sheep. Adults, $15.
Good to know: The ranch hosts free rides on Wednesday nights from January through October, weather permitting. Riders gather at 6:30 p.m., with a social hour afterward. “Bring lights and something to grill/drink,” advises the website. Camping is allowed if pre-arranged.
Freelance writer Dan Oko is based in Houston.
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