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Budget-friendly summer fun at these 5 Texas state parks

The sun setting behind Caddo Lake The sun sets behind Caddo Lake, blanketed with water lilies and dotted with bald cypress trees. Photo by Nicholas Okerberg/

Texas’ generous supply of state parks makes low-cost, outdoor getaways especially effortless, whether you’re traveling solo, as a duo, or with family and friends. Whatever your pursuit—playing in or by the water, hiking in forests or canyons, or  marveling at the night sky—the state’s array of nature retreats can satisfy your wishes for frugal fun. Check out these 5 state parks, scattered across Texas, that make for great summer escapes.

1. Balmorhea State Park

Guest looking down from a diving board in Balmorhea State Park

Take a dip in the refreshing spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park. Photo by Chase A. Fountain

Billed as “a cool oasis in the high desert” by Texas Parks & Wildlife, this primo destination lies about 140 miles southwest of Midland and 190 miles east of El Paso. Established in the 1930s, Balmorhea State Park boasts beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) construction and a magnificent spring-fed swimming pool that is said to be the world’s largest.

The great outdoors: Cooling off in the enormous (1.3 acres, holding 3.5 million gallons), crystal-clear pool is a rite of passage for all Texans. Some 15 million gallons of water flow through the pool daily, and the water temperature always stays between 72 and 76 degrees. You can even scuba dive or skin-dive in the pool.

Easy for families: In addition to swimming, the park offers birding, geocaching, nature studies, and desert wetlands called cienegas that shelter endangered fish and wildlife. Enjoy picnic sites and a playground, too.

Sleep and eat: Balmorhea’s campsites and motel-style rooms in the CCC-built San Solomon Springs Courts were closed for renovations as of this writing. But you can stay at El Oso Flojo Lodge Balmorhea and The Eleven Inn, less than 4 miles away. Find fajitas, chiles rellenos, tacos, and patio dining nearby at La Cueva de Oso Restaurant. There’s a mini-mart in the town of Balmorhea and proper grocery stores in Pecos and Fort Stockton.

Pricing: Adults, $7; children 12 years and under, free. El Oso Flojo Lodge Balmorhea rates start at $79; The Eleven Inn rates start at $74.

You may also like: Sweet Texas swimming holes

2. Caddo Lake State Park

A grove of cypress trees

Roots of bald cypress trees jut out of Caddo Lake. Photo by Amadeustx/

In the northeastern-most corner of Texas, spooky-beautiful Caddo Lake laps over the Louisiana state line and offers a trip back to some primeval time. At Caddo Lake State Park, curtains of Spanish moss hang from branches of cypress trees, and thick patches of blooming lily pads crowd shorelines. The music of owls and frogs keep time at night, and sasquatch sightings are rumored at any hour.

The great outdoors: The lake covers nearly 27,000 acres of landscape in a twisting pattern of sloughs, bayous, and ponds, all perfect for fishing and bird-watching. For canoe and kayak outings, find a map of the area’s designated paddling trails on the park’s website.

Easy for families: All the hikes in the park are less than a mile, including a mostly flat stroll in the shady woods. At the park office, find out where to book sightseeing pontoon boat trips, rent canoes or kayaks, and hire a fishing guide. Plan to picnic on the lakeshore.

Sleep and eat: The park’s CCC cabins sleep 2 to 6 people and include either kitchens or outdoor grills. Nearby, eat catfish at Big Pines Lodge and chicken-fried steak at Shady Glade Café. Stop in Marshall for a grocery run.

Pricing: Adults, $4; children 12 years and under, free. Campsite rates start at $10; lodge rates start at $40.

Editor’s note: In August 2022, the park’s wastewater system will be under repair. Restrooms will be closed, but portable toilets will be available in the day-use area and select camping areas. The trailer dump station, group recreation hall, cabins, the Woodpecker Hollow camping loop, and the Mill Pond camping loop will also be closed.

You may also like: Family-friendly outdoor vacations in Texas

3. Davis Mountains State Park

Dark clouds looming over Davis Mountains State Park

Davis Mountains State Park features miles of rugged terrain and trails that weave through mountain ridges and valleys. Photo by Chase A. Fountain

In one of West Texas’ 4 mountain ranges, Davis Mountains State Park abounds with remote adventure in Big Bend Country. Magnificent canyons in the extensive Davis Mountains, created by volcanic activity more than 25 million years ago, are cut by Limpia Creek. Oaks, piñon pines, junipers, and frequently blooming cacti make the tableau even more beautiful. Even when the rest of the state is hot, it’s usually cool here in high elevations.

The great outdoors: Get a good look at the landscape on the breathtaking, switchback-lined Skyline Drive Trail. Bring a mountain bike or even your own horse to reach the trail’s 5,600-foot pinnacle for extraordinary views. Spend time wandering the grounds of neighboring Fort Davis National Historic Site, an old cavalry fort known for its buffalo soldiers’ heritage. Be on the lookout for mule deer, javelinas, and aoudads.

Easy for families: Among numerous trails measuring up to 5.6 miles, the short Headquarters Trail is easy for everyone, as is the trail from the CCC Overlook to Fort Davis National Historic Site. The geocache program is strong here, too. Call ahead to nearby McDonald Observatory to find out when popular star parties are scheduled.

Sleep and eat: If not camping, book a room in the park’s historic, full-service hotel, Indian Lodge. Dine at the hotel restaurant, or find good sandwiches and basic groceries at Stone Village Market in Fort Davis.

Pricing: Adults, $6; children 12 years and under, free. Campsite rates start at $10; lodge rates start at $105.

4. Galveston Island State Park

A black-bellied whistling duck

A black-bellied whistling duck peeks out of tall grass at Galveston Island State Park. Photo by Andrew McInnes/Alamy Stock Photo

Galveston Island State Park on the Gulf of Mexico is a 2-for-1 package in that half lies on the beach, while the other part hugs the bay. Found just an hour south of Houston, the park serves as a preserve for 2,000 acres of the coast’s barrier island ecosystem. Abundant wildlife resides in the lagoons and salt marshes, along the sand and the coastal prairie.

The great outdoors: Some 300 bird species—from great blue herons and sandhill cranes to reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills—live in or visit the park. Fishing on the bay and beach can fill a day, and there’s plenty of places to paddle, so bring a canoe or kayak. Sandcastle-building opportunities are plentiful.

Easy for families: Among the park’s 7 hiking trails, 6 are rated easy and take walkers past and around freshwater ponds, along bayous and wetlands, or through a prairie. Geocaching gives kids a chance to hunt for treasures.

Sleep and eat: Campsites are located on beach and bay sections. A pair of lodge houses (sleeping 6 or 8) offer a kitchen, bathrooms, washer-dryer, and A/C and heat. Way West Grill and Pizzeria in Jamaica Beach is open for lunch and dinner; nearby Seven Seas Grocery has supplies.

Pricing: Adults, $5; children 12 years and under, free. Campsite rates start at $15; lodge rates start at $175.

Read More: A day-tripper's guide to Galveston

5. Garner State Park

Garner State Park

Water trickles down mini waterfalls at Garner State Park. Photo by Bob/

The Hill Country’s favorite park, Garner State Park lies about 90 miles west of San Antonio on the southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau in an area called the Balcones Canyonlands. Rock formations, some as old as 138 million years, share space with scrubby lacey oak and soaring evergreens called Texas madrones, while the exquisitely beautiful Frio River is lined by bald cypress.

The great outdoors: Floating on an inner tube along the Frio remains the big draw, but there’s much more—including canoeing, fishing, biking, and miniature golf. The park even hosts dances on summer evenings in the CCC-built pavilion.

Easy for families: Of the park’s 10 hiking trails, 3 are ranked easy. The 20-minute walk on Blinn River Trail follows the river. Check out the park calendar for hayrides and guided hikes through Crystal Cave.

Sleep and eat: Cabins, all with central heat and air and some with fireplaces, sleep 4 and include bathrooms and kitchens. Buy groceries nearby in Leakey and Concan, and savor omelets, chicken-fried steak, and meringue pie at Lost Maples Café in Utopia.

Pricing: Adults, $8; children 12 years and under, free. Cabin rates start at $130. 

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

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