AAA Magazines

6 underrated Texas state parks

Take your pick from nearly 40 miles of hiking trails at Lake Somerville State Park and Trailway. Photo by Nicole Mlakar

Texas’ 89 state parks—pockets of wilderness that range from prickly desert scrub to rocky canyons—are getting a little extra love this year for the park system’s 100th anniversary.

While the most popular parks are attracting tens of thousands of visitors, these 6 less-visited, underrated parks offer plenty of recreational fun without the crowds—so you’ll have more time for cycling a scenic desert trail, wandering into a cave of geological wonder, or saddling up in the Hill Country.

1. For mountain bikers: Big Bend Ranch State Park

Location: 285 miles southeast of El Paso

For rugged mountain biking, head to this Far West Texas park with more than 300,000 acres of harsh, remote desert—the reason it’s called “The Other Side of Nowhere.”

Mountain bikers on the Fresno-Sauceda Loop

Visitors to Big Bend Ranch State Park can challenge themselves by cycling the 60-mile Fresno-Sauceda Loop, which passes through prickly landscape and cuts along rugged canyons. Photo by Earl Nottingham

Hardy cyclists can pedal the 60-mile Fresno-Sauceda Loop, designated one of the International Mountain Biking Association’s “Epic” trails: challenging routes through beautiful backcountry that the association deems exceptional. The prickly landscape dips into dry creek beds filled with sand and rocks, and cuts along rugged canyons.

For something less strenuous, explore part of the Contrabando Trail system, accessible from a paved road on the park’s southeast side near the Barton Warnock Center. The system’s Crystal Trail leads to a hillside covered in sparkly calcite crystal rocks.

Whichever park trail you choose, you can often bike (or hike) for miles without encountering another soul, and the interior drive-up campsites are so secluded that nobody will hear you howl at the moon. If you visit in summer, when the ground and rocks can reach 130 degrees during the daytime, protect yourself from the extreme dry heat by riding only very early in the day.

When to go: Tall, spindly ocotillos show off clusters of bright red flowers in the spring.

Details: Open daily. Adults, $5; ages 12 and under are free.

You may also like: A stargazer's awe-inspiring search for dark skies

2. For cavers: Kickapoo Cavern State Park

Location: 150 miles west of San Antonio

Person looking up at formations inside Kickapoo Cavern

Dramatic geological formations abound inside Kickapoo Cavern at Kickapoo Cavern State Park. Photo by Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

Speleologists have discovered 27 caves at this park, including its namesake Kickapoo Cavern, the only one open to the public (via 3-hour guided tours). Given the 1,400-foot cavern’s unstable ground, adventurous visitors need a limber body and good hiking boots.

Enter through a Volkswagen Beetle–sized opening, then scramble over rocks while making your way deeper into the quarter-mile passage. Each sweep of the flashlight reveals dramatic geological formations that resemble castles, gnomes, bacon strips, and in one case, Bob Marley. You can also see graffiti that dates to the 1880s, when locals explored the recess using torches to light the way.

When to go: Between mid-March and late October, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats create a spectacle as they swirl out of Stuart Cave at dusk to hunt for insects.

Details: Open Friday–Monday. Adults, $3; ages 12 and under are free.

You may also like: Fun, fabulous San Antonio

3. For hikers and anglers: Lake Somerville State Park and Trailway

Location: 88 miles east of Austin

Woman preparing a fishing pole at the lakeside

During the white bass run in spring is a good time go fishing at Lake Somerville State Park and Trailway. Photo by Nicole Mlakar

Meander the nearly 40 miles of trails that snake through the grassland prairies and hardwood forests surrounding 11,630-acre Lake Somerville at this park and trailway. A 13.4-mile trailway connects 2 larger parcels—the Birch Creek Unit and the Nails Creek Unit—and spur trails lead to swampy Flag Pond, where migratory birds gather.

Grab a backpack and head out for an easy overnight adventure at the Newman Bottom camping site, where you can pitch a tent in a keyhole-shaped clearing cut into a thicket of oaks and ash juniper. You might spot a bald eagle that nests in the area.

When to go: If you’re into fishing, visit in spring for the lake’s white bass run.

Details: Open daily. Adults, $5; ages 12 and under are free.

You may also like: 8 unique ways to exercise outdoors in Austin, Texas

4. For birders: Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park

Location: 12 miles west of McAllen

People looking for birds from a lookout

From Hawk Tower at Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park, birders can see plenty of feathery action. Photo by Danita Delimont/Alamy Stock Photo

A whopping 366 bird species have been spotted on this floodplain forest near Mexico (the Rio Grande borders the park’s southern edge). Neotropical birds not eyed anywhere else in the U.S., such as Altamira Orioles and Great Kiskadees, are regular visitors, and the park has recorded the first and only documented sightings in the U.S. of the Bare-Throated Tiger Heron, Masked Tityra, and Stygian Owl.

Credit all this feathery action to this bird haven’s location at the convergence of 2 migratory flyways. Private vehicles are prohibited here, but a free shuttle stops at a small nature center, feeding stations, bird blinds, and an observation tower high above the tree canopy.

When to go: During their annual spring and fall migrations, Swainson’s and Broad-Winged hawks soar overhead. Green Jays and Plain Chachalacas congregate at feeding stations from November to March.

Details: Open daily. Adults, $5; ages 12 and under are free.

You may also like: 8 must-see national parks, preserves, and monuments in Texas

5. For equestrians: Hill Country State Natural Area

Location: 65 miles northwest of San Antonio

A trio of people riding horseback

Ride the trails at the Hill Country State Natural Area atop your own horse, or take a guided ride with a local outfitter. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

Explore canyons, creek bottoms, and tabletop plateaus at this former 5,400-acre cattle ranch, with horseback the preferred mode of exploration. Visitors can bring their own horses—equestrian campsites have overnight pens—or arrange a guided trail ride with one of the local outfitters. On the mellow, 3.1-mile Wilderness Trail, dip into a low valley encircled by a crown of green ridges.

For the best sunrise this side of the Pecos, leave your horse at camp and hike up the 1.2-mile (round-trip) West Peak Overlook Trail at dawn. You’ll gain 360 feet of elevation, sometimes walking over loose rocks and ruts, but the reward comes when you take in the panoramic vistas at the top.

When to go: The park is situated in the path of 2 upcoming solar events: the annular solar eclipse on October 14, 2023, and the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024.

Details: Open daily. Adults, $6; ages 12 and under are free.

You may also like: Where to find the best leaf peeping in Texas

6. For history buffs and stargazers: Copper Breaks State Park

Location: 158 miles southeast of Amarillo

An adult male longhorn leading 2 younger, smaller cows

On educational tours at Copper Breaks State Park, visitors learn how longhorns helped boost the state’s economy after the Civil War. Photo by Chase A. Fountain

A big draw at this state park is the resident herd of longhorn cattle, some with a 6-foot horn span. These scrappy beasts, descendants of the wild cattle that roamed Texas until the end of the Civil War, are part of the Official State of Texas Longhorn Herd. Educational tours focus on this breed and the significant role it played in boosting the state’s flagging economy after the war.

Nighttime is special at this designated International Dark Sky Park, too. Without bright city lights, you’ll get dramatic views of the night sky.

When to go: The park hosts monthly stargazing parties from April to November.

Details: Open daily. Adults, $3; ages 12 and under are free.

Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based adventure writer who has explored 51 Texas state parks. She has contributed to Condé Nast Traveler and Texas Monthly.

You may also like:

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

Travel offers & deals

" "

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

" "

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

" "

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

" "

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

back to top icon