The Best National And State Parks In Texas For Your Next Adventure

"The stars at night are big and bright..." and "the prairie sky is wide and high, deep in the heart of Texas!" So goes the famous Lone Star tune about Texas' diverse, and like the state itself, big nature scene. Many people imagine Texas wilderness to be all copper-hued canyons and mesas where cowboys gallop off into the sunset on horseback. And while there's plenty of that in Big Bend, Palo Duro Canyon, and beyond, Texas has even more to offer the outdoor adventurer. At almost 270,000 square miles, with the most diverse landscape of all the states in the continental US, everything really is bigger in Texas.

You can go searching for ancient pictographs that date back thousands of years at Seminole Canyon, count bison at Caprock Canyons, or set up camp for stargazing in the Guadalupe Mountains. With plenty of landscapes, from rolling hills and heaving sand dunes to mossy wetlands and pine forests, hit the trails in any of these wonderful state and national parks in Texas for your next adventure.

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is an absolute behemoth of a national park located in West Texas. Home to the Chisos Mountains and a hefty chunk of the Chihuahuan Dessert, Big Bend is known for its abundance of wildlife, wide array of hiking trails, and variety of sites from limestone cliffs to abandoned mines. This makes it one of the best parks for those looking for hiking at all levels.

Get up bright and early to start the Emory Peak Trail, which ends at the top of the highest peak in the park, or for something a little less strenuous, take the Lone Mountain Trail. Before sunset, take off down the road along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, where you'll find plenty of panoramic views of Tuff Canyon, Mule Ears Peaks, and Sotol Vista to stop for fiery sunset photos. Before you leave Big Bend, make sure to stop by the Hot Springs Historic District to learn more about the area's history and have a relaxing soak to round out the trip.

Caddo Lake State Park

Located in the Piney Woods region of East Texas, Caddo Lake State Park is made up of swampland, complete with lurking alligators, tall-reaching cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, and waters swimming with prehistoric paddlefish. These all help make up what is the largest cypress forest in the world and one of Texas' best natural areas to go exploring for tree lovers.

Spend your days paddling through the swamp in a kayak or waiting for the bayou's best catch with an afternoon of fishing. Whatever you do, try to make time to catch the sunset or sunrise from the water at least once. While Caddo Lake is best experienced by boat, there are a few hiking trails worth checking out. Take the Pine Ridge Loop Trail for an escape to the hills or the Caddo Forrest Trail to go deeper into the woods. For a no-frills country-style meal, look no further than Caddo Lake Lighthouse.

Inks State Park

Spread across the hills that spout up from the banks of the Colorado River around the Burnet area, not far from Austin, is Inks State Park. This is the best spot for active park-goers. By land, you can go on geocaching hunts or go hiking through the scenic landscape. By water, you can take out a paddleboat, go water skiing, or even go scuba diving. 

Go for a dip (or a cliff dive) in the Devil's Waterhole, which isn't as scary as it sounds, and pack a picnic for the Pecan Flats Trail, which makes for a great morning or afternoon adventure. If you fancy yourself a fisher, set up at either of the two piers and fish for the many sunfish, catfish, and bass beneath the crystal clear waters. You can also tag along on one of the volunteer or park ranger events that include fun, family-friendly activities geared around fishing, wildlife, and stargazing.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Often coined "the Grand Canyon of Texas," Palo Duro Canyon State Park wows with its fiery, copper-hued color scheme of mesas, teetering rock spires, and steep canyon walls. Located just outside Amarillo, Palo Duro Canyon takes the cake for the second-largest canyon in the country — only after the Grand Canyon itself. "Large" feels a bit inadequate, though, with 30,000 acres of North Texas wilderness, there's loads to explore, making it the best park for an extended trip.

Pedal off on a daring excursion with a mountain bike to explore the park with the wind at your back, or trek in the shadows of the Fortress Cliff by tackling the tough but rewarding Upper Comanche trail. To get the full Lone Star experience, saddle up and opt for Old West Stable's scenic horseback ride that leads through some of the park's most breathtaking areas.

Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway

Home to plenty of coyotes, white-tailed deer, bobcats, jackrabbits, and even the Texas State Bison Herd, Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway is the best park for nature and wildlife lovers alike. Situated around the panhandle in North Texas, the grounds are spread across a vast expanse of rugged, red canyons and grassy plains. Go hoodoo hunting to discover the mind-boggling rock formations the park is known for on The Last Dance lookout. 

Visiting in summer? Take the hike out to Clarity Tunnel, where hundreds of thousands of bats live from April to October. Bring your binoculars to spot the 175 bird species and the many types of reptiles, like collared lizards and rattlesnakes. And in September, the Texas State Bison Herd Music Festival is in full swing nearby.

Longhorn Cavern State Park

Also located in Burnet in the Hill Country, not far from Inks State Park, Longhorn Cavern State Park is one of the most unique state parks in Texas and the best place for those looking to explore the region's caves. Go on a walking tour through the caves to learn about the geological wonders that make Longhorn Cavern so special, all while exploring the maze of ancient caverns. Or, for something more adrenaline-pumping, opt for the Wild Cave Tour to explore the caves as they were before paths and lighting were added. Located about 90 minutes from Austin and in close proximity to Marble Falls, Longhorn Cavern is easy to get to from other attractions in The Hill Country.

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Whispy porcelain-hued dunes spread in a wide open expanse of the Permian Basin in West Texas are what make up Monahans Sandhills State Park. Bring the kids and go sand sledding or set off on an impromptu adventure through the park. There are no hiking trails, which only adds to the fun of climbing the sandy hills wherever and however you desire. This feature also makes this park the top choice for families.

Make a pit stop at the visitor's center to learn more about the Apache and Comanche tribes that help contribute to nearly 12,000 years of history within the park's grounds. For an epic sunset, pack a dinner picnic (you can grab supplies in nearby Monahans) and a couple of chairs and set up on one of the dunes at dusk to watch the sun go down.

Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site

For incredible archeological finds and stunning scenery, there's no better place than Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site. Located in El Paso, Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site is the best park for history lovers who want to spend some time in nature. Go out in search of the more than 3,000 pictographs in this magical land that humans have left traces in for more than 10,000 years.

You can also go rock climbing or plan an afternoon of hiking. Most of the trails are relatively easy and clock in under 45 minutes, so you can break up the day with a couple of them. Start with the Pond Trail, which gives deeper insight into the park's rock art and geology, then later embark on the North Mountain Trail, which can be extended to include the Site 19 Trail that leads to fascinating pictographs left by the Jornada Mogollon people.

Colorado Bend State Park

Smack dab in the heart of the Texas Hill Country is Colorado Bend State Park, a wild hideaway covered with lush rolling hills and carved by the mighty Colorado River that runs through it. Set off in search of the park's marvelous waterfalls with a hike to Gorman Falls — just come prepared with water and food. To cool off, take a dip in the refreshing waters of Spicewood Springs or hop in a kayak and paddle down the Colorado River. Take your Colorado Bend adventure next level by going underground with a Wild Cave Tour or joining along on an evening trek to Gorman Cave for bat sightings. This is the best park for camping enthusiasts and there are plenty of sites to set up for the night. But, the primitive sites along the river are worth the short walk to reach them.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Blanketed across over 86,000 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, and boasting some of the state's highest summits, Guadalupe Mountains National Park presents the perfect adventure destination. It's not just the mountains here, either, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is also home to one of the world's best-preserved Permian fossil reefs, making it a must-visit for geology enthusiasts.

If you dare, pack a pair of hiking sticks, lace up your boots, and set off for the rocky climb that is the Guadalupe Peak trail. No easy feat, the Guadalupe Peak trail is a difficult hike that leads trekkers to the highest point in the Lone Star State with stunning panoramas of the lunar-like surrounds of deserts and mountains. Visiting in the fall? Go leaf-peeping along the hiking trails of McKittrick Canyon, or set off on a scenic trek down to the Salt Basin Dunes for some fair-weather exploring.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park has a lot on its roster of reasons to add it to your Texas adventure bucket list. For starters, it's the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the state, with four distinct Spanish mission sites that give unique insight into the heritage and culture of the region. And if you're a war buff, this is the best park in Texas for you to check out.

The most ideal way to take in the history and nature of the park is to plan for a day out on the Hike and Bike Trail, which starts at Texas' most celebrated historical site, The Alamo. Begin your hike or bike from the famed site before moving on to the Missions of Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan, and Espada.

Lost Maples State Natural Area

Texas may not be world-famous for its fall foliage, but if you happen to be visiting during the fall season, Lost Maples State Natural Area might just make you think differently. In the heart of the Hill Country, just a couple hours north of San Antonio, Lost Maples is the best park to go on fall hikes and take in the fiery colors of the bigtooth maples.

Looking for a challenge? The West Trail is calling. Trodding through the Mystic Canyon area of the park, the trail features steep but fun climbs and plenty of pretty views. For something a bit more relaxing, there's the Maple Trail, that'll show how Lost Maples got its name and bragging rights. Plan to camp overnight in one of the park's facilities and do some stargazing.

Garner State Park

Grab your tubes, we're going to the Frio! Also located in the Hill Country, Garner State Park boasts plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities. In the summer, many people flock to the Frio River, of which 3 miles gush through the park, to go tubing and float the day away. For water lovers, this is the best park to visit to escape the Texas heat.

Not a fan of the old tube? Paddle boats, kayaks, and the like are also available for rent. If you're visiting in the summer, be sure to stop by the concession building, where evenings of jukebox dancing have been a local tradition for generations. In fall, taking off on one of the many scenic trails that web across the park is a must, thanks to cooler temperatures and changing leaves. The Ashe Juniper Trail promises rewarding views, and for a fun biking activity, there's the Frio Canyon Trail.

Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site

Three words: Ancient cave art. That's what you'll find plenty of at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, one of the best parks for aspiring archeologists. Situated along the Rio Grande, not far from Del Rio, Seminole Canyon boasts spectacular pictographs, some of which trace the history of the region back 10,000 years. 

To be sure you get the full experience, it's best to embark on one of the ranger-led activities. Choose from scenic hikes like the Upper Canyon Hike that delves into the area's unique history, from the railroad industry to remote cave painting sites and more, and keep your eyes peeled for the native armadillos, white-tailed deer, and foxes. Take it one step further — literally — with a day trek led by an archeological expert of the region with Shumla's guided treks through Seminole Canyon and around the area.

Dinosaur Valley State Park

Dinosaur Valley State Park warrants a visit based on name alone. As the name suggests, Dinosaur Valley was once home to a thriving population of dinos, the footpaths of which can still be seen and marveled at today. This park is the best for kids thanks to its notable past residents and easy trail options. Some of the footprints here belong to Acrocanthosaurus, a distant cousin of the infamous T Rex. And on the note of dinosaur's distant cousins, plenty of birds can be found here, too, from gobblin' wild turkeys to chirping little golden-cheeked warblers.

Situated in Glen Rose along the banks of the Paluxy River, Dinosaur Valley is an excellent escape to learn more about the legendary giants and also just to hike and explore. To roam as they did, hit the Limestone Ledge Trail, and for something a little more macro, there's the Monarch Trail, famous for its many Monarch butterflies, which are also the state insect of Texas.

Mustang Island State Park

Hit the shores with a trip out to Mustang Island State Park, the best spot for bird lovers. Just south of Port Aransas on the Gulf Coast, Mustang Island promises a great escape for the books with its sandy stretch of coastline and rolling dunes. Grab your water shoes and explore the Mustang Island Paddling Trail, test your leg strength with a climb or two up any of the many dunes, or pack a picnic and spend the day soaking up the sun on the beach and hunting for seashells. Just remember to leave no trace and bring binoculars to search for the island's many beloved birds. You may even spot a whopping crane, a bird that is so loved that a festival is held in its honor every February in Port Aransas.

Big Thicket National Preserve

Located across the dense woods of Southeast Texas, Big Thicket National Preserve isn't only a pretty spot, it just happens to be the best park for plant lovers. It hosts an impressively diverse assortment of plant and animal species. And diverse it surely is, here you can find many different species of reptiles and mammals, not to mention 660 types of mushrooms and more than 1,300 species of trees alone.

Plan for a weekend of backcountry camping and fill your days hiking the trails that maze through 40 miles of Big Thicket wilderness and peddling the Big Sandy Trail that guides cyclists through dense, swampy woodland. To see carnivorous plants in action, there's also the Pitcher Plant Trail and the Sundew Trail, both of which lend several opportunities to see both. Be sure to carve out an afternoon for kayaking the creeks and bayous, too.

Padre Island National Seashore

Located off the coast of South Texas near Corpus Christi, Padre Island National Seashore covers almost 70 miles of pristine shoreline, unspoiled nature, and incredible wildlife, all of which make it one of Texas' bucket list-worthy beaches. If you're into all things sandy and shoreline, this is the best park for you. Look out for Kemp's sea turtles, the most endangered type in the world. They find the soft sand here perfect for nesting. There are also many different types of jellyfish that look more extraterrestrial than aquatic. But beyond adorable little turtles and mesmerizing jellyfish, Padre Island is also home to plenty of coyotes, deer, and jackrabbits.

Head out on Laguna Madre for epic windsurfing in one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, or cast a few fishing lines and spend the afternoon enjoying the view and waiting for a bite. Later, pitch a tent at North Beach for a fun night of stargazing, and be sure to stop by the Malaquite Visitor Center for a Deck Talk presentation to learn more about what makes Padre Island so special.