16 Best State Parks in Texas for Beautiful Desert, Mountain, Waterfall, and River Views
Humans have inhabited Texas for about 13,000 years, leaving behind traces of their lives in the form of pictographs, petroglyphs, artifacts, and ancient dwellings. Before that, prehistoric animals and shifting geography left their marks on the state. Today, visitors to the Texas parks can see these signs from the past in various forms such as towering canyons and desert mountains to underground caves and dinosaur tracks. With that in mind, here are 16 of the best state parks in Texas.
Big Bend Ranch State Park
As Texas' largest state park, Big Bend Ranch State Park offers all of the flora and fauna of the Big Bend area without the national park crowds. Located in far West Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border, this state park offers rugged adventure in the form of hiking, horseback riding, river floating, biking, and more. Don't miss the stargazing here at night, as it's a designated International Dark Sky Park.
Garner State Park
With nearly three miles of Frio River access, plus 1,774 acres of Hill Country adventure, it's no wonder that Garner State Park is Texas' most-visited state park. Float the Frio on an inner tube in true Texas style, or hike along 16 miles of scenic trails. Camping, canoeing, fishing, mini golf, and geocaching are also available. In the summertime, gather at the park's concession building for an evening of dancing around the jukebox — a park tradition since the 1940s.
Inks Lake State Park
On the eastern edge of the Llano Uplift, known as the geological heart of Texas, Inks Lake State Park sits on some of the best views of Precambrian geology in the state. Cool water meets rock outcrops here, making for great swimming, fishing, boating, and hiking. Nine miles of trails are available, too. Check out the bird blind to see what species are visiting the park.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Texas is home to the second-largest canyon in the country, and it's found in Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Panhandle. More than 30 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails are available, as is birding, geocaching, and glamping. Be sure to look for hoodoos as you hike, and in the summer, catch a show at Texas Outdoor Musical, which tells the stories of early Texas settlers.
Related: The 8 Best Small Towns in Texas
Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway
Home to the Texas State Bison Herd, Caprock Canyons State Park is the perfect place to get back to nature. The bison roam the plains, so take caution when driving, and do not approach them. Ninety miles of trails are open for easy to strenuous hiking and biking, and Lake Theo offers no-wake boating, fishing, and swimming.
Caddo Lake State Park
Covered in bald cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss, as well as a labyrinth of bayous, ponds, and swamps, Caddo Lake is quintessential East Texas. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and contains more than 70 species of fish, drawing in anglers from all over the world. A fishing pier and boat ramp are both accessible, too. Rent or bring your own canoe or kayak and explore the 50-plus miles of paddling trails in the area. Wildlife, including alligators, are abundant here.
Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site
While people have been visiting this area for 12,000 years, it was the group about 7,000 years ago that left their mark at Seminole Canyon. These hunter-gatherers painted pictographs in the rock shelters of the Lower Pecos River Country, and today, more than 200 sites still have these paintings. Aside from looking for pictographs, visitors here can geocache, mountain bike, hike, and more.
Dinosaur Valley State Park
In Glen Rose, Texas, take a walk back in time at Dinosaur Valley State Park. Around 113 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed this area at the edge of an advancing and retreating sea. Today, you'll find dinosaur footprints in the mud of this ancient sea, most likely from the sauropod or theropod. Twenty miles of trails are also available for hiking and mountain biking, and the Paluxy River is a paddler's paradise.
Longhorn Cavern State Park
A special treat less than 90 minutes from Austin, Longhorn Cavern State Park is known for Longhorn Cavern, an underground cave created by water dissolving and the cutting actions of an ancient river. Anglo settlers mined bat guano from the cave to make gunpowder during the Civil War, and legend says that outlaw Sam Bass hid $2 million inside the cave. Cave tours are available.
Balmorhea State Park
No, that's not a mirage you see. It's actually the world's largest spring-fed swimming pool, located in the West Texas desert. Balmorhea State Park's pool, up to 25-feet deep, is filled from San Solomon Springs. The water temperature stays between 72 and 76 degrees year-round, creating a sweltering summertime oasis.
Monahans Sandhills State Park
You can surf on the Gulf Coast in Texas, but you can also surf at Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. Essentially a giant, hilly sandbox, the park is a small part of a dune field that extends further into Texas and New Mexico. Rent sand disks to surf the dunes, or bring your horse and check out the 800-acre equestrian area. Just make sure you mark off "surfed in a desert" from your travel wish list.
Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site
People have visited these rocky hills in West Texas for thousands of years, looking for rainwater in the huecos, or natural rock basins. This place also provided food and shelter to those meandering through the Chihuahuan Desert, and these people left pictographs and petroglyphs that can still be seen today. Imagery includes birds, animals, large-eyed figures that might represent rain or storm deities, and "masks" or face designs. More than 200 masks have been identified here, making it the largest group of these in North America.
Lost Maples State Natural Area
Texas may not come to mind when you picture fall foliage, but think again. Lost Maples protects a special stand of Uvalde bigtooth maples, and these trees, along with others in the park, come alive each autumn with warm, golden colors. The park even puts out an annual fall foliage report to help you plan the best time to visit. Birding is also popular here, as the endangered golden-cheeked warbler is known to make appearances.
Pedernales Falls State Park
Approximately 30 miles west of Austin in Johnson City, Pedernales Falls State Park attracts visitors to its massive slabs of limestone in the Pedernales River, where people love to swim and sprawl out for a day of lounging. Tubing, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, birding, and horseback riding are also available. And the butterfly garden and bird blind allow you to look for wildlife.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
A billion years ago, the large pink granite dome known as Enchanted Rock was part of a big pool of magma miles under the earth's surface. It pushed into the rock above in spots, then cooled and hardened, turning into the large granite dome it is today. The dome has drawn people here for thousands of years, and today, visitors can hike, backpack, rock climb, bird, and even stargaze, as the park is designated an International Dark Sky Park.
Colorado Bend State Park
West of Lampasas, explore more than 5,000 acres above Lake Buchanan at Colorado Bend State Park. The park is known for Gorman Falls, a 70-foot, spring-fed waterfall that you can reach on a three-mile round-trip hike. You can also mountain bike, fish, or paddle along the Colorado River. Check to see if the park is offering guided cave tours during your visit, as it's home to more than 400 underground caves.
Amanda Ogle is a writer and editor born and raised in Texas. She frequently travels the state and country chasing stories, and covers travel, food and drink, sustainability, and other topics. Her most interesting Texas encounters to date include a bucket full of rattlesnakes, accidentally standing on an alligator in Lake Corpus Christi, and befriending a possum with a jar of beef fat. View all her work at amandaogle.com.