Weekend camping was my favorite tactic to find some peace and quiet after a hectic week at work. For 30 years, my shelter from the elements was a tent—until one night when my dog Tipper decided the raccoon sniffing around our campground just had to go. Trying to stop her as she tore through the tent was an eye opener, even in the middle of the night. Shortly after, we bought a small 16-foot RV trailer.
My home state of Texas has an amazingly diverse array of beautiful parks scattered throughout. A person may wake up to a dry desert of mesquite trees and sage bushes in the west, red rock canyons in the northern panhandle or ocean views on the south coast. They can end the day with rivers and valleys full of wildflowers in the center of the rose or a dense forest mixed with swamps and alligators to the east.
Since I’m celebrating my 70th birthday this year, I usually make sure to choose parks with accessible features. These are my favorite Texas state parks for scenic views, interesting historical stories, and fun outdoor activities, perfect for safely enjoying my home away from home.
1. Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Formed millions of years ago by the Red River, water erosion formed the dramatic sheer mesa walls and geological formations of multicolored rock layers. Twenty miles wide and 800 feet high, the rugged beauty of the canyon meanders over 120 miles, qualifying as the second largest canyon system in the United States. The top layer of hoodoos is where fossils of saber-toothed cats and long-necked camels have been found.
Located in the Panhandle, an open air musical titled TEXAS is held every summer, with more than 60 actors, singers, dancers and horses.
Pro tip: There is little shade on the high canyon trails, so bring plenty of water. The trails that follow the riverbed are shaded, but have rocky areas that require good walking shoes. Don’t miss the Interpretive Museum in the visitor center.
2. Caddo Lake State Park
Located 8 miles from the Louisiana border, Caddo Lake State Park offers serene views of graceful white egrets fishing in a slow-moving bayou full of cypress trees dripping with moss. This vast maze of small lakes entangled in swamps attracts kayakers from all over the US
The depth of the Big Cypress Bayou is between 8 and 20 feet and never has strong currents to wash away the bounty of the forest. The slowness of the current causes the water to darken with nutrients, inviting countless insects and fish that attract thousands of waterfowl and anglers.
Pro tip: Go early in the spring or late in the fall to avoid the crowds of mosquitoes. Autumn is the best time to visit, when the bald cypress trees turn orange.
3. Huntsville State Park
South Texas is home to a park of majestic 100-year-old trees, 21 hiking trails, a bird screen, and a nature center. Another great feature of Huntsville State Park is its area attractions, such as the Sam Houston Memorial Museum and the historic Texas State Penitentiary, which offers guided tours. The famous Lone Star Hiking Trail, a 129-mile National Recreational Trail, is located in the Sam Houston National Forest and can be accessed in Huntsville State Park.
Pro tip: Located near a major highway, this park is popular with RV owners, so book campgrounds early.
4. Cooper Lake State Park
Between Dallas and Oklahoma, in cowboy country, is Cooper Lake State Park, where horses reign. Divided into two units by the dam, the Buggy Whip Equestrian Trail traverses nearly 600 acres in the Sulfur Unit. Near the trailhead are campgrounds that accommodate horse trailers, complete with draw bars for resting between rides.
Campgrounds are large with ramps because many campers bring boats. There is a place that is perfect for stargazing, as there are no nearby cities to light the sky. Most campgrounds overlook the lake with spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
Pro tip: The park is isolated, so pack a cooler bag before leaving the nearest town.
5. San Angelo State Park
One of the best kept secrets in West Texas is San Angelo State Park. It borders the OC Fisher Reservoir, resulting in unpredictable vistas and the perfect habitat for a wide diversity of wildlife and wildflowers spread across 7,000 acres.
The shy greater roadrunner and armadillo — the state mammal of Texas — are commonly seen here, and the park protects the endangered horned lizard species. Unexpected features of the park include petroglyphs, prehistoric animal tracks from 250 million years ago, a fossil site of mastodons, and a mysterious tomb from 1847.
Pro tip: There are few large trees in West Texas, so be prepared to create your own shade. When it gets too hot, there are lots of fun things to do in the neighboring town of San Angelo.
6. Dinosaur Valley State Park
It’s not every day that one can go camping, enjoy a walk along a beautiful river, and tread a dinosaur trail frozen in an ancient seabed. A National Natural Landmark near the lively town of Glen Rose, Dinosaur Valley State Park features a well-traveled trail where dinosaurs left their footprints in the soft mud 113 million years ago.
Scientists have identified the three-toed spurs as the species Sauroposeidon, a dinosaur weighing as much as 20 tons and measuring 70 feet in length. With their 26-meter-long necks to reach food, they were harmless herbivores. Both my feet slid nicely into the deep footprint they left – a simple gravestone to prove their existence.
Pro tip: The trail is occasionally on an uneven rock and a trekking pole is recommended. The historic center of Glen Rose has great restaurants.
7. Sea Rim State Park
In the southeast corner where the Gulf of Mexico meets wetlands, Sea Rim State Park protects more than 8 miles of the ocean coast. Bird watching is a highlight, especially during migratory season, but body surfing is a close second. A popular feature is the Gambusia Nature Trail Boardwalk, which meanders through the swamp as if you were walking on water.
Worth a visit are the nearby McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Sabine Pass Battleground, and the Great Texas Wildlife Trails. All campgrounds are within walking distance of the ocean.
Pro tip: Keep dogs on a lead. By spring, birds have flown more than 3,000 miles from South America and are hungry, exhausted, and may be laying eggs on the beach.
8. Martin Dies Jr. State Park
If you like kayaking, put this park at the top of your list. Martin Dies, Jr. Located on the northern edge of the Big Thicket National Preserve in East Texas, State Park is where two rivers converge to form the best paddle park in Texas.
The Neches and Angelina rivers create a wild and diverse habitat uninterrupted by development, making paddling a frenzy. The Steinhagenmeer anchors the recreation area where three paddle paths wind around and through the park. The estimated time to complete each trail ranges from 1-3 hours, but the paddling time really depends on how many photo breaks are taken to capture the inspiring scenery.
Pro tip: As an avid kayaker, I always visit in October to catch the golden cypress trees at their peak during their fall recital.
9. Fort Richardson State Park
One of the first parks I visited after moving to Texas was Fort Richardson State Park. When we joined a hiking club for a weekend getaway, the Lost Creek Trailway was our focus—a 9-mile hiking, biking, and horseback riding trail. We had no idea how cool this place would turn out to be.
At the center of the park is a fully restored fortress that was used as a military hospital in the early 1860s. The Texas Centennial Commission purchased the remaining 55 fort buildings, including a bakery, hospital, mortuary, barracks and officers’ quarters. Many buildings are fully furnished with period items and the site has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Pro tip: The park isn’t huge, but the campgrounds are shady and scenic. Plan to spend nearly a day strolling through the remarkable living museum where volunteer guides are occasionally available.
10. McKinney Falls State Park
Texas has few mountains and is not known for gushing waterfalls. However, the waterfall at McKinney Falls State Park has a rugged beauty, even if it isn’t huge or dramatic. Near the state capital Austin in central Texas, the park is the remains of an old ranch with rock shelters overgrown with wildflowers. Hiking, mountain biking and bouldering are favorite activities.
One spring, during an early morning walk on the Onion Creek Trail, a fawn and mother deer watched us pass. The wide pad has a hard packed surface and is ideal for wheelchairs or pushchairs.
Pro tip: The best time to visit is summer, when vibrant wildflowers are in full bloom, even cacti. Don’t miss Old Baldy, a 500-year-old bald cypress tree.
More information about all these parks can be found here.