Texas

National Parks in Texas: An Armchair Tour

by Arthur McMahon

texas national parks
Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park.

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Vast deserts and big mountains are defining characteristics of the national parks in Texas.

Both of the national parks in Texas are in remote areas of the state. Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park are far from urban centers, making them both difficult to reach and wholly wild and untouched.

At a glance, both national parks may appear arid and barren, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Plenty of desert-dwelling creatures roam throughout these regions, ranging from wily coyotes to roadrunners to rare snakes and lizards.

Both parks offer amazing hiking, backpacking, and horseback riding opportunities, but both are among the National Park Service’s least visited parks in America. That means you can find solitude, epic stargazing, and serenity in both places — luxuries that are becoming more difficult to find in some of the nation’s more popular parks.

Two national parks may not be enough to scratch your outdoor itch, so below, you’ll also find a rundown of Texas’ best national monuments, historical parks, and other outdoor recreation areas managed by the park service.

National Parks in Texas

Texas is a big state. It certainly seems like it should be home to a large number of national parks, but there are only two in the entire Lone Star state. Fortunately, they’re both impressive, unique, and worthy of a road trip or two.

Big Bend National Park

big bend national park texas
Photo: Zack Frank

Isolated in west Texas along the banks of the Rio Grande River is Big Bend National Park. The solitary Chisos mountain range and a vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert are within the park’s borders.

The park is teeming with wildlife if you know where to look. The unique mountain ranges, desert canyons, and limestone cliffs of the Rio Grande house a surprising amount of flora and fauna. Visitors will find hundreds of miles of desert and mountain trails to roam, as well as scenic 4×4 roads, hot springs, and historic ruins of America’s Old West.

“When I visited, a ranger informed me that Big Bend was one of the least-visited national parks in the lower 48 states, but that it also was the park with the highest percentage of repeat visitors. I certainly cannot wait to return and see it all again.”

Take a Hike

hiking big bend national park texas

Divided into three distinct hiking districts, Big Bend National Park is a veritable hiker’s paradise. The desert and river canyons sit in stark contrast to one another, and the mountains house a biome all their own.

The Desert

chihuahuan desert big bend national park
Photo: Marcus Evans

The Chihuahuan Desert makes up 80 percent of the park. Its sparse vegetation and dry soil may not seem able to support life, but this desert is brimming with critters. You’ll have the best chance of spotting rodents, reptiles, birds, and bugs at dawn and dusk.

Big Bend’s Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail is a short and easy hike highlighting the area’s natural and cultural history. Tuff Canyon Trail and Lower Burro Pour-off Mesa Trail are two of the more popular short hikes, and the Chimneys Trail is a five-mile round trip to impressive pinnacles and indigenous rock art.

The Mountains

Unmatched in grandeur by anything else in the park, the Chisos Mountains are taller than anything else in the area. The parks biggest animals live in these mountains as the cooler temperatures, dense forests, and hidden caves provided a great habitat.

Hiking the Emory Peak Trail will provide you with panoramic views of Big Bend National Park. The Lost Mine Trail is a flora-filled forest walk and climbs to a ridge for views of the surrounding canyons, and the Window Trail is a popular trek through the Chisos Basin along Oak Creek.

The River

rio grande big bend national park
Photo: Tim Speer

Forming the park’s southern border, the Rio Grande is the primary water source for animals in the area. Both the Santa Elena Canyon Trail and Boquillas Canyon Trail lead to awesome vistas above the river and treks to the canyon floors. The Hot Springs Historic Trail is a short hike past ruins and pictographs to popular riverside hot spring pools.

Things to Do

Hiking isn’t the only recreational opportunity in Big Bend National Park. There are over 150 miles of primitive and improved dirt roads for 4×4 vehicles to explore far away from the beaten path.

Other outdoor activities include several different hot springs, horseback riding, and tubing, kayaking, and canoeing on the river. Birdwatching is yet another popular activity in the park. Year-round resident birds include roadrunners and pyrrhuloxia, and various seasonal birds making the park their temporary home in the winter and spring.

Where to Stay

Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only lodging in the park. The lodge offers motel rooms, lodge rooms, and stone cottages, plus an on-site restaurant, convenience store, and gift shop.

There a number of great Airbnbs near Big Bend, such as Crystal Mountain One and Tiny Terlingua.

There are multiple campgrounds for tent and RV campers, including the Rio Grande Village Campground, Chisos Basin Campground, and Cottonwood Campground. Backcountry camping is also permitted with a permit. 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

guadalupe mountains national park
Photo: Robert Waltman

Guadalupe Mountains National Park has the four tallest mountains in Texas, the largest Permian fossil reef in the world, and the ruins of the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach line — so there’s a lot to see here.

Archaeological evidence shows that people lived in the many hidden caves and alcoves within the Guadalupe Mountains for over 10,000 years. Millions of years prior, prehistoric creatures from the Triassic period walked the same lands, the fossils of which are still being uncovered in the area today.

The park has more than 80 miles of trails. Hikers and backpackers can take on the high mountain trails to literally walk across the top of Texas, but there are also desert canyons and riparian lowlands to discover.

Take a Hike

hiking Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Photo: Thomas Shahan

Guadalupe Mountains National Park has a reputation for challenging hiking, given its topography. Many of the mountainous trails are rated as moderate or difficult, and most are several miles long.

The Desert

pinery ruins guadalupe mountains
Photo: Zack Frank

A notable easier hike is the Smith Spring Trail, a well-maintained and popular loop that crosses a section of exposed desert en route to a lush spring. Hikers will have a good chance of spotting wildlife at one of the watering holes along the route.

The Pinery Trail is another easy walk. In fact, the Pinery Trail is paved and ADA-accessible, and it showcases the park’s natural features and cultural history with plenty of interpretive signage.

The Mountains

guadalupe peak summit
Photo: Victoria Meyer

The Devil’s Hall Trail requires a bit of rock scrambling as it climbs a natural stone staircase to a snug corridor formed by vertical canyon rock walls. McKittrick Canyon Trail is another moderate route featuring a beautiful canyon grotto and scenic vistas atop McKittrick Ridge at the McKittrick Ridge Backcountry Campground.

One of the most popular hikes in the park is also one of the most strenuous. The Guadalupe Peak Trail is an eight-mile out-and-back summit trail that gains nearly 3,000 feet in the process. The summit is often known as the “Top of Texas” as it is the tallest peak in the Lone Star State.

Things to Do

Check out Fall Colors Report from the park to learn when and where the annual color show takes place (typically late fall.) The park also has lists of the most common winter and summer birds.

Horseback riding is supported by the park’s multiple reservable corral sites, and backpacking is also popular. Dispersed camping is allowed in sections of the park’s backcountry with a permit from one of the two visitor centers. There are 10 backcountry campgrounds with rustic camping for those seeking solitude.

Where to Stay

There is no lodging in the park, and the nearby options are extremely limited. The best option in the area is White’s City Cavern Inn. It’s a one-stop-shop with a hotel, RV Park, restaurant, gas station, convenience store, and gift shop.

The park itself maintains two front-country campgrounds. The Pine Springs Campground and Dog Canyon Campground are first-come, first-served options for tent campers and RVs. They both have potable water, utility sinks, and restrooms.

There are a handful of Airbnbs located in nearby Dell City — check out La Casa Rosa and West Patio Bed and Bath.

Beyond these few options, visitors will have to make the hour drive to Carlsbad (in New Mexico) or the two-hour drive to El Paso for more accommodations and amenities.

More Monuments and National Parks in Texas

There may only be two national parks in Texas, but there are multiple national monuments, historic sites, and recreation areas worth visiting. Some of the best national attractions in Texas are listed below.

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Near Amarillo, Texas in the heart of the state’s panhandle, Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument offers unique landscapes and an interesting history. The abundant rainbow-colored flint has drawn people to the area for thousands of years, going back to mammoth hunters who used the rock for their weapons and tools.

Now, visitors wanting to see the flint can reserve a spot on a ranger-led expedition (you can’t go without a guide.) But the visitor center, the Alibates Gardens, and the Mesquite Trail also provide information about the park and don’t require a guide.

Amistad National Recreation Area

The Amistad National Recreation Area is around the Amistad Reservoir, an oasis for wildlife and outdoor recreation in the southern Texas desert. Fishing, boating, waterskiing, and even scuba diving are big draws here.

There are campgrounds around the reservoir, and nearby Del Rio, Texas has lodging and amenities galore.

Fort Davis National Historic Site

Fort Davis National Historic Site Texas

Fort Davis was a frontier military post used in the mid-to-late 1800s during the wars with Texas’ native populations. It was a vital structure in defending the settlers’ position in western Texas. Now, the well-preserved fort stands as a historic monument, open to the public.

Visitors can walk the several hundred acres of the ground and go on self-guided tours of the fort. Junior ranger programs provide fun, educational activities for children, and there are special events like battle reenactments and living history presentations on the daily lives of the soldiers who once defended the fort.

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area

Lake Meredith is near the Alibates Flint Quarries in the Texas panhandle. It is an oasis (as all lakes in Texas are)  and home to migrating wildlife. Its water levels dropped in recent years, unveiling deep canyons where humans  lived more than 13,000 years ago. But there’s still plenty of water for boating, fishing, and wetland birdwatching.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park Texas

The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is divided into two segments. In Johnson City are President Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home, a hospital-turned-visitor center, and a sprawling prairie.

The Ranch District is 14 miles west of the city and has several buildings, including an early schoolhouse attended by Johnson and the building known as the “Texas White House.”  You can grab a free driving tour map at the entrance.

There are around 2,000 acres to explore between the two sections of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore Texas

Padre Island’s claim to fame is that it’s the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. It separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, a saltwater lagoon with extensive seagrass that supports extensive marine life.

While much of this national seashore is protected, there are ample recreational opportunities as well. In addition to swimming and hanging out on the beach, fishing, birding, and hunting are also options. Public sea turtle hatchling releases also draw crowds.

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

The Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park is one of the newest parks in Texas as much of the land was just recently acquired. The park is the site of the first major conflict that eventually escalated into the Mexican-American War.

Inside the visitor center, there are exhibits featuring different aspects of the war from both American and Mexican perspectives. From the Visitor Center, you can take the Overlook Trail to see views of the entire battlefield. Along the way, there’s interpretive signage about the history of the land.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Dedicated to preserving four Spanish frontier missions, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park has several historic structures across nearly 1,000 acres. The missions played a critical park in America’s colonization of the west.

The cultural and religious histories are quite interesting, but there’s also a fascinating ecosystem restoration and recreation project in the park. Visitors can also hike, bike, and kayak in various areas of the park.

Waco Mammoth National Monument

Waco Mammoth National Monument Texas
Photo: Arpad Benedek

The Waco Mammoth National Monument doesn’t afford much in the way of outdoor recreation, but it’s too cool of a place not to include on a list of the best national parks in Texas. This monument is a museum and paleontological site that features the fossils of 24 Columbian mammoths.

All of the mammoths on display were found here. Scientists think they died over a long stretch of time from reoccurring catastrophic natural events like floods. There are several hiking trails around the museum, and ranger-led walks can turn these short treks into journeys through time.

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