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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.
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1. Big Bend National Park
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. 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.
Hiking the Emory Peak Trail will provide you with panoramic views of Big Bend National Park. 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. Of course, there are dozens of other incredible hikes in the park too.
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.
2. Guadalupe Mountains National Park
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.
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.
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. And 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.
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.
3. 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.
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4. Amistad National Recreation Area
The Amistad National Recreation Area manages the U.S. portion of International Amistad Reservoir, an oasis for wildlife and outdoor recreation on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Located on the waterways of the Rio Grande River and the Devils River, fishing, boating, waterskiing, and even scuba diving are big draws here.
Amistad is also along the 3,000-mile-long migration route of the monarch butterflies — thousands of which pass through the region each fall.
There are campgrounds around the reservoir, and nearby Del Rio, Texas has lodging and amenities galore.
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5. Fort Davis National Historic Site
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.
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6. Lake Meredith National Recreation Area
Lake Meredith National Recreation Area is near the Alibates Flint Quarries in the Texas panhandle. This 10,000 acre reservoir is an oasis (as all lakes in Texas are) and home to migrating wildlife.
The reservoir’s 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.
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7. Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
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.
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8. Padre Island National Seashore
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.
9. 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.
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10. 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.
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11. Waco Mammoth National Monument
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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