9 Best State Parks Near Houston to Escape the City

Posted by
Cindy Brzostowski
June 16, 2023
Updated October 03, 2023

state parks near houston texas
Photo: Richard A. McMillin

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Houston is a concrete jungle, but what about when you want to trade the freeways and shopping centers for trees and trails? 

When you’re in Houston and stuck in a jumble of crisscrossing highways or surrounded by manicured suburbs, it’s easy to feel like natural escapes are worlds away. Having grown up in Houston myself, I remember that thirst for more trees, more parks, and more hikes firsthand, especially before I had my own car.

Best State Parks Near Houston

My hometown is famous for being the “Energy Capital of the World,” but it’s not exactly the greenest city in the country. There’s good news though if you’re desperate for an outdoor adventure. There are a number of nice state parks near Houston that just a short drive away.

1. Sheldon Lake State Park & Environmental Learning Center


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Why you should go: You won’t have to pay a cent to visit this park with an awesome observation tower.

  • Distance from Houston: 21.5 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 33 minutes
  • Camping: No

You’re still technically within city limits at the 2,800-acre Sheldon Lake State Park. Free to enter, this park sits right next to Sheldon Lake, which interestingly was constructed back in 1942 to provide water for all the World War II industries that cropped up along the Houston Ship Channel.

Nowadays, you can fish in the reservoir (no license needed) and you can go kayaking and canoeing too (you’ll just need to bring your own watercraft).

For more to do, you can hike different trails through a variety of landscapes, like the Pond Loop Trail that takes you past fish hatchery ponds or the Prairie Trail & Wetland Loop where you can see restored coastal tall-grass prairies and seasonal wetlands.

Don’t miss heading up the John Jacob Observation Tower where you can get great views of the city skyline from 82 feet up in the air. Just remember that alligators call the park home.

Related read: 15 Fantastically Free Things to Do in Houston, Texas

2. Brazos Bend State Park

Brazos Bend State Park
Photo: Richard A. McMillin

Why you should go: There’s lots of interesting wildlife, plus an impressive observatory here.

  • Distance from Houston: 45.2 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 49 minutes
  • Camping: Yes, 88 sites plus youth group camps and Tentrr campsites

Located south of Houston, Brazos Bend State Park is one of the top 10 most visited state parks in all of Texas. Across its nearly 5,000 acres lies 37 miles of trails.

For wildlife viewing, try the Elm Lake Loop. If you want to try and see an alligator specifically, you’ll get a good chance on the 40-Acre Lake Trail (really it’s hard not to see one at the park). A lovely thing about Brazos Bend is that they have an all-terrain wheelchair you can reserve and use during your visit.

In addition to the hiking, biking, and horseback riding opportunities, there are some other highlights as well. One is the nature center where you can check out exhibits on local ecosystems, and another is George Observatory, which is open on Saturday nights for stargazing.

Save yourself the disappointment of not being able to enter by purchasing your tickets online in advance, since you can’t get them in the park.

Related read: The 10 Best Camping Spots Near Houston, Texas

3. Stephen F. Austin State Park


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Why you should go: At this historically important park, you can see where the colonies in Texas started.

  • Distance from Houston: 49.3 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 52 minutes
  • Camping: Yes, 102 sites plus a group campsite

Compared to other state parks on this list, Stephen F. Austin State Park is definitely on the small side but still well worth a visit if you’re interested in local history.

When Stephen F. Austin was establishing Anglo-American colonies in Texas, this land is where the seat of government (basically the “capital”) was based.

All of the trails here are considered “easy” and take less than an hour, so it’s not the place for challenge-seekers, but great for those new to outdoor adventures and families with young kids.

Other than that, you can simply enjoy the banks of the Brazos River and keep an eye out for wildlife like nesting pileated woodpeckers and white-tailed deer.

It’s also a great spot for camping, as one camper wrote: “This place is always a great choice. Because the sites are so big no matter how full the park is you have plenty of privacy.

It’s so close by, and all the animal life makes it a real treat when you’re there.”

Related read: The 9 Best Weekend Road Trips from Houston, Texas

4. Galveston Island State Park

Galveston Island State Park
Photo: Marco Gallico

Why you should go: The beach, bay, and ocean are all your playgrounds.

  • Distance from Houston: 58.6 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 6 minutes
  • Camping: Yes, 120 plus Tentrr campsites

You may know Galveston for its historic seawall and colorful Pleasure Pier but mosey on down to the other side of the island for a different kind of experience at Galveston Island State Park.

This park is less about hiking and more about water activities. Sure, there are four miles of trails where you can walk through wetlands and prairies and see a variety of birds, but there are many more miles of paddling trails to explore.

If you don’t have your own kayak or canoe, you can contact Texas Camp Company for a rental, or you can learn the basics during one of the park’s staff events.

Related read: What to See on an Awesome Houston to New Orleans Road Trip

5. Huntsville State Park

huntsville state park texas
Photo: Makayla Sauceda

Why you should go: See what the state’s Piney Woods region has to offer and enjoy a 210-acre lake.

  • Distance from Houston: 65.4 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 6 minutes
  • Camping: Yes, 154 sites

Drive straight up I-45 from Houston to reach Huntsville State Park, which is situated in the middle of the Sam Houston National Forest. Pines are all over the place (this region is part of the East Texas Piney Woods after all) and so are the birds (more than 250 species have been seen in the park).

On land, you can explore the 21 miles of trails, which include easy, short jaunts as well as challenging round trips if you want a little more exertion. On the water, there’s fishing, kayaking, and swimming at Lake Raven.

Alligators do roam the park, and they have been spotted before in the swimming area so you’ll want to keep an eye out. To learn more about the area’s wildlife, there’s the nature center with exhibits. “This is one of my favorite places to be,” wrote one visitor. “It is a great place to get away from it all and sit in nothing but nature noises.”

Related read: 11 Peaceful Cabin Rentals Near Houston, Texas

6. Lake Livingston State Park

Lake Livingston State Park
Photo: Teresa Otto

Why you should go: You’ll get easy access to one of Texas’ best lakes and a chance to spot America’s national bird.

  • Distance from Houston: 74.4 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 12 minutes
  • Camping: Yes, 143 sites

Lake Livingston State Park gets its name from the body of water it sits right next to – one of the largest lakes in Texas.

While the hiking trails pretty much stay inland, you can go up the observation tower on the shore to get a good overview of the area and even see the lake’s largest island: Pine Island. If that’s not close enough and you want to get out on the water, you can rent one of the kayaks or take out your own watercraft.

Love fishing? Among other kinds of fish, there are tons of bass to try and catch. Prefer birding? Not only does the park touch both the Central North American Flyway and the Mississippi Flyway, but bald eagles nest around the lake.

Related read: 10 Awesomely Romantic Getaways Near Houston, Texas

7. Village Creek State Park


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Why you should go: It’s a starting point for miles and miles of paddling down a gorgeous creek.

  • Distance from Houston: 97.5 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 34 minutes
  • Camping: Yes, 40 sites plus a sponsored group camp area

Village Creek State Park lies east of Houston, close to Beaumont, before you reach the Louisiana border. While one of the lesser-known, less-visited state parks, it has a few noteworthy characteristics.

First, the creek that it neighbors and is named for is one of the very few free-flowing creeks left in the state, meaning that the creek is unimpeded or unmodified by humans. Secondly, you can paddle 21 miles down this creek (there’s an access point to the paddling trail within the state park).

It’s okay if you don’t have your own watercraft since the park rents out kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. If you’re more interested in staying on dry land, there are eight miles of trails to hike and bike, an ample shoreline to fish from, and a nature center to check out.

Related read: The Ultimate Houston to Austin Road Trip Itinerary

8. Lake Somerville State Park


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Why you should go: You can live that lake life for a little while and tackle an extra-long trailway that curves around the water and through the forest.

  • Distance from Houston: 105 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 38 minutes
  • Camping: Yes, 160 sites plus a group campsite

Lake Somerville State Park offers 11,000 acres of water and almost 40 miles of trails. The lake is great for boating, kayaking, or canoeing, and while they may not have boats you can take out, they do rent the other two types of watercraft.

The most famous of the trails is the Somerville Trailway, which is 26 miles long as a round trip and a great challenge for anyone who loves to hike or bike.

When planning your visit, it’s important to keep in mind that the park is divided up into four units: Birch Creek Unit, Nails Creek Unit, the Lake Somerville Trailway, and Somerville Public Hunting Land.

The Birch Creek Unit is on the north side of the lake and that’s where you’ll find a cistern from an old homestead as well as a spot known for bald eagle sightings. The Nails Creek Unit is on the south side of the water and it includes three particularly nice overlooks.

“I love this park so much,” wrote one visitor. “Trails are really well maintained. Fishing/boating area was also widespread and there were many people enjoying water activities.”

Related read: The Best Stops on an Epic Dallas to Houston Road Trip

9. Sea Rim State Park


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Why you should go: You’ll have the unique opportunity to stay on a floating campsite accessible by watercraft only.

  • Distance from Houston: 109 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 48 minutes
  • Camping: Yes, 91 sites

Stretching across five miles of shoreline on the southeastern edge of Texas, Sea Rim State Park is a beautiful spot for those who want to experience more marshland and beach. Here you can stroll along a boardwalk, take on a variety of paddling trails, go fishing from the shore, and observe native wildlife like ghost crabs and river otters.

If you like to camp, put it on your bucket list to stay at this state park’s floating primitive campsite. There’s only one of them, and to reach it you have to use your own shallow draft boat or rent a canoe or kayak from the park.

Another thing that’s non-negotiable? Bringing your own waste disposal bucket – hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Related read: 6 Awesome Campervan Rentals in Houston, Texas

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