Rolling hills, sprawling cedar trees, quaint rivers, and a surprising abundance of wildlife…these state parks in the Texas Hill Country are some of the most beautiful destinations in the whole state.
Let’s get this straight: From its deserts in the west to its bayous in the east, every landscape in Texas is special and wonderful in its own way. That being said, the Hill Country, in the central part of the state, is a particularly beloved region among locals and visitors alike. Here, the land gets its name from its undulating green hills and is peppered with beautiful lakes. The area is full of excellent wineries, distilleries, and breweries. It’s a hotspot for gorgeous wedding venues. And it’s a favorite among celebrities leaving California behind.
If you love spending time outdoors, then you’re bound to have a ball in the Hill Country. Within a relatively small radius, there’s a high density of state parks – all of which are worth exploring for their own unique reasons. And while there are plenty of other parks and natural areas within the Hill Country, these state parks are the must-visit spots for any first-timer.
1. Inks Lake State Park
Outside of Burnet on the shores of the Colorado River, Inks Lake State Park is one of the best lake camping destinations in the state. For starters, the scenery is beautiful, and secondly, there’s ample camping with almost 200 sites available, including some right on the lake.
Even if you don’t want to camp overnight, the park is still well worth a visit. You can rent paddle boats and kayaks at the park store, go swimming at the famous Devil’s Waterhole, and even go scuba diving! Back on land, there’s hiking that ranges between an easy, one-mile trail to a 2.2-mile, remote backcountry trail. Inks Lake State Park costs $7 for an adult day entrance. Children age 12 and younger and free.
Related Read: The 8 Best Texas Lake Camping Destinations
2. Colorado Bend State Park
Over in Bend, a little less than two hours from Austin, Colorado Bend State Park is loaded with adventure, thanks to its woodlands, caves, springs, and canyons. During your stay, you can hike and bike across 35 miles of trails, book a wild cave tour, kayak in the Colorado River, go bass fishing, and take a dip in the pools of Spicewood Springs.
The park also has one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Texas. Getting to the almost-70-foot wonder is as easy as following the Gorman Falls Trail. That trail is one of the best hikes in the state, so you’ll be able to cross that off your bucket list too. Day entrance to Colorado Bend State Park for adults costs $5 and children under 12 are free.
Related Read: 9 Cool Places to Stay in Dallas that Will Blow Your Mind
3. Longhorn Cavern State Park
Longhorn Cavern State Park is conveniently just a 10-minute drive from Inks Lake State Park, so you could easily check out both in one trip. This state park gets its name from the incredible and historic cave on its grounds. Prehistoric people used it as shelter, Anglo settlers mined bat guana here in the 1800s, and in the 1920s it was even used as a dance hall.
You’ll need to buy a ticket for a cave tour, and you can do that on the separate Visit Longhorn Cavern site. The most popular option is the standard walking tour, which takes you through some of the cave’s most beautiful rooms. For something a little more heart-pounding, check out the Wild Cave tour, which involves exploring the undeveloped lower level with safety gear.
Sorry, there’s no camping at this state park, but aside from visiting the cave itself, there are a few short nature trails in the area that you can hike.
Related Read: 10 Cool Caves in Texas for Exploring Underground
4. McKinney Falls State Park
McKinney Falls State Park is a favorite among Austinites – and not just because it’s located within city limits. Despite being just 20 minutes from downtown Austin and 10 minutes from the airport, the 641-acre park offers some excellent outdoor adventures. You can do plenty of hiking, cast a reel in the creek, and go swimming in the falls the park is named after. Want to keep the fun going? There are loads of campsites.
While you’re visiting, make some time to visit some of the local points of interest. For example, there’s Old Baldy, a 100-foot-tall bald cypress tree that’s over 500 years old. There’s a prehistoric rock shelter that’s been used for millennia and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are also remnants of the old McKinney homestead, which was built by slaves for one of the people in Stephen F. Austin’s original colony.
Though this park isn’t technically in the Hill Country, most visitors will be flying in and out of Austin, so it’s a great addition to a Hill Country trip. McKinney Falls State Park is $6 per adult for day entrance, and there’s no charge for children under 12.
5. Pedernales Falls State Park
Pedernales Falls State Park is located close to a few popular Hill Country destinations: Johnson City, Dripping Springs, Lakeway, and Spicewood. The park’s dramatic landscape comes from its ancient geology, with the river limestone here being 300 million years old.
A trip to Pedernales Falls State Park isn’t complete without seeing the falls for yourself. You can get a good view of them from above by hiking the short Twin Falls Nature Trail to the scenic overlook. From there, just make your way down and feel free to wander around on the limestone slabs. You can spend plenty of time enjoying the scenic spot, or you can check out the park’s other trails. There are also opportunities to get in the water in other spots (but not at the falls themselves due to safety concerns). Entrance to Pedernales Falls State Park is $6 per adult. Children twelve and under are free.
Related Read: 11 Best Texas State Parks for Escaping into Nature
6. Guadalupe River State Park
Between Johnson City and San Antonio, Guadalupe River State Park is a great option for anyone who loves being out on the water. The Guadalupe River winds through the park, so you’re welcome to go swimming, tubing, and canoeing. If you’re into paddling, you may want to tackle the Guadalupe River State Park Paddling Trail. And if you’re into fishing, that’s an option too, and there are some pole rentals on-site.
When you’re not splashing around, you can spend your time meandering through the 13 miles of trails. The shortest trail is just 0.2 miles and involves a river crossing while the longest trail is 2.8 miles long and offers a moderately difficult hike. There are loads of campsites at Guadalupe River State Park for anyone who wants to stick around overnight. Entrance is $7 per adult, and kids under 12 are free.
Related Read: 7 Charming Glamping Spots in Texas Hill Country
7. Blanco State Park
If you’re looking for a big, expansive park to get lost in, Blanco State Park is not the one for you. But if you’re looking for an easy getaway that puts you right by a river, then this small park in the town of Blanco is the perfect spot.
Since the park sits on the banks of the Blanco River, the recreational opportunities here are all about the water. We’re talking swimming, tubing, canoeing, kayaking, and boating. Don’t have your own gear? The park store has you covered with kayak and tube rentals. They also loan out rods and reels if you want to try and catch some fish like bass and trout. Blanco State Park’s entrance fee is $5 for adults and free for kids 12 and under.
Related Read: The 9 Best State Parks Near Austin, Texas
8. Old Tunnel State Park
When it comes to the most famous bat colonies in Texas, there are the bats under the Congress Bridge in Austin, there are the bats at Bracken Cave Preserve in San Antonio, and then there are the bats at Old Tunnel State Park. Back in the day, the tunnel was used for a railroad, and now, it’s home to some three million Mexican free-tailed bats (and also a few thousand mouse-eared bats).
Keep in mind, there’s no camping here, and you can’t bring your pooch either, no matter how well-behaved they are. If you want to watch these little flying creatures emerge during the prime season, you’ll have to have a ticket, which must be purchased online in advance. Aside from tickets to view the bats, there’s no entrance fee to Old Tunnel State Park.
9. Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site
Did you know that former president Lyndon B. Johnson was born and raised in Texas? He loved Texas so much that he actually spent roughly a quarter of his administration at his ranch home outside of Stonewall, and that’s why it garnered the nickname of the Texas White House. Now, it’s the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site.
At the park and historic site, you can see some memorabilia from the 36th president and watch videos of his life and legacy in the visitor center. Outside, you can tour a living history farm and historic cabins, say hi to some bison and longhorns on the trails, and go for a dip in the Olympic-sized pool during the summer. The best part is that Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site is completely free to enter!
Related Read: The 7 Best State Parks Near San Antonio, Texas
10. South Llano River State Park
The furthest west of all the parks on this list, South Llano River State Park can be found close to the small city of Junction. Since the spring-fed Llano River is right in the park, it’s a lovely place to go for some swimming and paddling. Tubing is a lot of fun here too. The park rents tubes and there are multiple points along the river where you can get in and out.
Want to keep your feet on solid ground? Well, you have plenty to explore among the nearly 23 miles of hiking and biking trails. Other popular activities include birding and stargazing (the park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park). South Llano River State Park is $5 for adults and kids 12 and under are free.
Sign up for Weekend Wanderer to join thousands of readers getting epic travel ideas every week.
Seen in: Texas