With two major national parks, a national seashore, and multiple national historic sites, Texas is definitely keeping the National Park Service busy. All of these incredible places are evenly spread out across the state, so if you plan to visit them all, definitely give yourself time to do so (after all, the state of Texas is larger than the country of France). And while this trip may not include all 16 of the state's national park properties, it does offer a good starting point to discover just how diverse and enchanting the Texas landscape really is.
Almost 70,000 years ago, Columbian mammoths roamed the lands that would later become Texas. Sadly, a series of natural disasters lead to the death of dozens of mammoths in an area near Waco. The fossils of these massive beasts sat undisturbed until 1978, when arrowhead hunters discovered a bone and reported it to Baylor University, who started excavating the site. Today, the Waco Mammoth National Monument preserves this work, allowing visitors to learn about the mammoths and the on-going paleontology work. A guided tour takes you to the enclosed dig shelter, where platform walkways allow you to get a bird’s eye view of fossils in situ—one of the few places in the U.S. that offers this type of experience.
Explore the story of one of Texas’ native sons who went on to become president. Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthplace, childhood school, family ranch, and final resting place are preserved as part of a national historic site, which offers a self-guided auto tour. The neighboring state park offers more to explore, starting with the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, which shows what life on a working Texas farm would have been like before the turn of the century. Stretch your legs on the miles of trails, which meander through fields of wildflowers, bison, and longhorn cattle. For more recreation, check out the park’s amenities, which feature an Olympic-size pool and multiple tennis courts.
A stay at the San Antonio / Alamo KOA Holiday gives you a big taste of the best of Texas. You can easily day trip to the state capital of Austin, take a lively tour of Texas Hill Country, or just soak in the history and ambiance of San Antonio itself. The famed River Walk winds through the heart of the city, with shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and galleries lining a lush corridor. The nearby Alamo is one of the state’s most iconic historic sites, home to both a mission and a pivotal battle in the Texas Revolution. The KOA is close to town but feels worlds away, thanks to the mature trees and its location along the Salado Creek. Be sure to explore the biking trail and other on-site amenities.
Part of what makes Texas special is the diverse people that have called the region home. Explore a unique slice of the Lone Star State’s history and culture with a visit to the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. In the 18th century, Spanish priests established 26 Catholic missions, with hopes of converting the Native Americans into Spanish-speaking Christians. The national historic park preserves five of these missions in present-day San Antonio, including the Alamo. Take guided tours to see the remarkable art and architecture, and learn about the influence these missions had on the region.
While South Padre Island is known as a raucous vacation destination, North Padre Island is a tranquil delight for those seeking wildlife and natural landscapes. With 70 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna Madre, it is the world’s longest undeveloped barrier island. Visitors can windsurf, collect seashells, splash in the waves, watch for migrating birds, or go saltwater fishing. If you’re lucky, you may be able to watch sea turtle hatchlings make their first trek into the seas. Bring your four-wheel drive if you’d like to escape to the solitude down island, where over 60 miles of shoreline are accessible only via the sand.
Soak in the sun and fun at the South Padre Island KOA Holiday. Under a canopy of palm trees, you’ll find tent and RV sites, as well as cabins and condos. You could enjoy a whole vacation without leaving the campground, thanks to amenities like the large sandy playground, bayside patio, onsite boat ramp, and recreational facilities. Osprey Fishing Trips and Sea Life Safaris offers guided fishing trips that depart from the KOA dock. If you do venture out of the park, South Padre is a lively destination, known for its nightclubs, Gulf beaches, and family friendly attractions. At this KOA, you can enjoy all that the southern tip of Texas has to offer!
Throughout Texas’ history, control of the land changed hands many times, with six different national flags flying over the region over the centuries. The Palo Alto National Historical Park, located near Brownsville, tells the story of an 1846 border dispute that led to the Mexican-American War. Today, you can tour the battlefields and museum to learn about this important battle. Naturalists will want to take along their binoculars, as the landscape’s dense brush is a natural habitat for dozens of bird species. The area is home to a number of wildlife refuges, as well.
At first glance, Big Bend National Park appears to be vast, desolate, and empty. But look closer, and you’ll find wildflowers and wildlife flourishing here in the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas. The craggy peaks and deep canyons of the Chisos Mountains provide a scenic backdrop to the Rio Grande River—a sweeping curve in this waterway gives the park its name. Since the park encompasses over 800,000 acres, driving is an efficient way to appreciate the endless vistas. Allow time to stop and hike, if the weather is cool enough. After dark, turn your eyes to the skies, which alight with stars. The lack of light pollution makes this one of the best spots in the U.S. for stargazing.
Thanks to its location in the Davis Mountains, the community of Fort Davis is located at 5,050 feet in elevation, making it a good place to escape the Texas summer heat. While there, you can explore the Fort Davis National Historic Site, which was established in 1854 along the shores of the Limpia Creek and survives as one of the best examples of a frontier fort. The fort provided protection for travelers that attempted to cross the rugged region. Today, you can tour dozens of restored buildings, hike through the mountainous scenery, and learn about the history. During certain times, costumed interpreters help bring history to life.
Whether you come for the history or the natural landscapes, you’ll find a lot to explore. Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains meet the Chihuahuan Desert, resulting in diverse landscapes full of open vistas, lush canyons, and the unique Salt Basin Sand Dunes. Sprinkled throughout the park, you’ll find historic buildings, including Pratt Cabin, the Frijole Ranch, and the remnants of a stagecoach station dating to the mid 1800s when the Butterfield Overland Mail line ran through the region. More than 80 mils of trails traverse the park, including the Guadalupe Peak Trail, which takes you to an elevation of 8,751 feet to a point fittingly called the Top of Texas.
For over 13,000 years, humans have travelled to the Canadian River Valley in the Texas Panhandle to gather and use the Alibates flint found here. This colorful stone was valued for its beauty and strength; prehistoric people carved knives and arrow tips to utilize while hunting and to trade for other valuables. Evidence of this craft has been found in the area protected as the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, as well as petroglyphs created by the Antelope Creek People, who called the area home from 1100 to 1500 A.D. Take a hike with a ranger to explore the fascinating landscapes and history.
Cowboy hats and barbecue aside, Texas' national parks and monuments deserve some recognition. The stunning countryside and beautiful shorelines are worthy of any road trip bucket list. From the vast wilderness of Big Bend to the scenic dunes of Padre Island to the plethora of great campgrounds, the landscapes throughout the Lone Star State are truly unrivaled.
Banner Photo Credit: Photo by T photography
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