Exploring Texas Wilderness: A Mini Guide
Those who are from Texas already know it: Texas is HUGE. From the mountains of west Texas to the canyons of the panhandle to the beaches of South Texas, this state packs a lot into its borders. I have lived in Texas for 25 years and still have yet to explore it all, and the travel restrictions of 2020 have allowed me to venture out more in this place I call home.
There are two national parks (Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks) and countless state parks in Texas. The following list contains my favorites, along with my recommended hikes, lodging, and other attractions.
For all Texas State Parks, the Texas Parks and Wildlife website provides ample information about each park. Due to covid-19, reservations must be made in advance to enter the parks. This can easily be done entirely online.
Located about 90 minutes outside of San Antonio lies this gem of a park. Garner State Park sits on the crystal clear Frio River and boasts many challenging hikes. In the fall, Garner is known for it’s vibrant foliage. In the summer, the pale blue river provides a cool respite from the sweltering heat. Campsites are in abundance at Garner and the wide-open starry skies create the perfect backdrop to end your day with.
Recommended Hikes: One of the most popular hikes of Garner State Park is the Old Baldy summit. It is only one-mile round trip from it’s own trailhead, however it packs in over 400 feet of elevation gain. The top gives hikers a sweeping view of the Frio and the rolling hills throughout the park and the surrounding area.
Besides Old Baldy, the park offers a myriad of hiking trails. The Crystal Cave and White Rock Cave trails contain decent climbs to small caves buried in the rock walls of the trail. The Foshee Trail also provides excellent views of the park.
Lodging: there are ample camping sites available, including primitive sites, sites with electricity hookups, and sites with running water. I have stayed at the Rio Frio campsite and loved its proximity to the river.
For those like me who do not always love camping, there are many hotels about 90 minutes away in San Antonio.
For those who want a more unique hotel experience, The Inn Between has affordable tiny homes 15 minutes outside of the park. There are also the Hillside Boutique Hotel in Castroville. There are many lodging companies near the park as well during peak season in the summer.
Nearby Cities: San Antonio (90 minutes), Leakey (11 minutes), Castroville (80 minutes), Hondo (56 minutes), Utopia (25 minutes)
Lost Maples and Garner are about as close to mountains as you’ll get without driving all the way out to west Texas. Lost Maples has an abundance of fall foliage with it’s bigtooth maples, along with steep canyon walls and the Sabinal River running through the park. The rolling hills give you a good workout while you hike and enjoy the scenery.
Recommended Hikes: Taking the East Trail to the East-West Trail and making a nice 4 mile loop gives you a challenging hike with lots of scenic views. Monkey Rock, the grotto, and an emerald-green spring lie within this loop.
Lodging: Lost Maples offers several campsites. Due to it’s proximity to Garner State Park, see the Garner Lodging options for places to stay near Lost Maples.
Nearby Cities: San Antonio (1:45 away), Leakey (27 minutes), Castroville (100 minutes), Hondo (70 minutes), Utopia (20 minutes)
This park attracts many people for it’s swimming, tubing, and kayaking in the Guadalupe River, but it also contains 13 miles of trails for hiking. The River Overlook Trail is short but gives a great view.
Nearby Cities: San Antonio (55 minutes), Austin (1:37) , New Braunfels (52 minutes)
So these aren’t state parks, I know, but these tiny cities in between and on the way to the parks are worth the stop.
Castroville lies about 20 minutes outside of San Antonio and is on the way to Garner and Lost Maples if you are driving from San Antonio. We stopped at the Magnolia Filling Station for coffee, a roadside vegetable stand, and Haby’s Bakery for some cheap and delicious pastries.
Utopia is an even smaller town smack-dab in the middle of the route from Garner to Lost Maples. The Lost Maples Café is located in Utopia, but we decided to stop for a quick coffee at Postal Brews. Postal Brews offered so many tempting pastries, desserts, and breakfast sandwiches. We were very pleased with our choice.
This hidden gem in the hill country lies in Johnson City, Texas about and hour away from Austin. The Pedernales River flows onto giant slabs of limestone, creating stunning turquoise blue pools of water perfect for exploring. At the end of the day, camp out inside the park or drive into Dripping Springs or Austin for some dinner.
Recommended Hikes: Both of the times I have visited this park, my favorite part has been exploring around the falls via the Pedernales Falls Trail System. There aren’t really tons of defined trails on the limestone itself, but is plenty to be wandered. Swimming is not permitted in the falls area, however there are designated swimming areas along the Pedernales River.
Nearby Cities: Austin (1 hour), San Antonio (90 minutes), Dripping Springs (25 minutes), Johnson City (15 minutes)
This massive pink granite rock sits out in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas, near the winery town of Fredericksburg. Scaling the rock itself is a challenging, but short, hike. There are trails up to the top of the rock and around it, all with great views of either the surrounding land or the Enchanted Rock. There are campsites on and around the rock, 11 miles of hiking trails to explore this bizarre geological feature.
Recommended Hikes: My favorite hikes at this park are the 4.6 mile loop trail around the perimeter of the park, and the 0.8 mile summit trail.
Nearby Cities: Fredericksburg (20 minutes), Austin (2 hours)
McKinney Falls is a great watering hole within Austin city limits. Onion Creek flows over the limestone Austin is so famous for. There are plenty of trails to hike on, and plenty of water to cool off in during the summer months.
Nearby Cities: Austin (13 miles from the capitol building)
Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States, second only to the Grand Canyon. While is might take several hours of dull highway driving to reach it, this park does not disappoint! It surprised me how suddenly the flat ground gave way to a colorful, steep canyon. There are over 30 miles of hiking trails to check out at this park. Beware, the Texas Panhandle does get cold during the winter. It was 25 degrees and snowing on our January trip!
Recommended Hikes: We really enjoyed the Lighthouse and the Rock Garden hikes. Both are around 5 miles total. The Lighthouse Trail is a flat walk through the canyon, leading up to the iconic lighthouse rock formation. The Rock Garden hike takes you through some bolders up to a canyon rim, which gives a more panoramic view of the park. This hike is a bit more challenging due to climbing up the canyon.
Lodging: I camped out one night in the canyon itself, which was chilly but beautiful. And new since I visiited in 2018 are glamping sites. However for those who enjoy an actual bed, the city of Canyon is a short drive (about 15 minutes) away from the park. We stayed at this adorable AirBnB that was perfect for our trip. Canyon has a few other hotels as well, like a Best Western and a Holiday Inn Express & Suites.
This national park is, in my opinion, the one of the hidden gems of Texas. Located out in west Texas about 2 hours from El Paso, this park contains the highest peak in Texas at 8750 feet.
Recommended Hikes: Guadalupe Peak is a must for those who make the trek out to this park. An 8.4-mile out and back, this challenging trail traverses the side of the mountain up to the peak. If it’s not cloudy, there is a spectacular view of the surrounding area.
This state park runs along the strip of beaches in Corpus Christi. Honestly, you could go to a free beach area that is just as nice. Our favorite was Whitecap Beach.
Dinosaur Valley State Park, near Glen Rose, is a neat place to see some supposed dinosaur footprints. With plenty of walking trails going through the woods and along a clear river, this park provides ample activities to visitors.
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/parks-map Map of all the Texas State Parks
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/garner Garner State Park
https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/park_maps/pwd_mp_p4507_0061q.pdf Garner State Park Hiking Trails Map
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/garner/fees-facilities/campsites Garner Campsites
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/lost-maples Lost Maples State Natural Area
https://www.hillsidetexas.com/ Castroville Hotel
https://theinnbetweentx.com/ The Inn Between
https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/park_maps/pwd_mp_p4507_0074g.pdf Lost Maples Hiking Trails Map
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/guadalupe-river Guadalupe River State Park
https://www.facebook.com/magnoliafillingstation/ Magnolia Filling Station
https://habysbakery.com/ Haby’s Bakery
http://www.lostmaplescafe.com/ Lost Maples Café
https://www.facebook.com/postalbrews/ Postal Brews
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/pedernales-falls Pedernales Falls State Park
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/enchanted-rock Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/mckinney-falls Mckinney Falls State Park
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon/map Palo Duro Canyon State Park
https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/park_maps/pwd_mp_p4506_0007p.pdf Palo Duro Canyon Hiking Trails
https://www.nps.gov/gumo/planyourvisit/trails.htm Guadalupe Mountains National Park
https://www.nps.gov/gumo/index.htm Guadalupe Mountains National Park
https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/mustang-island Mustang Island State Park