I have a terrible case of wanderlust and spend a lot of time traveling the world, always on the lookout for cheap airfare or road trip opportunities. But the reality is that I also love my Texas. No matter where I go, or how long I’m gone, flying back to Austin always puts a smile on my face. While it’s not perfect, and Austin is the only livable Texas city for me, Texas has an undeniable charm. The people are friendly, the weather is warm, and we have TexMex. What more could you want?
One of the best things about Texas, however, is its beautiful and varied landscapes. And I think something that makes these outdoor gems even more unique is their desolation. You’ll never see Grand Canyon-sized crowds at these national parks. The sheer size of the state makes solitude a beautiful and appreciated norm. It’s a big place and you can drive hours, passing nothing but windmills, flat brown dirt, and wide open skies. But if you go to the right places, you can admire caverns, seashores, mountains, canyons, swamps, and deserts. Here are some of my top beautiful outdoor spots in Texas.
This national park is a no-brainer for any outdoors enthusiast. The views are breathtaking and the isolation is unlike any you’ll find amongst the crowded masses of more popular national parks. It can draw some crowds during peak tourist seasons, so get there early because they only allow a limited number of park entries and backpacking permits per day. And all permits are first come, first served. The effort and race to the visitors center is worth it. There are so many options for backpacking and camping, an overnight trip is a must. At night, there are so many stars that I sleep with the tent fly off, so I can stare up at the universe from my sleeping bag.
It’s also a great option for those looking for a challenge. There are several long and strenuous backpacking trails. The Outer Mountain Loop is my favorite, although incredibly hard because of the 2 days’ worth of water (2 gallons) each person must carry up 8,000 feet before the first cache. However, trail ease can be manipulated if you have high clearance vehicles to get to the more out-of-reach caches. But there are tons of other options for the day-hiker, the relaxed camper, and families.
I was pleasantly surprised by this national park. Even lesser known than Big Bend, this beautiful area rests right on the border of New Mexico. In fact, the Guadeloupe Mountains aren’t really mountains, but the world’s most expansive fossil reef.
The elevation also boasts the highest peaks in Texas and some of the best views. Camping, day-hiking, and backpacking are all great ideas here but to get the best views, spend a couple days backpacking into the range. It’s a rare thing to find elevation high enough to warrant mountain morning mist and cool weather in the middle of a Texas summer. It can definitely be a bit rough going up with all that water, but the views are worth the effort and the loops seem a bit easier than those at Big Bend.
Colorado Bend State Park
This is one of those places that I’d never heard of until I googled “places to camp near me.” My friend and I ended up spending a weekend here to see what it offered and we were pleasantly surprised.
I will say that the hiking and “backpacking” is not very extensive or challenging. In fact, we hiked the hardest trails in the park in under 4 hours. So this is the place to come for some leisurely hiking and camping. And the trails are decent, but nothing necessarily beautiful or breath-taking. The best part of the park is the Gorman Falls. I had no idea how beautiful and unique this living waterfall was until I stood beneath it. The walls are covered in mosses and plants and the water is crystal clear. While swimming and climbing on the falls is prohibited to protect the living waterfall, swimming in the dozens of streams and springs that feed off the Colorado is allowed.
One thing that always made me slightly heartbroken is the lack of a true fall in Texas. We don’t have giant trees that turn beautiful shades of orange or red. Lost Maples is the exception. Honestly, I haven’t been here in several years. My mother took me here a couple times when I lived at home and I still remember how beautiful it is.
Hiking in Lost Maples proves that fall does exist in Texas. Not a backpacking destination, this is a great place for a laid back day or weekend of hiking. There are only 10 miles of trails, so the whole park is actually doable in a day. And there are several campsites if you want to overnight.
Padre Island National Seashore
I usually complain about the state of the Texas Gulf. And it’s true that compared to most other beaches, Texas drew the short straw. But it can’t be denied that laying back with friends on the sand, playing Frisbee, and drinking a couple brews is nice no matter what beach you’re at.
My favorite beach in Texas is the Padre Island National Seashore because it’s nice and clean, and you can watch newly hatched sea turtles be released into the wild. As a protected site for the birds, turtles, and other wildlife, I also love this beach for the lack of people on it. It’s usually pretty unoccupied, which is saying a lot if you have ever tried finding a quiet piece of sand on South Padre Island. They also offer camping for those that want to stay the night.