Unlike most western states, TX has relatively little federal public land but when you visit, there’s hiking, camping, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing and more from the beaches of Padre Island to the night sky of Big Bend. Here are spots we recommend to spend time in nature in Texas.
Best for a beach day: Padre Island National Seashore
Step back into the past when you visit Padre Island’s beaches. The land has maintained its natural state through four different countries’ flags flying over its beaches. Before Europeans arrived, nomadic Native American tribes visited the island for thousands of years. Today, you can see the island as it existed to the early explorers. It is one of the last intact coastal prairie habitats in the United States.
During the day, you can swim in the Gulf of Mexico and collect shells along the shore. The current that flows brings in diverse treasures to collect. You may even find historic artifacts like arrowheads! Let a park ranger know if you do.
Once you’re done splashing around, the Laguna Madre provides water conditions that favor both a beginner and expert in kayaking and canoeing. Check the weather forecast before heading into the water to ensure safety. There are also opportunities for sea kayaking for a unique fishing opportunity.
If staying on shore is more your thing, grab a chair and cast a line from the beach. To fish, you need to obtain a Texas fishing license package unless you are under 17 years of age. Bird lovers are in paradise as the area has more species of birds than any other city in the U.S. The prime time for bird watching is during the migration of thousands of birds in early spring or during fall and winter.
Finish your day by stargazing at the Night Sky Observatory or along the beach where darkness allows for a great view of the stars. The park is open 24 hours all year, and there is an entrance fee from $15-25 dollars depending on the duration of your visit.
If you are visiting from mid-June to August, you can watch sea turtle hatchling releases. On Malaquite Beach, the hatches begin at 6:45 am and last 20-45 minutes. See a hatchling up close when a volunteer or park ranger brings them around for the group to see. Find the schedule here.
Where to stay:
The park has five campgrounds open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. Campers, including beach campers, must have a camping permit, which is available from the kiosks at the entrances of each campground. There are no RV hook-ups anywhere in the park, but an RV dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the park. The closest city is Corpus Cristi, Texas around an hour and a half drive away.
Best for stargazing: Big Bend National Park
The stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, especially at Big Bend. Nicknamed “Texas’ Gift to the the Nation,” visitors can see why when stargazing at the darkest night sky of the lower 48 states.
You can observe the stars yourself with a pair of binoculars or your naked eye. The Milky Way, meteor showers and constellation spotting can all be seen from a chair in the park. Park Rangers offer free programs for a more informed evening. The lack of urbanization in the area allows for almost anywhere in the park to be a prime spot for stargazing.
During the day, you can explore the largest expanse of roadless public lands in Texas with a hike. There are 150 miles of trials with desert, mountain and river terrains. No pets are allowed on the trails and range from easy to strenuous. With a backcountry use permit, visitors can ride their horse on the trails. You can also walk the Great Comanche Trail that the tribe marched returning from a victorious battle with their loot or discover more types of birds, bats, butterflies, ants, scorpions, and cacti than any other national park in the United States, but the night sky is the main attraction.
Fishing is free and requires no licenses. A free permit must be obtained from the visitors center. Catfish is the most common catch, and fish can only be caught at the Rio Grande and its two tributaries, Tornillo and Terlingua Creeks. One day, take a break from the Texas heat and visit the Fossil Discovery Exhibit and see Big Bend’s ancient history. Visitors can go through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry to experience the city of Boquillas, Mexico. Find more information here. Big Bend is open 24 hours year round.
Where to stay:
There are four campgrounds at the park, a full hookup RV camping area and three developed frontcountry campgrounds operated by the National Park Service with drinking water and restroom facilities. Reservations are required and can be made here. There were 581,000 recreational visits to Big Bend in 2021, so plan your trip in advance. There are also Airbnbs available for rent near the park. All vehicles entering the park must pay a cashless entrance fee. Visitors must pay a $15.00 entrance pass per person at the park entrance.
For water sports and family fun: Lake Meredith National Recreation Area
Native Americans, explorers, ranchers and more have discovered the hidden oasis of Lake Meredith where the Canadian River cut canyons into the earth. With a variety of water activities and beauty year round, visitors can experience many different opportunities. May to September is the best time of year to visit for water activities.
Boating is a popular option. You can rent a boat, kayak or paddleboard from a park’s vendor or bring your own private watercraft. There are no fees and ramps are open for public use with a leave no trace policy. Harbor Bay, Fritch Fortress and Sanford-Yake are the best places to access the lake. Make sure your motorized boat is registered with federal and state regulations and has proper safety equipment on board. Find more information here. Check the lake conditions before planning to launch.
If your group has differing interests, Spring Canyon offers an area for swimming, canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding. It is also a great place for birdwatching during the spring and winter. Opportunities for fishing surround the lake. There are two easily accessible docks at Sanford-Yake and Spring Canyon in addition to several areas around the shore. The shores of Harbor Bay, Cedar Canyon, Chimney Hollow, or Bugbee Canyon are also great locations for fish. Find fishing regulations and tips here. Sunfish, Walleye and flathead catfish are some of the species you can look forward to catching during your visit.
After your time on the water, take a hike on one of the five beautiful trails ranging from easy to strenuous. Find details here. You can bike on the Harbor Bay, South Turkey Creek, and Mullinaw trails. There are horse corrals at Plum Creek, Mullinaw Trail and McBride Canyon with differing amenities. Several areas of the park are ideal for riding with dirt roads and trails. Find more information here. There are no fees for entering the park, and it is open 24 hours year round.
Where to stay:
11 camping areas are around Lake Meredith National Recreation Area with no fees and a first come, first serve basis. Find the right one for you here. There are 10 RV sites with a fee and available by calling 806-865-3131 for a reservation. The closest larger town is Amarillo, Texas which is about a 40 minute drive away. You could also stay in Borger, Texas which is a 15 minute drive.
Best for hiking: Big Thicket National Preserve
Nine different ecosystems thrive in Big Thicket National Preserve. It protects a biologically significant portion of the Piney Woods of southeast Texas where roadrunners scurry and the sounds of woodpeckers echo. Discover this wonder on 40 miles of trails lush with plants, winding throughout the area. On your hike, be on the lookout for carnivorous plants, rare prickly pear cactus and the many birds chirping. The trails range from 0.3 miles to 18 miles roundtrip. Find your preferred trail here.
You can ride your bike to discover the preserve on three trails. Big Thicket has miles of rivers, creeks and bayous streaming throughout. Paddle along on a free ranger led kayak or canoe trip or experience this adventure on your own.
Enjoy up to three Texas Paddling Trails or float along a waterway to uncover remote areas of the preserve. All of the waterways, lakes and ponds also allow fishing. The recommended waterways are Neches River, Village Creek, Turkey Creek, and Pine Island Bayou. You need a valid Texas fishing license to fish. The preserve is open 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, central time, 7 days a week.
Where to stay:
There are no campgrounds, but the preserve offers backcountry camping. After hiking or paddling in with your supplies, find a place to camp at least 200 feet from roads, trails, and the park boundary or along certain waterways. Group size is limited to eight people. A free permit is required that can be issued at the visitor center. No reservations are needed. Find more information here.
The closest city to stay in is Beaumont, Texas which is about a 40 minute drive. A longer drive from Houston, Texas will allow you to experience Texas’ biggest cities with a drive time of an hour and a half.
Best for camping: Sam Houston National Forest
The Sam Houston National Forest has been inhabited for over 12,000 years. The forest was home to Atakapan-speaking groups known as the Bidai, Patiri, Deadose, and Akokisa until the early 1800’s. Covering 163,037 acres, this protected area has many camping opportunities as well as hiking and boating. Pick a portion of the 128 mile Lone Star Hiking Trail to explore the forest year round. Winter and spring are the best seasons for mild southeast Texas climate. Be on the lookout for streams, lakes, aged trees and wildlife. Sam Houston National Forest is open year round.
There are three well developed campgrounds: Cagle, Double Lake and Stubblefield Recreation Areas. Reservations are encouraged to ensure a spot. The Cagle Recreation Area is a new campground located along the shoreline of Lake Conroe. If you are interested in fishing or water sports, this is a great option. The site offers 47 full-service RV sites as well as a boat ramp with a parking lot, fresh-water, hot showers with restrooms, wildlife viewing, a picnic area overlooking Lake Conroe, shoreline wading, 85 miles of OHV and access to hiking, biking and equestrian trails. Reservations for all sites must be made at least 48 hours in advance online at www.recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Find more information about fees and amenities here.
The Double Lake Recreation Area surrounds a 24-acre lake and is a great option for family camping. The site offers family camping units, group camping, picnicking units, a picnic shelter, swimming area and beach, and a concession stand with a bathhouse where you can purchase groceries and other items. Electrical hook-ups, water and sewer are available with some units.. Take your group out on the lake with the canoe and paddle board rental at the concession stand. There is also access to a five mile hike on the Lone Star Hiking Trail. Reservations are required by contacting the National Recreation Reservations Service (NRRS) at 877-444-6777. Reservations may also be made on the Internet at www.recreation.gov. Find more information on hours and fees here.
The Stubblefield Recreation Area provides 28 camping units and access to the Lone Star Hiking Trail. It offers RV camping, hot showers, restrooms, drinking water and picnic tables. There are opportunities for canoeing, birding, fishing and hiking. Stubblefield is available on a first-come, first-served basis only. Reservations can be completed by calling the National Recreation Service at 1/877/444-6777 or by internet at www.recreation.gov. Find more information here.
What to know before you go:
- Check the weather before planning your trip. While the weather is usually great for travel, the summer reaches temperatures of over 100 F and freezes can occur early in the year. Pack accordingly by bringing sunscreen or layers.
- Elevation increases the need for sunscreen and potential for dehydration and temperatures decrease as you climb up in elevation, so bring layers. If you are planning a hike at high elevation, start as early as you can, bad weather often hits later in the day.
- Pack a full water bottle along with bug spray, food and a trash bag.
- Once you have selected your destination, do your research to find out if the campground or trails require reservations.
- Carpool to reduce the number of cars you need to find parking for and emissions.
- Always let someone know you are hiking or camping in case of emergency or spotty cell reception.
- For helpful resources and more planning information, use https://www.recreation.gov/.
Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America
Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.
Public Lands Intern