Texas-Sized Family Fun at These 7 Best National Parks In Texas

by | Dec 20, 2023 | Family Adventures, South West, USA

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Everything is bigger in Texas, including the family fun at the national parks, monuments, and seashore in the Lone Star State. Texas is home to several impressive parks, each offering something special that showcases the splendor and diversity of the Texan terrain.

Texas boasts two national parks, Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in addition to other areas that fall under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service. Those include a national seashore, national preserve, national monument, and national recreation area. Each of the seven places offers visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in the natural features of the state, enjoy a range of outdoor activities, and make some lasting family memories.

 

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Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is appropriately named! First, it is BIG. The park encompasses more than 801,000 acres, so it dwarfs both Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park. Second, it is located along a big bend of the Rio Grande River in the southwest part of the state.

 

Big Bend National Park in Texas - man walking in front of a kayak in shallow river

Canyons and rivers make Big Bend National Park a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

 

Rugged and wild, Big Bend National Park has otherworldly hiking trails. While some, like the Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail, are quite strenuous and may not be suitable for families with small children, others, including the Tuff Canyon Trail and the Lower Borro Mesa Pouroff Trail, are definitely family-friendly.

As visitors stroll through the miles of trails at Big Bend National Park, hikers will see plenty of cacti and fascinating rock formations. But keep an eye out for black bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, scorpions, and tarantulas. If you see one, stay clear. After all, you are guests in their home.

The remoteness of Big Bend National Park makes it ideal for stargazing and sunset chasing … two of my family’s favorite things to do. The park has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park because the light pollution is minimal. My family’s favorite spot to take in the sunset is Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains.

 

Where to Stay at Big Bend National Park

Staying at Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only accommodation within Big Bend National Park puts guests close to the hiking trails, visitor’s center, horseback riding stables, kayak and bike rentals, and gift shops. Nestled in the scenic Chisos Mountains, the lodge offers traditional hotel rooms as well as some quaint stone cottages.

 

Padre Island National Seashore

Texas beaches are just as spectacular as the state’s deserts and canyons. Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, Texas, is a long, narrow strip of sand. In fact, at roughly 70 miles long, it is the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world, which is why the National Parks Service is committed to protecting the unique ecosystem of this natural area.

Padre Island National Seashore is more than simply a beach. It is a federally protected wildlife refuge with regular park programs, hiking trails, and viewing areas. My family was drawn to this park for the opportunity to see some of our favorite animals … sea turtles! Padre Island National Seashore is the nesting ground of the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, an endangered sea turtle. From April to early July, newly hatched turtles emerge from the sand and take their adorable trek to the sea.

 

Padre Island National Seashore

Join the sandpipers on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

 

We made the best family memories at Padre Island. During the day, we spent hours hunting for seashells at Big Shell Beach. At night, we searched for ghost crabs at Malaquite Beach even though one daughter was terrified of them. She called them “big spiders!”

 

Where to Stay Near Padre Island National Seashore

For our visit to Padre Island National Seashore, we stayed at Comfort Suites Beachside in South Padre Island, Texas. This hotel is close to the beach, near plenty of restaurants, and fit nicely into our travel budget. Plus, we are Choice Hotel members, so we earn points with each stay. This is a suite hotel … perfect for families traveling with children.

 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Located in western Texas’s Chihuahuan Desert, Guadalupe Mountains National Park has several of the Lone Star State’s most unique features in one place. Salt Basin Dunes is a gleaming white salt flat that provided the perfect backdrop for my older daughter’s Instagram selfies.

The diversity of West Texas and Guadalupe Mountains National Park won us over. Some parts are true deserts, while others are pine and hardwood forests. There are grasslands, lakes and creeks, and a mountain range that’s not really a mountain range. It is the fossilized remains of a prehistoric reef, the Capitan Reef.

 

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas

See just how big Texas is at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Photo by Ryuta F. on Unsplash

 

The Guadalupe Mountains are home to the four highest peaks in Texas. Guadalupe Mountains National Park has two visitor centers…the Pine Spring Visitor Center at the main park entrance and the McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center at the mouth of McKittrick Canyon. 

Our favorite hiking trails at Guadalupe Mountains National Park are the Manzanita Springs Trail and Smith Spring Trail Loop. The Manzanita Springs Trail is only about a half-mile long and takes hikers to Manzanita Spring, an excellent spot for taking scenic photos and watching the birds. The Smith Spring Trail Loop is longer, but it is wooded and shady. There is even an adorable waterfall along the trail.

The crowning jewel of Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the McKittrick Canyon Trail. I’m not going to sugar-coat it … this was a challenging hike for an out-of-shape mom like me. Set aside an entire day for this hike. The route follows the floor of the canyon then climbs to the top. The view of the canyon from above and the peaks and ridges surrounding it made it worthwhile. We missed fall foliage season, but I am told that the autumn colors are spectacular from the McKittrick Canyon vantage point.

 

Where to Stay Near Guadalupe Mountains National Park

There are no hotels or lodges within Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The nearest accommodations – that aren’t campgrounds – are either an hour and a half away in El Paso or are across the state line in Carlsbad, New Mexico, about 50 miles away. We opted to stay at La Quinta by Wyndham Carlsbad and made that our base of operations for visits to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeast New Mexico. After a long, hot day of hiking, the kids loved the outdoor swimming pool. I took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and business center to get some work done.

 

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Big Thicket National Preserve

When it was established in 1974, the Big Thicket became the first national preserve in the United States. The main difference between national parks and national preserves is that hunting and mining are permitted in national preserves. In fact, hunting is one of the big attractions of the Big Thicket, which is located about 40 miles north of Beaumont, Texas.

During the fall and winter, when hunting seasons are open, outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen hunt wild hogs, deer, squirrels, and other animals in the Big Thicket National Preserve. The rest of the year, visitors can camp, hike, bike, canoe, and kayak in the preserve. Backcountry camping is another big draw.

 

Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas - back of woman paddling kayak in a river

Follow the paddling routes at Big Thicket National Preserve. https://365thingsinhouston.com/2021/07/12/5-must-do-things-around-big-thicket-national-preserve/

 

Since everything is bigger in Texas, including the mosquitos, I passed on overnight camping at the Big Thicket National Preserve. I did, however, enjoy an afternoon of kayaking through the cypress trees. There are several paddling routes to choose from, depending on how much time you want to spend in the Big Thicket. My family voted for a shorter paddle that took only a few hours. It was a great introduction to the Big Thicket. The preserve is untamed, lush, and dense … It looks like a scene from Jurassic Park. After our brief outing there, we all agreed to plan another longer visit to the Big Thicket National Preserve.

 

Where to Stay Near the Big Thicket National Preserve 

Silsbee, Texas, is less than 20 minutes from the Big Thicket National Preserve. In this town, we found a unique, off-the-grid, glamping place, Piney Woods Outpost. The safari-style tents have a queen-sized bed with a memory foam mattress and room to accommodate five people, if the kids don’t mind sleeping bags. The tents rest on a raised platform with a canopy. Outside the tent, there is a fire pit and a ring of Adirondack chairs. No TV, no Wi-Fi, and no room service … just family bonding time.

 

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

Located on top of colorful mesas near Fritch, Texas, Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument was the state’s first national monument and was established in the late 1970s to preserve the quarries that were used by Ice Age-era mammoth hunters more than 13,000 years ago. The flint quarried from this location was of such high quality that arrowheads and spearheads made from these rainbow-colored rocks have been found as far as the Midwest.

 

Flint from the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument.

View the ancient Native American flint quarries at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. https://www.nps.gov/alfl/index.htm

 

The history of Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument makes it an educational and interesting stop for families. Honestly, it is one of the most unusual historic sites I’ve ever visited. The only way to see the quarry pits is by taking a guided tour with a park ranger. In my opinion, this made the visit even more enjoyable. Admittedly, the kids and I are not the type to stop and read the informational plaques – my husband is the plaque reader of the family. I feel like we learned more about the place by listening to the stories the park ranger shared and by asking questions about the geology and history of the national monument.

 

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area

Located right next door to Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument is the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. A gem of the Texas Panhandle, this national recreation area is located about 30 miles from Amarillo. On a hot Texas afternoon, a dip in Lake Meredith hits the spot. The lake was created when the Sanford Dam was constructed on the Canadian River. The resulting reservoir is huge … covering more than 10,000 acres. Told you everything is bigger in Texas!

Although the water levels at Lake Meredith are low these days because of drought conditions, the reservoir is still a welcoming sight in the dry Texas desert, and the scenic river is just part of the draw. Visitors will find several swimming areas, numerous campgrounds, lots of picnic tables, and five boat launches. The hiking trails allow visitors to see the red-rock buttes, wind-carved pinnacles, and the valleys of colorful springtime wildflowers.

Admission to Lake Meredith National Recreation Area is free.

 

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Where to Stay Near Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument and Lake Meredith National Recreation Area

Amarillo, Texas, is less than 30 miles to the south of Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument so we stayed there. The Four Points by Sheraton Amarillo Central checked all the boxes for us … plenty of room, close to restaurants, and a short drive to the national monument. It was also budget-friendly, which was an important selling point.

 

The Amistad Reservoir National Recreation Area

Deep in the heart of Texas, in the town of Del Rio, sits the Amistad Reservoir National Recreation Area. As the ‘recreation area’ implies, the Amistad Reservoir along the Rio Grande River attracts visitors who want to enjoy the clear, sparkling water and outdoor recreational activities. Cool down in the Texas heat with a swim in the reservoir. Or spend the day on the water, boating, water skiing, or jet skiing. 

The geology, plant life, mirror-like water, and wildlife of the national recreation area attract landscape photographers from across the country. For canoers and kayakers, the Amistad Reservoir boasts seven different paddle trails that offer unprecedented views of the canyons and rock formations.

 

 

 

For hikers, the trails at the Amistad Reservoir National Recreation Area led to some of the area’s culturally significant pictographs, rock art dating back to prehistoric times. So far, more than 325 ancient rock paintings have been documented in the area.

 

Where to Stay Near the Amistad Reservoir National Recreation Area

Whispering Palms Inn Hotel in Del Rio is a boutique hotel near the Amistad Reservoir. Double rooms and suites at this hotel are roomy enough for families. There is a swimming pool in case you didn’t get enough swimming at the reservoir.

The hotel is close to stores, restaurants, and other attractions. A selling point for many guests is that the Whispering Palms Inn offers free boat parking on premises.

 

Texas-sized family fun and a lifetime of memories can be found at the seven places in the Lone Star State that fall under the control of the National Parks Service. Nature lovers will agree that Texas is one of the most diverse states, with sandy beaches, high deserts, mountains, and canyons. Each member of the family can find a Texas park that captures their heart.

 

 

Karen Harris is a freelance writer, recovering academic, history buff, amateur photographer, and sufferer of chronic wanderlust. She passed her wanderlust down to her four daughters and even infected her firefighter husband. She is the co-author of a newly published children’s book, Ellie Lou Knows What to Do, written in honor of her young granddaughter who has been diagnosed with Noonan Syndrome.