A Guide to the National Parks of Texas
If you’ve never driven through Texas—especially west on Interstate 10 from Austin to Marfa—you're definitely missing out. Among the state's many glories are more than a dozen national parks, monuments, recreation areas, memorials, preserves, and historic sites. We asked longtime National Parks Service employee Russ Whitlock, state coordinator for Texas National Parks, to walk us through some of the Lone Star State’s greatest (natural) hits.
Because it’s so expansive, Texas is not only the high plains and mesas you might envision. It truly contains multitudes: The eastern part of the state is all piney woods, which give way to the Hill Country and its live oaks, before finally becoming the sweeping steppes and grasslands Texas is best known for.
Appreciate the Biodiversity
Start in the east, in Beaumont’s national preserve Big Thicket, home to “well over 100,000 acres of protected land,” he says. “It’s one of the most biodiverse areas in the nation, even in the world.” Because of its size, Big Thicket is a patchwork of creeks, bayous, forests, and at least 40 full miles of trails. It’s “Appalachia meets Southern meets Western meets Central meets plants meets wildlife,” he laughs.
Related: A Guide to Olympic National Park
Get Your Feet Wet
Head south past San Antonio to Padre Island National Seashore. Dedicated in the 1960s by Lady Bird Johnson, it offers “typical recreation, wildlife, fishing, and camping,” says Whitlock, but “one of its greatest claims to fame is their work with turtle restoration.” A special division of the National Parks Service is devoted to ensuring that newly hatched sea turtles make their way back to the Gulf of Mexico—it's something the public can watch during certain times of the year.
Related: A Guide to Utah's National Parks
Brush Up On Your History
Military history aficionados should keep driving beyond the turtles, right up to the Mexican border to see Palo Alto Battlefield. It's the site of the first battle in the Mexican War in 1846, and General Zachary Taylor—who would eventually become president—fought here. Continuing along the southwest border, drive up to Amistad, a national recreation area that has rock art dating back 4,000 years, says Whitlock. Camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, and boating are popular activities on and around the eponymous lake.
Head Into the Wild
And if you want a total nature fix, follow the Rio Grande to Big Bend. Texas’s famed first national park was set aside by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, and encompasses a full 8,000 acres of protected land. It’s got incredible variety, from the Chisos Mountains to the knockout cacti formations, and you can kayak the Rio Grande itself.
Heading farther north to the New Mexico border, see the Guadalupe Mountains—so inspiring the National Park even has an artist-in-residence program there. There’s plenty of hiking, backpacking, and even a sweet Junior Ranger program for kids.
Related: A Guide to Badlands National Park
While you’re here, it’s worth taking a relatively short (for Texas!) jaunt 111 miles west to see Chamizal National Memorial. There’s hiking and biking here, but more importantly, its purpose is to commemorate the peaceful end of a long boundary dispute between Mexico and the United States via the 1963 Chamizal Convention. The monument is home to live performances and cultural events.
Related: A Guide to Shenandoah National Park
Watch a Reenactment
Driving southeast, stop into Fort Davis, a frontier military post in the late 19th-century. Costumed reenactments are frequently taking place here. This was also, Whitlock says, home to some of the first trained, paid African-American soldiers—then known as Buffalo Soldiers—in the United States military.
Committed amateur geologists and archeologists might consider a long drive north to see Alibates Flint Quarries, a monument with quarry tours and beautiful stretches of unusual, multicolored landscapes. But Whitlock waxes most poetic about Texas's newest national monument, Waco Mammoth National Monument, which President Obama set aside in 2015. Waco Monument is south of Dallas, and is one heck of a place to bring kids thanks to the Columbian mammoth fossils found here. Preserved in situ because of a mudslide 65,000 years ago, curved 14-foot tusks and all, they are an incredible thing to see.
Can’t see every park, national monument, and recreation area in Texas? That’s OK. Whitlock himself admits the state is “so blasted big” that it’s difficult. But kick back and enjoy the drive, because it sure is pretty in this part of the West.