Big Tex Road Trip: Best Outdoors

As the Houston Press prepares to unveil its ultimate Texas road trip guide, we’re listing the state’s most drop-dead gorgeous parks, rivers, lakes, campsites and outdoors destinations.

Have a personal favorite outdoors spot? Leave your $.02 in the comments section.

Drive and camp the beach at Crystal Beach in Galveston
The seasides of Galveston Bay can be (mostly/all) trashy. That's not the case at Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula, where if you’re not into the post-up spot, you can simply get in the car/truck, drive on the beach (which never ever gets old) and go elsewhere. Beach camping is allowed anywhere along the 27-mile peninsula as long as you pony up the $10 for a Bolivar Beach parking permit.  You can also build a campfire without getting busted. 

Kayak and/or canoe the Trinity River in Dallas
There’s at least a week’s worth of kayaking and canoeing opps in North Texas’s waterways. A must-do is the Dallas Trinity Paddling Trail, a ten-mile route that sends anglers through the tree-lined river and eventually to a channelized portion that features killing views of downtown Big D. Bobcats and blue heron can often be spied in the denser woods, which is a much better alternative to racing away from Dallas cougars in the urban jungle. 

All outdoor activities imaginable in east Texas's Piney Woods
Perhaps the most overlooked region of the state is the Piney Woods, the tropical and subtropical forest that extends from east Texas to southern Arkansas and western Louisiana. Did you know that there are four U.S. national forests (Angelina, Sabine, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston) in the Texas portion of the Piney Woods? And 17 Texas state parks, including Caddo Lake, Texas’s only natural lake? A good introduction to the sprawling ecosystem is Caddo Lake State Park in Karnack, which mixes it up with swimming, canoeing, camping, fishing and live alligators.

Unreal views at Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle
“The Grand Canyon of Texas,” located down the road a piece from Amarillo, isn’t just hyperbole. It’s indeed the second-largest canyon in the U.S. – approximately 70 miles long and six miles wide – and looks a lot like the Arizona destination with its shaved rock mesa walls. In addition to primitive camping and summer-only performances of the historical musical play Texas, there’s the Lighthouse Trail, which takes hikers to within touching distance of the iconic 300-foot-tall rock formation. 

Cool down in/gawk at the Longhorn Caverns in Burnet County
Before the Longhorn Caverns State Park became a tourist spot, the limestone cave was a chill-out place for Native Americans, Confederate soldiers and bad boys like Sam Bass; it was also a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Today, descend 52 steps into the abyss and look at insane rock carvings, dome ceilings and tiny bats that are about the size of a human thumb. If anything, especially during a summer road trip across hot-ass Texas, stop at the Hill Country destination for the organic air conditioning — the cave stays at 68 degrees year round. 

Fulfill your Texan rite of passage at Big Bend 
The only mistake that can be made at the 800,000-acre Big Bend National Park is spending only a night or two in the far west Texas beauty. The largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert includes more than 1,200 plant species and some of the craziest hikes in the country – they’re so remote and quiet that your head and senses will probably be messed up until you return to city life. In the summer, ditch the too-hot riverside camping along the Rio Grande and head up to Chisos Basin. The campground, located about 5,400 feet above sea level, might get to the high 80s during the peak of the day, but that’s nothing for a (now) real Texan like yourself.

Peep birds at Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco 
If you haven’t been to Estero Llano Grande State Park in a while, swing by the now dolled-up digs in south Texas. The aviary, one of the World Birding Center’s nine locations, is especially a treat during the tail end of the summer when a bunch of birds, such as the rare wood stork as well as migrating waterfowl, kick back at the park’s shallow lake.
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen