The Gulf Coast boasts an abundance of nature areas but few are as varied in geography and history as Galveston Island State Park. There's a low $5 entrance fee and, once inside, visitors have a choice of Karankawa Reef (the story goes that the Karankawa indians could wade on the reef to the mainland), sand dunes, a freshwater pond, wetlands and plenty of coastline. Bird watchers have lots to see at Galveston Island State Park — 60 percent of all the bird species in America stop at the island at some point in the year. Looking for active outdoor fun? There's mountain biking, fishing, hiking, swimming and ranger-led educational programs. The park's had some notorious visitors over the centuries. There was Cabeza de Vaca, who stopped there in 1528, becoming the first European to step on what is now Texas (oh yeah, that trip didn't actually work out that well — only four members of the expedition survived). After Cabeza de Vaca, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Jean Lafitte and scores of smugglers also stopped by what is now Galveston Island State Park.
READERS' CHOICE: Brazos Bend State Park