National Parks TravelingMom loves her parks and spends every school break exploring them with her three kids. Her favorite parks are Texas national parks. It seems Texas offers a little bit of everything from miles of coasts, acres of evergreen forests and mountains that touch the clouds. Come along to discover the diversity in the Great Outdoors of Texas, with a Texas native.
The Great Outdoors of Texas
In a state that takes a day to drive through, I’m still exploring Texas with the wonder of a child. Thanks to my three kids, ages 9, 12 and 14, we’ve traveled to every corner of the state. As a Texas native, I want to share a few of my favorite national parks so your family can discover the great outdoors of Texas too.
A Beach for Every Season
Texas offers more than 350 miles of beaches so it’s easy to find a beach that suits anytime of the year. Sure, Texas offers beachfront resorts with surfing lessons for the kids and fishing piers for the dads. Though not many visitors know the state’s beach also include an animal sanctuary.
A Sanctuary for Turtles and Birds
Until a recent visit, I didn’t know that nearly half of the North American bird species can be found on South Texas beaches. And the most endangered sea turtles in the world nest on a Texas beach too.
Padre Island National Seashore offers refuge for animals and a respite for animal lovers. As the longest section of undeveloped barrier island in the world, it protects 70 miles of Gulf of Mexico shoreline and the Laguna Madre, a hypersaline lagoon.
With more than 130,000 acres of dunes, prairies and tidal flats for protection, birds and turtles take center stage. The Gulf of Mexico is home to five different species of sea turtles, all federally listed as endangered or threatened. The turtles all find refuge at the Padre Island National Seashore, especially Kemp’s ridley, the most endangered of the turtles.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles lay their eggs in shallow sand nests where predators and human disruption can destroy them. Since the 1970s, the National Park Service has recovered the nests and released tiny turtle hatchlings along the shore. Watching the turtles crawl to the safety of the Gulf of Mexico is a delight to watch.
Birding is big in Texas during the winter. The central flyway, a bird migration route, runs though Padre Island offering migrating birds a protected winter home. The Sandhill cranes, snow geese and redhead ducks stay, and 380 other bird species continue farther south.
A Guiding Light on the Texas Coast
For the lighthouse lovers, Texas offers seven historic beacons sprinkled along the coast. The Port Isabel Lighthouse guides the way to Texas’ tropical paradise while offering a pirate past.
Originally built in 1852 for the busy agriculture port, the Port Isabel Lighthouse is now a registered National Historic Landmark and offers a visitor center in South Texas.
Texas Mountains that Touch the Clouds of an Endless Sky
Most road trippers miss some of the most distinct scenery of Texas, choosing to set the cruise control for 80mph after passing the Texas Hill Country. To find the mountains of Texas head west on Interstate 10, then take a turn north or south, at Fort Stockton.
In the Big Bend of the Rio Grande
Big Bend National Park, a personal favorite, offers rugged western scenery that conjures up images of cowboys on horseback. In a land where roadrunners outnumber the residents, Big Bend offers campers ample room and a nightlife glittering with stars.
Big Bend hikers might catch a glimpse of a mountain lion or a black bear, both residents of the park. Rafters can float through its most remote scenery while meandering though Santa Elena Canyon with sheer rock walls.
The Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range located entirely within a national park, offers a lodge and family-friendly trails. Big Bend National Park offers its own border crossing so visitors can explore the tiny village of Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.
Highpointing Texas Style
Mountaineers know the Guadalupe Mountains since it’s home to the highest point of Texas at 8,751 feet. It offers a developed trail for highpointers to reach the summit and mark another peak off their list.
Until I visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park, its rugged beauty had escaped me. During a recent visit, I discovered more than half of the national park is a designated wilderness and has a resident herd of elk.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, south of the New Mexican border and 110 miles east of El Paso, offers dark skies and quiet hiking. El Capitan provides a rugged mountain backdrop for exploring over 80 miles of hiking trails, some accessible and over half open to horseback riding.
Finding Forest Diversity in East Texas
About 30 miles north of the East Texas gateway city of Beaumont, I found a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Big Thicket National Preserve offers biological diversity with an array of species, both animals and plants. It’s thought to be one of the most diverse areas outside of the tropical rainforests.
Explore the Big Thicket by canoe, the preserve features a 21-mile paddling trail with calm waters. The Big Thicket can be explored by foot with 40 miles of hiking trails, where hikers can look for the carnivorous plants of the preserve, home to four of the five varieties in the North America.
Tips from a TravelingMom:
- The Kemp’s turtle releases open to the public when the conditions are favorable though advance notice is limited.
- Terlingua and Marathon, the tiny towns outside of Big Bend National Park, have limited services.
- Big Bend is a designated International Dark Skies Park so outdoor lighting is minimal. Remember your flashlights or lanterns.
- National Parks are popular destinations during school breaks and holidays–make reservations as early as possible.
- Bring food and refillable water bottles for your national park visit. Food service is limited.
- Keep an eye on the gas gauge in West Texas where gas stations maybe be 50 miles or more apart.
- Texas is home to 15 species of venomous snakes.