Texas offers more National Park Service sites than most visitors or residents realize. So find a national seashore, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a desert national park, a mountain national park even a national monument dedicated to Texas-sized dinosaurs.
Padre Island Island National Seashore
Nearly half of the North American bird species can be found on Texas beaches. And the most endangered sea turtles in the world nest on a Texas beach too.
Padre Island National Seashore offers a refuge for animals and a respite for animal lovers. And it’s the longest section of undeveloped barrier island in the world.. So it protects 70 miles of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline and the Laguna Madre, a hypersaline lagoon.
With over 130,000 acres of dunes, prairies and tidal flats for protection, birds and turtles take center stage at Padre Island. The Gulf of Mexico is home to five different species of sea turtles, all federally listed as endangered or threatened, especially Kemp’s ridley.
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 the tiny turtle hatchlings along the shore. Watching the turtles crawl to the safety of the Gulf of Mexico delights kids and adults alike.
Texas offers world-class birding during the winter. The central flyway, a bird migration route, runs though Padre Island offering migrating birds a protected winter home.
Located in South Texas, Padre National Seashore is open 365-days a year, 24-hours a day. Admission is $10 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.
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 roaming room and a nightlife glittering with stars.
I found hiking trails where visitors can catch a glimpse of a mountain lion or a black bear, both residents of the park. Or float on a raft through Big Bend’s most remote scenery, Santa Elena Canyon with its 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 even offers its own border crossing so visitors can tour the tiny village of Bogillas del Carmen.
Located in West Texas, Big Bend isopen 365-days a year, 24-hours a day. Admission is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.
High Pointing at Guadalupe Mountains
Guadalupe Mountains features the high point of Texas at 8,751 feet. With a developed trail, high pointers easily reach the summit and mark another peak off their list.
With its remote wilderness, Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers dark skies and quiet hiking. El Capitan, a rugged mountain backdrop, offers over 80 miles of hiking trails, some accessible and over half open to horseback riding.
Located in West Texas along the New Mexico border, Guadalupe Mountains is open365-days a year, 24-hours a day. Admission is $5 per person for a 7-day pass.
Originally dinosaurs ruled the world. So discover a mammoth nursery herd with your family at the Waco Mammoth National Monument. In 1978 a couple of young men discovered a large bone when out fossil hunting. After the pair dug up the large bone, they took it to Baylor University for identification.
Baylor University staff identified it as the femur bone of a Columbian Mammoth from the Ice Age. Columbian Mammoths inhabited the more temperate areas of North America from Alaska to Costa Rica. Reaching 13 feet tall and weighting more than 9 tons, Columbian Mammoths are larger and less furry than their distant relatives the Woolly Mammoth.
Baylor University dispatched groups of volunteers and excavation took over 20 years. In all, the group discovered 19 mammoths killed at the same time between 65,000 and 72,000 years ago in what appears to be a flash flood. Additional floods occurred in the same spot at different times covering six additional mammoths, a Western camel, a dwarf antelope, an American alligator, a giant tortoise and the tooth of a Saber Toothed cat.
TheWaco Mammoth National Monumentis located in Central Texas. Open every day, except Thanksgiving, December 25 and January 1 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tour admission is $5 for adults and $3 for kids 4 to 12.
A Western Frontier Fort
Fort Davis offers one of the best examples of a frontier fort in the Southwest. During the 1800s, the Comanches and the Apaches made traveling on the San Antonio-El Paso Road dangerous.
This fort was strategically placed to protect mail coaches, freight wagons and emigrants traveling west to the land of gold—California. At one time, Fort Davis housed 600 soldiers, 5% of the Army at the time.
First walk from one restored building to another, find six furnished buildings. Then hear the brassy bugle bellow over the loud speaker. It transformed my boys into Army recruits.Then to their delight, my boys discovered a Gatling gun, the first machine gun, in the armory building next to the Visitors Center.
Fort Davis National Historic Park is located in West Texas and open every day, except Thanksgiving, December 25, January 1 and Martin Luther King, Jr’s Birthday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 per person for a 7-day pass.
San Antonio Missions
Long before Texas became a state or the United States became a nation, a group of Franciscan friars built five missions along the San Antonio River. Starting in 1718 with the Alamo and later the Mission San José in 1720, the Spanish friars offered the Coahuiltecan people protection and sustenance.
In this area, the Coahuiltecan people suffered from frequent Apache and Comanche attacks and European diseases. The San Antonio Missions offered protection and the Franciscan friars taught the Coahuiltecans new vocational skills along with a new religion and a language.
Recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mission Concepción,San José y San Miguel de Aguayo,Mission San Juan Capistrano andMission Espada can be explored in one day.The missions are located on Mission Road, two to three miles apart. And the Mission Hike and Bike trail is 16-miles roundtrip, connecting all the missions.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is located in San Antonio and open every day exceptThanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.. The San Antonio Missions are free.
Lyndon B Johnson National Historical Park
Explore the LBJ Ranch and see some his prize-winning cattle. Then climb abroad the president’s jet, the JetStar. Lyndon B. Johnson, or LBJ as he was commonly called, was the vice president under President John F. Kennedy. He became the 36th president after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
Born in 1908 of humble roots in Johnson City, Texas, he spent the majority of his life in politics.LBJ finished high school at 15. After graduating college he taught school.
In 1930 Johnson began his political career. For his presidential run, he campaigned on his vision of a Great Society by improving civil rights, education, transportation and protecting the environment. Many of those ideals can be traced back to his formative years in Texas.
Then in 1951 LBJ bought his uncle’s 250-acre ranch along the Pedernales River and eventually expanded it to 2700-acres. He raised 400 head of prize-winning Hereford cattle and the descendants still roam the ranch.
Located in Central Texas, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park has two districts. One in Johnson City and one 14-miles away near Stonewall.LBJ National Historical Park is free and openevery day except Thanksgiving, December 25 and January 1 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Know Before You Go:
- Since National Parks are popular destinations during school breaks and holidays–make reservations as early as possible.
- The Kemp’s turtle releases are 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 offer limited services.
- As a designated International Dark Skies Park, outdoor lighting is minimal in and around the park Big Bend. Just remember your flashlights or lanterns.
- Bring food and refillable water bottles for your visit. Food service is limited.
- The San Antonio Missions are active churches, please be respectful of ceremonies, especially on the weekends.
- Mission San Jose has a visitor center, interpretive film and park rangers.
- Watch out for venous snakes and fire ants.