Spanning over 268,000 square miles, Texas is home to some of the most stunning and varied topography the North American continent has to offer. From the coastal plains of the Gulf of Mexico to the desert valleys streaking from one end of the Trans-Pecos region to the other, there’s undoubtedly much to see and do in our great state.
If you’re looking to experience more of Texas’ natural beauty, then plan a visit to one of the 95 spectacular Texas State Parks. There, you’ll find plenty of outdoor adventure. Here are just a few of our favorites, all of them located within driving distance of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park (Canyon; Randall County)
Also known as the Grand Canyon of Texas, this Panhandle jewel is home the second largest canyon in the country (you can guess which is first). If you’ve never made the journey out toward Amarillo, you’re in for a treat. The terrain you’ll discover is part of the Caprock Escarpment. Here, the rolling plains give way to major changes in elevation, including the remarkable cliffs and “hoodoos” — distinctive, multi-colored rock outcroppings — of the Palo Duro canyonlands.
Within the Park, you’ll find 30 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails, plus numerous campsite options, from the fully-functional (cabins) to the primitive (patches of ground on which to pitch a tent). There’s culture in the canyon as well. Every summer, the Park’s outdoor Pioneer Amphitheater hosts the actors, dancers and singers of Texas, a musical produced by the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation. No matter what time of year you choose to visit, Palo Duro State Park is well worth the six-hour road trip from Dallas.
Dinosaur Valley State Park (Glen Rose; Somervell County)
At just a short one-and-a-half-hour jaunt from Dallas, Dinosaur Valley State Park is a popular weekend escape for city-dwellers. The Park supports plenty of the usual activities — hiking, biking, swimming, fishing — but the real attraction lies in its namesake. Dinosaur Valley is home to a preserved set of footprints left by these magnificent creatures in what used to be the muddy edge of an ancient ocean.
However, do check the conditions before you make the trip. Since the prints are located in the bed of the Paluxy River, they are not always visible during the wetter parts of the year. But as long as you time it right, your journey to Dinosaur Valley State Park will be a back-in-time adventure you won’t soon forget.
Mother Neff State Park (Moody; Coryell County)
Located just south of Waco, Mother Neff State Park is as historic as it is beautiful. As one of the first Parks in the state’s system, its hardwood forests can claim some of the oldest oak, elm and pecan trees in the region. 3.5 miles of trails provide visitors with access to the Leon River, an observation tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s from locally quarried stone, bird-watching areas and a cave frequented by the indigenous Tonkawa peoples in centuries past. The Park’s new camping loop has 20 full hookup sites as well as 15 river-adjacent tent sites. Getting away from it all at Mother Neff State Park is as easy as taking a two-hour drive from Dallas.
Caddo Lake State Park (Karnack; Harrison County)
This State Park, nestled deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas, is a quiet, swampy haven with rich Spanish moss framing the many twists and turns of Caddo Lake — the state’s lone natural lake. Think of the water as a mysterious 26,000-acre maze, with more than 50 miles of additional paddling trails nearby. Altogether, the waterways house a rich ecosystem that supports over 70 varieties of fish, not to mention more than a couple of alligators. You can bring your own canoe (or kayak) from home or simply rent one at the Park after you make the three-hour drive from Dallas. If you plan to stay overnight, choose from among plentiful campsites featuring different amenities, screened shelters or even historic cabins.
Extra Credit: Big Bend Ranch State Park (Presidio; Presidio County)
Go big or go home. At least that seems to be the motto for the largest State Park in Texas: Big Bend Ranch. This breathtaking space stretches almost 500 square miles along the Rio Grande and offers 238 miles of multi-use trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
But this isn’t your average walk in the park. Expect a dry, desert setting with remote mountains, scenic outlooks and canyons steep enough to challenge even the most rugged outdoorsman. The Park also offers hunting and fishing opportunities, areas for swimming and floating and some of the best stargazing in the entire state. Do note that Big Bend State Park is a considerable drive from Dallas — about eight hours all told — so you’ll want to save this one for a long weekend.