The National Park Service turns 100 this year.
From Big Bend to South Padre, here are 16 sites
to visit in the Lone Star State.
You might have traipsed through the desert in the Big Bend, hurdled green-gray waves at Padre Island and explored the boyhood home of Lyndon B. Johnson.
But have you seen a bug-eating pitcher plant in the Big Thicket, traced your finger along the wagon wheel rut of a centuries-old road or waded through a field of seagrass where the first battle of the Mexican-American War took place?
You can do all that — and lots more — at National Park Service sites located in Texas.
On Aug. 25, the nation will celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. Sixteen of the service’s 400-plus parks are located right here in the Lone Star State.
To learn more about our homegrown sites, we checked with Lynn Boswell, producer of the Texas PBS documentary, “The National Parks of Texas: In Contact With Beauty,” which was released earlier this year. Boswell spent two years traveling the state visiting the parks and now is working on a guidebook highlighting them.
“We have mountains and deserts in our park system. We have history from a 260-million-year-old reef to 20th century political history — and we have everything in between,” she says. “No matter what you’re into, you can find a park where you can explore that,” she says.
1. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Native Americans have quarried the high-quality, colorful flint deposited here for least 13,000 years, chipping it into stone tools and trading it across North America. Some describe the ribbon of flint found here as tie-dyed, because it’s swirled in layers of red, black, gray and gold. Visitors can take a guided tour of the quarry, which overlooks a barren plain that hasn’t changed much over the centuries.
“You can stand where people were working, and see debris left from centuries of quarrying,” Boswell says. “It’s one of those parks where you feel privileged to be there.”
Located in Fritch. Visitors center open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; guided tours 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Free. Call 806-857-3151 or 806-857-6680 for reservations; nps.gov/alfl/index.htm.
2. Amistad National Recreation Area
Rather be fishing? Head to Amistad National Recreation Area, named for the Spanish word meaning “friendship,” which hosts dozens of bass fishing tournaments each year.It’s the second most-visited National Park Service site in Texas, behind the Missions in San Antonio. And besides fishing, visitors flock here for swimming, camping, kayaking and hiking.
Don’t miss the larger-than-life interpretation of a panther at aptly-named Panther Cave, which you can only reach by water. Monarchs migrate through the park each fall, too.The Texas-Mexico border, which cuts down the middle of the lake, is marked by buoys.
“To someone used to Texas lakes, it feels a whole lot more exotic, Boswell says. “You really feel like you’re on the lake in nature and not on a lake in the middle of a neighborhood.”
Located in Del Rio. Open daily. Free; $4 for lake-use pass for boats. 830-775-7491, nps.gov/amis/index.htm.
From a car, the Chihuahuan Desert scrolls by like a huge roll of weathered newsprint — a blur of grays and creams, with smudges the color of coffee stains splashed here and there. Get out of your vehicle, though, and the whole experience changes. That nondescript background turns into the spindly arms of an ocotillo and the pudgy pads of a prickly pear. It’s green and brown and gold and purple, and out there in the midst of it, you can smell the tang of the dirt and the desert scrub. You’ll probably snag your shins on cat’s claw, but you might also spot a bristly javelina, a furry tarantula or a meandering black bear.
Hiking ranks supreme here, and if you’ve got the legs — and time — for it, consider the quad-busting, 13-mile hike along the South Rim Trail. You’ll find yourself at the top of a 2,000-foot cliff staring out at the desert far below, which looks like the rumpled folds of a huge swath of rhino hide.
Located in Far West Texas. Open daily. Admission $25 per vehicle. 432-477-2251, nps.gov/bibe/index.htm.
4. Big Thicket National Preserve
Think of the Big Thicket as Mother Nature’s mashup of ecosystems. The park is all about diversity — long leaf pine forests converge with wetland savannas and swampy bayous. In all, the preserve, which is made up of a series of separate units, covers more than 112,000 acres in seven counties.
And heads up: Four of the known types of carnivorous plants found in North America live here, and you’ll have a good chance of seeing a pitcher plant turning a wayward insect into its own slow-cooked meal.
Start with a stop at the Big Thicket National Preserve Visitor Center to take in a 15-minute orientation film, then strike out on foot or in a kayak or canoe. You’ll find 40 miles of hiking trails, plus creeks, bayous and the Neches River to explore. Just beware of the mosquitoes.
Located in Beaumont. Open daily. Free. 409-951-6800, nps.gov/bith/index.htm.
5. Chamizal National Memorial
What happens when a shifting river creates a border dispute between two countries? In El Paso, a dispute lasting more than 100 years ended when President Adolfo Lopez Mateos of Mexico and President John F. Kennedy signed a treaty. Three years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson established this urban park in one of the poorest ZIP codes in the state to commemorate that treaty.
Today it’s home to the Chamizal National Memorial Cultural Center, which includes a museum exhibit and a theater that hosts a summer concert series and a spring drama festival.
Located in El Paso. Open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Free; fee for performances. 915-532-7273, nps.gov/cham/index.htm.
6. El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail
Travel this 2,850-mile route across Texas, from the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass to Louisiana, and you’ll feel the culture change. “The food changes, the music changes, street names change,” Boswell says.
Native Americans, Franciscan friars, and French and Spanish settlers all traveled the road. Points of interest along the way include the San Antonio missions, Comal Springs, and the Caddo Mounds in East Texas. At McKinney Falls State Park in Austin, visitors can see wheel ruts carved into the limestone where the trail crossed Onion Creek.
“Even though it’s been hundreds of years, there’s still a scar on the land,” Boswell says. “El Camino is about connecting cultures.”
7. El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail
Not all parks feature centralized chunks of land, dotted with trees, trails and picnic tables. This one traces three centuries of history along a 404-mile Spanish Colonial road that stretches from El Paso to Santa Fe. Exploring it means stopping at museums, churches, government buildings and original trail segments along the way to get a sampling of the cultural heritage that blends Spain, Mexico and the American Southwest.
The Texas portion of the “royal road,” which originally extended to Mexico City, includes the historic border town of San Elizario, 17 miles south of El Paso, one of the first places the Spanish came into Texas.Today it features an emerging art scene, a museum and a beautiful adobe chapel dating back to the 1870s.
From El Paso to Santa Fe, N.M. Open daily. Free; nominal fees at some related historic sites and interpretive facilities. 505-988-6098, nps.gov/elca/index.htm
RELATED: Tracing native trails around Austin
Close your eyes and imagine an Old West fort and you might picture the rows of brick buildings found here. The fort served as a protective post for mail coaches, freight wagons and people traveling to California to cash in on the Gold Rush. Poke your head in the fort’s hospital, now being restored. And take note of the fort’s significance among Buffalo soldiers — every regiment of the black volunteers who fought for the Union during the Civil War were at some point stationed here.
Located in Fort Davis. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $15 per vehicle or $7 per person. 432-426-3224, nps.gov/foda/index.htm.
9. Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The steep, 8.4-mile round-trip hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak might leave your quads burning, but the payoff is huge — a view from “the top of Texas,” the highest point in the state. Park officials are planning an overnight campout and sunrise service near the top Aug. 24-25, so you can celebrate the park service’s centennial by watching sunrise from 8,751 feet.
But it’s not only about the peak. The park is home to an ancient fossil reef, and remnant hardwood forests tucked into its canyons put on a blazing display of fall color.
Located in Salt Flat. Open daily. Admission is $5 ages 16 and older. 915-828-3251, nps.gov/gumo/index.htm.
A lake, in the middle of the wind-swept high plains of the Texas Panhandle? Yep, and this man-made oasis, created by the damming of the Canadian River, makes a good jumping off spot if you’re planning to explore the adjacent Alibates Flint Quarries. Kayaking, boating, hiking, paddle boarding and hunting top the to-do list on this, the largest body of water within a 200-mile radius. ADD MEDIA ADD HTML
Located in Fritch. Open daily. Free. 806-857-3151, nps.gov/state/tx/index.htm.
11. Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
This park is broken into two parts: President Johnson’s boyhood home and the settlement where his grandparents first put down roots in Johnson City, and the LBJ Ranch 14 miles west of town near Stonewall.
“One of the best things is what they’re doing to keep the park relevant for right now,” Boswell says. “A barbecue in the fall, a bike ride in the spring, outdoor movies in the summer. They’re really thinking creatively.”
Located in Johnson City and Stonewall. Open daily. All first floor tours of the Texas White House are fee free Aug. 25-28 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. 830-868-7128, nps.gov/lyjo/index.htm.
12. Padre Island National Seashore
Splash in the waves. Scrape together a sandcastle. Ponder the Spanish ships that wrecked off the coastline hundreds of years ago. Sail, fish or watch for birds, including the candy-colored Roseate spoonbill. And if you don’t mind a little sand in your sleeping bag, pack your tent and pitch it at one of the park’s five public camping areas. This is the largest barrier island in the world, and it protects 70 miles of beach, dunes and tidal flats and serves as a nesting ground for the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle.
“It’s not just about the beach,” Boswell says. “It’s beach to bay — the whole island, from the Gulf to the dunes to the Laguna Madre on the bay side.”
Located in Corpus Christi. Open daily. Admission is $10 per vehicle; additional fees for camping and boat ramp use. 361-949-8068, nps.gov/pais/index.htm.
13. Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park
The field where the first battle of the Mexican-American War took place doesn’t look much different today than it did on May 8, 1846. It’s still covered in waist high, razor-sharp sea grass and surrounded by brush-covered rises. Catch one of the monthly living history demonstrations, attend an archaeology fair in October or glimpse 8,000 flickering candles at the Memorial Illumination in November that honors solders on both sides who took part in the battle. The war lasted two years and changed the way our maps look.
Today, the undeveloped 3,400 acres — one of the last remaining chunks of coastal plain — is also home to a variety of plant and animal life.
Located in Brownsville. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Free. 956-541-2785, nps.gov/paal/index.htm.
Congress designated a 196-mile stretch of the Rio Grande, including 69 miles that cut through Big Bend National Park, as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1978. The best way to explore it? With a guide familiar with the terrain. Make sure the flow is adequate, then check the park’s website for a list of local outfitters who offer trips through Mariscal Canyon, Boquillas Canyon or the lower canyons.
Fewer than 1,000 people a year make the trip. If you do, plan on at least three days. You’ll ride a rare ribbon of free-flowing water through narrow canyons, past crumbling ruins of old candelilla wax operations and prehistoric sites and alongside rock layers exposed by faults, erosion and uplift. “It’s undammed, untamed and makes a great river journey,” Boswell says.
Located in Southwest Texas. Open daily. Admission is free; if you float the portions inside Big Bend National Park, you will be charged for entry into the national park. 432-477-2251, nps.gov/rigr/index.htm.
15. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Head south to San Antonio to explore a series of four missions — Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada — all situated within an 8-mile stretch. (The Alamo isn’t part of the national park, but you can easily tack it on to a trip.)
When they were built, the churches were the focal point of each mission, with living quarters inside the compounds and croplands and ranches outside the walls. An order of Spanish friars called Franciscans lived in them, converting the local people to Catholicism and spreading their culture. The missions flourished until the 1780s, when they declined due to Apache and Comanche hostility, poor military support and disease. The churches are still active parishes that hold regular services today.
Because the missions are spaced an average of 1.5 to 2 miles apart, park visitors traditionally have driven from one to the next. That’s changing with the Mission Reach hike-and-bike trail, which links them all and crisscrosses the San Antonio River along the way. It also provides easy access to a gristmill and 270-year-old irrigation system with a dam and aqueduct.
Located in San Antonio. Open daily, hours vary at each of the four missions. Free. 210-932-1001, nps.gov/saan/index.htm.
16. Waco Mammoth National Monument
It’s been more than 35 years since two men who were out hunting snakes pulled the first mammoth bones from a dry creek bed on the outskirts of Waco. Since then, 26 Columbian mammoths, towering relatives of modern elephants, have been uncovered at the Waco Mammoth site, and scientists think more might be buried on the 105-acre property a few miles west of Interstate 35.
The site opened in 2010 as a city park but became a national park site last summer. Instead of a single bone or tooth, it represents a treasure trove of mammoths, most of which appeared to have died at the same time —making it a significant find for scientists. Some of the bones dug up here are on display at the nearby Mayborn Museum, where you can learn about the dig from a different perspective.
Located at 6220 Steinbeck Bend Drive in Waco. Open 11a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday. Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors and students, $3 children. 254-750-7946, nps.gov/waco/index.htm.
For more about these parks:
Lynn Boswell’s documentary, “The National Parks of Texas: In Contact With Beauty,” is a Texas PBS project funded, in part, by National Parks Conservation Association and the Big Bend Conservancy. Watch it online at pbs.org/video/2365731394.