Size matters in Texas, because the various national parks that pepper its backcountry are nothing but immense (one is even said to dwarf the entire state of Rhode Island!). In fact, it’s possible to spend years wandering in the wilderness here without emerging, and first-time visitors should dispel any illusions of arriving, getting the t-shirt and leaving – for good reason, too.
Making a jaunt to any one of these top five parks is guaranteed to reveal some chart-topping natural wonder, majestic panorama or curious organic formation, while hikers, mountain bikers, aspiring botanists, history buffs, wildlife lovers, mountaineers and budding anthropologists alike all have something to aim for!
Over 100,000 acres of wetlands and forested terrain here is hailed as one of the most biodiverse regions in all of North America. At one time, it’s thought that the bayous and woodlands of the Big Thicket played host to more plant species than anywhere on the continent, and, while that may have been one ice age ago too many for tourists today, there’s still in excess of 100 different species sprouting from the fertile grounds. Visitors after something a little more spine-tingling can head for the so-called Ghost Road, where the mysterious Light of Saratoga is said to have once lead Spanish conquistadors to their death amidst the thicket.
Situated just a stone’s throw from the border that the battle commemorated at this park helped to define, the Palo Alto Battlefield is now one of Texas’ best introductions to the Mexican-American War that raged in these lands for nearly two years. On-site visitors are invited to wander amidst the preserved cannons and trenches that marked the battle lines of 1846, while there’s also a comprehensive exhibition centre that does well to detail the tactical outcome of the conflict as a whole.
Nature lovers and wildlife buffs making their way down the Texan seaboard would be remiss to skip the Padre Island National Park. Perhaps most notably it’s one of the few places on the Atlantic coast still home to the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, seen nesting at the park at certain times of the year, while the park also boasts an array of mammals, from wild coyote to the rare white tailed deer, which can be found roaming the undulating sand dunes of the Laguna Madre in the west.
Perched on the very roof of Texas, the grand peak of Guadalupe dominates the horizon here, soaring more than 8,000 metres into the sky. Around it, the majestic silhouettes of the Guadalupe Mountains spread out westwards, offering hikers a quintessentially Texan backcountry, where trails wind and wiggle their way through gorges and canyons to boot. For the history buff, the mountains also offer a great introduction to the terrain of the old stagecoach route, and it’s possible to spy out some of the frontier posts that once helped lead the way into the wild American southwest.
Big Bend is like the Petra of America, only bigger, much bigger. Its vast swathes of Chihuahuan Desert land is peppered with dramatic mountain peaks and deep gorges, where the waters of the Rio Grande have been carving curious monoliths for thousands of years. It’s also home to a number of great archaeological sites, where diggers have unearthed relics nearing 10,000-years-old. Big Bend has also long been famed for its abundance of wildlife and natural habitats, while geologists have long been drawn to the stratified bluffs of Persimmon Gap, where they can peer back hundreds of millions of years into earth’s metamorphic past.