Photo by Kevin Stillman

Now that the school calendar is winding down, it’s time to embrace a fresh agenda for the summer. For families, that means planning activities for the kids that the adults can also enjoy.

Here’s a list of 10 family-oriented destinations—some new, some under-the-radar that you might not have visited yet with your kids—that range from fully accessible playspaces to shady hiking trails. Sprinkled in are indoor spots for when the heat just gets to be too much. And remember to bring water and sunscreen when heading outdoors.

Enjoy the shade of 100-foot pines

If you’re seeking a nice shady summer hiking or camping spot, head to Tyler State Park, where you can also enjoy a refreshing dip in the waters of the 64-acre spring-fed lake or spend some time fishing for catfish, crappie, perch, or bass (you don’t need a fishing license to fish from the shore in a state park, and you can rent fishing equipment here through the Tackle Loaner Program). 

Hikers can trek the 13 miles of trails underneath the cool canopy of 100-foot-tall pine trees. You may want to plan this trip for later this summer, when a brand-new headquarters and visitors center is expected to open after July 4. In the new center, visitors can learn updated interpretive historical information about this park, which dates back to 1941, with some of the original structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.


Challenge yourself to new heights

If your family seeks loftier goals, you can find them at Texas TreeVentures, an aerial adventure course in The Woodlands

Offering a series of courses, this park does not leave you stuck with doing only a specific one (and waiting around with other visitors in the process). There are three levels set at different heights and about 100 different elements, including swings, ladders, and tightropes, that test your agility and bravery. The park is operated by The Woodlands Township Parks and Recreation Department. 

Book your adventure before you go and, if you have time and any energy left, visit the hiking and bike trails at next door George Mitchell Nature Preserve


Photo by Will van Overbeek

Watch the bats take flight

Summer is peak bat-watching season in Texas. Throughout the Hill Country, Mexican free-tailed mama bats come to give birth to their pups in some of the biggest colonies in the world. Bracken Cave, located north of San Antonio, has the distinction of being the largest in the world, with some 15 million bats nesting here and taking to the skies for their evening meal of insects. 

For you and your kids to experience the wonders of nature in action at this site, reservations are required. Find out more information about scheduling a visit here.


Have an epic adventure

Since Grand Prairie opened Epic Central in 2018, the 172-acre entertainment district filled with play parks, restaurants, and more, has amped up the all-ages fun factor every year. 
For pool lovers, there’s Epic Waters, an indoor waterpark with tons of daring slides and a fully retractable roof (pro tip: bring your own towels). 

Within a 20-minute walk (or a 5-minute drive) is Bolder Adventure Park, where there’s not only an indoor ropes course but also a sculpted mountain that almost reaches the park’s 75-foot air-pressurized dome roof. The two challenging climbing courses make you feel like you’re scaling a real mountain. (I was legitimately shaking while crossing one of the tightropes that my 13-year-old scaled with ease.) The park also features slides that you can race down with your kids on inner tubes, a foam artillery blaster arena, bumper cars, and a giant jump pad.

Nearby is PlayGrand Adventures, an all-abilities playground with inclusive swings and an in-ground merry-go-round for kids who have cognitive, sensory, or social/emotional challenges.


Go to the playground at night

This year, a brand new glow-in-the-dark playground opened in Farmers Branch, 15 miles northwest of Dallas—and though Joya is beautiful by day, it’s even more spectacular all lit up at night. With 18,000 square feet of space for little ones and bigger kids, too, Joya (which means jewel in Spanish) sparkles with colorfully lit slides, hammocks, swings, and a 27-foot sphere. To get a reprieve from the midday summer heat while getting kids outside and active, this destination playground is great for some nighttime play.


Photo courtesy Dig World

Dig in the dirt to your heart’s content

Allowing kids (and, let’s be honest, their parents as well) to live out their dream of operating construction equipment, Dig World in Katy is a small but mighty digger park that delivers on its promise. 

Owner Jacob Robinson developed Dig World in honor of his son, now 9, who contracted bacterial meningitis at age 2 and now has disabilities as a result. “I wanted to create something where we can bring people together, bring families together because we realize life is precious, and so we wanted to do something truly unique,” Robinson says.

With just a handful of attractions, the park can be explored in an hour. All equipment is real equipment including utility task vehicles, excavators, and skid-steer loaders that have been retrofitted with safety precautions. Events are also regularly scheduled just for families with special needs.

Tip: Save this one for a not-so-scorching hot day if you can, as there is little shade (or plan to hit up either Typhoon Texas or Slick City, a “waterless” waterpark, both located nearby). 


Beat the heat by going underground

While venturing underneath the earth in a dimly lit cistern might seem spooky, there’s nothing to fear at Houston’s underground Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, an underground water reservoir built in 1926 that is now open to the public for tours. Learn about the history of the cistern, experience its magnificent sound echoes, and enjoy the work of artists who occasionally perform in this space. There are weekly sound meditations as well. 

“There’s such an emotional response from people when they go inside the cistern,” says Rosemarie Croll, who guides tours and even sings a song she wrote and composed especially for the cistern—in many different languages—as part of her tours. “It’s a very special space, and it’s my job to make sure everybody enjoys it like I do.”


Photo by J. Griffis Smith

Protect the sea turtles 

Want to get your kids more interested in conservation and sea life? Head to Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island or Corpus Christi’s Texas Sealife Center (next to the Texas State Aquarium) to see some rescued turtles up close and learn more about what it takes to protect them. For instance, if you’re heading to the Texas coast this summer, be aware that it’s nesting season for sea turtles, so pay special attention to rules about covering up any holes you dig at the beach with sand, so as not to inadvertently trap any of the turtles.


Head to an indoor all-abilities play park

After her daughter Bryce was diagnosed with Alström Syndrome at age 3, Cassie Johnson wanted to create something in her community that would connect other families dealing with pediatric medical complications or disabilities. So in late 2023, she opened an indoor play park in Lubbock that was a safe place for kids of all abilities.  

Milestones Development and Play Park has a two-story climbing structure, a rock wall, a playhouse, and an area for kids under 5 called Lollypop Land. The park was designed in partnership with local hospitals and there are plenty of options for kids to work on their motor skills, social play, and sensory development.


Learn something new with the family

One of the coolest things about the Lower Colorado River Authority parks is the programming offered at more than 40 LCRA parks throughout the year—much of it geared toward families. One year, my crew took a survival skills course at McKinney Roughs Nature Park, where we learned primitive fire building and also sampled various insects. Another time, we toured Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area by UTV. 

Keep tabs on the summer programming coming up near you (events range from Constellation Kayaking to Campfire Cooking to a Family Nature Quest) and get signed up.

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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