The National Park Service operates more than 400 sites around the country as part of its mission to preserve natural and cultural resources for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. Established in 1916, the NPS celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and everyone is invited to the party.
Discover more national park hidden gems at texashighways.com/webextra.
National Parks Primer
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, call 806/857-6680.
Amistad National Recreation Area, call 830/775-7491.
Big Bend National Park, call 432/477-2251.
Big Thicket National Preserve, call 409/951-6700.
Fort Davis National Historic Site, call 432/426-3224.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, call 915/828-3251.
LBJ National Historical Park, call 830/868-7128.
Padre Island National Seashore, call 361/949-8068.
Big Bend became the first national park in Texas in 1935 and remained our only site until 1961, when Fort Davis joined the ranks, followed by Padre Island in 1962. Today, the state contains 16 national park service sites—a designation that includes parks, seashores, preserves, recreation areas, historical parks, memorials, monuments, and trails. In Texas, these run the gamut from windswept beaches to mountain peaks, dense forests to open prairie, structures from the 1700s to the 1960s, and tumbling rivers to placid lakes.
In short, our national park properties offer plenty of reasons to visit: camp, hike, bike, fish, swim, boat, climb, learn, re-live history, picnic, or just hang out. While most properties have a particular claim to fame—stunning natural features, for example, or interesting histories—many also offer less well-known things to do and places to see. We call these hidden gems, and here are 10 you won’t want to miss.
Big Thicket National Preserve
Big Thicket National Preserve protects what is left of a landscape that once covered more than two million acres of southeast Texas. A transition zone where swamps, Eastern deciduous forests, central plains, pine savannas, and dry sandhills meet, the Big Thicket contains some of the world’s greatest biological diversity: 60 mammal species, 86 reptile and amphibian species, nearly 1,800 species of butterflies and moths, at least 300 bird species, and more than a thousand species of plants.
Even more remarkable, four of North America’s five carnivorous plant species live in these 112,000 acres: sundew, pitcher plants, bladderwort, and butterwort. The worts grow mostly in inaccessible swampy areas, but you can spy sundew and pitcher plants on certain trails.The Sundew Trail, for example, is located in the tiny Hickory Creek Savannah Unit off FM 2827 between Village Mills and Warren. On this 1.5-mile route, look for dime-size red rosettes in the grass and, in summer, the tiny white or pink flowers of the sundew. These plants have sticky, knobbed hairs resembling drops of dew, which trap insects. The hairs are actually glands that produce enzymes to digest those insects.
In the preserve’s Turkey Creek Unit, about 4.5 miles east of Warren, the one-mile Pitcher Plant Trail passes through a large bog where you’ll see both pitcher plants and sundews. Pitcher plants
have narrow, funnel-shaped leaves
with rolled openings covered in a waxy substance with digestive juices at the bottom. Insects slip and fall into the
funnel, where tiny hairs prevent them from climbing out.
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
On this site in the Panhandle north of Amarillo, bits of distinctive, colorful flint, actually a Permian-era agatized dolomite, cover 60 acres atop a mesa. Mammoth hunters came here 13,000 years ago to make tools from this unique flint, and spear tips and arrowheads hewn from this rock have been found across the Great Plains and Southwest. More than 700 hand-dug quarry pits, as well as outlines of dwellings occupied by plains people from the 1100s to the 1400s, remain visible atop the mesa. The quarries, usually oval-shaped and spreading about six feet in diameter, have mostly filled in. Some may have been dug as recently as 500 years ago.
In 1906, geologist Charles Gould came searching for oil and gas and named the area after a cowboy who showed him around, Allen “Allie” Bates. The site, soon known as “Alibates,” became a national monument in 1965. Today, rangers lead tours of the quarry pits, providing details about the people who lived here and used this stone for centuries. The hike to reach the pits, about a mile round-trip, climbs about 170 feet and takes two hours. Reservations are required.
A hidden gem at this park: flint-knapping demonstrations by park volunteers and rangers. Flint-knapping refers to the process of chipping carefully away at the stone to create sharp projectile points such as arrowheads or tools such as knife blades. These demonstrations take place at the Visitor Center once or twice a week depending on season.
Amistad National Recreation Area
ake Amistad straddles the United States-Mexico border near Del Rio, and the recreation area extends from just below Amistad Dam to partway up the Rio Grande, Pecos, and Devils rivers. It includes part of the 8,000-square-mile Lower Pecos Canyonlands archeological region, which contains pictographs dating back more than 4,000 years. They are some of North America’s oldest and
largest examples of rock art. In Panther Cave, which is managed jointly by Amistad National Recreation Area and Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, hundreds of images cover the walls, creating a panel more than 80 feet long, along with a 10-foot-long, leaping red panther. Other images include at least four more cats and some human-like figures with complex costumes and accessories.
This truly hidden gem is accessible only by boat. A dock installed at the shelter has been temporarily removed due to low lake levels, but boaters can tie up to the rocks and clamber a few feet up to a staircase leading to a catwalk outside the cave. A fence across the cave entrance protects the paintings, and interpretive panels provide information about these pictographs, the area’s prehistoric cultures, and the need to protect Panther Cave and other sites.
Seminole Canyon State Park offers another option for viewing Panther Cave: the 7.5-mile Canyon Rim Trail, which leads to Panther Cave Overlook. Bring binoculars, as the cave is across Seminole Canyon.
Sunset at Salt Basin Guadalupe Mountains National Park
nder a vast tropical ocean that once covered parts of Texas, a 400-mile-long, horseshoe-shaped reef formed more than 260 million years ago in what became far West Texas. The sea dried up, sediment covered the reef, and some 20 to 30 million years ago, tectonic pressure caused an uplift that created the Guadalupe Mountains.
Today, the park encompasses part of the Chihuahuan Desert and surrounding mountain highlands, including 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak (the highest peak in Texas), along with numerous sheltered canyons. Visitors can enjoy more than 80 miles of trails, 10 back-country and two developed campgrounds, springs, ruins of a stagecoach station, and a historic ranch.
Salt Basin Dunes, on the west side of the park, attract little attention but offer dramatic sunsets over gypsum and red quartz sand with the western escarpment for a backdrop. These dunes cover more than 3,500 acres and range from three-foot mounds covered in plants to 60-foot hills of bare, glistening sand. The gypsum dunes, made of a fine, snowy-white sand similar to that at White Sands National Monu-ment in New Mexico, brilliantly reflect colors from the setting sun. From the Pine Springs Visitor Center, drive 23 miles west on Highway 62/180 and turn right on FM 1576.
In 17 miles, turn right on Williams Road and travel 7.5 miles to the parking area. Hike about a mile to the dunes, run around on the sand, and linger for the day’s colorful end. Be aware that this day-use area closes 30 minutes after sunset, and you are about 50 miles from the park headquarters and more than 80 from El Paso.
Padre Island National Seashore
he seashore extends 70 miles, the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. With the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Laguna Madre on the other, the park features beach, dunes, prairies, and wind tidal flats. Before becoming a national seashore in 1962, the island served as a home for nomadic Karankawa, a stopover for Spanish explorers, a haven for shipwrecked sailors, ranch land, and a Navy bombing range. Today, it is famous for nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and abundant bird life.
Gulf of Mexico currents bring an astonishing variety of things onto the island’s beaches, creating a veritable beachcomber’s paradise. Look for seashells such as lightning whelks, the state seashell; Southern moon snails; lettered olives; and Atlantic cockles, a classic fan-shaped seashell. You also may find sea beans, driftwood, and almost every kind of human detritus from lumber to plastic buckets and bottles. Visitors can collect and take up to a five-gallon bucket of shells, as long as none of them contains a living creature. The best shelling happens after storms and on unmaintained beaches (beyond Mile Marker 5). Identify your finds with the help of free brochures and seashell guidebooks for sale in the Malaquite Visitor Center.
The Malaquite area includes rest-rooms, showers, a car-free stretch of beach, and a developed campground. Primitive tent and RV camping are allowed anywhere on the beach with a permit; past Mile Marker 5, you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Big Bend National Park
his park’s landscape ranges from high mountains to rugged desert and 118 miles of riverfront along the Rio Grande—800,000 acres in all. Many visitors come for the 200 miles of designated trails, dramatic scenery, hot springs, and world-class geology. Thanks to this park’s location in a remote corner of Texas, though, you’ll also find some of the darkest skies in the country here. Many Texans see the Milky Way here for the very first time, and you can spot some 2,000 stars on a clear Big Bend night—compared to a few hundred in a medium-sized city and a mere handful in a metropolis like Houston.
Rangers and volunteer astronomers present periodic viewings of constellations, nebula, star clusters, and other celestial bodies visible to the naked eye. But there’s no need to wait; simply look up and take in the night sky almost anywhere in the park. If you want to scan the entire horizon without mountains in the way, though, stargaze from a riverside campground, Sotol Vista, or one of the road pull-outs in the low country. Chief interpreter David Elkowitz recommends the pullout near Mile 15.3 on the road to Rio Grande Village. You can see plenty with the unaided eye, but binoculars make stars really pop.
Throughout human history, our ancestors experienced night skies sparkling with stars, inspiring science, religion, philosophy, art, music, and literature. Under Big Bend’s skies, we can reconnect to our place in the universe.
Fort Davis National Historic Site
From 1854 until 1891, troops at Fort Davis, named for U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, protected travelersand goods on the road west from San Antonio to El Paso and the gold fields of California. In 1961, it became a national historic site. Today, it represents one of the best remaining examples of a frontier military post in the American Southwest, featuring six buildings restored to their 1880s appearance, along with 100 ruins.
One of the finest hikes in the state goes from the historic site, nestled in a box canyon near Limpia Creek, to adjacent Davis Mountains State Park. Start from the fort at the end of Officer’s Row, ascend the 300-foot cliff on switchbacks, and walk to the overlook for a panoramic view of the sprawling fort. From here, you can complete the Tall Grass Loop (8/10 mile) before taking the North Ridge Trail a little more than a half-mile to the state park boundary. In the state park, hike about two miles on the Old CCC Trail or roughly three on Skyline Drive Trail to the interpretive center. Both routes offer incredible views of the surrounding countryside; Skyline Drive Trail passes an old lava flow and buildings constructed in the 1930s by Civilian Conservation Corps workers.
LBJ National Historical Park
he 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, spent much of his life on this ranch outside of Johnson City. The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park includes the LBJ Ranch, Johnson’s boyhood home, and a visitor’s center in Johnson City, which has exhibits about the life of the President and First Lady.
Some 14 miles west of town at the LBJ State Park and Historic Site’s Visitor Center, you can pick up a free driving permit and a map for self-guided driving tours of the ranch. Stops along the tour include the Johnson family cemetery and the ranch house, known as the Texas White House.
Two stops you won’t want to miss: Johnson’s private plane, dubbed Air Force One-Half, and the ranch show barn. The former resides at the Airplane Hangar, which serves as the visitor
center on the ranch property. You can step inside the cabin of this restored Lockheed JetStar aircraft and peer into the cockpit and cabin.
The LBJ Ranch still operates as a working cattle ranch, one of only two in the national park system, managing 125 head of Hereford cattle descended from Johnson’s original herd. You’ll see them grazing in pastures on the driving tour, and ranch wranglers bring a calf and a bull to the show barn every day to demonstrate roping and other typical ranch activities.
Austin-based writer Melissa Gaskill escapes to the state’s parks whenever she has an opportunity.