For many of us, a road trip to a national park is a beloved ritual shared across generations—an all-American family vacation to places filled with natural beauty, world-changing history, and great childhood memories. Our national parks have always offered a chance for families to spend time together and discover something new. Today, some parks also offer the possibility of a few days in the rarest environment of all: a place without wi-fi or a cell signal.
The National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and rangers at parks across the country are inviting you to celebrate with them. Sixteen of our country’s 411 national park sites are in Texas, and they offer a rich mix of activities and adventures for families to explore. From March 2015 to January 2016, I had the chance to visit national park sites across Texas to make a documentary for Texas PBS. Along the way, I built a long list of experiences I want to share with my kids. You can see the documentary about our state’s parks on KLRN, April 26 at 7:00 P.M. Then to truly experience our parks, it’s time to plan a family road trip!
Here’s a rundown of the adventures that are waiting for you. From day trips to week-long vacations, filled with history or nature and experiences for toddlers to teens, the parks offer something for every family. Each park offers a mix of recreation and education—a chance to take away some new knowledge along with your new memories. No matter which park you visit, make sure you take time to talk with the rangers who are on duty. Every one of them has a huge amount of knowledge, and they love to share that with visitors.
National Parks In San Antonio
This one is no secret if you live in San Antonio. But have you taken the time to really explore the missions with your family? It’s a chance to see where the culture that gave us the gifts of Fiesta, Mexican food, and so much more was born. And you might find some things that surprise you. The park’s trip planner is a great place to start.
Mission San Jose offers a chance to learn about daily life in a mission, with furnished homes, ovens, and a plaza where Native Americans and Spanish priests lived together. If you’re lucky, park ranger Tom Castanos will be on duty. He’s a world-class storyteller who has a gift for engaging kids of any age, with the perfect mix of laughter and learning. At Mission Espada, you can visit ruins and a beautiful acequia that still carries water. At San Juan, you will find a nature trail that takes you to a wild stretch of the San Antonio River and a working farm that the mission’s early residents would recognize.
If the weather is right, the River Walk Hike & Bike Path is a terrific way to travel from site to site—and it’s stroller-friendly for families with young kids. It’s a great chance for young bike riders to practice their skills without worries about traffic. And the full trail—more than 15 miles one way—offers a terrific challenge for families with kids old enough for a longer ride.
You’re also invited to visit for mass every Sunday. The missions continue to function as parish churches, run by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. No matter what your religion, it’s a moving experience to share a service in the missions, where San Antonians have worshiped for almost 300 years. Father David Garcia’s early service at Mission Concepción includes mariachi music and is especially popular with visitors.
San Antonio’s second national park site is as much a treasure hunt as a park. El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail runs from Laredo into Louisiana, tracing routes that carried settlers through Texas for hundreds of years. These routes brought French and Anglo culture south, and Spanish and Mexican culture north. And if you’ve been to the missions San Pedro Springs or Comanche Lookout Park, you have already explored part of the Camino. The trail is a collection of sites (think beads on a string) and of routes between those sites (think the string). Signs help you find the sites and routes. Historic sites in town include San Fernando Cathedral, Casa Navarro and the Governor’s Palace. Just south of town, in the Medina River Greenway, you can see traces of the route at a creek crossing used for so long that marks from countless travelers remain on the land. The route even passes through neighborhoods. If you are driving on Nacogdoches Road between Tuxedo Avenue to Cibolo Creek, you are on the Camino Real.
This park is a great one to explore with kids who like the idea of a scavenger hunt. It’s also a fun pit stop on road trips when you’re heading north or south or east. Aquarena Springs in San Marcos and Comal Springs in New Braunfels were both important stops on the trail. To the south, Floresville has many sites that celebrate the Camino’s history. To the east, you can experience the Camino at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, where Caddo Culture Days each spring offer families a chance to experience hands-on activities highlighting Native American culture and history. The trail’s Facebook site has a huge collection of resources to help you find the trail as you travel across Texas.
Day Trips & Weekend Excursions
For kids interested in fossils and prehistoric life, the state’s newest national park site is a must-visit. The Waco Mammoth National Monument is off I-35, just a few minutes west of downtown, and it’s well worth a pit stop or a special trip. The site was discovered by a teenager in 1978 and excavated by Baylor University. Paleontologists discovered the world’s only nursery herd of Columbian Mammoths—two groups of mothers and babies that died at a bend in a flooded river, in events that happened thousands of years apart. The site is rich enough to engage tweens and teens, and straightforward enough to excite little ones, too. Many of the bones have been left in place where they were found. Visitors enter a shelter that protects them, traveling along a walkway that gives a terrific overhead view of the bones. The skeletons are very clear, even for young visitors. You see tusks, ribs, legs, skulls—all in place where the mammoths died. Admission is free, but you will want to take a guided tour, which costs $5 for adults and less for kids. That’s how you will get the whole story about how the mammoths lived, how they died, how they were found, and how the site was saved. After your visit to the park, stop by Baylor University’s Mayborn Museum, where the skeletons that were removed from the site are kept. You can also make a trip to Waco’s Cameron Park Zoo. The elephants there offer a memorable look at the connection between the past and present.
For our kids, President Lyndon Johnson is ancient history. A visit to the Johnson family’s ranch is like a time machine to the 1960s. For kids interested in politics or presidents, the Texas White House tour offers a great window into Johnson’s presidency. You can also visit the home where Johnson was born, and the house in Johnson City where he grew up—both part of the park. Fans of transportation can see a collection of vintage cars and LBJ’s personal airplane.
A year-long calendar of special events draws families to this park again and again. The LBJ 100 Bike Tour brings visitors to the ranch each spring, with long routes for serious riders and shorter ones that are just right even for kids who still need training wheels. You can also visit for barbecue on the Pedernales in the fall, a tree lighting at the holidays, outdoor movies every summer and a picnic and dance called Fandangle in May. The park’s website and its friends group let you know what’s ahead.
This beach offers just as much sand and surf as any other spot on the Texas coast, but it also comes with special extras that are offered by park staff. Your family bucket list should definitely include an early-morning release of baby sea turtles in the park. Each year, the park releases thousands of endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles into the ocean—part of a program to rescue the species. Ranger Patrick Gamman calls them the “Oreos of the Sea” because that’s exactly how big they are. Hundreds of people gather for each public release, and it’s an exciting and moving experience. You and your kids will have a chance to ask questions, see a baby turtle up close, and watch dozens of newly-hatched turtles take their first steps into the ocean. Rangers will even take your phone or camera to capture a tiny turtle closeup. The park’s website offers information about seeing a release. To be sure you catch one, plan to spend a few days. Late June and early July are peak hatchling season, but releases happen all summer.
The park offers many other special programs for visitors, including many with hands-on activities perfect for kids of all ages. One of the best focuses on animals that live in the surf. Rangers bring nets, scoops, and tanks then help visitors catch, identify, and observe a wide variety of creatures. It’s something you won’t find at other Texas beaches, and it’s a terrific window into the life that surrounds you at the water’s edge.
The park’s bayside includes the Laguna Madre, a shallow bay where you can fish, windsurf, and kayak. The gentle water here is a great place to get very young kids into the water without worries about big waves. Adventurers can hike through the park’s dunes (but watch for rattlesnakes!), travel miles down the beach, and experience primitive camping on the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world. And don’t forget about the park in the winter. The off-season offers a great chance to see a different side of the park, with bird-watching and walks on winter beaches.
Fans of history and shipwrecks can learn more about the park at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, in an exhibit of artifacts from a Spanish ship that ran aground in what’s now the park in 1554.
Amistad National Recreation Area in Del Rio offers a huge range of recreation on the border: boating, camping, fishing, hiking, kayaking, horseback riding, and more. Fishing is the main attraction here. Bring your pole, or catch the weigh-in from one of more than a dozen bass tournaments held here each year. For more fun on the water, you can rent a boat—for fishing, or even a houseboat for a memorable family vacation.
Off the water, the six-mile-wide Amistad Dam is immense, fascinating, and well worth a visit. For some historical perspective, you can watch film of the dam’s construction before you go. For ancient history, make the trip to Panther Cave, a rock shelter filled with art that was created between three and four thousand years ago. You can only get there by boat, but it’s well worth the trip. The images are vivid and easy to see, so even young kids can enjoy the experience as long as they don’t mind the boat ride. And on the drive home, your family can take turns telling stories inspired by the art. In the fall, you can visit Amistad for the annual monarch migration. Amistad is one of the best spots in the country to witness this amazing journey. The dates vary from year to year; expect them to pass through around October, right after the first big cold front of the fall.
The Big Thicket is a park that rewards visitors who slow down and notice the details. The park stretches across seven counties in East Texas, with 15 separate units. Visitors will find forests, rivers, and wetlands—a mix of ecosystems rich in diversity. Don’t expect the big views found in some national parks. Instead, come here to slow down and really experience nature. Curious young hikers can find carnivorous plants, a huge variety of mushrooms, and an amazing variety of insects in a setting that feels like it could come straight out of a mysterious old fairy tale. It’s also great adventure for reptile-loving kids. The preserve is home to more than 30 species of snakes, a huge variety of amphibians, and even an occasional alligator.
Visitors’ experiences are as diverse as the park itself. For a twist on hiking, rent kayaks and life jackets and take a trip on a paddling trail. Routes vary from two to six hours, so be sure your kids are old enough to enjoy the trip before you set out. The park’s topography makes this a great place to hike with younger kids, and visitors have many trails to choose from. The Kirby Nature Trail offers a kid-friendly hike for any age, with a chance to spot mushrooms, leafcutter ants, and more. To see carnivorous plants in nature, try the Sundew Trail and the Pitcher Plant Trail. Both are short enough for even preschool-aged hikers to hike happily from end to end. For a special perspective on the park, rangers suggest taking a flashlight to the Pitcher Plant Trail when the weather is warm, for a hike at dusk. As the sun begins to set, stop and listen to the forest come alive as frogs, insects, and nocturnal birds wake up to begin their days.
Big Bend was our state’s first national park—a classic, big-vista park that’s bigger than the state of Rhode Island. It’s easy to discover the basics and the greatest hits online—the Window Trail, Santa Elena and Boquillas Canyons, the South Rim, and Lost Mine Trails. But there are some treasures and tips that can help families find their own special spot in Big Bend, and make the most of a visit here.
One key is to stay inside the park. You’re here for the park, not for the drive. (Because there was plenty of that on the way. And there’s more to come on the way home.) Plan far enough ahead, and you can reserve a spot at the Chisos Mountain Lodge Cabins, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. With a little less lead time, you can reserve a spot in the park’s hotel, the Chisos Mountain Lodge. Both offer a central location and easy access to the park’s restaurant. You will also find several campgrounds with close car access in the park, for easy camping with small kids. For families with older children, there are also many options for backcountry camping—a terrific way to experience the vastness and wildness of this park.
Big Bend’s size means it offers a good mix of public programs, often focused on the history and science of the park. The park’s website keeps a good calendar of events.
Geology is the foundation for everything you will see at Big Bend, so a stop by the table-sized topographic map at the Panther Junction Visitor Center is a great orientation to the park. (Elementary-aged students might also enjoy seeing the park’s elementary school behind the visitor center. It serves families who live in the park—an exotic idea for a city kid.) From Panther Junction, it’s a quick drive to the Fossil Discovery Center, a hands-on museum that’s scheduled to open later this year. The center introduces visitors to some of the park’s ancient residents, including crocodiles with heads as long as a person, a pterosaur with a 36-foot wingspan, and an astonishing mix of dinosaurs. Visitors who are really into dinosaurs can also see the K-T boundary in the park. That’s the rock layer that marks the extinction of the dinosaurs, and Big Bend is one of the few places on Earth where it’s possible to see it. The easiest place to see it is near the park’s western entrance. Rangers at Panther Junction can tell you exactly how.
Park geologist Don Corrick encourages visitors to park on the side of the road and explore the desert—always with caution, a good supply of water, and a clear path back to where you started. (Don’t forget common sense, too. What makes sense in moderate weather could be reckless on a hot day.) He compares the park to a museum without glass, where you can discover all kinds of surprises for yourself. There are fossils, amazing desert plants, incredible animals, and evidence of people who have called the park home for thousands of years. If you do strike out into the wilderness, remember that visitors may not take anything out of the park. It’s a good chance to remind kids to take pictures and memories, and leave what they find there for the next visitor to enjoy.
Teens can enjoy a visit to the park’s hot springs. Pay attention to the park’s warnings before you visit, and avoid letting young kids soak in the springs. (The park says their exposure to the water should be limited. The springs’ water can be caustic, and hot enough to scald.) Plan for a trek to get there—two miles down a gravel road, followed by an easy hike that’s a half-mile round trip.
The park is also full of history—of ranching, Native Americans who lived there, and mining that took place before Big Bend was a park. Hiking trails will take you to many of those sites. You may stumble upon others on your own.
Don’t forget night skies when you visit Big Bend. The park has some of the darkest skies in North America, protected by a major campaign to replace lighting in the park with fixtures that protect the dark skies. It’s a breathtaking sight. And it’s even better if you can time your trip during a meteor shower.
As with all parks—but especially big wilderness parks—it’s crucial to respect nature here. The park emphasizes the importance of bringing enough water with you on every hike, and it’s crucial to follow that advice. The desert can bring flash floods (familiar if you are from San Antonio), unexpected storms and a variety of creatures that call Big Bend home. The key is to be prepared, informed, and respectful—especially with kids along for the journey.
If you’re the parent of young kids, you will want to save this one until they are old enough to be strong swimmers and independent enough to join you for a true back-country adventure—the Outward Bound version of a family vacation. The journey is a commitment. Once you’re on the river, you can’t get back to civilization for several days. But families who are up for the challenge will find amazing experiences on this stretch of the Rio Grande. Guided tours are available from several outfitters in the area. (Some even include guides who are well-known Texas singer-songwriters.) Families with serious outdoor skills are also able to make this trip on their own.
If you want a taste of the river without the commitment, you can take a short river tour in Big Bend. Water levels vary, so if your dream trip to Big Bend includes a day on the water, check before you make the trek.
Step back in time at Fort Davis, with a visit to the Western frontier. This restored U.S. Army post surrounds you with the sights and sounds of the past, with bugle calls, cannon fire, and interpreters wearing period dress. Tour the barracks to see how soldiers lived, the officers’ quarters to learn about life for the post’s commanders and their servants, and the hospital to feel grateful for modern medical care. The museum offers great background information and some great hands-on exhibits, including costumes for kids to try on.
Older kids who have studied United States history will appreciate Fort Davis on a deeper level. The park was established to protect travelers heading west, as the United States expanded into new territory. It became a melting pot, drawing Asian railroad workers from California, Latino servants from the local area, Native Americans who were being displaced as the military moved in, officers and their wives from the East Coast, and African-American soldiers who served in the U.S. Army—the famous Buffalo Soldiers. The park does a terrific job of introducing you to individual people who lived here, making the park’s history feel very much alive.
Visitors with extra energy to burn off will enjoy climbing the trail to an overlook above the post. It’s short enough for elementary-aged kids and even a tough preschooler to manage, and steep enough to offer a sense of accomplishment at the top.
At Guadalupe Mountains National Park, you can climb to the top of Texas. Guadalupe Peak rises 8,751 feet above sea level. It’s the highest point in the state, and it beckons families with kids old enough for a hardy hike to reach the summit and sign the book at the top. It’s just over eight miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 2,906 feet.
Easier hikes, just right even for families with young children, include the Pine Springs Trail and the McKittrick Canyon Trail. Both start in a rugged desert landscape then surprise you with valleys filled with beautiful forests—the perfect place for a rest and a picnic. The trails are especially beautiful in fall, when the trees blaze with color. The Smith Spring Loop offers another good option for families with young hikers.
Another big attraction here is an ancient fossil reef, more than 260 million years old. The Permian Reef Geology Trail offers an up-close look at the fossilized reef, with a numbered guide that helps to interpret what you’re seeing. It’s a rugged hike, and a terrific way to learn about life here long ago.
Young visitors who are interested in fossils but not up for the Geology Trail hike can try the McKittrick Nature Trail, a short loop that takes visitors past fossils of sea urchins, sponges, and other ancient life. There are no labels. But rangers and books at the park store can help you learn what to look for.
Families with older kids who are up for adventure can try backcountry camping or longer trails. Remember: You’re in the desert, so take plenty of water. The park’s lower campgrounds are very family friendly, with bathrooms and easy parking. Come prepared; there are very few stores of any kind near the park. You will be grateful for that when night falls, as you sit with your family under the park’s spectacular night skies.
Chamizal National Memorial feels like a mix of art museum, cultural center, city park, and historic site. The park sits on the U.S.-Mexico border, on land that was the subject of a century-long border dispute. The park was created to mark the end of the dispute. Today, this 55-acre site serves as a neighborhood park and cultural center where the friendship between the U.S. and Mexico is celebrated.
Permanent exhibits include a museum that tells the story of Chamizal and a row of markers that line the old international border here. But the big action at Chamizal comes from events that take place all year. The park’s mascot holds story time for children three to six years old. The theater hosts dance performances, movies, and plays. The park’s galleries showcase a rotating series of exhibits. And the park’s annual Siglo de Oro Festival is recognized as one of the world’s most important showcases for drama from the Golden Age of Spain.
Across the international bridge in Mexico, another park celebrates the treaty for visitors there.
For people used to the San Antonio missions, this will feel foreign—more New Mexico than Texas. And that’s part of the fun. This Camino runs from Mexico City to Santa Fe. On the way, it takes a tiny trip through Texas, entering at the town of San Elizario and running to El Paso before it continues north into New Mexico.
The town of San Elizario is a fun stop for kids interested in history. The town’s historic district includes an old jail that is now a museum, the Los Portales history museum, a beautiful whitewashed church, and a walkable area of shops and restaurants. Head toward El Paso, and you can stop at Ysleta Mission and other spots along the trail.
Kids with an interest in military history will find plenty to love at this park in Brownsville. The first battle of the U.S.-Mexican War erupted here on May 8, 1846. The park’s goal is to document the battle, preserve the site as soldiers saw it that day, and share that story with visitors.
Visit, and you will discover a museum that explains the battle, first-hand accounts of the fight, and the plain where the battle was fought. Living history events are held from September to May, offering the chance to see history in action. Soldiers perform drills, cooks make meals in a camp kitchen, volunteers invite visitors to play games from the period, and kids can even try on a replica of a 19th century military uniform.
Other special events include the Rio Grande Delta International Archaeology Fair in October and an annual memorial event at Resaca de la Palma Battlefield. Eight thousand candles are lit to honor soldiers from the United States and Mexico who took part in the opening battles of the war.
At the other end of Texas, you will find two parks side-by-side: Lake Meredith National Recreation Area and Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. Lake Meredith offers fun in the form of boating, camping, fishing, and even hunting. They also schedule special tours by paddleboard and kayak on the lake.
At Alibates Flint Quarries, you can discover history that dates back an astonishing 13,000 years. Ancient Americans quarried flint here for centuries. The stone was valuable for its quality and beauty—a rainbow of colors, still scattered across the site today. The material that was quarried here was traded far and wide—into Mexico, across the Southwest, to the Pacific Coast and north to Minnesota. The park’s visitor center is open full-time, but you can only visit the quarries with a tour. Call ahead for a schedule of current times.
For kids who are especially interested in Native American Culture, Alibates offers an event called Flint Fest every fall. Visitors have a chance to throw spears, see flintknappers at work, hear Native American music, join dance circles, and meet birds of prey.
Other Important Information
Most parks are open 365 days a year, but a few close for major holidays. Each park’s website will tell you what you need to know. Children 15 and under are admitted to parks for free. Entrance fees for adults vary—from free to $20 per car. If you plan to visit several parks, an $80 annual pass offers free entrance for three adults 16 and older.
The park service is offering a free pass to every fourth-grader in the country this year, through a program called Every Kid in a Park. If you’re lucky enough to have a fourth-grader, that’s one more reason to visit this year!
If you visit and post on social media, try the hashtag #tx16in16. It was created by the family of historian Neel Baumgardner, a professor at UTSA, who is visiting all sixteen national parks in Texas this year with his family. Whether you try all sixteen or your favorite one, I hope you will celebrate National Park Week with your kids by planning an adventure to a national park!
Lynn Boswell lives in Austin with her husband, teenage son and daughter, three big dogs and one very tiny parrot. She grew up in San Antonio and still loves the city deeply. Lynn works as a broadcast journalist, making documentary films from a home office where she gets to work barefoot and greet her kids when they get home from school. Her latest project takes viewers to explore the national parks of Texas. During two years of production, she has crossed a few things off her bucket list and added many more. The project has been so fun that she’s now working on guidebooks for the state’s national parks — one for adults, and one for travel with kids.