Lake Mineral Wells State Park
Located just an hour west of the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex in Cross-Timbers country, Lake Mineral Wells makes for an ideal family getaway. With gentle hills and several small creeks traversing a quartet of hiking trails that wind around a magnificent lake, there’s plenty of variety here.
The rock-climbing is some of the best in Texas, with scenic cliffs that overlook the lake. Be sure to call ahead, though, since heavy rain within 48 hours may close the cliffs. Trails vary from 4 to 20 miles in scope, but none are particularly arduous. You can walk, mountain bike, or even drive it without wild climbs or daunting descents. There’s plenty of shade when you want to rest, perfect for setting up a hammock on a breezy day, and the main trail itself is spectacular during the fall, when the foliage display is magnificent.
Don’t forget the lake, where motorboats and jet skis are prohibited, making the fishing and swimming positively serene. (Lake Mineral Wells was popular at the turn of the 20th century for its healing waters and therapeutic baths located in an oasis-like environment.) As for camping, primitive sites dot the trails, while more modern ones (with water, electricity, grills, and nearby restrooms) are numerous and reasonably priced for an easy weekend stay. Screened shelters and group facilities are also available.
Pedernales Falls State Park
The spectacular aquatic scenery of this south-central Texas spot is reached via slightly rugged trails, making Pedernales a good visit for outdoors folk of the experienced variety.
The centerpiece of the park is Twin Falls, featuring a quarter-mile nature trail leading to a scenic outlook. Swimming near the falls is popular, with Arrowhead Pool’s stair-stepped entrance and cool creek water offering inviting dips during the fall and summer. Elsewhere, moderately steep canyons line the Mescal and Tobacco Creeks, though you have to be careful near the water, as flash flooding can happen quickly.
A few moderate climbs are found along the seven-mile Wolf Mountain Trail, which winds around two mountains, satisfying newbie and seasoned hikers alike. And there’s plenty for animal enthusiasts to look at: deer, coyotes, rabbits, and more than 150 species of birds.
Equestrians will find plenty to love, too. Pedernales’s rugged 10-mile trail with rocky patches and sharp slopes isn’t quite so intermediate, however, so rider and horse alike should be old pros. The park is BYOH (Bring Your Own Horse), and there’s a six-animal, 12-vehicle limit for riding parties.
There are far fewer modern campsites here, so pitching a tent at a primitive site might be your only option unless you have advance reservations. Still, with one of the state’s foremost falls and amenable yet challenging trails—all only about three hours from Houston—it’s a trip that demands to be taken.
Davis Mountains State Park
Mountains aren’t high on the list of things the Lone Star State is known for, but west Texas does indeed boast altitudes that attract expert climbers. Their favorite destination? The approximately 2,700-acre Davis Mountains State Park, 20 minutes north of Marfa and midway between Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains.
With some of the highest elevations in the state (6,000 to 8,300 feet above sea level), its hiking, mountain-biking, and even sightseeing excursions can be strenuous, but the views are worth it. Cavernous canyon walls of exposed igneous rock can be found between the mountains, a remnant of the volcanic bustle that molded them over 25 million years ago. Meanwhile, the high altitude lends itself to grassy plains and diverse forested areas, as ponderosas and pine trees mix with oak and juniper trees for exotic greenery. If you catch the park after the rainy season (which runs from May to October), wildflowers and plum trees bloom beautifully.
In this high and dry climate, Davis’s traditional adobe Indian lodge—built in the 1930s—is to be preferred over primitive campsites. Its quaint 39-room setup is purposely unobtrusive, as the area is a haven for stargazers, who can be found lining the edges of Skyline Drive, the park’s driving trail, and various scenic overlooks.
There are several other nearby attractions of note, including the aforementioned Marfa, the Fort Davis National Historic Site, and Balmorhea State Park, whose San Solomon Springs feature the world’s largest artesian spring-fed swimming pool. Its 1.75 acres stay cool year-round—perfect after a long day’s hike.