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The Texas State Park Camping Trips You Need to Book Now

Campsite reservations fill up fast at these state park favorites.

By Katharine Shilcutt December 23, 2016

Even though autumn was just here (and, in many ways, still kind of is), smart campers know that it's never too early to book their sites for next fall, especially if you're traveling to those perennially popular state parks in the Hill Country or West Texas. Below, a short list of the camping trips you should book right now for 2017, and what to do at each state park once you're there:

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Pedernales Falls State Park

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Pedernales Falls State Park

Closest town: Johnson City
Drive time from Houston: 3 hours (200 miles)
Best for: swimming and fishing

With only 70 campsites and some of the most scenic swimming holes in the state, it's easy to see why Pedernales (pronounced "Perd-n-Alice" for y'all non-natives) fills up so fast each year. As of right now, in fact, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's handy online campsite reservation system only shows 17 sites available on the weekends in April—and people have already started booking sites for fall 2017. Aside from swimmers who use the natural limestone formations along the turquoise-tinted Pedernales River, you'll also find anglers fishing for carp, bass and catfish, equestrians riding the park's network of trails, and hikers trekking down its easy, fairly flat trails. Unlike some other Hill Country swimming destinations, Pedernales is famously clean and family-friendly. And at just 30 miles west of Austin, you could easily book an Airbnb in the capital if you missed out on a campsite.

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Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains State Park

Davis Mountains State Park

Closest town: Marfa
Drive time from Houston: 8 hours (600 miles)
Best for: exploring West Texas and hiking

Thanks to its proximity to West Texas bucket-list destinations such as Marfa, the McDonald Observatory and the world's largest spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park, the 100-plus campsites at Davis Mountains fill up faster than nearly any other Texas state park each year. The real draw here, however, is booking a room at the historic Indian Lodge on the western edge of the park. One of the few full-service hotels inside a state or national park (another is the nearby Chisos Mountains Lodge in Big Bend National Park), the 39-room lodge was built by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939 in the style of a multilevel pueblo village and was recently restored to its original appearance. Rooms start at $95 per night, and make the perfect end to a day spent hiking the quiet, remote trails in the Davis Mountains.

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The Lighthouse at Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Closest town: Amarillo
Drive time from Houston: 10 hours (630 miles)
Best for: caving and hiking

Unbeknownst to many, the second-largest canyon in the U.S. is right here in Texas, carving its way through the Texas panhandle just outside Amarillo—a canyon artist Georgia O’Keeffe once famously described as "a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color." And yes, it's just that poetic in real life. Like the Davis Mountains's Indian Lodge, Palo Duro also offers unusual, in-park lodging built by the CCC. Three spacious stone cabins cling to the canyon's edge a short drive into the park and are available to rent starting at $110 per night, which is a small price to pay for the staggeringly beautiful sunsets you can witness from the roof of your cabin each night. Spend your days exploring the park's cool off-map caves and attempting the famous Lighthouse hike (pro-tip: bring a lot of water). And don't let the distance stop you from going; Palo Duro is more easily reached by catching a cheap Southwest flight to Amarillo and renting a car. 

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Big Bend National Park

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Closest town: Terlingua
Drive time from Houston: 11 hours (680 miles)
Best for: backpacking and getting totally off the grid

The largest state park in Texas lies along the Rio Grande just west of Big Bend National Park (arguably the more famous of the two Big Bends). Camping doesn't get much more remote than this, which means ample opportunities abound for spotting West Texas wildlife by day and the Milky Way by night. How remote is it? You can't even make reservations online; this is one park you'll have to call ahead to book (and the sooner the better), as both Internet and cell service in the area are extremely limited. As you may have guessed, Big Bend Ranch State Park is for camping experts, as there are no campsites other than primitive: six in the backcountry that require you to hike in and eight along the River Road that are accessible by vehicle. If all of this sounds like a bit much, Big Bend National Park next door has 150 standard campsites and the aforementioned Chisos Mountains Lodge.

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The view from atop Enchanted Rock

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Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Closest major city: Frederickburg
Drive time from Houston: 4 hours (250 miles)
Best for: rock climbing and relaxing

Though not technically a state park, you can still camp here under the pinkish glow of Enchanted Rock, a 425-foot granite batholith named by the Tonkawa Indians, who believed a Spanish conquistador cast a spell to make magical ghost fires dance at the top. But with only 55 campsites (20 of them primitive), camping at this popular park—a bucket list item for many Texans, who visit the park to the tune of 250,000 guests per year—needs to be booked well in advance of your trip. Though there's no swimming allowed in the park, the real draw is clambering up to the top of Enchanted Rock itself to commune with nature and the generations of climbers who've sat in contemplation here before you. Have a sudden need to make a spontaneous, last-minute trip? Dozens of Airbnb options abound in nearby Fredericksburg.

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