The rugged mountains and immense skies that West Texas is known to extend far beyond the boundaries of the region’s iconic national parks. Fantastic state parks also dot the landscape, providing under the radar places to learn about ranching history, ancient Native American rock art, and views of Rio Grande.
From the area surrounding El Paso, the largest city in West Texas, and south along the US-Mexico border to Big Bend National Park, the Texas State Parks of the southern part western parts of the state offer a tantalizing taste of what this vast region has to offer.
Here are six state parks in Southwest Texas that should be on your list of choices.
1. Big Bend Ranch State Park
Big Bend Ranch State Park wins the award for the largest park in a state known for all that is big. With over 300,000 acres, Big Bend Ranch is the grandfather of Texas State Parks. While it’s a bit overshadowed by its even larger neighbor, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park offers comparable features to the national park, but it’s more remote and less traveled.
Like the national park, the state park runs along the US-Mexico border. One of Big Bend Ranch’s most famous features is the scenic drive that follows the meandering course of the river along the southern border. The route is known as the River Road, West Texas Camino del Rio, and Highway 170. Whatever you call it, the route is spectacular. Expect plenty of steep climbs and descents and plenty of gorgeous views of the Rio Grande.
As I approached the Big Bend Ranch from the east, my first stop was at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center, a cool adobe-style building that houses an informative interpretive center, “Una Tierra – One Land”. The result of an international partnership between experts from the national parks and the states of Texas and the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua, the interpretive center presents an archaeological, historical and natural profile of the Big Bend region.
This was a great first stop for me as the helpful park ranger briefed me on the best attractions along River Road including the West Contrabando Trail System, Big Hill Viewpoint, Closed Canyon, and the Hoodoos Trail .
I especially liked the short descent to the fairy chimneys (rocky peaks) that rise along the banks of the Rio Grande. Dotted with blooming ocotillo cacti, the 1.8 mile loop was a wonderful stop on the scenic route. More information about the hike is available in this PDF.
Less than an hour’s drive west of the Big Bend National Park border, the state park is a convenient day trip or drive-through on the way to towns in western Canada. Texas like Marfa or Presidio.
Pro tip: When I plotted my route to Big Bend Ranch State Park from Big Bend National Park, my phone suggested a two and a half hour route to the Sauceda Ranger station inside the park. At the Barton Warnock Visitor Center, I have been advised that portions of this route are on dirt roads which can become impassable in wet weather. I ended up staying on the paved River Road which has many interesting stops in the park.
2. Fort Leaton State Historic Site Park
Dating back to the mid-1800s, Fort Leaton State Historic Site offers a fascinating glimpse into life in a former fortified trading post along the border. Known as one of the largest and most beautiful historic adobe structures in Texas, Fort Leaton serves as the western entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Fort Leaton is only open during the day and offers picnic areas, guided tours and exhibits on 15th century history. Additionally, the site tells a larger than life story of the parade of people and cultures who called the region known as La Junta de Los Rios house over the centuries.
Pro tip: Similar to the east entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center, visitors to Fort Leaton can get hiking and camping permits (no hookups) at Big Bend Ranch, and they can also purchase permits and licenses to use the river.
3. Franklin Mountains State Park
Located just 20 minutes from the heart of El Paso, the beautiful Franklin Mountains are a natural playground for the city. While the mountains once met most of the basic needs of the region’s original inhabitants, “today the mountains serve a different human need – our need to spend time in nature,” the website says. of Franklin Mountains National Park.
Made up of nearly 27,000 acres, the park has 100 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. From the easy, family-friendly nature walk through desert terrain to the moderate 3-mile maze loop that winds up into the mountains, to the challenging 8-mile North Franklin Peak Trail, the Franklin Mountains offer a variety of hikes and trails. Mountain biking.
Pro tip: Primitive campsites are available in the Tom Mays unit of the park.
4. Hueco Tanks State Park
Named after the immense natural rock pools that collect rainwater, Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site commemorates thousands of years of human activity in the area.
For centuries, it is rainwater that has accumulated in rock pools or huecos (pronounced whey) that drew locals to the rocky hills of far west Texas. These early people left many clues about their histories in the pictographs and petroglyphs that remain – a main attraction for the state park today.
The park also offers an area for self-guided tours, hiking trails, bird watching, rock climbing and campsites.
Pro tips: Due to the fragile nature of the park’s resources, only 70 people are allowed to enter the self-guided area at a time, and the park regularly hits this limit from November to March. To avoid the wait, the park’s website suggests that visitors call to reserve at (512) 389-8911. He adds that permits cannot be reserved online.
Located about 45 minutes northeast of El Paso, Hueco Tanks State Park makes a great day trip from the city. The park is also a convenient stopover on a road trip between El Paso and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, about an hour and a half east.
5. Davis Mountains State Park
Less than half an hour northeast of historic Marfa Art Center, Davis Mountains State Park offers trails and tranquility, plus a historic hotel with pool.
West Texas State Park is popular for hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, horseback riding, stargazing, and geocaching. Located in the foothills of the mountain, Davis Mountain State Park features three distinct volcanic eruptions that resulted in the creation of Fraser Canyon, Sleeping Lion, and Barrel Springs.
Visitors can hike or mountain bike the moderate 4.5-mile Skyline Drive trail, which winds along mountain ridges and valleys, or take the 1.75-mile CCC trail, which connects to a trail to Fort Davis National Historic Site. An interactive trail map is available here. Visitors to the park can also bring their horses for a day or a night in the pristine Limpia Canyon area.
Or, for a unique lodging experience, the park is home to the historic Indian Lodge, a hotel known for its rustic charm and modern comfort. (More information is available in this PDF). The lodge, which was built by the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression era in 1935, is considered the pinnacle of CCC building in Texas. Today it has 39 rooms and an outdoor swimming pool.
Pro tip: For visitors interested in birding to the area, Davis Mountain State Park is known to be home to “Texas’ best little blind bird.” The store offers a closed observation station, a screened outdoor patio and watering and feeding stations.
6. Seminole Canyon State Park
While ancient rock art is the main attraction of Seminole Canyon, the state park located about three hours east of Big Bend National Park also benefits from a Rio Grande setting and a network of hiking and biking trails.
The prehistoric indigenous peoples left a rich heritage of rock art in the Seminole Canyon region. Over 200 pictograph sites contain examples of their style of cave paintings, ranging from simple paintings to caves with art panels several hundred feet long.
The park offers frequent guided tours of rock art sites (for a fee), including a fairly rugged 1.5 mile hike to the Fate Bell Shelter, an area protected by a huge cliff overhang that’s home to some of the rock art. the most spectacular in Texas. During spring and fall, day hikes are also available to explore rock art in Presa Canyon, as well as half-day hikes in the upper parts of Seminole Canyon.
The park also has approximately 10 miles of trails, which will lead hikers and cyclists to the Rio Grande or along the edge of the Seminole Canyon.
Pro tip: Seminole Canyon State Park is located about 45 minutes northwest of the mid-sized border town of Del Rio, Texas, which offers a variety of restaurants and accommodations.
When should we go
Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit any park in Southwest Texas. Big Bend Ranch has average highs of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit during March, April, September, and October. Winters tend to be somewhat cool, with average peaks in the 50s to 60s from November through February. Summers are hot throughout the region, with average highs in the 80s to mid-high from May to August.
National parks enjoy an excellent reputation with travelers, but state parks often rival their larger cousins ââwith the same type of amenities and attractions: