One of the largest states in the U.S, Texas has it all: deserts, pine forests, the Gulf Coast, and the Rio Grande, the river that marks the border of Mexico with the U.S. Affectionately known by its locals as the “Lone Star State”, Texas was briefly its own nation after gaining independence from Mexico and before joining the United States. This unique and fierce sense of independence adds flair to this state’s personality, which, when coupled with its magnificent natural paradises results in a Texan identity wholly unique to the rest of the country.
Don’t just take our word for it, go explore yourself! We’ve even put together a list of the best hidden gems that await you in Texas!
1. Boca Chica Park and Beach, Brownsville
Part of Boca Chica State Park, the beach is located on the Boca Chica Sub delta of the Rio Grande in Cameron County. Open to the public since 1994, this natural preserve was originally owned to Ygnacio Trevino as part of the Potrero de San Martin Grant. Many years later during the Mexican American War, a floating bridge was built across the bay to transport military supplies. You can still see what is left of the floating bridge today!
There are plenty of activities in this hidden corner of Texas, like having a picnic on the beach, or swimming, surfing or fishing on the beach. Check out the dunes that spread across the beach or go camping here when the weather is good. There is also bird watching so bring your binoculars! Enjoy this secluded stretch of beach and soak in the sun, or take a hike along one of the trails in the park!
2. Blue Lagoon, Huntsville
Located an hour and a half north of Houston are two limestone quarries, filled with warm, blue-green spring water. Known as the Blue Lagoon, this area is privately owned and charges an entrance fee – but it is well worth the experience. The surroundings are gorgeous – pine trees shade the water, and admission is capped to avoid overcrowding so be sure to get here early.
Ideal for scuba divers, there is a gear shop on sight and some divers will camp overnight. Swimmers are not permitted to camp, however, so be sure to get there right when the Blue Lagoon opens to get a space if you’re just swimming. It’s a perfect day trip for anyone looking to play hooky and get away from the city for a few hours, so pack a cooler and hop in the car! Don’t forget the sunscreen!
3. Marfa, Texas
Marfa is a small desert city in west Texas, and is also an arts hub: the Chinati Foundation displays huge indoor and outdoor installations on the old army base. There are also exhibitions hosted by the Ballroom Marfa organization, and films and concerts that draw in visitors. However, as wonderful as art is, that is not the most interesting part of this hidden Texan Gem.
For years, people have reported what they call “Marfa Lights” and claim that this distant desert town is either haunted by ghosts or visited by UFOs. These can be viewed from a platform in town, or talked about at the well-known Marfa Myths music festival. While scientists believe it is the result of reflections of headlights, a consensus has yet to be reached, so come out and decide for yourself! Everything about this town is unique, from their eclectic shops to casual dining experiences, but it is a unique environment worth experiencing.
4. San Felipe Springs
Located in Val Verde County, the San Felipe Springs are the fourth largest springs in Texas, with over 10 springs extending more than a mile along San Felipe Creek. Documented in 1849 by Captain French, these springs were described as “beautiful springs of water” that emptied into the Rio Grande, whose banks were shaded with large groves of nut trees.
Visit yourself to realize that this beauty still exists; the San Felipe Springs offer a welcome break from the heat during the warm months. Visit these springs to cool off or enjoy a refreshing swim. Stop in at any of the many springs located along the creek, such as the Horseshoe Park, Blue Lake or Lions Park. You can also stroll along the San Felipe Creek Walk between Horseshoe and Lions Park for a lovely river view.
5. Hueco Tanks State Park
Located in an area of low mountains in El Paso County, Hueco Tanks is on a high-altitude desert basin between the Hueco Mountains and the Franklin Mountains. Named for the depressions filled with water that riddle the boulders of the park, the word “hueco “ appropriately means “hollow” in Spanish. The park is under protection because of the historic artifacts remaining from the Native Americans, plants and wildlife found here.
Hueco Tanks State Park contains three granite mountains on 860 acres, and is a popular destination for birdwatchers and bouldering lovers. If you’re here in February, be sure to catch the Hueco Rock Rodeo, an outdoor bouldering competition, or stop by anytime. Bring your hiking shoes and explore the mountains; there are trails dating back to those used by the Native Americans, as well as the drawings they left behind: rock images of handprints, dancing figures, horses and more that show stories of tradition and conflict. A true historical legacy, this natural paradise is both enlightening and perfect for the history and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
6. Jacob’s Well
Jacob’s Well is a spring flowing from the Cypress Creek in Wimberley Texas. Only 12 feet in diameter, the spring is still a popular swimming spot for a refreshing swim. The well descends vertically around 23 feet before angling downward through silted chambers, reaching a depth of approximately 137 feet. Swimming is seasonally permitted; May 1st through October 1st.
It is the second longest fully submerged cavern in Texas reaching almost a mile in length. The spring is flowing from the Trinity aquifer and is the headwaters of Cypress Creek. It is a cool 68 degrees year round.
The well is located in the Jacob’s Well Natural Area which is opened year round for exploration.
7. Claiborne West Park
Located 12 miles west of Orange, Texas, Claiborne West Park was dedicated as a living memorial to Claiborne West, who fought for Texan independence from Mexico back in the day. The park extends over 453 acres of wooded land, and is a wildlife and bird sanctuary. A pond is also maintained with Rainbow Trout for fishing in January and February.
Follow the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail to see the bird sanctuary, or bring your bike to trek the mountain bike trail. If you’re a tennis fan, bring your racket and hit the tennis court. There are also softball fields, a disc gold course and a horseshoe area. For those seeking to continue the outdoor adventures, there are campgrounds available to continue this adventure overnight!
8. Copper Breaks State Park
Copper Breaks State Park is located in Hardeman County, and spans over 1,800 acres filled with two lakes and miles of trails. The land was originally occupied by the Comanche and Kiowa, before being passed to a private landowner. The government then obtained the land and opened the park in 1970, adding a portion of the official state Texas longhorn herd and preserving the undeveloped land that now awaits your visit!
Hike out to Copper Breaks Lake or Big Pond. The landscape is covered in mesquite, juniper and cottonwood trees, as well as wildflowers. You should also keep an eye out for mule deer, rabbits, roadrunners and great blue herons, among many other animals! Bring a fishing pole as well; Lake Copper Breaks is stocked with trout each winter. If you’re here sometime between April to October, check out when their International Dark Sky Park stargazing program is held, the night sky is absolutely stunning when seen in a place so far removed from city lights!
9. Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve
Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve is located west of Austin, Texas, in Westlake Hills. Founded in 1974, the preserve consists of 227 acres and contains 2.5 miles of hiking trails. Follow Bee Caves Road and a mile north of that off of Loop 360 you will find the entrance to the preserve. Open sunrise to sunset, come if you’re in search of a true natural getaway, away from almost everything, bikes and pets included.
For a relaxed hike, start on the Easy Access Loop, which is just 0.5 miles long. Walk out to the small waterfall along Bee Creek, or to the Scenic Overlook for some good photos. There is also a 1.5 mile loop around to the creek and back if you fancy a longer walk. It’s a perfect place for families with smaller children or those in the mood for a leisurely afternoon hike instead of a strenuous all day outing.
10. Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge
The Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge is located on the coast of Texas, east of Angleton and Lake Jackson. It is a wildlife conservation area bordered by a bay on the Intracoastal Waterway and behind a barrier island of the Gulf of Mexico. Established since 1969, the refuge was created to provide a place for migratory fowl to pass the winter and provides wetlands for over 10 species of birds.
A perfect trip for a birdwatcher, in winter, thousands of snow geese, Canadian geese, cranes and ducks fill the preserve, and in summer, the herons, egrets, larks, sparrows and many other types of birds nest here. No entrance fee is required to visit the park, so stop by and visit the Big Slough Recreation Area for information about the park, and begin your exploration on the Big Slough Trail for some great birding opportunities.
11. Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge
Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge is a 150 acre preserve open since 1995 and dedicated to caring for and rehabilitating abandoned, abused or neglected big cats such as lions and tigers. Currently home to more than 40 of the magnificent creatures, come out and spend a day here learning about the species and how to ensure their continued survival.
Walk along the paths and enjoy being surrounded by nature as you see these cats up close and personal. The tour guides will take you around to educate you on the animals and each cat’s individual journey to this refuge. An education and fun experience for all ages, Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge will inspire you to contribute more to animal conservation.
12. Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is a large protected area of natural habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, spanning 98,000 acres. Located mostly in Cameron County, they have gradually been reintroducing captive-bred falcons to the preserve since 1985, which is now home to over 40 pairs! Several other endangered species also inhabit the refuge, such as the Texas ocelot and the Gulf Coast Jaguarondi. A great place for animal lovers, the park is open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset.
Explore the several trails, hit the trails on your bike, or take an auto-tour to learn more about the wildlife protected here. Check their website to see which wildlife related activities are offered at the time of your visit, but do bring your camera to capture shots of the animals as you explore. If you’d like to extend your state, you can camp at Adolph Thomas Jr. County Park. Enjoy experiencing nature and its wildlife in their natural habitats, and feel the satisfaction of contributing to making this possible.
13. Palmetto State Park
Palmetto State Park is located in Gonzales County, and was opened in 1936. The Civilian Conservations Corps constructed the park, building a water tower, refectory and the park headquarters. Named after the dwarf palmetto tree that grows abundantly in the park, it looks a little like the jungle with its dense vegetation surrounding the bogs that fill the park. It boasts some diverse flora and fauna, like the white tailed deer, nine-banded armadillos and several species of birds.
The San Marcos River runs through Palmetto State Park, which also contains Oxbow Lake. Come out to spend an afternoon in this beautiful jungle-like atmosphere. Head out on the water to swim, tube, fish or canoe. You can hike or bike the Palmetto Trail, or stay at their tent or camp sites! Go fishing on Oxbow Lake, or canoe down the San Marcos River to add the final touch on a relaxing day.
14. Cathedral of Junk
Austin, Texas may be the capital of the state and known for its culture and diversity, but it also has quite the weird side, as illustrated by its Cathedral of Junk. You might miss this landmark if you’re not looking for it – it stands in a backyard of a small house in suburbia, built by a quiet local who calls it his clubhouse. First started in 1988 and continually evolving since then, Vince Hanneman has built it gradually over time, and estimates it contains over 60 tons of junk!
Over the years, the cathedral has become intertwined with Texas vegetation, winding its way in and out of the hollow framework of castoffs such as car bumpers, ladders, and cables among other things and lending an eerie effect. Beer signs and clocks shine brightly, powered by hidden cables (Vince has also added outlets to the structure). Interestingly enough, a lot of the pieces of this cathedral were brought to Vince by locals to add to it. Even up to city building codes, come visit when the artist is home. He enjoys showing people around and has even hosted weddings here!
15. Cameron Park
Cameron Park is a 416 acre urban park in Waco, Texas, was dedicated in 1920 in honor of lumber man William Cameron. The land was donated in an effort to meet the citizens’ requests for more green space in an ever developing urban community, and gradually, different chunks of what is now Cameron Park were donated by different private citizens to form the large park that it is today. Cameron Park was recently renovated and is now a popular city park.
When here, don’t miss out on Lovers Leap, a lookout point on the Cameron Park cliffs that has two pavilions and a plaza, along with a short walking trail that overlooks a peaceful view. You can also head out to Mouth of the Bosque that boasts a waterfront vista of the Brazos and Bosque Rivers. Or, check out the panoramic views at Circle Point. Enjoy stretching your legs as you venture out to these places, and don’t forget the Cameron Park Zoo. If you’re feeling brave, climb Jacob’s Ladder, a zigzagging staircase that leads you up to a rock shelter. A true oasis in the middle of Waco, this park is one of Texas’ hidden gems.
16. Regency Suspension Bridge
Locally called the Swinging Bridge, this one-lane suspension bridge spans the Colorado River where Mills County Road 433 intersects with San Saba County Road 137. The Regency Bridge was first built in 1903, then rebuilt in 1939, mostly by hand, and finally restored in 1997. Since 2005 it has been the only remaining suspension bridge in Texas to accommodate automobile traffic.
Take a detour out here to see the bridge in person, to really experience how high the bridge is above the water. Snap some photos of this old style wood bridge and the view of the Colorado river, while taking a moment to appreciate the history that this bridge represents. Just don’t be surprised when the bridge moves as your car crosses over, remember, it’s a suspension bridge.
17. Pinto Canyon Road
Not for the faint of heart, Pinto Canyon Road stretches over miles of deserts and sometimes seems to never end. If you’re in the mood to hit the road and head out into the middle of nowhere, this is the route for you. Pick up the road at Marfa, and follow the road as it is gradually swallowed by the high grasses outside of town. You’ll see the Chinati Peaks in the distance, gradually growing closer as you keep driving.
This is where the adventure really starts. The pavement ends and you will find yourself on a dirt road that descends into Pinto Canyon. See the ridges decorated with scrub oak and mesquite as you wind through about ten miles of canyon road. You’ll pass an abandoned mine before reaching the Rio Grande floodplain. If you take a right-hand detour here, you’ll end up at Kingston Hot Springs, where you can relax in the desert for a few days before continuing on your journey, wherever it might lead you, whether back to Marfa or out to Ruidosa. It might be a bit of a solitary journey, but you’ll experience gorgeous deserts and rural Texas like you’ve never seen before.
18. Westcave Preserve
Westcave Preserve is a true Texas gem hidden away in Southwest Travis County. This 30 acre preserve is home to a beautiful variety of wildlife in their lush natural habitats that include a canyon, grotto and gorgeous cave. Make sure to book your guided tour since this ecosystem is so delicate, entrance is only permitted with a guide.
Eat beforehand as only water is allowed on the tour, and arrive early to explore the Warren Skaaren Environmental Learning Center and learn more about the geology and weather of Westcave. The hike takes a few hours and is a little less than a mile long. Bring hiking shoes and be prepared to stop at various points to hear about the trees and birds, as well as to appreciate the views! The best part of the Westcave Preserve is at the end of the hike, when you reach the cave and grotto, a truly magical place. Bring your camera to capture these unforgettable moments.
19. Galveston Island State Park
Galveston Island State Park runs the width of Galveston Island from West Galveston Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, and located about 15 miles from downtown Galveston. With its flat, treeless terrain, you can see for miles around down to the beaches and out to the water. An ideal place to do some beach camping, there are 150 campsites here, leaving plenty of space for you!
Bring your swimsuit, sunscreen and camping gear and get ready for an outdoors weekend! There are over 4 miles of nature trails for day hikes, as well as barbecue pits and picnic tables. Bike through the Strand and historic district, and hit the bars around the Galveston seawall for a good time. Enjoy being a beach bum for a few days and relax in this beautiful state park.
20. Cattail Falls Trail and Big Bend National Park Hike
There is a great day trip awaiting you in Big Bend. Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend and pay attention once you hit mile marker 3. You’ll see signs for the Sam Nail Ranch overlook; take the opening at the scrub brush and follow the dirt road! You’ll reach a remote parking area where you should leave the car before continuing on your way.
Once you’re out of the car, follow the road down to the barricade and go around it, keeping right when the trail branches. Go up the hill and hike for about 1.5 miles and over some large boulders to reach the end of the trail, which ends at the pool at the foot of Cattail Falls. If you catch it after the spring rains, the water flows freely and makes for a beautiful picture! Enjoy this lesser known and secluded, gorgeous corner in Big Bend!
21. Museum of the Weird
One of the lesser known museums in Austin, the Museum of the Weird is actually a rare find. It has attempted to preserve the tradition of the “dime store museum”, first started by P. T. Barnum in the late 1800s. While a bit more expensive than a dime, this museum, created by artist Steve Busti, and features many of the oddities you would have probably encountered in the original dime store museum, had you had the chance.
The displays are offbeat, wacky, and definitely not your typical standard museum exhibit. Among featured items you will find: a cyclops pig, a feejee mermaid, a two-headed chicken, mummies, and items from camp horror films. Certainly not for everyone but definitely for the curious visitors, this museum keeps true to the saying to “Keep Austin Weird” and is worth the time if you find yourself in the area.
22. Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center
The Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center are some private botanical gardens and a nature preserve located in Orange, Texas. Initially founded by H. J. Stark in 1942, they were not fully established and opened until 1961. The gardens contain over 300 plant species as well as a bird blind to view the birds nesting in the heronry.
Visit these expansive gardens to appreciate the unique ecosystem and to participate in the hands-on exhibits at the Nature Center. It is an earth-friendly project that attempts to educate people on how to live in harmony with nature, and offers an oasis for retreat and renewal within its 9 botanical exhibits. Visit these gardens to get a taste of that elusive Shangri-La paradise we are all ultimately seeking.
23. Blue Hole at Riding River Ranch, Leakey
This small oasis is located at the private Riding River Ranch, and is only accessible to overnight guests. A trip well worth the overnight stay, this beautiful, secluded ranch is perfect for a vacation, boasting diverse wildlife, mountains and most importantly, private spring-fed springs and lake called the Blue Hole that are for guests’ use only! Book a cabin and get ready to relax!
Once you’ve settled in at your cabin, hit the trails that crisscross this expansive ranch. Swimming and fishing are also available! If you have a Jeep, be sure to bring it because there are long Jeep trails going deep into the 3400 acre ranch. However, most importantly, pack your swimsuit to spend as much time as possible at the Blue Hole. The beauty and nature makes this overnight trip even more special, and the fresh water will rejuvenate you! This could be the time away you’ve been needing to recharge.