The Lone Star State, which prides itself on qualities like independence and self-sufficiency, is full of places with the kind of uncompromising rough-hewn beauty that makes you feel pretty insignificant.
I’ve picked a lot of these for my list, like the second-largest canyon in America, or the largest and remotest national park in the country. These are places that cater to a human need to be out in the elements, fending for yourself and those you love.
Size is another thing that Texas has in spades, and this is reflected in the full breadth of the state’s natural beauty, from steamy bayous in the east to sand dunes in the west, high mesas in the north and unending barrier islands in the south..
There’s a gentler side too, with springs and swimming holes for joyous summer days, exquisite botanical gardens, springtime meadows flush with wildflowers, and quaint small towns with a story to tell.
I was born and raised in Dallas, so as a Texas native I’m pretty confident you’re gonna like my list of the best places to visit in Texas:
1. Big Bend National Park
It’s only right that the starting point should be the largest and remotest national park in the entire United States.
Not many people make it to Big Bend National Park, and it’s not the kind of place to visit at the drop of a hat or on a detour. This forbidding lunar environment is a place for carefully planned adventures.
This might mean hiking past bizarre rock formations and up to distant lookouts, observing migrating birds, gazing at the darkest night skies in the world, driving roads with dizzyling accents or descents, or paddling through deep canyons on the Rio Grande.
If you’ve got what it takes, hike the strenuous South Rim Trail, which rises 2,000 feet, and compensates you with desert views for miles from the ridge.
Tip: You may also like my article on the most popular national parks.
2. Enchanted Rock
Steeped in legend, Enchanted Rock is an exposed batholith, a dome of pink granite erupting from the landscape at a height of 425 feet.
This makes it the second-largest hill composed of bedrock in the United States, and if there’s cause for regret it’s that this formation was once one of many to be found on the edge of Gillespie and Llano counties, a lot of which were quarried for their stone.
Enchanted Rock is prominent in Comanche, Apache and Tonkawa folklore, and I think it’s easy to see why—much of your time in the natural area will be spent transfixed by the hill and the panoramas that it affords.
There are many more rock formations to be admired and conquered, on more than 10 miles of trails.
3. Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Texas’s answer to the Grand Canyon is only 25 miles from Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, at the site of the Comanche’s last stand in 1874.
With its high mesa walls, multi-colored bands of rock and spire-like hoodoos, this 800-foot cleave in the landscape is the work of water erosion across many millennia on the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River.
The artist Georgia O’Keeffe was drawn to this place, and painted it multiple times between 1916 and 1918.
One of the things I love most about Palo Duro Canyon State Park is how accessible it is, with 16 miles of paved roads, and another 30 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails leading to the main sights.
The canyon’s icon is Lighthouse Rock hoodoo, 300 feet tall and three miles along a trail from the park road.
4. Caddo Lake State Park
Straddling the Texas-Louisiana border is the mysterious Caddo Lake, a natural body of water formed around a thousand years ago by a giant log jam known as the Great Raft.
The lake is essentially a network of sloughs, bayous and ponds, sprouting tall bald cypresses draped in Spanish moss. Alligators, turtles, snakes, beavers, river otters, bobcats, and more than 70 fish species flourish in this environment.
Caddo Lake has been inhabited for 12,000 years, and when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century they came across the Caddoan society, which had developed sophisticated agriculture.
The state park is a place to go fishing, paddle (rentals are available), hike on 2.5 miles of trails, camp, or rent one of the park’s historic cabins, built by the CCC during the Great Depression.
5. Colorado Bend State Park
If I had to choose one place that encapsulates the Texas Hill Country it would surely be Colorado Bend, a couple of hours northwest of Austin.
Over 5,300 acres, the state park is a land of karstic formations, woven with caves, springs, and sinkholes.
There’s a lot to get up to, whether you’re lounging in crystal clear waters at Spicewood Springs, touring a cave, or marveling at the 70-foot Gorman Falls, the park’s standout sight.
The topography varies wildly, with trails that lift you to craggy outcrops or zigzag down a valley to a shaded creek bed.
There’s camping of all kinds, from drive-up to hike-in, and you find yourself in the company of local wildlife like deer and armadillos, which go as they please at the park.
You may also like my guide on where to stay when visiting Austin.
6. El Capitan
What you see when you look at this icon of Texas is an ancient barrier reef from 290 million years ago, hoisted up by tectonic forces.
El Capitan’s sheer limestone walls, like the rest of the Guadalupe Mountain peaks, are the exposed sides of the reef stripped away of all their softer sediment.
Only the hardiest of climbers reach the summit, and for everyone else this is a natural monument best enjoyed from a distance, either on a trail in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, or from the southeast side along U.S. Highway 62/180.
My ideal time to make the stop is early on a sunny day, when those sheer cliffs are aglow.
7. Barton Springs Pool
An outdoor municipal pool might not be an obvious candidate for my list of the most beautiful places, but Austin’s treasured Barton Springs Pool is something special.
The pool is an impounded stretch of Barton Creek, fed entirely by the fourth largest spring in the state.
The water on the surface is between 68 °F and 74 °F all year, with swimming permitted year round, except on Thursdays when the pool is closed for cleaning.
When you stop to take in the scene, with the glassy waters, the green sloping banks of the creek and the towers of downtown Austin visible along the valley, it’s impossible to deny the Barton Springs Pool’s place on the list.
Also extraordinary, the Barton Springs salamander is a species that exists pretty much only in this spot. This one also made it to my list of 55 Best Things to Do in Austin.
8. Monahans Sandhills State Park
It’s a testament to the size of Texas that on one side you can have steamy bayous and on the other you can enter a range of sand dunes that look like the Sahara.
I think you’ll be fascinated to learn that this isn’t even a desert. The Monahans Sandhills are a rare semi-arid ecosystem supporting the shinoak shrub, which has huge root systems penetrating the dunes and reaching the groundwater many feet below.
There are no marked trails here—instead you can go where you please, and rent sand disks for some Texas-style sledding, down slopes as high as 70 feet.
See also: 23 Amazing Hidden Gems in Texas
9. Caverns of Sonora
As magnificent as they are remote, the Caverns of Sonora are on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, halfway between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park.
What elevates this limestone cave above most others is the breathtaking quantity and complexity of its calcite formations.
The helictites are among the finest on show anywhere in the world, and resemble intricate works of glass art by someone like Dale Chihuly.
My favorite fact about this place is that it’s active, with 98% of those formations still growing as we speak. The main tour is just under two hours long, taking through two miles of chambers to a depth of 155 feet.
10. Padre Island National Seashore
If, like me, you associate the name ‘Padre Island’ with the famous resort town then the Padre Island National Seashore will come as a shock. Instead of spring breakers there’s more than 60 miles of uninhabited shoreline, on the longest barrier island in the world.
The national seashore is so remote that you can only reach it with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. A pristine sandy shoreline continues to the horizon, with dunes, tidal flats, and the immensity of the Laguna Madre on the west side.
To me it feels like the far end of the world. Birds love it here. In fact 380 species have been documented on Padre Island, which is almost half of species recorded in North America.
Fall through is the best time for birdwatching, either during the epic migrations or when many thousands of birds winter along the shore.
The off-ramp for Enchanted Rock also happens to be one of Texas’s most beautiful small towns. Settled by Germans in the mid-19th century Fredericksburg still has a bit of a German accent, present in its cuisine, place names, customs and architecture.
The town could not have a better location, with epic natural wonders but also more than 50 vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms minutes away, lined out on gentle south slopes of the Pedernales river.
Back in town, the historic Main Street is a long, twin row of engaging specialty shops, galleries, tasting rooms, boutiques and German restaurants.
As the boyhood home of Chester W. Nimitz (1885-1966), Fredericksburg is the site of one of the country’s best military museums, documenting the Pacific Theater.
12. Hamilton Pool Preserve
The obligatory day trip from Austin is a natural pool in a bowl with overhanging cliffs 50 feet in height. This stunning work of natural architecture was created when the dome of a subterranean river collapsed.
For you and me, the result is a swimming hole of unrivaled beauty, with Hamilton Creek entering the bowl as a waterfall.
The volume of the waterfall changes with the seasons, but the level of the pool never changes.
The natural processes that forged Hamilton Pool are ongoing, so the pool is occasionally closed for swimming when the cliffs become unstable.
The surrounding preserve has interesting botany, especially in the rocky canyon areas, where stream orchids and the westernmost colony of red bay can be seen.
13. Franklin Mountains State Park
The writer Cormac McCarthy moved to El Paso in the 1970s, and I think the Franklin Mountains at the far western limit of Texas embody the high-desert setting of his most famous books.
Little more than 15 minutes from downtown El Paso, this range is a constant presence in the city, and promises a sense of peace, widescreen vistas over the lowlands, and a scenic desolation.
You’re in the Chihuahuan Desert here, with slopes sparsely tufted with yucca, poppies and barrel cactus, and oak, juniper and cottonwood crowding the mountain springs.
Be ready for tough desert terrain on more than 100 miles of trails in 37 square miles of pure wilderness.
West of Caddo Lake, this pre-Civil War town is almost intact, preserved as it was when it was one of Texas’s main riverports.
I can’t get enough of Jefferson’s brick-paved streets and genteel commercial buildings, all labeled with historical markers.
The town’s golden age was between 1845 and 1872, but navigation on the Big Cypress Bayou was suddenly made impossible in 1875 when a logjam was cleared downstream, lowering the level.
In Jefferson it behooves you to slow things down a little, and the best way to start is at a quaint old bed & breakfast.
You can pore over the collections at the local historical museum, set in a Romanesque Revival courthouse and post office, with four floors of exhibits, including the steamboat days and the Civil War.
15. Dallas Arboretum And Botanical Garden
On the shores of White Rock Lake in East Dallas, this relatively young arboretum first opened to the public in 1984.
I think the setting is part of the magic of the Dallas Arboretum, on the estate of the geophysicist Everette Lee DeGolyer (1886-1956), whose work was instrumental to the oil industry.
The Spanish Revival DeGolyer home (1938) mingles with some 20 gardens, incorporating art, fascinating botany, art and expert landscape architecture.
On the winding trail it feels like you’re in a new little world every few steps. If there’s an ideal time to be here, it’s surely early spring, for Dallas Blooms.
This is the largest annual floral festival in the Southwest with uplifting spring blooms, from tulips to azaleas, paired with live culture, children’s activities, Easter events and more.
I’ve written some great guides on Dallas:
- Guide to Downtown Dallas
- 55 Amazing Things to Do in Dallas
- 15 Best Day Trips from Dallas
- Best Tours in Dallas
16. Willow City Bluebonnets Loop
If you’re in Fredericksburg around early April there’s never a better time to see the Texas state flower, the bluebonnet in bloom.
A few miles northeast of the town you’ll leave behind a bucolic rural landscape for something a little rougher, in a rocky land of cliffs and deep canyons, with views that scroll out for miles.
Here a 13-mile ranch road twists through the rugged terrain, and in spring your eyes will be drawn to the roadside meadows in the valleys.
After a wet winter these fields are astonishingly beautiful, sporting wildflowers of many different varieties and colors, but it’s bluebonnets that bring the crowds.
In fact, my word to the wise is to make the drive on a weekday as the weekends can get hectic on the Willow City Loop.
A little town adrift in the high desert of the Trans-Pecos, three hours from El Paso has become a hotspot for contemporary art, and a luxury tourist destination.
For this you can thank Donald Judd (1929-1994), the Minimalist artist who relocated here from New York in the 1970s, buying a slew of buildings and acquiring more than 30,000 acres of ranch land.
His legacy abides in Marfa’s museums, galleries, art installations, contemporary artisan shops and the town’s sleek architecture.
The Chinati Foundation, established by Judd in 1986, is a great starting point. The museum is rooted in Judd’s own philosophies and specializes in works that have a close relationship with their natural surroundings.
18. Big Thicket National Preserve
Something that fascinates me about Southeast Texas is that it’s the meeting point for a variety of habitats that are spread across big chunks of the United States.
This is a crossroads, at the western and southern limit for plant species associated with the East Coast and Midwest. To protect this unique diversity the National Park Service set up one of the first two National Preserves here in 1974.
The Big Thicket National Preserve is 15 units comprising a total 113,000 acres, and while that may sound massive, you can think of it as a cross-section of American nature condensed into one corner of Texas.
You can paddle between the bald cypresses in a bayou, observe rare carnivorous plants dining on insects in baygall bogs, and take an easy walk in longleaf pine uplands. Start at the Visitor Center in Kountze to wrap your head around Big Thicket’s importance, and go from there.
19. Texas State Capitol
Presiding over downtown Austin from its hilltop perch, the Texas State Capitol is up there with the nation’s finest state capitol buildings.
Truly Texas, this monument mixes scale with artistry. It’s the sixth-tallest state capitol, and has more floor space than any other.
A whole spur of the Austin and Northwestern Railroad was constructed in the 1880s to transport the reddish granite that clads the capitol from Marble Falls.
Inside, check out the Great Seal in the Rotunda, and the magnificent star, which was installed in the dome, 218 feet above the floor, in 1958.
There’s a whole statuary for Texas’s political and historical figures, but the greatest work of all is the Goddess of Liberty crowning the dome.
The current statue is a replica from 1986, and the 1888 original can be seen in a dedicated museum on the capitol grounds.
20. Devils River State Natural Area
If it’s true wilderness you’re seeking I don’t think it gets more wild than the Devils River, a tributary of the Rio Grande, wriggling through a sparsely inhabited tranche of southwestern Texas.
The 37,000-acre natural area on the river is 60 miles north of Del Rio, in rugged lands inhabited by mountain lions, black bears, rattlesnakes, and not much else.
Camping is primitive here, so plan carefully and bring everything you need to survive for several days.
With some care, you’ll have the privilege of paddling on some of the clearest water you’ve ever seen, in a place where, even now, few people dare to venture.
You’ll need to be an experienced paddler too, as the river is notoriously boisterous, with rapids and drops like the roaring Dolan Falls which is listed in my selection of the best waterfalls in Texas.
21. Natural Bridge Caverns
In 1960, while exploring the Texas Hill Country, four students from St. Mary’s University stumbled upon a limestone cave system so large that even today new passages are being discovered.
Later, one of the students dropped out to help the landowner develop the caves for tourism, and this is the origin of the largest commercial caverns in Texas, still family owned and operated more than 60 years later.
The basic Discovery Tour puts you in the boots of the people who found the cave, taking you through the hall-like first chambers, and showing off the engrossing formations with expert lighting.
I recommend you dress for the conditions, as there’s 99% humidity and a constant 70 °F underground.
The headline feature is the one that gives the caverns their name—a 60-foot natural bridge spanning the bowl-like entrance, formed when a sinkhole collapsed underneath.
22. Caprock Canyons State Park
For anyone enchanted by the harsh beauty of Palo Duro Canyon, there’s another place with scenery straight out of a John Ford Western, little more than an hour away.
Hewn out by the Little Red River, Caprock Canyons has the same steep bluffs and colorful stratification, each line layer representing a different geologic age.
You can get away from it all on more than 90 miles of trails, some of which are hard going. One of the tougher routes is the Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail, taking you to the very top of the park for all-encompassing views of the canyons below.
The Texas State Bison Herd adds some extra mystique to Caprock Canyons, roaming free over 10,000 acres in the state park.
23. Lost Maples State Natural Area
If you want to see fall colors in Texas then you may not need me to tell you that the place to go is Lost Maples State Natural Area, around 70 miles of San Antonio.
This isolated stand of bigtooth maple forest is a remnant of a once massive expanse that flourished thousands of years ago when the region’s climate was much cooler and damper than it is today.
My tip is to make a note of the weather in autumn before visiting, because the reds are even more vivid in years when there’s less rain and the nights are cooler.
These 3,000 acres pack a lot of rugged limestone features, especially along the Sabinal River, which is flanked by steep canyon walls.
Small-town Texas at its best, Salado was born in the mid-19th century, along the Chisholm Trail cattle drives.
Something that has been here since the time of the trail is the Stagecoach Inn (1852), thought to be the oldest operating hotel in Texas (now known as the Shady Villa Hotel).
Less than an hour from Austin, Salado shares its near neighbor’s artsy vibe, with a whole community of creators doing their thing here.
The town is by no means large, but packs days’ worth of art experiences, at galleries and studios where you can see acclaimed artists in action. Two art-related dates to keep in the diary are the Wildflower Arts & Crafts Festival in March and the August’s Salado Art Fair.
25. Mission San José
More than 300 years old, the largest of the San Antonio Missions is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is affectionately known as the Queen of the Missions.
The church as we see it was begun in 1768, and was the core of a complex to convert Coahuiltecan Native Americans. I think Mission San José’s beauty is plain to see.
Those weathered limestone walls contrast with theatrical Baroque carvings, around and above the main portal, and on the stunning rose window on the south facade.
Of course, there’s a complicated and thorny history to unravel at Mission San José, and there’s no two ways about it. Drop by the visitor center first for exhibits depicting life at this place in the 18th century.
Be sure to also check out my guides on San Antonio:
- 15 Best Things to Do in Downtown San Antonio
- 25 Best Things to Do in San Antonio (TX)
- 15 Best Day Trips from San Antonio
- 15 Best San Antonio Tours
26. Port Aransas
Eco-tourism has taken off in a big way at Port Aransas, which sits across the bay from Corpus Christi on Mustang Island.
Birds play a big part in that, with hundreds of native and migrating species to be observed at no fewer than six sites on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.
The star of the show is the endangered whooping crane, which winters on Mustang Island and nowhere else between November and March, and is even the subject of an annual festival in February.
People have been paddling this waters for years, and the inward Redfish Bay is the site of the first designated paddling trail on the Texas coast.
Come summer Port Aransas is a place for the simple joys of the sand between your toes, wind in your hair, on 18 miles of open sandy shoreline.
27. The Alamo
I can’t leave out the most iconic landmark in Texas, charged with monumental importance as the site of a 13-day siege in 1836 by Mexican troops against rebel Texians.
And while The Alamo is remembered as a battleground and a battle cry that soon led to the formation of the Republic of Texas, this was originally a mission, founded in 1718.
The church’s Baroque facade remains The Alamo’s signature image, and this building was later adapted as a U.S. Army Quartermaster Depot.
There’s 300+ years of history to uncover on four acres of grounds, with interpretive exhibits woven into shaded subtropical gardens, framed by those old stone walls.
28. Jacob’s Well Natural Area
At the source of Cypress Creek in the Texas Hill Country there’s a perennial karstic spring walled by rocky bluffs.
The water percolates through the bedrock and up through this dark, 12-foot hole, forming a light ripple when it reaches the surface.
Jacob’s Well is even deeper than it looks—and it looks deep. The main cave descends vertically for around 30 feet, and then there’s a series of chambers reaching an average depth of about 120 feet.
With its shimmering waters, the spring is tempting on hot summer days, and is normally open to swimmers May through September.
As a reminder of the fragility of this natural site, the spring’s flow has ceased several times since 2000, and this down to the lowering of the Trinity Aquifer, caused by development in the area.
29. Zilker Botanical Garden
Two of my entries on this are within walking distance of each other. In the same park, just a few hundred feet from Barton Springs Pool there’s another of the state’s great botanical attractions.
Zilker Botanical Garden has been billed as the “jewel in the heart of Austin”, laid out on a hillside with stately live oaks and views of downtown.
Meandering paths link a diversity of themed gardens, like the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, which recreates a lush Cretaceous environment, or the koi-filled ponds of the Taniguchi Japanese Garden.
You can pause at any number of little shaded nooks, or bask in the sun on the neat lawns.
30. Medina River Natural Area
I’ll finish with a lesser known spot. On the south side of San Antonio there’s more than 500 acres of picture-perfect riparian landscapes along the Medina River.
As well as being just 20 minutes from downtown San Antonio, the Medina River Natural Area stands out for the variety of plant life.
Down on the riverfront there’s pecan and venerable bald cypress, while the uplands have honey mesquite, cactus and gorgeous wildflowers in springtime.
I recommend keeping a watchful eye for snakes and poison ivy, but thankfully there are plenty of signs to keep you informed of any threats.
Water activities are not permitted here, but if you want a paddling trip on the Medina River, head to Bandera, where the waters are clear as can be.
Want more? Check out my other posts on Texas: