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Now we’re hoping to enhance your adventures by breaking down 10 of the best Texas state parks within reasonable driving distance from Austin. These parks offer wide varieties of recreational activities and community attractions that are perfect for filling up a weekend if you can wrangle the time off work to play. Here we go!
1. McKinney Falls State Park
Located just 15-20 minutes from downtown Austin, McKinney Falls State Park is something of a hidden gem in town. McKinney Falls SP might seem small when compared to bigger and better known natural spaces like Enchanted Rock State Natural Area and Pedernales Falls State Park, but it’s got a lot packed into its 725 acres. Besides native Texas flora and fauna, the park boasts two lovely limestone-lined swimming holes, nearly 10 miles of hike and bike trails, and 81 primitive and developed campsites. They’ve even got cabins and a retreat facility — and one of the largest and oldest bald cypress trees in Texas!
Hamilton Pool Preserve is a glorious natural swimming hole located just west of Austin in Dripping Springs. Nestled against a small limestone canyon, Hamilton Pool features plenty of lovely limestone boulders for lounging and sunbathing, and a 50-foot waterfall that can get pretty impressive during rainy seasons. To access this well-loved swimming area, you’ll have to make an online reservation (typically months in advance during the summer) and hike about one mile total between the water and the parking lot.
After taking a dip in Hamilton Pool, many folks choose to continue on to Pedernales Falls State Park and make a weekend of their Texas Hill Country adventure. Since the park boasts more than 5,200 acres of protected wilderness and serious hiking, mountain biking, geocaching, wildlife and bird-watching, camping, swimming, and fishing potential, no Austinite should go without a visit!
If you haven’t spent any time exploring Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, we suggest taking a trip out there — especially if you think you’d enjoy learning about the conservation work rangers do there to protect native Texas plants and creatures. When you visit, be sure to explore the rolling hills and beautiful vistas at Doeskin Ranch and Warbler Vista and bring your binoculars. The preserve’s rangers strive hard to make the land a haven for several species of lovely little endangered songbirds, including the Black-capped Vireo and the Golden-cheeked Warbler.
Bastrop State Park and nearby Buescher State Park were ravaged by wildfires and floods in both 2011 and 2015. Considering their amazing recovery, we think these two small but resilient state parks seems like perfect places to spend some time in quiet reflection. Many of the parks’ hiking trails and roads remain closed due to damages, and primitive camping is currently a no-go, but some truly lovely areas are still accessible — and in some ways, they’re perhaps even more beautiful and stronger than before. <3
Expert Tip: Park Road 1A, a 12-mile hilly and winding paved road that is perfect for walking and cycling, connects both parks.
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6. Pace Bend Park
Though not technically a “state” park (it’s a Travis County park), Pace Bend Park definitely deserves recognition as a key green space that every Austinite should explore. The park spans nine miles along the Lake Travis shoreline, offering amazing cliff jumping, free soloing and rock climbing, swimming, birdwatching, and boating potential, in addition to its campsites and multi-use hiking and biking trails.
Palmetto State Park will surprise you. Close proximity to multiple water sources — including the San Marcos River, a lake, a well, and several swamps — and Texas’ constant humidity make the park a perfect habitat for dwarf palmetto plants, which look distinctly tropical. In addition to offering usual outdoor activities like hiking and camping, Palmetto State Park rents out pedal boats, canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, fishing boats and other related equipment, and inner tubes and allow swimming and fishing in both their lake and river.
Lockhart State Park provides visitors with three miles of scenic hiking trails, campsites, and multiple fishing spots, plus access to the park’s swimming pool. However, its most defining characteristic is its nine-hole golf course, which happens to be the only staff-operated golf course in the entire Texas State Parks system. On weekdays, they charge a $9 green fee, and on weekends and holidays, they ask $11. Cart rentals are $11 for 9 holes and $16 for 18 holes, while golf clubs run $7 and pull cart rentals will cost you $3.
Blanco State Park might be small, but it’s undoubtedly beautiful. Its “Caldwell Nature Trail” makes a loop around the park, crossing the Blanco River not once but twice, and provides plenty of wildlife viewing and birdwatching opportunities, especially near shorelines and from blinds. The park features one campground containing more than 50 tent and RV-friendly campsites and screened shelters. Boating, fishing, and swimming are allowed, and canoe rentals are available at park headquarters.
Expert tip: Visit Blanco State Park on the third Saturday in May to see some pretty sweet classic cars.
No Texas state park list would be complete without Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, a 1600-acre nature preserve near Fredericksburg that boasts a magical, massive, and very climbable granite dome, which we locals know as “E-Rock.” Whether you choose to spend your time hiking around the park’s 8 miles of nature trails, rock climbing on one or more of the park’s numerous boulders, or splashing in Sandy Creek, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area will absolutely impress every time.
Expert tip: Be sure to watch the sunset from the summit.
Exploring these 10 beautiful Texas state parks will probably keep you busy!
However, just in case you get through them all and still find some time on your hands, here’s a quick list of other natural spaces that are definitely worth checking out, but are located more than one hour from Austin: Lake Somerville State Park, Honey Creek State Natural Area, Guadalupe River State Park, Government Canyon State Natural Area, Hill Country State Natural Area, Inks Lake State Park, Colorado Bend State Park, and Stephen F. Austin State Park.
Happy adventuring, Austin!
Featured photo: Flickr user Timothy J, CC licensed