8 Great State Parks for Camping with Kids

By: Mauri Elbel
March, 2021

When life feels heavy — and let’s face it, this past year hasn’t felt particularly light — sometimes the best thing to do is unplug from it all and retreat into the arms of Mother Nature. For us, like countless outdoor-loving families in Central Texas, disconnecting from the rest of the world and reconnecting with one another is easiest when you’re surrounded by trees, rocks and rivers and the nearest cell signal is spotty at best. Each year as winter melts into spring, visions of roasted marshmallows and hot chocolate begin to dance in my kids’ heads, and I know at least a few cool nights will be spent cozied up in our tent, wedged between my Eagle Scout husband and our three little Scouts. And while I’d be lying if I said camping with kids is consistently relaxing, it always proves well worth the temporary sacrifices of basic comforts like solid sleep and walls and warm, running water. At the end of each camping trip, I’m yearning for a shower to rinse off the dirt and dreaming of a real bed before I hit the pillow, but I wouldn’t trade a single moment for the countless memories we’ve made with our little green tent. Camping offers one of the most affordable travel opportunities for collecting undistracted memories with the ones you love — and during these precarious pandemic times, there’s no better place to be than the great outdoors. If you’re searching for a spot to take your little campers, tote your tent to these eight state parks which are perfect for everything from fishing and swimming to roasting s’mores by the fire and snuggling up beneath the stars.

Pedernales State Park

Watching the clear, cool waters of the Pedernales River rushing over layers of smooth limestone tends to make worries take a back seat. These 5,200-plus acres on the banks of the pretty Pedernales are an ideal camping spot for first-time campers coming from Austin because less than an hour stands between your canvas tent and the comforts of civilization. Tranquil beauty flourishes within these park boundaries along miles of hiking and biking trails like the short but rugged Twin Falls Trail that leads to one of the most spectacular views of the Hill Country, or the longer 5.5-mile scenic loop that takes hikers to an overlook with unobstructed views of the river valley below. Here families can enjoy swimming, fishing and splashing along six miles of river frontage and hiking while catching glimpses of wildlife including rabbits, armadillos, white-tailed deer, opossums, raccoons and birds.

Inks Lake State Park

Less than an hour and a half away, Inks Lake State Park is an idyllic escape for those looking to create memories in a place that is as tranquil as it is close by. Lake life can be enjoyed at this 1,200-acre state park pretty much year-round because the lake’s level stays constant — check the website for the most up-to-date information about paddle boat, kayak and canoe rentals. Hike miles of trails weaving through this Hill Country haven where unique pink rock outcroppings of Valley Spring Gneiss rise up through the surrounding limestone. After working up a sweat, cool off at Devil’s Waterhole — when Valley Spring Creek is running, you can explore scenic waterfalls upstream of the lake. When the weather is too cool for swimming, little anglers will also love fishing for everything from bass and catfish to crappie and sunfish.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Camping out at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area beneath the awe-inspiring ancient pink granite dome rising from the heart of the Hill Country is nothing short of magical. An almost mystical feeling overwhelms the spirit as you gaze out on forever from the top of Enchanted Rock, accessed via the steep one-way Summit Trail. Near the top, you’ll discover rare vernal pools, ecologically significant and severely threatened soil islands on Enchanted Rock’s bare granite summit, where small crustaceans known as fairy shrimp and rare plants (quillwort) survive harsh environments and conditions year in and year out. Little explorers with big imaginations will also love shining their flashlights inside Enchanted Rock Cave just beyond. But when you camp out at Enchanted Rock, you’ll also have more time to explore the lesser-trafficked trails such as the 4.6-mile Loop Trail around the perimeter of the park and Echo Canyon Trail, where you can rest in the shade of gigantic boulders. Plus, you’re a stone’s throw from the charming German town of Fredericksburg and laid-back Luckenbach.

Colorado Bend State Park

The 5,300 acres of unspoiled wilderness that unfolds at Colorado Bend State Park feels a world away. Perhaps it’s because there’s no reliable signal out here, making it easy for campers to unplug and let nature do all the talking — a pleasant symphony of rushing waterfalls, chirping birds and rustling leaves. Six miles of Colorado River frontage invites guests to swim, fish or kayak while hikers and mountain bikers can work up a sweat along more than 35 miles of multi-use hike and bike trails ranging from easy, flat tracks to challenging, rocky trails. Gorman Falls Trail is a not-to-miss 3-mile round-trip rocky hike that requires a steep and slick descent to get to gorgeous Gorman Falls — a 70-foot spring-fed living waterfall that features numerous cascades pouring out from a limestone cliff carpeted in emerald moss and draped in ferns. Colorado Bend State Park is also home to more than 400 caves, and beginner to expert spelunkers can crawl through them by booking cave tours with an experienced guide (check the website for COVID-related updates and closures).

South Llano River State Park

Tucked away in the southwestern edge of the Hill Country, this peaceful retreat features two miles of river frontage on the spring-fed South Llano River that makes for a laid-back camping experience for families. Nearly 23 miles of trails weave through this state park, spanning rugged backcountry trails freckled with cactus to tree-shaded paths snaking through bottomland forests thick with cedar elms, oaks and pecans. Since most of the trails are relatively short in distance, it’s an easy place to hike with little ones. Set out on the 1.6-mile River Trail, which runs along the river and into a shaded tree-filled forest — our kids loved gathering freshly-fallen pecans for mid-hike snacks. Resident wildlife include white-tailed deer, squirrels, ducks, birds, rabbits and Rio Grande turkey — the park serves as one of the oldest and most substantial winter turkey roosts in Central Texas. Rent tubes ($8 each) or bring your own to float, swim and splash in the crystal-clear river when it’s warm and sunny, and roast marshmallows over the coals and watch as millions of twinkling stars fill the sky when night cloaks this International Dark Sky Park.

Dinosaur Valley State Park

If you have littles ones obsessed with the giant reptiles that walked the earth millions of years ago, camping out at Dinosaur Valley State Park — ranked on Frommer’s list of “99 Places to Take Your Family in the United States” — is a must. Aside from the typical roster of camping-related activities spanning hiking, biking, fishing and swimming, visitors can also set foot in some of the best preserved dinosaur tracks in the world. Snap selfies of your dino-lovers in front of the two towering fiberglass dinosaur models near the park’s headquarters — a 70-foot green Apatosaurus and 45-foot brown Tyrannosaurus rex — before placing your feet in actual dinosaur footprints in the pristine Paluxy Riverbed, where the first sauropod trackways were discovered. Craggy limestone terrain and rocky ridges surround the pristine Paluxy River, where visitors come to see the evidence left by prehistoric beasts that walked in the limey mud 113 million years before you did. But you don’t have to be a dino-obsessed preschooler or paleontology enthusiast to appreciate what unfolds on these 1,500-plus acres of stunning raw Texas beauty. Around 20 miles of trails spaghetti through the park, with five main track site areas mapped out. Hike down to and wade across the shallow Paluxy River (the rocks are slippery so wear water shoes) to find numerous three-toed theropod tracks as well as larger, up to three-feet-wide sauropod tracks. Down river, plunge into the pristine Blue Hole before checking out more tracks on the rock ledge just below the water’s surface and down the rocky beach in the shallow riverbed.

Garner State Park

Sitting on the southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau and surrounded by unparalleled vistas of soaring mesas, carved limestone cliffs and ancient rock formations, this 1,174-acre state park is a camper’s paradise. It’s a winning combination of stunning scenery and deep-rooted Texas traditions that consistently ranks Garner State Park as the most visited state park in Texas. Since the 1940s, evening quarter-fed jukebox dances have been a legendary summertime staple while the autumn months draw visitors with spectacular fall foliage as the towering bald cypress trees fringing the green Frio River become splashed with crimson and gold. This time of year, families can fill their days hiking, playing putt-putt, floating, fishing and paddle-boating down the clear, cool, crystal-clear Frio and spend the nights stargazing and roasting marshmallows around the campfire.

Davis Mountains State Park

If you want to truly get away from it all without leaving the state, road trip your way to this uninhabited corner of far-flung West Texas, where rugged mountains and craggy canyons rise up from wide open spaces, silence stretches for hundreds of miles in each direction and coal-black night skies are spackled with twinkling stars and dusted with galaxies. Solitude flourishes throughout this untamed landscape, where WiFi signals are non-existent and signs posted throughout the park warn visitors to beware of mountain lions. Miles of hiking trails yield breathtaking panoramic views of rolling grasslands studded with scrubby shrubs and ridgelines slicing into the cloudless blue horizon. Tucked in the foothills of the most extensive mountain range in Texas — sometimes referred to as the “Texas Alps” — folks flock to this remote state park located a few miles from historic Fort Davis for more than just middle-of-nowhere scenery. A star attraction in this secluded swath of Texas is nearby McDonald Observatory, one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research and education with legendary Star Parties that you’ll need advanced reservations to attend.

If you’re contemplating a spring camping trip, check out these 10 tried-and-true tips that will make your inaugural camping experience a little easier when you have little ones along for the trip.

Pedernales State Park

Getting there:

1-hour drive from Austin

Inks Lake State Park

Getting there:

1 hour, 15 minute drive from Austin

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Getting there:

1 hour, 45 minute drive from Austin

Colorado Bend State Park

Getting there:

2-hour drive from Austin

South Llano River State Park

Getting there:

2 hour, 40 minute drive from Austin

Dinosaur Valley State Park

Getting there:

2 hour, 45 minute drive from Austin

Garner State Park

Getting there:

3-hour drive from Austin

Davis Mountains State Park

Getting there:

6 hour, 45 minute drive from Austin

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