Take a hike. Rather than a brush-off, to me this sounds like an invitation to have a great time. Hiking offers one of the most accessible and versatile ways to enjoy the outdoors. Naturally, Texas boasts an amazing array of hikes for every taste and ability—from strolls of less than a mile to treks longer than 100 miles, through thick woods or open country, on high mountain slopes or smooth, flat shores. Here’s a selection of 10 of my favorites.
1. Hill Country State Natural Area
Just outside of Bandera, the 5,369-acre Hill Country State Natural Area (photo on opening spread) offers classic hikes on 40 miles of multi-use trails. My favorite combines Routes 1 and 6 to loop out to the Wilderness Camp Area and back, going 5.8 miles through open stretches where tall grass undulates in the breeze, into shady groves of oak and juniper covered in berries, over rocky hills and down canyons, and even across a wide swath of ankle-scratching but wickedly beautiful sotol. A must is the detour on Route 5B, up a steep, rocky staircase to 1,760-foot-high Twin Peaks for a stunning, panoramic view of the almost unblemished countryside. There is no drinking water or supplies in the park, so bring everything you think you’ll need. Not that you’ll need much, with scenery like this.
Hill Country State Natural Area, 830/796-4413; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
2. Sam Houston National Forest
East Texas’ Lone Star Hiking Trail runs for 128 miles through the Sam Houston National Forest, but that’s too much hiking for me. I can handle, though, the challenging 27-mile section between Evergreen and Cleveland, which is a designated National Recreation Trail. Tree tags 25 to 50 yards apart mark the narrow path, but I suggest picking up a map from the Sam Houston National Forest district ranger’s office in New Waverly. Pines and magnolias shade the trail, which also blazes through thick brush and swampy areas, and crosses several creeks and the East Fork of the San Jacinto River (twice). You might also see white-tailed deer, turkey, quail, and rabbits. Foxes and bobcats live here, too, though you’re unlikely to see them. Old stumps covered in shades of green moss, strange fungi growing on fallen logs, and a variety of mushrooms lend an otherworldly, untamed feel to the landscape.
USDA Forest Service, Sam Houston Natl. Forest, 936/344-6205; www.fs.fed.us.
3. Lake Georgetown Good Water Trail
A rugged, 23.8-mile trail circumnavigating scenic Lake Georgetown traverses dense juniper stands, hardwood bottomlands, limestone cliffs, and wide-open prairie grasslands. You’ll even ford a few streams. My favorite spot on this hike, Knight Spring, creates a small stream above a lush, serpentine waterfall. Nearby is an old corral left by early settlers, and elsewhere on the trail are remnants of stone walls and fences. Armadillos rustle in the grass, and hikers may startle an occasional deer in the brush. During deer season (check with the office for dates), stay on the trail and wear bright clothing; the trail crosses Hunt Hollow Wildlife Management Area, which allows hunting. Multiple trailheads and several campgrounds make it easy to choose your distance; if your party has two cars, you can even leave one at your destination before driving to the starting point—then you won’t have to backtrack.
Georgetown Lake Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 512/930-5253; www.swf-wc.usace.army.mil/georgetown.
4. Guadalupe Mountains National Park
In far West Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park takes in 86,415 acres of desert, canyons, and windswept mountains, which are the remnants of an ancient marine reef. For a truly spectacular experience, hike to the 8,749-foot summit of Guadalupe Peak—the highest point in the state. The 3,000-foot climb and eight-and-a-half-mile round trip make for a strenuous hike, but the breathtaking views make it worth every huff and puff. Sign the guest book at the peak, and expect the wind to muss your hairdo if the hike didn’t already wreak havoc with it. Another 76 miles of trails beckon, but come prepared, as part of the charm of this desert outpost is the absence of commerce.
Guadalupe Mountains Natl. Park, 915/828-3251; www.nps.gov/gumo.
5. Big Thicket National Preserve
Big Thicket National Preserve, approximately 100,000 acres managed by the National Park Service, was created to protect the diversity of a once-vast ecosystem of meadows, swamps, and forests of pine, cypress, and hardwoods. The thicket boasts a rare combination of 85 tree species, 26 types of ferns, 20 orchid species, four kinds of carnivorous plants, some 186 species of birds, and 50 reptile species. Fortunately, eight hiking trails of varying lengths make it possible to experience this wilderness firsthand. I like the 5.4-mile Woodlands Trail, which meanders across the Big Sandy Creek flood plain. The trail passes through dense stands of hardwoods like sweetgum, water and basket oaks, magnolia, beech, and bamboo; it’s just you and Mother Nature. A section parallels the creek, where otters are said to live—an enticement to return.
Big Thicket Natl. Preserve, 409/951-6725; www.nps.gov/bith.
6. Davis Mountains State Park/Fort Davis National Historic Site
A four-and-a-half-mile trail connects Davis Mountains State Park and Fort Davis National Historic Site, home to the sprawling ruins of a late 1800s military outpost. This trip takes you through beautiful scenery and back in time. From the park’s interpretive center, wind up a draw to a ridge with 360-degree views of Texas’ most extensive mountain range. After you’ve regained your composure, trace the ridge’s edge to the end of Skyline Drive. (You can start here for a mile-and-a-half hike.) Three-tenths of a mile after crossing from state park to national park, two routes lead to the fort. I prefer the North Ridge route, which snakes through rocks and hoodoo formations, often resembling a stone staircase more than a trail, with great views of the fort most of the way.
If you can talk some of your party into skipping the hike, have them pick you up at Fort Davis. Hiking back is rewarding, too.
7. Lost Maples State Natural Area
Along the gorgeously clear Sabinal River, the park’s East Trail follows a canyon flanked by a large stand of uncommon Uvalde Bigtooth Maples, which give this park its name. Huge crowds come to observe the spectacular changing of the leaf colors in fall, but this hike is great any time. Even on busy days, leave the crowds behind by continuing up a steep climb to a windswept, rocky plateau populated by juniper and cactus. The trail hugs the edge of the ridge, where breathtaking views are as beautiful as the maples, then descends sharply to shady Can Creek, which tempts you with a swimming hole and waterfalls. If you make it this far, you’re rewarded with another, less-crowded stand of maples. Ah, solitude.
Lost Maples State Natural Area, 830/966-3413; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
8. Inks Lake State Park
A series of trails loop through a quiet corner of this popular park on Inks Lake. I enjoy combining them for a hike just under five miles that encompasses an astonishing variety of scenery. Grab a color-coded trail map at the entrance, park across from the amphitheater, and head out on the Green Route. Keep to the left as the trail forks, and you’ll walk beneath cedar and pecan canopies, enjoy panoramic views of the countryside, wind between multihued boulders draped with mosses, and clamber over swaths of granite with tiny yellow flowers growing in the cracks. (Avoid walking on exposed rock, as your feet damage fragile plant life growing on the granite.) This hike also provides access to thick cedar breaks, cattail-filled streambeds, the rocky lakeshore, and a stand of tall trees and lush grasses. Talk about variety!
Inks Lake State Park, 512/793-2223; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
9. Lake Somerville State Park
The Lake Somerville State Park Trailway, a sandy, easy-on-the-boots trail, covers 13 miles between the Birch Creek and Nails Creek sections of Lake Somerville State Park, which lie on opposite shores of Lake Somerville. Grass carpets the gently rolling terrain, which is lightly shaded by stands of yaupon, oak, and hickory. You can use the covered shelters spaced at intervals along the trail to rest and enjoy a snack. You’ll bisect a sprawling meadow, cross Yegua Creek, and skirt Flag Pond, a water impoundment in a natural depression in the creek’s watershed. If you’re a birder, you’ll want to slip into a spacious bird blind here, where you might spy resident waterfowl like great blue herons, canvasbacks, mallards, and wood ducks. The pavilion at Nails Creek is a good place to meet your ride if you don’t camp along the route. The start and finish points are about a 30-minute drive apart.
Lake Somerville State Park, 979/535-7763; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
10. Caprock Canyons State Park
Long ago in what we now call the Panhandle Plains, streams eroded the Caprock to create dramatic canyons and peaks of red sandstone and siltstone. Almost 90 miles of trails in Caprock Canyons State Park explore this unusual landscape; some trails rise as high as 3,600 feet along the cliffs. For intermediate hikers, a great choice is Upper Canyon Trail, a rugged, six-and-a-half-mile route that leaves from the South Prong Tent Camping area. Red-gold sand and multicolored rocks, a wide blue sky, and multiple creek crossings keep the route interesting. Look for signs of aoudad sheep, deer, bobcats, foxes, and nearly 200 species of birds.
Caprock Canyons State Park, 806/455-1492; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
Safe. Sound. Savvy.
A few simple rules will help you and future hikers have a good experience. Always stay on established trails; hiking “off road” damages the environment, and hazards are harder to spot (and you might get lost). Yield to horses and uphill travelers. Do not approach or disturb wildlife, and never feed wild animals. Keep dogs on a leash where required, and always scoop the poop. Pack out all other trash, too.
Before hitting the trail, be sure you’re physically up to it. Wear sturdy, comfortable, and broken-in shoes or boots. Carry adequate water, food, a first-aid kit, map, compass, flashlight, and matches or other fire-starter.
Heatstroke is a serious and common problem in Texas. Avoid open hikes in the heat of a summer day and drink, drink, drink (water, that is). Wear sunscreen and a hat. In many areas, you’ll also need insect repellent.
Pay attention to your surroundings at all times, and look for landmarks. If you take a wrong turn, go back to where you are sure about the trail. Wilderness experts recommend that you stay put and wait for help, but after 72 hours of waiting, try to find your own way out (using that map and compass in your pack).
Always check weather reports, and avoid hiking when rain or thunderstorms are forecast. Before you go, check with park officials regarding current conditions, hours, fees, and regulations.