Top Places to Do (Almost) Nothing
Watch some birds, take a leisurely stroll, enjoy a sunset — relax.
By Bernadette Noll
Texans are lucky to have such a vast array of parks where they can engage in all manner of extreme and invigorating outdoor activities. There are mountains to climb and rivers to paddle and lakes to fish. There are valleys to cross and deserts to explore and forests to discover as well. In all these places, whether you are in need of a break from all the action or just seeking a quieter, less energetic way to while away the days, Texas state parks offer many places of solitude and silence too. In these days of so much hustle and bustle, sometimes what we need is an opportunity to pause, reflect and let our minds wander away from our physical selves. For this we offer a small sampling.
Davis Mountains State Park
Covering nearly 3,000 acres, the park is located approximately halfway between Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Carlsbad Caverns and Big Bend National Park. All around the mile-high mountain peaks you’ll find abundant trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and other activities to elevate the heartbeat. But for kicking back and enjoying it all from an idle position, the scenic drive that winds in and around the mountains will do its best to take your breath away. Stop along the way at one of the scenic overlooks or at the old structure near the top, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, for a chance to get out of the car and out of your head and take in the scenery that stretches for miles on end.
Balmorhea State Park
Located on just less than 50 acres in the foothills of the Davis Mountains sits Balmorhea State Park. For thousands of years San Solomon Springs has provided a cool, wet respite for anyone who happened by this desert oasis. The pool as it stands now was built in the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and holds more than 3,500,000 gallons of clear spring water with a constant temperature of 72 to 76 degrees. The pool covers 1.75 acres and reaches depths of 25 feet, making it a mecca for desert-bound scuba divers. For those inclined to recline, however, there are countless spots along the pool’s edge where you can plant a chair or a blanket and set up camp for the day. It is hard to imagine in the middle of this hot, desert land that such an oasis isn’t a mirage, but just one toe dipped in the cool waters will convince you to linger a while longer.
McKinney Falls State Park
Not too far from downtown Austin sits the 700-plus-acre McKinney Falls State Park. The park is a quick getaway for the city dwellers of Austin and offers an incredible, natural, day or overnight retreat just 15 minutes from town. A great three-mile hike and bike trail winds around the campsites and through the woods, along a rocky hillside and Onion Creek. The Upper Falls offer a number of great spots to unwind and soak up the sun and the cool waters that fill the basin. For the ultimate in relaxation, though, the Lower McKinney Falls, where Onion Creek and Williamson Creek converge, offers much opportunity for lazy loitering. Sitting under the canopy of the cottonwoods, or spying fossils upon the sandy beach can fill an afternoon and a daydreaming head with thoughts of what was here long before the city of Austin came to be. To bring yourself back to earth, take a dip in the cool waters and enjoy the fact that such natural and unaffected beauty is protected so close to urban life.
Lost Maples State Natural Area
The park covers more than 2,000 scenic acres in Bandera and Real Counties, north of Vanderpool on the beautiful Sabinal River. The park is perhaps most known for its isolated stand of uncommon Uvalde bigtooth maples, which display brilliantly colored foliage in the fall. The park offers a variety of trails along the creek and river and even a few deep ponds where one can drop a line or take a dip. Sometimes, though, it is best to find a place where you can spend a few hours idly skipping stones or sculpturally stacking the abundant river-smoothed rocks. We found just the perfect spot with water flowing just enough for the little kids to splash in and a shady resting spot on a big, flat rock for lazy mom and dad. Just past the point where the Maple Trail merges back around to the East Trail, we plunked ourselves and our blanket and our picnic lunch and enjoyed a cool and relaxing lazy afternoon that kept us there until near dark. Back to our campsite we went satisfied with a lazy day well spent.
Pedernales Falls State Park
Just east of Johnson City, Pedernales Falls State Park covers more than 5,000 acres and sits along the banks of the picturesque Pedernales River. Campers and day-trippers alike use the park for such activities as hiking, swimming, birding, climbing, tubing and more. Far from the fray, however, away from the wildness of the water and the weekend-retreaters, sits a quiet little sanctuary where attendees are admonished to “enter quietly.” The bird blind at Pedernales is a small yet peaceful place where you can sit for hours watching the birds that visit the secluded area, well stocked with seed and water. Adults and kids alike will enjoy this welcome respite from too much activity and revel in the opportunity to exhale, while right before your very eyes, the avian visitors display their feathered brilliance.
South Llano River State Park
Sitting upon 525 acres, South Llano River State Park adjoins the Walter Buck Wildlife Management area south of Junction in Kimble County. Birders, swimmers, tubers and hunters alike all gather here at different times of year celebrating the abundance of natural beauty and wildlife this park has to offer. Whether camp-side or riverside, wildlife abounds and the park offers three wildlife observation blinds where you can watch the birds and other wildlife from a close yet discreet vantage point. Though intended for birders, anyone will find serenity by entering the cool, dark confines of the Agarita bird blind near the park headquarters. Through the window you can watch all manner of resident and migrant birds or just kick back and enjoy the sounds and sights this calm and quiet shelter has to offer.
Galveston Island State Park
Galveston Island State Park is a 2,000-acre park in the City of Galveston on the west end of Galveston Island. The park offers both gulf-side and bay-side camping, depending upon whether you are seeking a good sunrise or a good sunset. The screen shelters on the bayside sites offer welcome respite from the summer bugs while still allowing you to linger in the breezes. Wherever you choose to make camp, the natural beauty and sounds of lapping water surround. For the ultimate in hanging out, the observation tower on the bay side leading to the Clapper Rail Trail offers an incredible 360-degree view of gulf, marsh and bay alike. The tower offers views all day long of course, but just before dusk you can settle in for a spectacular Sensurround-like showing of amazing natural lights, sights and sounds. Scan the horizon in all directions and take in all that nature has to offer. It is guaranteed that time spent here will lull you until you are completely lost in thought.
Mustang Island State Park
On nearly 4,000 acres with about five miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico, Mustang Island State Park is located just south of Port Aransas. The park is available for campers and day-trippers alike, with different sections of the park for each. While nobody can deny that the beach is a great place to hang out or spend the night, a more secluded waterfront spot is just across the road on Corpus Christi Bay. It’s a rough road that is somewhat difficult to spot, and drivers should beware of huge dips and holes and even tidal erasures of the sandy roads. It is such a serene and uninhabited place, though, as to make any pitfalls worth the off-road drive. Find a spot to pull over and disembark (with blanket and nosh of course) and you will be delighted by the soft bay breeze and the delicate flight of the many and varied shorebirds that call this section home. Dip your feet in the cool waters or angle for your evening’s supper, and be sure to sit back and enjoy the tranquility this secluded bay front has to offer.
Goose Island State Park
Just north of Rockport in Aransas County, Goose Island State Park covers more than 300 acres and is surrounded by the St. Charles and Aransas Bays. Whether you are seeking shade, sun or water or all three, there are myriad spots to let go of a few lazy hours. Within the parks confines sits the famous “Big Tree,” a live oak with a 35-foot circumference and a 90-foot canopy, estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. Sitting under the branches of this tree, or under any of the trees that make up this old-growth grove, is one of the best ways to while away a lazy afternoon.
Back out at the waterfront, camp can be made just a few feet from the water’s edge. Listening to the gentle waves lapping the oyster shell island is sure to lull you into a deep and peaceful sleep, granting sweet (or salty) dreams. Before zipping the tent shut for the night, however, be sure to take a nighttime stroll to the very end of the 1,620-foot lighted fishing pier. To fish or not to fish is entirely up to you, but to hang out so far out over the moonlit water while the night herons and night fishermen fish all about you is a fantastic way to spend a lazy evening. If you want to look busy, just drop that line in the water and let the sounds and the smells of the bay carry your mind away.