Prime State Park Campsites
Catch an ocean breeze or a canyon sunset in one of Texas’ best places to pitch a tent.
By Russell and Luke Roe
Steve and Sandra Tolley of Katy return to the same Inks Lake State Park campsite year after year for their anniversary. It’s that special.
“This is the prime spot,” Steve says of the waterfront site. “We’ve been coming to this campsite for the past 10 years.”
Texas has lots of “prime spots” to camp. Campers who visit Texas state parks can catch the sunrise from atop a desert mountain, enjoy a campfire along a Hill Country river or relax in a hammock under the East Texas pines.
The state park system has 7,979 campsites to choose from. Some of those sites are pretty incredible. You know the ones we’re talking about — those sites that have great views, sit right next to the water, are shaded by a grand old tree or come with extra space or extra privacy to make them feel special.
We traveled the state as a father-and-son team to find those special sites, visiting dozens of state parks across Texas. (We also got invaluable help from many fine folks who work for state parks.)
Chris Beckcom, senior park planner at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says that when he visits parks during the week, he sees people camped in two kinds of places — in the really nice spot that everybody wants, and in the site right next to the bathroom. Both spots have their advantages, we suppose. Picking the best campsite is a pretty subjective process.
Our selections favor some of the more out-of-the-way sites — we’re tent campers and not RVers — but we tried to include something for everyone. We considered factors such as scenery, privacy, spaciousness, shade, access to bathrooms, proximity to park attractions and a totally subjective “wow” factor.
State parks are more popular than ever, and it’s important to make your reservations early to get a spot at your favorite park. With more than 2.3 million overnight visitors to state parks last year, you’ll want to plan ahead to have the best camping trip possible.
We hope you’ll explore our parks and discover more great campsites. Happy camping.
Big Bend Ranch, Guale No. 2: Dramatic vistas in every direction await campers at Guale No. 2, one of Big Bend Ranch’s most spectacular sites, located on Guale Mesa near the edge of Rancherias Canyon. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are needed to reach this spot, which is one of the most remote campsites in one of the most remote parks in the state. The park’s campsite guide describes it this way: “It has it all: millions of years of volcanic geology to study, views into Mexico, solitude that is deafening and sunrises and sunsets that will change the way campers think about color forever.”
Martin Dies Jr., Site No. 9: A wealth of paddling opportunities awaits canoeists and kayakers in this extraordinary ecosystem at the edge of the Big Thicket. Scenic sloughs meander through the park, offering intriguing places to explore and providing the backdrop for site No. 9, one of the park’s most popular. Diversity is the name of the game here, with a unique blend of plants and animals coming together at this biological crossroads. Magnolia trees mix with pine, oak, sweetgum and maple. Bald cypress trees add their statuesque beauty to the swampy areas, home to frogs, turtles, fish and alligators.
Caddo Lake, Site No. 65: The water and cypress trees of Caddo Lake hold the secrets of those who were there before you. Caddo is a mystical place, one that feels old and is particularly beautiful. Site No. 65 provides the perfect platform for the beauty and mystery of East Texas to capture your heart. It sits on the edge of the water, one of the few sites to do so. Canoe rentals are nearby, and there is a break in the trees near the campsite that functions as a canoe dock. After a long day you can relax around the campfire and let the waning light filtering through the moss-covered trees provide you with a sense of peace. Life is good in site 65.
Caprock Canyons, Site No. 65: The drama of this Panhandle park cranks up a few notches once you start heading down into the red-rock canyonlands from the prairie uplands. After passing a prairie dog town and the historic state bison herd, the road begins to descend into canyon country. One turn off the main road takes you to the Little Red Tent Camping Area, where campsites offer views of rock outcrops, the Caprock escarpment and the Little Red River canyon. Site No. 65, with a covered picnic table, is perched on a point overlooking the Little Red River.
Huntsville, Site No. 70: It’s hard to go wrong with pine trees and an East Texas lake. Campers flock to this East Texas park to hike, bike, paddle and swim. Lake Raven serves as the heart of the park, with tall pines towering over the shoreline. At site No. 70, the lake is at your doorstep, offering plenty of room, plenty of shade and views of the day-use area across the cove. Our nighttime canoe trip on the lake offered just the right blend of relaxation and adventure, something this park provides quite well.
Devils River, Del Norte Unit, San Pedro Point: This primitive campsite on the beautiful and rugged Devils River is available only to those who arrive by canoe or kayak (and have the appropriate permit). After enduring many grueling miles on the river, paddlers are sure to welcome the break. The setting is pretty spectacular — on the banks of the crystal-clear river, surrounded by desert mountains and canyons with no one else in sight. Nearby, massive springs gush out of the ground, in contrast with the dry desert terrain all around. In March, TPWD opened two new paddle-up sites on leased private land along the river in addition to the paddle-up sites at the two state park units.
Eisenhower, Site No. 179: Site No. 179 juts out on an elevated peninsula overlooking the surrounding Lake Texoma. The view is magical at all times of day — caves burrow into the white limestone cliffs across the cove, the sun’s rays glitter as they reflect off Lake Texoma’s blue water, and the rocks glow in the setting sun. The site has just enough tree cover to keep you cool and for you to still enjoy the view. There is a steep and rocky but short walk to the swim area in the cove below the site. String a hammock across some trees, sit back, relax and enjoy the view of Lake Texoma.
Lake Mineral Wells, Screened Shelter No. 3: This shelter has a unique feel. It’s home to stone benches built by the Civil Works Administration in the 1930s. It’s on a point on the lake and offers stunning views of Lake Mineral Wells and the surrounding hills. Big sandstone boulders rise up along the shoreline. The backyard bench-and-firepit area is shaded by oak trees during the hot summer days. The shelter is located in a cul-de-sac of sorts, and it’s not far from the main road that can take you all around the park and to Penitentiary Hollow, the climbing area that’s a natural playground and one of the park’s main attractions.
Hill Country, Site No. 129: Rugged limestone hills surround you in this Hill Country park. Site No. 129 is a huge, comfortable campsite shaded by trees and full of potential hammock spots. There’s plenty of room to spread out, and plenty of privacy, too. The site, which backs up to West Verde Creek, is an oasis in this scenic and secluded park. The park and the site are very primitive, so bring your own water and food. Hill Country State Natural Area is known as an equestrian park, but there is actually much more to it. The park offers numerous trails for hiking and mountain biking.
Inks Lake, Site. No. 92: The park’s most popular site hits the sweet spot with the right blend of scenery, shade, privacy and convenience. You’ve got the lake on two sides, with the popular Devil’s Waterhole a short paddle away. Boaters can moor their boats just off the site. The sunsets will take your breath away; this site offers a front-row seat. “It’s hard to find a flaw with this one,” says park ranger Chris Hall. Fishing, boating, swimming and exploring the pink-rock outcroppings will fill out your day.
Tyler, Site No. 37: This gem in the Pineywoods of East Texas offers plenty to do — paddling, fishing, swimming, hiking and biking amid a beautiful pine/hardwood forest, a spring-fed lake and some surprising hills. The sites along the scenic lakeshore are always the first to be chosen, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them. No. 37, on a small arm of the lake, provides a little more privacy than the others, and hey, it’s closer to the bathroom as well. Summer’s a popular time to enjoy the park, but don’t overlook autumn and the colors that come with it.
Davis Mountains, Site No. 81: This beautiful and historic park sits nestled in a valley of West Texas’ Davis Mountains. Grasslands and juniper-oak woodlands cover the rugged terrain, with volcanic rock outcroppings adding to the scenic value. Site No. 81 backs up to Keesey Creek, which runs through the park. The site is one of the more private ones in the park, and the trees provide good shade. Keep an eye out for the park’s abundant wildlife. Javelinas might come wandering through, or maybe you’ll spot a mule deer across the creek. It’s possible that you’ll get lucky and catch a glimpse of a lovely Montezuma quail. Elf owls can often be seen in a nearby tree.
Palo Duro, Sites No. 9 and 10: The second-largest canyon in the country is bursting with scenery and history. The Lighthouse formation stands tall as one of the most iconic sights in all our state parks, and the outdoor musical drama Texas has entertained crowds for generations. The Hackberry Camp Area is one of the older campgrounds in this Panhandle park, and the trees are a little bigger here, providing welcome shade and cover. Cottonwoods shade site No. 9, which offers room to spread out. Site No. 10 provides a covered picnic table and a greater degree of privacy. The Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River flows behind the sites, and both offer canyon views.
Enchanted Rock, Site No. 23: Enchanted Rock is a favorite of many Texans, and it’s definitely a favorite in my family. We’ve always loved the campsites that sit right up against the flanks of Little Dome, and No. 23 is one of the best. You can’t get any closer to the rock than this. The granite dome at your doorstep invites unfettered exploration through a wonderland of boulders, caves, hoodoos and outcrops. A covered picnic table provides a base of operations for your stay.
Franklin Mountains, Site No. C5: This campground doesn’t get as many visitors as it should, and maybe that’s because of its primitive nature: no water and no electricity. And that’s a shame. Sunsets blaze across the sky, and after dark, the city lights of El Paso twinkle in the distance. It all feels grand up in this mountain hideaway. Despite being in the El Paso city limits, the park immerses you in the natural world. This campsite is just across the valley from the Aztec Caves, a popular hiking destination. Bring your bike for some world-class mountain biking. There’s even a crag for rock climbing.
Daingerfield, No. 17: Step out of the car and smell the pines. This East Texas park’s most popular site offers seclusion and lake views.
More Prime Picks
Blanco, Shelter No. 41: You’re definitely not out in the wilderness here, but this screened shelter on the banks of the river will provide you with a perfectly pleasant Hill Country weekend.
Buescher, Site No. 48: This large site backs up to the park’s lake, where you can launch a canoe or kayak. Lots of trees provide plenty of shade.
Colorado Bend, Site No. 15 or 18: Enjoy the views of the Colorado River and the cliffs on the opposite shore at this former fishing camp, or take a hike to Gorman Falls or the scenic Spicewood Springs area.
Dinosaur Valley, Site No. 17: You can hear the Paluxy River gurgling below from this site perched on a bluff above the river. Cedar and cedar elm trees provide the shade at this spacious spot. Be sure to visit the dinosaur tracks upstream.
Lake Livingston, Site No. 57: Despite the name, only a few of this park’s campsites are on the lake. This one is at the end of a row, offering a refreshing retreat under the trees, with grand views of the lake.
Meridian, Site No. 32: This pleasant spot sits apart from the other campsites in the park. It’s not far from the day-use and swim areas, and it’s located on a nice little lake inlet. A bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps adds visual appeal.
Mustang Island, beach sites: Drive down the beach until you find the spot that looks just right along the dunes. You’ll wake up to crashing waves and the sunrise over the Gulf.
Pedernales Falls, group site: You may feel as if you have your own private state park at this secluded Hill Country site. A private entrance road leads you to a spacious camping area, which also has its own trail down to the river. It’s available only for sponsored youth groups.
Possum Kingdom, Site No. 80: People come to this North Texas park to enjoy the lake, and the great views and breeze at this site will keep them coming back. A covered picnic table seals the deal.
Campsite reservations can be made 5 months in advance by going online at texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com or by calling (512) 389-8900. At present, specific sites cannot be reserved; once you make a reservation at a park, spots are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
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