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Let's Go Camping!

Your guide to planning a successful
overnight stay at a Texas state park.

by Pam LeBlanc

April 2024 Issue

Rex, Jusitn-18845

The Best Moments of my life unfold outdoors, on rocky trails and winding rivers that lead away from the asphalt and bricks of city life.

Outside, I can flop onto a blanket and stare up at the skies, paddle down a blue-green ribbon of water lined with bending cypress trees or hike up a steep ridgeline just to get a view of the next hill. Then, at the end of the day, I can zip myself into a tent and fall asleep to the hooting of an owl.

Camping is bliss, and for a smooth trip it helps to know some basics.

A successful trip starts by picking a place where you can do the things you like to do and finishes, perhaps, with a pineapple upside-down cake baked over a campfire. Need help getting there? We've rounded up information to help you plan your next trip to one of the 88 state parks in Texas.

Caprock Canyons

The best park for your camping style

RV

If you're hauling a big trailer, you need a campground designed to handle it. Twenty-nine of our state parks have sites with full hookups — water, electricity and sewer. Sixty-one are water and electric only.

Look for parks with drive-through campsites, like Martin Dies Jr. State Park, so you don't have to back down a narrow drive. Parks with amenities built or renovated in the last 30 to 40 years generally can handle the biggest RVs. Cedar Hill State Park, near Dallas-Fort Worth, and Lake Livingston State Park, north of Houston, are equipped to handle larger rigs.

Tent

Tents offer more flexibility since they can be set up in a variety of places. You can find great tent sites at parks such as Buescher, Inks Lake, Caprock Canyons, Colorado Bend, Davis Mountains, Dinosaur Valley, Franklin Mountains, Lake Mineral Wells, San Angelo and more. If you're willing to hoof it a mile or three from the parking lot to a primitive site, you can find even more secluded, peaceful settings.

Camper van

Camper vans are the 'tweeners of the camping world. If you don't need hookups, you can park in a regular car camping slot, but if you want electricity to run your AC, for example, you'll have to book a spot with hookups.

I've got a camper van of my own, a Ford Transit equipped with a bed and a no-frills kitchen that I've dubbed Vincent VanGo. My favorite destinations include Palo Duro Canyon State Park, where you can hike to a tall pinnacle called the Lighthouse, and Hill Country State Natural Area, where one of the trails cuts through a crown of hills.

Choosing a Destination

Time of year, park features and location each factor into the all-important decision of where you should pitch a tent or park an RV.

During hot summer months, I seek out water. I can take a little heat as long as I have a lake or river where I can cool off. The Civilian Conservation Corps formula of building a lake and designing a park around it stands the test of time at parks such as (1) Tyler, Bonham, Meridian and Fort Parker. In fall, I 'd rather set up camp in a forest of tall pines, like the ones at (2) Caddo Lake in East Texas. If you 're lucky, you 'll see it swathed in fog, which makes some of the trees look like they're growing from clouds. Chilly winter days are perfect for mountain biking or hiking at (3) Big Bend Ranch State Park, the rugged expanse of desert west of the national park. And in springtime, head to the Hill Country, where swaths of wildflowers bloom at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area and (4) Inks Lake State Park.

If you have time and an adventurous spirit, the remote Devils River State Natural Area north of Del Rio, where you can climb a bluff and look down on the most pristine river in the state, rises to the top of my list. Just be prepared — it 's 65 miles from Del Rio, the nearest city, and the whole place bristles with shin-stabbing plants like Spanish dagger.


Reserve a Site

Texas parks are popular, especially on weekends and holidays during good weather. You can make camping reservations up to five months in advance and book day passes up to 30 days in advance.

Make camping reservations at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/reservations/ or call
(512) 389-8900 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Online reservation tips:

  • If you know where you want to camp, you can search by park name or a nearby city.
  • Or just browse. If you know your dates, plug those in and the results will show which parks are available.
  • Check the park map to see where the sites are located. Do you want one near the bathroom? Would you prefer one close to the swimming area? What about trail access? Do you need a site accessible for someone who uses a wheelchair?
  • To find out what a specific campsite looks like, check the park website. It features photographs of every designated spot in the park system. Try using Google Maps for a satellite view. (You can even look for trash dumpsters, which you probably want to avoid.)
  • Want to go last minute? Click the Camping This Weekend tab to find out which parks have availability.


Prime Spots

Choose a site to suit your needs

Martin Dies Jr. State Park
Photo by Chase Fountain

Martin Dies Jr. State Park

Towering pines? Check. View of the water? Check. I aim for Site 316 when I visit Martin Dies Jr. State Park (shown above) in woodsy East Texas. It's situated at the end of a loop in the park's Hen House Ridge Unit, and you're liable to hear a chorus of woodpeckers when you gather around the picnic table for supper.

Eagle Nest
By Michael Byers

Lake Somerville State Park & Railway

Camping at the Newman Bottom primitive site in the Nails Creek Unit of Lake Somerville State Park, north of U.S. 290 between Brenham and Giddings, feels a little like slipping into a hidden passageway. The keyholeshaped clearing in thick brush comes with two picnic tables and a firepit; a chemical toilet is located a threeminute walk away. You can access the campsite by parking west of Flag Pond and walking a mile in, but I wanted a longer hike, so I started at the Nails Creek access point on County Road 125 and walked 3.5 miles to get there. Along the way, I watched a pair of bald eagles soar over their nest, a sofa-sized bundle of sticks tucked in the fork of a dead tree along a trail called Waldo's Loop. I saw some cool wildlife on my last visit; a rat snake slithered across the trail, an armadillo rooted around in the bushes and a feral hog trundled across a nearby field.

Pedernales Falls State Park
Photo by Chase Fountain

Pedernales Falls State Park

I always look for the most secluded site at a park, and even though the campground at Pedernales Falls is densely arranged, Site 16 offers more privacy than most. The tent pad is situated at the end of a longer-than-usual drive, so you won't get glimpses of neighboring campers.

Sea Rim State Park
Photo by Chase Fountain

Sea Rim State Park

I'm a sucker for a unique campsite, and when I discovered the floating platform at Sea Rim State Park 24 miles from Port Arthur in Southeast Texas, I couldn't wait to paddle out and set up my tent. Architecture students from the University of Texas dreamed up the 13-by-20-foot structure, which bobs next to undulating grasses in the marsh about 2 miles from the park's inland boat ramp. Bring your own kayak or rent one on site, via the self-serve kiosk. It's an hourlong paddle to the platform, easily visible because of the tall wooden tower — a privacy screen for the 5-gallon waste bucket you're required to bring for use as a toilet — rising from it. Keep an eye out for alligators, pack the bug spray and prepare for a serene sunset and sunrise.

This site is undergoing renovation. Call the park before booking to check on availability.

Big Bend Ranch State Park camping
Photo by Chase Fountain | Pam LeBlanc

Big Bend Ranch State Park

All the backcountry campsites at this sprawling park pack spectacular views, but Guale Mesa 2 wins hands-down for me. Peer out your tent flaps and you'll see mesa tops bristling with ocotillo — or maybe even a hairy tarantula. (I did.) From Big Bend Ranch State Park headquarters at Sauceda it takes about 90 minutes to get to the site, but once you're there you've got access to some of the best mountain biking trails in the park. You'll need four-wheel drive, and a spare tire (or two) is recommended.


Camping gear

Pack Up!

The most important thing to bring is your spirit of adventure.

Beyond that, lace up a pair of comfortable and sturdy shoes, fill a water bottle or two (plan on a liter per hour of activity), and download a trail map from the park website or grab one from park headquarters.

If you plan to stay the night, you'll need to do a little planning.

Check the weather forecast and make sure you're bringing appropriate clothing. Do you need rain gear? A warm jacket? A broad-brimmed sun hat? A long-sleeved shirt to prevent sunburn? Bug spray and sunblock?

If you're planning to tent camp, you'll want a tent, a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, a flashlight or headlamp, camp chairs, cooking equipment, food, toiletries, cleaning supplies and a trash bag. And charge your devices before hitting the trail.

family camping

The Essential Pack List

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag/pad/pillow
  • Headlamps or flashlights and extra batteries
  • Camp chairs
  • Lantern
  • Firewood (charcoal optional)
  • Cooking apparatus (camp stove, pots and pans, camp grill, griddle or Dutch oven)
  • Utensils (forks, knives, spoons, skewers or roasting forks)
  • Tupperwares or plastic bags for kitchen items
  • Cooler and ice
  • Water bottle
  • T-shirts
  • Swimsuit
  • Long-sleeve shirt
  • Light jacket (if it's cold, consider bringing layers such as long underwear, warmer jackets, gloves, hats, etc.)
  • Rain coat (if needed)
  • Shoes to wear at camp
  • Water shoes
  • Hiking boots or other shoes
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Pajamas or other sleeping clothes
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Toilet paper
  • Towel
  • First aid kit
  • Any medications
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Lip balm

Know Before You Go

Drones

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones and remote-controlled planes) is prohibited in many state parks and state natural areas. Check with your local park before operating one.

camping Wifi

Technology

Forty-nine of the 88 Texas state parks have Wi-Fi service in at least some area of the park. (Use the state park map to search for parks with service.) You'll have to manage without Wi-Fi and with limited cell service at more remote places, such as Devils River.

Geocaching

Geocaching

If you're into searching for tiny treasures, grab your GPS and seek out some of the geocaches hidden at parks around the state. While nearly every park has at least one, some areas may be off-limits to protect endangered species or to limit impact to archeological sites.

Alcohol

According to state law, you can't drink or display an alcoholic beverage in public areas at any Texas state park. And no, you can't get around that rule simply by pouring your wine, beer, or cocktail into a different container.

That means no toasting around the campfire. But all is not lost for those who want to enjoy a celebratory sip after wrangling their tent into position. According to Maj. Doug Huggins with the State Park Police, you can discreetly sip an adult beverage inside your tent, camper or cabin.

Just remember to drink responsibly.

lady in hammock

Hammocks

Imagine swaying beneath a leafy canopy on a hammock during your camping trip.

“Being elevated definitely provides an increased level of comfort,” says Chris Eddy, head of product for Austin-based Kammok, which sells hammocks and other camping gear.

Hammocks are allowed at most of Texas' state parks, but there are restrictions. Don't use permanent anchors to affix them, and attach them only to trees at least 8 inches in diameter at the strapping point. Straps should be at least 2 inches wide, and you can't cut any plants to create the perfect hanging spot.

“Protecting the vegetation is huge — we don't want to accidentally snap a tree that's too small or cut back a tree that's important,” says Cisneros.

If you're planning to sleep overnight in your hammock, hang it within your campsite. And don't attach it to shade shelters, lantern posts or any other structure.

Texas Outdorr Family logo

If you've never gone camping and aren't sure how to get started, check out the Texas Outdoor Family program offered by Texas State Parks. Families can sign up for a one-night workshop, and no experience — or gear other than bedding and food — is necessary. Spots fill up quickly, so book far ahead of time. “We provide all the materials and instruction a group may need to enjoy their time in a park, from a tent to a cot to camp stove,” says Charlotte Cisneros, outdoor education and outreach manager for Texas State Parks. “A ranger stays with the group the entire time and provides instruction on different outdoor skills, from fishing to building a fire or geocaching.”

That's because state parks are for all Texans, and there shouldn't be any barriers keeping people from coming out.


Dutch Oven

Going Dutch

My camp cooking skills don't extend much past the grilled-sausage-wrapped-in-a-tortilla level, but I've got friends with much more advanced capabilities.

After years of camping, Charlie Riou knows his way around a Dutch oven. His go-to menu features layered green chile chicken enchiladas as the main course and pineapple upside-down cake for dessert.

“It's really not that hard and it's fun,” Riou says of the cake. “And it makes a very nice presentation.”

But first, some basic tips on cooking with a Dutch oven, which comes in either cast iron or aluminum. “Cast iron is great for car camping, and it's good at retaining heat. But aluminum works well if you need something not as heavy,” Riou says.

A charcoal chimney (a metal cylinder that holds charcoal) makes it easier to light charcoal and arrange the glowing coals on top of the Dutch oven. Riou also recommends welding gloves or barbecue mitts, a pair of metal tongs and a metal hook or pair of channel-lock pliers to lift off the lid when your food is finished.

“It's really easy to burn some things. It requires less charcoal than you think,” Riou says.

For most recipes, a perimeter of charcoal on the lid and around the base of the oven will do the trick, with a few half pieces on the lid for good measure. Make sure you're cooking on a suitable surface such as an empty firepit or a metal pan to keep the hot oven from scarring the ground.

“Another big secret I've learned is about halfway in, or a little more, when you start smelling the food cooking, rotate the bottom and top of the Dutch oven 180 degrees.”

Simple Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

  • 1 box yellow cake mix, plus whatever ingredients it calls for
  • Brown sugar
  • Broken pecans or walnuts
  • Canned pineapple rings
  • Maraschino cherries

Prepare cake mix according to directions on box and set aside in bowl.

Warm base of Dutch oven over a ring of coals. Pour a little of the juice from the canned pineapple into the Dutch oven. Stir in a few spoonfuls of brown sugar. Arrange pineapple slices on bottom, add nuts and maraschino cherries, then pour batter over the top.

Place lid on Dutch oven and arrange hot coals around the perimeter of the lid.

When you smell the cake cooking (usually about 30 minutes), carefully remove the lid. It's ready when the cake is golden brown on top. Remove coals from lid and slide a spatula around the edge of the cake to make sure it doesn't stick. Flip the oven over (tap with a spatula or rock if it sticks) and release it, upside-down, onto the lid.

Other Cooking Methods

Foil packet

Perfect for those who do not enjoy doing dishes while camping. Take your pick of contents, wrap in foil and place into the coals. Great for potatoes, fish, surf-n-turf and more.

Grill

Make classics such as hot dogs, hamburgers and kebabs on a grill placed over a campfire (some campsites provide grills you can use).

Camp stove

Bring the inside out with a camp stove, where you can cook your one- or two-pot favorites outdoors.

girl roasting wieners

No-cook meals

Bring supplies for staples like PB&Js, or try freeze-dried meals like backpackers eat on the trail (or astronauts eat in space!).


Family camping with christmas lights

Stay a While

Want to stay longer than the 14-day maximum limit at most Texas state parks?

Falcon State Park near Laredo, a hotspot for anglers, allows stays of up to 180 days.

Monahans Sandhills State Park (below), where you can sled down sand dunes, and Galveston Island State Park (above), Lake Tawakoni State Park and Inks Lake State Park allow stays up to 30 days during nonpeak seasons.

If you plan to stay more than a month, consider turning your visit into a part-time job. Park hosts get a free place to camp in exchange for 25 hours a week of helping visitors, cleaning and doing light maintenance.

Jeep truck pulling camper

Leave No Trace

Remember the basic Leave No Trace principles to keep parks natural and wildlife safe.

  • Hike on durable surfaces and camp in areas where others have already camped.
  • Dispose of waste properly. If you pack it in, pack it out.
  • Respect wildlife. Watch animals from a distance, never feed them, keep your pets under control and avoid areas where animals may be nesting.
  • Don't move or take artifacts, rocks or plants.
  • Don't build a campfire unless you need one, and if you do, use an established fire ring, keep it small, and make sure you put it out completely when you're done.
  • Remember, others are out here to find solitude too. Keep the noise down and be courteous.
  • Make sure you know all rules specific to where you're going.


group enjoying camp fire

Campfire Lore

Once, while camping at Colorado Bend State Park, my husband and I pitched our tent near a group of Boy Scouts. After sunset, they gathered around a campfire to roast marshmallows and swap stories. Eventually the topic turned to ghosts, and the kids quieted down. Then, as one parent shared a tale about a madman wielding a chainsaw, another revved up a real saw in the background. The kids screamed their heads off.

For eons, campfires have kept humans warm, comfortable and safe from what lurks in the darkness. Gazing into one is mesmerizing — like staring at a lava lamp.

“It can provide light and warmth and a place to cook food and a chance for everyone to get together,” Charlotte Cisneros, outdoor education and outreach manager for Texas State Parks. “It's kind of a meditative thing to watch a fire.”

State Park Fire Tips

When you're at a Texas state park, remember to use the fire rings or grills provided and keep your fires within these. Occasionally, you'll encounter a burn ban at a park. Check the park's website for restrictions. Buy firewood locally, so you're not carrying in any invasive species. Upright dead and fallen wood is a home for insects, birds, burrowing animals and decomposers, so don't harvest wood from the park. Keep water nearby so you can put your fire out quickly in an emergency, and make sure it's completely out when you turn in.

Campfire 101

There are many different ways to start a fire, but a few basics remain the same.

Step 1: Gather the materials
You'll need to collect three types of materials: tinder, kindling and fuel wood. Tinder is something that will catch quickly and easily. Examples include cedar bark, dry grasses, dry leaves, dry pine needles, cattail fluff, steel wool, shredded paper, cotton balls coated with petroleum jelly or even crushed Fritos. Kindling is longer and thicker in diameter than the tinder; you'll want a large supply of kindling close by where you've laid the fire. Try to find dry kindling — damp wood will take longer to catch. Fuel wood is the heart of the fire once you've established the fire with the tinder and kindling. This wood is the largest and laid last. This wood can be a bit damp. Fuel wood doesn't need to be any larger around than your wrist

timber gathered

Step 2: Lay out the fire
Make a small pile of tinder in the center of the fire ring. Before you light the tinder, make sure you have the kindling piled up close by.

timber lighting

Step 3: Start the fire
Fire starters include matches, lighters and sparks (magnesium fire sticks). Light the tinder and blow gently to provide air to the flames.

fire management Brazos Bend NEO group

Step 4: Feed the fire
Now that the tinder is going, its heat can get larger pieces of wood burning, and you can slowly add the dry kindling. Start with small splinters of wood, small twigs, and match-sized pieces of wood. These pieces of kindling are something you can easily snap with your hands. Once this is going, place the larger pieces of kindling (the size of a pencil) on the fire. Continue increasing the size of wood until you've added a couple of logs of fuel wood. Once your fire has been crackling away for a few minutes, let's get cooking. Did someone say s'mores?


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