Texas is home to some of the most ruggedly beautiful wilderness in the Southwest. You’ll discover diverse flora and fauna across Texas forests, canyons, and rivers, all protected by Texas Hill Country state parks. On a trip to the Texas Hill Country, you can take a swim in cold spring waters, go horseback riding across rolling plateaus, hike the rugged canyons, wade in babbling creeks, and tube, kayak, or float in rivers and lakes. Plus, you’ll find some of the best fishing available for Guadalupe bass, large and smallmouth bass, catfish, perch, and more.
This summer, to beat the heat, let’s explore the top five Texas Hill Country state parks near beautiful lakes.
1. Guadalupe River State Park
When I think of Guadalupe River State Park, I look forward to tossing in a tube and floating down the Guadalupe. Located 30 miles north of San Antonio, Guadalupe River State Park is west of Canyon Lake. The park backs up to Honey Creek State Natural Area, a Nature Conservancy-protected area only open for official tours on Saturdays. No pets are allowed here.
You can camp in the Cedar Sage or Turkey Sink camping areas; there are 85 shady spots for campers and RVs with water and electricity hookups. The Wagon Ford Walk-In Tent Area offers nine sites for primitive tent camping, with sites 90 and 91 being closest to the river. Daytime picnic tables are located right on the river, with plenty of parking space. Pets are allowed on 6-foot leashes. Besides tubing, you can canoe, kayak, paddle, fish, swim, and bike. Family fun includes geocaching, hiking, rock climbing, and stargazing along the scenic river.
The picturesque river flows over four natural rapids and is lined with giant bald cypress trees and two steep limestone bluffs. Hike in the forested bottomland or along trails lined with oaks and junipers that fill the upper limestone plateau.
If you like bird-watching, hike through the woodlands that provide a nesting habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Watch for wildlife like deer, gray foxes, coyotes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, bobcats, armadillos, and other smaller animals. You can download a field checklist featuring several hundred bird species.
The Texas State Parks Store in the Headquarters Building at the entrance sells ice, firewood, T-shirts, camping accessories, and books.
Pro Tip: Did you know that the Guadalupe River is one of the top 100 trout streams in America? It is also the southernmost trout stream in the United States. The bag limit is one trout over 18 inches caught with an artificial fly or lure per day. The river is stocked each winter by Trout Unlimited and Texas Parks & Wildlife. Because public access is limited, the best way to fish in the Guadalupe River is to float on a stable raft with room for two anglers and a guide. Book your date well in advance, since dates fill up fast during the winter months. There is no summer fishing for trout.
2. Pedernales Falls State Park
Pedernales Falls State Park comprises 5,212 acres situated along the banks of the Pedernales River, with 6 miles of river frontage flowing over giant slabs of limestone in Blanco County, 30 miles west of Austin. The river can be turbulent, but most of the time, you’ll find it tranquil, a great place to relax and commune with nature. In drought conditions, the river may not be flowing at all. But at other times, you’ll need to watch for flash flood warnings.
Fun Fact: Pedernales is pronounced with an extra r: PUR-der-nal-ehz. The name comes from the Spanish word for the flint rocks characteristic of a riverbed.
Make your reservations online in advance and print out your voucher, since there’s no way to pay at the gate. The park has a new access gate with time-controlled codes to limit traffic, but this gorgeous place is always busy with visitors floating, kayaking, and rafting.
You can camp at one of 69 sites featuring electricity and water, fire rings with grills, and shaded picnic tables, and there is a clean new bathroom and shower facility nearby. Campsites 11 and 13 are very deep and set back from the road, with lots of space between neighboring sites. Reserve your spaces ahead of time, since they book from one to five months in advance. You can also hike 2 miles to 20 primitive campsites with chemical toilets; no pets or ground fires are allowed in this area.
Pedernales Falls is a great mountain-biking destination, with more trails than you can hit in a day. Most of the courses look like old ranch roads-turned-park roads. You’ll see wildlife like deer, foxes, squirrels, roadrunners, and armadillos.
Pro Tip: The Texas State Parks Pass ($70) is good for one year and includes unlimited access to 89 state parks for you and your guests, as well as discounts on camping (with some restrictions), deals on park store purchases, and equipment rentals. Check out the Texas Parklands Passport for seniors, veterans, and those with disabilities.
Kids can become Junior Rangers and earn badges that grant access to the Junior Ranger Activity Journal.
Download a trail map here with access to more than 40 miles of trails.
3. Inks Lake State Park
This Texas Hill Country gem, located an hour northwest of Austin, boasts colorful pink granite hills, sparkling water, and astounding sunsets. Inks Lake State Park offers 22 cabins and nearly 200 lakeside campsites with playgrounds at the picnic and camping areas.
Spend the day swimming, boating, waterskiing, fishing, or scuba diving. Rent paddleboats, canoes, kayaks, life vests, and paddles at the park store. Besides camping, you can enjoy backpacking, geocaching, picnicking, or hiking (there are 9 miles of trails through shady forests and across rocky hills).
The Devil’s Backbone Nature Trail features waterfalls, scenic views, a wildlife-viewing station, and one of the state’s best-kept secrets: the Devil’s Waterhole swimming hole, where Spring Creek meets the lake. The pink rock formations are Valley Springs gneiss, metamorphic granite rocks almost a billion years old. These gneiss rocks support rare microhabitats for unique plants, wildflowers, grasses, mosses, lichens, and ferns.
Fish for sunfish, catfish, and bass at the two fishing piers, where you’ll find fish-cleaning stations and boat ramps. You do not need a fishing license to fish from a pier or the shore in a Texas state park.
Pro Tip: Be sure to visit the 150-acre Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery, bordering the Colorado River between Inks Lake State Park and Longhorn Caverns State Park. You’ll see 30 ponds — ranging in size from a quarter of an acre to 1.5 acres — raising Gulf Coast striped bass and paddlefish along with a population of the endangered Clear Creek gambusia.
4. Hill Country State Natural Area
You can explore more than 5,000 acres of tranquil creek bottoms, rugged canyons, and picturesque plateaus on this former Hill Country ranch northwest of San Antonio. Hill Country State Natural Area offers multiuse trails for horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, and backpacking. You’ll find only primitive camping here at walk-in or hike-in campsites with vault toilets, but no showers or running water.
A lodge that sleeps nine is available with a kitchen and bathroom. Horse stalls are located nearby. Horseback riders can reserve an equestrian campsite or the group camp with a barn, nine stalls, water for horses, and a vault toilet, but no showers.
Nearby Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” offers dude ranches, rodeo events, and kayak and tube rentals on the Medina River.
5. Blanco State Park
Take a cool dip in the spring-fed Blanco River just an hour west of Austin at Blanco State Park. The park parallels a mile-long stretch of river where you can swim, fish, paddle, or boat. Come for a picnic lunch, afternoon swim, or weekend camping adventure.
Fish for largemouth and Guadalupe bass, channel catfish, sunfish, and — during the winter — rainbow trout stocked by Texas Parks & Wildlife. Remember, you don’t need a license if you fish from the shore in a state park.
For camping, choose from 29 sites with electricity, water, shade shelter, fire rings with grills, and nearby restrooms. The off-season runs from November through February.
You’ll find lots of red-eared slider turtles here, basking on logs and rocks. You’ll also see green herons, cricket frogs, Gulf Coast toads, leopard frogs, and squirrels. Other wildlife include deer, cottontail rabbits, and gray foxes. Four bats species also call the park home: Mexican free-tailed, Eastern red, cave myotis, and tricolor.
A Texas state park visit offers just about everything you’d want from a trip to the Texas Hill Country: hidden swimming holes, rolling hills, wooded canyons, spring-fed rivers, and magical sunsets, all in a place where time slows down and life is just a bit sweeter.