Parks and Recreation the Texas way
By Sydni Ellis
Texas summers as a kid could be summed up with the three P’s: popsicles, pools and parks! Basically, if my siblings and I weren’t outside – running, splashing, laughing, enjoying every last second of freedom – then we were inside, sleeping for the night. There was practically nothing in-between!
Now that summer break is no longer a thing (why don’t adults have this? We need it too, please!), it’s not as easy to soak up the sun. This month, channel your inner rosy-cheeked, sweaty, carefree younger self by celebrating National Park and Recreation Month in July. The National Recreation and Park Association designed this annual event to encourage you to get outside, have fun and enjoy nature once again.
Wide, open space is easy to come by in Texas – after all, the city of Wylie alone has more than 700 acres of public parks! But sometimes, it can be nice to get out of your hometown and discover areas you wouldn’t normally see. Join the more than 5.5 million annual visitors traveling to one of the 14 national parks, preserves, monuments, memorials, historic sites, seashores and battlefield parks in the state. From a rushing river to striking mountains, picturesque nature scenes to ancient fossils, there is something for everyone in these not-so-average parks.
Greenery, nature and fresh air? Sounds like the perfect summer day! Check out Big Thicket National Preserve in w, where you can discover many different life forms and their unique habitats, including the eastern hardwood
forest, the southwestern desert, the southeastern swamp and the central prairie. If you are used to the fast-paced city life, Big Thicket is a breath of fresh air – literally. You can breathe deeply among longleaf pine trees, four different types of amazing carnivorous plants, wildflowers, cypress sloughs and more along the 40 miles of hiking trails. If you get too hot, explore the park via kayak or canoe on the 21-mile Village Creek Paddling Trail. And because this is a preserve, you can do things not typically allowed in national parks, such as hunting, fishing and backcountry camping. This park is truly a hands-on experience!
If you love adventure, then lace up your hiking boots and bring plenty of water to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat.
Here, you can hike 8 hours and 3,000 feet to the “Top of Texas” – the highest spot in the state, offering incredible views! See more stunning cliffs, colorful vegetation and serene springs throughout the 80 miles of trails in this park, all of which offer a magical escape from reality. More hiking can be found at Big Bend National Park (which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year!), located in the city of the same name. Get lost in this 800,000-acre park, where you will feel closer to the world than ever before on the mountains, in the desert, by the river and underneath the dazzling night sky not dimmed by any city lights.
A few of the most scenic spots in Big Bend include: the Santa Elena Canyon, with its brilliant blue sky contrasting the orange rock and clear water; the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive for views of the Chihuahuan Desert, filled with white sand, cactus and other hot weather-plants and wild animals; and the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, so impressive that it has its own National Park Service designation! Lather on the sunscreen and buckle up your life jacket, because it’s time to glide across the Rio Grande. Once you’re settled in your canoe, choose your route: the three most popular include the Mariscal Canyon, Boquillas Canyon and the Lower Canyons. As you paddle, float or hang on tight down the river, stop and take a moment to appreciate the intricate details of the limestone cliffs surrounding you.
Sometimes, the beauty of the park can be found in its history. The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in San Antonio is one of the most interesting parks, which also has a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. It tells the story of people hiding in missions in the 1700s to survive Apache attacks, diseases and drought. There are four missions here, which all hold regular catholic services inside their antique buildings. Visit these architectural beauties, reminiscent of something you would see in Europe, by walking the 10-mile trail that runs alongside the San Antonio River (pro tip: this trail also leads to the Alamo, not included in the park), or just drive to each one if you don’t want to get your church clothes sweaty! Another way to learn about the past is by seeing the Waco Mammoth National Monument in Waco, where you can see fossils – the first and only recorded evidence of a nursery herd of Ice Age Columbian mammoths – that represent the 14-foot, 20,000-pound beasts of long ago. Take a hike back in time to learn about the Texas Ice Age and discover plants, trees and wildlife that was here during that time.
If the July heat is getting to you, water-based activities are the way to go. Visit the Amistad National Recreation Areain Del Rio, located near the Mexican border at the International Amistad Reservoir. This crystal-clear water is the definition of an oasis, as it provides a refreshing and beautiful break from the hot desert landscape surrounding it. In addition to swimming, which you will want to do constantly, Amistad offers some unique activities as well: seeing prehistoric Native American paintings, scuba diving, hunting in designated spots and birdwatching – because this is a popular bird transition area, you can spot many exotic species including kingfishers, the black-bellied whistling-duck and olive sparrows.
Or, hang out at Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, known for being the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. The 70 miles of gorgeous coastline at this beach has a fascinating past. Explore the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554, go kayaking on the hypersaline lagoon Laguna Madre, let the crashing waves lull you to sleep while camping on the beach and spend a morning beachcombing for treasures in the sand! If you are really lucky, you can see freshly hatched sea turtles released, where they will make their way from the sand to find their homes in the water. This adorable experience typically only happens in the summertime.
Whether you are looking to expand your horizons, explore new heights, learn something new, or simply enjoy a little fresh air and sunshine, there is a national park in Texas for you. Just go outside and play – it’s the best way to feel young again!