The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Texas
The stars at night are big and bright…
Texas is known for several things: sizzling weather, even more sizzling culinary presence, and an unforgettably festive rodeo season. But our brush with fall weather? Pretty nonexistent. Parts of the state are capable of sliding down to cooler temperatures, just cool enough to see us gleefully throwing an extra layer of clothing to enjoy a small bout of snow—or, let’s be honest, hail. But just as quickly as autumn thrusts us into pumpkin spice and patch territory, we’re already gearing up for all-sleeveless-everything as spring’s unbalanced presence emerges from its brief hibernation.
All that’s to say that time is of the essence, and this season is bringing along an extra hour of sleep, a bounty of fall foliage, and, last but definitely not least, the criminally underrated getaway destinations hashed out below. Get it while the getting’s good.
Just west of the small city of Sonora (which, FYI, is about halfway between San Antonio and Big Bend), this massive cave carved itself into Cretaceous-period limestone about 1.5 to 5 million years ago. It boasts one of the heaviest collections of calcite crystal formations, most especially helictites, in the world. Make sure to check out the “butterfly,” where two fishtail helictites share the same attachment point, and the "snake pit," where the formations are so densely packed, you’ll soon be Indiana Jonesing to get out. All tours are currently offered by reservation only, with time limits and a maximum of six people allowed on the tour to limit exposure to visitors and staff while in the cave.
Botanical gardens are local reminders that you don’t have to travel far to bask in nature. This 120-acre Dallas creation—which we recently named one of the most gorgeous botanical gardens in America—flaunts 22 diverse displays alongside an array of scintillating exhibits. If you’re looking to dig into the science behind the 2,500 species of plants onsite, schedule a tour via BRIT campus, the garden’s nearby learning center. Reservations are no longer required, and visitors can purchase regular admission tickets or skip the line by snagging tickets online, with prices ranging from $6 for kids to $12 for grownups. As for safety restrictions, masks are required indoors and optional when roaming the outdoor gardens.
Nestled between Carlsbad and El Paso, this 135-square-mile park—commonly advertised as the “Top of Texas”—is a beloved treasure for hikers. Step inside this cavernous paradise to explore numerous trails cascading throughout it while marveling at the mountain’s striking architecture, which narrates a story of an underwater world that once existed there 260 million years before. And as we delve deeper into the fall season, fiery yellow and amber leaves will take center stage. Highly elevated trees, such as fir and pine, respond well to cooler temperatures, so witnessing these lush giants in their autumnal bloom promises to boggle the senses. Reservations are highly encouraged, while permits for certain activities such as horseback riding and overnight camping are required. Masks are also required, no matter your vaccination status.
Not a big fan of heights? Hear us out on this one. With a name like Mt. Bonnell, you might envision this destination as a heighty slab of terrain painted with rocky slopes and soaring trees—but rest assured that the term “mount,” in this case, is a bit misleading. Settled inside of Covert Park, this popular hiking path has been offering splendid views of Austin’s ever-changing skyline since the 1850s. Standing at about 775 feet above sea level, visitors can trek up the trail to the peak to catch the dazzling sunset or share a hearty picnic with friends. Even better, the top is perched east of Lake Austin, providing prime leaf-peeping opportunities. Both parking and entry is free—just be sure to check the park website for details, maintain a safe social distance at all times, and keep your mask handy.
With Spanish moss encasing a thick grove of cypress trees above a vast labyrinth of bayous and wetlands, this lake is one of the most overlooked jewels in the Lone Star State—especially during the fall. One of the only naturally formed lakes in Texas, it was created by a gigantic log jam dubbed “The Great Raft,” which began backlogging the Red and Atchafalaya Rivers as far back as 1100 to 1200 CE. The lake’s vast hoard of oak, maple, and sweetgum trees usually slip into autumn attire about mid-November, retiring their greenish hues for scarlets and reddish-browns. And with outdoorsy activities like kayaking and hiking topping the list of things to do at Caddo Lake, visitors are destined to swoon over this seasonal transition. The lake often reaches capacity, so reservations are highly recommended for both camping and day use. Reserve passes online or by calling the customer service center before you visit, and keep an eye on the park website for info about any upcoming closures. As for safety restrictions, face masks are recommended, visitors are required to practice social distancing, and group sizes are limited to 10 people or a single household.
Considering all the acreage it covers, Big Bend is more than worthy of scoring a brace on this list. This desert oasis, complete with an Instagram-baiting waterfall reaching up to 80 feet, is hidden off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at the base of the Chisos Mountains. Though the waterfall is a sparkling sight year-round, it’s rumored to have a fuller flow during the spring and fall months, so be sure to hit up this elusive gem before the season ends and stay tuned to the park’s website for status and safety updates.
Texas Hill Country
We’re including this totally amazing yet admittedly well-known spot because, regardless, it really is incredible. The nation’s second-largest granite dome, this massive pink batholith is one of the choicest spots to catch those ultra-sexy, big and bright Texas stars. Enchanted Rock is also the only IDA-recognized Dark Sky Park in the state, which means the low light pollution here gives you an incredible view of the night sky. Speaking of view, the domed peak’s abyss of oak, honey mesquite, Texas hickory, and other trees are stunning throughout the fall. Travel along the Summit and Loop Trai to spot blossoming flecks of copper-colored and auburn leaves as autumn arrives, or wait a few more weeks to bask in the foliage while enjoying the breezy weather. Area Indigenous tribes believed the rock was haunted and imbued with magical powers, and legend has it anyone who stays overnight becomes invisible—you’ll have to camp out to see (or not see) for yourself. Reserve your day pass or camping site in advance (groups are limited to five guests) online, and remember to wear your mask and practice social distancing while in the park.
Stationed a little over 30 miles north of El Paso, this palatial 860-acre reserve gets its name from the large natural rock basins, or huecos, that surround it. The historically rich landscape—once a spiritual haven for the Indigenous communities who drank from the basin’s pooled fresh water—became the city’s first state park to reopen in May 2020 after a pandemic-related closing earlier that year. The grand reopening unsurprisingly came with new restrictions, so when engaging in activities like hiking, admiring the thousand-year-old pictographs sprawling across the park’s boulders (remember to look, not touch), and stargazing during those chilly winter nights, keep at least six feet from other visitors. Advanced reservations for day visits and overnight camping are recommended, and can be made online or by calling 512-389-8900.
You know that coworker who's always complaining about how the leaves in Texas never change color? Go ahead and tell him he’s wrong. Standing tall as the only maple forest in Texas, Lost Maples spans more than 2,000 rust, gold, and green-hued acres throughout Bandera and Real counties. Pristine hiking trails lined with steep limestones, glistening streams, and verdant grasslands await, and after an afternoon of sight-seeing, trekkers can unwind around the fire with some hearty grub at the park’s campground near Sabinal River, complete with 30 spacious sites. Prime time runs from mid-October through mid-November, when foliage is peaking, and visitors are encouraged to practice social distancing when engaging in outdoor activities.
Anyone who’s anyone has floated the Guadalupe, but this less-crowded 116-mile-long river— starting in northwest Bandera County and ending just southeast of San Antonio—is equally, if not more, as enjoyable. Lined with orange cedar, live oak, and limestone bluffs mirroring the spring-fed rapids, it’s long been a hotbed for kayakers and rafters come autumn. Don’t miss Chamblee Falls on the North Prong, where both a 10-foot and smaller four-foot waterfall provide some pretty blissful scenery. Try the Medina River Company for tube and kayak rentals, check the river flow rate before you depart, and remember to maintain social distancing when getting your paddle on.
This tragically underrated canyon is the second-largest in the United States, but somehow only attracts around 300,000 people per year (by comparison, the Grand Canyon sees five to six million). Nicknamed The Grand Canyon of Texas, the awe-inspired destination’s sunken valleys show off a seemingly endless string of green- and sunset-colored terra cotta that deserves its due props. And even though the masses have yet to fully catch onto this magical escape, the park is putting safety first by requiring all guests, including annual pass-holders, to secure day passes or overnight reservations in advance online or by calling 512-389-8900.
Stretching over 800,000 acres, Big Bend National Park is one of the largest national parks in the entire US—and it’s also one of the most desolate, with less than 400,000 visitors annually. You may be tempted to hit the Chimneys and Marufo Vega Trails first, but you should really make your way over to the winding valley that separates the US and Mexico. Flowing with the current of the Rio Grande River and lined by towering 1,000-foot cliffs, the canyon’s water can get as shallow as two feet at points, allowing you to both hoof and paddle it, depending on your preference. Reservations aren’t currently needed to access the park in groups up to 12, but regular fees will be collected at the entrances, advanced camping and lodging reservations are required, and visitors must wear a mask when exploring federal buildings. Pop over to the website to keep up with status and safety updates.