Travel

The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Texas

In case you need a break from the couch.

Caddo Lake State Park
Caddo Lake State Park | Daniel Mullins/Shutterstock
Caddo Lake State Park | Daniel Mullins/Shutterstock

We’re guessing your summer plans are looking a little different this year. With air travel feeling riskier in the COVID-19 era, it’s a choice time to finally take one of those road trips you’ve been talking about since freshman year of college. Lucky for us Texans, the Lone Star is brimming with serene, straight-up gorgeous locales that you can easily pay a visit to. We’ll skip the more popular spots you’ve likely already been -- we’re looking at you Barton Springs, Guadalupe River, and Hamilton Pool -- and instead, focus on the lesser-known, largely undisturbed gems dotted throughout the Lone Star. Show off your safe social distancing skills amidst these beautiful Texas landmarks, including lush lakes, cascading waterfalls, winding valleys, and super cool caverns that date back to the time of dinosaurs.

Caddo Lake
amadeustx/Shutterstock

Caddo Lake

East Texas
With Spanish moss casing thick cypress trees and a sprawling labyrinth of lush bayous and wetlands, this lake is one of the most overlooked jewels in the Lone Star; and it’s just begging to be kayaked. One of the only naturally formed lakes in Texas, it was created by the gigantic log jam -- “The Great Raft” -- which began backlogging the Red and Atchafalaya Rivers as far back as 1100-1200 AD. The lake and state park are currently open, with some limitations and guidelines set in place for everyone’s safety, including the requirement of advance day pass and camping reservations, limitations on group sizing, headquarter and visitor center closures, and more. Check the park website for details.

Caverns of Sonora

Sonora
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.

Gorman Falls
Stanley Ford/Shutterstock

Gorman Falls

Texas Hill Country
We don’t even know why you’d visit Colorado State Bend Park without hiking the 1.5-mile trail to this hidden treasure. Complete the trek and you’ll be treated to a misty chill, complete with a breathtaking 60-foot waterfall cascading into a fern-coated grotto and some new Instagram followers. Like most state parks, this one is open with required reservations for day passes and camping. Reserve them online or by calling 512-389-8900. Face coverings are strongly encouraged and other safety measures are listed on the park’s site.

Santa Elena Canyon
William Silver/Shutterstock

Santa Elena Canyon

Rio Grande
With over 800K acres, Big Bend National Park is one of the largest national parks in the US. It’s also one of the most desolate, with only 300-350K visitors annually. All paved roads, some dirt roads, and many frontcountry hiking trails are currently open for desert exploration (groups of non-household members are limited to five, including tour guides). 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 waters 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 it and paddle it. Check for further status updates online.

Cattail Falls

Rio Grande
With all of those acres to cover, we had to bring you two spots in Big Bend. This lush desert oasis, complete with an Instagram-baiting waterfall that can reach up to 80 feet, is hidden off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at the base of the Chisos Mountains. The secret spot is not on many travel guides, but you can thank the internet for directions. Be sure to check the park status before you go.

Willow City Loop
JB Manning/Shutterstock

Willow City Loop

Fredericksburg
We’re sure you’ve seen some Texas bluebonnets. But the best place to view them is this hidden scenic loop outside of Fredericksburg. Take your significant other and bring some Hill Country wine and cheese.

Blue Lagoon
Christopher Winfield/Shutterstock

Blue Lagoon

Huntsville
You don’t have to drive all the way to South Padre to get blue waters. Just 75 miles north of Downtown Houston, you’ll come upon this clear blue spring-fed lagoon and scuba diving hotspot. The lagoon is privately owned and space is limited for non-divers, so check its Facebook page or call 936-291-3483 to see availability before you make the drive over (and call to make reservations if you are a certified scuba diver).

Palo Duro Canyon

Canyon
If we were a hype man, we’d be hyping this incredibly underrated canyon hard. It’s the second-largest canyon in the United States -- but it's only visited by around 300,000 people per year (by comparison, the Grand Canyon gets over 5 million). Dubbed “The Grand Canyon of Texas,” the sunken valleys show off a seemingly endless array of green and sunset-colored terra cotta that deserve at least a few more props. As with most state parks, Palo Duro is open with some restrictions -- think reservation requirements, group size limitations, etc.

Hueco Tanks State Park

El Paso
A little over 30 miles north of El Paso, you can this 860.3-acre park named for the “huecos” -- large natural rock basins -- that encompass it. Rumor has it the place was a spiritual haven for ancient Native Americans who used the basin’s pooled water to survive in the arid land. Their thousand-year-old pictographs can be found all over the monstrous boulders. Just remember to look, not touch (and to wear a face covering and practice safe social distancing as outlined in the park guidelines). Texas State Park reservations can be made online or by calling 512-389-8900.

Cascade Caverns

Boerne
Just 3 miles south of Boerne, you’ll find this limestone cave that formed all the way back in the Lower Cretaceous period. It was once Texas’ only cavern with an interior waterfall, though droughts have limited the flow in recent years. Luckily, people are smart, so they figured out a way to keep the water cascading through man-made pipes. Visit the cool, 64-degree cavern by making a reservation for a guided tour (limited, masks required). Call 830-755-8080 for more details.

Medina River
Aaron Bender/Shutterstock

Medina River

Bandera County
Anyone who’s anyone has been floating the Guadalupe, but this less-crowded 116-mile-long river -- starting in northwest Bandera County and ending just southeast of San Antonio -- is equally as enjoyable. Lined with cedar, live oak, and limestone bluffs, the spring-fed rapids make it a kayaker’s dream. Don’t miss Chamblee Falls on the North Prong, where a 10-foot waterfall and baby 4-foot waterfall provide some pretty blissful scenery. Try the Medina River Company for tube and kayak rentals and check the river flow rate before you go.

Devil's Waterhole
Endi Sukma Dewata/Shutterstock

Devil's Waterhole

Burnet
Forget Lake Travis. Inks Lake, only slightly farther from Austin, is just as amazing. Case in point: This picturesque inlet just off the lake, which is the perfect place to plop yourself into a float tied with another float to house your cooler. Best day ever? You bet. Just make sure you secure reservations and follow Inks Lake State Park’s safety guidelines when you visit.

krause springs
JB Manning/Shutterstock

Krause Springs

Spicewood
Skip the overcrowded jungle that is Barton Springs: this Spicewood watering hole is where you want to be in the times of social distancing. The 115-acre, family-owned property has 32 springs on site, plus a waterfall, grotto, man-made spring-fed pool, and au naturel pool that flows into Lake Travis. Cliff jump, Tarzan yourself off the rope swing, or lay out on the rocks like a salamander. Currently, entry will be limited to the first lot (closest to the office) and hand sanitizers can be found throughout the ground. Call 830-693-4181 for an update on capacity.

lost maples state natural area
Silvio Ligutti/Shutterstock

Lost Maples State Natural Area

Vanderpool
Know that coworker who's always complaining about how the leaves in Texas never change color? Tell him he’s wrong. Lost Maples cover over 2,000 rust, gold, and green-hued acres in Bandera and Real counties. Visit and you’ll find tons of pristine hiking trails lined with steep limestones, glistening streams, and verdant grasslands. The prime time to hit it is from mid-October through mid-November, when foliage is peaking; but if you’re itching for a trip sooner, you’ll still find plenty of fine looking nature to oooh and ahhh over. Advance day pass and camping reservations are required (make them online or by calling 512-389-8900).

Jacob's Well

Wimberley
Ever seek the thrill of diving head first into an artesian spring with a dangerous looking limestone cave below it? Well, you’re in luck: Jacob’s Well has a charted cave system nearly 140 feet deep and almost a mile long (it’s believed to be the longest underwater cave in Texas). Only experienced cave divers are permitted to go down, because as we stated, this thing’s pretty hazardous. But fear not -- regular folk still cliff jump into a 12-foot swimming hole and hang by the water. Reservations are required in order to swim, and hiking access will remain limited and is subject to be cut off if capacity is reached.

Enchanted Rock

Texas Hill Country
We’re including this totally cool, admittedly well-known spot just in case you haven’t heard of it, because 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. On a related note, Enchanted Rock is also one of the only IDA-recognized Dark Sky Parks in the state, which means the low light pollution here gives you an incredible view of the night sky. Native tribes once believed the rock to be haunted and have magical powers, and legend has it anyone who stays overnight becomes invisible. You’ll have to stay over to see (or not see) for yourself; and make advance day pass or camping reservations online or at 512-389-8900 before you do so.

Cave Without A Name
Cave Without A Name | Dr._Colleen_Morgan/Flickr

Cave Without A Name

Boerne
There are many caves to explore in the great state of Texas, including this one about 50 miles outside of San Antonio that really does have no name. A statewide contest was held to name it in 1940, and after one kid suggested that the limestone cave "was too beautiful to have a name," its non-moniker was born. After being discovered in the early 20th century and with one short stint as a moonshine distillery, 2.7 miles of the cave were mapped out in 1975. Just over a quarter-mile of the haunting, cavernous beauty is open for tours today, offering six immense rooms of looking stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites for your viewing pleasure. Due to capacity limits, reservations are suggested (call 830-537-4212 or email cwan@cavewithoutaname.com).

Devils River State Natural Area
Devils River State Natural Area | Nicolas Henderson/Shutterstock

Devils River State Natural Area

Del Rio
Located in the remote, Southwestern slice of the state, the 94-mile Devil’s River flows southwest through the desert before emptying into the Amistad Reservoir on the Rio Grande. Its remote location makes it one of the most gorgeously pristine rivers in Texas, and its lack of access points makes it one of the hardest to visit. If you do find your way there, you’ll be treated to spectacular limestone ridges, steep and dotted with juniper and mesquite trees and flowing freshwater rapids. Advance day pass and camping reservations are required and current safety guidelines are outlined online.

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Brooke Viggiano is a Houston-based writer who loves good food, Texas, and people following her on Twitter.