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7 Breathtaking Texas Trips

Taking a vacation to the Lone Star State? Be sure to stop at some of these larger-than-life Texas locales along the way.

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1. Big Bend Ranch State Park

1. Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend National Park’s little brother is anything but small. At 300,000 square acres, Big Bend Ranch is the Lone Star State’s largest state park. At the same time, its remoteness makes it the least visited-a blessing for anyone seeking to get away from it all.

Visitors who take State Hwy. 169 into the heart of the park are hit with one breathtaking vista after another. Canyons, waterfalls, and the Solitario-the enormous collapsed caldera of an extinct volcano-are set in the Chisos mountains. Hikers have more than 60 trails to choose from, canoers can paddle Colorado and Close canyons, and overnighters can either pitch a tent or enjoy full-service lodging at the Saucedo ranch-house complex.

With its juniper woodlands at high elevations and cactus-studded desert grasslands below, the park is home to 300 species of birds, 30 kinds of snakes, and a wide variety of interesting mammals. (Photo courtesy of AnEyeForTexas/Flickr CreativeCommons)

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2. Gladys Porter Zoo

2. Gladys Porter Zoo

One of the most delightful open-plan zoos in the country sits on the border with Mexico. A 31-acre preserve built on an old channel of the Rio Grande, the Gladys Porter Zoo is home to 1,600-plus animals from 464 species (47 of them endangered), all living in the open air amid tropical and semi-tropical plants and flowing waterways.

The four sections-Tropical America, Indo-Australia, Asia, and Africa-acquaint zoo-goers with a world of wildlife. Separate sections spotlight bears, California sea lions, and Komodo dragons. Small World allows children to interact with domesticated animals.

Visitors can’t get enough of the three generations of gorillas who live on their own small island. Another star attraction is Macaw Canyon, where three species of macaws make their home in a replica of the kind of canyon found in their Mexican habitat. The Free Flight Aviary is the place to see dozens of species of birds, including many that the zookeepers call “our free-loaders”-great kiskadees, gallinules, and others that drop in from the wild. (Photo courtesy of saxetknarf/Flickr CreativeCommons)

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3. McDonald Observatory

3. McDonald Observatory

Almost 7,000 feet high, 160 miles away from the nearest major city, and with two out of every three nights crisp, cloudless, and clear, Mount Locke and its neighbor Mount Fowlkes are perfect locations for studying the stars. So when a wealthy banker left the University of Texas a large part of his fortune in 1926 with instructions to build a telescope, this is where they built it.

Since then, the university has continued to develop this scientific site, adding more powerful telescopes as the technology has become available, making it one of the country’s most important stations for astronomical research. The newest addition, the massive Hobby-Eberly telescope, began operations in 1999 and remains the world’s fourth largest optical telescope.

The McDonald Observatory differs from many other research institutions, though, in the emphasis it puts on public outreach and education. Every year thousands of visitors-experienced amateur astronomers and interested novices alike-participate in the programs offered by the observatory, from daytime tours and live solar monitoring to the evening “star parties.” Held three times a week, these are tours of the universe as seen through the observatory’s smaller instruments and are equally fascinating for both children and adults.

For those interested in the full experience, the observatory schedules occasional “special viewing nights” for three of the larger telescopes. These nighttime events include dinner and usually sell out months in advance. (Photo courtesy of agrilifietoday/Flickr CreativeCommons)

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4. Padre Island National Seashore

4. Padre Island National Seashore

Looking at the hard sand beach and grass-covered dunes of the 67-mile-long island, one might think that this is a stable environment. But as on all barrier islands, the scene is ever changing. And this, of course, is part of the attraction.

Also ever changing (but annually consistent) is the great variety of birds seen here in their season. Winter residents include sandhill cranes, snow geese, and redhead and pintail ducks, while in spring falcons and a variety of songbirds return from their winter sojourn to the south. Great blue herons, gulls, terns, and brown and white pelicans may be seen year-round. All in all, from 350 to 400 species have been sighted.

The northern part of the island, around Malaquite Beach, is sometimes crowded. Swimming is good here, but there are no lifeguards on duty. Ordinary passenger automobiles can go several miles farther on the beach, but south of that point a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required. Beachcombing and fishing are popular, and there are some good shell beaches between 10 and 20 miles south of the ranger station. Glass, nails, and the stinging purple jellyfish (Portuguese man-of-war) make bare feet inadvisable. (Photo courtesy of heydere/Flickr CreativeCommons)

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5. Palo Duro Canyon State Park

5. Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Calling Palo Duro Canyon “The Grand Canyon of Texas” is no idle boast: This multicolored world of rock is the second-largest canyon in the United States. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived for a time in the Panhandle town of Canyon, described Palo Duro as “filled with dramatic light and colour,” and the thousands who visit this scenic state park each year would agree.

Horseback riders, mountain bikers, campers, and picnickers descend on the canyon for relaxation or adventure. Longhorn cattle graze on the rim, the jumping-off point for a dramatic eight-mile drive to the canyon floor. The signature rock formation, the Lighthouse, towers above the nearly 30,000 acres of dry washes, side canyons, honey mesquite and soapberry trees, and riverbeds shaded by cottonwoods.

Bursting on the scene from June – mid-Aug. is the musical costume drama Texas. Staged in the Pioneer Amphitheater on the canyon floor, the extravaganza traces the struggles and triumphs of Texas Panhandle settlers of the nineteenth century. (Photo courtesy of ghartwick/Flickr CreativeCommons)

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6. Westcave Preserve

6. Westcave Preserve

A 600-year-old bald cypress tree with Spanish moss hanging from its branches like wispy tentacles stands sentinel over this fragile 30-acre nature preserve in Travis County. Neighboring tall trees form a canopy that keeps moisture in and blocks out the sun.

The 35- to 125-foot sheer limestone walls of the canyon are a natural barrier to destructive intruders. Almost hidden along the banks of the Pedernales River, this place of profound beauty has been kept safe through the combined efforts of nature and man. A foundation has been set up to preserve the site and to educate future generations who will protect the land.

After centuries of erosion, a large limestone shelf collapsed into a streambed more than 100,000 years ago, creating the canyon. A spring-fed waterfall courses down 40 feet, nurturing the moss and maidenhair ferns that feed off the canyon walls.

Guided tours take place four times a day on weekends down to the canyon’s semitropical bottom, where wild orchids grow in a cool emerald green grotto one-third of a mile down. It is a world away from the arid grassland at the top, with its cactus and ash juniper trees.

The tours leave from an educational center, opened in 2003, whose exhibits explain the natural processes that created and sustain the wonderland in the valley. (Photo courtesy of kate_stuart/Flickr CreativeCommons)

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7. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

7. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

At this preserve on San Antonio Bay, the plants, the birds, and the other Gulf Coast wildlife are protected from the incursion and depredation of mankind. Fittingly enough, the refuge has played a major role in the saving of the whooping crane, a magnificent bird that hunters had reduced to near extinction. Only 15 were here in 1940. By 1985 there were 69 adults and 14 young (a record number) on the refuge and from 150 to 180 in America. A platform with mounted telescopes provides an overview of the otherworldly waterscape and distant grassy islands. 

The 54,829 acres are none too many for their purpose. Up to 350 species of birds winter here, and there are deer, javelinas, wild hogs, raccoons, armadillos, alligators, and turtles, while frogs thrive in the lakes and sloughs. Live oak, red bay, and hackberry are the dominant trees along the 16 miles of roadway through the preserve.

On the well-marked nature trails be sure to wear sturdy shoes and keep an eye out for rattlesnakes.

There are excellent wildlife displays at the visitors center, with weekend films of the various forms of wildlife on the refuge. Whooping cranes linger from Nov. – Mar. It is hot in summer, and mosquitoes are abundant. Insect repellent is recommended.  (Photo courtesy of StuSeeger/Flickr CreativeCommons)