Want to climb cliffs, surf the sand, shoot the rapids, bike the heights, spelunk a cave? These are the state parks for outdoor thrills.
By Brandon WeaverThe state parks of Texas are the ultimate playgrounds for the extreme sports athlete. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran looking for the next challenge, a rookie seeking out a new thrill or just someone looking for a quirky adventure, you’ll find it in a state park. Don’t worry — there are no back flips on BMX bikes or skateboard rail grinds here, just good old-fashioned, clean, outdoor fun. Chalk up your hands for rock climbing at Lake Mineral Wells State Park, load up the mountain bike for singletrack bliss in the Panhandle, shoot the rapids on a remote river in South Texas and discover an endorphin rush in some parks you never imagined.
For each sport we’ll suggest one prime location and one or more additional sites you might enjoy.
Beware! The rock walls at Penitentiary Hollow in Lake Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway have teeth, and they do bite. Slide your hand inside a rock pocket here and you’re likely to feel a collection of tiny spikes inside. Make sure your grip is secure, because if your hand slides out of this little menace, the spikes will shred your fingertips like a cheese grater. Shrouded by oaks, cedars and elms, Penitentiary Hollow is a little canyon with 40-to-60-foot rock faces composed of sandstone conglomerate. This is the perfect spot for those looking to make the transition from climbing gym to real rock. There are more than 80 routes, varying in difficulty from 5.5 to 5.11 (5.0 being the easiest and 5.15 the hardest) inside the two long rock corridors and various side channels. All climbing is top-rope only, using trees and boulders as anchor points.
The Details: Because of the park’s proximity to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro-plex, the small climbing area is prone to overcrowding on weekends. Penitentiary Hol-low closes when conditions are wet, so call ahead. Climbers must check in at park headquarters four miles east of Mineral Wells on U.S. 180.
Multi-pitch routes, lead climbing, vertical cracks, big slabby faces, and 200-foot ascents forge Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Fredericksburg into a granite pleasure dome for rock jocks. The 1,643-acre state park features more than 350 routes ranging from 5.10 to 5.13.
Inside the red walls of Palo Duro Canyon State Park is some of the most pristine singletrack in Texas. The canyon is host to more than 13 miles of mountain-bike trails rolling across the backs of gentle knolls, dropping down narrow ridges, snaking through cottonwood trees and skirting the edges of canyon walls. It’s all connected by the one thing that separates a good trail from a great trail — rhythm! It’s no surprise that after 36 years of the musical “Texas” playing here the canyon would become musically inclined. The appropriate balance of technical, sketchy and aerobic sections patters along like notes on sheet music. Looming in the background like a gigantic orchestra, the dramatic canyon scenery adds the final touch. This is one of the best mountain-bike destinations in the state.
The Details: Palo Duro Canyon’s busy season is the summer, during play season. And the summer temperatures can make the riding brutal. Do yourself a favor and hit the park in early fall. The leaves are changing, and the temperature is perfect. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is off Interstate 27, 12 miles east of Canyon on Texas 217.
Rugged, scenic and highly technical are the words most used to describe the 10-mile loop at Copper Breaks State Park west of Wichita Falls. Your bike-handling skills will be pushed to the limit as the trail circumnavigates the park’s 1,899-acre interior. Due to the remote location, your solitude is almost guaranteed. On June 7 the park will host “Rattlesnake Racing,” an event that includes biking, hiking, mapping and kayaking.
Located within the city limits of El Paso, the 24,247-acre Franklin Mountains State Park is the largest urban park in the United States. The 16-mile Sunset Loop trail is open-desert riding at its best. Most riders will need at least three hours to complete the epic ride. An additional 73 miles of trails are in the works. Helmets are required.
What started as a three-mile trail at the Johnson Branch unit of Ray Roberts Lake State Park has grown into an 8.8-mile loop of glorious singletrack winding its way through heavily wooded hillsides. Located 50 miles north of Dallas, this is a DORBA (Dallas Off Road Bicycle Association) built and maintained trail. These folks turn out fantastic singletrack, giving Johnson Branch instant dirt-credentials.
On the cusp of South and West Texas, north of Del Rio, a congregation of tortured rapids and crystal-clear water flows through the Devils River State Natural Area. Texas kayakers know all too well that rapids on Texas rivers are fickle creatures that demand nourishment from gobs of rain. But like its namesake, the Devils River has a few tricks up its sleeve. Up to 80 percent of its flow is spring-fed, producing relatively reliable rapids. This is Texas, however, and no river is exempt from low water; portaging around shallow areas is common. The river’s most notorious obstacle occurs within the first mile of the put-in. Dolan Falls is a treacherous 12-foot waterfall that should be attempted only by the most experienced. The next eight miles below the falls are where you’ll find the river’s best rapids. The water’s flow nearly doubles, producing some really nice class II and class III rapids. Outside the park boundaries the Devils River runs through private property. The surrounding landowners do not act kindly to trespassers, so stay on the river.
The Details: The best rapids are found in the nine-mile stretch of river below the park put-in. It takes about four hours to make the trip. The park is a put-in point only for kayaks and canoes. Call and make prior arrangements with the park headquarters for river access; the 1.5-mile road to the river is blocked by a locked gate.
The take-out point is run by a commercial operator who will shuttle you back to your car. Due to the park’s remote location, the shuttle back to the park takes about two hours. Cost is $150 for a group of up to five; additional persons are $35 each. See sidebar for contact information.
Two state parks offer unparalleled sea kayaking. Launch from Goose Island State Park and explore the small inlets and bays in the area. Paddle the nearby shoreline of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and you might catch a glimpse of the rare and endangered whooping crane. (The eastern shoreline of the refuge is closed from mid-October to mid-April.)
Matagorda Island State Park is accessible only by water. Contact the park to find the best place in Port O’Connor to launch your boat. There is a campground at the boat dock on the island. Or let the park staff transport you the 21⁄2 miles to the beach camping area. Pitch a tent and enjoy a blissful night under the stars.
On the surface, the staff-guided tour of Kickapoo Cavern in Kickapoo Cavern State Park doesn’t sound very extreme. Ease your way inside the small opening of the cave, however, and that starts to change. This is a wild cave, no paved paths or elaborate lighting systems; it’s just you and your flashlight. As you work your way across the rubble of boulders and large rocks, you look over your shoulder and watch the light from the cave’s opening fade into nothing. Those recessed fears of claustrophobia lingering around in your subconscious begin to flicker. You dismiss the sensation and continue your descent into the bowels of the earth. At about 700 feet in, the cavern appears to dead-end. You approach the wall and discover that it is actually two gigantic columns. Columns form when stalactites (roof formations) and stalagmites (floor formations) grow together. In the dim light of your flashlight the columns resemble stacks of petrified jellyfish. At 80 feet tall and around 30 feet in diameter, they are the largest known formations in any cave in Texas. About one percent of the cave is still active with growing formations.
The Details: Wear closed-toe shoes and bring a good flashlight and two backup lights. The better your light, the more enjoyable your experience. Kickapoo Cavern State Park is located in South Texas, 22 miles north of Brackettville on Ranch Road 674. The cave maintains a 69-degree temperature, so any time of year is comfortable. Entrance to the park and cave tours must be arranged in advance. Tour fees are charged.
Wedge your way through rock tunnels on a cave-crawling tour at Colorado Bend State Park near San Saba. You’ll crawl on your belly like a commando through spaces barely a foot high, encountering harvestmen (daddy longlegs), muddy troughs and the joy of spelunking in its purest form. The park offers walking tours at 9:15 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday and crawling tours at 1:30 p.m. the first Saturday of each month. Reservations are highly recommended.
For most folks, a lake wind advisory (winds of 30 mph or more expected to last for one hour or more) is a good hint to stay off the water. In a motorboat, the white-capping waves and rough chop would rattle the fillings out of your teeth. But for a wind-surfer, these are prime sailing conditions. The Johnson Branch and Isle du Bois units at Ray Roberts Lake State Park near Denton are two popular launch spots for North Texas windsurfers. When conditions look impossible for a powerboat, an expert windsurfer can work with the wave faces and speed across the water at speeds approaching 30 mph. The Isle du Bois unit’s southern location facilitates the most launch options. Sailors can launch here when the wind is out of the north, northwest, west, southwest or south. The Johnson Branch unit is suitable as a launch point only when the winds are out of the northwest, north and southeast.
The Details: Winds are at their best in spring and fall. The Isle du Bois unit is located on FM 455, 10 miles east of Interstate 35. The Johnson Branch Unit is located on F.M. 3002, seven miles east of Interstate 35.
Yes, this actually is a sport. There are international competitions around the globe organized by the sports sanctioning body, Dune Riders International. A number of manufacturers produce boards and related gear specifically designed for surfing dunes (a snowboard can be used in a pinch).
The sport’s online magazine, <www.sandboard.com>, lists a number of places to sandsurf, including exotic locations like Mongolia, Bolivia, Libya (650-foot tall dunes in the Sahara Desert) and Monahans Sandhills State Park in West Texas. But before you grab your snowboard and head out the door, you should know that the dunes in the 3,840-acre park stay in the 70-foot range and are not really worth the time it takes to strap on a snow plank.
The trick to sandsurfing at Monahans Sandhills is to keep it simple. You can rent sand disks at the park headquarters and start out surfing the sand sitting, move up to kneeling and then ultimately work your way up to standing. Before you know it you’ll be heading to the world championships in Germany.
The Details: Sand disks can be rented at park headquarters for $1 an hour. The sliding goes better when the sand is a little wet. To reach the park take Interstate 20 west from Odessa and exit at mile marker 86 to Park Road 41.
Get started on your own adventure by contacting one of the state parks or guide services. For more information about any state park, go to <www.tpwd.state.tx.us> and click on “Parks.”