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50 Reasons to Get Outside

No More Excuses! It’s time to get off the couch.

By Larry Bozka, Russell Graves, Wendee Holtcamp, E. Dan Klepper, Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Think of this roundup of fun outdoor activities around the state as your own personal Excuse Zapper. Not enough time? We’ve got places to go that are near you. Out of shape? Scan the list for low-impact words such as “walk,” “stroll” or “view.” Tired of the same-old-same-old? Flip through these pages, and you’ll soon discover that there’s no reason not to try something new this year. You live in Texas! It’s a big state.

Life’s Better Outside™.

1) Climb Enchanted Rock
Prepare to be amazed. The mere sight of the massive pink granite dome called Enchanted Rock...well, er...rocks! A trek up the steep slope calls for sturdy, rubber-soled shoes. Once you reach the zenith, you’ll be blown away by the panoramic view of the Hill Country. Maybe even literally, ’cause sometimes breezes atop the rock get a little gusty. Bring a kite! Best Time to Go: Weekdays during spring and fall. Arrive early weekends; park closes after parking capacity fills. —SSR
2) Trout-Fish on the Blanco
Forget worms. Instead, grab some canned corn and some fishing poles. Round up the kids, too, because rainbow trout season at Blanco State Park is definitely a family affair. On the morning of a scheduled stocking, TPWD releases more than 1,000 trout into the Blanco River. Cast your lines from a low-water crossing bridge or nearby riverbanks. Daily bag limit five fish. Best Time to Go: December, January and February. —SSR
3) See a Bat Twister
Climb aboard a real Batmobile and watch Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) spiral out of a gargantuan hole in the ground. A 20-minute bus ride from Rocksprings takes you to Devil’s Sink Hole State Natural Area, where you can stand on a platform and peer into the state’s largest single-chamber cavern. The show starts around dusk, when more than 3 million bats pour out like a Texas twister. Awesome. Best Time to Go: April through mid-October. —SSR
4) Hike to Gorman Falls
The short hike to Gorman Falls in Colorado Bend State Park gets a bit challenging toward the end, but you won’t mind once you see this secluded paradise. Lush pockets of maidenhair fern and velvety lichens cover the 60-foot-high waterfall that spills over a travertine formation stretching half a mile long. A dense canopy of elms, sycamore, and pecan trees shades a nearby deck, where you can admire the falls and the Colorado River, too. Best Time to Go: Year-round, weather permitting. Accessible only by guided tour. Tours start 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. Sunday. Reservations not required. —SSR
5) See Paint Rock Pictographs
Northwest of Paint Rock, a natural formation of limestone slabs, atop a high slope, shelter some 1,500 Indian paintings. Though the site’s off-limits to the public, ranchers Kay and Fred Campbell will gladly escort you to the site for an in-depth tour. No climbing allowed, so bring binoculars for a better view. Kay’s grandfather, D. E. Sims, first found the pictographs in the 1870s; his descendants have protected them ever since. Best Time to Go: Spring and fall. Accessible by tour only. Call for an appointment. —SSR
6)Watch Turkeys Strut
No need to hike for miles when you can sit and birdwatch comfortably for hours in South Llano River State Park. Three roomy observation blinds, furnished with chairs and guide books, overlook feeding areas with flowing fountains. Bonus: The blinds are easily accessible via short walking trails. Along the river, hundreds of Rio Grande turkeys roost in trees from October through March. Though the area is off-limits then, you’ll spot turkeys strutting around the park during the day. Best Time to Go: During spring and fall migrations.—SSR
7)Bike a Kid-Friendly Loop
Challenging, it’s not. But a leisurely bike ride along the Onion Creek hike-and-bike trail at Mc-Kinney Falls State Park will re-duce toxic levels of stress. Guar-anteed. Park at the Smith Visitor Center, then gear up for a three -mile trip on the paved trail that winds past the scenic upper falls and alongside lush creek banks, then meanders through dense live oak motts and brushy uplands. Plan a spring ride to see spectacular wildflowers. Best Time to Go: Spring and fall. —SSR
8) See Fall Color
Blazing reds, brilliant oranges, radiant yellows — yes, you can see fall colors in Texas! Especially at Lost Maples State Natural Area, where large stands of bigtooth maples thrive. Hiking trails wind along the Sabinal River and several creeks, across wooded slopes, and through rugged limestone canyons. Take plenty of drinking water and a camera, too. Best Time to Go: Weekdays mid-October through mid-November. Arrive early weekends; park closes after parking capacity fills. —SSR
9) Trail-Bike Wolf Mountain
Diehard mountain bikers — beginning and experienced — flock to Wolf Mountain Trail at Pedernales Falls. The 7.5-mile trail crosses plenty of rugged and sometimes challenging Hill Country terrain, including a few creeks. Riders also give a big thumbs-up to a 4-mile loop located across the river. Hilly paved roads throughout the park offer great workouts, too. Best Time to Go: Year-round. —SSR
10) Watch Birds Down South
Birds and birders flock to the World Birding Center headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. This lush, semitropical treasure trove is one of nine birding destinations in the Valley, a major flyover point for migratory species. More than 500 species — that’s half of all recorded North American species — have been counted in the region. At Bentsen, bird walks and a tram service guide visitors to a hawk-viewing tower, bird blinds and more than 6 miles of trails. Best Time to Go: Spring and fall for migratory birds. —SSR
11) Surf Sand at Monahans
Curiously juxtaposed amid an expanse of creosote bushes, the Monahans sand dunes are something you have to see to believe. A virtual island in a Permian Basin sea, the narrow strip of sand dunes runs for 200 miles from just south of Monahans north into New Mexico and creates a unique habitat that’s home to a variety of wildlife and supports one of the world’s largest oak forests — albeit the oaks themselves are of the diminutive shinoak variety. Once inside the state park, rent a sand saucer and head to the back of the park where you’ll find huge 30-foot-tall sand dunes reminiscent of the Sahara Desert. My kids had a blast surfing the big dunes and climbing the sand hills. Best Time to Go: Winter. —RG
12) Hike the South Prong Canyon
On an expedition to discover a trade route from San Antonio to Santa Fe, Spanish explorer José Mares first discovered this canyon and named it Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ). Over 200 years later, it’s still easy to see how he came up with the name. In the South Prong Canyon of the Little Red River in Caprock Canyons State Park, you’ll be treated to the sight of deep red canyon walls stippled with veins of white gypsum rock. This long, narrow canyon sports a hiking trail that leads to a primitive campsite that’s a mile from the parking area. For the adventurous, walk past the primitive campsite and continue on the 8-mile canyon loop trail. Along the way you’re bound to see native wildlife like mule deer and armadillos and geologic wonders like giant sandstone spires that jut from the canyon floor. Best Time to Go: Late fall or early spring. —RG
13) See a Palo Duro Sunrise
When the sunlight spills over the eastern rim of Palo Duro Canyon, the chasm comes alive. Deep red and yellow canyon walls almost glow in technicolor brilliance as the sun warms the 250-million-year-old canyon. This wide-open country is an inspiration to artists and is equally inspiring to casual visitors. For a leisurely morning stroll, walk the short distance to Capitol Peak and photograph the big canyon wall lit with the brilliance of a new sun. For the more adventurous, start out at least an hour before sunrise and hike all the way to Palo Duro’s most famous spire — The Lighthouse. Best Time to Go: Fall. —RG
14) Dove-Hunt at Matador
Carved out of a piece of the historic Matador Ranch, the Matador Wildlife Management Area near Paducah straddles a unique prairie river ecosystem that encompasses 10 miles of the Pease River. Although known for great quail hunting, the Matador Wildlife Management Area also holds an upland-bird-hunting wild card — mourning doves. The Rolling Plains is generally a productive area for mourning doves, and if you’re looking for a place that’s uncrowded, Matador may be your best bet. Before you go, though, make sure you have your annual hunting permit and plenty of shells. Shooting at a speeding dove is one thing. Shooting at a speeding mourning dove surfing on a stiff panhandle breeze — well, that’s quite another. Best Time to Go: Mourning dove season, September through October. —RG
15) Walk with Bison
There’s beauty in the sublime. That’s why visiting Clymer Meadow Preserve in northern Texas is such a treat. As one of the last remaining untilled stands of tallgrass prairie left in Texas, Clymer’s Meadow now exists as a Nature Conservancy property. On the prairie, swaying tall grasses like big bluestem and eastern gama grass will thrill the botanist in you. Keep an eye open and you’ll also spot prairie birds such as harriers and bluebirds. A herd of bison makes their home on the meadow as well. The meadow is such a unique ecosystem, as late as the early 1990s a new species of crayfish was discovered there. Best Time to Go: Spring. —RG
16) Paddle the Lighthouse Lakes
If you venture into the skinny water of the Lighthouse Lakes near Port Aransas, you’d better have a GPS unit and a map of the lakes. The briny, shallow water lakes are plentiful and disorienting if you don’t know your way around. The water is so shallow in many of the lakes, a kayak is the only way to negotiate them. On your adventure, expect to see roseate spoonbills, brown pelicans, herons, and a host of other shorebirds that frequent the coast. For a real treat, watch below you in the water for the sight of stingrays, flounder, and the breeched tails of feeding redfish. Best Time to Go: Summer. —RG
17) Raft the Guadalupe
Bouncing on a wide, green bus seat while Willie Nelson blares on Amigo Mel’s in-bus sound system, I watch outside the window as cypress trees whiz past. The sensory cues remind me why I am so proud to be a Texan — the Guadalupe below Canyon Lake is beautiful. While I ride along with a group of high school students from Childress, we make small talk in anticipation of our river trip. If there were ever a must-do Texas trip, floating the Guadalupe River is it. Stress is no match for a leisurely trip down the river. Placid water alternates with challenging rapids to make the trip both relaxing and an adrenaline rush all at the same time. Best Time to Go: Late spring and all summer. —RG
18) Watch a Prairie Chicken Mating Dance
If I made a list of underrated outdoor adventures, it would have to include watching prairie chickens do their mating dance.
Called booming, the dance takes place in the spring and is incredible to watch. Every year the birds return to the same patch of land (called a lek) and puff their orange air sack, bob their head, stamp their feet, and spar with one another in an attempt to attract females who hang out at the lek’s edge. You’d better hurry north, though; once April’s over, you’ll have to wait another year until they do it again. Best Time to Go: March to April. —RG
19) Horse Around at Caddo
I learned long ago that horses can teach you about nature. As a teenager, I used to ride the Caddo National Grasslands in northern Fannin County with friends from high school. Whenever we traversed the grasslands on foot, we hardly ever saw wildlife. However, horses are extremely alert and by riding them down the trails that wind their way through hardwood bottoms, post oak uplands and yellow pine flats, we’d see more wildlife. Our mounts were always quick to spot deer, coyotes and bobcats, and when they would crane their necks and perk their ears, we knew to start looking for something cool. If you’ve got a horse, point him toward the Caddo National Grasslands — you’ll be glad you did. Best Time to Go: Autumn and early spring. —RG
20) Race in a Canoe
Take a foggy spring night, a cool river and the hippest, craziest canoe racers, and you’ve got one of Texas’ best adventures. Texas’ only start-at-night, Le Mans-style race begins with a 150-meter run while carrying a canoe or kayak overhead, followed by 16 miles of paddling start to finish. Boats launch into Peach Creek at Lake Houston State Park, which runs into the East Fork of the San Jacinto River. Paddling westward, the sun rises as paddlers reach Lake Houston, and then racers head toward the West Fork and the finish line. Best Time to Go: Early April. —WH
21) Hunt Mule Deer in the Panhandle
Up for a challenge? Go north to the Panhandle to chase big mule deer. Despite their calm demeanor and lack of speedy retreats, the desert mule deer at the top of Texas are tough to hunt. Sure, you’ll see plenty of spikes and fork horns, but the really big bucks — the big 10 points with a spread of 25 inches or more — are rare. Oh, they’re there, but they didn’t get that big without being extremely wary. Making the challenge of hunting desert mule deer even more noteworthy is the fact that the big boys live in some of the most remote and rough canyons found anywhere in Texas. Best Time to Go: Mule deer season (typically the last week of November and first week of December) —RG
22) Herp in the Pineywoods
While not as well-known as birding, “herping” has been a favorite among reptile and amphibian enthusiasts for years. East Texas boasts more than 50 reptile and 30 amphibian species. The East Texas Herpetological Society Annual Field Meet offers a great way to learn species and go out with a group. Or you can get trained to identify frogs by sight or sound at a TPWD Texas Amphibian Watch training session and contribute your efforts to a good cause. Best Time to Go: Early spring through fall. The ETHS annual field outing is held in April or May. —WH
23) View Dolphins in Galveston Bay
Intelligent and graceful, these marine mammals jump and cavort throughout Galveston Bay, especially as they dine on the fish bycatch thrown over from shrimping boats. Take a sunset dolphin-watching tour, many of which have special hydrophones that allow you to hear the dolphins communicating. You also have a good chance at spotting bottlenose dolphins from the free Galveston ferry. Best Time to Go: Summer. —WH
24) Stroll Among Orchids and Carnivorous Plants
Take a leisurely stroll through the Big Thicket, North America’s biological crossroads, where the great plains, southeastern deserts, northeastern forests and southeastern swamps converge. On your walk, search for rare orchids, strange carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews and unusual plant communities such as sandhills or longleaf pine savannah. Best Time to Go: November to April. —WH
25) Bird the Columbia Bottomlands
The bottomland hardwood forests along the Colorado, San Bernard and Brazos Rivers — also known as the Columbia Bottomlands — provide the first stopover for neotropical migrants crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Up to 29 million individual birds of 237 species migrate through the 1 million acres of forested bottomlands here along the upper Texas Coast each year. Best Time to Go: Spring migration, which occurs between March and May. —WH
26) Take a Seriously Long Hike
At 128 miles, the Sam Houston National Forest’s Lone Star Hiking Trail ranks as the longest continuous hiking trail in Texas. The trail travels through designated wilderness areas, through open expanses of piney woods managed for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, across the San Jacinto River and several spring-fed creeks, through Big Creek Scenic Area and ends near Winters Bayou. Take shorter hikes or try a two-week through-hike. Best Time to Go: Spring or Fall. —WH
27) Hawk-Watch at Smith Point
Every fall, thousands of hawks migrate past a small peninsula overlooking Galveston Bay called Smith Point. Climb up a 20-foot tower and get a bird’s-eye view of up to 24 species that might fly past. The tower is accessible by wheelchair up to the first platform, and then stairs lead to the top tier, where up to 20 people can watch hawks. A Gulf Coast Bird Observatory HawkWatch volunteer works the tower daily for the season duration and can help identify species. Best Time to Go: August 15 through November 15. Peak is October. Come after a cold front’s northern winds. —WH
28) Catch Marsh Mania
Sink to your hips in marsh muck, all in the name of conservation. Join dedicated volunteers in planting clumps of saltmarsh cordgrass in various places throughout the Galveston Bay estuary. Since 1999, over 92 acres of marsh have been restored through the Marsh Mania program. This is a great opportunity to teach kids to give back to the community while restoring wildlife habitat. Best Time to Go: Marsh Mania events happen twice in spring, but smaller-scale cordgrass plantings occur more regularly, and volunteers are welcome. —WH
29) Canoe the Lower Canyons
The Lower Canyons, a segment of the Rio Grande from the abandoned border town of La Linda, south of Marathon, downriver to the take-out at Dryden Crossing, south of Dryden, is a remote stretch of the federally designated Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River corridor. Negotiating this particular section requires preparedness and fortitude. Once launched, your trip will demand a minimum of a week’s time regardless of the weather, boat damage, loss of gear, lack of food or medical emergencies. But over 80-plus miles of thriller Class II, III and IV rapids makes it one of the greatest wilderness river challenges in the state. For a thorough and informative overview, snag a copy of the canyons’ bible, The Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, by Louis Aulbach and Joe Butler. It will tell you just about everything you need to know to prepare for your own Lower Canyons adventure. Best Time to Go: October through April. —EDK
30) Fly-Fish the Llano River
With morning mist rising on the river and limestone cliffs on the opposite bank, gracefully throw a fly-fishing loop on the Llano, either by kayak or by wading into its spring-fed waters, and you’ll feel as if you’re living a Texas version of A River Runs Through It. Locals and outdoor enthusiasts have rediscovered this river and several outfitters new and old are offering kayaking and fly-fishing guiding services, lessons or equipment rentals. Best Time to Go: Spring through fall. Fall offers perfect crisp mornings on which the classic morning mist rises, while spring offers scenic views of wildflowers from the riverbanks. —WH
31) Express Yourself in Sand
Held every year on Galveston’s East Beach, this American Institute of Architects-sponsored event has only improved with age and offers grownups a chance to show their creative sand-castle- building skill. Try your hand at winning the infamous Golden Bucket at one of the world’s largest sandcastle competitions or just stroll through the castle Shangri-la for its sheer awe and entertainment value. Best Time to Go: First part of June. —WH
32) Enjoy a Sandwich as the Universe Collapses
Get stars (and other assorted heavenly bodies) in your eyes at the Star Party hosted by the top-of-the-world McDonald Observatory every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night. Drive northwest from Fort Davis and then shoot straight up Mt. Locke to the McDonald Observatory Visitors Center, a luxurious educational facility complete with a splendid gift shop and an upscale café that serves a mean muffuletta. Listen to an entertaining presentation in the outdoor amphitheater, learn just exactly how far away the Andromeda Galaxy really is, and then have an up-close-and-personal look at some brilliant stars and planets through five different viewing telescopes. Each telescope is attended by an astronomer chock full of fun facts about whatever you might be looking at throughout your evening. Dress warmly, unless your visit is in the heat wave of summer. At all other times you will find the observatory’s 6,000-foot elevation a bit chilly. But hurry: You only have a few billion more years before the entire universe collapses…or something like that. (OK, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention during the “universe-is-collapsing” part. I was too busy enjoying my muffuletta.) Best Time to Go: June, July and August. —EDK
33) Be a Caveman for a Day
Grab a flashlight and a good pair of hiking boots and take a primitive tour of Kickapoo Cavern, the Texas-size cave located in Kickapoo Cavern State Park, approximately 23 miles north of Brackettville. Kickapoo Cavern was formed thousands of years ago by slow-moving groundwater that carved an enormous passageway through the region’s limestone. Over time, the water drained away, causing a massive ceiling collapse that buried the original passageway floor. But an impressive cavern remained nonetheless, exceeding 30 feet in height and 90 feet in width. Primitive tours of the cavern began as early as 1889 and provided visitors with a rugged trek across the breakdown rock. One hundred and seventeen years later, Texans can still make this same pioneer journey, sans smoking torch. Those who hike the entire length are rewarded with a view of imposing cave columns that continue to rival the size of any known speleothems in the state. Best Time to Go: During the heat of the summer. Caves are cool! —EDK
34) Raft Colorado Canyon
Love the water but hate to paddle? Take a raft ride down the Rio Grande River’s Colorado Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park. A Colorado rafting trip is an ideal way to float lazily through one of the prettiest slices of west Texas while basking in the sun’s rays. The disparity between your complete relaxation and the chaos around you, expressed beautifully in the canyon’s tortured volcanic walls, illustrates nature’s yin and yang at its best. Best Time to Go: September through May —EDK
35) See a Desert Waterfall
Waterfalls in the desert? Surprisingly, they occur more often than most people realize. But getting to them can be a bit tricky. Success in tackling the 9.8-mile round-trip day hike into Rancherias Canyon, one of the many remarkable features of Big Bend Ranch State Park, will reward hikers with a picnic in the cool environs of a desert pour-off. But be prepared. No matter how many times a week you do that Pilates tape, the trek will take you a full day to accomplish. What at first appears to be a straightforward hike along a sandy drainage becomes a twisting rock-hop before finally arriving, hours later, at a series of vertical scrambles. It will also put you smack-dab in the middle of true wildness. Visiting Rancherias Canyon’s pour-off provides a perfect opportunity to spend some time on equal footing with nature. Watch black phoebes dive-bomb for mayflies, then close your eyes and listen to the soothing tussle of cottonwood leaves. But make sure you schedule plenty of daylight for your long hike back to civilization. Best Time to Go: November to February. —EDK
36) Hunt Quail at Elephant Mountain
Why would you dress your shortest buddy in blaze orange, snake chaps and a game bag and then send him through some of the densest vegetation in west Texas? Because it’s quail season and you don’t have a bird dog! And if you’re like me and don’t have a quail lease either, you can rely on the largesse of the nearest TPWD wildlife management area to hunt your birds. Mine happens to be Elephant Mountain, home to bighorn sheep (on top and off-limits) and lots of cantankerous scaled quail (on bottom and available). Elephant Mountain is a convenient, self-service hunting opportunity. Show up any day of the week with a hunting license and a $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit, sign in at the entry kiosk, be sure to check the bulletin board for any announcements or information and then start hunting. And you can keep hunting throughout the season. Then confirm the dates for the late season, usually mid-December through February. All this for the cost of a hunting license, plus $48. Sound too good to be true? Ask the Elephant if you don’t believe me. But remember, stay off the mountaintop. The bighorns need their beauty sleep. Best Time to Go: Quail season. —EDK
37) Ride, Hike, or Bike the Contrabando
The Contrabando Trail meanders through the washouts, eroded flats and dotted fields of volcanic ejecta of Big Bend Ranch State Park. The route, called Contrabando for more than 100 years, cuts across the formidable Chihuahuan Desert landscape — providing cover for trade in both raw and illicit goods. However, thanks to a partnership between TPWD and the Big Bend Trails Alliance, hikers, bikers and horseback riders can enjoy almost 20 rugged and remote miles with relative ease. The trail begins just across the road from the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas. “It’s a nice day ride on horseback,” says Alliance president Jeff Renfrow, “or a morning ride for mountain bikers. Plus you can hike or ride it halfway, camp overnight and finish it the following day.” The trail includes a primitive campsite with stunning views of both the Chisos Mountains and the rim of the formidable Solitario. Best Time to Go: October through April. —EDK
38) Hike into the Stars
Limpia Canyon Primitive Area is a charming segment of Texas backcountry complete with hiking trails and campsites. Considered the northern (and far less visited) half of Davis Mountains State Park, Limpia Canyon is a great place to take one more step away from it all by day-hiking a few miles along its trails or traveling the entire 10-mile round trip on an overnight. Join the Montezuma quail, scrub jays, javelina, fragrant sumac and Emory oak for an all-night stargazing party from your very own, and very private, primitive campsite. And don’t hesitate to visit during a wet season. The mile-high area is known for its stunning wildflower display. Best Time to Go: April and May. —EDK
39) Snorkel the Devils River
Despite the connotations that its name implies, the Devils River is anything but hellacious. In fact, the Devils is one of the few rivers in Texas that is not dammed, so to speak. Remote, primitive and pollution-free, the Devils River provides a perfect opportunity for summer snorkeling in clear, cool, spring-fresh water. Its wide shallows and deep pools are enhanced by banks edged in ferns, mosses, live oak and semi-desert grasslands, creating enjoyable circumstances for terrestrial and aquatic Texans alike. Access through Devils River State Natural Area is limited but relatively trouble-free. A mile and a half of jeep track separates the end of vehicle access and the beginning of a long, cool, summer afternoon. And biking it or hiking it gives you a chance to slow down and enjoy the view. It also, more often than not, fulfills that one special craving tantamount to the summer heat — a river all to yourself. Best Time to Go: June. —EDK
40) Run the Trinity for White Bass
The Trinity River above Lake Livingston becomes a hotbed of angling activity during early spring. Unusually big and always bountiful, river-spawning white bass provide incredibly fast fishing.
This is small-boat terrain. Perhaps the most popular venue is the century-old “Lock and Dam” immediately upstream from the Hwy. 7 bridge between Centerville and Crockett. For a $10 fee, flat-bottomed boats are slowly lowered down the tram-mounted “ramp” at Lock and Dam Marina to conquer the Trinity’s steep, plunging banks.
Other launching options include the Hwy. 21 bridge near Madisonville or the boat ramp at Bedias Creek.
During low-water stages, anglers key on shoals, sand bars and eddies. When river water is high and murky, the mouths of tributaries become prime fishing zones.
In either scenario, 2-pound-class whites greedily go for small “pony-head” jigs like the Blakemore Roadrunner. Ultralight spinning gear enhances the fun.
“The $2-per-person parking fee at Leon County Park allows people without boats to fish from the bank,” says Lock and Dam Marina’s Casey Campbell. “Some come up here with a tent or RV and camp out every year.”
A generous 25-fish-per-day limit applies (minimum size 10 inches), so take along a fair-sized cooler. Best Time to Go: January through March. —LB
41) Hunt Aoudad Sheep on Public Lands
The aoudad sheep, big and brawny with some serious ram-like horns, is one of the most exciting exotic species that Texans can score on public lands during hunting season. But hunters who win one of the coveted spots in TPWD’s public hunting program may not realize just what a challenge these wily creatures are or where to find them. Native to North Africa, the aoudad are considered exotics by TPWD and their removal by hunters is encouraged. The animals reside in a number of the parks and wildlife management areas due to remnant populations from stocking efforts by private landowners. Aoudad love inaccessible, vertical slopes and are often spotted along the edge of rim rock, silhouetted against the dusk or dawn. Parks in the rugged western hill country, such as Kickapoo Cavern State Park, and the big sky country of the Trans Pecos, including Caprock Canyons and Big Bend Ranch State Park, harbor a population of aoudad that can be hunted along with designated game. Best Time to Go: Hunting season. —EDK
42) Kayak Armand Bayou
Armand Bayou Nature Center’s namesake bayou arguably provides Texas’ finest urban paddling. The incredibly diverse wildlife and habitat preserve is inconspicuously nestled off of heavily traveled Bay Area Boulevard only a half-hour southeast of Houston.
“Roughly two Saturdays a month, two volunteers lead guided canoe trips down the bayou,” says center director Candy Donahue. “All equipment, including canoes and paddles, is provided. Or,” she adds, “you can use your own.”
With the exception of electric trolling motors, motorized boats are prohibited. Do-it-yourselfers sometimes launch at Bay Area Park, but if only for the tour leaders’ ecological expertise, it’s well worth the donation (members $20, non-members $25) to make the three-hour journey with a volunteer. Guided tours run from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m., and reservations are required. Armand Bayou Nature Center is one of only four designated “Texas Coastal Preserves.” Best Time to Go: Spring. —LB
43) Fly-Fish Tidal Lagoons
Sight-casting to “tailing” redfish is the ultimate blend of fishing and hunting. There is no better place to do it than the tidal lagoons of San Jose and Matagorda Islands on the middle Texas coast.
One side of the barrier islands meets the Gulf surf. The other borders the bays. In between, when surging saltwater inundates the shallow, soft-bottomed “back lakes,” casters revel in the thrill of Texas’ closest equivalent to Florida’s Everglades.
The slowly waving, blue-tinged tails of bottom-grubbing reds are a visual siren’s call to avid fly casters. Some own shallow-water flats boats; most hire experienced guides to quietly “pole” from school to school as they “shoot” Clouser minnows, deceivers and other proven fly patterns to skittish fish foraging in calf-deep water.
Polarized sunglasses and basic fly casting (or light-tackle) skills are the sole prerequisites. Shots at tailing redfish can be remarkably close.
The same 24-inch red that barely merits a yawn when taken on baitcasting gear becomes a knee-knocking trophy on the receiving end of an 8-weight fly rod. Best Time to Go: Spring through fall. —LB
44) Shoot a Round of Sporting Clays
Imagine “golfing with a shotgun,” and you begin to get the sporting clays picture.
Sporting clays ranges, like golf courses, are custom designed. Some shooters buy target throwers and build their own on private property; many more pay a moderate fee to enjoy the challenge at professionally designed and operated facilities.
“Stations” simulate actual field shooting situations, everything from flushing mallards and springing teal to a running (actually, “rolling”) rabbit. Different sizes of clay targets are utilized for a traditional course’s 10 separate stations. Shooters take five shots at each station for a total of 50 rounds (two boxes of shells).
Unlike trap and skeet, sporting clays shots are unpredictable. Perfect scores are rare. For the average shooter, hitting 30 or more targets is grounds for bragging rights.
Competition aside, for pre-bird-hunt practice, a round of sporting clays is as close to “sighting-in” as wingshooting gets. That’s reason enough to give it a try. Best Time to Go: Year-round. —LB
45) Hunt Turkey in a National Forest
In a state that consists mostly of privately owned lands, hunting Eastern turkeys on East Texas’ National Forestlands is a unique and affordable respite from the norm.
Spring of last year marked the 10th anniversary of the eastern turkey’s return to the state’s Pineywoods Region. Less than two decades after the initiation of an intensive restocking program that started in Red River County and steadily expanded, eastern turkey populations are healthy and self-sustaining. Much of the credit goes to a cooperative assist from the National Wild Turkey Federation and its Texas chapter.
The Eastern turkey spring season runs from April 1–30, and is now offered in 43 Texas counties. To hunt gobblers on national forestlands, in addition to hunting licenses/stamps, you need a TPWD Annual Public Hunting Permit ($48). A tightly choked and reliable 12-gauge shotgun, adequate camouflage, reasonable calling skills and a preseason scouting trip or two are recommended.
The ability to sit dead-still for an hour or more doesn’t hurt, either. Best Time to Go: April. —LB
46) Take a Coastal Bend Eco-Trip
“Guided” bay trips usually entail going from the dock to the fish and back to the dock. Rockport-area fishing guide Chris Fortin sometimes treats customers to an overnight stay in-between.
Fortin’s “eco-trips” are eye-openers, even to longtime saltwater anglers. A former Marine who teams up with San Antonio-based science teacher and naturalist Aaron Smudy for eco-trip adventures, Fortin finds everything he needs on his home waters of Copano Bay. With his big Carolina skiff loaded down with tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, kayaks, and, of course, fishing tackle, he often pitches camp near historic Turtle Pen Flats.
“Native Americans gathered here,” Fortin says. “It’s an incredible feeling, camping out where indigenous people once hunted and fished for the same species we enjoy today.”
Fishing for redfish, speckled trout and other species is a big part of the package. Nonetheless, it’s absorbing the layered ambience of coastal camping, the yelping of coyotes and wingbeats of clapper rails and great blue herons that makes Fortin’s eco-trips truly distinctive.
Thousands of anglers fish Texas coastal bays every day. However, very few spend the evening afield, dining on blue crab, redfish fillets and steamed wild asparagus. Best Time to Go: October through May. —LB
47) Watch Gators at Brazos Bend
For those who believe Texas is rattlesnake country and Louisiana is alligator country, a visit to Brazos Bend State Park abruptly sets the record straight. The Lone Star ’gator population is alive and burgeoning, and nowhere more so than within the almost-5,000-acre confines of Brazos Bend State Park, located 35 miles southwest of Houston.
Visitors needn’t worry about viewing and photographing the menacing-looking reptiles, says park superintendent Steve Killian.
“Follow alligator etiquette rules,” Killian advises. “Keep at least 30 feet away, and stay on the established trails. The park has approximately 300 adult alligators greater than 6 feet in length, and it’s not uncommon to see the occasional 10-footer.”
Telephoto lenses are not required, Killian adds. “Given the close distances involved,” he says, “the average 35mm or digital camera can produce some excellent photos.”
Nor are reservations required. “The park is open every day of the year,” Killian says. “Come to park headquarters, and we’ll update you on the best places and times of day to view and photograph alligators.”
For really close observation, visitors can actually touch a live (but small) alligator at the park’s nature center. “It’s a first-class educational center that’s great for folks of all ages,” Killian says. Best Time to Go: Spring, fall and warm winter days when the creatures are basking in the sun.—LB
48) Set a TPWD Water Body Record
There are few fishermen who, whether they admit it or not, wouldn’t like to see their names in the record books.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recognizes a broad spectrum of State Record fish catches, from Rod and Reel to Bow Fishing to Fly Fishing. Some are more difficult to obtain than others, but one notable exception — Water Body Records — still has room and options aplenty.
Water Body Records are divided in both fresh water and salt water among All-Tackle, Fly Fishing and Rod and Reel categories. Many locations, and even more species, have yet to be submitted.
Says TPWD Fish Records Coordinator Joedy Gray, “If someone really wants to get in the books, especially with all the open opportunities, he or she can set a Water Body Record with just a little effort. And don’t forget,” he adds, “the new ‘Junior Angler Recognition Program’ is wide-open for kids 16 and younger, especially for coastal species.”
Gray advises record seekers to check existing records on the TPWD Web site at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/programs/fishrecords/ records.phtml>. “They’re all current,” he says. “I update them every other month.” Best Time to Go: Year-round. —LB
49) Fish Huntsville’s Lake Raven
Bluegills and other sunfish (often called perch in Texas) are prolific. Where there is one, there are likely to be thousands.
Much rarer is the place where the colorful panfish tend to reach hand-sized proportions, allowing anglers not only steady fishing action but also some delectable fillets.
Huntsville State Park, and specifically, the park’s 230-acre Lake Raven, is just such a place.
“We have not only perch, but also some good bass and catfish fishing,” says park superintendent Chris Holm.
As for the panfish, visitors will do well to fish from one of the park’s two fishing piers. One is located at the Prairie Branch campground, the other at the Coloneh campground.
“The Coloneh campground is being reconstructed and renovated and is currently scheduled to be complete by May, at the earliest,” Holm says. “Meanwhile, you can still catch plenty of fish at not only Prairie Branch but also the concrete dock by the boathouse.”
A boat ramp is located off Park Road 40 near the day-use area. Hull and outboard engine sizes are not restricted, but speed is limited to trolling (no wake) speed only.
Chunky largemouth bass might provide an unexpected surprise. “TPWD stocked bass fingerlings from the ShareLunker program into Lake Raven this past fall,” Holm explains. “They’re growing fast. Between the bass, the catfish and those big bluegills, there’s plenty of potential for every style of fishing.” Best Time to Go: Spring and Summer —LB
50) Go Partyboat Fishing Offshore
Blue-water fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is usually considered a sport for the elite, but the Texas partyboat tradition makes offshore fishing affordable for anglers on a budget.
Galveston, Freeport, Port Aransas and Port Isabel are all home to established “headboat” operations. Prices vary according to the duration of the trip and distance traveled.
On Williams Partyboats’ 75-foot catamaran Captain John, for example, anglers can choose between 12-hour day trips ($70/person weekdays, $80/person weekends and holidays for up to 83 people) and 36-hour overnight excursions ($250/person, maximum 40 people).
Says Williams Partyboats spokesperson Patrick Lemire, “Rods, reels and bait are all included in the price. What you’re mainly getting is the expertise, a captain who knows what species to pursue at what time of year and, most importantly, exactly where to fish.
“It’s a great social experience,” adds Lemire, a 44-year veteran of the sport. “Most everyone catches fish, and you learn a heck of a lot. You’d be surprised how many record fish have been taken from Texas partyboats.” Best Time to Go: Spring Through fall. —LB

Resource guide

  1. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, (325) 247-3903
  2. Blanco State Park, (830) 833-4333
  3. Devil’s Sinkhole Society, (830) 683-2287; Rocksprings Visitors Center on southwest corner of town square, <www.devilssinkholetx.com>
  4. Colorado Bend State Park, (325) 628-3240
  5. Kay and Fred Campbell, (325) 732-4376; <www.paintrockpictographs.com>
  6. South Llano River State Park, (325) 446-3994
  7. McKinney Falls State Park, (512) 243-1643
  8. Lost Maples State Natural Area, (830) 966-3413. For foliage color updates, call (800) 792-111, select 3, then 1.
  9. Pedernales Falls State Park, (830) 868-7304
  10. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, (956) 585-1107
  11. Monahans Sandhills State Park, (432) 943-2092
  12. Caprock Canyons State Park, (806) 455-1492
  13. Palo Duro Canyon State Park, (806) 488-2227
  14. Chip Ruthven, Matador WMA manager, (806) 492-3405
  15. Jim Eidson, Clymer Meadow Preserve manager, (903) 568-4139
  16. Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce, 800-45-COAST
  17. Amigo Mel, (830) 620-4878, or visit < www.amigomels.com>; For other outfitters, visit <www.nbcham.org>
  18. To view prairie chickens, contact Jim Bill Anderson, Anderson Ranch, (806) 323-5632
  19. Jack Jernigan, Caddo National Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, (903) 982-7107
  20. Lake Houston State Park, (281) 354-6881, or visit <www.sanjacinto.cc>
  21. To schedule a mule deer hunt, contact Oren Don Molloy, Plaska Lodge, (806) 259-2199, <www.plaskalodge.com>; For other lodges and guides, visit <www.texashuntfish.com> or <www.texasoutdoorsman.com>
  22. East Texas Herpetological Society, <www.eths.org>; TPWD Amphibian Watch (800) 792-1112, ext. 7011 or Marsha.Reimer@tpwd.state.tx.us.
  23. Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-888-GAL-ISLE
  24. Big Thicket National Preserve or call (409) 951-6725.
  25. Houston Audubon Society, <www.houstonaudubon.org>, (713) 932-1639 or Texas Mid-Coast National Wildlife Refuges, (979) 849-6062, <www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/texasmidcoast/>
  26. Lone Star Hiking Trail Club, <www.lshtclub.com>, Trailguide@lshtclub.com or U.S. Forest Service, (936)-639-8501
  27. Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, (979) 480-0999, <www.gcbo.org> or Candy Cain Abshier Wildlife Management Area, (409) 736-2551
  28. Galveston Bay Foundation, gbf@gbf.org or (281) 332-3381.
  29. For lower canyons information and current river conditions , call Big Bend National Park at (432) 477-1187.
  30. Central Texas Hills and Rivers Regions, <www.texashillsandrivers.org>, or e-mail chamber@junctiontexas.net (Kimble County Chamber) or masoncoc@hctc.net (Mason County Chamber).
  31. American Institute of Architects, <www.aiasandcastle.com> or AIA Houston, (713) 520-0155
  32. Call the McDonald’s Observatory information line at (432) 426-3640 for a star update or visit <mcdonaldobservatory.org>
  33. Kickapoo Cavern State Park, (830) 563-2342
  34. To find Colorado Canyon outfitters in nearby Study Butte, Lajitas or Terlingua, go to <www.visitbigbend.com>
  35. Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas, (432) 424-3327
  36. Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, (432) 837-3251
  37. Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas, (432) 424-3327
  38. Davis Mountains State Park, (432) 426-3337
  39. Devils River State Natural Area, (830) 395-2133
  40. Lock and Dam Marina, <www.lockndammarina.com>, (903) 536-2248; Trinity River Authority, <www.trinityra.org>; Livingston-Polk County Chamber of Commerce, <www.livingston-polkcountychamber.com>.
  41. For information on hunting aoudad, view the official Public Hunting Lands publication online at <> for all parks and wildlife management areas that offer opportunities to hunt exotics through the special drawing permit program.
  42. Armand Bayou Nature Center, (281) 474-2551, <www.abnc.org>
  43. Rockport-Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce (800) 242-0071 or (800) 826-6441
  44. National Sporting Clays Association, <www.mynsca.com>, (210) 688-3371 or (800) 877-5338.
  45. Bill Bartush, wildlife biologist for the National Forests & Grasslands in Texas, (936) 639-8501; e-mail: bbartush@fs.fed.us; <www.fs.fed.us/r8/texas>
  46. Chris Fortin, Play’N Hooky Charters, (361) 727-0570, <www.playnhooky.com>
  47. Brazos Bend State Park, (979) 553-5101
  48. Joedy Gray, TPWD Fish Records Coordinator, (512) 389-8037, e-mail: joedy.gray@tpwd.state.tx.us
  49. Huntsville State Park, (936) 295-5644 (dial O)
  50. Williams Partyboats, Galveston, (409) 762-8808 or (713) 223-4853, <www.galveston.com/captjohn>; Galveston Party Boats, (409) 763-5423 or (713) 222-7025, <www.galvestonpartyboatsinc.com>); Capt. Elliott’s Partyboats (Freeport), (979) 233-1811 or (713) 225-3497, <www.deep-seafishing.com>; Fisherman’s Wharf (Port Aransas), (800) 605-5448, <www.wharfcat.com>; Pirate’s Landing Fishing Pier (Port Isabel), (956) 943-2628, <www.isabellacharters.com>

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