In a state the size of Texas, it comes as no surprise that there is a wide array of national parks, preserves, and monuments that attract visitors and residents alike. Texas is home to several distinctive natural landscapes—here, you’ll find cypress tree-lined bayous, lunar-like desert wilderness, towering pine forests, endless miles of golden prairie and green-brown farmland, and lush hills rising out of the flatlands. There are two iconic (and, because of their remote location, under-visited) national parks in Texas, along with several national preserves that run the gamut from stretches of pristine coastline (Padre Island National Seashore) to swampy hotbeds of biodiversity (Big Thicket National Preserve). And of course, because this is Texas we’re talking about, there are parks and historic sites commemorating battles, Spanish missions, and frontier forts. Here are all the must-see parks, preserves, and monuments in the Lone Star State (though this is by no means an exhaustive list).
Texas State Capitol
As you may have heard, everything’s bigger in Texas, including the state capitol building. Taller than the U.S. Capitol, this striking, red granite building embodies hundreds of years of rich Texan history. You can see that history in the sculptures, paintings, monuments, and the Seals of the Nations—a terrazzo design on the rotunda's floor. Not only was the Texas State Capitol added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, but it’s also been recognized as an official National Historic Landmark. Don’t miss climbing to the top of the dome for a fantastic view of the inlaid marble floor down below.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Hike to the tippy-top of Texas at one of the country’s least-visited national parks, the highly remote Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Here, you’ll find the highest point in the Lone Star State (Guadalupe Peak, at 8,751 feet), along with several radically different landscapes: lush riparian zones with forests of pine and fir, rocky canyons, jagged peaks, harsh, empty desert, and the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef. Hikers bear witness to millions of years of geologic transformation—and, not to mention, rich biodiversity in the form of more than 1,000 species of plants—at Guadalupe.
The site of the infamous Battle of the Alamo in 1836, this fortress compound is now Texas’s most-visited (and most legendary) landmark. Located on Alamo Plaza in downtown San Antonio (just a short walk from the RiverWalk), the Alamo features guided tours, history talks, interactive exhibits, and exciting reenactments of the Texas Revolution. Visitors can also explore the immaculately-kept surrounding gardens, with their sprawling shade trees, cacti, and fruit-bearing plants. You haven’t truly experienced Texas until you’ve seen the fabled limestone facade of the Alamo.
Dealey Plaza Historic District
Built from 1934 to 1940 as the western gateway to downtown Dallas, Dealey Plaza Historic District is now famous worldwide for one (chilling) reason): It was the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Enmesh yourself in the history and social and political landscape of the early ’60s at the Sixth Floor Museum (located at the Texas School Book Depository, on the plaza), which chronicles Kennedy’s life, death, and legacy. The permanent exhibits here include news reports, photos, and footage that help create the historical context that surrounds the assassination; plus, you can see the spot where evidence of a sniper (Lee Harvey Oswald) was found. Morbid? Yes. Fascinating? Absolutely.
Waco Mammoth National Monument
Perhaps the most unexpected national monument in Texas, the Waco Mammoth National Monument is a paleontological site that protects the only nursery herd of Columbian mammoths in the country. Thousands of years ago, these 20,000-pound creatures roamed across the Lone Star State, and today, visitors can get an up-close-and-personal look at these massive, historic Ice Age beasts.
Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park
In far South Texas, near the Mexican border in the town of Brownsville, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park is the site of the first major battle of the U.S.-Mexican War. Visitors can attend one of the park’s Living History programs (which run between September and May), and get an immersive look at what the battle was like—in fact, the park enjoys the distinction of being the only National Park Service unit to interpret the U.S.-Mexican War.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Named the first World Heritage Site in Texas, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park includes the city’s five Spanish colonial-era missions: San Jose, San Juan, Espada, Concepcion, and of course, the Alamo. The best way to explore the missions is by bicycle—the 15-mile out-and-back Hike & Bike Trail runs along the San Antonio River and connects all the missions. Get a day pass for a San Antonio B-cycle bike share and prepare to experience Texas history by bike.
Big Thicket National Preserve
In the Piney Woods of East Texas, Big Thicket National Preserve is home to 112,000 acres of vibrant biological diversity—there are nine different ecosystems here, from swampy bayous to longleaf pine forests, and thousands of species of plants, including four types of carnivorous plants: sundews, bladderworts, butterworts, and pitcher plants. Walking through the bayous, amidst gnarled cypress trees erupting out of the muddy banks, you’ll feel very far away from the rest of Texas.
Fort Davis National Historic Site
Situated at the edge of the rugged Davis Mountains in Far West Texas, the Fort Davis National Historic Site preserves the remains of a historic frontier fort, along the former trade route between El Paso and San Antonio—to this day, it’s known as one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars’ military post in the Southwest. From 1854 to 1891, the fort’s primary purpose was to protect travelers from attacks by local Native American tribes like the Comanche, Apache, and Kiowa. Today, visitors can explore the remnants of the fort (a mixture of restored buildings and foundations), take a self-guided tour around the grounds, and hike along 4 miles of trails, including a section that links up with Davis Mountains State Park.
Padre Island National Seashore
The longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world, Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, which is one of the only hypersaline lagoons in the world. A safe nesting ground for nearly 400 bird species and the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, Padre is bursting with strange, beautiful wildlife (like the northern grasshopper mouse) and pristine coastal scenery—it’s a veritable slice of beachy paradise; not exactly the first thing that pops into your mind when you envision the Lone Star State. Visitors can kayak the Laguna Madre, attend a sea turtle release, hike, and primitive camp anywhere along 60 miles of shoreline.
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
In a unique celebration of America’s 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park essentially tells LBJ’s life story, starting with his ancestral heritage and ending with his final resting place, his beloved ranch (where he was born, lived, and died). The National Parks Service operates the ranch and also offers access to several nearby historic sites, like the Johnson family cemetery, LBJ’s birthplace, and the Texas White House. Visitors are able to tour the park at their own pace or opt for a free ranger-guided tour of the grounds.
Big Bend National Park
A massive, remote spread of complex geology and desert wilderness, Big Bend National Park (like Guadalupe Mountains) is consistently one of the least-visited national parks in the country. Visiting Big Bend feels like journeying to the edge of the earth—the park protects a stunning, very isolated swath of the Chihuahuan Desert and all of the Chisos Mountains, and is hemmed in by the lush green ribbon of the Rio Grande. Depending on when you go, it can feel like the javelinas and roadrunners outnumber the amount of people, so prepare for tech-free solitude and a velvety expanse of stars the likes of which you’ve never seen.