Weekends at the lake are a Texas tradition. This month, load the kids in the car and head to the Texas-Louisiana border to visit Caddo Lake, the state’s only naturally formed lake of any significant size. Spend days hiking, fishing, canoeing and exploring nearby historical towns.
From Dallas, head east on Interstate 20 then north on Highway 59. Continue north on Texas State Highway 43, then take Park Road 2 to Caddo Lake State Park. The whole trip is about 170 miles and should take around two hours and 45 minutes.
What to do
Discover the otherworldly beauty of bald cypress trees shrouded in long, dangling strands of Spanish moss above placid water along the Caddo Forest Trail in Caddo Lake State Park. The .9-mile hike winds through towering walnut, oak and bald cypress trees. End the hike on the fishing pier at Saw Mill Pond, where families fish for crappie, catfish, chain pickerel, sunfish and many types of bass (this time of year is the best for catching sunfish and catfish). The conditions in the lake, however, are not ideal for a dip since it’s more like a swamp, resembling thick pea soup. Instead, rent a canoe, starting at $10/hour. Park entrance: adults, $3; kids 12 and younger, free.
Navigate the nearly 27,000-acre lake, a maze of sloughs, ponds and bayous with a personalized tour (which can last from an hour to the day) and knowledgeable guide through Caddo Outback Backwater Tours. Boats vary in size and can accommodate up to four people; pricing starts at $50/hour.
Be sure to take advantage of the park’s free Friday night rangers’ programs. Learn about the park’s noisiest inhabitants at the Friday Night Frog Chorus from 8–9pm on May 20. Nature lovers of all ages familiarize themselves with basic facts about the amphibians, listen to their different calls from a recorder then walk out to the fishing pier to hear the real-life renditions delivered by hundreds of northern cricket frogs, bronze frogs and more. Or lure owls by playing a prerecorded hooting call at the Owl Prowl, which is open to all ages the night of May 13 from 8–9pm (owl sightings aren’t guaranteed). No registration required for events, just meet at the park amphitheater at the scheduled time.
About 17 miles west of the lake, visitors find Jefferson, now a small community of elegant homes, antique shops and the Historic Jefferson Railway. See 19thcentury ruins as you chug alongside the Old Cypress Bayou aboard this gas-powered locomotive. The engine stops at the Diamond Don Gator Pit for the feeding of 14 live alligators. Train departs Saturdays at 12:30pm, 2:30pm and 4:30pm. Buy tickets in advance at the train depot. Open-air coach seats, $12; kids 6 and younger, free. Enclosed coach seats, $15; lap children ride free.
Stop in for dinner at Austin Street Bistro (which has a kids menu) before catching The Historic Jefferson Ghost Walk, a guided nighttime tour open to all ages. Learn about the town’s history and ghost sightings at The Jefferson Hotel, Haywood House, The Grove property and more. Tours take place Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Purchase tickets in advance online. Adults, $14; kids 6–11, $7; kids 5 and younger, free.
Stay close to nature at one of 38 tent campsites in Caddo Lake State Park, each of which can accommodate up to eight people and has communal bathrooms and showers nearby. Rates start at $10/night for a site with water and $15/night for a site with water and electricity. Two-person, four-person and six-person 1930s-era cabins with small kitchens and private bathrooms offer another option. Rates start at $75/night. For both campsites and cabins, make reservations online well in advance.
While there are a few bed-and-breakfast options in Jefferson, not all of them allow kids under a certain age, so call ahead. Or stay in a room or suite at the family-friendly Excelsior House Hotel, where historical greats like Ulysses S. Grant, Oscar Wilde and Lady Bird Johnson stayed. Rates start at $89.95/night.