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How to Spend Your Family’s Summer Vacation

Camp, hike, bird, geocache and more at these state parks

Before the mercury rises to sweltering levels, pack up the kids and spend a weekend or more in one of Texas’ beautiful, family-friendly state parks. There are a number of campgrounds near (and a little farther away) to suit your crew’s comfort and interests — some sites loan rods and tackle boxes to young anglers, for instance. All admit kids 12 and younger for free and all lend littles Junior Ranger Explorer Packs with binoculars, pencils, watercolors and more. Plus, playgrounds, swimming areas and children’s programming add to the fun. Book online at tpwd.texas.gov

Dinosaur Valley State Park
Glen Rose, 254/897-4588
The pitch:
 Campers search the shallow riverbed for the tracks of three-toed theropod and elephant-size sauropod dinosaur. See a 40-foot tall T-rex replica (and others too), and borrow a birding kit with binoculars to find endangered species. On weekends, grab a treat at the snow cone truck stationed in front of the park store.   

Good to know: Pack rain boots or water shoes to traverse the wet, rocky riverbed (which can be anywhere from 6–24 inches deep), and plan to attend one of the free weekend ranger programs such as archery or painting and on May 13.
Cost: Campsites from $15 per day; adult admission $7 per day
Nearby perk: Book a guided tour or steer your own safari ride to see rhinos, giraffes and more at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, 15 minutes south of the park. Open daily from 8:30am–4:30pm; drive admission from $21.95 per adult and $15.95 per child age 3 and older. Call for tour prices.

Lake Mineral Wells and Trailway
Mineral Wells, 940/328-1171
The pitch:
Walk a bit of the Trailway (it’s 20 miles long) which parallels an abandoned railroad, or descend the stone steps and narrow canyons of Penitentiary Hollow to a lakeside overlook. Then lounge on the beach or rent kayaks, canoes and rowboats.
Good to know: Every Saturday in May, park rangers host one- to two-hour family-friendly activities. Identify flowers during the afternoon Wildflower Walk on May 6, learn safety strategies at Kid’s Wilderness Survival on May 13.
Cost: Campsites from $10 per day; adult admission $7 per day
Nearby perk: Spend a morning 10 miles west at Mineral Wells Fossil Park. Dig up shark tooth fossils from 300 million years ago.

Copper Breaks State Park
Quanah, 940/839-4331
The pitch:
Spot members of the state-protected Longhorn herd in the Panhandle Plains 3½ hours northwest of Dallas. Borrow a tackle box and reel, throw in a line and wait for the rainbow trout to bite. Hike the mile-long and mostly level Bull Canyon Trail — Short Loop, and stop frequently for scenic views of the prairie.
Good to know: The preserved rural area offers the best views of constellations, planets, moons and stars. Book a guided StarWalk night hike near Big Pond.
Cost: Campsites from $8 per day; adult admission $2 per day
Nearby perk: Drive through the ghost town of Medicine Mound in Hardeman County, 12 miles east of Quanah, to see the four 200-foot tall mounds revered by the Comanche tribes for their sacred ceremonial and religious purposes. Trespassing is prohibited, but you can learn more at the Downtown Medicine Mound Museum open Saturdays 9–11am (other days by appointment) or Quanah Depot Museum, where kids can also see a space room furnished by NASA.

Garner State Park
Concan, 830/232-6132
The pitch:Six hours southwest of Dallas, camp along the Frio River at the Pecan Grove or Oakmont campgrounds, where kids will find sand volleyball and basketball courts. From here, gain access to the easy, half-mile Blinn River Trail. Attend a geocaching mission with a park ranger, rent tubes to float the river or play mini golf.
Good to know: Book a cabin now for the fall to see the Cypress trees turn colors.
Cost: Campsites from $15 per day; adult admission $8 per day
Nearby perk: Now to September, the Mexican free-tailed Bats put on an evening show at Frio Cave 20 minutes south of the park. Arrive before sunset to see millions of bats evacuate the cave.

Inks Lake State Park
Burnet, 512/793-2223
The pitch:During a trip to Inks Lake, one hour north of Austin, grab an interpretive guide for the 3.3-mile Pecan Flats Trail, suitable for the whole family (you don’t have to walk all 3 miles), and learn about native plants and wildlife from 22 trail markers along the way. Sign up for a guided canoe tour (includes life jackets and paddles). Or swim Devil’s Waterhole, a safe swim spot for families, surrounded by restrooms with showers and picnic areas. The park has three playgrounds too.
Good to know: Rangers bring out the telescope for free stargazing parties several times a month. Other all-ages ranger-led events include fishing, making s’mores and Underwater Discovery — use a weighted net to find what lurks beneath the lake’s surface.
Cost: Campsites from $11 per day; adult admission $6 per day
Nearby perk: Explore the underbelly of Hill Country at Longhorn Cavern 10 minutes south of the park. Book a daily 1.5-mile easy walking tour (not stroller friendly). Guided tours: $16 per adult, $12 kids (ages 3–12), free for ages 2 and younger.

Go North

Ray Roberts Lake State Park
Pilot Point, 940/686-2148

The pitch: A marina with boat rentals, a kids fishing pond and playgrounds at each campsite mean no shortage of entertainment. Swim, hike the easy half-mile Lost Pines Nature Trail or rent a rod and lures to fish in Johnson Branch.
Good to know: Park rangers host stargazing workshops, evening bike rides (borrow bikes for free) and more several times a month. See the events online.
Cost: Campsites from $15 per day; adult admission $7 per day
Nearby perk: Go horseback riding through scenic equestrian trails from Black Mustang Ranch in the Jordan Branch of the state park less than one mile from camp. Rides from $40 per person.

Go East

Cooper Lake State Park — South Sulphur Unit
Sulphur Springs, 903/945-5256
The pitch:
The few remaining areas of Texan tallgrass prairie can be found 90 minutes east of Dallas on the south side of Cooper Lake. Embark on the easy, 30-minute Honey Creek interpretive or book a guided one-hour canoe tour on the lake for $12 per canoe (each seats two). Then fish for crappie and catfish from any of the piers.
Good to know: Use binoculars to spot bald eagles, blue birds, white-tailed deer, bobcats and beavers. Let the kids learn how native mammals adapt to their environment. And once a month, a certified archery instructor teaches kids 8 and older how to shoot an arrow (reservations required).
Cost: Campsites from $10 per day; adult admission $5 per day
Nearby perk: Let kids see how ice cream, butter and cheese are made at the Southwest Dairy Museum just 25 minutes south of the lake. The museum is open Monday–Friday 9am–4pm.

Tyler State Park
Tyler, 903/597-5338
The pitch:
This sprawling system of campsites, trailer hook-ups and cabins in the Eastern Piney Woods offers 13 miles of trails and two fishing piers for catching trout, catfish and bass. Lead the kids to a wading pool and small waterfall on the short Whispering Pines Nature Trail, which provides plenty of shade too. Canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard and peddle boat rentals available too.
Good to know: Explore the Lakeshore trail and cross the bridge for a view of a working beaver dam. There are two restrooms along the two-mile walk and plenty of spots to picnic and rest. Trail maps available at the ranger station.
Cost: Campsites from $16 per day; adult admission $6 per day
Nearby perk: The largest house made of salt can be found at the Salt Palace Museum in Grand Saline, 40 minutes west of the park. Open Monday–Saturday 9am–4pm.

Caddo Lake State Park
Karnack, 903/679-3351
The pitch: As the only naturally formed lake in Texas, Caddo Lake is a protected wetland. During the Great Depression, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps built log cabins in the park. Today, visitors can stay in the historic homes for $115 per night. During the day, paddle down the bayou, picnic under the bald cypress trees and Spanish moss or trek the easy 0.9-mile Caddo Forest Trail.
Good to know: Rent a tacklebox and fishing poles from the ranger station to catch sunfish, catfish, crappie and bass.
Cost: Campsites from $10 per day; adult admission $4 per day
Nearby perk: Thirteen miles west, in Jefferson, take a steamboat tour down the Big Cypress Bayou. Or board the Historic Jefferson Railway, a gas-powered locomotive that makes stops at Diamond Don Gator Pit for live alligator feedings.

Go West

Lake Arrowhead State Park
Wichita Falls, 940/528-2211
The pitch: Spend the night in the Mesquite-dappled prairieland about two hours northwest of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Originally built as a reservoir along the Little Wichita River, the state park now offers 524 acres of camping, fishing, hiking and beachfront. Circuit the 18-hole disc golf course, bring tubes and life jackets to float the lake, or hike the family-friendly, half-mile Dragonfly Trail.
Good to know: Rangers loan basketballs, discs (for disc golf), horseshoes, fishing poles, bird-watching field guides and binoculars for free.
Cost: Campsites from $7 per day; adult admission $3 per day
Nearby perk: Stop at Fort Richardson State Park and Historic Site on the way to Wichita Falls. In the 1870s, Fort Richardson served as the main outpost for Civil War soldiers fighting the Comanche and Kiowa tribes in Texas’ panhandle. Visit the fort’s seven restored buildings, including the hospital, commanding officer’s quarters, morgue, bakery and enlisted men’s barracks.