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Texas State Parks for Kids With Special Needs

5 campgrounds for fresh-air fun

Spend a weekend in one of Texas’ beautiful, family-friendly, accessible state parks with playgrounds, programming for children of all abilities and more. Whether your brood likes to pitch a tent or rest in an air-conditioned cabin, there are a number of campgrounds near (and a little farther away) to suit your family’s comfort, needs 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. Book online at tpwd.texas.gov and have your older (13 and up) child’s disability card in hand to receive 50% off his entry fee.

Dinosaur Valley State Park
Glen Rose, 254/897-4588

The Pitch: Programs such as archery for kids 5 years and older, birding, dinosaur digs, river walks and painting with a ranger entertain children of all abilities in Dino Valley. On weekends (Friday–Sunday), Eagle Eye Ranch Carriage Company takes kids on 10-minute trail rides for $20. If your child uses a wheelchair, help lift him onto the saddle and walk beside the horse; reserve online or by phone. After dismounting, visit the accessible playground; walk the cleared Children’s Trail with six lift-the-flap signs that teach kids about the park’s native species, including raccoons, skunks, deer and more; or traverse the wet, rocky riverbed (pack rainboots; the riverbed can be anywhere from 6–24 inches deep) in search of prehistoric tracks.

Good To Know: Every year, the park hosts the Mammoth Adventure Trail Run. Roll, walk or run 1 kilometer (just over half a mile) to raise money for children with learning differences at Lake Pointe Academy in Granbury.

Cost: Accessible campsites with water and electricity, from $25 per day; adult admission, $7 per day

Nearby Perk: Book a guided tour or steer your own safari ride along the 9.5-mile Scenic Wildlife Drive to see rhinos, giraffes and other animals 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, $15.95 per child age 3 and older. Guided tours from $30.95 per person.

Lake Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway
Mineral Wells, 940/328-1171

The Pitch: Part asphalt, part crushed limestone, the 20-mile-long Trailway is never too steep or treacherous for a ride or stroll. Since it was built on an abandoned railroad, its surface is even with gentle grades, and four trailheads offer accessible restrooms. Take a nocturnal hike to learn about the park inhabitants’ nighttime sounds, or attend story time on Saturday evenings with cowboy poet David Owens in the accessible amphitheater.

Good To Know: Call ahead to reserve one of the four accessible campsites with paved sidewalks, and borrow rods, reels and tackle boxes from the check-in location to catch catfish, crappie, sunfish and bass from one of the six piers.

Cost: Accessible campsites with water and electricity, from $24 per day; adult admission, $7 per day

Nearby Perk: Take the kids and spend a morning 10 miles west at Mineral Wells Fossil Park to dig in the dirt for shark tooth fossils from 300 million years ago (or thereabouts).

Tyler State Park
Tyler, 903/597-5338

The Pitch: The Northside Day Use Area adjacent to the accessible playground with rubber flooring is the most popular area of the park for families because you can get to the beach and fishing pier via ramps. Catch trout, catfish and bass in the 64-acre spring-fed lake or rent a canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard or peddle boat. Or embark on the short, easy (but unpaved) Whispering Pines Trail that leads to a shallow wading pool (not for swimming) where kids can observe tadpoles, frogs and snakes. Along the way, discover trees that produce natural bug repellent and flowers you can pickle and eat.

Good To Know: Explore every inch of the lake on the Lakeshore Trail (which is not wheelchair accessible) and cross the bridge with a view of a working beaver dam. There are two restrooms along the 2-mile walk and plenty of spots to picnic and rest. On Saturdays, children of all abilities join interpretive programs for lessons on bats, stargazing, park history, birds, forest ecology and more.

Cost: Accessible campsites with water and electricity, from $20 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. Join an accessible tour Monday–Saturday 9am–4pm.

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 two hours northeast of Dallas-Fort Worth on the south side of Cooper Lake. Walk the easy, 30-minute Honey Creek Trail, and use the Junior Ranger Pack binoculars to spot bald eagles, bluebirds, white-tailed deer, bobcats and beavers. Then head to the accessible amphitheater for Dutch-oven cooking demonstrations (with samples!), nature journaling, squirrel school (everything you ever wanted to know about the nut-loving creatures) and night programming such as Milky Way viewings and nocturnal animal sound identification. On warm days, book a guided one-hour canoe tour on the lake for $12 per canoe (each seats two) or rent a kayak from the new vending machines.

Good To Know: Every camping loop has a number of accessible paved trails and picnic tables (one side extends further to accommodate wheelchairs).

Cost: ADA-designated campsites, from $18 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 accessible museum is open Monday– Friday 9am–4pm; docents offer guided tours by appointment.

Garner State Park
Concan, 830/232-6132

The Pitch: Five-and-a-half hours southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, camp along the Frio River at the Pecan Grove or Oakmont campgrounds, where kids find sand volleyball, an accessible basketball court and putt-putt golf for all ages and abilities. From here, gain access to the easy, half-mile Blinn River Trail that promises lots of wildlife sightings, or drive north to the Frio Canyon Trail, a dirt road more suitable for wheels. Rent a kayak and a life jacket to fish. And download the geocaching app to your smartphone to get the coordinates of hidden treasures (a terrain rating of 1 means the path to the cache is accessible).

Good To Know: There is only one ADA-designated cabin so reserve early by phone.

Cost: Campsites with water and electricity, from $22 per day; adult admission, $8 per day. ADA cabin, $143 per night for four people.

Nearby Perk: From October to November, the maple trees of Lost Maples Natural Area, one hour north of the park, put on a colorful show. Make a day trip to see the striking leaves along the Maple Trail (which is not wheelchair accessible).

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of DFWThrive.