Load up the car for a full day’s worth of things to do outside, including state parks, natural landmarks and more, while on day trips from Houston.
From prehistoric paw prints to densely packed pinewood forests, the state of Texas has plenty to offer outdoors for those looking to get outside of Houston for a day (or longer).
We’ve gathered some of the best state parks, natural landmarks and things to do outside so that you can plan an unforgettable day trip in the Great Outdoors.
Of course, for the realities of 2020 (and 2021), it’s important to remain safe and socially distanced. These places are all open, though they may be operating under certain restrictions or limitations. It’s important to check in with your potential destinations and make sure you understand all public health precautions before heading their way.
Longer Day Trips from Houston: Things to Do Outside
Traveling west outside of Houston, you’ll come across the many hills that blanket Central Texas, hiding some of the state’s most engrossing natural environments. From central Houston, these drives will take anywhere from two to four hours and you’ll reach these destinations from as close as Bastrop, to the south and west of Austin.
- Bastrop State Park in Bastrop | 2-hour drive – Thirty miles east of Austin, this state park (as well as the nearby Buescher State Park) lies among 75,000 acres of the Lost Pines ecosystem, providing an immersive natural pine-oak forest filled with diverse flora and fauna. Bastrop State Park also offers seven miles of hiking trails, biking and driving roads, and access to the nearby Lake Bastrop, which features 900 surface acres for water sports. Daily entrance fees are $5 for adults; free for ages 12 and under. Open 6am to 10pm daily. Click here for more information.
- Natural Bridge Caverns near San Antonio | 3-hour drive – Located just northeast of San Antonio, these caverns provide a subterranean adventure through underground chambers, tunnels and caves nearly two hundred feet below the surface. In addition to hour-long tours that take visitors through the extensive network of caverns, attractions are available at the surface, including ropes courses and zip lines, panning for gold, and exploring an outdoor maze. Tickets for cavern tours vary by day, but are approximately $24 for adults, $15 for children; other ticket fees apply to surface attractions. Open 9am to 5:30pm daily. Click here for more information.
- Pedernales Falls State Park in Johnson City | 3.5-hour drive – Thirty miles west of Austin, this popular state park centers around layers of limestone slabs that sit along the Pedernales River. Generally, the river’s flow is tranquil and a great spot to relax, while at other times, it can grow turbulent as it rushes over the ancient limestone rocks. When swimming isn’t in season, you can still enjoy the hike and bike trails through scenic hill country, horse rides through rugged trails and camping sites. Daily entrance fees are $6 for adults; free for ages 12 and under. Open 8am to 5pm Wednesday through Sunday. Click here for more information.
- Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg | 4-hour drive – Just north of Fredericksburg, this pink granite dome rises more than 400 feet in the air and offers staggering scenic views of Central Texas from among ancient rock formations. Nearly 11 miles of hiking trails surround Enchanted Rock, offering spaces where guests can camp, rock climb, bird and stargaze. Daily entrance fees are $8 for adults; free for ages 12 and under. Open 6:30am to 10pm daily (last entry at 8pm). Click here for more information.
About a three hour drive from Houston, the Austin metro area is a popular day trip getaway, featuring tons of restaurants, shops and local businesses to fill more time than you have. Still, the city has much more to offer in the way of outdoor activities that are worth a drive out west.
- Barton Creek Greenbelt | FREE – One of the premier nature destinations in Austin, this seven-mile stretch of land sits between Barton Creek Wilderness Park and Zilker Park near Downtown. With several access points, the trail is a magnet for those looking for hiking in densely forested areas, shallow water to dip their toes into, and other activities like biking, rock climbing, swimming, kayaking and even caving. Click here for more information.
- McKinney Falls State Park – In southeast Austin, this stunner of a park features winding trails through bright wildflowers and bald cypress trees—including “Old Baldy”, estimated at more than 500 years old—biking trails, bouldering opportunities, fishing (no license required), and even an old homestead that dates back to the early 19th century. Daily entrance fees are $6 for adults; free for ages 12 and under. Open 8am to 10pm daily. Click here for more information.
- Mayfield Nature Preserve | FREE – This 23-acre park in West Austin sits along the Colorado River and offers quiet trails through a wildlife habitat that features free-roaming peacocks, impeccable gardens and an historic cottage. Next door, you’ll find Laguna Gloria, the 14-acre art exhibition space that is home to collections from The Contemporary in Austin. Throughout the grounds here, you’ll be able to walk through an expansive, outdoor sculpture garden, reaching vast river views and plenty of places to relax. Admission is free to both locations. Hours vary. Click here for more information.
- Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park | FREE – Just above Route 183 in North Austin sits this vast park stretching across 293 acres, offering a deeply entrenched system of hiking and biking trails through scenic limestone cliffs and creeks, as well as sports fields, a playground and a pool—when in season. Admission is free. 5am to 10pm daily. Click here for more information.
The expansive areas of East Texas are filled with lush forests, densely packed wildlife and plenty of outdoor recreations for families and solo travelers alike. Even more, they’re relatively close by if you’re looking to make a daytrip that won’t consume your entire day with driving. Each of the following areas are within 3 hours, with most being about a two hour drive from central Houston.
- Davy Crockett, Angelina & Sabine National Forests | 2.5- to 3-hour drive | FREE – Located northeast of Huntsville, these three national forests co-mingle across a 100-mile span of East Texas woodlands. Combining for nearly 500,000 acres of forest, this triangle of outdoors recreation boasts access to vast bodies of water, including the Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Angelina National Forest and the Toledo Bend Reservoir in Sabine National Forest, which lies between the borders of Texas and Louisiana. Dozens of miles of hiking trails plot through these forests, as well as spots for scenic picnicking, swimming, fishing and hunting, and overnight camping. Many recreation activities and access is free, though a recreation pass may be required in some areas. Learn more about Davy Crockett, Angelina, and Sabine National Forests.
- Big Thicket National Preserve near Beaumont | 2-hour drive | FREE – An incredible array of diverse wildlife and ecosystems converge at this stunning preserve located just 45 minutes north of Beaumont. Along with nearly 40 miles of hiking trails, hunting, fishing and backcountry camping, Big Thicket is a popular paddling spot for kayaks and canoes, winding through generally calm, scenic waterways that brush past robust bald cypress and tupelo trees sprouting out of the water. Admission is free. Dawn to dusk daily. Click here for more information.
- Anahuac, Brazoria, McFaddin & San Bernard National Wildlife Refuges along the Gulf Coast | 2 hours or less drive | FREE – Several National Wildlife Refuges dot the Gulf Coast, but these four are some of the most popular in the area comprising San Bernard and Brazoria on either side of Freeport, and McFaddin and Anahuac wedged between Galveston and Port Arthur. These areas are also popular with local and migrating wildlife, offering prime birding opportunities in various seasons, as well as fishing, hunting and an extensive network of nature trails through each of them. Admission is free. Dawn to dusk daily. Learn more about Anahuac, Brazoria, McFaddin and San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge.
A few hours to the north of Houston, Texas opens up with pinewood forests, lakes and bodies of water that spot the area, as well as a few reminders of our prehistoric past. To get to these areas, it will require a bit longer of a haul but you won’t be far from Dallas or Fort Worth, making a longer getaway possible.
- Tyler State Park in Tyler | 4-hour drive – About 100 miles east of central Dallas, the tranquil pine forests of Tyler State Park offer prime relaxation and adventurous wandering trails through the woods. When in season, boating and fishing are popular activities on the 64-acre spring-fed lake and guests can take in scenic views while meandering down roads that cut through 100-foot tall trees and past historic structures. Daily entrance fees are $6 for adults; free for ages 12 and under. 8am to 5pm daily. Click here for more information.
- Caddo Lake State Park in Karnack | 4-hour drive – Just a quick drive from the Louisiana border, Caddo Lake State Park immerses guests in a vast cypress swamp, which allows for more than 50 miles of scenic paddling, license-free fishing on the nearly 27,000-acre Caddo Lake, and probing hiking trails that help visitors to explore the park while on foot. Alongside nature-seekers, alligators also inhabit the park, making for exciting wildlife encounters—from a distance, of course. Daily entrance fees are $4 for adults; free for ages 12 and under. 8am to 5pm daily. Click here for more information.
- Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose | 4.5-hour drive – About an hour southwest of Fort Worth, visitors have the opportunity to follow in the massive footsteps of prehistoric dinos at Dinosaur Valley State Park. When the conditions are right, you can head over to the Paluxy riverbed, where you’ll find embedded dinosaur tracks that help you imagine the humongous sizes of the creatures that crossed this way around 113 million years ago. The beautiful scenery in the hilly limestone terrain also offers other hiking, biking and paddling trails. Daily entrance fees are $7 for adults; free for ages 12 and under. 8am to 5pm daily. Click here for more information.
Social Distancing & COVID-19
Businesses and organizations in Houston have opened under modified protocols, following guidelines administered by local health officials, the State of Texas and CDC. At this time, guidance from experts urges people to continue wearing face masks when in public spaces, practice social distancing of at least six feet, limit your touching of surfaces and frequently use hand sanitizer or soap and water to keep your hands clean.
Although vaccines have been approved and distribution has begun, supplies are still limited. Health officials have severely cautioned that it will take until late spring 2021 before the U.S. might be able to expect a level of herd immunity. In the meantime, masks are strongly advised to help curb the increasing spread of COVID-19 this winter.
Before heading out, take time to familiarize with your destination’s requirements or restrictions at this moment, and be sure to contact them ahead of time with any questions or concerns.
Find More Things to Do in Houston All Year Long
If you don’t want to miss a thing, you can also opt in to our Daily Update emails (emailed 5 days a week).