The Great Icepocalypse of 2021 is behind us, and we feel that Texans could use a little friendly reminder of why we chose to live in this state again. Outside of things like job opportunities, cost of living, and the badass community, there’s the fact that the Lone Star is brimming with serene, gorgeous locales that you can easily pay a visit to. We’ll skip the more popular spots you’ve likely already been-we’re looking at you Barton Springs, Guadalupe River, and Hamilton Pool-and instead, focus on the lesser-known, largely undisturbed Texan gems. Now’s the time to show off your safe social distancing skills amidst these beautiful Texas landmarks, including but not limited to lush lakes, cascading waterfalls, winding valleys, and super cool caverns that date back to dino times.
Karnack With Spanish moss casing thick cypress trees and a sprawling labyrinth of lush bayous and wetlands, this lake is one of the most overlooked jewels in the Lone Star; and it’s just begging to be kayaked. One of the only naturally formed lakes in Texas, it was created by the gigantic log jam-“The Great Raft”-which began backlogging the Red and Atchafalaya Rivers as far back as 1100 – 1200 AD. The lake often reaches capacity, so reservations are highly recommended for both camping and day use. Reserve passes online, or by calling the customer service center, before you visit; and check the park website for details on closures and current safety restrictions.
Sonora Just west of the small city of Sonora (which, FYI, is about halfway between San Antonio and Big Bend), this massive cave carved itself into Cretaceous-period limestone about 1.5 to 5 million years ago. It boasts one of the heaviest collections of calcite crystal formations, most especially helictites, in the world. Make sure to check out the “butterfly,” where two fishtail helictites share the same attachment point, and the “snake pit,” where the formations are so densely packed, you’ll soon be Indiana Jonesing to get out. All tours are currently offered by reservation only, with time limits and a maximum of six people allowed on the tour to limit exposure to visitors and staff while in the cave.
Bend We don’t even know why you’d visit Colorado State Bend Park without hiking the 1.5-mile trail to this hidden treasure. Complete the trek and you’ll be treated to a misty chill, complete with a breathtaking 60-foot waterfall cascading into a fern-coated grotto and some new Instagram followers. Like most state parks, this one is open with some limitations and guidelines. Reserve day passes and camping online or by calling 512-389-8900 (which is especially important during busy season).
Terlingua With over 800K acres, Big Bend National Park is one of the largest national parks in the US. It’s also one of the most desolate, with less than 400K visitors annually. You may be tempted to hit the Chimneys and Marufo Vega Trails first, but you should really make your way over to the winding valley that separates the US and Mexico. Flowing with the waters of the Rio Grande River and lined by towering 1,000-foot cliffs, the canyon’s water can get as shallow as two feet at points, allowing you to both hoof it and paddle it. Reservations are not needed to enter Big Bend National Park (group sizes are limited to either eight people or a single household), but normal entrance fees will be collected at all park entrance stations; and camping and lodging reservations are required. Check for further status updates online.
Rio Grande With all of those acres to cover, we had to bring you two spots in Big Bend. This lush desert oasis, complete with an Instagram-baiting waterfall that can reach up to 80 feet, is hidden off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at the base of the Chisos Mountains. The secret spot is not on many travel guides, but you can thank the internet for directions. Be sure to check the park status before you go.
Willow City We’re sure you’ve seen some Texas bluebonnets, blooming across a stretch of Texas from March through mid-April. Well, the best place to view them is this hidden scenic loop outside of Fredericksburg. Take your significant other and bring some Hill Country wine and cheese, too.
Huntsville You don’t have to drive all the way to South Padre to get blue waters. Just 75 miles north of Downtown Houston, you’ll come upon this clear blue spring-fed lagoon and scuba diving hotspot. The lagoon is privately owned and space is limited for non-divers, so check its Facebook page or call 936-291-3483 to see availability before you make the drive over (and call to make reservations if you are a certified scuba diver).
Canyon This incredibly underrated canyon is the second-largest in the United States-but it’s only visited by around 300,000 people per year (by comparison, the Grand Canyon gets around 5-6 million). Dubbed “The Grand Canyon of Texas,” the sunken valleys show off a seemingly endless array of green and sunset-colored terra cotta that deserve at least a few more props. At this time, all guests, including annual pass holders, must purchase day passes and/or overnight reservations in advance online at texasstateparks.org or by calling 512-389-8900.
El Paso A little over 30 miles north of El Paso, this 860.3-acre park is named for the “huecos”-large natural rock basins-that encompass it. Rumor has it the place was a spiritual haven for ancient Native Americans who used the basin’s pooled water to survive in the arid land. Their thousand-year-old pictographs can be found all over the monstrous boulders. Just remember to look, not touch. Texas State Park reservations for day visits and camping are recommended and can be made online or by calling 512-389-8900.
Boerne Just 3 miles south of Boerne, you’ll find this limestone cave that formed all the way back in the Lower Cretaceous period. It was once Texas’ only cavern with an interior waterfall, though droughts have limited the flow in recent years. Luckily, people are smart, so they figured out a way to keep the water cascading through man-made pipes. Visit the cool, 64-degree cavern by making a reservation for a guided tour (limited, masks required). Call 830-755-8080 for more details and to check for closures due to flooding, especially during summer months.
Bandera County Anyone who’s anyone has been floating the Guadalupe, but this less-crowded 116-mile-long river — starting in northwest Bandera County and ending just southeast of San Antonio — is equally as enjoyable. Lined with cedar, live oak, and limestone bluffs, the spring-fed rapids make it a kayaker’s dream. Don’t miss Chamblee Falls on the North Prong, where a 10-foot waterfall and baby 4-foot waterfall provide some pretty blissful scenery. Try the Medina River Company for tube and kayak rentals and check the river flow rate before you go.
Burnet Forget Lake Travis. Inks Lake, only slightly farther from Austin, is just as amazing. Case in point: This picturesque inlet just off the lake, which is the perfect place to plop yourself into a float tied with another float to house your cooler. Best day ever? You bet. Just make sure you secure reservations and follow Inks Lake State Park‘s safety guidelines when you visit.
Spicewood Skip the overcrowded jungle that is Barton Springs: This Spicewood watering hole is where you want to be in the times of social distancing. The 115-acre, family-owned property has 32 springs on site, plus a waterfall, grotto, man-made spring-fed pool, and au naturel pool that flows into Lake Travis. Cliff jump, Tarzan yourself off the rope swing, or lay out on the rocks like a salamander. Call 830-693-4181 for an update on capacity.
Vanderpool Know that coworker who’s always complaining about how the leaves in Texas never change color? Tell him he’s wrong. Lost Maples cover over 2,000 rust, gold, and green-hued acres in Bandera and Real counties. Visit and you’ll find tons of pristine hiking trails lined with steep limestones, glistening streams, and verdant grasslands. The prime time to hit it is from mid-October through mid-November, when foliage is peaking; but if you’re itching for a trip sooner, you’ll still find plenty of fine looking nature to oooh and ahhh over. Advance day pass and camping reservations are suggested (make them online or by calling 512-389-8900).
Wimberley Ever seek the thrill of diving head first into an artesian spring with a dangerous looking limestone cave below it? Well, you may have to wait a bit. First, because diving into Jacob’s Well, believed to be the longest underwater cave in Texas at 140 feet deep and almost a mile long, is pretty hazardous and only experienced cave divers are permitted to go down. Plus, swimming in general is not allowed at the moment (dates run from May 1 – September 30). But fear not, us regular folk still hike the preserve, snap a selfie with ol’ Jacob, and hang by the water until then.
Texas Hill Country We’re including this totally cool, admittedly well-known spot just in case you haven’t heard of it, because it really is incredible. The nation’s second-largest granite dome, this massive pink batholith is one of the choicest spots to catch those ultra-sexy, big and bright Texas stars. On a related note, Enchanted Rock is also one of the only IDA-recognized Dark Sky Parks in the state, which means the low light pollution here gives you an incredible view of the night sky. Native tribes once believed the rock to be haunted and have magical powers, and legend has it anyone who stays overnight becomes invisible. You’ll have to stay over to see (or not see) for yourself; and make advance day pass or camping reservations online or at 512-389-8900 before you do so.
Boerne There are many caves to explore in the great state of Texas, including this one about 50 miles outside of San Antonio that really does have no name. A statewide contest was held to name it in 1940, and after one kid suggested that the limestone cave “was too beautiful to have a name,” its non-moniker was born. After being discovered in the early 20th century and with one short stint as a moonshine distillery, 2.7 miles of the cave were mapped out in 1975. Just over a quarter-mile of the haunting, cavernous beauty is open for tours today, offering six immense rooms of looking stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites for your viewing pleasure. Due to capacity limits, reservations are required (call 830-537-4212 or email email@example.com with your date, preferred time, and number in your party).
Del Rio Located in the remote, Southwestern slice of the state, the 94-mile Devil’s River flows southwest through the desert before emptying into the Amistad Reservoir on the Rio Grande. Its remote location makes it one of the most gorgeously pristine rivers in Texas, and its lack of access points makes it one of the hardest to visit. If you do find your way there, you’ll be treated to spectacular limestone ridges, steep and dotted with juniper and mesquite trees and flowing freshwater rapids. Reservations are highly recommended and current safety guidelines are outlined online.
Phoenix is pretty great. There’s the burgeoning culinary scene, the diverse culture, the arts, of course, the sports, the great outdoors, and don’t forget about the more than 300 days of annual sunshine. We could really go on, and on, about how great this place is, but all of that greatness can blind you to all the excellence just outside it. The suburbs across The Valley are not to be missed. To encourage you to actually explore them, here’s what the best of ‘em have to offer.
Notably, Tempe is recognized as home to one of the largest universities in the country, Arizona State. But this Phoenix suburb is so much more than a college town, although it does add to its undeniable magic. Downtown Tempe plays hosts to epic arts festivals, dragon boat races, marathons and triathlons, and dozens of other events that all take place a short-distance from Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile long perennial reservoir and urban park that attracts cylicts, rowers, and active types. Break a sweat with a hike to the top of A Mountain and take in a panoramic sunset view. Or, just belly-up to the bar at one of Tempe’s innumerable craft breweries. Both are solid choices. And both can get you acquainted with this laidback Phoenix suburb.
Nearly half of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to open spaces and untamed desert. Outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, road cycling, horseback riding, and kayaking reign supreme here, and the city certainly leans toward an active, wellness-centered lifestyle. And while there’s no shortage of desert to explore, Scottsdale also claims some of the best spas in the world, award-winning restaurants, world-class golf courses, it’s the center stage for major events like luxury car auctions and sporting events, and it’s even got a bustling arts scene. This Phoenix suburb checks all of the boxes, really.
Not too long ago Gilbert was a sort of sleepy, far-away farm town. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Gilbert has grown exponentially, but its agricultural roots are still readily present in its personality and charm. Downtown Gilbert is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which have a local, farm-to-table approach, naturally. And then there’s Agritopia, a friendly neighborhood with its very own shared garden and community spaces that include Epicenter and BARNONE, where you can order a wood-fired pizza, a can of experimental natural wine, and camp out under a canopy of trees in the open-air. It’s practically a utopia.
A gateway to Horseshoe and Bartlett Lakes, Cave Creek’s position on the outskirts of Tonto National Forest makes it a primo spot for outdoor activities like biking and hiking and adventure by way of air balloon or horseback. Modern cowboys and gals can mosey over to The Buffalo Chip Saloon where bull riding and swing dancing are just part of a typical day. Additionally, Cave Creek has its own botanical garden, raptor rescue, and a gallery packed with person-sized crystals. And it’s all yours to discover.
Point your GPS east and you’ll arrive in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. Whether you’re after outdoor adventure, looking to explore the arts and culture scene, or searching for locally made ciders and craft beer, Mesa has it all. There’s a hip, growing downtown area lined with storefronts, restaurants, theaters, and tasting rooms. And if you’re game for a little outdoor recreation, Mesa is your jumping-off point to scenic Sonoran Desert trails including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, and San Tan Regional Park. Mesa is also just a short distance from The Salt River where you can cruise by wild horses and native wildlife via paddle board and Saguaro Lake is just up the road.
At the center of this Phoenix suburb is an expansive urban park and monumental water fountain that tops out at 560-feet. The fountain in Fountain Hills is larger than the Washington Monument, and it’s three times as high as Old Faithful. Pack a picnic and spread out in the park for an afternoon where you can traverse the walkable paths, cycle around the waterway, or play a competitive bout of frisbee golf. If you swing more towards traditional golf, there’s a shortlist of premier golf courses to tee-off at. And like many of the Phoenix suburbs here, Fountain Hills is surrounded by wide-open desert and scenic vistas just waiting to be explored.
Arizona sports teams including the Coyotes and Cardinals have home turf advantage in Glendale. Over the years Glendale has hosted three Super Bowl bouts and will host another in 2023. But Glendale’s not just a sports mecca for fans of professional football and hockey. This Phoenix suburb is homebase to Camelback Ranch, a modern ballpark with all the amenities where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field each season as part of Cactus League Spring Training. Take your time in Glendale into extra innings and visit Historic Old Town Glendale. Here you’ll encounter eclectic antique and vintage stores, restaurants, candy shops, and coffee houses.
Museums, urban parks, art galleries, and growing neighborhoods like Uptown Chandler and Downtown Chandler give this Phoenix suburb lots of appeal. Rows of palm trees line the Downtown area where you can start your day with a locally roasted coffee and organic breakfast bowl. Downtown Chandler regularly hosts community-focused events and it’s a popular hangout for craft beer drinkers. SanTan Brewery, Pedal Haus, and The Perch, with 40 beers on tap and tropical birds at every turn, all call this Phoenix suburb home.
Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based multimedia storyteller, photographer, and content creator. Her work has been featured in travel guides, national publications, and the social feeds of some stellar local restaurants. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram @hungryinphoenix.