The 5 Best Water Adventures in Texas

Especially during the summer, hanging out on the water is Texas’s favorite pastime. But the fun isn’t limited to lazy days at the swimming hole (though those are great). You can harness the wind and waves along the Gulf of Mexico, paddle through canyons, thickets, and pristine backcountry, or leap from granite cliffs into a crisp Hill Country lake. Here are five of the state’s best water adventures.

Windsurf, Cast, and Camp on Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore (PINS)—70 miles of undeveloped dunes, prairies, and tidal flats that separate the Laguna Madre from the Gulf of Mexico—is an ecological marvel. It’s also a hotbed of adventure. The Laguna’s consistent winds and shallow waters create ideal conditions for kiteboarding and windsurfing. Over on the Gulf, you can cast for sea trout or redfish from a kayak. If you visit between June and August, check with the NPS about participating in its release of endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings. Guests and park staff gather on Malaquite Beach before sunrise to usher the tiny sea turtles toward their first splash into the ocean.

There are some 60 miles of primitive camping available along the beach (four-wheel drive mandatory) as well as designated campgrounds within PINS. Rather not rough it? Book a room at the Omni in Corpus Christi or the quaint Angel Rose B&B in Rockport. Have a bite to eat at a former sailboat repair shop at Rockport’s Glow.

Get Away from It All on This Crystal-Clear Wild River

What draws people to this supremely remote pocket of southwest Texas? “It’s this spring-fed amazing ribbon of turquoise cutting through the arid landscape,” says Beau Hester, park superintendent at the Devils River State Natural Area. “Nothing comes easy on the Devils,” Hester hastens to add, stressing the importance of preparedness and stewardship to anyone considering the trip (Check in with Texas Parks and Wildlife for permits and current safety and shuttle information).

The most popular river trip puts in at San Pedro Point and takes out 15 miles downriver at Devils Back (the takeout is closed for road construction through summer 2021 but you can add lengths of river in either direction). Wherever you put in, don’t miss Dolan Falls, one of the most picturesque swimming holes in the state. Pack your rod and reel to take advantage of the abundant small and largemouth bass (catch and release). Most of the surrounding land is private property, so camp below the gradient boundary, at designated spots, or, river permitting, on islands. 

There are few places to buy food or gas in the remote country near the river, so you should fuel up on the way in. After your adventure, check out where legend of the west Judge Roy Bean opened a saloon in Langtry or treat yourself to a glass of wine from Val Verde Winery in Del Rio, the oldest continuously running winery in Texas. 

Paddle Trails Through the Cypress Sloughs of Southeast Texas

The Big Thicket, about two hours northeast of Houston, is hard to define. “Our environments are vast and varied and extremely lush,” says Maximillian Harper, paddle program coordinator at Big Thicket National Preserve. It’s a place where alligators bask on cypress banks, bobcats and red foxes prowl the woods, and river otters dive for fish.

Big Thicket is also a gateway to some 313 miles of navigable waterways, including three designated paddling trails through cypress sloughs, rivers, creeks, and oxbow lakes. Sign on for a free ranger-led paddling trip or strike out on your own—Harper recommends the Village Creek Paddle Trail, 21 miles of towering trees, white-sand beaches, and gentle water, which can be divided into shorter sections for quick day trips or done whole for overnight outings.

Camp at Village Creek State Park, at the end of the paddle trail, or stay at Ethridge Farm Bed and Breakfast in nearby Kountze (don’t miss the biscuits and homemade mayhaw jelly at breakfast). Stop by Sartin’s Seafood in nearby Port Arthur for barbecued crab, a Texas delicacy. While in the area, take in some of the local culture at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont, and treat yourself to a Dreamcatcher IPA from the Neches Brewing Company.

Jump from Granite Cliffs into a Hill Country Lake

By the time May rolls around every year, Texans who like to get outdoors begin planning their weekends around outings to the state’s many swimming holes. One of the best, Devil’s Waterhole, is tucked away in a cove of Inks Lake State Park. It’s a brief (0.2-mile) hike from the parking area, but if you want to work up a sweat beforehand, tack on the Valley Spring Creek Trail. When the creek is running, there are waterfalls to explore upstream of the swimming hole.

Book a campsite or air-conditioned cabin at the park or reserve a room at the McKenzie Guest House, a refurbished historic home nearby. Day-tripping in from Austin? Grab a coffee in the morning at Numinous, and whatever you do, be sure to stop at the legendary Blue Bonnet Cafe for a piece of pie. End an excellent day in the Hill Country with a farmhouse ale from the 100 percent philanthropic Save the World Brewing Co.

Float Through Massive Canyons on the Southern Border

There is perhaps no other section of the Texas-Mexico border more naturally dramatic than Santa Elena Canyon, and a one-to-three-day float trip through it is an incomparable way to experience the Chihuahuan Desert borderlands.

For the standard, 20.6-mile route, put in at Lajitas River Access just outside Big Bend National Park and camp one or two nights on the river, taking out at Santa Elena Canyon River Access, within the park boundary. Entrance Camp is a popular place to stay the night, and it marks the beginning of the steep canyon walls. If you have time, hike the primitive trail from the campsite up onto Mesa de Anguila for excellent views. While much of the river is calm and easygoing, there are several rapids that can give you a thrill (particularly Rock Slide at mile 13).

Be sure to soak your bones in the park’s hot springs before leaving Big Bend and, on the way out, get the Iron Mountain Chicken Fried Steak and a Prickly Pear Margarita at the White Buffalo Bar in Marathon. While in Marathon, check out the iconic Big Bend photography of James Evans at the Evans Gallery, and stay for a night at the comfortable, low-key Marathon Motel or the similarly styled Desert Air Motel in nearby Sanderson.

Texas is more than a state, it’s a state of mind. From Big Bend to the Gulf Coast & everywhere in between, your next adventure awaits. No matter what experience you’re after, we can’t wait to see you soon. Plan your next Texas getaway at Let’s Texas.

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