National parks in Texas tend to be overshadowed by the more numerous state parks. It's kind of like the older sibling who has to play second fiddle to the more gregarious younger brothers and sisters.
The National Park Service (NPS) has developed a brochure to help remind us of the 13 national parks in Texas. "National Parks of Texas" was the brainchild of Leslie Starr Hart, superintendent of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Johnson City.
Of the 13 sites, Fort Davis in West Texas is a personal favorite. The frontier fort wasn't built around a log stockade as portrayed in cowboy movies, but rather was a sprawling community with mountains to serve as the palisades. As an anchor tenant of an area rich with historic, scenic, and cultural things to see and do, the national historic site is well worth a visit.
Near Fort Davis, in West Texas terms, Big Bend National Park encompasses the amazing beauty of the Chihuahua Desert. Spring and fall are the best times to visit the desert, but even a summer visit to the Chisos Mountains can be comfortable, especially in the early and later parts of the day.
The Rio Grande National Wild and Scenic River takes in nearly 200 miles of the international border including the park and the lower canyons. Given national designation in 1976, the river offers unparalleled beauty and solitude. It is best explored with an experienced guide (www.visitbigbend.com or 877/244-2363).
Downstream from Big Bend on the Rio Grande, Lake Amistad National Recreation Area outside of Del Rio offers ample opportunities for fishing, camping, and Indian pictographs, even with the extreme low levels of the lake.
Near the mouth of the river and north of Brownsville, the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site was the site of the first battle of the Mexican-American War in 1846. The limited visitor facilities offer displays that tell the causes and effects of the war on both sides of the border.
At the other end of the Rio Grande in El Paso, the Chamizal National Memorial honors the cooperation between the two countries in a 55-acre park that often serves as a cultural exchange venue. On the Mexican side of the park is an outstanding archaeological museum.
Northwest of the westernmost tip of Texas, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park preserves a geological wonder of the Southwest. Parts of the mountains were formed more than 265 million years ago as a reef when much of Texas was covered by a shallow ocean. Today, it is a mix of tree-filled canyons, desert, and Texas' tallest mountain -- Guadalupe Peak.
In the Panhandle, Lake Meredith National Recreation Area and Alibates Flint Quarries mix pleasure with history. The lake is surrounded by colorful canyon walls cut by the Canadian River centuries ago. The flint quarries were used by Native Americans and are open to the public on ranger-led guided tours only.
Folks in Southeast Texas were cussing and discussing the merits of the Big Thicket National Preserve for decades before the United Nations recognized it as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1981. Known as the "biological crossroads" of North America, the park is a critical habitat for many rare and endangered plants and wildlife. The 96,679-acre protected area is comprised of eight units and four water-corridor units.
Probably the most heavily used of the state's national parks is Padre Island National Seashore. One of 10 national seashores, the park protects 68 miles of barrier island beaches stretching south from Corpus Christi. For a good overview of the island's ecology stop by the Malaquite Beach visitor center at the northern end of the park.
A little closer to home, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park includes four of the six original Spanish missions along the San Antonio River built in the 1700s. Remarkably, the missions are still active Catholic parishes. Start a tour of the buildings at Mission San Jose, once called the most beautiful of Texas missions, in South San Antonio off I-37 at 2202 Roosevelt Ave. (210/534-8833).
And last, but not least, the LBJ National Historical Park in Johnson City is more than a tribute to a president. The birthplace, boyhood home, and ranch are as much a compliment to the pioneers of the Hill Country as they are a legacy of the man.
The "National Parks of Texas" brochure is available free at the national parks listed or at the state highway department's visitors centers including the Capitol Complex Visitors Center in the General Land Office at 112 E. 11th. More information on the national parks of Texas is also available at www.nps.gov/parks.html.
Federal lands in Texas also include 11 wildlife refuges, four national forests, and a national grassland. None of these are included in the brochure.
575th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.