The Top Ten Backpacking Trails in Texas – Texas Monthly

2022-05-20 02:45:49 By : Mr. Raymond Zhang

Conquer the Guadalupe Mountains, lollygag through the loblollies in East Texas, or trace a historic railroad near Caprock Canyons.

On a moonless night last November, I’d just finished an exhausting, 25-mile day of hiking up to the Mesa de Anguila trail in Big Bend National Park. In this remote, rarely visited western corner of the park, “hiking” is a generous term. Bushwhacking is more like it. The trail, which begins just outside the tiny town of Lajitas, climbs nearly 3,900 feet to spectacular views of the Rio Grande far below—if you can follow the route. Because it doesn’t get much foot traffic, the trail has many overgrown portions that blend into the dusty desert. Adventurers must rely on way-finding skills while following one cairn to the next. It was some of the slowest walking I’d ever done, as our group of three friends, each carrying thirty pounds of water and gear, clambered over rocks and constantly dodged the thorny prickly pear, catclaw, and agave lying in wait. It was grueling, but when we finally reached the mesa and blearily unrolled our sleeping bags under a luminous tapestry of stars, I thought, so this is what all that big and bright talk was about.

Backpacking in Texas can be incredibly rewarding, but those rewards don’t come easily. Many of the state’s landscapes are subtle, and travelers must have the patience to go slow and take a closer look. Texas rarely appears on lists of the nation’s top backpacking destinations, and that’s in part because so little of the nature here is handed to you. Our mountains seldom boast sweeping verdant views or the large, devoted followings of the Colorado or Pacific Crest trails. And on the state’s limited number of multiday treks, logistics, water, and navigation are often difficult to coordinate. In the end, though, those challenges also make Texas backpacking the spectacular experience that it is—one that will push you to challenge yourself. The Mesa de Anguila was my first introduction to cowboy camping, or sleeping without a tent, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. There’s so much to see and learn from backpacking here. So, after traveling nearly a thousand miles of this state on foot, I wanted to share some of my favorite long trails in hopes that more Texans can experience them.

We’ve organized this list alphabetically, rather than as a ranking, because there’s no single best trail in Texas. After all, it’s not just the poetic sunsets of the Hill Country, the red rock canyons of the Panhandle, or the dappled light of the Piney Woods that make Texas nature what it is. It’s all of them together.

All national and state parks in Texas require a permit for camping. You can usually obtain these online, but sometimes they’re available only in person at a visitors’ center. For example, you must obtain a desert camping permit for the Outer Mountain Loop in person at Panther Junction in Big Bend either the day before or the day of your trip. So it’s important to always check beforehand.

A good water strategy is key. Do research online and ask the rangers whether a trail’s waterways are flowing, and know before you start how much water you’ll need to carry. As a general rule, the recommended minimum is a gallon per person per day, but only you can know how much you’ll truly need and how much of that can be acquired along the trail. 

Check the weather forecast carefully and ask whether backcountry camping in a specific park is currently allowed, as much of the state is once again in a drought, and wildfires have been unusually frequent so far this year. Know your skill level and make sure you’re prepared for the trek; backcountry rescues have spiked at some Texas parks during the pandemic, as more novices head into the wild. Now on to the trails!

This route has some of the best public swimming opportunities in Texas. Between the secret pools of Spicewood Springs and the meandering Colorado River, you’re never far from some relief from the Hill Country heat. The shady trails through this park also boast some of the state’s oldest cedar forests, as well as towering sycamores by the river. And Colorado Bend is home to more than four hundred caves, a few of which are open for guided tours. 

The best part about this hike is that it gradually builds toward its crescendo: a visit to Gorman Falls, the jewel of the park. You’ll think you’re on a Pacific island when you gaze up at the falls’ seventy feet of cascading tropical vegetation.Because of the falls’ fragile ecosystem, no swimming is allowed near the base. But that’s okay, because the best thing to do here is watch the sunset, when it would be too chilly to swim anyway.

The Big Loop isn’t a single, officially designated trail. It’s a result of linking together nearly every individual trail in the state park. I like to hike it counterclockwise from the northernmost trailhead. And this is what makes it such a good backpacking trip, since you can break up the hike evenly by camping one or two nights in the two backcountry areas, Windmill and River.

You might look at this trail and think: 64 miles through the Panhandle’s myriad cotton fields, in a maddeningly flat, brown expanse? Add to that having to cache all your water and avoid burrs that claw all the way up your knees, and you might think this trail isn’t worth your time. But man, the animals you’ll see. Nobody ever told me that the Panhandle was so full of wildlife. Coyotes, owls, hogs, deer, turkeys, bobwhites, snakes, and an abundance of Texas raptors still call this corridor home. Besides that, the trailway passes through Clarity Tunnel, which is home to nearly 500,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. 

History buffs will also find much to enjoy here. The staff at Caprock Canyons State Park does a great job of maintaining the route, which follows the ballast of an old railroad track for its entirety. Plus, there are interpretive signs along the way with information about cattle drives, frontier-era skirmishes, and former settlements that will transport you back in time. Multiple trailheads, or depots, have been established on the length of the trailway too, so you can explore it in sections or in one go. 

My favorite part of the hike, though, may have been my stay in the town of Turkey. The recently renovated hotel here was a hangout for Bob Wills, the founder of western swing, and honors that tradition by continuing to showcase local talent. Make sure to hit it on a weekend for some great live music. I promise you won’t regret it. 

Easier option: The westernmost 22 miles, from South Plains to Quitaque (have fun googling the pronunciation), are a fantastic sample of this trail, and make for a shorter, easily accessible alternative.

Because I’m from the Dallas–Fort Worth area, this is my go-to overnight backpacking trip, as it’s just more than an hour from home. It’s also one of the only reservations-free camping spots in the entire state. True, the views of the lake may become a bit redundant, but the proximity to the Metroplex, plus the availability of free primitive campsites along almost the entire trail, make it an invaluable resource.

Oak and pecan trees often hem in the trail, but every once in a while there are fantastic camping opportunities in more open sections or along the shore. At night, you’re likely to see deer, hogs, and even the occasional late-night bow fisherman. 

As the name implies, this trail contours an upheaval of limestone, which lends it a surprising elevation gain. Couple that with the fact that the western side is a bit neglected and difficult to navigate (though great for polishing your way-finding skills!), and you have a surprisingly challenging weekend hike.

This was by far the most difficult of my Texas hikes, and it was also probably the most rewarding. Yes, you’ll drink water from cow tanks; yes, your feet will hurt; yes, you’ll get lost—but you’ll come away with so much more than just blistered feet and a canvas of bushwhacking scratches on your legs. I think that the Sitting Bull Falls alternate, which takes you to a secret riparian waterfall in the Lincoln National Forest, is imperative. It might bump this trail up from 65 to 102 miles, but this is one of the best secret swimming holes in all of the desert Southwest. The 150-foot-tall oasis, lush with ferns and pink sand, seemingly comes out of nowhere. And the off-trail canyons that you traverse to reach it are truly wild.

It’s also true that only half of this trail is in Texas, but where would we be without a little bit of friendly cross-cultural exchange? Moreover, the sunrise from Dark Canyon lookout is inimitable, and the maples of McKittrick Canyon in the autumn are some of the deepest and most improbable reds you’ll ever see. Finally, there’s no better way to end a hike than at Texas’s highest point, Guadalupe Peak. Don’t miss the best sunset in Texas, plus a fun night hike back down. A lot of this route is overgrown and unmaintained, so only those who are experienced with off-trail navigation and seasonal water sources should brave this hike. 

Easier option: If this kind of adventure is something that you’re looking to work up to, or if you’d like a shorter hike in the Guadalupe Mountains, I recommend the (relatively) gentler 15- to 25-mile loop hikes from Pine Springs Visitor Center on the Tejas and Bush Mountain trails up to Dog Canyon.

A post shared by Hike Austin (@hikeaustin)

This loop traverses the rapidly suburbanizing landscape around Lake Georgetown. That might sound boring, but it actually offers a surprising variety of ecosystems and views, as well as free and really lovely primitive camping. Savannah grasses and prickly pear still abound in multiple areas, as well as your classic Hill Country limestone and cedar. The spring-fed waters indeed live up to the quality promised by the trail’s name. No reservations are required at the primitive campsites. Free parking, plenty of space on the trail, and easy accessibility from both Austin and Dallas–Fort Worth make this a great option for beginners and more advanced hikers alike.

Until recently I didn’t even know what the national grasslands were, much less that we have three of them here in Texas. And for those who were in the dark like me, a national grasslands preserve operates and is administered much like a national forest, with an emphasis on preserving the threatened native grasses that many animal species rely on. For backpacking purposes, this means that dispersed overnight camping is permitted throughout the area, so you can pitch your tent almost anywhere that the mosquitoes aren’t swarming. 

Now that I’ve spent more time at LBJ, I’m a huge champion of this largely unknown trail. There’s a certain sound the wind makes blowing across the prairie, and a small victory in finding a shade tree for an afternoon siesta. I loved hiking this trail in the spring, because the LBJ National Grasslands is home to some of the most explosive wildflower blooms in the state. The lakes are also swimmable, but I might recommend skipping some of the smaller ponds, which you have to share with cows.

Similar to the Big Loop in Colorado Bend, this hike starts at the TADRA trailhead and links up the outermost portion of each of the Grasslands’ five trails. Dispersed camping is free along the entirety of this route, and there’s no shortage of native Texas vegetation. It’s popular mostly with equestrians, so you can count on being the only backpacker out here when visiting. True trailblazer. 

The Lone Star Hiking Trail clocks in as Texas’s longest footpath, so you might think it offers a lot to see and do. The truth is that it really doesn’t. It’s simply a long, lovely lollygag through the loblollies. What I enjoyed most was the solitude. There were very few other hikers on this trail, and it’s fairly reasonable to expect to go a day, if not more, without seeing or talking to a single other person. Unless you plan your hike during hunting season, in which case always check whether there are any public hunts occurring in the area when planning this hike, make sure to wear orange, and camp only in designated campsites.

There is a meditative quality to the towering pines that populate the majority of this trail. And falling asleep to the murmuring of the San Jacinto River can lead to a very solid eight hours of rest. What’s more, the easternmost section of this trail, around Winter’s Bayou, is a total surprise. One second you’re walking on pine needles; the next, you’re in Big Thicket country. The palms come out of nowhere, and the mud will eat your shoes.

With so many access points, water sources, and maps, this trail was a total breeze to coordinate. Plus, because of the fairly temperate nature of the forest, you can hike it in fall, winter, or spring. I love that you can do it in winter, when so many other hikes become unavailable. It’s my first recommendation for folks who are still planning their flagship overnight backpacking trip, because it’s a great way to dial in your routine and gear, as well as to learn what you like or dislike about hiking. 

Easier option: The Lone Star Grand Loop offers a 31-mile alternative with equally lovely forest bathing.

The Outer Mountain Loop is a lot of folks’ favorite hike in Texas for a reason. So much biodiversity is packed into such a contained area: the Chisos Mountains, Juniper Canyon, Dodson Trail, and Boot Canyon are wildly different ecosystems along this hike. Plus, the logistics are challenging without being overwhelming. But the best way to do this trip is to add on a few extra miles by visiting the South Rim and Emory Peak. I can hear you moaning, or maybe that’s just your backpack groaning under the weight of the extra water you’ll carry, but trust me, it’s worth it. Peregrine falcons soar above the rims of the Chisos as you drink in the views all the way to the Rio Grande and into Mexico.

These are top contenders for the best vistas in Texas. And even though the Outer Mountain Loop is a classic on its own, the side trips send it over the top. Make sure to cache and drink more water than you think you’ll need—a good starting suggestion is one liter per every five miles in the desert. Carry electrolytes. Apply sunscreen liberally. Learn from my mistakes. Easier option: A shorter alternative to this trail is an equally tantalizing 13.5 miles on the Marufo Vega Trail, closer to the Rio Grande.

I’ve often heard Big Bend veterans refer to this trail as “the last wild place in Texas,” and the scattered aoudad bones that greet you not even a mile from the Rancherias East trailhead offer testimony to that. Mountain lions still dwell here, the springs flow freely year-round, and sparkling agate, arrowheads, and metates (ancient stones used for grinding) lie hidden throughout the canyons. But most of all, the Guale Mesa, the spiritual and geological high point on the trail, delivers some seriously psychedelic 360-degree desert views. This is the perfect introduction to the diversity of Big Bend Ranch State Park, and proves there is just as much (if not more) to do than in the better-known national park. With a mix of desert and mountain scenery, this route offers a bit of everything. The terrain and diversity will constantly keep you guessing, and the trail is overflowing with that sweet, sweet desert solitude. Easier option: If you’re pressed for time, try the 8.5-mile out-and-back hike up the Guale Mesa, which is a solid appetizer and test of how in shape your legs are.

Despite the name, you won’t actually see any lakes on this trail until its eastern terminus at Toledo Bend Reservoir. Regardless, there is still plenty of flowing water, plus some really excellent dispersed camping under the pines on soft duff. The path loves to meander up and down the abundance of Big Thicket creeks, afternoon sunlight slants in at soft angles, and you can rest assured that you’ll probably have this trail almost entirely to yourself. What makes the Trail Between the Lakes extra special to me, though, is the fact that the Sabine National Forest is home to a sizable population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. On my hike, they were easy to spot, as they were actively exploring a portion of the trail that had recently undergone a controlled burn.

Looking for more great hikes that are longer than a few miles? I suggest checking out the Hill Country State Natural Area, Pedernales Falls State Park, the Possum Kingdom Hike and Bike Trail, and the Northeast Texas Trail.

By Jim Atkinson and John Bloom

By Jim Atkinson and John Bloom

We report on vital issues from politics to education and are the indispensable authority on the Texas scene, covering everything from music to cultural events with insightful recommendations.