Just because they say everything’s bigger in Texas doesn’t necessarily mean tourists find every hidden gem easily. Whether you want to go scuba diving in the desert, take a hike to a secret swimming pool, or listen to a granite mountain creak, there’s something new and exciting for everyone in Texas. From El Paso to Amarillo, there are copious Texas vacation rentals to choose from. Check out the state’s top low-key attractions.
1. Palo Duro Lighthouse, Amarillo
People expect to find lighthouses where they find water; but, Palo Duro Canyon boasts its own geological signature, a hoodoo known as Palo Duro Lighthouse. This 120-mile-long canyon measures as much as 20 miles wide in places, and it reaches a maximum depth of more than 800 feet. As the second-largest canyon in America–called the Grand Canyon of Texas–this one gets few visitors. Catch the vivid shades of green and terra-cotta when you explore on horseback, by car, or hiking one of the trails. To find the lighthouse, take Park Road 5, pass the trading post, and look for the marked Palo Duro Lighthouse trailhead on the right.
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2. Bouton Lake, Angelina National Forest, Zavalla
Bouton Lake, a hidden gem in the Angelina National Forest, gives you access to fishing and hiking among hardwoods and cypress trees. Access this primitive area via a five-and-a-half mile trek on Sawmill Hiking Trail, which includes a short side trail near the middle that leads to the Aldridge Sawmill ruins. Look for old bridges and other sawmill ruins along the trail. To drive to the lake, drive seven miles on Forest Road 303 off Highway 63 east from Zavalla.
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3. Hueco Tanks State Park, El Paso
Climb, hike, and view age-old etchings in the rocks at Hueco Tanks State Park. Look for longhorn sheep, skunk pigs, foxes, reptiles, and bobcats among the unusual rock formations. The basins collect and trap water in this arid part of the desert, making it a source of water for thousands of years. Pictographs from several tribes exist throughout the area, dating back as much as 6,000 BCE. You need reservations to enter the park, so sign up for yours in advance.
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4. Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, Orange
Find your zen in Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, or just meander through the beautiful flower gardens. Join a bayou boat tour to look for birds, turtles, and other native wildlife. To see flowers in bloom, springtime brings out the first of the season, lighting up the gardens in an array of brilliant colors. Your best opportunities for bird watching include early mornings or late evenings in the spring.
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5. Copper Breaks State Park, Quanah
Tourists typically overlook Copper Breaks State Park, which makes it a great off-the-beaten-path vacation destination. Your Quanah vacation rental puts you within 15 minutes of the park, where you find great family activities including swimming in one of the lakes, hiking, and mountain biking. While you’re in the park, look for owls, roadrunners, and longhorn cattle. To see the most awesome night sky in the country, join a Star Walk, hosted by park staff.
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6. Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, Tyler
Your 30-to-40-minute walk through the hilly Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge includes a tour guide who tells you each animal’s story. The refuge includes tigers, lions, pumas, a leopard, and bobcats. Choosing a self-guided tour allows you to spend the amount of time you want with each animal, using the booklet the staff gives you for guidance. You get so much closer to the big cats than at a zoo, and the setting looks and feels very natural.
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7. Cattail Falls Trail at Big Bend National Park
After pulling off a dirt road across from the Nail Ranch, drive a few miles to a small parking lot, then walk about a half-mile to the Cattail Falls Trailhead. Your hike to the falls along the mile-and-a-half trail keeps you out in the sun, which means you need plenty of water, sunscreen, and hats. At the end of the trail, you scramble over a few boulders to reach the falls. Here’s where you find a surprising cool, shady oasis that gives you a reward for the hike. Under the big trees, in the shade of the cliffs, you find pure tranquility by shimmering pools.
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8. Hamilton Pool, Dripping Springs
So well-hidden that you hike a mile to find it, the Hamilton Pool emerges, an emerald-green gem in Texas hill country about 23 miles west of Austin. A dome that once concealed the spring collapsed in the early 20th century, leaving a breathtaking overhang at the back wall of the pool. The picturesque cavern features deep, cool shade and makes an interesting spot for exploring the rocks, including a wooden walkway around the back of the overhang. When water flows from the overhang, it makes a drop of 50 feet, adding to the beauty of this beautiful pool where explorers and swimmers enjoy taking a cool dip.
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9. Enchanted Rock, Fredericksburg
As the sun sets and the air cools, Enchanted Rock creaks as the surface contracts. The eerie creaks and groans likely contributed to the Tonkawa Indian legends about magic, hauntings, and spiritual powers, which also gives the mound its name. The colossal pink granite outcropping covers over 640 acres, and rises 425 feet high. If you don’t mind squeezing through a few damp, dark, tight spaces with spiders and other leggy creatures, the dome includes a 1,500-foot-long granite cave to explore. The 1,644-acre Enchanted Rock State Natural Area features hiking trails, spots for rock climbing, and interesting wildlife.
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10. Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale
Scuba diving in the ocean waters off the Texas Gulf Coast sounds so blase when compared to taking a dive in the Chihuahuan Desert. The limestone-ringed pool at Balmorhea State Park starts with a three-foot deep shallow end that’s great for kids, and then it progresses to 25 feet at the deep end. About 24 million gallons of natural spring water flow through the pool daily, as it links to an underground aquatic ecosystem tapped by farmers to feed irrigation canals. During your deep-dive, the small fish swarm around you, large catfish drift along slowly, and huge turtles skim along the bottom, hiding in the grasses.
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