South Padre Island is one of those surprising places that you often, unexpectedly, find in Texas. Walking along the beach, I take in the scene: sand stretching as far as the eye can see, bikini-clad women tanning all along the beach, paragliders soaring through the air just offshore, and a beautiful, hot sun beating down on it all. One might mistake this place for a destination deep down in the Caribbean, but South Padre, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico in South Texas is very much a part the Lone Star State, a place not so far from Austin and easily drivable from San Antonio – a subtropical destination that can be easily combined with other great attractions in the state.
Texas is a great place to get outdoors, with diverse landscapes, a warm-to-hot year-round climate, and 1,000 kilometres of coastline – which means that South Padre isn’t the only great beach in the state. Soft sand guards the shore and gentle waves roll in from South and North Padre to Port Aransas (near Corpus Christi) to Galveston (near Houston). At any of these destinations, you can embark on big oceanic adventures, including deep sea fishing for kingfish, blackfin tuna and vermillion snapper, paddling through the waves in a sea kayak, or just kicking back with a drink in hand, on a hammock in a shady spot.
And for those who feel comfortable in a pair of hiking boots, the rusty landscapes of west Texas provide all that outdoorsy types can handle. Big Bend National Park covers more than 3,000 square kilometres – more than half the size of Prince Edward Island, and larger than the state of Rhode Island – and includes both hardcore trails and pleasant day-hikes. For the former, check out the Outer Mountain Loop, a 48-kilometre, three-day trek through the high country of the Chisos Mountains, a route that traverses the south rim of the range and takes in 160-kilometre views, while for the latter, the park features a number of small nature walks that will give a great taste of the stunning, remote beauty of the park – no backpack required.
Texas is also home to an impressive network of state parks, accessible places where you can get outside and use top-notch facilities for a reasonable price. At Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in the Hill Country, you can scale the summit of this dramatic, red rock, a 130-metre pink granite batholith which, according to local legend, had a spell cast upon it to make fires glow at the top – and visitors who have climbed it note that it often gives off a magical, mystical feel. At Franklin Mountains State Park, you can gear up and take on the largest sustained mountain range in Texas (the Franklins), with established rock climbing areas in the McKelligan Canyon portion of the park. And at Lake Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway, just west of Fort Worth, you can ride a bicycle along the 32-kilometre trailway, a former railway bed, or spend some time in the lake, swimming, fishing (largemouth bass and channel cats are both common), or paddling – canoes and kayaks are both available for rent.