Texas destinations that can feel like international getaways

From forests to coral reefs, Texas is a diverse state teeming with natural beauty

Top Left: Flower Garden Banks. Top Right: Santa Elena Canyon. Bottom Left: Hamilton Pool. Bottom Right: Palo Duro Canyon. (NOAA, TPWD)

SAN ANTONIO – If you’re looking for an international vacation but can’t afford the price tag, there are some ways to scratch that vacation itch in Texas.

Texas is one of the most diverse states in the U.S. in terms of topography with waterfalls, deserts, mountains, canyons — many things that people don’t think of when they think of Texas. Maybe that’s why people keep moving here.

Did you know the second largest canyon in the entire country is in Texas? Palo Duro Canyon is known as the “Texas Grand Canyon” and measures approximately 120 miles long.

Here are some Texas vacations we think feel like international getaways:

If you’ve visited these spots or have others to recommend, let us know in the comments at the end of the article.

Balmorhea Pool - The pool is located inside Balmorhea State Park in Toyahvale. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website says the pool is one of the largest spring-fed swimming pools in the world. You can swim, scuba, dive or just chill in the water. There are entrance fees of $7 per adult. Children 12 and younger are free.

Balmorhea State Park pool (TPWD)

Big Bend National Park - If you head to far West Texas you’ll find Big Bend National Park. Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most picturesque locations within the park and some of the canyon walls reach 1,500 feet high. Entry fees to the park vary but you can drive in for as little as $30 per vehicle. There are campgrounds if you feel like overnighting it, too.

Santa Elena Canyon in West Texas.

Caddo Lake State Park - This park houses the 25,000-acre Caddo Lake, which borders Texas and Louisiana. It’s rife with things to do like fishing, paddling, hiking and boating and there are alligators throughout. Entrance fees are only $4 a day for adults. There’s history in these trees — TPWD states that people have lived in the area for 12,000 years.

Bald cypress trees draped with Span­ish moss tower over the maze of bayous, sloughs and ponds of Caddo Lake. (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department)

Flower Garden Banks - A coral reef off the Texas coast? It’s true. A mere 100 miles off of Galveston there’s a 56-square-mile marine sanctuary known as Flower Garden Banks. Whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, have been spotted in the Flower Garden Banks. Obviously, the only way to get there is by boat but there are several dive and fishing charter operators who make the trip.

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

Gorman Falls - Gorman Falls is located in Colorado Bend State Park. Visitors note that the trail leading to the falls is rocky but the trek is worth the effort. Cooling off in the falls isn’t allowed but swimming and fishing are both allowed in Spicewood Springs, also located within the park. Entrance fees are $5 per day for adults.

Gormon Falls (Photo Courtesy: tpwd.texas.gov)

Guadalupe Peak - Make sure you’ve got your hiking boots on for this one because the hike to the top of Texas is an 8.5 mile round trip with a 3,000-foot elevation. Guadalupe Peak is located in Culberson County and it’s the highest natural point in Texas at 8,751 feet above sea level. Entrance fees are required for Guadalupe Mountains National Park where the trail to reach the peak is located.

The view from the summit of Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas. Photo by Jrossz71. (Wikimedia Commons)

Hamilton Pool - This stunning swimming hole in Travis County might not be a swimming hole anymore. Swimming is actually not allowed for the foreseeable future due to falling rocks but Hamilton Pool is still an incredible sight for visitors looking to marvel at the waterfall. Reservation fees are required for entry.

Hamilton Pool Preserve. (Jaco Botha via Travis County Parks.)

Hell’s Gate at Possum Kingdom Lake - Hell’s Gate is immediately recognizable by the two massive cliffs that face each other, just before entry to a cove on the south end of Possum Kingdom Lake, west of Fort Worth. It’s a popular hangout for boaters and thrill-seekers who have been photographed diving from a 90-foot-high platform off Hell’s Gate at the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.

Hell's Gate, Possum Kingdom Lake (Flickr)

Jacob’s Well - Spring-fed Jacob’s Well is a swimming spot in the Texas Hill Country. Reservations are required for swimming. Jacob’s Well releases thousands of gallons of water every day from the Trinity Aquifer which comes from an extensive underground cave system. The deepest part of the cavern system is 140 feet deep and the main cavern length is 4,341 feet in length.

Jacob's Well Natural Area in Hays County. (KSAT 12)

Japanese Tea Gardens - The Japanese Tea Garden in San Antonio is one of the most beautiful places in the city and admission is free. The garden went into a state of disrepair in the 1960s but received new life in 1984 when San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and former Mayor Lila Cockrell restored the name to the Japanese Tea Garden. The garden has evolved since then — check out this KSAT article about the garden’s history.

Japanese Tea Garden in San Antonio Texas (KSAT 12)

Padre Island National Seashore - This park protects 66 miles of Texas coastline and it’s actually the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. It’s got a history of Spanish shipwrecks and it’s home to 380 species of birds and endangered species like the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Pretty cool!

Padre Island National Seashore welcomed 617,704 visitors in 2020. (Padre Island National Seashore)

Palo Duro Canyon - Sometimes referred to as the “Texas Grand Canyon,” Palo Duro Canyon has a rich history and is the second-largest canyon in the U.S. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located in the heart of the panhandle. Camping, glamping and cabins are all options for overnight stays if you want to sleep in the same areas that people have inhabited for the last 12,000 years. The Clovis and Folsom peoples were the first humans known to live in the canyon and they hunted large herds of mammoth and giant bison, according to TPWD officials.

Lighthouse Peak at Palo Duro Canyon State Park (©2012 EARL NOTTINGHAM, TPWD)

Pedernales Falls State Park - You can camp, hike, mountain bike, picnic, geocache, bird watch and ride horses at Pedernales Falls State Park near Johnson City. The 5,200-acre park opened in 1971 after being transferred to the state of Texas from private owners. The area used to be known as Circle Bar Ranch. Entrance fees are $6 a day for adults.

Pedernales Falls recommends reserving your place in advance, as the demand rises by 11 a.m. (Courtesy of Elvisa Imamovic/Facebook)

Sam Houston National Forest - Sam Houston National Forest is one of four national forests in Texas and it’s located just north of Houston. The forest has a deep history with evidence of occupation as early as 7,000 years ago. The U.S. Forest Service asks that if you discover any artifacts during your visit to the national forest to leave them in place and contact the Sam Houston Ranger District Office.

Sam Houston National Forest (Flickr)

South Padre Island - This resort town is located at the southern tip of Texas but it’s known for having some of the nicest beaches in the state. There are tons of things to do from fishing to birding to shopping but with so many of our state’s beaches boasting brown water, it felt necessary to include it in the list.

Causeway to South Padre. Photo from Flickr. (Gaylon Yancy 2020)

Terlingua - Texas is full of history and haunted locations, but did you know there’s an entire ghost town you can tour in Terlingua? It’s an abandoned mining town that went belly-up, causing the residents to pack up and leave their little town behind. If you’re in the mood to visit the decaying buildings and mine shafts and see a piece of Texas history, there are several spots available for glamping.

Terlingua (Pixabay)

Utopia Tree Houses - KSAT has covered many unique Texas treehouses you can rent for the weekend. If you’ve ever dreamed of living in the trees — you can find some pretty impressive treetop digs in Utopia.

Tree house (KSAT 12)

This article was originally sent as a Things To Do newsletter.

About the Author:

Mary Claire Patton has been a journalist with KSAT 12 since 2015. She has reported on several high-profile stories during her career at KSAT and specializes in trending news and things to do around Texas and San Antonio.