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Matagorda Island State Park: Texas
WHY HERE? Load your surfboard and mountain bike onto the Matagorda Ferry in Port O'Connor and float across Espiritu Santo Bay to the state's wildest Gulf Coast barrier island. A second shuttle boat will deposit you and your gear at Beach Campground, a two-mile-long stretch of primitive (bring your own drinking water) oceanside sites a few dozen feet from four- to ten-foot surf breaks. When you're not shooting the curl, try biking some of the island's 80 miles of shell roads and singletrack, or kayaking through the island's salt marshes in search of endangered whooping cranes and lazy gators.
INDULGE IN: Rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking
WHY HERE? With over 800,000 acres of pastel desert, 118 miles of rambling Rio Grande, 7,000-foot mountains, and hundreds of rare species of wildlife, no other part of the Southwest comes close to matching Big Bend's exceptional mix of camping solitude and abundant outdoor recreation. Establish base camp at one of the 14 backcountry car sites located off the park's River Road. Black Dike, Talley, and Gauging Station offer mesquite trees for shade, short footpaths to the river, and spectacular views of the Chisos Mountains, but be forewarnedÂ‹it's scorching territory, so avoid trips in summer. After the marathon drive, stretch your car-cramped legs on the Mule Ear Springs Trail, a 3.8-mile round-trip down bone-dry arroyos and past the Mule Ears Peaks to a grove of cottonwoods and your first taste of Texas sweet water from the springs. Climbers will want to take the 2.6-mile Lost Mine Trail, which takes you to a series of moderate crack routes like the 5.8+ Dutch Girl and 5.9 Dutch Boy, while cyclists can cruise for fishing holes along the 51-mile River Road. But it's the wide border swing of the Rio Grande that gives Big Bend its name, so take a day to raft the ten-mile Class II-III stretch down Mariscal Canyon.
BONUS: For $2 per person at Santa Elena Crossing, a gentleman will row you across the Rio Grande to the village of Santa Elena, Mexico, where you can dine at one of four local restaurants.
ACCESS: 325 miles southeast of San Antonio. Take U.S. 35 into the park and then turn onto River Road (four-wheel drive required), which links Castolon and Rio Grande Village campgrounds. The backcountry car sites (permit required, no charge) are located on both sides of River Road.
RESOURCES: Big Bend National Park, 915-477-2251