FOR A STATE SO DANGED BIG, Texas manages to hide its wildlands in some off-the-beaten-path locales. But if you know where to look in Lone Star land, you'll find ample wide-open spaces.

Sep 1, 2002
Outside Magazine
The New, New Thing

THE LIGHTHOUSE LAKES Kayak Trails Park (512-389-4642) is in Redfish Bay north of Port Aransas, three hours from Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. Three paddling trails, ranging from 1.25 miles to 6.8 miles, weave through a mangrove marsh with numbered signs that correspond to a map with GPS coordinates.

Texan pebbles, bouldering in exchanted Rock State Natural Area.

HIT THE ROAD toward Burnet, in the Texas Hill Country 214 miles northwest of Houston. From there, head west 15 miles on Texas 29 toward Lake Buchanan, the largest and least-visited of the Highland Lakes chain, and check into Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park (doubles, $99-$159; tent sites, $10-$15; 800-977-0081, www.canyonoftheeagles.com).

On Saturday, rise early for a run on the 12-mile network of trails on the lodge's 940-acre spread, then cool down with a kayak paddle and a swim in Lake Buchanan (the five-mile-long beach is just down the hill from the lodge). But don't dawdle. It's a 45-minute drive south to Longhorn Caverns State Park for the two- to three-hour Wild Cave spelunking tour (make reservations; $35 per person; BYO hard hat, knee pads, and flashlight; 877-441-2283, www.longhorncaverns.com). After cleaning yourself off, head south another 13 miles to the Bluebonnet Cafe on U.S. 281 in Marble Falls for a classic Texas chat 'n' chew plate lunch (meat and three vegetables for about $6; 830-693-2344). From there it's a 30-minute drive to the town of Tow, on the northwest shore of Buchanan. Bike the four miles to Fall Creek Vineyards and reward yourself with a sampling of wine and salsa (915-379-5361). Later, cruise 20 minutes southwest to Llano to line up for some of the state's best barbecue at Cooper's (915-247-5713). After dinner, waddle over to the Dabbs, a restored railroad hotel, in time to check in (doubles, $45-$65; 915-247-7905).

Fuel up early the next morning on buttermilk biscuits, do your morning laps in the Llano River, and then drive south 15 miles to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, arriving by 10 a.m. (entrance fee, $5; 915-247-3903). Climbing Enchanted Rock, the 400-foot pink-granite dome, is a Texan rite of passage. Lunch is Cajun and Greek fare at the roadside Hilltop Cafe (830-997-8922), ten miles northwest of Fredericksburg. It's another 20 minutes up U.S. 87 to Carrington's Lodge, where you can dip flies in the Llano with fly-fishing instructor Raye Carrington ($150 for a three-hour session; 915-347-3474). Continue up U.S. 87 to the Eckert James River Bat Cave, where four million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from their cave nursery for their nightly foraging (915-347-5970). Watch the sunset show, then head on home.

WITNESSING THE CORAL spawning in late August and early September at Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary—a reef in the Gulf of Mexico—is like watching Fantasia underwater. Take a weekend trip on a live-aboard dive boat ($350-$445; Gulf Diving, 979-233-4445, www.gulf-diving.com) that starts with a 100-mile overnight trip out to the reef from Freeport, an hour southeast of Houston. The reward is seven dives in the domain of whale sharks and monster manta and eagle rays.

BIG THICKET NATIONAL PRESERVE (409-246-2337, www.nps.gov/bith), an hour and a half east of Houston, is one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America—a place where eastern forests, coastal plains, and Midwestern prairie converge. Get a whiff of its majesty on the lightly trekked 18-mile Turkey Creek Trail.

THE VERY RUSTIC Pine Needle Lodge (doubles, $65; 903-665-2911, www.pineneedlelodge.com) sits on the north shore of Caddo Lake, three hours or less from Houston or Dallas. It's the prime launchpad for paddling the cypress-lined swamp, a waterway so ethereal it would be easy to get lost if not for the "boat roads" marking the way. This is solitude you won't find within a 500-mile radius.