Everyone knows about NASA or the San Antonio riverwalk. But I wondered where some of the lesser-known family fun vacations in Texas were.
Austin has many great places the whole family will enjoy, from the Cathedral of Junk to the Barton Creek Greenbelt or nearby rivers in San Marcos for tubing. Waco has the Dr. Pepper museum & an outstanding zoo. Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch & Caverns on the way to San Antonio are also well worth visiting.
But that’s just scratching the surface of what Texas has to offer for families. So let’s keep going!
In this article, we’re checking out some of the best places in Texas, my home state. We’ll explore some well-known spots as well as some lesser-known gems.
Ultimately, we’re focused not only on Texas but specifically on family fun vacations in Texas.
Let’s get started!
Check out all my best travel resources and recommendations which can save you time and money on your next vacation!
Co-authored with Zack Davisson, travel expert over at AllTheRooms.
Where can I take my kids in Texas?
Texas is HUGE. Almost 30 million people inhabit the 268,000 square miles. The 2nd largest state in the United States (Alaska is 1st), is roughly the same size as all of France.
So all that is to say, there’s a lot of ground you can cover and a wide variety of stuff to see; especially with kids.
My family and I live in the Hill Country outside of Austin. I have 3 kids (a toddler a teen, and a tween).
Here are some of our favorite places to go:
- Enchanted Rock State Natural Area – A breathtaking pink granite mountain range outside of Fredericksburg less than 2 hours from Austin
- The Waco Zoo – A world-class Zoo, and hour and a half north of Austin, that we actually prefer over the San Diego Zoo (click to read my article that explains why)
- Big Bend National Park (more on this below)
- Six Flags (outside of Dallas or San Antonio)
- NASA Space Center in Houston
- The Kemah Boardwalk (near Houston but close to Galveston) – A great old-school amusement park and boardwalk near the ocean, similar to what you see along the New Jersey shores.
What can kids do in the Hill Country?
I live in the Hill Country with my 3 kids, so I know a thing or two about this!
Specifically, I live in Wimberley, which is less than an hour from Austin and about halfway between Dripping Springs and San Marcos.
The Texas Hill Country is defined as “a geographic region of Central and South Texas, forming the southeast part of the Edwards Plateau”. In plain English, it starts just west of Austin and stretches down almost reaching San Antonio, sticking to the west.
It’s much hillier than the eastern parts of the area and features rocky ground and features a lot more cactus, bald cypress, live oak, mesquite, and Ashe juniper (cedar) trees.
But for family fun, my wife, kids and I love the following spots:
Blue Hole Regional Park in Wimberley
Swim in a spring-fed area along Cypress Creek surrounded by huge bald cypress trees. Rope swings, picnic areas, and a nearby playground complete the area. Reservations required.
Jacob’s Well Natural Area in Wimberley
Jacob’s Well used to be privately owned, but now is run by the city and requires a reservation.
Basically, it’s an area along Cypress Creek that opens up in 1 spot and goes down, hundreds of feet, to an elaborate system of caves (professional divers are the only ones allowed cave access). Jump off the nearby rock cliffs into the year-round 68° spring-fed water.
Not just for Willie Nelson anymore, this “town” just has a quintessential Texas feel to it and is very family-friendly. Grab a beer and some grub, listen to some live Texas music, shop the general store, or just stroll around the grounds with the roosters.
West of Austin lies this favorite swimming hole. Like the other’s I’ve mentioned, it usually requires reservations (but some months only on weekends) as they have all gotten extremely popular.
The good news is the reservation system ensures you’ll enjoy your visit and it won’t be overcrowded. It’s a giant swimming hole with an encroaching rock cliff formation that partially covers it from high above. Check out those enormous turtles swimming with you!
This is a chain that has campgrounds all over the place, including 3 in the Texas Hill Country (Canyon Lake, Fredericksburg, and Kerrville).
Much more than a campground though, they have cabins, campsites, disc golf, tubing on the river, basketball, heated pools, water parks, and much more. Tons of fun!
What is there to do in Fredericksburg for kids?
Fredericksburg is about 75 minutes from Austin, to the southwest.
It’s a quaint little town big on its German heritage, so expect lots of businesses with German or German-esque names (think restaurants with the word “haus” at the end.
Tons of shopping, antique stores, boutique candy shops, and tasty restaurants.
The kids might get bored with all the antique and home decor shops, but history buffs will love the Nimitz Museum. Officially, it’s called the National Museum of the Pacific War.
Named for Admiral Chester Nimitz (who was born in Fredericksburg) the museum has over 33,000 square feet dedicated to the US presence in World War II, specifically in the Pacific. There are 40 multi-media installations, over 900 actual artifacts, and hundreds of pictures.
Plus there is the Plaza of Presidents and the Japanese Garden of Peace.
Beyond that, you’ll for sure want to hike up nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area which ought to be an actual National Park. It’s known for its pink granite mountains that are fairly easy to climb, the tallest one in the middle has a cave at the top that my kids love to explore.
But there’s also easy hiking around the base, and you can camp there as well (reservations are a must). They also hold star parties occasionally too. We’ve done those, and it’s a blast getting to look through all the giant telescopes.
What is there to do in Dripping Springs for kids?
Dripping Springs is about 20 minutes from my house, on the way to Austin.
Originally a quiet little town, it’s grown a lot due to how close it is to Austin. Austin is so expensive these days (compared to when I was a kid) so many have moved further north or south. Dripping Springs makes for a perfect commuter town.
While there are lots of distilleries, wineries, and restaurants, it’s a tad light on activities for kids. That being said, most wineries are kid-friendly.
Luckily, it’s close to a lot of nearby areas, but here are some of the things we like to do there:
- Almost Grown Play Cafe – Basically an indoor play area for younger kids where parents can sit in the nearby cafe and keep an eye on things
- Loco-motion Inflatable Play – A typical (but fun) inflatable bounce house park (technically Austin, but close to Dripping Springs)
- Little Speedsters – Dirt Bike classes for kids (also, technically Austin, but close to Dripping Springs)
And the Austin Java here has a playground and great food & coffee!
So here is the . . .
13 Family Fun Vacations in Texas You May Not Have Known About
1. Big Bend National Park
Even Texas’ national parks adhere to the “Everything is Bigger in Texas” moniker.
This is most evident in Big Bend National Park. Big Bend likes to brag about being about the size of Rhode Island.
In the main tourist destination, the Chisos Mountains, families can embark on a number of hikes of varying difficulties and visit a fossil discovery exhibit.
The hike known as the Window Trail leads to an especially breathtaking view!
2. Caverns of Sonora
Explore #Texas underground and check out the limestone caverns of Sonora, Texas! ⭐? Located between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park, it’s a great pitstop to explore! ?? #TravelTX #HowdyFolks #BigTex https://t.co/VrocHPtLfA pic.twitter.com/zql9s8YPla
— State Fair of Texas (@StateFairOfTX) June 14, 2018
The Natural Bridge Caverns may be slightly busier because of their vicinity to San Antonio.
However, many will argue that the Caverns of Sonora are the real underground gem of Texas. The names of the stalactites and stalagmites, like Popcorn and Bacon, are silly and accurate enough to get some laughs from the younger crowd.
Money a little tight this year? Remember, it’s easy to still have a great time when you vacation on a budget. If that’s the boat you’re in (been there, done that), check out that post on the Middle Class Dad site which walks you through just how to do that.
3. Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch
Outside of San Antonio, on the road from Austin, is the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, a long-time favorite for local and visiting families.
Travelers are able to drive their car through the ranch that harbors a number of wild animals. So don’t be surprised to get paid a visit by wildebeest, giraffes, zebras, and ostriches.
The Natural Bridge Caverns listed above are right next door, and both attractions are easily completed in a single afternoon. Both are well-worth being on anyone’s family fun vacations in Texas list.
4. Float the Rivers around Austin
fun and relaxing day floating down the comal river! ?? pic.twitter.com/DmfqzfOzDX
— ally (@allytye) July 1, 2016
For the really young ones, the Barton Creek Greenbelt is a good option as the waters are still and create a number of shallow swimming holes.
For those with slightly older children, consider floating a bigger river.
The San Marcos River just outside of the city is probably the most family-friendly option, although the Guadalupe & Comal rivers are closer and more popular. The day of splashing, relaxation, and soaking up the sun is sure to make the whole family bronzed and happy.
5. Cockrell Butterfly CenterThis is a beautiful tropical atrium adjacent to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
The inside of the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a lush rainforest complete with a fifty-foot waterfall. The main attraction — the butterflies — fly freely throughout the exhibit, and with many hundreds of colorful species, as well as other insects, visitors will be hard pressed not to be wowed by the display.
For the butterfly-obsessed kid who doesn’t get their fill in Houston, head down south to the National Butterfly Center in Mission, near the Mexican border.
6. Sea Turtle, Inc.
— Visit South Padre (@visitsouthpadre) July 29, 2018
An incredible project on South Padre Island, Sea Turtle Inc is a center that focuses on the rehabilitation and conservation of the world’s sea turtles.
Take a casual trip to see the resident turtles or plan to stop during one of their many releases. The most amazing visitors see either a reintroduction of a rehabilitated adult or an early morning hatchling “frenzy” where newborn sea turtles make their run to the sea.
7. Zero Gravity Thrill Park
Calling themselves “the most extreme theme park in the world”, this Dallas destination is definitely for families with a collective adrenaline addiction.While a couple of rides do have height requirements, most of the attractions only require a parent signature for kids to participate. This eliminates the often dream-crushing minimum age requirement.
A favorite is the “Nothing but Net” experience, which is basically bungee jumping without any ropes.
That’s right, participants free-fall 130 feet, or 16 stories, into a landing net without the help of any parachutes or straps or cords. Parents watching may have to be braver than the kids jumping.
8. Mineral Wells Fossil Park
Mineral Wells Fossil Park – This former #Texas landfill is flush with 300 million-year-old fossils that provide fossil enthusiasts, paleontologists, and students an excellent opportunity to see and collect. #OffbeatAmerica #VisitUSA #DekhoAmerica pic.twitter.com/kskIj7kkm1
— US Consulate Mumbai (@USAndMumbai) February 25, 2018
For families who like to get their hands dirty, consider a trip to Mineral Wells Fossil Park.
Mineral Wells (birthplace of Middle Class Dad founder Jeff Campbell) is about an hour outside of Dallas.
The large rocky bowl allows kids and adults to sweep through the gravel for fossils. The park is one of the very few places in the world that allows people to remove and keep their findings.
If you routinely find yourself paying for vacations on a credit card, there a better way! Paying cash for a vacation just takes the right vacation planning steps. Trust me, it’s easy to just reach for the plastic (been there, done that). But eventually the bill comes due and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself heavily in debt.
9. Dallas Cowboys Fan Experience
This Lil guy is ready! Suit him up @dallascowboys @thestarinfrisco had a good time out at the @NFL draft fan experience this evening. #cowboynation #DallasCowboys #NFLDraft #americasteam pic.twitter.com/iDzWis1LJj
— Carlos Ornelas (@Los_1931) April 28, 2018
The Cowboys are nicknamed “America’s Team”.
Nearly everyone in the country has a strong reaction to the Dallas Cowboys — whether it’s admiration or absolute repulsion.
Whatever your feelings may be, it’s a fact that the Cowboys are the most valuable sports franchise in the world and have the stadium/sports palace to match. AT&T Stadium is plenty famous for being the biggest domed structure in the world but not everyone realizes they give tours of the behemoth space.
Young sports fans are sure to love taking a look around the locker room and stepping onto the field surrounded by 80,000 seats.
10. The Magicians Agency
Many magic shows are in clubs that feature cheeky, inappropriate comedy in an adult-only atmosphere. However, this San Antonio show is welcoming to everyone aged four and older.
The shows are usually an hour long. You’ll see magicians wandering around the venue before and after the show to entertain crowds. The show itself is funny and baffling, and sure to inspire young’uns who can later buy a training video with their allowance money to get their tricks started.
11. Palo Duro Canyon State Park
This one is up in the panhandle of Texas, somewhat close to Amarillo.
Palo Duro Canyon retains the calling card “The Grand Canyon of Texas” and offers tremendous opportunities to go camping with the family. The heart of winter and summer can bring about extreme weather, so plan accordingly!
12. Cathedral of Junk
— Nomadic Matt (@nomadicmatt) June 23, 2017
More of an oddity worth a visit than a concrete destination, the Cathedral of Junk could be the poster child for the “Keep Austin Weird” movement.
Towering in the backyard of Vince Hannemann, a South Austin resident, this undertaking began in 1989 and has grown from a casual collection to a head-scratching monument of human consumption. In fact, no list of family fun vacations in Texas would be complete with this one.
Now comprised of some 60 tons of trash, the Cathedral is an amazing place for anyone, young and old, to explore for an afternoon.
Since it’s in his backyard, you can’t just show up whenever you want. Call (512) 299-7413 to set a time to visit.
13. Dr. Pepper Museum
If you’re like me, and love Dr. Pepper (it’s the only soda/pop I’ll drink) you should know there’s a Dr. Pepper museum in Waco, Texas! Check out what I learned during my recent visit => https://t.co/qPcyT5xWP8 @wacotxlive @DrPepperSnapple #travel pic.twitter.com/J27Y8Hm16Y
— Bill On The Road (@ontheroadwithbc) August 1, 2018
The Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco is not just a tribute to a favorite American beverage, it’s also a fun, interactive experience for kids.
While the museum offers a number of traditional tours, kids love the Little Peppers Tour or the Create a Soft Drink Tour, where the little ones work in teams to bottle their own creative take on soda, and then design its logo.
Whatever tour guests choose, everyone will be pleased to know it comes with some free Dr. Pepper.
In this post, we walked you through some of the coolest, most amazing & least known gems in Texas.
These family fun vacations in Texas are a little off the beaten path. That means they’ll be less crowded and more enjoyable. Whether you spend 2 weeks in Texas or just a few days, there really are some amazing things to do and see.
These spots will have your family talking about this trip for years to come.
Check out all my best travel resources and recommendations which can save you time and money on your next vacation!
About the co-author of this post:
Zack works for AllTheRooms, the world’s first vacation rental search engine and is a recovering technical recruiter who traded in his suit and tie in Silicon Valley for salsa music and a passion for writing in Medellin, Colombia. When not writing for AllTheRooms you can find Zack with his nose in a book, puttering around nature, or getting ultra-competitive while watching Jeopardy.
Want to write for Middle Class Dad too? Check out everything you need to know on my Guest Blog Page.
Photo credits which require attribution:
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