AUSTIN (KXAN) — For 100 years, the Texas State Parks system has invited millions of visitors to recreate in its parklands and experience the state’s natural beauty up close.
All year long, Texas State Parks officials will host events commemorating the centennial, with plans on how to invite the next generation of explorers into the next 100 years.
The history of the Texas State Parks system
The creation of the state parks system dates back in Gov. Pat Neff who, in 1923, appointed a Texas State Parks Board to help determine and locate sites for future parks, per Texas Parks and Wildlife Department documents.
In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt directed the National Park Service to assist state parks systems as part of the New Deal program. The Civilian Conservation Corps helped employ citizens during the Great Depression in the construction of parks.
Here in Texas, the state parks system grew from a slew of undeveloped properties to a system with more than 50 parks. Some of the system’s most popular parks today — Palo Duro Canyon, Garner and Balmorhea, to name a few — were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
During World War II, women were employed to help keep state parks operating. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, TPWD documents show Black residents near Tyler and Bastrop State Parks were successful in advocating for park access, regardless of skin color.
The 1980s are dubbed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as “the golden age” of the system’s expansion. The Texas Legislature allocated funds to build out the state parks system, acquiring parkland and adding more than 30 parks during this timespan.
Many of those parks opened during the 1980s were done so out of protection for unique, natural resources. Some of those parks opened included Big Bend Ranch, Seminole Canyon and Enchanted Rock, per TPWD.
Today, TPWD documents report more than 630,000 acres of land statewide is allocated to the Texas State Parks system.
How has the Texas State Parks system evolved in the last 100 years?
As more residents continue to move into Texas, more demand awaits the state parks system.
Rodney Franklin, director of Texas State Parks, said the state has been a leader in its parks system development, particular in the rollout of its day-use reservation system. He said the system also prides itself in its educator and interpreter staff, who help guide visitors on night hikes or other park-led recreation opportunities.
In many ways, he said the interest in Texas’ state parks has only grown in recent years, especially since the coronavirus pandemic. At the onset of COVID-19, parks remained open and became a source of refuge for many residents looking to spend time outdoors, he said.
In 2021, approximately 10 million people visited state parks, an all-time system high, Franklin said.
“What we found is that people who — even people who have been coming to state parks all their lives, maybe discovered a new state park and discovered a new favorite state park,” he said, later adding: “Our hope is that we create the next generation of stewards, so that the people that are discovering us now will grow to love state parks and continue to care for them, moving into the next 100 years of state parks.”
To date, Franklin said an oldie but a goodie seems to top Texans’ favorites list, with Garner State Park consistently at the top of most popular sites. Other renowned sites include the Palo Duro Canyon State Park, lying in the Texas Panhandle and noted as the second-largest canyon in the country.
Other popular destinations include those near metroplexes across the state, such as Ray Roberts Lake State Park north of Denton and Cedar Hill State Park near Dallas.
How is Texas State Parks celebrating its 100-year anniversary?
When you reach a centennial, it becomes a yearlong affair, Franklin told KXAN. Texas State Parks kicked off the celebrations with first day hikes on Jan. 1 followed by s’mores days at state parks, legislative events, truck giveaways and music collaborations.
The festivities are slated to continue for the remainder of the year, Franklin added, with individual anniversary celebrations planned at each state park.
“To know that 100 years later, we have men and women that are creating these very special places for people to go camp and recreate outdoors and connect with nature is very special,” he said. “I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
However, you don’t reach 100 years old without showing a bit of your age, which is why Franklin said the state parks system is utilizing state legislative funds to help address some deferred maintenance and freshen up parks.
Some of those enhancements include facility upgrades at various sites, as well as improving safety and security for visitors.
As existing parks are freshened up, new ones are slated to come down the pipeline. Texas State Parks is developing Palo Pinto Mountain State Park outside Fort Worth, collaborating with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation on that initiative.
The system is also adding a new park outside San Antonio, with Albert and Bessie Kronkosky State Natural Area in development. Powderhorn Ranch along the Texas coast is in the works, alongside Chinati Mountains State Natural Area and Davis Hill State Park.
“We’re looking to open up six new state parks in the next 10 to 12 years,” he said. “We’re really excited about that. The population — there’s a big demand for parks in Texas. And so we’re doing everything we can to meet that demand.”