Best Places for Photography in Texas
Texas is big. As the second largest state in the USA – and larger than the country of France – outdoor photography awaits, both along the trodden path and in the most remote of areas.
The terrain is rife with unique landscapes waiting to be enjoyed, from Guadalupe Peak which rises 2,766 metres (8,749 feet) to the drifts of a west Texas desert, and down to sand dunes that change with the winds along the Gulf Coast.
As a professional photographer who’s been exploring Texas for 15-plus years, I still discover new places to visit.
Whether you are looking for mountain tops, rugged cliffs of orange sandstone, wildflowers that stretch to the horizon, or a salty, aqua ocean, you can find it in the Lone Star State. A book could be written on photographing Texas, and I actually have several in publication about some of the areas listed below.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll try to keep the following concise and focus on some of my favourite areas of the state. If you are fortunate enough to visit some of these areas, specifically the non-park-related locations, remember that 95% of Texas is privately owned. While some landowners will allow you to photograph their land, it is always prudent and respectful to ask first.
With that said, let’s take a trip across Texas.
Big Bend National Park
As Gene Autry sang back in 1942, the stars are indeed big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. In no place does this ring truer than Big Bend National Park.
Big Bend is found in west Texas, and its name comes from the “big bend” in the Rio Grande River that forms the Texas-Mexico border. More the 500,000 folks visit this area each year but finding solitude beneath the deep orange and red sunrises and sunsets in this sprawling park is not difficult.
Big Bend covers more than 1,052 square miles (2,000 sq. km). Finding a landscape to photograph between the Chihuahuan Desert floor up to Emory Peak (the highest point in the park) is only a matter of how much a person wants to hike. So bring all your lenses. Odds are you’ll want everything from a zoom to a wide angle.
The more visits I make to Big Bend, the more I am pulled back in. Here are a few of my favourite locations ranging from easily accessible to remote and challenging. One note before I begin: Big Bend has a population of mountain lions, and I’ve had a park ranger tell me that you are always in a mountain lion’s domain anywhere in the park.
Just be aware of your surroundings and know how to respond should you come into contact with one of these wild cats – attacks are rare. Also, Big Bend has a fair amount of Mexican black bears that roam the mountains. These furry animals are relatively docile and only a threat when they in turn feel threatened – mostly in the spring when the mothers have cubs with them.
OK… my favourite places:
A 13-miles (or longer if you want) round-trip from the Chisos Lodge. The payoff comes when you reach the edge of the Chisos Mountains. Far below, the Rio Grande winds its way east with the hazy rolling hills of Mexico resting in the distance.
Certain areas are closed at various times of the year because of nesting birds, but parts of the South Rim are open year-round. This location is amazing at both sunrise and sunset, and the opportunities for night-time photography are some of the best in the world.
The Lost Mine Trail
In my opinion, this trail packs the most bang for the buck in all of the park. Yes, it is uphill – winding 2.5 miles up in a gentle slope. At the end, the views of Casa Grande Peak, Juniper Canyon, and the distant hills make it worth the effort.
Sunset is the best time, and I’ve often found myself all alone when shooting the evening colours as the sun falls behind the distant ridge.
The Window Overlook
This iconic view is found at the Chisos Lodge and requires a very short walk. I’ve shot here mostly at sunrise, especially as the sun appears behind the ridge.
The “V” in the mountains affords a look to the distant Chihuahuan Desert far below.
Santa Elena Canyon
Heading to the desert beneath the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains, the Rio Grande River’s exit from Santa Elena Canyon makes for a fun place to explore. A short 0.7 mile (1 km) walk provides a view of the Chisos in the east and is a good place to photograph sunsets.
In reality, you’d only need to walk up about half that distance to find the best view. Further down the trail leads into the canyon until the path eventually dead ends into steep rock walls.
A last note about Big Bend – every once in a while, in spring, based on rainfall over the winter months, bluebonnets burst from the arid red dirt. The spring of 2019 was one of those years and brought on a super bloom, the likes of which I’ve not seen, nor had any of the locals. Other wildflowers bloom based on the rains both in spring and autumn, so if you visit, you never know what you may find!
Big Bend provides many more opportunities for exploring this national park, with easy trails that are kid-friendly, trails that require a 4×4 vehicle to access, and even hikes that are only marked by cairns.
My last advice for Big Bend: avoid hiking in summer as temperatures often reach 38 degrees Celsius (100+F)!
Read more: The Best Lenses for Landscape Photography
Big Bend Ranch State Park
Just an hour west of Big Bend National Park sits Big Bend Ranch State Park (BBRSP). BBRSP is the largest state park in Texas, and it is even more remote than Big Bend. More likely than not, you’ll often have any trail you choose all to yourself, and the photo opportunities are seemingly endless.
State Highway 170 runs east/west between the towns of Lajitas and Presidio. This winding and hilly road serves as the southern border of the park and follows the Rio Grande River, which serves as the border between Texas and Mexico.
As one of the most scenic drives in Texas, the 49 miles (78km) drive may take several hours. The winding road provides beautiful views of the rugged mountains and river. My favourite stop on this road is known as the “Big Hill.” A pull-out exists at this location, so parking is easy.
Photographs can be taken from this very stop. For the more adventurous, a short walk from the pull-out is Dom Rock (above photo) – a cliff requiring a short scramble to the top that provides unparalleled views into the distance. Sunsets here can be amazing.
To reach the interior of the park, a 30 mile (48km) drive down a dirt road is necessary to reach the interior visitor centre. Many trails are nearby, and at the top of my list is the Fresno Canyon Overlook, especially at sunrise. The hike is roughly a 5-mile round trip and the trail is easy to follow. The view looks across the canyon to the Solitario, a huge and ancient volcanic uplift.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
If I had to pick a favourite state park in Texas, Palo Duro Canyon would be the choice. Located in the panhandle of Texas just south of Amarillo, and second only to the Grand Canyon in Arizona in terms of canyon size. Palo Duro’s rich orange and red sandstone walls and winding canyons make for exciting exploration and vibrant colours at sunrise or sunset.
Entering the park, Park Road 5 winds from the high canyon cliffs at the entrance down into the wide bottom of the canyon floor. Before the road begins its descent, pull-outs provide nice areas to photograph sunrise with a portion of the red sandstone walls rising in the east.
There are trails aplenty in the lower portion of the canyon, with Capitol Peak and the Lighthouse being the most well-known. Capitol peak is a short 10-minute walk from the trailhead. From there, the trail heads to one of the main highlights of PDC – the Lighthouse – a large hoodoo formation at the end of a 3 mile walk (each way).
I love this area for both sunrise and sunset as the low light enhances the dark orange of the rocks and surrounding canyon walls. The walk is relatively flat until a short scramble at the end to reach a plateau beneath the hoodoo, and the trail is easy to follow. Bring a wide-angle lens for the scenery as well as water and a flashlight for the return trip.
South Padre Island
While it is true that Texas is not known for pristine beaches, the coastal waters along the South Padre Island beaches in south Texas would argue to the contrary. On sunny days, the clear water and sunshine can bring a glow of aqua, blue, and green. The sand is cool and smooth, and when photographing the rising sun, the sounds of gulls and the soft murmur of gentle waves make for a beautiful start to the day.
The town itself makes for good shopping, but in my opinion, the real appeal is the 30-mile road that is accessible for photographers like us, as well as the usual beach-goer. Miles and miles of rolling sand, dune grass that finds a home on the high-rising and ever-shifting dunes, and crystal blue water beg for those morning and evening photography sessions.
Don’t miss the sleepy town of Port Isabel, just before crossing the Queen Isabella Causeway (a long bridge connecting the island to the mainland). Port Isabel is best known for its famous lighthouse.
Shrimp boats moor along the shore on the outer edges of the town. Both the lighthouse and shrimpers make for interesting subjects. I like to shoot the shrimp boats in black and white to bring out the textures of the faded wood and frayed, well-worn ropes and nets.
Texas Hill Country in springtime
My home is in the Texas Hill Country, so I’m probably a bit biased. Still, when the rains fall over the winter months to prod our state flower, the bluebonnet, into germinating, the spring can bring fields of blue (along with so many other colours of blooms). While Texas has experienced severe drought over the last few years, bluebonnets will eventually return.
Beginning as early as the first of March, blooms begin to show up south of the Hill Country and work their way north over the next 30-45 or so days. My favourite areas to search for bluebonnets are on roads connecting Fredericksburg with Llano (Highway 16), Llano to Mason (Highway 29), and Mason back to Fredericksburg (Highway 87).
It seems our state flower may not bloom in the same fields from year to year, so driving the backroads is often required. With the influx of social media reports from folks searching for blooms, even the thrill of the search is fading. But, be adventurous and seek out the road less travelled.
I like to scout these areas during the day, and then find an optimal location for sunset while hoping for colourful skies and calm winds.
Caddo Lake is a less-touristy area of Texas, resting about a 3-hour drive east of Dallas on the Texas-Louisiana border. The unique landscape of bayous and bogs, lined with mysterious and craggy cypress trees with twisted roots, makes this a wonderful place to explore.
Caddo Lake State Park comprises a small part of this 24,500-acre lake and ideally a boat rental or guide would allow for an in-depth exploration of the waterways.
Photography options abound, and any length of lens will do, from wide-angle to telephoto. Wildlife is abundant as well, from a multitude of bird species including the great blue heron, wood ducks, and the indigo bunting, to turtles, snakes, and even alligators.
To top things off, even the rare black bear may be seen.
During my time at Caddo Lake, I’ve also enjoyed shooting images for black and white finishes thanks to the leading lines created by cypress roots, the textures of the tree trunks, and the reflections in calm water.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Like its larger counterpart, Big Bend N.P., Guadalupe Mountains N.P. rests in west Texas far off the well-travelled highway. Due to its remoteness, few accommodations exist within an hour’s drive, so be prepared to camp – either in tents or in a car.
The distance and effort to reach this remote area are worth the time. Hiking trails are plentiful, and those solitary paths lead to amazing landscapes just begging to be photographed during magic hours. Like Big Bend, summers are to be mostly avoided unless you have adjusted to a relentless heat or travel here for night-sky photography.
My favourite time to visit the Guadalupe Mountains is the autumn when the russet colours flourish, usually, from late October to mid-November.
On the hike along the McKittrick Canyon Trail, the remnant groves of Big Tooth Maple trees display their deep red hues, and other trees in the canyon show off shades of gold and orange.
The trail goes on for 7 miles, but I enjoy hiking to the “Notch” – about 5 miles down the trail (the last mile is switchbacks that take you to an amazing overlook). Walking the first 4 miles will still offer beautiful opportunities to fill your camera with colour. This hike is a day-use-only trail, though backcountry permits are available for camping.
A few other places to visit, if you are feeling adventurous, are Guadalupe Peak, roughly an 8.5 mile round-trip the highest point in Texas, and the sand dunes on the west side of the park (a long drive from the visitor centre).
For folks visiting Texas, it is almost impossible to avoid travelling through one or more of the larger cities. That said, the skylines of these areas provide unique opportunities to take home memories of some unique architecture.
Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio each have pedestrian zones or areas for walking/riding that bring the high rises up close and personal, with either wide-angle or zoom lenses.
Here is a quick overview of each city that includes my favourite place to photograph downtown:
* San Antonio – arguably the most lacking in skyline opportunities, but views from the famous Riverwalk or the hip-and-happening Pearl District bring out the character of San Antonio. Pretty much any time of year will work except for January – early March when the cypress trees that line the San Antonio River are without leaves.
* Dallas – The revitalised area west of Dallas along the Trinity River provides nice views of downtown. The nearby Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, especially when lit up at night, is an eye-catcher too. If you do linger at night, bring a friend!
* Houston – Park along Allen Parkway just west of downtown and explore the views of the high rises from Buffalo Bayou and Eleanor Tinsley Park.
* Austin – Austin is the city I know best in Texas, primarily because of its proximity to the Hill Country. No better place exists to capture this ever-changing skyline than the Zilker Park Hike & Bike Trail. Lady Bird Lake runs along the west side of Austin, and the path is a hotspot for joggers, bicyclists, and folks enjoying outdoor exercise and amazing views. I love mornings and evenings here, and my favourite spots are Lou Neff Point, Doug Sahm Hill, and the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.
Just revisiting these amazing locations spurs my motivation to head out and explore those places where, at night, the stars are big and bright and the magic hours are vibrant. I already have return trips planned for Palo Duro Canyon and Big Bend in the next month.
I know my words cannot adequately describe the wonders that await the curious traveller. However, I sincerely hope the descriptions that complement these photos inspires folks to enjoy the varied terrain and colourful landscapes – both urban and remote!