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Christmas in the Parks

State parks decorate and celebrate in special ways for the Yuletide

The holiday season brings visions of gathering with friends and family, participating in special traditions and creating wonderful memories. But it easily can turn into a frenzied time, involving excessive dashing hither and yon to shop, prepare and manage all the moving parts. And all that effort is just to achieve the “gathering” stage. It does not account for the stress of overspending, overeating and overexposure to those difficult relatives. Sometimes, the holidays lose their fun.

This year, consider an alternative. Step back—in some cases, way, way, back—to simpler days and enjoy the outdoors, fun activities and quality time with friends or family at special holiday events hosted by Texas state parks.

Consider the six favorites we describe here and check for additional holiday events at other parks on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department State Parks events page.

South Llano River State Park

Walter Buck donated his 2,600-acre Central Texas ranch to the TPWD in 1977. The park includes campgrounds, picnic areas, riverfront and more than 18 miles of trails.

“The park headquarters is in the former ranch house,” says interpretive ranger Holly Platz, “and we have it decorated all month for the holidays.” Christmas at the Ranch, a one-day event December 2, celebrates ranching holiday traditions with events such as Dutch oven cooking, period music and horse demonstrations. “Entrance fees are waived for the day, so it’s a great time for families to come,” Platz adds.

Goliad State Park

The Spanish colonial mission of Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga forms the centerpiece of this park on the banks of the San Antonio River in Southeast Texas. Originally established in 1722 near Matagorda Bay and moved to its present site in 1749, the mission also served as Texas’ first large cattle ranch, supplying beef for Spanish settlements all the way to Louisiana.

Every December, park staffers decorate the whitewashed stucco chapel, reconstructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Festive lights adorn outdoor arches; greenery and lights twine around altar railings inside; and glowing luminarias line the walkway to the chapel. Check the park website events page for holiday concerts at the mission, which boasts excellent acoustics.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites

The imposing circa-1850s home of German immigrant H.L. Kreische brings out the holiday spirit with traditional German-Texas Christmas trees, wreaths, lamps and candles. Thousands of festive lights shine along the half-mile Scenic and Historic Trail that traces a bluff with a view of the town of La Grange. Inside the grand old house, Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus wait to hear children’s wish lists, and the Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery Docent Organization presents Christmas music and refreshments. These festivities take place December 2, 8, 9, 15 and 16, 6–8 p.m.

Battleship Texas State Historic Site

Commissioned March 12, 1914, the Battleship Texas took part in significant naval battles in World War I and World War II. Now retired, it docks on the Houston Ship Channel near San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site.

For Yuletide Texas, December 1–31, staff and volunteers dress up the ship. “We decorate it in the same way the crew serving aboard the ship would have,” says park employee Barbara Graf. “The sailors and officers were missing spending the holidays at home with their fam-ilies and tried to make this time aboard the ship special.”

Graf says the highlight of the celebration is A Sailor’s Christmas, 11 a.m.–3 p.m., December 9. It includes festive activities such as pictures with Santa and cookies served from the ship’s galley. It’s free with paid admission to the battleship.

The bell from the original USS Texas, top, commissioned in 1895, is displayed in the Battleship Texas, above.

Wyler Aerial Tramway, Franklin Mountains State Park

Bright yellow, Swiss-made gondolas travel a 2,600-foot steel cable to the top of Ranger Peak, 5,632 feet above sea level, where an observation deck offers a 360-degree view of El Paso, Mexico and the rugged Franklin Mountains. Activities include an Art in the Park event December 9 when kids of all ages can make a holiday-themed craft. Santa is expected to make a weekend visit to take pictures with tramway visitors. On December 31, join park staff sporting Santa hats on a morning hike up Ranger Peak—a great way to work off all the cookies and milk.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

The second-largest canyon in the country at 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 800 feet deep, Palo Duro extends from Canyon to Silverton. About a million years ago, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River began carving into the plains, exposing four geologic layers going back more than 200 million years.

On December 16, 5–8 p.m., this dramatic scenery provides a backdrop for Christmas in the Canyon, which features lighted hot air balloons that make a spectacular photo opportunity. “The balloons stay on the ground, but with the right conditions, they may lift off slightly,” says park interpreter Jeff Davis. The event at the Mack Dick Group Pavilion includes photos with Santa Claus, holiday crafts for the kids, entertainment from local bands and choirs, and a food truck serving hot drinks and food. Park entrance is free starting at 4 p.m. with a donation of canned goods for the local food bank.

Read more of Melissa Gaskill’s writing at