2-Nights At Stephen F. Austin State Park [Review]

With the always growing congestion of traffic and people in Houston a well needed break from the hustle and bustle of daily life is felt by all.

And relaxation can be found only an hour away at the lovely and family-friendly Stephen F. Austin State Park.

Thanks to the wonderful diversity of the city, the park has people from all over the world enjoying the beauty of nature and getting back to what makes Texas one of the most diverse places to live in the country. 

Park Info

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Brief History

sfa park map

When Stephen F. Austin first came to the land we now call Texas he settled with 297 families in San Felipe and almost 200 years later we still celebrate this migration with a beautiful state park and historical site. 

Stephen F. Austin State Park was established in 1940 and is located about 50 minutes West of Houston and includes 663 acres of trails and camping sites. Originally, there were a handful of individuals that helped establish the park known as the “Friends of Stephen F. Austin State Park” who would set up trail signs and fundraise for improvements and maintenance. 

Today, the park sits next to a golf course which you can see from some of the tent camping sites and has become a perfect place for beginning campers to try their hand at camping in the outdoors in a family-friendly environment. 

What Can You Do at Stephen F. Austin State Park?

Compared to some of the other state parks around Texas, Stephen F. Austin has a limited number of activities you can fill your time with while camping but this actually makes it perfect if you are just starting out or looking for a relaxing weekend in the outdoors. 

Camping

picture of 9 person tent outdoors

The biggest attraction in the park is camping and there are plenty of opportunities in this less visited park to grab a spot for the night. 

RV camping, tent camping, group camping, and walk-up sites are all available around the park and are split into different sections. The walk-up sites are near the day use area so they are further away from where most of the action is but have their own benefits I’ll talk more about in the next section.

Cooking

cooking food in skillet over fire

Complete with every site in the park is a double purpose grill/fire pit. A small section has a grill top you can move closer or further away from the fire and the large section is for laying down big pieces of firewood to keep warm for the group. We brought a cast-iron skillet we own and just cooked everything on there throughout the weekend. It was a fast and easy way to get a meal fast.

Hiking

stephen f austin hiking trail

There are 9 trails that weave their way through the entire 663 acres of land in the park but all of them are ranked as easy and have very little elevation. Only the Ironwood trail makes it past the 1 mile mark but most of the trails are connected so you can make a short hike into a good workout.

Biking

All of the trails at Stephen F. Austin State Park are multi-use meaning you can hike or bike on any path you choose. Because this park doesn’t offer the most challenging off-road experience for veteran bikers there is not a ton of bike traffic. You’ll mostly find hikers taking a slow stroll through the diverse landscape but you will run into a fellow biker here or there. 

Wildlife Watching

wildlife watching fence

You won’t have a hard time seeing wildlife at Stephen F. Austin because of its small size. We saw white-tailed deer driving into the park, on the golf course, and when we were leaving. There’s also a dedicated wildlife viewing area I’ll talk more about in the wildlife section of this article.

Golf Course

Hugging its way around the park is the Stephen F. Austin Golf Course. This course actually creates a very unique outdoor viewing experience if you are tent camping near sites 57-61. You have the contrast of wild trees and shrubbery but then 50 feet away is highly manicured lawns with high powered sprinklers. Reminded me a little of walking through ruins in Mexico. 

Picnic

There’s a day use area of the park near the entrance where there are lots of picnic tables and open space for you to hang out or for the kids to run around. This is close to the Nature Center where you can learn more about the diversity within the park. There is also a small swingset near the tent and RV camping areas. 

Swimming

There is NO swimming at Stephen F. Austin State Park. The strong currents and rapidly changing water levels of the Brazos River is unsafe even for advanced swimmers. There is a small path you can use to get close to the river but it’s for fishing enthusiasts. 

Fishing

As I just mentioned, there is a small path off the Barred Owl trail that will lead you closer to the water to cast a line and see if you can catch some fresh dinner. Since the park is small and doesn’t usually get lots of visitors you shouldn’t have any troubles finding a nice spot for yourself along the bank of the Brazos.

What Kind of Camp Sites Are There?

This Texas state park has something to offer for everyone looking to spend a night or two in the great outdoors. Most of the sites require a reservation but there are also walk-up sites you can claim for your own as well as a day use area for those who just want to spend the day.

Tent Camping (38)

empty tent camp site at stephen f austin state park

My partner and I stayed at site #59 when we camped at this Texas State Park during Halloween weekend and we had a fantastic time.

These campsites are reservation only and there are essentially two kinds you can reserve. One kind is the inner circle of sites that are located on their own “island” of grass located in the middle. We saw a bunch of large groups reserve these sites because they are less isolated and allow you to walk between sites freely with no trees or shrubbery in your way. We actually saw groups of 10+ at some of the sites.

The second kind of tent site you can reserve is located at the outer ring of the area. Each of these sites are separated by a small strip of overgrown grass so they tend to be reserved by small families or couples because they are more isolated from one another. The only consideration you need to keep in mind is that these sites are right next to the Ironwood trail so you will have hikers and bikers traveling by all day long. 

There is also a very small area of tents (41-49) you can reserve right before you drive into the screened shelter section. These are more secluded from all the activity at the other sites but don’t have a very good view. If you are looking for a quiet time with you and your loved ones these are your best bet.

All of these sites come with a personal driveway, hanging hook for trash or light sources, a grill/fire pit, and water spout. 

RV Camping (34) 

There is only one area where RVs are allowed in the park but there are 40 different sites you can choose from. These sites are located a little further into the park so you won’t see the golf course that hugs the edges.

Having an odd or even numbered site will determine the entrance you will use to pull into your site because the driveways you will use will be on your side and will make it easy to park your RV. 

These sites have full hookups for water and electricity and they also include a grill/fire pit. There is also a firewood trailer at site #20 where you can pay $1 for every piece of wood you need. We started with three bundles when we got into the park but because of the weather we ended up buying $10 worth of extra wood from the trailer. 

Primitive Sites (25)

Located near the entrance to the park, these primitive sites are available as walk-up options for anyone looking to spontaneously spend the night amongst the stars. Primitive means that these sites don’t come with water or electricity hookups but there is a water source in this area of the park you can walk to. 

These sites are also located near the day use area so there is a bunch of picnic tables and large space for your group to spread out, if needed. The sites looked a little bigger and more secluded than the other tent sites located further in the park.

Instead of driving up to the park and seeing if they have open space I recommend calling ahead to the park headquarters so they can update you on availability and if you will be able to stay there for the night.

Screened Shelters (18)

screened shelter outside

For those looking to have some more protection from the outdoors there are 18 different screened shelters you can choose from that provide plenty of space and locked doors. The back walls are fully louvered but the side and front walls are only half louvered with a half screen. 

All shelters do come with water hookups outside the shelter and a grill/fire pit. The space is larger than tent or RV sites and there’s even a couple of three prong plug outlets inside. 

You also have a picnic table inside for dining but there are no beds. You’ll have to make your own comfort on the concrete ground. 

Cabin (1)

There’s one special room in the entire park that has full glass windows and air conditioning. That’s lucky site #20 right at the start of the screened shelters and just after the tent camping sites. 

Inside this creme de la creme theres bunk beds and a queen size mattress that fits up to 4 campers looking to glamp in style. There’s a full size picnic table with half a bench and a microwave sitting right on top. 

Outside the cabin is a water hookup, picnic table, grill/fire pit, and lantern pole. If you’re looking to experience Stephen F. Austin State Park in comfort for you and your group this will be the closest thing to home you’ll find. 

Do You Need To Reserve A Site?

If you’ve been reading along at this point then you know it’s best practice to reserve a site at any state park and I find it gets me more involved in the process. Stephen F. Austin SP doesn’t exactly sell out every weekend but it’s always better to plan ahead when camping. 

That being said, there is both day use areas and walk-up sites at the park where you don’t need any reservations in order to set your tent up and sleep under the stars. 

When reserving your site head to the Texas Parks and Wildlife reservation area and click on the camping button to see your options. There’s also an option for day passes if you plan on heading to the park for the day. 

reservation website for sfa sp

Now you’ll be able to enter the exact dates you are looking for as well as a list of different camping options available within the park. The map in the middle of the screen will show you where all the specific types of sites are within the park. 

campsite webpage for sfa sp

If you scroll further down you’ll see the full list of every individual site and you have an option to switch between the campsite list and date range availability to see when the sites are actually available. 

reserve specific site at sfa sp

Once you pick the site you want, you will see if the site is available or reserved. You will also have an option to book the site but if your site has an “X” that will mean that the park has not released the site to be reserved. So it’s not booked yet but you will have to wait till it becomes available to reserve it. 

availability for sfa sp tent site

Pro Tip: If your site isn’t released yet you can actually enter your email to be notified when the site does become available so that you have the first pick. The email I received came in around 4 AM CST so make sure to set your alarm.

notifications for camp sites at sfa sp

What Happens When You Get There?

When you arrive at Stephen F. Austin State Park you will see a nice welcome sign guiding you through the wood fence and shortly thereafter you’ll run right into the park headquarters. 

entrance sign at stephen f austin state park

When we drove up to the park the ranger was already outside helping another and once they knew we had a reservation we were welcomed to drive straight to our site. There was no line when we arrived but I work during the week so we had arrived around 6 pm.

park headquarters at stephen f austin state park

On the bulletin board outside the headquarters were the trail map and park map. The beautiful and easy to understand maps made our experience much easier to navigate as first-time visitors. I highly recommend picking up a couple as guides but also as souvenirs.

bulletin board at stephen f austin state park

Driving through the Cedar and Hickory trees while going through the entrance really helps to submerge you in the park and forget about work or other worries that would normally stress you out. 

There are signs as you drive that will tell you where the tent camping or RV camping is and where you will find your specifically numbered site. All sites will have small driveways right next to them where you can pull up and unload all your gear. 

tent sites sfa sp

There’s a park host at each camping area that drives around every so often in a golf cart to make sure everyone is following rules and having a safe and fun time. You can ask them for help or just to learn a little more about Stephen F. Austin State Park. 

What Kind Of Wildlife Is There?

another entrance sign for sfa sp

My partner and I aren’t huge wildlife watchers so we didn’t spend a lot of time looking for the different types of animals that call this Texas state park their home but there is a dedicated viewing area you can visit.

Near the end of the park is a parking lot where you’ll find two trails that fork into two different directions. The Pileated Trail takes you back to the beginning of the park and the Cottonwood trail leads you into a series of other trails where you can pick your path depending on how much you want to hike. 

If you take the Cottonwood about 50 feet into the trail is a designated wildlife viewing area with a couple of benches and a wooden fence that is erected with slots cut out for campers to see through. 

On the other side is a number of bird feeders and water bowls and if you arrive early enough or right around dusk you should find a number of pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos, white eyed vireos, mississippi kits, and northern parulas.

If you continue on the trails you might even see white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, rabbits, and squirrels. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the elusive bobcat which peaks its head around camp from time to time. You’ll have a better chance of seeing these critters if you head to the trails early in the day or around dusk time.

We had a tiny kitty visit our site during the day looking for leftovers that we nicknamed Tiger! So you never know who you might see during your stay. We went in October so it was a little too cold but I’ve heard if you visit during May and June you’ll see a lovely light show from the local fireflies that appear when it’s getting dark. 

What Are The Trails Like?

women hiking through stephen f austin trails

Hiking the trails at Stephen F. Austin State Park was very relaxing and there were a couple of areas that were simply magical. All the trails at the park are rated easy and have pretty small elevation changes. 

You don’t have as much of an overwhelming feeling from walking through the cedar, elm green ash, cottonwood, and sycamore trees as you would walking through the redwood forest. But that’s what makes it such a nice stroll to get away and get lost in nature. 

Ironwood

ironwood trail sign at sfa sp

This trail hugs the campsites all the way from the entrance to the back of the park. It’s a great trail to get a lay of the land with or to connect to some other trails.

On the first day of our stay we started on the Ironwood, then transferred to Barred Owl, then to Sycamore, and came back to our site using the Ironwood again.

Because you are always close to a campsite you don’t feel as lost in nature as some of the others might feel like the copperhead or Brazos Bottom but it’s probably the most popular of the park.

Barred Owl

view of the brazos river from sfa sp

What’s special about the Barred Owl trail is that it has the only official scenic overlook in the whole park. It’s the only trail that leads you right next to the Brazos River and there’s a small clearing where you can see the river travel on for miles. Although as you head to the river you’ll see some beautiful trees covered in hanging moss. 

I’ll admit that the view isn’t as spectacular as you would hope. There isn’t any breathtaking waterfalls or steep canyon walls but just a nice lazy river with some trees and greenery on the other bank. 

The other special part about Barred Owl is a small path you can take to get closer to the river so you can fish. It’s the only spot in the park where you can cast a line to catch you dinner for the night.

Sycamore

sycamore trail stephen f austin state park

This was the real highlight of all the hikes we went on at Stephen F. Austin State Park. And we went on pretty much every single trail. 

The seclusion is one aspect that makes this trail worth visiting. It was the first time for us that we were surrounded by nature with no one else in sight at the park. 

There are towering sycamore trees as you enter that let you know you are headed in the right direction. And as you continue down the path you will come across an area that is completely covered in vines and ground cover. It’s almost as if you walked into Jurassic Park and humans haven’t touched the land in ages. 

It really was the most beautiful part of the entire park to me. You’ll even see small blackberries growing on the vines if you go during the right time of the year. I highly recommend making the hike to this trail if you want to see all the park has to offer. 

Copperhead

copperhead trail sfa sp

In order to get to the Copperhead Trail you will have to take a small hike considering the trail rests at the very back of the park. In fact, you’ll actually see the park boundary fence while walking along its path.

Although not the most visually appealing trail, what Copperhead has to offer is more about peacefulness and relaxation. You are the most isolated from any other trail or camper in the entire park and this is where you’ll really start to hear the birds and animals come to life. 

At the end of the Copperhead is a nice resting pavilion you can take a breather and enjoy the weather. Although it happens to directly face the sun so it can be a little hot to sit in. 

Cottonwood

cottonwood trail at stephen f austin

I think of this trail more as the highway of Stephen F. Austin SP. It’s more traveled and you can even see tire marks from the park rangers or workers who need to travel to the different parts of the park easily. 

What’s nice about the trail is that it sits atop the elevated land so that you can see down into the area between Cottonwood and the Brazos Bottom trail. This is a unique perspective since no other trail gives you this view but overall this was probably the most lackluster trail we hiked.

Opossum

The Opossum Trail is actually the smallest in the park if you aren’t counting the Nature Trail which makes it perfect if you are looking to feel surrounded by the beautiful nature without making a huge commitment. 

We only hiked on part of the trail that leads to Brazos Bottom because we were looking to have a longer hike but most of the trails in this part of the park are similar. There are less distinctive traits that separate the trails and it’s more about getting lost in nature. 

Nature Trail

nature trail at stephen f austin state park

Located at the beginning of the park, this very short (0.12 mi) trail teaches you a little more about the trees and shrubbery that live at Stephen F. Austin SP. There are tiny signs you can see next to trees or vines that tells you what it is. 

I wish the signage was a little better because sometimes you can’t even tell which plant or vine the sign is referring to. Maybe a graphic at the beginning of the trail outlining what you will find along the way with pictures of each tree/plant would be helpful. 

It’s a pretty trail and short so if you have time I recommend it but it isn’t anything you’ll regret missing. 

Pileated

This is the only trail in the park we didn’t hike but it connects to the Ironwood and allows any camper or hiker to travel around the entire length of the park. A total of just over 2 miles.

If you aren’t planning on making the entire trip you’ll need to figure out the logistics of starting at one point and ending at a whole other part of the park. Because this trail winds its way through most of the park it isn’t as isolated so it doesn’t come with the same views as the other trails. 

Brazos Bottom

brazzos bottom trail sfa sp

We took the Brazos Bottom in order to head to Copperhead Trail and it had the same charm as the others in this area. Beautiful sparse trees, vines that run all across, and a variety of bird sounds guide your way. 

If you are at Brazos it’s because you are headed to another part of the park so I can’t really recommend this as a single trail option but it fits right in with the rest of the back area trails. 

What’s Nearby Stephen F. Austin State Park?

There’s two towns nearby the state park that have all the restaurants, stores, and medical needs you’ll have when visiting the town of San Felipe.

Convenience Stores

Shell (11 min) – Off Meyer Street and I-10 is the town of Sealy where you’ll find a number of stores, restaurants, and other small businesses. There’s a couple of Shell gas stations that will have a number of camping items that will come in handy for your overnight stay.

CVS (13 min) – Also in Sealy is a CVS Pharmacy that will just about anything you can want for your outdoor trip at Stephen F. Austin State Park. So if a gas station doesn’t have it there’s a good chance this place does.

Exxon 121 (14 min) – We exited off Highway 10 and had to make a loop around because our turn off was closed due to construction but at the corner of I-10 and FM 1458 is a Exxon gas station that has just about anything you’ll need for your camping trip. It’s a little tricky to get to coming from the state park but you shouldn’t have any major issues.

Restaurants

Mesquite Mexican Grille (10 min) – Looking for an authentic Tex-Mex experience in the heart of Texas? Mesquite Mexican Grille offers all the classics like fajitas, enchiladas, and tacos but with excellent customer service to provide a one of a kind dining outing for your and your loved ones.

Tony’s Family Restaurant (11 min) – If you’re in the mood for some more down home southern cooking then Tony’s Family Restaurant on the north side of Meyer Street in Sealy, TX will have you full on brown gravy and mashed potatoes in no time. 

Jins Asian Cafe (12 min) – In Sealy on the south side of Meyer street is the highly rated Jin’s Asian Cafe that serves up casual Pan-Asian food like lo mein, pad thai, and other favorites. They also have cakes and cocktails if you’re looking to splurge a little. 

Entertainment

San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site (3 min) – With over 12 acres of land dedicated to this spot you can learn more about the history of San Felipe and how one man took 297 families to create the first Texas settlement here. There isn’t a ton to see at this historic site but it’s worth a visit to learn about the roots of how Texas came to be. 

Stephen F. Austin Golf Course (9 min) – All along the outer edges of the park is a golf course where you and some buddies can spend the day playing a round before heading back to your site for the night. Hours are from 7 am – 7 pm and the club recommends booking in advance. 

Hospitals

Columbus community hospital (33 min) – The shortest option in case of an emergency is going to be the Columbus Community Hospital that is about 30 minutes away straight west on I-10. It’s decently rated and in an emergency is going to be your best bet.

Baylor Scott & White Medical Center (43 min) – Next closest is the Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Brenham, Texas which is north of the park. Although a much larger facility the reviews on this medical center are pretty low and there are lots of complaints about the staff and service. If you have an emergency this is still a valid option but if you have a choice you might want to go elsewhere. 

Oakbend Medical Center (51 min) – The farthest option for medical care is the Oakbend Medical Center but if you have the extra time the service and staff are well worth driving for. At this point you’re getting closer and closer to Houston so all services are going to receive a bit of an upgrade. 

Pro Tips From A Park Visitor

firewood at stephen f austin state park
  • There’s a special trailer at site #20 in the RV area that has firewood for anyone to grab. It’s an honor system but its $1 for every piece of wood you take. Be careful grabbing them because there are plenty of splinters that could get you but we took advantage of this during our stay and paid $10 for 10 pieces. 
  • Cabin site #20 is a different story. If you’re lucky enough to grab this for a weekend you will have the most luxurious stay in the whole park. Full glass windows, extra beds, electricity, and air conditioning make this the envy of the park. 
  • If you have a large group I recommend reserving a couple of sites in the middle of the tent camping area that is located in the manicured grass or at the entrance to the tent camping area  like sites #78-80. These will give you plenty of room to spread out an walk freely from one camp site to another.
  • The restrooms have 2 showers inside for men or women and there is one located at the tent camping area and another at the RV sites. We stayed for a couple of days but I actually never used the showers and just waited till I got home. Lucky it was pretty cold when we went so there wasn’t as much of a need. 
  • If you are reserving tent camping spots on the outer rim of the tent camping area be aware that the Ironwood trail hugs that outer rim. This means from time to time you will have fellow campers hiking next to your site throughout the day.
  • There are hosts in the park for the RV area and tent camping area. They are there for any help you might need and you’ll see them driving around in golf carts to make sure everyone is ok and following the rules. 

Summary

Stephen F. Austin is a relaxing park that was perfect for me and my partner to get back into camping since neither of us have done it in years. The trails were easy, guests were friendly, no one was too loud. It had a very family-friendly atmosphere which made us feel safe and taken care of. This park won’t blow your socks off in terms of views of landscape but it will provide a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of Houston daily life when you need it. 

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