Texas

Garner State Park

We had taken off early from work on Friday, and as we jumped in the car for the three hour drive from Austin to Garner State Park, I could practically smell the sausages that would soon be cooking over our blazing campfire. Garner had long been on our list and I was so excited it was finally happening. We had a weekend of camping, hiking, swimming, and relaxing with friends ahead of us; I was really looking forward to getting away after a hectic week at work. 

As we pulled into the entrance and found our way to the park headquarters, there seemed to be some sort of event going on. I knew the park offered nightly dances on their pavilion during parts of the year and I assumed this crowd was part of it. But no bother, because we would soon be at our campsite and away from the crowd. 

Beautiful fall colors while hiking along the Frio 

We parked the car and after squeezing through the crowd and dodging hordes of running children, we made it to the door. The scene that greeted us was so far from what I was expecting that it took me a minute or two to digest. I could see four park employees through a glass window, barricaded behind a locked door. A large number 80 flashed in red above the door. The door buzzed and the lucky holder of number 80 was allowed through to speak to the rangers. 

View of the Frio River from halfway up Old Baldy trail 

After looking around, I saw the red number dispenser by the door. I pulled number 51. Ok, I thought, about 30 people ahead of us. Not great, but that shouldn't take longer than 30 minutes right? My heart sank as the red number 80 turned to 81. It was going up, not down. There were 70 people ahead of us. 

Number 51 was called two and a half hours later. We had arrived at the park around 7:30pm and did not get to our campsite until about 10:30pm. It wasn't exactly the relaxing night I had expected when we had set off from Austin earlier that day. 

Enjoying the view from the summit of Old Baldy

Garner State Park has over 400 spots available for camping; this is a huge amount compared to other parks I've been to and speaks to why they have a ridiculous wait time to check in. It also explains why the park feels like a miniature city in some places. There is a huge pavilion where dances are held nightly in the Summer, a burger restaurant, a candy store, and putt putt golf. 

The concession area offers a huge dancing pavilion, burger joint, and  putt-putt golf

Putt-putt golf 

Garner Grill 

 

Garner State Park at a glance

  • 11 miles of hiking trails
  • Onsite putt-putt golf, candy store, and burger restaurant 
  • 347 campsites, 37 screened shelters, 17 cabins, and one group campsite. 
  • The park hosts nightly dances over the Summer and has been doing so since the 1940s. 
  • 3 miles of the Frio River winds through the park. You can rent paddle boats, kayaks, and inner tubes to enjoy the water. 
  • Expect to wait a while (2.5 hours in our case) if you arrive on a Friday afternoon during busy season. I recommend arriving on an off day (e.g. Thursday instead of Friday) and/or getting to the check-in office as soon as check-in begins (2pm). 
  • There are five different camping areas. The Oakmont and Pecan Grove camping areas seemed to be the busiest and most packed in but are also the closest to the concessions, boat rentals, and more popular hiking trails (e.g. Old Baldy). 

 

 

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is one of the most unique natural areas in Texas. The huge granite dome that is the "enchanted rock" rises about 425 feet above the surrounding land. Even in the hill country, this monadnock sticks out like a sore thumb. WTF is a monadnock, you ask? It's an isolated rock hill or small mountain that rises abruptly from a gently sloping or virtually level surrounding plain. Don't worry, I had never heard that word either until I visited the park. Enchanted Rock is so unique that it inspires an interest in geology that requires immediate googling. 

View of the dome from Moss Lake Trail 

View of the rock from Turkey Pass Trail. If you look closely you can see some rock climbers. 

On our way up Summit Trail 

View from the top of Summit Trail. 

According to the Park's website, humans have camped in this area for 12,000 years. I'm sure our campsite was reminiscent of the prehistoric campers who came before us. The park offers 35 walk-in campsites, 20 primitive backpacking sites (1-3 miles from parking), and one group primitive site. There are no drive-up sites available so no RV or rooftop tent camping is allowed. 

Walk-in campsite #35 with a view of the enchanted rock behind. 

We stayed in a walk-in campsite which was one of the best campsites I've stayed at in a park in Texas. These range in distance from the parking lot, but even the farthest are within 100 yards. The campsites are divided into two portions by the road/parking lot. Campsites 1-21 are in an open area with few trees and little privacy between you and the campsites near you. I recommend staying in campsites 22-44. These sites are nestled right up next to the granite dome and the surrounding trees offer more privacy (although you are still close enough to hear other campers). 

Walk-in campsite #35

Walk-in campsites 1-21 have less trees to provide privacy.

Other than camping, hiking and rock climbing are the main activities to enjoy in the park. There are 11 miles of hiking trails, though the short hike up to the top of the dome is the most popular and also the most challenging. We always enjoy scrambling down the East side of the dome after reaching the top. This isn't an official trail but is a fun way to enjoy some more adventurous hiking. The other trails in the park are very easy for anyone in moderate shape. 

The East side of the dome offers a fun off-trail scramble down the side that connects with Turkey Pass Trail. 

Hiking the Loop Trail 

The park offers many climbing routes which range in difficultly from a 5.0 to 5.11. To learn more about the different routes, click here

Keep in mind that pets are not allowed in many areas of the park. Dogs are allowed in the picnic areas, the campsites, and the 4.6 mile Loop Trail. All other trails are off limits for pets. Although unfortunate for those of us who like to camp with our doggers, the park implemented this rule to protect the vernal pools which form on the surface of the granite. These pools create their own ecosystems and are home to a tiny crustacean called the fairy shrimp.

 

Enchanted Rock at a glance: 

  • 35 walk-in campsites 
  • 20 primitive backpacking sites + 1 primitive group site for up to 75 people
  • Tent camping only; no RVs or rooftop tents allowed
  • Pets are allowed in campsites and picnic areas but not in many other areas of the park
  • Main activities include camping, hiking, and rock climbing
  • 11 miles of hiking trails throughout the park 
  • Several climbing routes which range in difficulty from 5.0 to 5.11
  • The park is very popular and can fill to capacity as early as 10am during busy months. If you're going just for the day be sure to get there early! 
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Village Creek State Park

A view of Village Creek, a tributary of the Neches River and the Park's namesake.

A view of Village Creek, a tributary of the Neches River and the Park's namesake.

The Park at a Glance 

Located about 4 hours East of Austin in Lumberton, TX (near Beaumont)
16 walk-in campsites + 1 Group campsite, 25 water/electric campsites, 8 person cabin, 
Heavily forested featuring Cypress Swamps
Several heavily shaded and private picnic areas
Canoe launch with access to 40 miles of smooth water
8 miles of hiking trails

Holy Humidity! 

This was the least busy State Park I have ever been to and that may have been because outside in Texas in August is not always the most fun (read: so sweaty). Wanting to camp but not wanting to spend the night cooking in our tents, we managed to snag a two-night reservation at the 8 person cabin in the park. I wouldn't go so far as to actually call what we did "camping," but it did give us a chance to explore the park while having an air conditioned refuge and shower to head back to when we were done. Unfortunately, the walk-in campsites were flooded so I didn't get a chance to see what camping in the park would normally be like. 

Swimming area at the end of Village Creek Trail (1.13 miles one way)

Swimming area at the end of Village Creek Trail (1.13 miles one way)

The park has about 8 miles of trails that wind through cypress-tupelo swamps. These trails are also great for biking and trail running. There is one main swimming area with a sizeable beach. The park has numerous warnings about alligators living in the area, which convinced us not to swim despite the heat. We kept our eyes peeled but unfortunately, we didn't see any during our visit to the park. There is also a canoe launch and the park lends fishing tackle if you aren't into hiking/biking. 

The Cabin

We really enjoyed our stay in the cabin at Village Creek. It has a full kitchen, bathroom, and sleeps up to 8 people. Best of all, it has AC! Mattresses are provided so all you have to bring is your bedding. The screened in porch was a great way to spend more time outside while staying out of reach of the bloodsuckers. It's also super affordable at only $80 a night. 

Lessons Learned in Lost Maples

Screeeeeeee!

I sit bolt upright in the tent.

What was that?

“Sounds like a hog,” Taylor says. The unnatural squealing echoes again in the distance followed by deeper, guttural grunts.

“Oh. Ok.” Just pigs. No big deal. They sound far away anyways. Totally harmless.

It was New Year’s Eve 2015 and we were visiting Lost Maples State Natural Area for the first time. This was our first solo camping trip as a couple - my first hike-in camping experience - and both of us were excited to celebrate the new year under the stars. Unfortunately, the cold weather and lack of fire (no fires allowed in hike-in campsites at Lost Maples) had led to us crawling into our tent as soon as darkness fell.

I lie back down, grab my kindle, and try to rig it so I can read with as little of my body exposed as possible. It’s 20-ish degrees, I’m freezing, and just generally not having a fantastic time. My feet, wrapped in two pairs of thick wool socks, still feel frozen.

It’s the first of what is supposed to be three nights camping, and I’m seriously lacking the commitment that I’ll need to make it through the next two nights. I’m going over all the reasons why we should leave tomorrow and weighing which ones would convince Taylor to end our trip early. I land on the fact that the dog – our Catahoula Pitbull mix named Coca – looks like she’s having an even less fun time than I am. She’s shivering despite being wedged between us with several blankets. Clearly, she’s missing her warm couch and wondering why we’ve decided to punish her this way.

I’m finally starting to feel sleepy and thinking if I try really hard maybe I can fall asleep despite the cold. I close my eyes. Several moments later I hear a twig snap outside. I can feel Coca and Taylor move next to me.

Snort Snort Snort, Craaaaaack, Rustle Rustle, Snort Snort!

These new noises are mere feet from the tent. Screeeeeeee! goes the hog in the distance.

Something nudges the tent by our feet. We both sit bolt upright. Another twig cracks from the opposite side of the tent, followed by several more snorts and grunts. Our tent is surrounded by wild hogs.

One of us turns our headlamp on, hoping it won’t spur the hogs into a wild tent-attacking frenzy. We urgently begin whispering, hatching a plan.

How do you handle hogs? Can you scare them away? Or will they attack?
No idea.
Shit. Why are they so close to the tent?
Umm. We have food in the tent.
Oh yeah. Oops.
Shit.
Yeah.

We had naively thought that there was nothing in the area that would be drawn to our meager food rations, most of which was pre-packaged and in Ziploc bags. Maybe a possum or a raccoon, but nothing that would cause us a real issue. Not several huge hogs with razor sharp tusks (ok maybe my imagination was running away from me). We now found ourselves eye level with who knows how many wild hogs, with only a thin layer of nylon tent between us and them.

After what feels like an eternity sitting in silence waiting, we realize our late-night guests are not in a rush to leave. Our ferocious hog hunting dog is literally shaking from cold and/or fear between the two of us. She hasn’t made a move. We’re thankful for this, since we’re not sure if hogs would be scared or react defensively to a dog’s bark from inside a tent. After what seems like an eternity, we take a chance and decide to try to scare them away by making a bunch of noise. I wait for a razor-sharp tusk to tear its way through our tent wall, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. We hear them walk away and after a few minutes, the coast seems to be clear. Taylor carefully gets out of the tent and ties our food up in a nearby tree.

We had a fitful night’s sleep. I kept waking up because my feet were so cold. The dog was shivering. In the morning, we packed up camp. We enjoyed the park for the rest of the day and then headed home to sleep in our warm bed.

This wasn’t what I would call my favorite camping trip, but I learned several valuable lessons. Some of these may seem like common sense, but if you’re new to camping you may not even think about these.

Lost Maples gets its name from the many maple trees, making Autumn an amazing time to visit. Check out  their Instagram  for some really beautiful photos of the fall foliage. 

Lost Maples gets its name from the many maple trees, making Autumn an amazing time to visit. Check out their Instagram for some really beautiful photos of the fall foliage. 

Lesson 1: Proper Food Storage and Handling

For people who camp or hike on a regular basis, not keeping food in your tent is a no brainer. As a newbie to camping, I didn’t even think about it. Our close encounter with the hogs ensured that I’ll never do that again, especially when hike-in or backcountry camping where there are likely to be animals outside of possums and raccoons.

Using proper food storage and/or hanging your food from a tree overnight or anytime you leave it unaccompanied is key. This also extends to other smelly items you might be carrying, like toothpaste or sunscreen. You’ll also want to dump any water used for cooking or washing dishes at least 200 feet away from your campsite.

If you’re car camping in a place without bears, a cooler works as a great storage container, but raccoons and possums can still easily open them. Put something heavy on the lid or keep it in the car overnight.

If you’re hike-in or backcountry camping, you can use a bear bag or canister or an odor-proof bag like OPSAK bags. Use a rope to hang your food from a tree. You can tie a rock or other heavy item to the end of the rope to help you throw it over a high limb. Once over, attach your food bag and hoist it into the air. You want it high enough and far enough away from the tree trunk that animals can’t reach it (think about a bear on its hind legs!). Tie the rest of the rope around the tree trunk to secure it.

Always check online to see if the place you’re visiting has special rules around food storage.  

The pigs outside of our tent probably looked a lot like this one. Not as scary as I imagined!

The pigs outside of our tent probably looked a lot like this one. Not as scary as I imagined!

Lesson 2: Know the local wildlife and how to handle an encounter

Aside from knowing how to protect your food from the local wildlife, you should also be knowledgeable on how best to handle a direct encounter. Upon arrival at the park, Taylor asked the ranger if there were any wildlife we should be aware of. There was no mention of hogs. Despite this, we should have been prepared and known how to react. 

We were lucky that our animal encounter was not actually super dangerous. I looked it up after the trip, and feral hogs of this kind prefer to avoid humans and generally don't attack unless cornered or protecting their young. All the same, if you come across them, it's best to keep your distance.

Lesson 3: Weather ratings for gear are a thing, and they matter

Ok, so 20 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t that cold, but it’s rare for it to get that cold in this area of Texas. Not only do I hate the cold, but I also didn’t have the right equipment to be comfortable in that temperature. Turns out, my bag was a summer season bag and was only rated for 35 degrees and higher. This is normally a perfect bag for camping in Texas, but the cold took us by surprise.

I also learned the value of checking average lows and highs before I plan a trip, as well as checking forecasts a week out so I can be sure to pack the right gear. 

Lesson 4: Don't Expect Perfection

Had I let this experience color my entire outlook on camping, I would not have been eager to plan my next trip. I took this for what it was - poor planning - and learned from the experience. Part of the fun is learning along the way. If you head out on your first camping trip and have a less than ideal time, try again. Take what you learned and put that knowledge towards making your next trip better. 

Summary:

  1. Learn proper food handling and storage to avoid having animals enter your camp and attempt to get into your food stores.
  2. Research the local wildlife and how best to safely manage a direct encounter.
  3. Check the weather before you go and make sure your gear is rated for the conditions you might encounter.
  4. Not every trip will go perfectly, and that's ok. Take what you learn and apply it to your next trip. 
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Pedernales Falls State Park

“Is that the turnoff?” Taylor asked as we were nearing the end of our ninth mile.

“No, I don't think so. I think we have a bit farther to go.” I managed to get this sentence out between gulps of air.

We had just run most of the aptly named Juniper Ridge Trail in Pedernales Falls State Park. My plan had been to run six miles and here I was, somehow closing in on ten. I was impressed with myself, but also more than ready to be done and back at the car where our lunch and cold waters waited for us.

Turns out, I was wrong. That was the turnoff to the parking lot. As we finished our second loop around the top of Wolf Mountain, Taylor starts laughing uncontrollably at the bewildered look on my face as I realized we had just run an extra loop.

Despite our (really, my) lack of direction, Pedernales Falls State Park (pronounced "Perd-n-Alice" by the locals) has become one of our go-to places for trail running, hiking, and camping. Less than 45 minutes from downtown Austin, it makes for the perfect day or weekend trip.

Campsite #4 

Campsite #4 

Camping

I absolutely love camping at Pedernales Falls. Surrounded by woods of juniper and oak trees, the drive-in campsites provide quite a bit of privacy and ample places to hang your hammock. They're also really large, giving you plenty of room if you want to bring a group of friends (limit of 8 people per site). You'll find bathrooms with flushing toilets, sinks, and showers a short walk from where you pitch your tent. The 69 drive-in campsites offer water spigots, electricity, a picnic table, a lantern post, and a fire ring with grill. Don't let the high number of campsites fool you; you'll need to book far in advance if you want to get a drive-in campsite on the weekend during Texas' temperate months.

The park also offers hike-in campsites. These are about two miles from where you park your car. There is a four person limit to these sites - it's unclear exactly how many there are - but you do have the luxury of a composting toilet nearby. Unfortunately, no fires are allowed in these campsites.

Trail Running

The park offers about 25 miles of trails that wind through juniper woods and over stream crossings. Juniper Ridge Trail is our favorite running trail in the park. Just shy of 9 miles, it connects with many other trails, including the popular Wolf Mountain Trail. It's almost completely shaded (great for the Texas heat!) and technical enough to be challenging but not technical enough to kill you. It's also the only official mountain bike trail in the park. I haven't yet met a trail in that park that wasn't good for both hiking and trail running.

Pedernales Falls

Pedernales Falls

The Falls

A post about Pedernales Falls State Park wouldn't be complete if it didn't mention the park's namesake. Pedernales Falls is one of the most beautiful natural features in the area (and therefore one of the most popular parts of the park). The emerald green river drops 50 feet in elevation over a distance of about 3,000 feet, gently flowing over layers of limestone. It's prone to flash floods, meaning the tranquil river can become a life threatening deluge in less than five minutes.

The Pedernales River right before the Falls 

The Pedernales River right before the Falls 

Part of the Falls

Part of the Falls

Takeaways

  • Drive-in camping here affords a decent amount of privacy and close proximity to luxuries like flushing toilets and showers.
  • If you're into trail running or hiking, you absolutely need to check this place out.
  • This park is well worth a day trip from Austin. Bring a picnic lunch, take a hike, and experience the beauty of the falls.
  • Nearby Dripping Springs also offers several breweries, wineries, and distilleries if you're into drinking on patios and want to have some adult beverages after visiting the park.
  • Book camping reservations well in advance if you're hoping for a weekend in the Spring or Fall. Keep in mind that the park often reaches capacity on these weekends so get there early if you're just doing a day trip.
Hanging out at the Falls with our dog Coca. 

Hanging out at the Falls with our dog Coca. 

Colorado Bend State Park

Nothing beats the feeling of packing up the car and heading out for a weekend of camping on a beautiful Spring day. Windows down, dog panting in the the backseat, we played hooky from work on Friday to head out to nearby Colorado Bend State Park for the first time. As we pulled up to the park entrance around 2pm, a line of cars and two park rangers greeted us. The park was full and closed for day-use until at least 4pm. Looking around at the cars pulled over on the side of the road who were waiting to get into the park, we could see a lot of surly faces. Thankfully, our camping reservations had secured us entrance. We breathed a sigh of relief as the entrance gate swung open for us and we left those unhappy non-campers in our dust.

Our first trip to Colorado Bend State Park did not disappoint. Just under two hours Northwest of Austin, the short drive is more than worth it. We couldn't believe what we had been missing out on all this time. The park offers some great hiking (our favorite outdoor activity) as well as a range of other activities including fishing, swimming, paddling, bird watching, and even guided cave tours. Located in Bend, Texas, the park literally sits on a bend in the Colorado River. Many of the campsites offer a beautiful view of the slow moving river backed by steep, rocky hills. Every so often we could see a Yucca plant in bloom. The huge yellowish-white blooms, combined with the various other wildflowers and butterflies dotting the landscape, really made it feel like Spring.

View of the lazy Coloroado River from our campsite. Coca the Catahoula basks in the springtime sun. 

View of the lazy Coloroado River from our campsite. Coca the Catahoula basks in the springtime sun. 

Yucca plant in bloom

What's the camping situation? 

The park has two main sections for camping. The biggest camping area is about six miles into the park, near park headquarters. With roughly 50 campsites available in this area (only 15 of which are drive-in) you have to book far in advance to get a weekend reservation when the weather is mild. For our mid-March trip, I made a reservation in early October. We're finding that Spring/Fall weekend camping in Texas requires reservations very far in advance. The reason for this is obvious, but makes last minute camping in most State Parks nearly impossible. We've begun regularly making reservations several months in advance. You can make a reservation at Colorado Bend or any other state park by visiting this link.

The park offers drive-in, walk-in, and group sites. For the drive-in sites, you should expect little to no privacy from your neighbors in the next campsite over. They are very close together and there are no trees in between to offer even a tiny bit of separation. I have to admit we were a little disappointed that our campsite didn't have any trees on which to hang our hammocks.

If you want a little more distance from your fellow campers like we do, the walk-in sites might be a better option. They vary in distance from their designated parking spots but are still fairly close. I would guesstimate no farther than 100 yards at the very farthest for the river area campsites. There still isn't a ton of tree cover to offer privacy, but they are more spread out than the drive-in.

Each campsite has a fire ring and a “lantern holder,” which most people use to hang their trash. There are a few potable water spigots in the area but not at each campsite. There are also a few composting toilets scattered throughout the camping areas but no flush toilets or indoor showers or sinks.

The other main area for camping in the park is the Windmill backpack camping area. These campsites are roughly a mile from parking, do not have river access, and are in a completely different part of the park than the rest of the campsites. We didn't visit this area of the park so we unfortunately cannot comment on these campsites.

And Hiking?

There are over 35 miles of trails in this park and we can't wait to go back so we can piece together a few more. The main trails we hiked were Spicewood Springs trail and Spicewood Springs Canyon. The two trails make a loop that first crisscross over the creek and then follow a ridge that has spectacular views of the creek, the Colorado River, and the surrounding area. At just under 4.5 miles from trailhead to trailhead, this very manageable hike is jam packed with water crossings that make you want to stop and cool off in the emerald green waters.

This hike is listed as challenging on the Park's website and map, but we would characterize it as moderate. It's fairly short, has a few tricky creek crossings, but is mostly flat and shady. We would recommend wearing shoes that you don't mind getting wet. This makes the numerous water crossings less tricky.

One of the first creek crossings on the Spicewood Springs Trail 

Some small waterfalls on the Spicewood Springs trail 

Takeaways:

  • Get out there! This park is well worth the short drive from Austin, even for a day trip. 
  • Book camping reservations far in advance for Spring/Fall weekends
  • For day use, get to the park early to avoid the disappointment of being turned away because the park is full
  • Don't be afraid of the walk-in campsites if you want a little more privacy from other campers
  • The hikes don't require heavy duty hiking boots but we recommend at least wearing waterproof boots or shoes you don't mind getting wet