Deep in the Heart of Texas

Texas Hill Country is Rich in Rolling Scenery and a Spectacular Concentration of State Parks.

Everything seems bigger in the Lone Star State, including the endless possibilities for outdoor exploration. A visit to the heart of Texas Hill Country will plant you amid an amazing constellation of state parks and recreation areas that form a vast natural loop — a crown of sorts, studded with destinations ripe for adventure.

From lazy rivers that snake through quiet limestone canyons to natural waterfalls, hiking trails set among gently rolling woodlands, and a breathtaking climb up an “enchanted” rock … Hill Country beckons RVers with its vivid personality, broad vistas and rustic charm

There is surely no other place quite like Texas Hill Country – a wide-open landscape as gnarled and weathered as an old fence post, as sprawling and colorful as a soul-stirring sunset.

Texas damHill Country is a land of layers, stretching from West Texas east to Austin, the state capital, and from the Colorado River southward to San Antonio. It’s a region known for an endless canopy of oak and juniper trees, prickly-pear cactus patches, rugged rocks, and sparkling lakes and rivers. Spring brings an explosion of wildflowers to these distinctive rolling hills, but with a temperate climate you’ll find green here year-round.

The best part? There’s no shortage of state parks and recreation areas out of which to base your adventures, and San Antonio sits at the epicenter of the action.

Texas boasts several dozen state parks within a 100-mile radius of San Antonio. But to narrow the search, we focus on a convenient loop of Texas state parks just north of San Antonio and west of Austin.

Without exception, they are all affordable camping options that offer pleasant, mostly uncrowded sites and plenty of amenities. A few are designed for day-use only, but if you base yourself at any of these parks you’re an easy drive from the rest — and even the day-use parks are well worth the drive.

Long popular with snowbirders, the parks offer year-round camping and mostly mild weather, especially in fall, winter and spring. Even a visit during the heat of high summer can be tempered by a welcome dip in clear, spring-fed rivers and lakes.

The important thing to know is that Texas is a lot like its much-heralded cuisine, with flavors big, bold and satisfying. It is a place populated with unforgettable characters and, indeed, a rugged landscape carved with character to spare. It doesn’t take long to develop an appetite for Texas, a craving that will simply keep you coming back for more.

Guadalupe River State Park

The morning music of canyon wrens and warblers echoes against the limestone bluffs that tower above the slow-moving Guadalupe River — as peaceful a place as you’ll ever find.

This is considered one of the most scenic stretches of river in all of Texas, languid waters lolling against canyon walls stained by time and giant bald cypress trees, which guard the riverbank like twisted sentinels.

It’s also one of the state’s most popular rivers, a spring-fed marvel that carves a languorous four-mile path through Guadalupe State Park, hastened only by a series of four natural rapids. The stream will ultimately flow some 250 miles before spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Here, it commands attention as the park’s most outstanding natural feature.

The park is located about 30 minutes north of downtown San Antonio just off Texas Highway 46, which can be reached from I- 35, I-10 or U.S. 281. The entrance is located on Park Road 31 and well marked. From there, enjoy the pleasant three-mile drive to the park gate, which is locked each evening.

There is a small per day, per person entrance fee, but if you’re spending a bit of time in the area, you might consider investing in a Texas State Parks Pass, which grants unlimited entry to over 100 state parks and sites for a full year. Learn more at www.tpwd.state. tx.us/parkpass.

Here’s a great discovery: An entrance fee paid to any Texas State Park will get you into any other state park for free the same day. Since parks in this area aren’t too far apart, that’s a great bargain.

Guadalupe River State Park covers a little over 1,900 acres, including a real gem: the Honey Creek State Natural Area. This protected area is only open on Saturdays — or by special arrangement — for guided ecological walks along the shaded banks of Honey Creek. Tours emphasize the region’s history, flora and fauna. To reach it, enter through the state park gate.

The park also recently opened a 5.3-mile equestrian trail that is also open to mountain biking.

Camping is offered in two areas. Turkey Sink Camping Area has 40 sites with electric and water hook-ups. Sites feature a picnic table and fire ring or grill. Cedar Sage Camping Area has 37 sites with water hook-ups, picnic table, and fire ring or grill. Both offer nightly or weekly rates. Showers, restrooms and dump stations are centrally located in each area. For information, call (830) 438-2656.

RV Texas lakeDuring a recent visit, we were impressed to find campsites that felt spacious and private, with thick, leafy barriers — even in February. The park is remote, with a good separation between campgrounds and recreational area, great for stargazing and solitude.

“It’s nice here, in that you don’t feel crowded,” said Susan Gaidys, of Texas, who was camping with her husband in their pop-up trailer. “We’re not big RV park people; the state parks are more for us.”

“This is only our second time here,” she added. “We don’t come often because it’s so far away from everything — but there are times when that’s a wonderful thing.”

Her only caution: “You don’t want to be here during cicada season,” she chuckled, adding that the buzzing drone from the bugs may drive you away. The park is probably best known for the four miles of attractive river frontage that frame the park’s picnic area and playground. Here, you’ll find more day visitors, who stop to enjoy a lunch at water’s edge, a cooling dip, a hike, or a chance to dip a line. The river is also a popular destination for tubing; put-in and take-out spots are provided for float trips.

The Guadalupe River is deceptively serene. Below the tranquil surface lurk deep holes and an uneven bottom. Be aware that many rivers in Texas Hill Country are vulnerable to flash floods. Fishing bobbers and debris dangling high in the branches of nearby giant bald cypress trees remind you of just how far the sleepy Guadalupe River can surge.

There is plenty of parking at the picnic area; enough to accommodate the largest diesel pusher so think about stopping in even if you don’t plan to spend the night.

If you’re coming in from the east, consider stopping at the grocery store located just west of U.S. 281 on Texas Highway 46. You’ll find an amazing selection of fresh produce, meats and organic foods.

Blanco State Park

Amble north on U.S. 281 and you’re truly in the heart of Texas Hill Country — a rolling horizon of hills and live oak trees, spiny yucca and sprawling grassland. Here, towns thin out and the region’s rugged terrain shines through.

Tucked in the midst of this are one of Texas’ smallest state parks and one of the more urban offerings in our journey. At just over 100 acres, Blanco State Park is located on the southern edge of the tiny town of Blanco — just four blocks from the town square, in fact.

If you’re coming from the south, take the well-marked turn and keep veering left. The park entrance just off U.S. 281 comes so quickly, just beyond the river bridge that visitors frequently miss it and may drive for miles before realizing their mistake.

Blanco State Park hugs a mile of the spring-fed Blanco River, a focus for anglers, swimmers and boating. Originally used as a campsite for early explorers and settlers, the park opened in 1934 and still retains original stone architecture built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Most notably, the river is guided by a series of low-water dams, which create popular swimming areas of varying depths. Anglers can hook rainbow trout, perch, catfish and bass; tube, canoe and kayak rentals are available on-site.

Because of the park’s proximity to town, it feels a bit like a glorified city park. Noise levels and public access are heavier than at more far-flung state parks. But die-hard fans love the park’s quaint charm, paved roadways for bicycling, and riverside picnic tables. A 3/4-mile nature trail parallels the river; a guidebook is available at the park store.

Campsites are also tucked more closely together than at other state park locations on our trek, with less vegetation for privacy. But that is no deterrent to enthusiastic campers who flock there from across the country.

“For 21 years, we went to Big Bend National Park for the hiking,” said Elaine M. Brown from Iowa, who was camping at the park in late February with her husband, Harold. “We’d stopped here before in the spring on the way home, but never stayed long because you had to have reservations,” she recalled.

This year, Blanco State Park became a destination in itself. “We got a county map to go sightseeing because the scenery around here is beautiful,” Harold said. “I just like the green [landscape] and mild temperature. I don’t like flat land much, so this suits me.”

Girl by river in TexasTo the Browns, the park offers the best of all worlds — easy access to stores in town as well as rural exploration. Their campsite offered plenty of room for their 38-foot diesel pusher, and the price was right, they said.

The park offers a dozen campsites with electric and water hook-ups and 17 campsites with electric, water and sewer hook-ups for nightly, weekly or monthly stays. A handful of screened shelters are also available. Reservations are strongly recommended. For more information, call (830) 833-4333. A well-maintained restroom and shower house serves the campsites, which feature asphalt pads. A dump station is conveniently located.

Barb and Larry Stuber, of Manitoba, Canada like the park for its sense of small town serenity — their fifth-wheel trailer overlooked a bucolic farm field this year. This marks the fourth winter they’ve come to Texas, and they can’t say enough about its state parks.

“We like that it’s quiet here and patrolled regularly, and it’s easy to take day trips into San Marcos or over to Marble Falls,” Larry explained.

Pedernales Falls State Park

Gigantic limestone slabs tilt like tumbled playing cards to form the spectacular spillway for Pedernales Falls, the scenic focal point at Pedernales Falls State Park. Formed 300 million years ago, the limestone spillway creates a series of gradual steps for the fickle Pedernales River, which can shift from a gentle stream to a raging torrent during a flash flood. Photographs posted at the trail head of a hiking path leading to a scenic overlook of the falls show how quickly the transformation can occur, from a trickle to a wall of roaring water in less than five minutes. Visitors are cautioned to be aware of sudden changes in water flow or muddiness and to be prepared to evacuate immediately.

Although the falls and the first three miles of the river are closed to swimming, wading and tubing, you’ll find plenty of room for splashing downstream, including a designated swimming area and beach.

But this park offers much more than water. More than 20 miles of meandering trails cut through this gentle, rolling landscape, passing through lovely vistas sprinkled with oak and juniper, pecan, elm, sycamore and walnut trees.

Hike up Wolf Mountain. Stroll the wooded hills in search of the threatened golden-cheeked warbler, which nests at the park. Bring a sketchpad and pastel chalks and captures the memorable views. Grab your bike and take a spin on well-paved roadways. Though the park isn’t really popular for fishing, anglers say cat fishing is good after the river rises.

The vast sweep of open, undisturbed terrain and quiet, well-buffered camping spots make this park an enormous hit with visitors. Reservations are a must, especially in warm weather.

The park lies due east of Johnson City, boyhood home of former U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and a colorful little berg in itself. To reach Pedernales Falls State Park from U.S. 281, head east on County Road 2766 (also called FM 2766, or Farm-to-Market Road) and follow the well-marked signs. From Austin, follow U.S. 290 to County Road 3232 and head north.

You’re in genuine cowboy country now, and all signs point to it, from grazing livestock — which can range from longhorns to llamas — to the occasional cattle guard grates on the roadways. White-tailed deer, wild turkey, raccoons, quail and long-legged heron are native to the area, and often easy to spot.

Don't ForgetStop at the entrance to absorb the layout of the park — once the Circle Bar Ranch — that stretches across some 5,217 acres. There’s a small entrance fees and for information, call (830) 868-7304.

For our money, this park offered some of the best campsites — attractive, well spaced and lushly wooded —within easy walking distance of both the river and scenic overlooks. Showers, restrooms and a dump station are available. The park offers 69 campsites with electric and water hook-ups.

To the Anderson family from Texas, Pedernales State Park campground proved a delightful surprise.

“We go to all the state parks, but this is the first time we’ve come here — I thought it was solely a day-use park,” admitted Joe Anderson, who was camping with wife and son in their travel trailer.

“We love the privacy and we’re avid hikers, so for us, it’s perfect.”

If you tire of the scenery, Pedernales Falls State Park also makes a good base for regional sightseeing.

Nine miles to the west in Johnson City, you can find good Mexican food, lively watering holes, quaint shops, and history galore. Be sure to stop by the General Store on U.S. 281 and sample locally famous Whittington’s Jerky. You’ll also find several private RV parks in the immediate vicinity that cater to “wintering Texans.”

Be sure to visit the LBJ Visitor Center near downtown Johnson City to learn more about “the last of the frontier presidents.” Further west, off U.S. 290, is the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, where you can visit an authentic working frontier farm that demonstrates the dress and lifestyle of typical Hill Country farm life at the turn of the century.

Bus tours are offered along the Pedernales River and onto the LBJ Ranch and LBJ birthplace. The park is also noted for an explosion of spring wildflowers, so don’t forget a camera.

Inks Lake State Park

Massive chunks of pink granite outcroppings and a sparkling high country lake define Inks Lake State Park, the northernmost point on our trek.

At 803 acres, Inks Lake is actually one of the smaller lakes created by dams that the Lower Colorado River Authority constructed in central Texas. But with its clear water, scenic vistas, well- marked hiking trails, a nine-hole golf course, and towering granite hills, the park is extremely popular year-round — especially on weekends.

The 1,200-acre park hugs the shoreline along a peninsula that juts into Inks Lake. Even the drive in is a feast for the eyes—a lovely contrast of pastel rocks, green cedar and live oak woodlands, and wide blue skies reflected in the lake itself.

To reach the park, take Texas Highway 29 west out of Burnet for nine miles, turning onto Park Road 4 for about three miles. You can also take County Road 1431 west out of Marble Falls to County Road 2342, then north on Park Road 4. Either way, stop in Burnet or Marble Falls to fill up on gas and groceries.

While campsites at the lake are abundant, they tend to be more open, with less vegetation and privacy. The upside? There probably isn’t a campsite available that doesn’t afford a decent view of the lake. In fact, many will place you quite close to the lakefront.

The park offers 50 campsites with water hook-ups and 137 paved campsites with electric and water hook-ups. All are equipped with picnic tables, fire rings and lantern standards. For information, call (512) 793-2223.

Though no sites offer sewer hookups, a dump station is easily accessible. Visitors can choose from no less than eight restroom/shower houses throughout the park. Because of heavy weekend day use, you may want to reconsider a lake front campsite if you seek to escape noise and congestion and desire more shade.

Other amenities include one of the better picnic area/playgrounds that we saw on this trip; two lighted fishing piers, with a screened-in fish-cleaning station, and an amphitheater that plays host to musical performances as well as educational and historical lectures.

Boating and fishing are popular at Inks Lake, where anglers regularly snag bass, catfish, crappie, shad, and bluegill. Two fishing piers and the towering granite rocks around Devil’s Waterhole, a scenic cove at the easternmost flank of the lake, are popular perches for fishing.

Texas trailsDiving from the tall rocks around Devil’s Waterhole is a traditional summertime activity, but park rangers stress that it is dangerous, as underwater hazards exist in the lake and no lifeguards are posted on duty. Canoe tours are offered of the area through park headquarters, where you can also rent canoes, kayaks and paddle boats on an hourly or daily basis.

The region is noted for its wildlife, including bald eagles — especially November through March — armadillos, great blue herons, and the whitetail deer that wander freely among the campgrounds.

The area is fun to explore on foot, and color-coded hiking trails can help you on your way. Pick up maps and directions at the park headquarters, or hop in your car and see even more.

If you return to Park Road 4 and head south, you’ll reach Longhorn Cavern State Park, a natural underground cave carved over thousands of years by water and limestone bedrock and one of the few river-formed caverns in Texas. Daily tours are offered every day of the week.

Prefer a daylight hike? Grab a guide sheet and wander the Backbone Ridge Trail, an easy one-and-a-half hour stroll. Be sure to take time to climb the observation tower, built by CCC workers in the 1930s, for a breathtaking view, complete with a startling peek at a distant castle, which juts up amid the rolling oak-juniper hill country like a fantastic mirage.

A private residence developed by Texas businessman Terry Young, the structure was built from original architectural drawings of a never-completed castle commissioned by King Ludwig, II, of Bavaria. Though Young and his wife, Kim, live there, it is opened to the public for weddings.

For more impressive views of rugged limestone bluffs and waterfalls, consider taking the Vanishing Texas River Cruise on nearby Lake Buchanan, where you can observe one of the largest colonies of bald eagles that migrate to Texas from mid-November through mid-March. You can also catch a colorful eruption of spring wildflowers April through June. For more information, call (800) 728-8735 or visit www.vtrc.com.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Tonkawa Indians believed that ghost fires flickered at the top of this magnificent granite dome, which towers 425 feet above Big Sandy Creek — a mystical lore heightened by stories that you could hear the rock “crying,” with creaks and groans.

Today, geologists credit those sound effects to the rock’s expansion during hot days and contraction on cool nights. In fact, Enchanted Rock truly is a natural wonder, one of the largest batholiths — underground rock formations uncovered by erosion — in the United States. Covering some 640 acres, the pink granite dome can be seen for miles, a clear centerpiece of the park.

In effect, this rock is to Texas what Ayers Rock is to Australia — big, beautiful and not to be missed.

Though humans have visited the region for over 11,000 years, the area won designation as a National Natural Landmark in 1970 and opened as a public park in 1984. Unfortunately, only tent camping and primitive backpacking are allowed — that means no RVs or even pop-up trailers.

But that shouldn’t stop you from making a point to visit, especially if you’re already in the area, and close to many other RV camping options. Be aware that Enchanted Rock often reaches full parking capacity on weekends and can sometimes close as early as 11 a.m., generally reopening around 5 p.m. To be safe, call ahead at (325) 247-3903.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area covers over 1,643 acres of mesquite grassland and scattered oak groves about 18 miles north of Fredericksburg. To reach it, take Texas Highway 16 south of Llano, veering west on Ranch Road 965. The drive in can be an adventure. Watch for grazing cattle, who have free run of the road.

The park is an excellent place to stretch your legs and expand your lungs. Stroll the flatland’s along Big Sandy Creek, which is rich in bird life, pack a picnic and enjoy the view, or follow eight miles of hiking trails that lace the park property.

It’s hard to resist a climb to the top of Enchanted Rock, which can be reached by a relatively quick, though steep, trail or a longer, but slightly less rigorous trek. (Note: Bikes are not permitted on hiking trails.) Wear sturdy, rubber-soled hiking shoes, a hat and plan to carry water. The climb is challenging, but doable, even for children and fit seniors. And the panoramic view from the top is extraordinary. Once you return, grab a cold glass of lemonade at a refreshment kiosk, conveniently located by the restrooms at the trail head.

The area is also open to technical and rock climbing, but climbers must check in at park headquarters for a list of over 45 established route maps and climbing rules; bolts and pitons are not allowed.

Another bonus: Due to its isolated location, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is noted for splendid, clear night skies with minimal light pollution – perfect for stargazing.

On your way out, consider swinging south into charming Fredericksburg, a charming, bustling town with a pronounced German-American heritage. Grab some home-cooked Bavarian fare; browse antique stores or duck into the Fredericksburg Brewing Company for a beer and a hot pretzel. You’ve earned it.

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2 Comments

  • On a trip through Texas a few years ago, I found Palo Dura Canyon. That is an amazing place with an interesting history. I think it might be in the National Park system. Don’t know if there is camping. It seems to be a well kept secret. Anyone visiting west Texas should plan time for a visit. I spent a day there and have wanted to return ever since to really explore the area. Texas is such a complex, fascinating state.

  • the scenic beauti is very soothing .. it calms ur body and soul and gives u ample pleasure to enjoy ur vacations.

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