Looking over my shoulder as we backed out of the drive bound for Garner State Park confirmed my suspicion: we had indeed overpacked for a weekend camping trip. Life jackets and lanterns were stacked atop coolers and charcoal, and our boys were barely visible beneath the fluffy mound of sleeping bags and pillows wedged between their car seats. But the car clutter was no match for the two excited smiles beaming from the back seat.
Sitting on the southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau, Garner State Park is a 1,774-acre oasis of tranquility nestled in the unique sub-region known as the Balcones Canyonlands. Towering cypress trees splashed with crimson and gold fringe the cool, crystal-clear waters of the Frio River while soaring mesas, carved limestone cliffs, ancient rock formations and unparalleled Hill Country vistas exist just beyond. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, Garner opened as a state park in 1941 and has since become the most visited in Texas. As the highest revenue-generating park in the system, last year’s visitation topped 390,000. It’s the irresistible combination of Texas traditions and spectacular scenery that lures families back to Garner State Park year after year while captivating first-timers, like ourselves, who will surely return.
Distance from Austin: Less than three hours and a 170-mile southwest arc along Interstate 35, U.S. 90, Texas 127 and U.S. 83 will get you from downtown Austin to Garner State Park.
Don’t miss: Visitors to Garner State Park won’t find a lack of things to do. “There is camping, hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, bird watching, geocaching, barbecuing, stargazing, paddling, dancing, miniature golfing and just about any other ‘ing’ you can think of,” says David P. Allen, Garner State Park’s assistant manager and park police officer. We kicked off the chilly winter morning by warming our bodies around the campfire and cooking up a hearty camper’s breakfast of bacon and eggs before heading out to hike a few of the 13 miles of trails weaving through the park. The cooler months are ideal for fall foliage hikes along trails such as the short but steep half-mile climb leading to White Rock Cave — a delight for both big and small explorers. The sun cast its warmth over Garner State Park by noontime and we found solace paddle boating down the Frio while marveling at the turtles, fish and a few brave campers splashing in the brisk, translucent water. The kids spent the afternoon casting fishing poles into the sparkling river and playing a round of miniature golf before returning to the campsite, where we rekindled the fire for a camp-worthy meal of hot dogs and s’mores. When the weather heats up, Garner-goers enjoy tubing and swimming in the Frio, taking scenic hayrides and boot-scooting under the stars at the park’s nightly summer jukebox dances.
Eat here: Bring along your cooler and Coleman stove to picnic in nature — visitors can refuel by purchasing firewood and propane within the park. Open daily during the summer and operating certain weekends throughout the year, Garner Grill satisfies big appetites with burgers, corn dogs and fries and serves up sweet treats such as ice cream cones and frozen Lightning Lemonade.
Stay here: Pay the daily entrance fee ($7 adult day use/$5 nightly; free for children 12 and under), and you can stay overnight in Garner State Park at a variety of camping areas. Choose from campsites ($15-$26 nightly), shelters ($25-$35 nightly), cabins ($130 nightly) or a group campsite with bunk beds and screened shelters ($350 nightly).
Always free: The very things that make Garner famous — the three miles of Frio River winding through the park and its summertime quarter-fed jukebox dances that have drawn in the young and the young at heart since the 1940s — are free. Explore the Frio Canyon, known for its abundant wildlife ranging from white-tailed deer and Rio Grande turkeys to migratory and endangered birds. Stargazing in this part of Texas won’t cost you a dime either, but the experience is a rich one you will never forget.
Kids will love: Thrill the kiddos with the magic of a paddle boat ride atop the Frio — Garner Park Concessions (garnerstatepark.com) rents everything from tubes and fishing poles to paddle boats and kayaks during the busy months and weekends. Entertain children with a round of putt-putt on the 18-hole miniature course built buy the CCC in the 1930s, followed by a post-game treat from the Candy Shop. Pack along graham crackers, Hershey’s chocolate and marshmallows for campfire-made s’mores.
Best time to go: Garner State Park is ideal any time of the year. Spring and summer months draw the biggest crowds with perks such as cooling off in the Frio, nightly summer dances and daily operations of Garner Grill and Garner Park Concessions. Autumn leaves, cooler camping weather and fewer people are big reasons to visit during fall and winter.
Not-to-miss nearby: A smattering of natural treasures lie just a stone’s throw away from Garner State Park including Hill Country, Lost Maples and Devil’s Sinkhole state natural areas and Kickapoo Cavern State Park. Just 12 minutes down the road, you will discover laid-back country charm in Concan.
For more information: Visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/garner.