At Enchanted Rock, growing crowds mean some visitors get turned away

12:00 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 Lifestyle
Enchanted Rock State Natural area is the sixth busiest park in the Texas State Parks system. Most visitors climb to the top of the main dome and leave. To avoid crowds, climb Turkey Peak and get this great view of the main dome. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Head to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area on a Saturday afternoon this time of year and your adventure might grind to a halt on the paved road outside the entrance.

The Hill Country park, which ranks as the sixth most popular in the Texas State Parks system, closes its gates when it reaches capacity, something that happens by 9 or 10 a.m. most weekends when the weather is nice.

In Texas, which has less public land than almost every other state in the country, it’s a plight that overcrowded parks increasingly face. At Enchanted Rock, a line sometimes forms as early as 8 a.m. When the park’s 277 parking spaces are filled, officials stop admitting new visitors for up to four hours. The next 200 vehicles in line get a parking pass that guarantees them entry into the park that same afternoon, but hundreds more get turned away.

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“I’ve talked to people who say they’ve come three or four weekends in a row and haven’t been able to get in,” says park Superintendent Doug Cochran. “We’ve heard people compare us to a mall, there’s so many people, and that’s not the experience we want people leaving with.”

Visitation at the park has been rising between 4 and 8 percent a year since about 2000, Cochran said. Between 2015 and 2016, it climbed more than 12 percent. Busy season used to run November through March, then visitation would taper off. Now it lasts from September until early July. Between September 2016 and August 2017, the park recorded 285,000 visits.

Bigger crowds mean more trash and trail damage, Cochran says, and social trails, which develop when hikers venture off marked trails, appear in fragile areas.

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“One of our charges in operating a state natural area is protecting the resource,” Cochran says. “When people come out here and find out they may not be able to get in, it’s because we’re trying to protect it. We want them to understand we want this place to be here when their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids come out.”

Plan right, though, and you can still hike to the top of the giant granite dome, which is actually part of a 62-square-mile section of underground rock called a batholith. And while you’re at it, don’t just stop after you’ve conquered the summit, like everyone else does. Scamper to the top of adjacent Turkey Peak, then explore the backside of the park.

Just do it at off-peak hours, such as during the week.

“We realize people have to work, but there are a lot less people here at that time, so the experience is better. That’s one of the reasons we’re calming our visits — we want people to have a really great experience when they come to Enchanted Rock or any state park.”

Before you make the trip, a little background. The Nature Conservancy of Texas bought the land in 1978, then sold the 1,640.5-acre property to the state of Texas. The state added a few more acres and opened the park in 1978. Archaeologists say humans have camped in the area for 12,000 years. Look closely and you can find depressions in the granite, called bedrock mortars, where they pounded or ground grain.

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Spooky legends abound. The huge granite dome expands and contracts as the temperature changes, setting off creaking and groaning. Some people claim that ghost fires flicker on the summit late at night, although that’s probably just the moon’s reflection of feldspar in the granite or water trapped in depressions on the rock’s surface.

One tale describes a Native American chief who supposedly sacrificed his daughter at the rock and was doomed to wander it forever as punishment. Another recounts the story of a Native American woman who threw herself off the top of the rock after seeing the rest of her band killed by enemies.

10 pro-tips for your trip

Without further ado, we present our pro-tips for making the most of your Enchanted Rock visit:

1. Go early. On nice weekend days, the park fills up between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. When parking reaches capacity, park officials close the park for up to 4 hours. It takes about an hour and 45 minutes to get there from Austin, so plan accordingly. The park office opens at 7:30 a.m.

2. Watch your step. When you’re hiking the main rock, avoid the vernal pools. These shallow weathering pits hold water for a few weeks each year, and contain entire — and very fragile — ecosystems. Cool creatures like freshwater fairy shrimp live in them, and an errant step from a hiker can do damage. So can letting your dog drink from one (or relieve itself in one). Water testing two years ago showed increased nitrogen levels from urine and fecal matter. That’s why dogs are no longer allowed on the dome.

3. Don’t just hike to the summit. The park gets crowded, but most of those visitors are concentrated in the parking areas and on the trail to the top of the main dome. Do that first, then walk back down and catch the Turkey Pass Trail. From there, you’ll see Turkey Peak to the right. Scamper to the top (it’s allowed, even though the trails are spidery and not easy to follow), where you get a great view of all the ant-size people scrambling over Enchanted Rock. Check the park schedule for one of its “Other Side of the Rock” hikes, or a butterfly or bird walk.

4. Go the back way. Want to avoid crowds? Take the Loop Trail, a 4.25-mile circuit of the park. Fewer people, nicer views.

5. Camp at Moss Lake. It’s prettier than the car camping spots on the front side of the main rock. Depending on your route, it’s between a mile to a mile and a half to the Moss Lake primitive camping area. You’ll get the best sunrise and sunset views of the rock. I often recommend the spot to readers looking for a beginner-friendly backpacking route. Do it before a big trip to make sure you have your gear in order. There’s even a compost toilet.

6. Try trail running. The wide gravel paths and smooth granite outcroppings make perfect terrain for off-road running. Pack your running shoes and hit the 4.25-mile Loop Trail for a great workout.

7. Keep track of your dog. Pets are allowed only in the designated day-use picnic areas, the campgrounds, and on the Loop Trail — not on the higher elevations.

8. Drive carefully. The park is at 16710 Ranch Road 965, 18 miles north of Fredericksburg. When it’s busy, park officials let only motorists who are driving south on RR 965 turn into the park entrance, so they can keep a lane open for emergency vehicles. That means if you are heading north on the highway from Fredericksburg, you’ll have to pass the entrance, turn around and come back from the other side. It’s not an ideal situation.

9. Unless you want to incorporate a shopping trip into your excursion, avoid the congestion of Fredericksburg. From Austin, take Highway 71 to Llano, then head south of Highway 16 to RR 965, or take U.S. 290 West, head north on U.S. 281 toward Johnson City, then turn left onto RR 1323 through Willow City to U.S. Highway 16 and RR 965.

10. Stop for cookies at the Valero gas station, 500 S. U.S. Highway 281 in Johnson City. They have the best Mexican pastries, the perfect post-hiking snack.