- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
You probably already know about Inks Lake, Enchanted Rock and Pedernales Falls. They’re melted-marshmallow-and-chocolate-on-a-graham-cracker good for camping, of course, but sometimes you need to venture farther off the trodden trail.
Camping season has arrived in Central Texas, so we checked with Phil Hoelzel, an REI sales specialist who has penned two books on camping, and asked him why we should load up our lanterns, sleeping bags and cook stove and head out for a night or two under the stars.
“It’s a good way to learn Texas,” Hoelzel says. “People have preconceived notions of what our state looks like. Texas is actually very varied, and a good way to experience that terrain is getting out to the parks.”
We’ve highlighted some of our favorite not-so-obvious places to camp in Central Texas. Now grab your gear and go.
1. Palmetto State Park
This park is a jewel, dropped like some kind of tropical nature bomb into the rolling hills southeast of Luling, about an hour’s drive from Austin via U.S. 183.
The 300-acre oasis gets its name from the swales of dwarf palmettos, the western-most stand of the tropical palms with spiky, fan-shaped leaves. It’s popular for camping, swimming, birding and fishing in a stocked oxbow lake. New trails and a boardwalk have opened in recent years, allowing access to the park’s unique wetlands without damaging them.
The water in some of the ponds looks like steeped tea. Other ponds look like puddles of guacamole. An alligator would feel right at home.
There’s a monster story, too. Legend has it that a swamp-loving creature with headlight-bright eyes and a brush-snapping stride once lurked in these parts. We can’t prove that, but we do know that longnose gar and water moccasins call the San Marcos River, which slices through the park, home.
The campground is pleasantly shady, but if a tent sounds too rustic, try the air-conditioned cabin. It has no running water but does have a small refrigerator, microwave and outdoor grill, plus a glorious wrap-around porch.
If you go: 78 Park Road 11 South near Gonzales, 830-672-3266; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/palmetto. Entry fee $3 adults. Camping $12 to $20; cabin $65.
2. South Llano River State Park
Junction’s famous for its spring-fed rivers, roosting turkeys, paddling routes and pecans.
This 2,740-acre park, a few miles south of downtown, was donated by Walter Buck Jr., who lived and ranched here his entire life. He also nurtured a pecan grove, which produced 75,000 pounds of nuts in the 1970s. Walk to the small lake in the park’s bottomland and you’ll find yourself dipping down every few steps to scoop up a few.
Other highlights? Watching the gobblers feast on acorns and pecans at the Turkey Roost area of the park, or going for a hike to the bird blinds on Fawn Trail. There’s the namesake river, too, where you can canoe, fish, swim or tube. In all, the park has more than 18 miles of hiking and biking trails, plus walk-in, hike-in and developed camping sites.
If you go: 1927 Park Road 73, Junction, 325-446-3994; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/south-llano-river. Entry fee $4 adults. Camping $8 to $20.
3. Kickapoo Cavern State Park
Kickapoo Cavern is just one of 20 known caves at this 6,368-acre state park near Brackettville, a little over 200 miles from Austin.
It takes time and a limber body to negotiate its interior, but you can see it via the wild cave tours offered every Saturday. You’ll drop into a Volkswagen-sized gap in the hard-baked Texas landscape and scramble over teetering rocks and clattery stones as you explore a quarter-mile-long hole in the ground.
This cave’s collection of stalagmites, which grow from the ground up, and stalactites, which look like a tangle of tree roots clinging to the ceiling, are surprisingly impressive. The cave even boasts helictites, rarer formations which don’t grow only up or down but every which way, thanks to a little help from air currents.
The park opened to the public on a limited basis in 1991, but you had to call ahead to arrange a visit, or sign up for a guided tour. Now there are hiking trails, a campground and places to picnic.
The park is also known for its Brazilian free-tailed bat population, which swoops in and out of Stuart Bat Cave from May to September. The bird watching is good, too.
If you go: 22 miles north of Brackettville on RM 674, 830-563-2342; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/kickapoo-cavern. Open Friday through Monday only. Entry $3 per adult; cave tours $10 per person, reservations required. Tent camping $12 to $20.
4. Government Canyon State Natural Area
Dinosaurs once roamed this park on the western fringes of San Antonio, and today you can hike along the creekbed where the lumbering behemoths stamped out footprints 110 million years ago.
Besides the tracks, you’ll find 40 miles of meandering trails, ridges to climb and a lovely grove of trees draped with Spanish moss.
The 12,000-acre park, named because it’s situated along an old military supply route, opened in 2005. Nearly 90 percent of the property is located in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. There’s no lake or river to swim in, and the terrain is rugged. But the trails here are heaven for mountain bikers and trail runners.
The campground features 23 walk-in sites tucked behind curtains of trees and two group sites. Each comes with its own wooden cabinet for storage.
If you go: 12861 Galm Road in Bexar County, 210-688-9055; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/government-canyon. Camping allowed Friday, Saturday and holidays only. Entry $6 for adults; camping $18 per site.
5. Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area
If you like your camping a little more primitive, head to this Lower Colorado River Authority Park on the (shrinking) shoreline of Lake Travis. And bring your mountain bike.
The park’s mountain bike trails and biking skills park are superb and suitable for riders of all experience levels. (Those who don’t want to make a full circuit can cut their ride short at several points.)
Other hiking trails wind through clusters of ash juniper and live oak, and up and down gradually sloping hillsides. Keep an eye out for equestrians on other park trails and dismount if you encounter one.
Muleshoe has plenty of nondeveloped sites for tent camping, picnic tables with views of the lake and a gentle shoreline. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
If you go: 2820 County Road 414 near Spicewood, 512-473-3366; lcra.org/parks. Entry fee $5 adults; $10 primitive camping, no reservations.