OTTINE, Texas — An alligator would look right at home at Palmetto State Park, rearing its toothy snout out of the boggy backwoods of this swampy oasis.
Lucky for hikers, though, the gators haven’t invaded. Even better, nearly 5 miles of new trails have opened up access to parts of the park that for years were off-limits due to environmental sensitivity.
If Texas to you means cactus-dotted plains, cedar-covered hills and craggy limestone outcroppings, brace for a surprise. You’ll find a shady, marshy mecca with a small lake and lagoons fed by an artisan well here. It’s a little like discovering Jurassic Park smack in the middle of the Lone Star State.
“A lot of people don’t realize there are swamps in Central Texas,” says Superintendent Todd Imboden.
The park 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 and birding.
About 1,000 feet of boardwalk and 15 footbridges solved the access problem, allowing people to get a close look at the unique wetlands without damaging them. A $200,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department paid for the wide, smooth trails, which look like nice terrain for trail running.
The Texas and Louisiana Railroad Company, the city of Gonzales and private landowners donated land for the original park about 80 years ago.
The Civilian Conservation Corps went to work from 1933 to 1936, when the gates opened. The corps’ work still stands - most notably a gorgeous old red rock refectory that operated as a restaurant, complete with white tablecloths, in the 1930s. The structure, which got a new roof last year, remains popular for family reunions.
The park added a few small parcels over the years, and today it covers about 300 acres. That’s not big, but it’s plenty interesting.
In the 1950s, mud boils bubbled up in the area. They’re long gone — Imboden says they dried up after water wells were drilled. A warm spring still feeds the 4-acre oxbow lake, though, and visitors can rent a canoe, paddle boat or paddle bike to explore it. Staff also stock it with bass, crappy, perch and catfish for fishing.
A rehabilitation hospital for polio patients was built to take advantage of warm springs in nearby Ottine. That closed in 2002, but the Elks Association still operates a camp and offices adjacent to the park.
And, because we’re talking about a swamp, 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 long-nose gar and water moccasins call the San Marcos River, which slices through the park, home.
Paddlers like it here, too. In 2008, a small dam on the river just upstream from the park collapsed, creating a dangerous strainer that could trap paddlers. For the last four years they’ve had to portage around the spot, but repairs are planned in coming months, eliminating the obstacle. That should make the 14-mile trip from the river put-in at Luling City Park to Palmetto State Park even more appealing.
Also new? A rental cabin, funded with proceeds from Palmetto’s Wild Outdoor Adventure and Ecology Program, a summer camp for 8- to 12-year-olds. Plans are in the works for a second air-conditioned cabin, too.
The cabin doesn’t have running water (you have to walk down the road a few hundred yards), but it does have a small refrigerator, microwave and outdoor grill, plus a glorious wrap-around porch. It sleeps six, plus there’s a loft that’ll work for small kids with sleeping bags and a sense of adventure.
Campers can choose from 40 sites — 20 for tents and 20 with water hookups for RVs.
“If I had 100 more, they’d fill up,” Imboden says.
Not that he’d want that. He likes the quiet, reclusive (and alligator-free) atmosphere of the park. So will you.
If you go
Palmetto State Park is at 78 Park Road 11 S., near Gonzales; (830) 672-3266. Entry fee $3 for adults and children 12 and older; campsites $12 and $18.