Just after dusk on a recent Friday night, we rolled into South Llano River State Park for our annual fall camping trip, which we brave with the same two families each year. Located about 2.5 hours from Austin, this 500-plus-acre state park sits on the southwestern edge of the Hill Country and serves as a peaceful retreat along the pristine spring-fed South Llano River. We located the last remaining side-by-side campsites as our combined seven kids excitedly leaped out of our cars to begin exploring what would serve as their home for the long weekend. As the adults unloaded vehicles jam-packed with camping supplies and set up tents in the twilight, I watched seven flashlight beams follow a set of jackrabbits scampering across an open field before their attention was diverted to the curious armadillo that had wandered onto our campsite. Watching our junior camping enthusiasts become enthralled with cute campsite critters reminded me of what I love most about camping: It affords families a rare opportunity to unplug from the normal distractions, spend days appreciating nature’s beauty and savor nights snuggled around the campfire and beneath the stars.
Shortly after sunrise, we prepared a hearty campfire breakfast and headed out for a day of exploring. Nearly 23 miles of trails weave through this state park, spanning rugged backcountry trails dotted with cactuses to tree-shaded paths weaving through bottomland forests thick with cedar elms, oaks and pecans. Since most of the trails are relatively short in distance, it’s an easy place to hike with little ones. We set out on the 1.6-mile River Trail, which runs along the river and into a shaded tree-filled forest where our kids gathered freshly fallen pecans in their pockets and paused to crack them for mid-hike snacks. More serious hikers and mountain bikers can trek along the scenic Frontera Trail, which follows the park boundary for 4 miles. While we rarely saw other hikers on the trails, we spotted resident wildlife including white-tailed deer, squirrels, ducks, birds, rabbits and Rio Grande turkey — the park serves as one of the oldest and most substantial winter turkey roosts in Central Texas.
After working up a sweat and stopping back at camp for sandwiches, the warm mid-October afternoon had all of us dreaming of a dip. With 2 miles of river frontage on the spring-fed South Llano River, it’s the perfect place to cool off. We rented tubes ($8 each) and spent the rest of the daylight swimming and splashing in the crystal-clear river. Evenings were spent gathered around the campfire, cooking sizzling fajitas and burgers and telling stories until the sun disappeared. When night cloaks this International Dark Sky Park, watch as millions of twinkling stars fill the sky, gaze up at the awe-inspiring Milky Way and roast marshmallows over the coals.
For the outdoor-lovers in Central Texas, camping provides one of the most affordable and authentic travel experiences. Each time fall rolls around, we find another state park to set up camp and collect memories to bring back home. From surrounding spots perfect for first-time campers to remote refuges where silence flourishes for miles, below are six more state parks perfect for sleeping beneath the stars.
Many state parks are still dealing with the aftermath of recent heavy rainfalls and flooding and have been temporarily closed until very recently. Check websites for updates.
GO THE DISTANCE TO DAVIS MOUNTAINS STATE PARK
If you ever wanted to get away from it all without leaving the state, this uninhabited corner of far-flung West Texas is the place to do it. At Davis Mountains State Park, rugged mountains and craggy canyons rise from wide-open spaces, silence stretches for hundreds of miles in each direction, and coal-black night skies are spackled with twinkling stars and dusted with galaxies.
Solitude flourishes throughout this untamed landscape, and Wi-Fi signals are nonexistent or spotty at best. Tucked in the foothills of the most extensive mountain range in Texas, folks are drawn to this state park located a few miles from historic Fort Davis for a number of reasons, spanning middle-of-nowhere scenery to legendary stargazing. Head to the nearby McDonald Observatory, the star attraction in this area and one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research and education, for a nighttime Star Party. More at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/davis-mountains.
TEST OUT YOUR TENT AT PEDERNALES FALLS STATE PARK
These 5,200-plus acres on the banks of the pretty Pedernales River are an ideal camping spot for first-timers coming from Austin because less than an hour stands between your tent and the comforts of civilization. While watching these clear river waters rushing over layers of smooth limestone, the world’s worries tend to take a back seat. A simple, peaceful beauty flourishes within these park boundaries along miles of hiking and biking trails like the short but rugged Twin Falls Trail, which leads to one of the most spectacular views of the Hill Country, or the longer 5.5-mile scenic loop that takes hikers to an overlook with unobstructed views of the river valley below. Swim, fish and splash along 6 miles of river frontage, and spot an abundant array of wildlife including coyotes, rabbits, armadillos, white-tailed deer, opossums, raccoons and birds. More at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/pedernales-falls.
DISCOVER TRACKS AT DINOSAUR VALLEY STATE PARK
Have little ones obsessed with the giants that walked the earth millions of years ago? Discover their tracks at Dinosaur Valley State Park, ranked on Frommer’s list of 100 Places to Take Your Kids alongside other diverse U.S. destinations spanning the Statue of Liberty to Graceland. An oasis of untamed Texas beauty, Dinosaur Valley State Park is the site of some of the best-preserved dinosaur tracks in the world. Venture past the two towering fiberglass dinosaur models near the park’s headquarters — a 70-foot green apatosaurus and 45-foot brown Tyrannosaurus rex — to discover a hilly landscape of rugged Texas beauty, wildlife and the pristine Paluxy River, where you can find perfectly preserved tracks left by dinosaurs that walked there around 113 million years before you. More at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/dinosaur-valley.
UNPLUG AT COLORADO BEND STATE PARK
Camping out at Colorado Bend State Park feels a world away. Perhaps it’s because there’s no reliable signal out here, allowing campers to unplug and let nature do all the talking. A pleasant symphony of rushing waterfalls, chirping birds and rustling leaves plays out on the 5,300-plus unspoiled acres of Colorado Bend. Six miles of Colorado River frontage invites guests to swim, go bass fishing or paddle up and down the river on a kayak, while hikers and mountain bikers can work up a sweat along more than 35 miles of multiuse trails ranging from easy flat tracks to challenging rocky trails. Gorman Falls Trail is a popular 3-mile round-trip rocky hike that requires a steep and slick descent to get to gorgeous Gorman Falls, a living waterfall that features numerous cascades pouring out from a limestone cliff carpeted in emerald moss and draped in ferns. Colorado Bend State Park is also home to more than 400 caves, and beginner to expert spelunkers can crawl through them with an experienced guide leading the way on a beginner discovery tour, intermediate adventure tour or advanced climbers tour. More at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/colorado-bend.
GO TO GARNER FOR FALL FOLIAGE AND THE FRIO
Garner State Park is the spectacular spot in Texas where fall’s foliage fringes the cool, crystal-clear waters of the Frio. It’s the combination of stunning scenery and deep-rooted Texas traditions that makes Garner State Park the most visited state park in the state. Sitting on the southwestern edge of the Hill Country and surrounded by unparalleled vistas of soaring mesas, carved limestone cliffs and ancient rock formations, this 1,174-acre state park is a camper’s paradise. Hike, bike, swim, bird-watch, play putt-putt and paddle boat your way down the river by day while spending the nights stargazing and roasting marshmallows around the campfire. In the summer, experience Garner’s legendary nightly quarter-fed jukebox dances, and in the fall, come to see the towering bald cypress trees become splashed in crimson and gold. More at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/garner.
FIND HEAVEN IN THE HILL COUNTRY AT INKS LAKE STATE PARK
Less than an hour and a half away, Inks Lake State Park is an idyllic escape for those looking to create memories in a place that is as tranquil as it is close by. At this 1,200-acre state park, campers can experience the lake life by renting paddle boats, canoes and kayaks, or fishing for largemouth bass, white bass, crappie, catfish and sunfish. Traverse the 9 miles of hiking trails weaving through this Hill Country haven where unique pink rock outcroppings of Valley Spring gneiss rise up through the surrounding limestone. After working up a sweat, cool off on warm days at Devil’s Waterhole. When the weather is too cool for swimming, enjoy the water on a guided boat tour or meandering lakeshore walk. More at tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/inks-lake.
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