The Summer of the State Park: A Guide to Texas State Parks Near San Antonio

Staying home is not my thing. I like being on the go, seeing and experiencing new places with my kids. All of that came to a screeching halt the week after Spring Break thanks to COVID-19. When the Texas state parks re-opened after a few weeks of being closed during the early days of the pandemic, I saw this as an opportunity for our family to get out of the house, while still keeping our distance from others. I declared this the Summer of the State Park. My kids have lived in this area their entire lives but had only been to one Texas state park. Knowing what I know now, that makes me so sad! Our state has astounding beauty and world-class sights just waiting to be found, and many are just a short drive from San Antonio.

What started out as a very challenging part of the pandemic for me personally turned into one of the biggest blessings for our family, as it forced us to step out of our comfort zone and try something new. The memories we have made this summer at these state parks are something we will always cherish, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. My kids have learned to appreciate nature, they have experienced the unique features of our area, climbed hills they didn’t think they could climb, entered caves they were afraid to enter, and tackled challenging trails like hiking champs. I’m proud of what our family has accomplished this summer. When I think about 2020 and all the challenges that have come with it, I will always remember the Summer of the State Park as the bright spot of our year.

In no particular order, here are the Texas state parks we visited and some tips for each one:

Palmetto State Park

It’s not every day that you see a swamp in the middle of Texas.

This was the first state park we visited this year, and it’s a great starter park. It’s small, the trails are easy and mostly shaded, and it’s different from anything I’ve ever seen in Texas. You’ll feel like you stepped into the tropics when you see the dwarf palmettos covering the ground and the boardwalks leading through peaceful swamps. My kids had to throw a rock in the still, green swamp water just to be sure it actually was water.

Make sure to check out the Interpretive Trail, where you can find the CCC Water Tower, a picturesque water pump that was built in 1936 and pumps water without electrical power into the park’s wetlands. We also enjoyed the Oxbow Lake Trail, a nice stroll around the small lake and good spot for fishing. Don’t miss the Artesian Well and “mud boil” re-creation near Oxbow Lake.

Daily Entrance Fee: $3 per adult; children 12 and under are free

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Many legends and much history surround this huge pink granite dome-shaped hill. We enjoyed reading about the background of the area on our way there. If you go, you have to climb Enchanted Rock, of course, and the Summit Trail is the only way to the top. The trail is challenging, but doable. We saw families with children of all ages making the trek. Just go slow and pace yourself. Stop from time to time to enjoy the view. And bring LOTS of water. There is little-to-no shade on Enchanted Rock.

My girls check out the vernal pools at the summit of Enchanted Rock.

At the top, look for the small vernal pools and the tiny fairy shrimp that live in them. There is also a cave entrance at the top of Enchanted Rock that used to be marked, but the sign has been removed.

If you’re feeling adventurous, check out the Echo Canyon Trail on your way down the rock. It’s quite challenging, but my six- and nine-year-old daughters did great and enjoyed the challenge. The large boulders between the Enchanted Rock and Moss Lake are a great place to stop for a shady lunch.

At the bottom of the rock, past the restrooms, there is a low water crossing that leads to the trailhead for the Loop Trail. We saw THREE snakes at the low water crossing and another in the water along the trail, so if snakes are your thing, this is the place for you. If they’re not your thing, this is your warning.

Overall, there is not a lot of shade at this park, so go early, bring sunscreen and lots of water, or wait for cooler weather.

Daily Entrance Fee: $8 per adult; children 12 and under are free

Blanco State Park

This small park was made for swimming and fishing. There are just two short hiking trails (both are worth seeing), but the main attraction is the pretty flowing dam with a shallow, sectioned-off swimming “pool” and nearby rocky wading area. Bring a chair, tube for floating, and net and bucket for minnow-catching (along with water shoes, of course). There are also some great fishing and picnic spots along the banks of the Blanco River.

Blanco State Park is perfect for swimming, with this shallow and sectioned-off area by the dam.

Don’t miss the Pumphouse Trail, which leads to a scenic view of the pretty Blanco River and an area around a second dam that’s perfect for exploring.

Daily Entrance Fee: $5 per adult; children 12 and under are free

Lost Maples State Natural Area

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Lost Maples in the summer. Everyone raves about this park’s gorgeous fall foliage, but would it still be pretty in June? The answer is YES. Lost Maples is gorgeous in any season. The Sabinal River meanders through the park, and the trails cross it or parallel it much of the time. You’ll get your feet wet or use the conveniently-placed stepping stones to cross the shallow stream multiple times, and it’s a perfect way to cool off in the heat of the summer. This park isn’t as ideal for swimming as some of the others, but there are plenty of places to splash around a bit or relax in the shade.

Monkey Rock is a “don’t miss” at Lost Maples State Natural Area.

Take the East Trail to Monkey Rock. (You’ll know it when you see it.) Then continue on to the shady Grotto, possibly the most serene spot we’ve found at any state park this summer. Past that, the trail gets much more challenging and quite steep, so be prepared if you decide to tackle it. But the views from the scenic overlooks at the top are worth the effort. Head down the hill via the East-West Trail for some gorgeous views and a pretty pond, which is the perfect setting for lunch (There are a few picnic tables.) or a break in the shade. The rest of the trail back to the parking area is easy and gorgeous with a large waterfall to the left of the pond (It’s below the trail, so you’ll have to look for it if you want to see it.) and several shallow river crossings.

Tip: On your way back from Lost Maples, stop by Love Creek Orchards’ The Apple Store in Medina for some delicious apple ice cream, amazing homemade apple pie, and other treats. You won’t regret it! (And you just burned all those calories hiking, anyway.)

Daily Entrance Fee: $6 per adult; children 12 and under are free

Pedernales Falls State Park

The Pedernales River was raging thanks to a recent rainstorm.

This park is a favorite of many, and the Falls are beautiful and impressive. We happened to visit this park immediately after a big rainstorm, and the park was experiencing flooding conditions. It was amazing to witness the power of water in the raging river.

The Pedernales Falls Trail System is fun to explore. There are plenty of places to venture off the trail and view the Falls from the large rocks in and around the water. Swimming is not allowed in this area, but there is plenty of room for splashing in the pretty Pedernales River off the Swimming Area Trail downstream.

Don’t miss the Twin Falls Nature Trail–a lush, shady trail that leads to an overlook of the pretty Twin Falls below. We only saw one of the Twins because of overgrowth in the area, but it was still well worth the hike.

Daily Entrance Fee: $6 per adult; children 12 and under are free

Garner State Park

Garner State Park is home to the gorgeous Frio River.

This place is like a little town inside a state park. It has so much to offer and everything you need for a few days away from the “every day.” There is a small grocery store, an ice cream shop, a food truck, a candy store, miniature golf, paddle boat and water sports rentals, and even music with a good, old-fashioned summer evening dance during non-COVID times. In addition, there are enough trails to keep you busy for several days without any repeats. If you have reluctant hikers, try the Crystal Cave Trail. It’s a bit challenging, but the promise of a “crystal cave” might just be the motivation they need to push them up that hill. Take flashlights for entry into the 30-foot deep cave. (Spoiler alert: We didn’t actually see any crystals in the cave, but maybe you will.) Keep hiking past the cave and take the Bridges Trail down the hill for some gorgeous views.

The real gem of this park is the crystal clear, turquoise water of the Frio River. Texas has many gorgeous rivers, but the Frio has my heart. Bring a tube and relax the day away in a still spot of the river, or start at the north end of the park and float your way down the 2.9 miles of gentle (and not so gentle) rapids toward Old Baldy, the centerpiece of the park. If you don’t like crowds (and who really does these days?), avoid the main swimming area by finding a more secluded spot along the Blinn River Trail.

Daily Entrance Fee: $8 per adult; children 12 and under are free

Guadalupe River State Park

The huge Bald Cypress Trees along the Guadalupe River are quite photogenic.

This park is close to home and has something for everyone. With 13 miles of trails and four miles of river frontage, it’s great for swimming, tubing, fishing, hiking, and geocaching. Walk along the Bald Cypress Trail for some beautiful views of the Guadalupe River rapids and perfect fishing spots. (Fishing licenses are not required in Texas state parks!) Take the River Overlook Trail for a pretty view of the river below.

Download the Geocaching app and look for caches around the park. (Use this free app at all state parks to find nearby caches.) Bring small toys or treasures to trade in many of the caches.

Daily Entrance Fee: $7 per adult; children 12 and under are free

McKinney Falls State Park

We visited the Lower Falls of McKinney State Park during flooding conditions and couldn’t cross to the other side.

It’s amazing that this tranquil place lies within the city limits of Austin. Just 13 miles from the state capitol, you’ll find almost nine miles of trails and the Upper and Lower Falls of Onion Creek. Get your feet wet or fish near the Falls, and explore the shady and scenic Rock Shelter Trail, where you’ll find a 100-foot tall Bald Cypress tree called “Old Baldy” (that’s over 500 years old!) and a prehistoric limestone rock shelter that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t explore the north side of the park because the creek was experiencing flooding conditions when we visited. The Falls were flowing so swiftly that we couldn’t cross the creek to get to the trails and the McKinney Homestead on the other side. Even though we only experienced half of the park, there was still plenty to see and do, and now we’ll get to go back and have a whole new experience on the other side of the park.

Daily Entrance Fee: $6 per adult; children 12 and under are free

 

Texas state parks are currently limiting capacity due to COVID restrictions, and day pass reservations may be booked up to 30 days in advance. Overnight reservations may be booked up to three months in advance. Make reservations online here, and plan ahead because many book up quickly. If you plan to visit more than a couple of state parks this year, look into the Texas state park pass. At $70 for the first person and $25 for an additional person in the same household (and remember, kids 12 and under are free!), the park pass may save you some money in the long run.

As always, visit the Texas State Parks Web site before your visit to stay up-to-date with current information and policies. Face masks are currently required inside all state park buildings but are not required while hiking if you can keep to the six-foot social distancing requirement. Groups larger than 10 people are not allowed, except for people or families living in the same household.

One more fun fact: You can download gorgeous virtual background photos of various Texas state parks for use during your next virtual meeting at this Web site.

For more pictures of these state parks, visit my Instagram account: @satxfamily. There are many more state parks on my bucket list, so keep checking back for those in the coming months!

Happy hiking!

State Park Checklist

 

 

Jill
Jill is a small-town girl at heart but has loved discovering all San Antonio has to offer since moving here in 2004. She and her husband of 16 years are proud Texas Aggies and parents to two elementary-age girls. Jill worked as an editor, writer, and 4th-grade teacher before discovering her dream job as a taxi driver (for her girls). As a stay-at-home-mom, she spends her days volunteering at her kids' school and at church, attempting to exercise, pondering how four people can accumulate so much dirty laundry, and driving her kids to numerous extracurricular activities. She has recently taken her love for all things Disney to the next level by becoming a Disney Travel Planner. Follow along on her family’s adventures in San Antonio and beyond on Instagram at @satxfamily or email her for a Disney (or Universal Studios) vacation quote and planning assistance at [email protected] Favorite Restaurant: The Melting Pot Favorite Landmark: Japanese Tea Garden Favorite San Antonio Tradition: San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo