In addition to sitting in the heart of Texas, Austin lies at the crossroads of several different ecosystems. To the west, green rolling hills give way to desert landscapes. To the east, higher rainfall creates endless fields of wildflowers. The trees grow shorter and bushier to the south, and the rolling hills become flatlands to the north. Most of the camping destinations near Austin are built around rivers or lakes, and they offer a wealth of recreational options.
The Pedernales River becomes a beast after heavy rains. During these periods, swimming is prohibited, but the cascading falls are an amazing sight. Instead of one big waterfall, there are several stair-step falls rushing over beige limestone boulders. Coyotes, rabbits and roadrunners are common in the park, and you may even stumble upon a skunk or two. Most campsites have a picnic table, water and electricity.
For those who want a truly natural experience without driving too far, Government Canyon is a minimally developed park between Austin and San Antonio. Unlike most Central Texas campgrounds, there is no lake or river on site. The land is part of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, so most of the water in the area is underground. If you’re up for a five-mile hike, take the Johnston Route to marker #19 to see amazingly well-preserved dinosaur tracks. The endangered golden-cheeked warbler is sometimes spotted in the park during the spring nesting season. The fierce-looking but usually harmless javelina also calls the park home.
The main attraction is the massive hunk of pink granite at the center of the park. Climbing the slick surface can be a little trickier than it appears — especially after a rain. Following a zigzag pattern will help you keep your footing. While most people simply walk up the hill, some rock climbers do it the hard way, climbing up the steep rock face on one edge. Native Americans once saw the dome as a mystical place, perhaps because it makes mysterious noises at night as the rock cools down. Campsites here do not have electrical hookups, but many have water and showers within walking distance. The quaint German town of Fredericksburg is a short drive away.
The centerpiece of the park is a swimming hole with a waterfall. The flow varies greatly depending on recent rainfall. Occasionally, park rangers have to prohibit swimming when the swimming hole turns into whitewater. The park also has several miles of trails. If you’re lucky, you may spot the colorful painted bunting. However, you’re more likely to see raccoons, armadillos and deer. Most campsites feature easy access to water, electricity and restrooms.
Unlike many lakes in central Texas, Inks Lake remains at more or less the same level regardless of rainfall. That means it’s a prime destination for boaters, anglers and swimmers. For those who aren’t fond of sleeping in a tent, the park offers 40 air-conditioned cabins. The pink granite throughout the park makes an excellent backdrop for photos. If you’re out early in the morning, you might even get a shot of the park’s resident turkeys. Many of the deer in the park have lost their fear of humans, and they’ll often graze or nap in close proximity to the campsites.
One of the most multifaceted parks in Central Texas, Colorado Bend appeals to hardcore primitive campers and weekend warriors alike. The centerpiece of the park is Gorman Falls, a waterfall surrounded by delicate ferns. There are also a number of caves throughout the park, and guided tours are available. The park has over 35 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. Many of the park’s prime locations require a fairly strenuous hike to get to, but there’s usually a payoff at the end, such as at Spicewood Springs, a spring-fed swimming hole.
Though Palmetto State Park is just a few miles farther east than most Central Texas parks, it looks like it’s a world away. The swampy landscape is dotted with low-lying dwarf palmetto trees that give the park a tropical feel. The park’s wetlands attract a large and ever-changing bird population. In addition to a wide variety of songbirds, you might see larger birds of prey such as the red-shouldered hawk and crested caracara. You can rent paddle boats or canoes to explore the park’s waterways.
A small park along the spring-fed Blanco River, the park is ideal for a quick summer getaway. The cool spring water is a powerful antidote to Central Texas’ blazing summer heat. A small dam along the river creates a scenic waterfall next to a kid-friendly swimming hole. Several types of turtles call the park home, including red-eared sliders, river cooters and spiny soft-shell turtles. The park’s screened shelters provide welcome shade at mealtime.
A devastating wildfire in 2011 destroyed much of the park’s signature pine trees. Not long after the fire, heavy rainfall brought even more damage to the park. Luckily, the historic cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps were saved. Students of ecology will enjoy witnessing nature’s slow recovery process in action. Seedlings are sprouting, and the park abounds with wildflowers in the spring. For the kiddos, the park also has a swimming pool. The recovery of the park has become something of a community project for people living in the area. You may have the opportunity to join volunteer crews who are planting trees and plants throughout the park.
Want to combine a camping trip with a golfing getaway? Lockhart State Park has its own nine-hole golf course. While the park is relatively small, it has a surprising array of wildlife, including armadillos, coyotes, turkeys and even a few beavers. During the summer, a swimming pool is available for the little ones. Clear Fork Creek is a prime fishing spot known for its abundance of bass and catfish.
The park sits along four miles of Guadalupe River frontage, so water recreation is the most popular pastime. You can go tubing, canoeing, fishing or swimming in the river. One of the most outstanding natural features of the park is the towering bald cypress trees along the river. Many of the trees actually sit in the river, and their roots pop up out of the water and look like knobby knees. The wildlife you may spot in the park includes bobcats, armadillos, deer and gray fox.
One of the few sites for impressive fall color in Texas, Lost Maples State Natural Area is particularly popular in October and November. That’s when the park’s maple trees turn beautiful shades of red, orange and yellow. The park’s location also makes it a good spot for stargazing. With minimal interference from city lights, many celestial bodies are visible that you may have never seen before. The park hosts regular Star Parties with helpful experts on hand to explain what you’re seeing. The park is popular year-round among avid hikers due the wide variety of terrain, from steep limestone cliffs to rolling grasslands. Serious bird watchers can pick up a checklist at headquarters to keep track of their sightings, which may include the endangered black-capped vireo, the golden-cheeked warbler or the exotic-looking green kingfisher.
A little-known gem west of Austin, South Llano River State Park is situated along a lazy river. A large population of Rio Grande Turkeys can be spotted throughout the park. Their antics alone can provide hours of entertainment, particularly during mating season. Several exotic species of deer can be spotted in the park. These are the descendants of deer that have escaped from exotic game ranches in the area. The river itself is a prime spot for fly fishing.