One of the things I love most about traveling around Texas is seeing the incredible diversity of geography and vegetation. This state has it all: desert grasslands, coastal plains, marshes, pine forests, plateaus, mountains, valleys–everything beautiful in its own way.
So I thoroughly enjoyed the long, lonely drive to South Llano State Park, if only to experience the rugged beauty that is Texas Hill Country. I’ve still got a lot of the state left to see, but this part of Texas is currently my winner for Most Beautiful.
It helps that, apparently, my timing was extra good–it was hot as hell in late June when I arrived, but I was told that there’d been a lot of rain in the area so everything outdoors was much greener than it normally is at that time of year. There was a nice breeze on the day I arrived (another perfectly-timed force of nature, as a fellow camper told me there’d been no wind at all the day before), and the following day there was a bit of rain in the morning and some very welcome cloud cover in the afternoon.
But South Llano State Park has more going for it than beautiful vistas. This very clean park has a large network of hiking trails, a wonderfully cool and clear river to float down and a whole lot of active and visible wildlife. The headquarters building is in a cute old house with a porch swing and a wishing well in the front yard, only adding to the park’s already considerable country charm.
The Trails at South Llano
I did not get a chance to explore all the trails at South Llano–I was not camping alone, so I coordinated my activities with other people and didn’t spend 100% of my time hiking and taking photos as I usually do on these trips.
But even if I had been on my own I’m not sure I would have hit every trail. While there were some shorter and flatter trails near the camping areas, several in the backcountry were much longer and went up and down some fairly steep terrain, and were only accessible from other long, steep trails. I like a challenging hike, but add in the blistering summer heat and I was worn out faster than usual. If I go back to South Llano during the summer I’ll probably bring more supplies on my hike and take a rest and a meal along the way.
My camping companion and I tackled the West Canyon Loop trail together. It was a great two-person trail–very wide–with some rocky areas and a mix of shade and sun, and at least one very steep part. We found a patch of touch-me-nots growing along the road (see the video below) and kept spotting pretty rocks that we’d have to pick up and examine closer (my childhood self would have been in heaven!) It was a very straight-forward trail–no chance of getting lost–with some lovely vegetation and scenic views, especially when we got up a little higher.
Of the rest of the longer southern trails we only did short stretches of the Golden-Cheeked Warbler (which has since been renamed the Mid-Canyon trail) and the Fawn. We stopped to admire an old-fashioned windmill then made our way back towards camp.
I later hiked up the short-but-steep Overlook trail by myself. This one was a bit of a disappointment–much of the trail was paved road, and I don’t think the scenic view at the top was interesting enough to make the steep hike worth it. However I did enjoy seeing multiple cairns that other hikers had left behind–the abundance of small rocks scattered everywhere must be hard to resist. I understand rock stacking is controversial, but the carefully-balanced piles did make for some fun photos (see below).
A Nighttime Park Ranger Program
I’ve never before taken advantage of the many park ranger programs provided at Texas State Parks, but in South Llano my friend and I went to an after-dark tour. It was fun wrapping our flashlights in red cellophane (red light is less disruptive to both the wildlife and human night vision) and tramping through the dark with a group of excited campers.
I had assumed we’d be looking for hidden wildlife, but this tour was actually an exploration of the “five senses” with group activities that included trying to identify all the night noises we could hear by the river, making wintergreen mints spark in our mouths and pretending to be frogs. I was a little bummed not to be stalking night critters, but it was a pretty cute activity–though probably a lot more fun for children.
Wildlife at South Llano
South Llano has the advantage of being close to a couple of bat caves, so one evening a couple friends and I joined a tour to visit the Devil’s Sinkhole, where huge numbers of bats are known to swarm out of at sundown. Unfortunately we weren’t visiting at the best time of year, so we had to content ourselves with a handful of bats and the impressively-large cave opening (60 feet wide in places!) and our tour guides’ wealth of information.
Coming back from the cave, though, we saw quite a bit of nocturnal wildlife in the park: multiple raccoons, hogs, armadillos, mule deer, white-tailed deer and so many jack rabbits. I tend to conk out early when I camp, but seeing how many animals come out after dark has made me reconsider my bedtime schedule.
During the day we saw a lot of bugs and lizards, and there were multiple bird blinds–I was especially impressed with the Acorn Blind near the camping area, which featured a variety of feeders and a little burbling fountain (most park blinds I’ve visited before this haven’t put in so much effort). I visited this blind early in the morning on my last day and got a lot of great pictures of hummingbirds and squirrels, and a couple of bad shots of the legendary painted bunting.
The River at South Llano
You can’t visit South Llano without floating down the river! After a sweaty morning of hiking steep hills in the oppressive heat, nothing sounded better than a leisurely swim. Tubes were available to rent at Headquarters, and if you have two cars (or one car and a non-swimmer) you can get between the start and end points of the floating area without having to do a lot of additional walking.
The river was cool, clear and delightfully lazy. Here and there it would speed up and get a little bumpy, but there were no falls or anything difficult to get over. The float took a bit over an hour each time (we went twice) and was the ideal way to relax in such a beautiful but sweltering environment.
South Llano was a wonderful and truly unique state park. The park rangers and hosts were lovely people, the park itself very clean and almost completely litter-free with a lot of great features and activities for its visitors–and there were quite a lot of them there, especially on the river. This leads to my one complaint: the bathrooms were a little run-down and much too small for the number of guests (there were long queues for the two showers on the women’s side every evening.)
But it was absolutely worth the long, lonely drive to enjoy such a great park and all its amenities in one of the most beautiful parts of Texas.