Tropical Paradise: Palmetto State Park

Palmetto State Park offers a nature-filled getaway in Central Texas.

Dwarf palmettos and other beautiful tropical vegetation make Palmetto State Park a botanical wonderland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Dwarf palmettos and other beautiful tropical vegetation make Palmetto State Park a botanical wonderland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you were to blindfold a person and drive him into the lush undergrowth of the 270-acre park, it’s likely he’d be clueless as to his whereabouts. Studded with dense clusters of dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake plant species, shaded by a moss-draped canopy of ancient live oak trees, Palmetto State Park is Texas’ own version of a subtropical jungle. At the end of the park’s entrance road the landscape vividly plummets into the water-carved vista of the San Marcos River.

Back in the mid-30s, a small piece of that swamp 13 miles northwest of Gonzales—and nine miles southeast of Luling—became Palmetto State Park. The park abuts the San Marcos River and also has a four-acre oxbow lake.

The beautiful stone buildings in the park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s.

A tropical paradise, Palmetto is an unusual botanical area that resembles the tropics more than Central Texas. The ranges of eastern and western species merge, resulting in an astounding diversity of plant and animal life. Most notably, a stand of dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants is found around the park’s ephemeral swamp.

These ground-hugging, trunkless palms normally are found in the moist forests of East Texas and Louisiana, as well as much of the southeastern US. The extensive stand in Palmetto State Park was isolated thousands of years ago, considerably west of its natural range.

Wildlife frequently seen in the park includes white-tailed deer, armadillos, squirrels, raccoons, and over 200 species of birds including wild turkeys and several species of warblers.

The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River, where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River, where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s what you wouldn’t expect to see that makes this park special: a swampy wetlands. And it’s not just any old wetlands. The Ottine Swamp, named for the small town just outside the park’s gates, is a primeval wonderland of towering trees, peaty bogs, and warm springs.

Crouch at the edge of a lagoon, as the spring-fed ponds are called locally, and the sweet scent of wild onion wafts skyward. Spanish moss drips from elm, hackberry, and cottonwood trees. Trumpet vines and wild grape twist around gnarled trunks and climb toward the canopy.

Everywhere, palmetto palm fronds rustle in the breeze. These dwarf palmettos give the swamp an otherworldly atmosphere.

Activities include camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, birding, nature study, pedal boat and canoe rentals, swimming, tubing, and canoeing.

One of the first thing we look for at a state park is a trail to hike, and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive trails have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

The beautiful stone buildings in the park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The beautiful stone buildings in the park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We hiked the Palmetto Trail loop, careful—as a large sign warns—to watch for snakes. We marveled at the sheer greenness of the place, and the profusion of fan-shaped palm leaves.

The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River, where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. The Mesquite Flats Trail offers a look at the drier, savannah-like parts of the park, where prickly pear cactus finds a home.

When you’re finished exploring the park on land, enjoy the water. The always-fun Oxbow Lake offers calm water to cast a fishing line in search of catfish or sunfish. Try out a paddleboat, kayak, or canoe, or take a swim in the cool water. The San Marcos River low-water crossing is a great place to either splash around in the water or take a tube for a 20- to 30-minute float around the park.

Boaters can put in the river at Luling City Park and travel 14 miles to Palmetto, portaging around one dam along the way. Put-in and take-out points are limited, as the river is mostly bordered by private land. There are no rapids, but almost always a steady current. Check river conditions at the park. For this trip, bring your own canoe and prearrange your shuttles.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-constructed picnic shelter frames the park's botanical wonderland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-constructed picnic shelter frames the park’s botanical wonderland. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers wishing to stay overnight or longer, the park provides great camping facilities. The campground is clean and quiet, and the stars at night are … well, you know the song.

Overnight stays are very reasonable with campsites rates ranging from $18-$20 plus the $3 per person park entrance fee. One campsite offering 30/50-amp electric service, water, and sewer is available for $20 nightly; 17 sites offering 30/50-amp electric service and water are available for $18. Weekly rates are available.

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Take a Hike at a Texas State Park

Periodic mild winter days present a great opportunity to lace up your hiking boots or simply slip on your sneakers and hit a variety of trails snaking through dozens of Texas State Parks.

With 94 state parks, hikers of all abilities will have no trouble finding the kind of trail—flat and wooded to rocky and mountainous—to tackle for healthy, low-impact exercise, to burn some calories and to get close to nature. After all, hiking is one of Texas State Parks’ most popular activities, according to a news release.

A survey of Texas State Park visitors conducted from 2002 to 2007 at 70 state parks revealed that hiking ranked highest for recreational activities participated in for both day users and overnight visitors. Thirteen percent of day park users listed hiking/walking park trails as the primary reason for a state park day trip, second only to sightseeing/scenery.

Day park users also ranked trail improvements (signage/trail map/more trails) second only to “more interpretive programs” as the “most desired park improvement” they’d like to see.

Now is a great time to take to the trails in a state park near you, according to Brent Leisure, director of Texas State Parks. Dozens of state parks throughout the state have recently upgraded existing trails or added to their trail system.

Enjoy the trails at McKinney Falls State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Outdoor activities like hiking are gaining popularity and are ideal for winter months which is off-season for most parks, bringing fewer crowds and many days of mild weather,” says Leisure. “Many of our parks either have just completed or are in the process of renovating and improving their hike and bike trails.”

Caprock Canyons State Park near Quitaque in the Panhandle Plains is in the midst of renovating roughly a third of the 65-mile Caprock Canyons Trailway, a rails-to-trails conversion that runs 64 miles from South Plains to Estelline. Five miles—from Monks Crossing to Clarity Tunnel—already have been resurfaced, providing a mostly level hike or bicycle ride for the whole family.

An additional 15 miles will be resurfaced with crushed caliche to complete the project. Inside the park, another 28 miles of trails, ranging from fairly level to an extreme incline, offer challenges for persons of any ability.

A new four-mile, multi-use Canyon Rim Trail has been completed at Seminole Canyon State Historic Site in Val Verde County, where hikers can take in amazing views from the canyon’s edge. The new trail, which will be receiving finishing touches from a Trails Across Texas crew this month, doubles the trail mileage within the park.

At Palmetto State Park near Gonzales, Superintendent Todd Imboden says workers recently have completed trail improvements to the five miles of hike-and-bike trails, including 1,000 feet of new boardwalks and 15 foot bridges suspended 18 inches over the Ottine Swamp Trail’s dwarf palmetto wetlands.

Additional trail spurs lead to the San Marcos River Trail and other park trails of wide, decomposed granite trails ideal for hiking or biking. In addition, he says, crews just last week erected new interpretive trail signage providing directions and information about the park’s natural and cultural history.

On February 25 McKinney Falls State Park will host a grand opening of an additional mile and a half of multi-use trails along the Homestead Trail, featuring bridges, armored drainages, and boardwalks. Drainage and erosion issues also were addressed on the Homestead Trail’s original 2.8 miles that wind through the heart of the park.

Hiking the trails at Palmetto State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From easy hiking trails like those at Brazos Bend and Dinosaur Valley state parks that put hikers eye-to-eye with alligators and dinosaur footprints, respectively, to challenging desert trails covering 18 miles at Big Bend Ranch State Park in far west Texas, the Texas State Park trail system makes for happy feet.

Park rangers remind trail users to don sturdy footwear, bring along a hiking stick and pack plenty of water for your trek. Park entrance fees apply at most parks.

To learn about the various Texas State Parks and their offerings, or to make online camping reservations, visit texasstateparks.org.

Or call state park information at 1-800-792-1112, option 3, between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

For more information on hiking in Texas State Parks and park trail maps, visit texasstateparks.org/hiking.

For a list of upcoming guided hikes and nature walks, visit texasstateparks.org/calendar.

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