Beat The Heat At South Llano River State Park
It's a toasty summer afternoon at South Llano River State Park. A gaggle of swimmers and tubers cavort in a blue hole fed by cool waters flowing beneath a low-water bridge near the park entrance. Even the park campground on this lazy Monday is more than half full of campers lounging in lawn chairs, cycling with their kids or strolling nearby trails.
The reason for the park's popularity this time of year is simple: South Llano River State Park just south of Junction possesses one commodity most river parks in the rain-starved Hill Country don't - a flowing, relatively constant, spring-fed water level. The South Llano flows not south, but north, from headwaters originating with artesian waters in the "Land of 1,100 Springs" that gush from limestone rocks on an Edwards County ranch 50 miles south to meet the North Llano River at Junction.
Summer visitors come to chill out by taking a plunge, tubing, fishing or paddling its clear, clean water that courses two miles through the park, beneath picturesque limestone bluffs and past pastoral ranchlands. The park's family-friendly atmosphere is another major draw.
"Our park is nice and friendly and compact," says park Superintendent Fred Gregg, who returned in 2007 to manage the park where years ago he spent some career years as a ranger. "We have a quiet, peaceful, family-oriented campground. It's not a madhouse like some parks. Since the campground is small, we can keep a good handle on things."
Campers can choose from 58 water-and-electric sites and 30-amp service or 6 walk-in campsites with picnic tables and fire rings for those seeking more solitude. The multi-use sites rent for $17 per night, plus the $3 entry fee, feature a fire ring with grill, lantern post and picnic table, and are near the rest rooms and showers. Most sites are shaded by mesquite and other hardwoods or shade shelters.
Don't let the state park's diminutive size -- 524 acres - fool you either. The park abuts the 2,200-acre Walter Buck Wildlife Management Area, which along with the parkland, was bequeathed in 1977 to the state of Texas by Walter W. Buck, Jr. Buck's parents brought the 18-year-old to live among the wooded hills and canyons of Kimble County in 1910. Buck took over the ranch after his father's death in 1933, raising goats and cattle. In an unusual arrangement, park visitors enjoy ready access to the WMA much of the year (use is restricted during hunting season) via more than 20 miles of hike and bike trails.
The original, whitewashed frame ranch house where the Buck family lived serves as a rustic, atypical park headquarters building. Park visitors can check in, peruse exhibits and step out onto the covered front porch to observe barn swallows swooping to and from their conical mud nests and hummingbirds dive-bombing the feeders.
South Llano River State Park proves conducive to short or long floats. Most "toobers" put in just above the low-water crossing and enjoy short floats to downriver gravel shoals and banks. For those seeking a longer tubing experience, the park recommends floating more than a mile to a designated takeout point. You can rent tubes at the park's visitor center for $5 a day. In addition, several Junction area outfitters offer canoe and kayak rentals for daylong trips or shorter treks.
During my visit, I brought my own kayak that I paddled and dragged upriver from the park through a couple of shallower areas for an hour to enjoy a leisurely 30-minute paddle back downriver. My efforts were rewarded with views of a water snake draped on side of a sandy bank, dozens of skittish sliders, curious bovine drinking from the shallow waters, and scenic limestone bluffs and river bottoms populated by pecans, hackberry, walnut, juniper, mesquite and a variety of oaks. Though I encountered mostly flat water, two slight bends created small, shallow rapids and riffles that required vigilance.
Fishing proves popular, as well, at the state park. Increasingly popular is fly fishing for Guadalupe bass - one of the state's purer strains of the official state fish - brings a number of anglers to the shallow, clear waters of the South Llano River. Youngsters and other anglers can walk a short woodland trail from the campground to tranquil Buck Lake to try their luck with catch-and-release bass, perch and catfish.
Park visitors will be surprised at the diversity of wildlife to be found at South Llano. If there is a park mascot, it is the wild turkey. Rio Grande turkeys are readily seen strutting through the campground, river bottoms and woodlands throughout the park. From October through March, turkeys roost inside the park, restricting visitor access to much of the park during the six-month season. Readily spotted, too, are white-tailed and exotics such as axis deer that roam the park.
Bird watchers will find the park a remarkable resource for adding to their life list or just enjoying the variety of migrant and resident species that frequent escarpment canyons, juniper and oak woodlands, and pecan and oak river bottoms. Four wildlife observation blinds equipped with benches afford a close-up view through large windows that looks out on a water feature, brush piles and feeding stations. Painted bunting, pyrrhuloxia, black-capped vireo, Eastern bluebird, house finch and other colorful species are frequently seen, especially in spring. Occasionally, birders spot the endangered black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler. All three kingfisher species, too, can be spotted at South Llano.
South Llano River State Park is located in Kimble County five miles south of Junction on U. S. 377. For more information visit the South Llano River State Park web site.