May - June 2008 Feature Park
Pedernales Falls State Park
Pedernales Falls a Hit with Birders, Cyclists and Water-Lovers
As the campground at Pedernales Falls State Park begins to stir lazily to life on a cool spring morning, the action just outside the park's bird observation blind is hitting high gear. A squirrel chases away a Mexican scrub jay from the drip bath, mourning doves peck the earth, white-crowned sparrows flit about and several buzzing hummingbirds take turns dive-bombing feeders for a sugary reward.
The bird frenzy is occurring just a few feet beyond the glass window of the wood-frame bird blind erected a decade ago amid the oak savanna tucked surreptitiously into one corner of the 5,200-acre state park. Inside the cozy structure, bird identification materials, a bird sighting log and visitor's log provide a written history of what has unfolded here in days past. Bring your binoculars to better enjoy the wildlife show.
Nature on display - up close and personal - reveals just one reason Pedernales Falls proves so popular with outdoor lovers seeking refuge from crowded cities, such as Austin and Houston.
Though the primary birding season runs from November through April, there are plenty of interesting species to spot year around. If you can identify the song of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, you might spot a nesting pair from March through June at Pedernales Falls State Park. In all, more than 150 species of birdies have been sighted at the park. Common nesting neo-tropical migrants calling the park home each spring include painted bunting, summer tanager, yellow-billed cuckoo and ash-throated flycatcher.
But there's far more than birding to occupy oneself at this jewel of a Texas state park. For city dwellers tired of the bustle of crowded city living, Pedernales Falls represents an arboreal oasis in what is known as LBJ Country, where President Lyndon Johnson grew up and sought solace during his harried White House years.
"The park offers tranquility and a chance to get out into a different environment to enjoy the geological beauty and the falls," points out Bill McDaniel, who has managed the park for 18 years. "Visitors like the scenery and clean, clear creeks and river. The river is not the best for tubing or kayaking, but it's clear with a rock bottom and you can get in and cool off."
As with many state parks near heavily popular urban areas, Pedernales Falls finds demands on its resources growing as various user groups increasingly turn to the park as a place to pursue such activities as mountain biking, horseback riding and the like, according to McDaniel.
Open 365 days a year, Pedernales Falls has seen its popularity with mountain bikers take off in recent years. The park offers easy to moderately difficult trails traversing the scenic limestone canyons and hills. A young lady from Austin resting near the visitor center the day I visited, pronounced the mountain biking trails "killer." The first-time park visitor enthused that it wouldn't be her last visit.
It's easy to see why Pedernales Falls evokes such positive responses. Blessed with the stunning vistas, lush canyons and woodlands, and the spring-fed waters and stair-stepped, limestone falls of the Pedernales River, the park represents exactly the kind of setting one seeks in a state park. Towering bald cypress, tenacious oaks, pecans and walnuts shade the river banks. Here, too, giant boulder-strewn canyons painted with the verdancy of maidenhair fern, mustang grapevine and other flora thrive.
Few spots in any Texas state park can rival the Twin Falls area at Pedernales Falls State Park for its remarkable natural beauty. Though the fragile vegetative area around the falls has been closed to the public since the park opened in 1971, the picturesque water feature can be readily viewed and photographed from a nearby observation platform. It can be found in the woods at the bottom of a short nature trail that commences in the campgrounds and skirts a rocky Edwards Plateau escarpment. In the oft rain-starved Hill County, the lush Twin Falls site seems an incongruous albeit welcome visual relief.
Most first-time Pedernales Falls visitors find their way quickly to the geologic feature that gives the park its name - a wacky jumble of rock limestone bedrock, boulders and pockmarked limestone ledges. Located at the upper end of the state property, the series of gentle water falls occur where the river drops 500 feet over 3,000 feet, spilling over layers of 300 million-year-old limestone shelves. Swimming is not allowed in this upper falls portion of the river, but there are plenty of easily-accessed "beach" areas further downstream near the picnic area and youth camping area.
Camping at the popular park is at a premium much of the year. The only campground features 59 water/electric sites with a tent pad, picnic table, a ground fire ring/barbecue grill and lantern pole. They rent for $20 per night plus the entry fee (campers 13 and older receive $2 off the $5 entry fee). Restrooms with showers are available. Make reservations early and call ahead to see if ground fires are being allowed. Primitive, backcountry campsites ($10 per night for up to 4 persons) also are available, accessible by a two-mile trail.
Park visitors eager to indulge their hiking, mountain biking and equestrian urges will find plenty of miles of trails. Hikers and bikers can traverse almost 20 miles of trails, with the 7.5-mile Wolf Mountain loop being one of the most popular treks. Horseback riders can stage from the corrals near the bird blind to cover 10 miles of equestrian trails. There are no overnight equestrian facilities.
While visiting the Johnson City area, be sure to visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Historical Park that includes LBJ's boyhood home and the 19th century Johnson Settlement reflecting Texas' pioneer heritage. Tuscan-inspired Texas Hills Vineyards can be found on FM 2766 between the state park and town. Don't miss the fine eateries and antique shops in downtown Johnson City.
Pedernales Falls State Park is located about an hour's drive west of Austin. Take U.S. Highway 290 west for 32 miles and then go 6 miles north on FM 3232. It is one of 93 state parks and historic sites that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information visit the Pedernales Falls State Park web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle