Mother Nature took it easy on Austin this summer, withholding the worst of the you-could-roast-a-porkchop-on-the-grill-of-your-car heat that we sometimes get, but we’re still looking forward to cooler fall temps –– and camping season.
We’ve visited parks all over the state, from the mountains of Big Bend and the piney thickets of East Texas to the sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast and everything in between. But here in Central Texas, you’ll find some of our favorite camping spots. Below are 16 close-to-home camping options perfect for escaping Austin’s bustle, reconnecting with nature, and pitching a tent beneath brilliant star-studded skies.
Bastrop State Park
100 Park Road 1A, Bastrop; 512-321-2101
Entry $5 adults; free 12 and under. Camping $15-$25 per night.
Yes, fires in 2011 and 2015 ravaged this 6,600-acre park east of Austin, then a dam burst, and the park’s small lake drained away. But if you head out here, you will see signs of a park that’s recovering. Seven miles of hiking trails weave through ghostly stretches of burned forest in the westernmost stand of loblolly pine trees in the country. The sandy soils also provide critical habitat for the endangered Houston toad. Bring your bike and pedal the hilly 12-mile road between Bastrop and Buescher state parks for a workout. Afterward, cool off with a dip in the big, seasonally-operated swimming pool. The Civilian Conservation Corps built cabins and a dining hall here in the 1930s, but they closed for renovations in July and won’t reopen until spring 2022. – Pam LeBlanc
Blanco State Park
101 Park Road 23, Blanco; 830-833-4333
Entry $5 adults; free 12 and under. Camping $20-$25.
At 105 acres, Blanco State Park is small but mighty. If you love open-water swimming, though, plan a trip pronto. The park hugs a mile-long stretch of the Blanco River. Intense flooding in 2016 uprooted trees and scoured the banks, but numerous towering cypresses still provide ambiance. Kids love the wading pool built next to the spillway at Falls Dam, but more experienced swimmers prefer the east side of the park for long deep stretches of cool green water. The camping area is set back from the river in a picturesque grove of trees. Kayak rentals and fishing rods are available at park headquarters. – Pam LeBlanc
Colorado Bend State Park
2236 Park Hill Drive, Bend; (325) 628-3240
Entry fee $5; under 12 free. Camping $10-$15.
Pack your hiking boots, swimsuit, mountain bike and fishing rod when you visit this Hill Country park, which features mossy 70-foot Gorman Falls and a series of spring-fed pools suitable for cooling off. Above ground, more than 35 miles of trails crisscross the rugged land. Beneath the surface, more than 300 caves serpentine through its underbelly. Campsites front the Colorado River, which is popular with kayakers and anglers hoping to catch a few white bass. – Pam LeBlanc
Emma Long Metropolitan Park
1600 City Park Road, Austin; 512-974-1831
Entry $5 per vehicle Monday through Thursday; $10 Friday through Sunday. Camping $10-$25 per night.
I came here for family cookouts in the 1970s, at what was then known as City Park. We’d hike up the bluff, then spend most of our time along the shore of Lake Austin, playing in an inflatable raft and watching dad cook burgers until the sun set. The name was changed to honor longtime city council member and parks supporter Emma Long in 1984. Amenities now include a boat ramp, hiking trails, motorcycle and mountain biking trails, and a designated swim area with a sandy beach. My favorite spot? Beneath the cottonwood trees along the riverbank.
– Pam LeBlanc
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
16710 Ranch Road 965, Fredericksburg; 830-685-3636
Entry fee $8 adults; free 12 and under. Camping $14-$18 per night.
We know, we know. Everyone comes to hike to the top of the exposed, pink granite dome that, legend tells, creaks at night. Our advice? After you’ve done that, load your tent and sleeping bag into a backpack, and make the short 2-mile hike to the backside of the dome, where you can pitch a tent under a huge oak tree at one of the park’s three primitive camping areas. From that sweet spot, you can watch the setting sun light up the dome like a copper penny and listen for frogs at Moss Lake. Bring your running shoes, too, because the 4-mile loop serves up just enough rolling terrain to make up for the s’mores you toasted on your mini-campstove the night before. – Pam LeBlanc
Garner State Park
234 RR 1050, Concan; 830-232-6132
Entry fee $8; free 12 and under. Camping $15-$26 nightly.
Garner State Park, perched on the southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau, is a 1,774-acre oasis of tranquility sitting in the unique sub-region known as the Balcones Canyonlands. By late fall, the towering cypress trees fringing the cold, clear Frio River are splashed in crimson and gold, and autumn’s cooler weather beckons you to explore the 16 miles of trails leading to dramatic views of soaring mesas and carved limestone cliffs.
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, Garner opened as a state park in 1941 and has since become the most visited in Texas. Folks like to fill their Garner days hiking and biking, bird watching, paddling (paddle boats and kayaks are available for rent), playing putt-putt golf, and floating, swimming and fishing in the nearly 3-mile stretch of the brisk, beautiful Frio River. But the nights here are best spent roasting s’mores around the campfire and stargazing. – Mauri Elbel
Inks Lake State Park
3630 Park Road 4 West, Burnet; 512-793-2223
Entrance fees are $6 for adults; free for 12 and under. Camping $11-$23 nightly.
The best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten was bubbled to golden crispy perfection by my 85-year-old grandma in a cast-iron skillet resting atop a two-burner camp stove at Inks Lake State Park. For me and my family, this Hill Country haven is laced with dozens of family memories like this one, captured from decades of annual camping trips. But this 1,200-acre state park sitting an hour northwest of Austin holds countless opportunities for campers looking to create their own memories together.
Hike the 9 miles of trails weaving through shaded forests and past unique pink rock outcroppings before cooling off in the constant-level lake where you can paddle, canoe, kayak and swim in the sparkling waters, or cast a line to fish for gilled residents including largemouth bass, white bass, crappie, catfish and sunfish. Daredevils can put their bravery to the test by leaping from the rocky cliffs into refreshing Devil’s Waterhole. – Mauri Elbel
424 Country Road 404, Spicewood; 401-236-7554
Camping overnight is $15 for adults (12+ years), $10 children 4-11 years and free for children under 4. RV campsites are $15.
Sure, folks tend to flock to Krause Springs to cool off from Texas’ stifling heat in these pristine 68-degree spring-fed waters, but did you know these 115 lush acres tucked in sleepy Spicewood also provide a picturesque place to camp overnight? Spend the day out here splashing in the 32 natural springs on the property, several of which fed the man-made pool and natural pool that flows into Lake Travis, and stay to enjoy a tranquil night spent under the stars. Unlike state parks, reservations aren’t needed for primitive tent camping at Krause Springs’ campgrounds. But reservations are required for RV hookups, and Krause Springs temporarily closes during the winter, typically between Nov. 1 and Feb. 15. – Mauri Elbel
Lake Bastrop North Shore Park
603 Farm to Market Road 1441, Bastrop; 512-578-4816
Entry fee $5 adults, free 12 and under; $2 seniors. Camping starts at $30 per night; Airstream trailer rentals $225 per night.
Leave it to the Lower Colorado River Authority to crank it up to 11. This 182-acre park situated on a power plant cooling reservoir is thick with swaying pines and twisty oaks. You can rent a kayak or standup paddleboard, hike a nature trail, cast a line or swim in the (very) warm water. And if tent camping’s too rustic for you, check out the glamping options –– Airstream trailers, an upscale cabin and safari tents are all available by the night. – Pam LeBlanc
Lake Somerville State Park & Trailway
Birch Creek Unit, 14222 Park Road 57, Somerville; 979-535-7763
Nails Creek Unit, 6280 FM 180, Ledbetter; 979-289-2392
Entry $4 adults; free 12 and under. Camping $10-$20 per night.
For an easy, overnight backpacking trip, load up and head to Lake Somerville, which feels like four parks in one. There’s the Birch Creek Unit, the Nails Creek Unit, the 13-mile trailway connecting the two, and a chunk of nearby public hunting land. I access at Nails Creek and hike around Flag Pond, where you can usually spot a nesting bald eagle, and camp at Newman Bottom. (I’ve also nearly walked over a non-venomous snake on the trail, and encountered a feral hog dashing through the brush, so heads up.) The park is open to equestrians, with primitive campsites designed to accommodate horses. – Pam LeBlanc
McKinney Falls State Park
5808 McKinney Falls Parkway, Austin; 512-243-1643
Entry fee $6 adults; free 12 and under. Camping starts at $20 per night.
Although it’s right on the outskirts of Austin, this park doesn’t feel urban. You can hike, swim or fish, and bed down under roomy campsites surrounded by leafy oaks. Time your visit during the wet season, and you’ll get to see Onion Creek gushing over ledges and through channels cut in the limestone. History buffs will appreciate the park’s location on the El Camino Real de los Tejas, a thoroughfare that dates to the 18th century Spanish colonial era. You can still see faint wagon wheel cuts along broad swathes of limestone. And don’t forget to stop by the homestead of park namesake Thomas McKinney. – Pam LeBlanc
Mother Neff State Park
1921 Park Road 14, Moody; 254-853-2389
Entry fee $2, free 12 and under. Camping $12-$25 per night.
If you’re fascinated by Civilian Conservation Corps projects (we are!), aim for Mother Neff State Park, one of the earliest parks in Texas and site of a large CCC encampment. Named for Mrs. Isabella Eleanor “Mother” Neff, who donated 6 acres of land for a park along the Leon River in 1916, it eventually became an early unit of the Texas State Park system. The tents where 817 workers lived while they built a pavilion, culverts and a stone tower are gone, but if you look closely, you can find the remains of the camp water fountain, an old chimney stack and the spot where a flagpole once stood. (The visitor’s center houses an exhibit about the CCC history, too.) Trails twist among dips and hills, and higher grounds offer a view of a grass-covered prairie. The lower level, prone to flooding, is shaded by huge trees. – Pam LeBlanc
Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area
2820 County Road 414, Spicewood; 512-473-3366
Entry $5 adults; $2 seniors; free 12 and under. Camping starts at $25 per night.
The campsites at Muleshoe Bend, which is located on a sweeping bend in Lake Travis, all serve up gorgeous views of the water. Bring your bike, too, because the Austin Ridge Riders constructed a network of nearly 10 miles of intermediate single-track trails that weave through the woods. When you’re done pedaling, walk down to the lake for a dip. The Lower Colorado River Authority acquired the land as six separate tracts beginning in 1939 for the creation of Lake Travis. The organization started managing the 615-acre parcel as a park for recreation in the 1990s. And check the park’s calendar –– guided night tours are offered about once a month. Armed with a blacklight, you’re likely to see scorpions, spiders and a roaming raccoon or two. – Pam LeBlanc
Palmetto State Park
78 Park Road 11 South, Gonzales; 830-672-3266
Entry $3 adults; free 12 and under. Camping $12 to $20 per night; cabin $65.
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into Jurassic Park when you stroll the elevated boardwalk among clusters of lush dwarf palmettos and ponds of tea-colored water. The 300-acre park is popular with paddlers, who can access the San Marcos River. Amenities include well shaded campsites, a pavilion built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a small stocked lake and, of course, that river, which is perfect for standing in waist deep. There’s even a ghost story to go along with the slightly spooky atmosphere here. Some old-timers claim a swamp monster with glowing eyes once hid in the underbrush. We’ve never seen it, but we have spotted alligator gar and the occasional snake. If you’re not into tents, try the no-frills cabin with a porch but no plumbing. – Pam LeBlanc
Pedernales State Park
2585 Park Road 6026, Johnson City; 830-868-7304
Entry $6 for adults; free for 12 years and under. Camping $10-$20 nightly.
Just outside of Austin, sitting on the banks of the pretty Pedernales River, this state park is a camper’s paradise. Pedernales Falls State Park boasts more than 5,200 acres of hills blanketed in juniper and oak woodlands, geologically fascinating rock formations, dramatic overlooks and miles upon miles of trails. By day, set out on challenging hikes like the nearly 9-mile Juniper Ridge Trail and the 5.5-mile scenic Loop Trail, or if you’ve got kids, try trekking the half-mile Twin Falls Nature Trail leading to one of the prettiest views in the park: Twin Falls, a lush spring-fed hidden gem. Cool off by swimming and splashing in the pristine river and camp out under the stars overnight –– there are nearly 70 campsites with water and electricity, but for a more remote experience, hike out at least two miles to pitch a tent on a primitive site. – Mauri Elbel
South Llano River State Park
1927 Park Road 73, Junction; 325-446-3994
Daily entrance fees are $5 for adults and free for 12 years and under. Campsites range from $10-$20 plus daily entrance fees.
Tote your tent to this relaxing river refuge spread out along two miles of the spring-fed South Llano River. Tucked away in the southwestern edge of the Hill Country, you’ll find nearly 23 miles of trails weaving through this state park, spanning rugged backcountry trails freckled with cactus to tree-shaded paths snaking through bottomland forests thick with cedar elms, oaks and pecans. Since most of the trails are relatively short in distance, it’s an easy place to hike with kids –– the 1.6-mile River Trail runs along the river and into a shaded tree-filled forest where you can harvest pecans for mid-hike snacks and spy on critters.
Resident wildlife include white-tailed deer, squirrels, ducks, birds, rabbits and Rio Grande turkey — the park serves as one of the oldest and most substantial winter turkey roosts in Central Texas. You can also rent tubes or bring your own to float, swim and splash in the crystal-clear river when it’s warm and sunny, and then watch as millions of twinkling stars fill the night sky –– this park is known for stellar stargazing. – Mauri Elbel