Go to Garner this fall for the Frio, foliage and family fun

By: Mauri Elbel
November, 2021

This time of year, I can’t help but fall hard for the Frio River  the cool, crystal-clear Hill Country gem running through Garner State Park.  

The Frio is shockingly clear this time of year. Photo by Mauri Elbel

The sun is warm, the summer crowds are gone, and the shallow and sparkling spring-fed waters that rush over the white limestone-and-pebble riverbed and form pristine pools perfect for plunging into could rival the Caribbean in a contest for clarity.

Nearly three miles of the Frio (frío is Spanish for cold) snakes through Garner State Park, a 1,774-acre Hill Country oasis nestled in the unique sub-region known as the Balcones Canyonlands and sitting on the southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau. 

Around this time of year, the towering bald cypress trees fringing the emerald-hued Frio are splashed in shades of crimson and gold. Above, soaring mesas, carved limestone cliffs and steep canyon walls freckled with fall foliage create the kind of vistas that take your breath away. 

Garner is a great spot to soak in fall foliage. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, Garner opened as a state park in 1941 and has since become the most visited park in Texas thanks to its winning combination of dramatic landscapes and deep-rooted traditions that lure folks back year after year, including the legendary quarter-fed jukebox dances in the summer and the photo-worthy foliage during fall. 

RELATED: 8 great state parks for camping with kids 

But it’s the Frio River even (and especially) in the fall that makes Garner State Park one of my favorite spots in Texas to camp out with family and friends. Garner State Park is undeniably a camper’s paradise. It’s a place where we fill our days hiking, splashing, critter-watching, swimming, biking, paddle-boating and cooking over the Coleman and spend our nights gathered around a fire stargazing, telling stories and roasting s’mores.  

Even in October and November, days can be warm enough to swim and splash in the Frio. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Last month, we spent the long weekend here with the same family friends we’ve been camping with since our kids were toddlers. It’s surreal reflecting back on our first camping trips together, when our boys were so little that we’d actually set up a Pack ‘n Play inside our tent. Fast-forward a dozen or so years, and those same toddlers are now teens who tower over their moms and prefer to set up their own tents next door to ours.

RELATED: 10 tips for camping with kids

Hundreds of campsites are sprinkled throughout the popular park, but you’ll need to plan your trip months in advance. We always stay in a different spot (based on availability), but earlier this year, we reserved several side-by-side campsites in the Rio Frio camping area, which provided easy access to hiking trails leading to some of the most serene swimming spots in the park and included a trio of resident jackrabbits who frolicked around our tents at dawn and dusk. 

The Frio Canyon is known for its abundant wildlife. Photo by Fletcher Albrecht

Each morning, we’d wake with the sun, rousing from our tents to warm our bodies and sip strong coffee around the campfire, crack eggs on the Coleman and sizzle bacon over the fire before setting off on daily hikes. There are 16 miles of trails weaving around Garner State Park, like the Frio Canyon Trail  a relatively flat 3-mile loop through the Frio Canyon that gives way to mountain views and connects with the Blinn River Trail, which leads to an incredible swimming spot where our kids spent hours taking turns body-sliding down boulders into a pristine pool. 

The Frio features several mild rapids that feed into natural swimming pools. Photo by Mauri Elbel

The short but steep half-mile climb leading to the deep, 30-foot Crystal Cave is a delight for both big and small explorers (you’ll want to bring a flashlight) while Old Baldy Trail is another challenging rocky half-mile climb that proves worth the effort once you soak in the bird’s eye view of the Frio Canyon at the top. 

When you’re not swimming or hiking, you can rent everything from tubes and fishing poles to paddle boats and kayaks at Garner State Park, http://garnerstatepark.com/ (although concessions operate seasonally and are not always open in the fall and winter months). Families can also play a round of putt-putt golf, enjoy a post-game treat from the Candy Shop, or work up a sweat on the volleyball and basketball courts all located within the park.

Fishing licenses are not required in Texas state parks. Photo by Mauri Elbel

On our last afternoon at Garner, we rented paddleboats at the boathouse and peddled our way down, around and back up the Frio. In a shallow area in the center of the river, we watched several families craft their own private “fenced-in” party spots out of a ring of river rocks where they set up lawn chairs and coolers as their kids splashed and waded. As we peddled through a deeper, jade-colored section of the Frio, our kids jumped off and swam to the shore, clambered up the riverbank, and took turns plunging back in from the rope swings that dangled from the tall cypress trees. 

Garner State Park concessions rents paddleboats, SUPs, kayaks and canoes. Photo by Mauri Elbel

We watched kids fishing along the banks, turtles sunbathing on partially submerged logs and marveled at how the water sparkled in the warm autumn sunshine. Everywhere around us, people were talking, laughing and simply enjoying Mother Nature’s beauty.

Rope swings dangle from the towering cypress trees fringing the Frio River. Photo by Mauri Elbel

I think that’s probably my favorite thing about camping: years tick by, kids grow, but our camping traditions and rituals are unwavering. Sure, the sleep isn’t all that great, we could all really use a shower by the time we get home, and packing and unpacking everything needed for a weekend camping trip with kids into our car is like a fine-tuned game of Tetris. 

Garner State Park is gorgeous in the fall. Photo by Mauri Elbel

But in the end, out of all of our travels, it’s our camping trips that provide undistracted moments and priceless memories with our kids it’s our time to put away our phones and devices, leave screens and video games at home, and just spend a few days hiking, swimming, exploring and stargazing. I’m already looking forward to the next camping trip.

If You Go

Getting there:

It’s about three hours or 175 miles from Austin to Garner State Park.

Stay:

Garner State Park is home to more than 300 campsites, almost 40 screened shelters and a handful of cabins. Pay the daily entrance fee ($8 for 13 years and older; free for children 12 and under) and you can stay overnight in Garner State Park at campsites ($15-$26 nightly), shelters ($30-$35 nightly) and cabins ($130-$150 nightly). This park often reaches capacity so make reservations months in advance at https://texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com/

Do:

Enjoy camping, hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, bird watching, geocaching, grilling, stargazing, paddle boating, miniature golfing and summertime dancing at Garner State Park. Nearby, discover the beauty of Lost Maples State Natural Area or the laid-back country charm of Concan.

Eat & Drink:

During peak weekends and summer months, Garner Grill serves up burgers, corn dogs, fries and sweet treats, but it was closed during our October trip. On Friday evening on our way to Garner, we stopped in Leaky planning to grab a quick bite but most restaurants and eateries were closed. Instead, pack a cooler with items to grill or cook on your Coleman. Don’t forget the hot cocoa.

Follow Austin Travels


Austin Travels is a women-owned, Austin-based travel magazine committed to highlighting destinations in Texas and beyond through the lenses of diverse and talented writers.

Subscribe

@austintravelsmag

10 Magical Holiday Hotels to Check off Your List

10 Magical Holiday Hotels to Check off Your List

Seeking relaxation and uncovering empathy at Miraval Resort

Seeking relaxation and uncovering empathy at Miraval Resort

Twelve Texas towns shining bright this holiday season

Twelve Texas towns shining bright this holiday season

Soaking in the holidays and Austin’s history at the iconic Driskill Hotel

Soaking in the holidays and Austin’s history at the iconic Driskill Hotel

Martin Dies Jr. State Park is an East Texas treasure

Martin Dies Jr. State Park is an East Texas treasure

Make your way to Matagorda Bay for coast without the crowds

Make your way to Matagorda Bay for coast without the crowds

Fishing up old memories and making new ones at Inks Lake State Park

Fishing up old memories and making new ones at Inks Lake State Park

FIRST LOOK: Inside Chef Tim Love’s new Fort Worth shipping container hotel

FIRST LOOK: Inside Chef Tim Love’s new Fort Worth shipping container hotel

Go to Garner this fall for the Frio, foliage and family fun

Go to Garner this fall for the Frio, foliage and family fun

Wurstfest: New Braunfels’ epic Bavarian bash is back

Wurstfest: New Braunfels’ epic Bavarian bash is back

Discover the diversity of LBJ National Grasslands

Discover the diversity of LBJ National Grasslands

November Festivals: Top 10 Texas events to check out

November Festivals: Top 10 Texas events to check out

20 Texas pumpkin patches ripe with fall fun

20 Texas pumpkin patches ripe with fall fun

October festivals: 10 top Texas celebrations to check out

October festivals: 10 top Texas celebrations to check out

Falling for Fredericksburg: Sample all this Hill Country haven has to offer

Falling for Fredericksburg: Sample all this Hill Country haven has to offer

Central Texas Camping Guide

Central Texas Camping Guide

A fall paddle down the Devils

A fall paddle down the Devils

5 nearby parks perfect for an RVshare road trip

5 nearby parks perfect for an RVshare road trip

September festivals: 10 top Texas events

September festivals: 10 top Texas events

Texas Glamping Guide

Texas Glamping Guide

Women, wind and waves: Surfing for adventure

Women, wind and waves: Surfing for adventure

Dive in: 7 swimming holes and natural spots to splash into near Austin

Dive in: 7 swimming holes and natural spots to splash into near Austin

Girls getaway: 24 hours in San Antonio’s Historic Pearl District

Girls getaway: 24 hours in San Antonio’s Historic Pearl District

A downtown Houston hotel reimagined –– plus 5 things to do nearby

A downtown Houston hotel reimagined –– plus 5 things to do nearby

Texas 2021 Beach Guide

Texas 2021 Beach Guide

A true escape: Domovina Ranch in Smithville

A true escape: Domovina Ranch in Smithville

Royal treatment: 24 hours of spa bliss at one of Houston’s poshest hotels

Royal treatment: 24 hours of spa bliss at one of Houston’s poshest hotels

7 magical things to do with kids in Big Bend and West Texas

7 magical things to do with kids in Big Bend and West Texas

Photo Essay: The missions of San Antonio

Photo Essay: The missions of San Antonio

Becoming a birder at Galveston’s FeatherFest

Becoming a birder at Galveston’s FeatherFest

Seminole Canyon’s world-class rock art is a lens to history

Seminole Canyon’s world-class rock art is a lens to history

Need a break? An Archer Hotel Austin staycation, plus Domain shopping guide

Need a break? An Archer Hotel Austin staycation, plus Domain shopping guide

Discovering Surfside Beach, a Texas Gulf Coast treasure

Discovering Surfside Beach, a Texas Gulf Coast treasure

Nature and nurture: Hill Country wellness retreat offers a salve for the soul

Nature and nurture: Hill Country wellness retreat offers a salve for the soul

Gruene Hall: Daytrip to this timeless Texas treasure

Gruene Hall: Daytrip to this timeless Texas treasure

Everyone’s an artist at Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch

Everyone’s an artist at Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch

Get away while giving back to foster children at stunning Hill Country glamping spot

Get away while giving back to foster children at stunning Hill Country glamping spot

Plan Your Outdoorsy Adventure

Plan Your Outdoorsy Adventure

Discover history and simple pleasures in Baffin Bay

Discover history and simple pleasures in Baffin Bay

Texas bluebonnets are back! 10 wildflower hotspots

Texas bluebonnets are back! 10 wildflower hotspots

8 Great State Parks for Camping with Kids

8 Great State Parks for Camping with Kids

Fishing and Sea Turtles and Birding, Oh My: A weekend at South Padre Island

Fishing and Sea Turtles and Birding, Oh My: A weekend at South Padre Island

Relax and relish the coastal charms of Rockport

Relax and relish the coastal charms of Rockport

Social distancing in sleepy Sonora: Escape to a luxury ranch resort 3 hours from Austin

Social distancing in sleepy Sonora: Escape to a luxury ranch resort 3 hours from Austin

Lessons in life and death on the beach in Port Aransas

Lessons in life and death on the beach in Port Aransas