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