Pedernales Falls State Park

Location: Pedernales Falls State Park, west of Austin, Texas.
Maps: USGS Quads: Pedernales Falls; Hammets Crossing; Composite Topo  Park Map
Access: From Austin (Deep in the Heart of Texas), go west 32 miles on US 290, then north on FM 3232 for 6 miles. Follow the signs from there. 
Trail: No trail in the park is very long, but many could be connected for a 7-8 mile loop. Terrain is pretty mellow.
Fees: $5/day/person for day use. $3/person overnight use. $10 primitive camp fee. 
Dogs: Not allowed on trails

Oak treesMarch 21, 2008
Although it's only March, the oaks in this southern belt of Texas are already leafing out. Andra and I drive down a narrow blacktop in the heart of Texas' Hill Country, west of Austin. As we pull off the main road and head down the dead-end park road, an enormous white metal billboard, resplendent in the afternoon light, reads with 9” red letters: “Warning. No swimming, wading or tubing at falls. Minimum $500 Fine. No warnings. No exceptions.” I grin as I read the sign. The Stasi approach to public-lands management. We pull into the small parking lot adjacent to the small park headquarters building and step out of the car into quiet radiant sunshine. It is 80 degrees and the warmest air I have felt in 6 months. In the sun, under the blue sky, it feels much warmer, hot almost. I enter the air-conditioned cubicle of an office where 3 uniformed employees of the Texas State Parks patiently tick off the litany of forbidden activities within the park to campers who pay rapt attention: no fires, no guns, no alcohol, no loud noise, no swimming in the river near the falls, no dogs, no having fun if you can possibly help it. I wait behind the three people standing at the counter, ready to take in the same lecture, verbatim, when my turn comes. A couple pulls into the parking lot in a giant truck and lets it idle just outside the door as they enter, see the waiting area full (doesn't take much), and simply stand there half in the door and half out, letting cold air out and diesel exhaust in. I suppose my Grandad's constant admonishments to keep the doors closed when the AC is on somehow made it past the flubbery outer-layer of my 8-year-old brain, because that is the only thought I can focus on as these two stand in the doorway letting hot fuel-soaked air waft into the tiny office. Nobody else seems to notice, as the attendants continue their prepared speeches, one fellow sounding like a 30-second delayed echo of the fellow next to him. I begin to nervously scrape my fingernails together in that way that drives Andra up a wall. There are suddenly too many people in too confined a place doing silly things with air that is growing hotter and fowler by the second. Something has to give. Luckily, it does. One of the attendants has concluded his one-act play on the do's and don't's of State Park etiquette (“No warnings. No exceptions.”) and I step up to the counter, where a middle-aged woman asks me in quick, terse syllables what I want. Feeling a little afraid of this woman, I answer in short, efficient sentences that I wish to camp for the night. She asks if I have a reservation. No, I answer. She gives me a leaden stare as if to say, “Idiot. You think this place would possibly not be completely booked up weeks ago?” I read her unsaid thoughts and add, “backcountry camping”, for which their website clearly states is exempt from needing reservations and naturally never fills up. She nods, pulls out the requisite form, and begins gathering every bit of information about me that is not protected by the Privacy Act. If she gets my driver's license number, why does she also need my address and phone number? I hand over some cash, she hands over a sticker for the car legalizing our presence in the park. I have my web-printed map on the counter, but she decides it is too small and pulls out the legal-sized colorized map of the park and instructs me on exactly where to park, where to hike, and exactly where to camp, emphasizing each point by circling these areas 7 or 8 times with a ballpoint pen, even though they are already clearly marked on the map. This I was not prepared for. Apparently, in Texas, backcountry camping is great as long as you camp within the prescribed 1/2-mile x 1/8-mile block of land exactly 2.25-miles from the trailhead. Michael and Andra on the Wolf Mt TrailOh, and there's an outhouse there, and trashbarrels. No camping below the bluffs. No fires, etc. etc. etc. I pine for some good old national forest, where a guy is free to step into the woods wherever he likes, plunk down his tent for free and crap in the woods like a real red-blooded American. 

We step out of the office, breathe in some fresh air, and return to the car, where I immediately and dutifully apply my sticker to the prescribed windshield location. Cell phone call to Mike and Mandy, who are somewhere nearby, and I advise them where we are. They pull into the parking lot as I speak, and I accompany Mandy into the office so she can get their day passes, all in accordance with the firmly-held American creed that you can't have fun without paying for it.

With all bureaucratic foolishness behind us, we are finally free to drive on down the road. Windows down, warm humid air billowing in, we cruise a mile or so to the first parking lot and park under a trio of oak trees. Andra and I pick over the mountain of travel-clutter that has multiplied insidiously in the back of the Subaru and stuff essential items into our packs. Mandy and Mike have pre-packed their gear and wait patiently for us to get it together. I slather sunscreen on my face and neck for the first time this year (wonderful day!) throw on my big-brimmed hat and shoulder my pack. Andra does likewise, and the four of us are suddenly off down the Wolf Mountain Trail. 

Wolf Mountain TrailThe first part of the trail is wonderfully narrow, with overarching oak limbs and green undergrowth. We have hit the trail at a crowded moment and a group of 3 hikers walks ahead of us, and a group of about 12 hikers in matching green shirts hikes behind us. We keep pace right in the middle, awkwardly trying to carry on a conversation while hiking single file. The orange sun slants through the oak limbs with their tiny, emergent leaves and dapples light on the dry earthen trail in flecks and glimmers. The trail is composed of ancient seafloor crustaceans which crunch noisily underfoot in a satisfying rhythm. In almost no time, the trail hits what appears to be a graded road. Wide trail? Not quite. My worst suspicions are confirmed when a Texas State Parks truck cruises slowly by us, on its way for the daily trash pickup at our “backcountry camp” destination. We cruise along comfortably, and I consider how the line has been crossed between warm and hot, as sweat trickles down my back. 

When the chatter of the group behind us grows too bothersome, I propose we step off trail to let them by, and they do, 12 pleasant hikers who's only drawback is they're here at the same time we are. I have nothing against my fellow man, it's just that there's so many of them. Everywhere. At all times. Just when you think you're alone, here's another! I think we should revisit some critical elements of Genesis, particularly the part about “go forth and multiply” and amend all copies with a “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” tag and henceforth ignore that part. Of course, I don't really pay that much attention to the book to begin with, so whatever. 

After the crew trudges past, we stand in a circle and talk. I never recall any conversations I have while hiking after the fact. This either means they were all about trifling, unimportant crap or the hiking was just so much fun that the words going along with it were paled by comparison. I'm pretty sure it's the second option, but how would I know? 

We pick up our pace again, the woods suddenly silent except for our footsteps. It's the first time I've backpacked with Michael and Mandy, and only the second time I've backpacked with more than 3 people in the party. The afternoon sun sinks lower, looms larger and appears more orange. Could be smog drifting in from Austin, but the effect is striking, nevertheless. Some hikers approach us from the other direction, on their way out, and one of them is pulling his Andra in campcamping supplies in a Radio Flyer wagon with all-terrain wheels. I think, “He's been here before”. We descend downhill, closer to the river with each step, and we finally see Mustang Creek, which marks the beginning of the officially sanctioned “backcountry camping area”. For those unable to recognize the creek crossing, a large sign on the far side confirms that you are here, camp here now, don't do XYZ (“No warnings. No exceptions”). Two large and recently-emptied litter barrels sit neatly by the placard. But where did that guy in the truck go? We never saw him again. We walk along in the comfortable shade of thick junipers, watching each side trail that appears on the left. Each one we pass ends in a clearing with a brightly-colored tent or two. Crowded place, but luckily the junipers shield most tents from the casual view. We pass by 7 or 8 such spur trails before getting to one that appears mostly vacant. Michael leads the way down a thin trail of soil, ducking under low-hanging juniper limbs. We end up in a great spot on the edge of the bluff over the river. There are plenty of junipers and oaks overhead, no tent in sight and there are even 2 tent pads. We immediately set to work pitching our tents, pulling out sleeping bags, letting air mattresses inflate. 

When all is sufficiently unpacked, we all decide to take a walk to the river, which is screened by junipers from view, but which we strongly suspect lies somewhere down there. We catch a trail that parallels a 10-foot cliff. We could get Michael and Mandy setting up the tentdown, probably without getting hurt, but none of us can envision a scenario that gets us back up without climbing equipment. Therefore, we continue along the narrow trail to the north, looking for a way down. We finally get to one, a cleft in the limestone reef that allows easy access to the slope below. We descend, inspect a deep hole in the reef which turns out to be empty, and work our way through widely-spaced juniper and oak towards the river. We still can't see it. Vegetation thickens up and we are forced through a narrow tunnel in the junipers. On the other side, everything opens up and the Pedernales River is in sight, running placidly and peacefully in its little valley. We pass under towering bald cypress with fringes of new green leaves lining their branches like frost, and step out onto a gravel bar that leads into the middle of the river. The sound of gently trickling water focuses my senses on the satiny surface of the river. Clear water flows over algae-caked stones. A small frog leaps into the water, kicks frantically and immediately disappears beneath the rocks. The four of us stand on the gravel bar and observe the river. Andra notes the flood debris wrapped around  tree limbs well over our heads. The rusted remains of a boat sit forlorn and abandoned some 20 feet above the river channel in a tree. This is big-flood country. Right now, however, the river is shallow. I could walk across it, probably without getting my knees wet, but what would be the point? I can see the opposite shore well enough from where I stand. The smooth, rounded stones on the gravel bar tempt, and soon I find myself flinging stones across the water surface, spinning them fiercely as they depart my hand so Andra walking to the riverthat they might skip a time or two on top of the water before being submerged underwater for another few hundred years. Cheap thrills. I hold back some so I don't throw out my arm. Mandy spies a horsehair worm; a long, black roundworm looking every bit like a hair from a horse's main. Although they are not parasitic of mammals (only insects) none of us decide to touch it, and instead we leave it writhing slowly in the still water.

We amble back towards camp, and I find a cluster of bryophytes on a cypress twig. There are many rules in the State Parks, but I didn't ever see a sign prohibiting the collection of the odd bryophyte. I clutch the twig and carry it with me, already pondering which terrarium would provide it with the best growing environment. We return up the forest path to the break in the limestone reef and up to the bluff. The sun is setting through the trees, and when I put down the bryophyte to photograph it, Andra snakes it away and plays innocent while I search the ground around my feet. Her feeble attempt at nonchalance gives her away in the end and I retrieve the plant specimen. 

Back in camp, it's time to dine. Andra and I have brought a simple no-cook meal of crackers, cheese and granola. Cooking just seemed like too much work when I was backing up the gear at the car. Mandy fires up her stove and bluffs near campbegins to boil Ramen, meanwhile opening cans of chicken to spice it with. She has brought enough for all, but unfortunately Andra and I also brought no plates, bowls or much of anything in the way of cutlery. Thus, we decline Mandy's offer of Ramen, a little reluctantly since it smells very good, and instead supplement our cheese and crackers with chunks of canned chicken. Pretty darn good tasting, really. 

Dinner is complete, and we sit in the dark watching the full moon rise through the oak branches and juniper limbs on yonder side of river valley. Mandy attempts to light her lantern, but the propane bottle outlet nozzle gets stuck in the open position, spewing propane into the air, and we all refrain from igniting anything. Instead, the small propane bottle is left a sufficient distance from camp so that the soft hiss of escaping gas doesn't bother us too much. No lamp, but no Pedernales Rivermatter. The moon is plenty bright to go brush teeth by, and other necessary bedtime activities. We sit around and talk, again about things I can't recall, for over an hour before finally retreating to tents and to sleep. Sometime right around bedtime, Mandy manages to flip the propane nozzle closed.

Despite the close proximity to other campers, it is very quiet around us. Backcountry campers are typically a quiet, reclusive lot, and for this I am thankful since I saw a bright orange tent not 50 yards away when I was brushing my teeth. The noisiest neighbors turn out to be the coyotes who yip and howl in bursts of motley revelry under the full moon, waking me in the night just long enough to enjoy going back to sleep. 

March 22, 2008
In the morning, the air is still and quiet, and I wonder if it has clouded up outside since my watch says 7:30 but there are no tell-tale shadows on the tent from the early morning sun. I unzip the rainfly and peek out to be reminded that sunrise Bluff trail near campcomes very late to this area this time of year. Movement in the tent  nearby tells me at least one of the Mendez's are awake. Andra is up, and the two of us get dressed and step out of the tent into a cool, comfortable morning. The sun is just peeking over the horizon. We all commence packing up gear, which takes about 10 minutes. Our tent is soaked in dew, so we hang it from juniper limbs but in the cool morning air, it has no hope of drying. I sit and eat a granola bar, sipping water, then pack up the tent with Andra's help and we are all ready to roll by a little after 8. 

The hike back goes quickly, and is very enjoyable in the cool morning air. The sun shines through the trees, unimpeded by clouds, and it feels like it could be another hot spring day. Michael is getting a master's degree in library science, and Camp in the morninghe tells us of the intricacies of libraries that we never knew existed. I try hard to reconcile this free-wheeling friend of 2 decades with the tweed-coat, mustached librarian archetype I have in my head. Can't succeed. I'll have to visit him in the library to believe it.

Back at the car, we load gear and drive down the park road towards the main attraction: Pedernales Falls. After a few minutes driving (the park is only 3.5 miles wide) we arrive at the parking lot for the falls, and step off down the trail. Additional signs warn of consequences for anyone wading into the water (No warnings. No exceptions).  To emphasize that this is for public safety, two photographs depicting the river at low flow and at flash-flood have been enlarged on the sign, highlighting that flash floods can occur anytime, although this particular flood occurred in 1977. From the Michael and Mandy pack up camppictures it appears to me that it wouldn't much matter whether you are in the water or standing next to it when that 40-foot wall of foam comes crashing through the canyon; you're a goner, either way. The trail is short and pleasant, winding through trees and terminating at a stone balcony that overlooks the river valley. Deep blue water fills several wide pools, each separated from the next by a limestone hump and 10 feet of elevation. Each pool spills a wide current of water over the rock and into the next, the wetted areas slick with algae clinging to the rock. The contrast between white rock and blue water is magnificent. We walk down stone steps to the beach where about half a dozen people mill about, then out onto one of the limestone humps, like a river speedbump, that allows us to walk into the middle of channel, and almost cross to the other side. The water is so cool and tempting in the deep blue pools on either side, it seems almost worth the risk of $500 to jump in. I have never seen Wolf Mountain Traila river more amenable to swimming. Oddly, it is perfectly OK to swim this same river two miles downstream, where presumably, the occasional flash flood will have been diverted and all will be well. What is the hang-up about letting folks take risks? What ever happened to the freedom in this country to die a moron's death? If I want to go swimming in flood-prone river during thunderstorm season with black clouds off to the west, what will be the world's loss if I don't make it back to the car? To each his own, and that includes the Pedernales Fallsfreedom to die as one wishes. If Thoreau were here, he'd jump right in, no doubt. I consider it, then decline. $500 is a lot of money.

The call of the water is too great to ignore on this 80-degree morning. The sun is high and bright, and we decide to drive over to the designated swimming area for a dip. I change into swim trunks on the way, and pop out of the car when we get there, ready for some whitewater action. We stroll down the short trail to the edge of the river and then wade in. There's really not much whitewater to speak of, a little riffle in the middle of the river, perhaps. The water is cool, and feels great on feet in the heat of this day, but a little cold and frosty higher up on the thighs. I wade in slowly, Pedernales Fallsinching my way out to deeper water. Others frolic in the water, nobody getting very wet. Most are simply standing in the current, soaking their calves. A few of the bolder in one family have shucked off their shirts and are inching their way out to full-on hypothermic experiences. I'm a little surprised we haven't seen the warning sign against cold water yet. The river is not that deep, even at the thalweg, so the kids have to buckle their knees to plunge their bodies underwater. They come up gasping and sputtering, laughing and screeching in the icy water as their testicles seek refuge up near their lungs. Crazy kids. Naturally, I jump right in. It only hurts for a few seconds, long enough for the blood vessels to contract behind my carefully-acquired layer of subcutaneous fat. I Pedernales Fallswade upstream, then float downstream on my back, feet forward with  the tips of my sandals just above water. The current is very fast, and it carries me along quickly. My feet hit a rock, I push off to the left, and spin around it like an innertube. Some of the smaller kids are chuting the chute downstream. It looks like great fun, but I watch long enough to see the older kids skid out on the rocks, scraping-ass and wincing in pain. I decline to participate, and instead wade back upstream for a couple of deep-water runs. I encourage the others to join in, but Mandy, Michael and Andra are unmoved by my exhortations that the water is really warm once you get in. 

Pedernales FallsEventually, the thrill wears down, and I exit the channel. It's starting to feel like time to hit the road. We've camped, seen the falls, and now waded in the river, and it's a long road home. Spring Break is winding down, and work is waiting 40 hours and 1000 miles away. The thing about fun is that it can't maintain its own momentum. Sooner or later, it lapses into the everyday, and you're back at work trying to remember what sunlight on your bare shoulders felt like. I change into dry clothes in the men's room, then get talked in to joining Mandy and Michael for a last lunch at Cooper's BBQ in Llano. It's not drastically out of our way, so we follow them there, wait in line for awhile (that's a good sign) and finally we're up at the front of the line, standing in front of a massive grill with 8 kinds of smoked meat. A friendly man with a 3-foot fork asks me what I want. I point to some Mandy, Michael and Andra at Pedernales Fallsribs and say 3 of those. He stabs them, cuts off three, and dips them in a vat of sauce before plunking them down on a lunch tray. I point to some brisket, some sausage. Damn it all looks and smells so good. Swimming in a river makes one crave good, red meat, everyone knows that. I try to remember not to get too much, but it is too late. We have 6 pounds of meat on our tray before 30 seconds goes by. We step inside where they trim the fat from the meat, weigh it, wrap it, and we pay. At long wooden picnic tables we eat like vikings, ripping meat from the bone, devouring bread slices whole, and slopping up baked beans with giant spoons. It's a gruesome and beautiful sight. We step back outside gorged and bloated, ready for a nice long drive. We say our goodbyes to the Mendez's (Mendi?) and each take off in a different direction. We head west, towards home.

Pedernales FallsAndra and Sam at Pedernales Falls
Pedernales Falls
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