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Embrace the Surprises at Palmetto State Park

The swampy state park is a birder's paradise, for one.

By Gwendolyn Knapp May 29, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

When you join the zombie-herd filing in the giant Buc-ee’s at I-10 and US 183, you’ll know you’re close to Palmetto State Park, about an hour east of San Antonio, near Luling. Fresh off the two-hour, 20-minute drive from Houston—oh, the wildflowers, cattle, and terrible driving you have seen—you’ll want to stop and load up on some feel-good treats: popcorn, pecan brittle, and, if you’ll be sharing a tent with your mother, ear plugs, the bright-orange kind they usually sell to people heading to the shooting range.

At Palmetto, East and West Texas meet, thanks to multiple water sources. Swaths of cacti and mesquite abut hundreds of acres of tropical dwarf palmettos and the unique Ottine Swamp—vernal pools formed by a thick layer of clay that can’t absorb rain or flood water. It’s a 270-acre park, founded in 1936, with historical stone structures built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps still overlooking the San Marcos River and marshes. Nostalgia meets spookiness when you factor in the extinct sulfuric mud boils that bubbled up here until the 1970s and the lore about an apelike Swamp Thing lurking somewhere out in the bog.

A water tower built by FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps

If, say, you arrive late, the office is closed, and you haven’t been able to confirm your reservation because the park’s phone system is mysteriously down, don’t worry. It’s very chill here. After passing the lush scenic overlook on the way into the friendly park, we found our host, Ernie, who stays in a camper, helps late arrivals, and is full of great insider tips. He didn’t seem to think it too bizarre that we’d decided to stay in a tent on the RV side so we could have access to electricity. We needed to inflate Mother’s air mattress, which fit inside our three-person tent, oh, the way a great white fits into a jacuzzi. 

Our campsite offered easy access to four different trails, exactly what we wanted. The traditional sites for tents do have a better river view, and are closer to Oxbow Lake’s swimming and paddle boats. All campsites have fire pits, grills, picnic tables, and hooks for hanging your trash bags—the flies were bad during our visit. The fire pits, too, were a challenge: We watched a 24-pack of Coghlan’s waterproof fire sticks burn all night, but the local logs we bought for 50 cents a pop never did anything but smolder. Anyway, the real light show started when the fireflies came out to flitter and flash between the dark trees at dusk. Our lightning bugs, Ernie told us. Our pileated woodpecker.

The wildlife at the park is incredible. It’s a birder’s paradise, home to nearly 250 species, including those you can easily spot without binoculars: hawks, owls, cardinals, warblers, vultures. Hiking here is a hill-less breeze, though the San Marcos River Trail’s “Watch for Snakes” sign does not lie. This is cottonmouth and canebrake rattler country.

After spotting some ground rootings on the Palmetto Trail, Mom started in on a diatribe about the dangers of wild hogs—they can charge; they can rip you open with their tusks—directly after which, we stumbled upon a large pack of feral pigs. The mama was the size of a black bear, surrounded by a dozen babies that came flying out of the underbrush. All of us were scared to death and fled, grunting, back to our preferred habitats.

They took off toward the mesquite and dandelion; we booked it back to Buc-ee’s, where we filled up the tank and sucked down iced tea, happy to have survived our time in the Central Texas swamp.

World Birding Center

Four More Options for Birders:

Lake Tawakoni State Park

A crazy mix of birds, from bald eagles to pelicans to roadrunners, inhabit this 376-acre park 50 miles east of Dallas, home to wetland, upland, and tallgrass prairie habitats. More than 200 species have been documented around the lake—a massive 37,000-acre reservoir on the Sabine River—which makes for a nice dip or fishing trip in the summer. The park’s also known for its bobcats and beavers, and as the site of one of the largest spiderwebs ever recorded, about a decade ago.

Davis Mountains State Park

This birding hot spot in West Texas, half an hour north of Marfa, is home to the Montezuma quail. It offers campsites as well as its own historic 39-room motel, the Indian Lodge (reserve early). Bird blinds equipped with shielded patios and feed and watering stations allow visitors to get up close and personal with some of the hundreds of species found in the park, depending on the time of year.

Big Bend National Park

This Far West Texas treasure is home to the avian mother lode, grounds for the largest number of birds in all of America’s national parks. Visitors can choose between a mountain lodge, three campgrounds, and numerous backcountry campsites; non-birding features include archeological sites, the Comanche Trail, and the Boquillas Crossing, port of entry into Mexico (bring the passport). The park’s Nature Fest in late August, perfect for novice birders, offers field trips, lectures, and more.

World Birding Center

This subtropical South Texas epicenter of bird watching is composed of three state parks, including the 760-acre Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, which offers primitive campsites. Together, these nine parks are home to an astounding number of rare tropical birds—this region of the Rio Grande Valley is as far north as they migrate—including many with names far cooler than our own: ferruginous pygmy owl or buff-bellied hummingbird, anyone?

Bonus: Barbecue

A handful of the state’s best barbecue joints lie within driving distance of Palmetto. city market in Luling (830-875-9019) is worth the trip for the sausage alone. Or head to Baker Boys BBQ in Gonzales (830-519-4400) and get the pork loin and all the sides. Both are just 20 minutes away. Feeling extra-ambitious? Drive 30 minutes north of the park, and hit the barbecue capital of Lockhart, home to Black's Barbecue, Kreuz Market, and Smitty's Market.

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