Pleasant days, crisp, cool nights — it’s camping season here in Central Texas! Recently, my toddler Zephyr and I went camping with friends at Pedernales Falls State Park. We had a great time, despite several mistakes I made along the way — and now you can learn from my mistakes and have a perfectly smooth trip when you go! Now, first things first, y’all: One thing I didn’t bungle up was the pronunciation of “Pedernales.” Yes, it should be said just like it’s spelled — peh-der-NAH-les. But if you want to sound like a native Central Texan, you’ll pronounce it purd-NAL-lis (and MAN-shack, and BURN-it, durn it!).
But I did manage to make plenty of other mistakes, starting when I reserved our campsite. I visited the Texas State Parks official online reservations site to make a reservation, and it couldn’t have been easier. You can search campsites by region, park name, facility type or even activity (e.g., horseback riding, hiking, swimming and so on). Just select the region or park you’d like to visit, enter your preferred dates, and hit Search. If the particular date you entered is all booked up, you can click on Calendar Search to find a different date. Easy peasy.
But I didn’t consider there was probably a big difference between an “Electric & Water Campsite” ($20/night) and a “Primitive Hike-In” site ($10/night). I knew the former must be preferable to the latter for a camper like me (bringing a small child and lots of gear), but when there weren’t any available on the date I wanted to go, I went ahead and reserved a Primitive Hike-In site without a second thought.
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Go ahead and take a moment to snicker; that was a pretty silly oversight! As the names suggest, the Electric & Water Campsites come complete with an electrical outlet and a water faucet, as well as a parking space for your vehicle, a fire pit, and proximity to restrooms, firewood, ice, and a campsite host. The Primitive Hike-In sites, on the other hand, have no water or electricity, no fires are allowed, and you can’t park near your campsite; rather, you have to hike two to three miles from the parking lot to reach the site.
I didn’t realize I’d reserved a Primitive site (or what that meant) until the day before we left. As soon as I realized my mistake, I simultaneously realized there was no way I could hike that far to a campsite while carrying my baby, our tent and all our other gear — much less survive a night of camping with no access to water or electricity and no easy, quick route back to the car should we need to leave.
My friends, whom we were planning to meet at the park and camp with, also didn’t want to stay at a Primitive site, but all of the regular campsites were reserved. We still wanted to go enjoy the park and go hiking, however, so we decided to head out anyway, and take our chances. It was the first truly cold night of the fall season, so we thought there might be a chance a regular site would open up, if someone made a last-minute cancellation.
To make a long story short, the Universe aligned for us — someone had cancelled their reservation! A regular (Electricity & Water) campsite opened up just as we reached the park and checked in, and we were able to reserve it and just pay the difference. Whew! Of course, you should not count on this happening; we simply got lucky, and I think it was probably because of the impending cold temperatures that someone cancelled at the last minute.
Let’s backtrack for a minute. Pedernales Falls is about a 40-minute drive from Austin — nice and close. We drove out in the late morning and stopped at Flores Tacos in Dripping Springs for some delicious breakfast tacos. These tacos are so good! Not to be confused with the bigger, fancier Central Texas chain called Flores Mexican Restaurant, Flores Tacos is a little green house (not much more than a shack, really) on the north side of Hwy 290, just a little ways west of Ranch Road 12. It’s open for breakfast and lunch only, so if you want to try their delicious food, you may want to call ahead to make sure they’re open (512-858-9346). (There are also plenty of other places in Dripping Springs to stop for food, ice and other supplies, including grocery stores, regular and fast-food restaurants, and convenience stores, all along both sides of Hwy 290.)
For the most part, the navigation app on my phone got me to the park just fine, but I still managed to take a wrong turn onto Old Park Road. Don’t make the same mistake I did! My phone’s map made it appear as if that road connects to the main park road (RM 3232), but it does not. Look out for the brown road sign alerting you to RM 3232, the actual park road, coming up; your turn onto the road is after that sign.
Almost as soon as you turn off 290 onto 3232, and increasingly the deeper you go into the park area, cell phone reception is very spotty or just nonexistent. If you’re meeting friends, it’s best to make firm connection plans in advance.
After paying our entrance fees at the park headquarters, my friends and I met up in the parking lot by the Pedernales Falls hiking trail. I chose that trail because it was one of the shortest — just a quarter-mile long — and I figured Zeph could walk some or all of it. After using the clean restrooms by the parking lot and filling up our bottles at the water fountain (there are also vending machines there for people to purchase bottled water or sodas), we headed down the trail toward the falls. I did need to carry Zeph down the steps, but once we were down at the actual falls, we were all able to run around and go wild.
The falls are incredible! The whole place looks like a moonscape, with expanses of bleached rock and little pockets of water here and there, along with larger swimming holes (and the falls themselves, of course). It’s a bit sketchy for babies and young children, or anyone else who isn’t quite sure on their feet. I had to keep a good eye on Zeph while we explored. But it was worth the trouble. My friends brought their two sons, ages 8 and 10, and they had a fantastic time running around, climbing on rocks and exploring caves. There are also little informational markers along the trail, where you can learn about the rock formations, the animals, and other interesting facts about the area.
You’re allowed to have a fire in the little fire pits at the Electric & Water campsites, as long as there isn’t a burn ban. (Currently, the burn ban has been lifted since September.) When it was time to head to our campsite, we purchased firewood from the campsite Host On Duty for $6 per bundle (the host recommended we buy two bundles, one for an evening fire and one for the next morning); we also bought one starter for $1, which we divided into two on the host’s recommendation, using half for each fire. Ice was also available for $2.50 a bag.
We had a lovely time at the campsite for the rest of the evening. Our site was close to other sites, but it was surrounded by trees and bushes, which gave it a private feel. Perhaps because the campsite host was nearby, no one near us was noisy or disruptive overnight. There were bathrooms with showers just a short walk away from our site. We set up the tent, built our fire, made hot cocoa and smores, lay in the hammock my friends brought and hung between two trees… It was nice and cozy and, with kids and plenty of gear, so much easier than that Primitive Hike-In site would have been!! In the morning, we made another fire, had breakfast, and then packed up our gear and explored some of the other trails we hadn’t seen the day before.
We noticed a bird blind at the park, and lots of people with binoculars; Pedernales Falls seems to be a big birding spot. A poster next to the restrooms showed pictures of cardinals, hummingbirds and other beautiful varieties of birds. The park really has something for everyone, including tubing and swimming, a variety of hiking trails — longer and shorter, easier and more challenging to navigate — as well as a wheelchair-friendly wildlife-viewing station. You can even bring your horse to ride the rocky 10-mile trail that winds through the park!
Entrance fees (charged in addition to campsite fees)
- Adults (13+) — $6/day
- Children 12 and under — FREE
- *Or get in FREE with an annual Texas State Parks pass ($70; purchase on-site at any Texas State Park location, or from the State Park Customer Service Center — 512-389-8900)