The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built almost a hundred state parks in Texas and some of the most inspiring ones are within hours from Bastrop. Palmetto State Park is small (only 270 acres) but stunning. It’s located in neighboring Gonzales County, just Southeast of Luling. The entrance road rambles through rolling forested hills, passes through an unincorporated village and wins you over before you even come upon the tiny headquarters building. The dominant theme is “peace.” Lots of water (the San Marcos River runs through it), giant shade trees and, of course, acres of wild dwarf palmettos spread their dark green spikey leaves like oriental fans on display. I have seen palmettos before, but nothing like this! They rise up out of the swampy ground everywhere you look, clearly glad to have found their part of heaven.
The park opened in 1936, the land acquired from the nearby city of Gonzales. The men of CCC companies 873 and 886 built many of the present day stone structures in the park, including Park Road 11 (the entry road), a group pavilion, water tower and a low water crossing on the river. The San Marcos River is what gives this park its
swampy persona, helped along by underground springs and an ingenious CCC invention we’ll visit later. Once inside, it looks like the Tropics more so than Texas. The ranges of eastern and western species of wild things come together here, resulting in an amazing diversity of plants and animals. It’s called an ecotone.
On the day of our visit, it was an oyster grey noon sky and the damp earth beneath us was curranty, alive. The area lies at a low elevation as the river languishes on its journey to empty into the Guadalupe, radiating a quiet sense of serenity. The park contains a lazy four-acre oxbow lake, formed over geologic time. Fishermen can be seen dotting its shores, banks and shoals almost any day of the week. But this aura of calm is misleading. Flooding events are quite common here. Unpredictable Central Texas rain patterns can turn the river, seemingly instantly, into a boiling, rampaging force of nature.
If you are a birder, you are in luck. Palmetto State Park is situated along the Great Coastal Birding Trail and birders have classified over 240 species of birds inside the park. Frequent visitors include the crested caracara, prothonotary warbler and the red shouldered hawk. Kentucky warblers can also be spotted. The water draws egrets and other aquatic fowl. Not all of the avian population is wild. Road traffic is regularly stopped by domestic ducks and geese—standing in the road with the authority of policemen. Frogs and red eared sliders plop into the water a few feet ahead of your footstep.
If you are a fisherman, you will be at home here. A pier thrusts out into the first third of the San Marcos, providing slips for fishing boats and offering ample space to drop a line. This is a major river, offering up lunkers for the skillful fisherman. Kids and less patient anglers may have a better time in the 4-acre Oxbow Lake; it is separate from the river and is spring fed. The water lays still like liquid metal—canoes and kayaks are readily available, as are paddle boats.
Hikers and photographers have it made too. Almost five miles of trails wreathe through the wetlands, all well-marked and maintained in pristine condition (crushed
granite tread ways). The signage can be a little off-putting: “watch out for snakes” is one of the most common signs you will see. It is, after all, a swamp. Bikers are welcome on the trails, but not horses.
Plant goobers will be ecstatic. You’ll find water lilies, various forms of reeds, cattails and water grasses, inland sea oats, mosses and lichens, interspersed by red buckeye shrubs and rattan vines for a touch of exotica. Because it is an ecotone, honey mesquite and spiderworts will make you feel at home.
Dwarf palmettos own this place though—they are the main draw. These striking plants (Sabol minor) apparently wondered too far west from their traditional haunts before their car broke down and they were forced to stay. Dwarf palmettos grow in low, wet, shady areas. If you are looking to buy property and dwarf palmettos are
present you can be pretty sure that area floods often. They’re everywhere!
If you are abandoned in a swamp, you could do worse than being surrounded by dwarf palmettos. Supposedly, they are a good source of calories all year long. Many edible parts: the heart (much like an artichoke heart), berries which begin appearing in late summer and last through mid-fall and virtually anything else that is not stiff and hard (except the roots). Personally, I’d take my chances fishing.
This park offers some unique gifts. Take for example, the extinct mud boil—a depression in the ground where heated mud and water regularly bubbled up to the surface. The CCC built a simulated mud boil over an Artesian well near the center of the park to reconstruct what it might have looked like when this geothermal area was active. The water boils, bubbles and gurgles to keep three ponds full within the inner grounds of the park, lavishly decorated with hydroponic and terrestrial vegetation.
For me, however, the most interesting construction in the park is the old CCC water tower—complete with a “watch for snakes” sign. This towering structure was built in 1936 and still works today—without any electricity. It’s a mechanical engineering marvel which uses gravity, vacuum and mechanical action to pump water into a cistern
which can later be released into the wetlands along the Palmetto Trail, as needed. Palmetto State Park is a camper’s dream. Campsites are clean and secluded, tucked away in an old growth forest. You can watch the sun melt into a little red puddle on the river. There is a CCC Refectory, available for group events as well as cabins.
When I first entered the headquarters building, I startled the gal behind the desk—not that she was unaccustomed to visitors—we knew each other from her previous employment at Buescher; I was the last person she expected to see in this sleepy little park. If you come here, be prepared for small. The headquarters building is charmingly cramped and the gift shop is minuscule. Unless you’re camping overnight, stalking the ivory-billed woodpecker or constructing the genome of wetland plants, a casual visitor to this park will find it a stretch to fill a half day.
To understand the beauty, you have to get out of your car and get involved. Night hikes and Full Moon hikes are listed on the events calendar and all common holidays are celebrated in the park. Even though there was no interpretative ranger on duty when I visited, I learned the park superintendent would gladly provide a customized guided hike upon request.
Jaw dropping views, like the Grand Canyon or the Rockies, are not the only repositories of nature’s grace and opulence. There is a force in the universe that insists on beauty, Palmetto State Park is evidence of that. I find it curious we never come to know the wonders of what lays right down the road from where we live. Yet, we travel great distances to far off places in search of solitude and inspiration. If you’ve never been, take the time and go to this place. It’s a pleasant time that will cling to your memory long after your visit—like a shot of good scotch, warm, surprisingly delightful and lingering.