All these years later it could be traced back to one place in the Texas Hill Country. She was from Houston, he was from Kingsville, but they somehow found themselves together on the dance pavilion at Garner State Park. She was slight and attractive—as fine boned as an elegant finch. He was lanky and tanned from the sun. On that fateful night when the fireflies were out and the western sky turned crimson and gold, he asked her to dance. And again. And then again. They sashayed and glided around the stone dance floor, occasionally forced to come up for air like a pair of navy divers. One dance after another. They were swept up by the music. His heart was thrumming like a struck bell. Her eyes had altered the world forever in the space of a heartbeat. Her beauty was not an ephemeral thing or a condition of her youth. It would still be there in fifty years, underneath her aging skin. True story.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built the facilities at Garner State Park. One of the most iconic structures they built was the park’s concession building. It’s the centerpiece of the park, made from native limestone and hewn bald cypress, overlooking the Frio River. For nearly 100 years generations of young campers have been falling in love at Garner State Park’s nightly summer dances. And it’s still going on today. The dances are every night between Memorial Day and mid-August from around 8 pm-11pm. Arrive early, as parking lots get full, and gates can close as early as 8:30 pm. You don’t have to be camping in the park to enjoy the fun. You can just head straight to the pavilion and get your dance on. Or, if you are beyond a certain age, you can just enjoy the music on the old neon-lit jukebox.
Garner State Park is west of Austin, situated between Leaky, and a series of one-horse towns scattered along US 83 S. It’s almost a 4-hour drive from Bastrop. The official address is Concan, Texas. There isn’t much out here in the way of big city amusements, so it’s no wonder the park has become known for fun in the sun. Vacation camping became a popular pastime in the 1920’s and landowners here opened part of what would eventually become Garner State Park for campers. The cool clear waters of the Frio River and the natural beauty of the canyons and surrounding Hill Country offer spectacular views to this day. State Natural Areas such as Hill Country, Lost Maples and Devil’s Sinkhole are nearby testaments to this gorgeous landscape. A remote Kickapoo Cavern State Park is the nearest TPWD park to the west.
The scenery is sculpted and arresting. At 1,774 acres it is tucked into a southwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau known as the Balcones Canyonlands. All around are deep canyons, crystal-clear streams, high mesas, and carved limestone cliffs. Not surprisingly, the geology is wrought from ancient and violent interactions dating back to the Cretaceous age. The area is comprised of multiple layers of sediment laid down by shifting margins from an ancient sea. Dinosaurs roamed here and left footprints in the sand. The Edwards limestone uplifted millions of years ago, creating steep canyon walls and some of the most spectacular views in all of Texas. Today, we muse at the remains of cataclysmic violence, rising in front of us like some painted masterpiece. Words don’t work here. This is a place you have to feel.
If you want a quiet, contemplative respite—come during the winter. Any of the remaining seasons, be sure to get your reservations in early. Every inch of Garner State Park is occupied when the sun shines warmly. Families, students, swimmers, tubers, fishermen—all manner of humanity flock to the shores of the knee-deep Frio River to rinse their cares away. 3-miles of this chilly river flows through the park, shaded by a phalanx of magnificent cypress trees on both sides. You can rent a small locker near the boat dock to stash your valuables. Outfitters, both within and outside the park, stand ready to put you in a tube, a kayak, a canoe, or any suitable floatation device. Wall-to-wall children just wade and splash wildly, transforming the scene from pastoral beauty to a freaking madhouse!
People come from all over to spend the entire day. Tables can be rented, as well as barbeque pits, heaters, and fans. Picnic tables are peppered between playgrounds, numerous restrooms, volleyball, and basketball courts. Overnight accommodations include cabins, screen shelters and a glut of RV sites (you can also pitch a tent). As the sun slowly melts behind the bluffs, people drift toward the concessions pining for the evening dance. The Stinkin’Sweet Candy Golf miniature golf course offers 18-holes of fun under the dappled shade of ancient live oaks. There’s also the sweets shop concession offering nostalgic candies, sugary sodas, and some other unique drinks.
If you’re not part of the aquatic madding crowd, there’s plenty of quiet nature to be enjoyed. Take for example the 16 miles of scenic trails that wind through and around the park. Some of these, like the Old Horse Trail and the Wild Horse Creek Trail, seem more like mountain climbing than hiking. A little tamer hike might be the Old Entrance Road Trail to see the original CCC stone entrance gate to the park (now closed). Then, there’s the “must hike” trail to the top of Old Baldy. This short but steep trek is just enough to get your blood flowing and your heart pumping by the time you get to the top. Some trails allow mountain bikes, some don’t. Birders, geocachers, and photographers can also lose themselves in the park’s many temptations. The park also offers a comprehensive package of seasonal education programs for students.
Animals in the area are typical for Texas: white-tail deer, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, etc. One exotic species, the Axis deer, competes for food and resources with the white-tail population. Other rare seasonal residents include Golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos. Both birds nest here from the spring through early summer each year.
Oddly, we find lusher vegetation than normal for this region of Texas. It’s because the park’s canyons are angled southeast to northwest, channeling prevailing winds to moisten and cool the area. This climate is favorable for Texas madrones, lacey oak and, of course, the stately bald cypress trees along the banks of the Frio. These same steep slopes and canyons also shelter some very old Ashe juniper trees.
Bald cypresses are as hardy as they are majestic. They can tower up to 120 feet overhead and live up to 600 years. They are “bald” because they drop their feathery leaves very early in the fall. They push knobby “knees” up from the water around their base which provide nesting places, slow floodwaters, and trap sediments in the water. They leave a mess when they drop their leaves.
By comparison, Texas madrones only reach a height of 20-30 feet and sport an evergreen foliage. While uncommon, their native range includes Texas. You find them in Central Texas west to the Guadalupe Mountains, and south all the way to Guatemala. They have a unique red inner bark and display white flowers in spring, followed by red or orange berries. Very festive.
The area surrounding Garner State Park has a rough and tumble history, including prehistoric people. Game was abundant, and so were useful plants and stone for making tools. And, of course, there was the river, a cool, dependable source of water. These canyons were home to Spanish explorers, the Apache, the Comanche, and, eventually, Anglo settlers.
Besides state natural areas already mentioned, there are some other side trips of interest if you have time. Fort Inge, once a frontier fort and Texas Ranger camp, now hosts occasional star parties. In summer, join a Frio Bat Flight tour to watch the nightly exodus of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats. Don’t overlook the Uvalde Visitors Center and the Frio Canyon Chamber of Commerce for more ideas.
The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps after local citizens acquired the land. Upon completion it was donated to the state in 1941 and named in honor of John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner. Garner was an Uvalde native who served as vice president of the United States from 1933 to 1941. CCC Company 879 arrived in 1935. They built roads, culverts, foot trails, the pavilion, a lodge and cabins, service structures, picnic tables and benches. It quickly became (and still is) one of the most popular parks in the state.
Seldom do you find an air of carnival and festivity quite like this in other state parks. The action gulps all the sunshine, and then continues into the night. It’s like one big fraternity party—a natural playground to let it all hang out, reinforcing the idea that you can grow old without ever growing up.
By Larry Gfeller