Heart of Texas Magazine

Life is Better Outside: A Deeper Look into Pedernales Falls State Park

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The Texas Hill Country is defined by water. Rain falls on vast ranches in the western Hill Country, filters down into aquifers, emerges in springs, which grow into creeks, then rivers. The Pedernales River arises in just such a manner—in Kimble County, near the southwest corner of Fredericksburg’s Gillespie County. It flows over a bed of 300 million-year-old limestone, through ranches and farms and canyons and towns, and 106 miles later, pours into the Colorado River. Much of its way is placid and gentle, and at Johnson City, where it’s dammed, the flow averages only 80 cubic feet per second. Enough to float a canoe or kayak, but nothing to brag about.

Ten miles east of Johnson City, all of that changes. In just over a half mile, the riverbed drops down 50 vertical feet, creating magical swirls and sunlit white foam in an energetic, frenetic flow. A steady flow of people appears daily to peer into its depths, to wonder at its energy, to marvel in its clarity, to draw its beauty into their barrenness. West of Dripping Springs you enter the Pedernales Falls State Park and follow a long winding road to the parking lot at its end.  There is a short trail to the overlook, where a couple of trails lead down into a wide streambed. The river flows from left to right over a series of falls and drops and slides into pools lined with sandy beaches. People scramble over the water-carved limestone to reach its edge. There are families and couples and sunbathing, but no doubt most are lusting for a swim in its cool waters. The signage above is clear: no swimming. There is a swimming area downstream by another trail, but danger lurks here, for this is not a water park. This is a place to marvel, relax, and breath in negative ions.

Life is Better Outside: A Deeper Look into Pedernales Falls State Park

Photo: Robert C. Deming

“Life is better outside.” This is more than just a slogan from Texas Parks & Wildlife; we all intrinsically know there is something important going on. Scientific studies have shown that negative ions increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, with lots of positive effects. Negative ions are produced when molecules are broken apart by sunlight and moving water. Air conditioning depletes the air of these negative ions, and buildings may contain few of them. We inhale these invisible, tasteless, and odorless molecules, and in the bloodstream, biochemical reactions change us. They are known to increase the production of serotonin, giving us more energy, lowering stress, and alleviating depression. At Pedernales Falls State Park, you will quickly be surrounded by fast-moving water and sunlight, inhaling these life-affirming molecules.

Life is Better Outside: A Deeper Look into Pedernales Falls State Park

Photo: Robert C. Deming

Wandering downstream, one encounters a decidedly unfamiliar setting for the Texas Hill Country: a long, broad, yellow sand beach. It ends where the water’s flow is channeled into a swift current past a series of tall bald cypress trees. Back upstream, you will find a twisted canyon of raw energy, too far below the edge of the rock to dangle one’s feet into, too scary to consider bootlegging a swim. The deep, fast water has a greenish tint with white foam which draws its viewers in for a closer look, but not so close as to risk a fall into the swift passage. Further upstream is a large pool fed by a wide, shallow water slide and ringed with white foam. Further on is another twisted rock, once a canyon, now standing at the water’s edge. A 10-foot wide sand beach surrounds this 10-foot tall remnant of a canyon wall, while just upstream a dramatic series of falls roars.

Courtesy of Texas Parks & Wildlife

Photo: Courtesy of Texas Parks & Wildlife

For an even more special experience, take a picnic lunch. Whether it’s an over-the-top, highly refined meal or just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it’s going to taste better than you’ve imagined. “Life is Better Outside” also applies to eating picnic lunches outside. One caveat, the perfect wine pairing is sparkling water. Not only are there rules about alcohol in state parks, but your walk back across the interesting but challenging landscape to your car after drinking that bottle of a fine Texas wine can be risky. A Lewis Wines Hill Country Rose wine ($18) is light and crisp and tasty, must be kept chilled (bring in an insulated bottle), and pairs well with a picnic lunch, but not in a state park or with a challenging walk back.

In 1967, the Texas Legislature created a bond issue of $75,000,000 which resulted in the purchase and development of this and 25 other state parks. They haven’t always been sufficiently funded, but this program gave us one of the finest state park properties in the world.

Life is Better Outside: A Deeper Look into Pedernales Falls State Park

Photo: Kelly Hurd, www.wherethetrailsare.com

Visitors to this Pedernales Falls State Park can now make reservations for day use, alleviating a long-standing problem with access on busy days (access this system through the park’s website). With as many as 225,000 visitors per year, the park often closes to new visitors on weekends and holidays as the parking lots reach capacity. There are 20 miles of horse trails, 40 miles of multi-use trails, and specially designed mountain bike trails. Flooding is an ever-present possibility, and hikers need to be aware of the day’s weather. With rising water, you can find yourself stranded on the opposite side of the river from your car on the Trammell’s Crossing Trail. There is a designated swimming area in the park. If you swim in the falls area, you risk broken bones from fast flowing water as well as an expensive and mood-busting conversation with a Park Police Officer. Management of Texas State Parks is focused on preserving them for future generations; minimize your impact on it. The back-country campsites are also quite popular but also come with sometimes-broken rules concerning pets and campfires. Come early to Pedernales Falls State Park, bring a picnic, mind the rules, and breath deeply of the life-changing molecules flowing in abundance.

Originally published in the Summer Issue of Heart of Texas Magazine.