Having to take a ticket and wait in line 90 minutes just to check into Garner State Park did not make a promising first impression.

But after getting settled into the spacious campsite and beginning our exploration of this Hill Country gem, it became clear why Garner State Park arguably is the granddaddy of the Texas state park system.

The mammoth park, off U.S. Highway 83 about 60 miles west of San Antonio, is nestled in the most spectacular part of the Hill Country, with emerald-green streams, winding roads and soaring hills that could qualify as mountains.

One section of the park looks like the combination of summer camp for kids and a music festival, a sea of tents and so much activity that it might look like a freshly kicked fire ant mound from the air.

But other sections of the 1,774-acre Garner State Park has spacious campsites and the kind of laid-back, quiet vibe with which most Texas campers are accustomed.

The beginnings of Garner State Park date to the 1920s, when the Magers family, German immigrants, opened their land for camping, according to the state park's website.

The land soon found its way into Civilian Conservation Corps hands, and the state opened the park June 1, 1941, naming it after John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, a Uvalde native who served as U.S. vice president from 1933 to 1941.

The CCC, as it did with other state parks during the Great Depression, built roads, culverts, trails, cabins, picnic tables, benches and other park amenities.

Workers used native limestone and bald cypress to construct the park's centerpiece building and dance pavilion. The building overlooks the sparkling Frio River.

The word "frio" means cold in Spanish, and the crystal clear river running through here certainly lives up to its name. Water temperatures vary depending on the season, but 60s and 70s are normal.

Garner State Park and its surroundings offer so much to do that it can't all be crammed into a weekend, or even a holiday weekend such as Memorial Day or Labor Day.

The Frio River alone offers swimming, floating on inner tubes, fishig and paddle boat and kayak rentals.

Then, there are miles and miles of hiking trails, but the one must-hike trail is up Old Baldy, the park's iconic hill.

It's a short but challenging hike, requiring some scrambling in places to get up the 400-foot bluff. Hikers have plunged to their deaths off Old Baldy's face, so be careful. There are no safety rails.

But the view is spectacular and well worth the effort to get there.

A slightly less-challenging hike goes to the nearby White Rock Cave. Another hike runs up to Crystal Cave.

Garner has an official geocache to find as well as myriad state-approved geocaches scattered throughout the park.

There are a variety of camping options, from primitive to shelters to full hookup for that monster RV.

Garner has a robust store, stocked with tons of souvenirs, and meals are available.

Since the 1940s, Garner has had dancing to jukebox music at the pavilion in the summer. For those who go, get there early, because the parking lot often fills as early as 8:30 p.m.

And if there remains room on the activity plate, visitors have all kinds of options outside of Garner. The nearby Lost Maples State Park offers terrific, scenic hiking.

In summer, the Frio Bat Flight Tour takes visitors to the nightly exodus of one of the world's the largest Mexican free-tailed bat colonies. And there is also Devil's Sinkhole state natural area (by appointment only) and Kickapoo Cavern State Park.

But the most spectacular part of this area might be traveling "The Three Sisters," which are three ranch roads that offer some of the most scenic drives in Texas.

Ranch Roads 335, 336 and 337 are popular with motorcyclists. The winding roads follow canyons and have sharp turns, requiring motorists to slow to almost a crawl in places.

There are places to stop and take photos of the terrific views, which are unlike anything else that can be found in Texas, or perhaps anywhere for that matter.

 

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