Palmetto State Park: Nature-filled Getaway in Central Texas

This small park offers a large amount of fun, both on water and land

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life, some seen almost nowhere else in Texas.

Back in the early 1930s, a small piece of that swamp, midway between Gonzales and Luling, became Palmetto State Park. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) efforts to blend nature into their construction, the park today looks almost as natural as it did eight decades ago.

San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just an hour from Austin or San Antonio and two hours from Houston, this picturesque park is a short drive for many Texans and easily accessible off of Interstate 10. If you’re looking for more than just a day trip, extend your retreat with a night or two of camping or a stay in the park’s quaint cabin.

You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps.

On land, hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos. Host a gathering at the park’s CCC-built picnic pavilion which has an air-conditioned kitchen. 

Choose one of the 19 tent sites or 18 RV sites. Camp with up to 99 of your friends at the secluded group site. Or rent our air-conditioned cabin (for up to six people).

Hiking trail at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first thing I look for at a park is a trail to hike and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto State Park offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive Trail have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life some, seen almost nowhere else in Texas. Riotous birdsong is Palmetto’s soundtrack. The 270-acre park has attracted 240 species of birds, including an invasion of hummingbirds each spring. In the fall, look for butterflies everywhere. Fox squirrels and a variety of wildlife inhabit the park due to the presence of the river nearby.

Palmetto at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, everywhere you look is the park’s namesake plants adding a tropical feeling, unlike the surrounding Texas countryside. Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants from which the park gets its name surround the park’s swamp. These palmettos grow in East and Southeast Texas as well as the Palmetto State (South Carolina) and much of the southeastern US. The state park boasts the westernmost stand of dwarf palmettos in the country.
The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. The Mesquite Flats Trail offers a look at the drier, savannah-like parts of the park where prickly pear cactus finds a home.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you get finished exploring the park on land, enjoy the water. The always-fun Oxbow Lake offers calm water to cast a fishing line in search of catfish or sunfish. Try out a paddleboat, kayak, or canoe, or take a swim in the cool water. The San Marcos River low-water crossing is a great place to either splash around in the water or take a tube for a 20- to 30-minute float around the park. Make sure you check river conditions with park staff.

The San Marcos River is one of the most popular recreational rivers in Texas. The river arises from Aquarena Springs within the city limits of San Marcos and flows approximately 75 miles through heavily wooded banks to join the Guadalupe River. A wide variety of water types including a few rapids, many small riffles and an abundance of clear, quiet pools are present. The average width of the stream is 30 feet; however, it narrows between steep banks in its lower reaches. In periods of low water, numerous log jams are found, especially downriver.

San Marcos River at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good point of entry is Luling City Park, located adjacent to State Highway 80, just east of the city limits. The park provides about one-half mile of shoreline and camping is permitted.

Paddlers will enjoy a gentle family-friendly ride on this quiet river lined with beautiful trees and wildlife. Since private land borders the river, put-in and take-out points are limited.

Didn’t bring gear? The park staff has you covered with rentals of life jackets, kayaks, canoes, tubes, and hydro-cycles (basically bikes with pontoons). The park also participates in the tackle loaner program allowing you to borrow fishing poles free of charge.

The staff and volunteers at Palmetto State Park are eager to show you a safe and relaxing experience. Make sure you check in with them at park headquarters on your way in. While you’re there, pick up a souvenir at the well-stocked park store.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Entrance Fee: $3 daily

Camping Fee: $12-$20 + daily entrance fee

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer