Surrounded by Solitude: Pedernales Falls State Park

John Hamilton, Staff Writer

Photo by John Hamilton

Though tough to concede, it must be admitted that words will perpetually fail Pedernales Falls State Park. Since my own ineptitude turned me around at the gate several months ago, the draw of this surreal place has stirred my imagination, and what lies beyond the front gates is nothing short of spectacular.  

The sun was splintering through the clouds and warming the hillsides that nestle U.S. 281 North as another fall day in Texas was slowly unfolding. Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughn sang “Matchbox Blues” as I hugged the turns toward Johnson City. Realizing the victory of not needing the air conditioner boosted my mood as the hour-and-a-half drive breezed by. This time I was prepared with a reservation for the falls, determined to see the vast expanse I had dreamt of. Before I knew it, the park sticker was pasted to the windshield, and the falls were just beyond my sightline.  

After I asked the ranger at the gate for a map, the staggering size of the park became apparent. Trails read 11.4 miles, 9.7 miles and 5.8 miles, and I thought, “Please let there be water access from a short trail.” After scouring the paths around the river and watching other cars searching for the same thing, we formed a caravan bound for the park’s greatest attraction.

Parking was a breeze as empty spaces scattered in front of the trailhead and crowds departed as the day wore on into the afternoon hours. The trailhead marked the entrance to a different realm, brimming with subtle clues that my surroundings were morphing into something unrecognizable. The paved path turned to gravel, then gravel to iron dyed stone, then iron dyed stone to … well, it’s tough to say.  

Photo by John Hamilton

Descending the staircase onto a footpath that had been stomped into the soil meant following the steps of those who had made their way through the maze that was getting down to the water’s edge. This was not a straight shot; you have to earn it here. Between the boulders, sago palms and cactus lies a narrow zigzag of footprints that bring you to an opening overlooking the scenery that is, in a word, otherworldly.  

As the footprints ended, traversing the rugged terrain became priority number one. With deep slot canyons and potholes in every direction, it can only be described as trying to walk along craters on the moon. The ground had been scarred and worn into grooves and cliffs by the constant flow of water, which remained invisible until I clambered up and down the landscape several times. From the surface it looked bone dry, but as you work your way through the elevation changes, you find hidden pockets of raging rapids, caves redirecting the current and calm pools that mind tiny fish who work up their courage before leaving home. The most peculiar lizards I have ever laid eyes on also resided here. With racing stripes painted down their sides and a tail that wagged like a dog, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get a picture of one. I was unsuccessful as they ran circles around me in groups like it was a sport.

Eventually, the cliffside beckoned, and a hike up gave an incredible view of the valley floor below. Features hidden at ground level revealed themselves, and waterways opened into giant pools that needed to be fished. Lining the cliffside was a natural staircase that resembled gargantuan brownies like the jetties in Mustang Island. Upon further inspection, the colors within each stone ran the spectrum, melting into lines of dark and light browns from a distance. This motif was repeated in a cliff face, giant lines of darkened stone working their way to the canyon floor. Within the cliff face was a void space, and within the void was a five-ton boulder. How?

Photo by John Hamilton

Having fished the pools and ventured deep into the less populated areas, it was time to return to the trailhead. I had not prepared for how intense the hike back would be, and the seams of my pants were screaming at each other to hold it together with each push up the side of a boulder. After taking an hour to hike a quarter-mile back, the adventure was coming to a close. A friendly family I encountered cheered as the final member got herself over the last ridge. I cheered a bit inside, too.

Pedernales Falls State Park is in Johnson City and is about an hour and a half from San Antonio. Day passes cost $6, are available for online reservation and are required prior to getting into the park. Reservations include a time slot spanning three hours that specifies when you can enter the park, and if you show up in that time frame, permits are valid until closing at 10 p.m. Camping is available, as are equestrian trails and assorted hikes throughout the park’s grounds, ranging from “Easy” to “Challenging.” The falls are posted everywhere with signs warning of flash floods, so always be sure to check the weather before going, and stay vigilant in the canyons. This place truly is surreal, every step in the canyon offering new worlds and ecosystems to explore. And even if none of those things interest you, you just really have to see those lizards. 

Photo by John Hamilton