When one thinks of canyons in Texas, the first things that generally come to mind are the magnificent canyons along the Rio Grande and the canyons of the Caprock. Outside of these areas, the state hardly has enough relief to justify calling anything a “canyon”. And yet, along the edges of the Edwards Plateau, in the Texas Hill Country (the epicenter of all things Texan) there are several canyons incised into the limestone that makes up the region. Some of the more interesting canyons are found west of Austin, such as the narrow canyons carved by Barton Creek. However, while there may be slightly deeper canyons in the Hill Country, none offer the spectacle as the Pedernales (pronounced “puhr-den-alice”) River Canyon. Not only does the canyon have rugged walls, but it is also home to Pedernales Falls, some of the most torturous white water in the state of Texas.
The Pedernales River is among the shortest of the significant rivers that pass through the Hill Country. It begins in southeastern Kimble County and flows east, through Gilliespie County, passing south of Fredericksburg. Upon entering Blanco County, its flow begins to trend northward, passing north of Johnson City. Beyond this point the river passes through Hays County before entering Travis County and emptying into Lake Travis, and reservoir formed by impounding the Colorado River of Texas. Most of its flow up to its passage north of Johnson City is through fairly level ground with only a small, albeit steep-sided channel. After passing Johnson City, the river enters Pedernales Falls State Park and the character of the river changes dramatically once it enters the Pedernales River Canyon and passes over Pedernales Falls. Rather than meandering through the Hill Country as it has prior to its entrance into the park, it becomes a swiftly moving river, passing over an impressive series of cataracts. The canyon itself is not particularly deep for much of its length but the walls are steep and rugged. Beyond the falls, the canyon deepens a bit and has some exposed limestone bluffs that make it attractive. Nonetheless, it is the falls that inevitably and understandably draw attention.
As noted, the Pedernales River has a fairly slow and meandering course for much of its journey. This changes dramatically upon entering the Pedernales River Canyon. The distinguishing characteristic is Pedernales Falls. Though not a tall vertical waterfall, it is instead a nearly 2 mile long series of cataracts that pour over a succession of limestone dikes that make up the riverbed. The river at this point is reminiscent of Cossatot Falls in Arkansas. The most dramatic section of the falls is the final 0.2 miles, in which the drops on the cataracts become a bit higher and the river finally pours over a series of slick cascades in which the water fans out a bit beyond the basic river channel. In addition to these cataracts, the river flows through a convoluted series of channels and troughs, creating a maze of rocks and torrent filled trenches. Although the entire section of the river from Johnson City to Lake Travis is popular with kayakers, the part that flows through the park, with all of its limestone dikes, offers a particularly exciting stretch of whitewater when water levels are high.
The a significant portion of the Pedernales River Canyon is encompassed by Pedernales Falls State Park. The river is the obvious highlight of the park, but trails leading to classic Hill Country terrain and old an old homestead offer diversions from the riparian attractions. Due to the park’s proximity to the Austin metropolitan area, it is often heavily impacted on the weekends. For an opportunity to observe the falls without crowds mobbing the waters, it is necessary to arrive at the park promptly when it opens. In spite of the effort required to see the falls without the sunbathers, swimmers and gawkers, experiencing the Pedernales River Canyon and Pedernales Falls is one of the highlights of the Texas Hill Country.
The Pedernales River Canyon is accessible via a number of trails. The primary route and most heavily used is the area around Pedernales Falls. There is a very short hike to a viewpoint above the falls from the trailhead. Once there, a pair of stone stairways lead down to the river. From there, it is possible to scramble over the entirety of the limestone terraces the river flows over and through. It is feasible to range pretty far upstream from the viewpoint. The further one gets, the fewer the people one is likely to encounter. About 100 yards upstream from the large, fan like cascade visible from the viewpoint there is a 10 foot cataract on the river that forms the highest single free fall among the series of cascades. Beyond this waterfall, it is unlikely one will encounter anyone. Downstream from the falls, the canyon is accessed from two other points. First, there is a trail beginning at the campground that fords the river and leads to a loop on the far side of the river. The Wolf Mountain Trail also traverses a rugged section of the canyon where it passes through the primitive camping area.
Getting ThereComing from Austin, head west on 290 from the junction of 290 and 71. After 24 miles, turn right onto Ranch Road 3232. After 6.5 miles there is a quick dog-leg to the right that puts one on Pedernales Falls Road. After passing through the entrance station, signs direct one to the falls, the campground or trailheads.
If coming from points west of the park, proceed east from Johnson City for 9.5 miles on Ranch Road 2766. Immediately after the junction with Ranch Road 3232, turn left onto Pedernales Falls Road. Proceed into the park.
CampingPedernales Falls State Park has two camping areas. There is a developed campground near the river that has dozens of sites. In keeping with Texas State Park philosophy, the campground is packed and offers lots of amenities, which either satisfies people’s needs or to some, detracts from the natural, ourdoor experience. The other option is the primitive camping area that exists in the canyon, along the river. This area has pit toilets and is accessed via the Wolf Mountain Trail.
There is an entrance fee of $5.00 per person to enter Pedernales Falls State Park. Swimming is prohibited around the falls. The park offers ample warnings regarding the possibility of flash floods. The images provided support the contention in spectacular fashion. Although the park area is generally not maintained in a wild state, one should still conduct oneself according to normal wilderness rules and ethics.
Pedernales River State Park
2585 Park Road 6026
Johnson City TX 78636