When you drive up to the headquarters at South Llano River State Park you’re greeted with a small gated house, a windmill, and you walk through the gate to get to the front door. This was once the meager home of the Buck family who sold this ranch land to the Texas Parks & Wildlife in 1977.
Walter White Buck Jr. left the land to his son who maintained it and learned to cultivate the land even though some of the harshest conditions. Heads of cattle and the pecan trees were his responsibilities, and according to the TPWD website, ‘harvested 75, 000 pounds of pecans’ in some of the best years.
These trees are still on the property along with the amazing views of plateaus in the distance, the Llano river through the park, and if you’re lucky some Rio Grande turkeys roosting.
We must be thankful for the Texas landowners that saw the importance of conserving these lands, and grateful that we have the opportunity to enjoy them.
The rolling hills are all around as you drive into Junction, TX. Crossing the metal bridge over the Llano river you pull into a small town that feels almost untouched. Pick-up trucks line the roads, and small shops selling antiques, hardware, and buildings that have historic markers are almost on every block.
It starts to feel like a preview of the west Texas towns with short buildings but vast blue skies.
Highway 377 curves around and parallels the entrance to the park, and when you turn in and curve down you’re greeted by the flowing water. This day-use area is best known as a launching pad for canoes and kayaks, but just on the other side of the river is another welcome addition.
The Rio Grande turkeys roost here in the wintertime, and it’s one of the largest gatherings of these animals in central Texas. Since human visitors are sharing the turkey’s land, there are sections of the park that are protected to let the turkeys roam and find food during the day.
“From Oct. 1 through March 31, the turkey roost area is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.”, and there are plenty of signs in the front of the park showing where these areas are. If you want to take an extended hike and watch the turkeys from a distance check out the 1.5 mile Turkey Roost Trail. It will follow the roadway leading from the entrance to the headquarters, but you can extend it by traveling from the parking lot there to the Interpretive Trail ( .4 mi.).
The park itself feels more like a state natural area than a full-fledged state park. The accommodations are minimal, and the feature is the natural landscape itself.
There is only one true camping loop that offers full hookups, but also has space for tents. There are 58 campsites with electricity, six with water, and five primitive campsites. They all range in price, so check out the full rates here.
Again, that’s 58 sites in one loop. If space between campsites is your thing then check out this place during off-peak times. But if you’re used to RV’ing then you’ll be fine.
The primitive campsites are spread among two locations. One by the parking lot at the camp loop, and off of the Mid-Canyon Trail. This one will give you a bit more of that backpacking experience as you can hear people chatting from the parking lot at the walk-in site.
The restrooms here are basic with no outstanding features. They have showers and a filtered water station. The firewood is right in front of the camp host, and the loop gets a lot of the traffic because it’s a one-way loop.
Back to the point of the natural area feeling.
The majority of the trails are accessed from this section of the park, so there aren’t a lot of roads throughout the park that you’ll cross like you would at say, Bastrop SP.
This gives a more elevated outdoor experience with a few exceptions. There are a couple of service roads you’ll hike on, but nothing that has non-park traffic.
Hiking at South Llano River State Park
The trail map lists nine trails with varying difficulty, but on the map itself, few are either connectors or not worthy enough of a full description.
The turkey roost area is towards the entrance of the park at features some noteworthy trails including: River Trail (1.6 mi), Buck Lake Trail (1.6 mi.), and the previously mentioned Turkey Roost and Interpretive trails.
Not listed are the two smaller connecting trails: The Old Barn Trail (.1 mi.) and the West Field Trail (1.0 mi.).
The trails by the water offer some great views of the water and are the main highlights during warmer months when you have more ‘toobing’ going on along with the ‘yackers’.
If you’re into fishing, hike to the Ox Bow Lake that was formed after the Llano River flooded. You’ll be in the mix of the pecan grove, and you’ll see plenty of birds including those turkeys.
Backcountry hiking is where the real fun begins.
The first point of interest worth checking out begins at the parking lot off of the camping area.
The overlook trail is .9 miles, but after you push through some trees, you begin your ascent walking up switchbacks to get to the top. Don’t be confused by the first bench, you’ll know you’re at the top once you get to the metal barrier that notes you’ve reached the overlook.
The trail here gets a little weird.
The map shows it as a one-way trek, but from the overlook, you can keep going and hike down a service road to arrive at the Fawn Trail intersect.
The Fawn Trail is 1.3 miles and a straight shot through Texas hill country. You’ll be amazed by the open sky and rolling hills that are on either side as you hike through trees.
From there you can hop on the East Ridge Trail (2.8 mi), or if your thighs are up to it, the Frontera Trail (4.0 mi). The picture below shows the view you’ll see at that intersection.
Walter’s Way (.6 mi), named after the park’s original owner, is one of two connecting trails (Buck’s Shortcut, .5 mi) that will take you to the Mid-Canyon Trail (2.3 mi.)
Walter’s Way is a great option to see the landscape shift from tree-covered paths to an expansive opening of ranch land. Admire the numerous rocks that are splayed out on either side of the trail.
Here you’ll find new plant life as well as the remnants of ranch land past and current. Little elevation change here but watch for the rock steps that could get slippery.
The Mid-Canyon trail is again where you’ll encounter the primitive camping site, and point of interest number 4: The Canyon Seeps.
Across from the campsite, you’ll see the canyon walls, and if you feel like exploring be on the lookout for the water seeping through the walls.
If you want to extend your miles the Windmill Hill Trail (.8 mi), The Double Loop trails (.7 and .4 miles), and Prickly Pear Spur Trail (.3 mi) can all be accessed from the Mid Canyon Trail.
As you head through the middle of the park towards the beginning you have the opportunity to hop on one final trail. The West Canyon Loop Trail is 2.4 miles, and according to the map, ‘leads you through a canyon and along a plateau before heading steeply downhill’.
Overall there aren’t many instances where you’ll be hard-pressed with any significant hiking challenges. The trails are all rated moderate or easy, and a lot of them are pretty flat.
If you’re new to hiking check out the 10 Essentials guide to prep for a day out on the trails.
South Llano River State Park feels a bit off of the beaten path because it didn’t feel crowded, or too popular. In February it probably feels a little different, then say, spring/summer, but the expansive landscapes and visual distractions at every turn make this place a park worth visiting.
South Llano River State Park is also a designated night sky park, so make sure you learn more about special events to check out the stars on the official website.