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Palmetto State Park

This park’s mysterious lagoons hold many surprises.

By Aaron Reed

Palmetto State Park has every feature you’d expect in a Central Texas nature attraction, and then some. There’s the gorgeous, swift-flowing San Marcos River. Visitors can rent pedal boats or canoes and kids can fish for crappie from a pier on the four-acre oxbow lake.

More than 240 avian species have been recorded in the park, a stop on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. The campground is clean and quiet, and the stars at night are … well, you know the song.

It’s what you wouldn’t expect to see that makes the 270-acre park special and draws more than 120,000 visitors each year: a swampy wetlands.

And it’s not just any old wetlands. The Ottine Swamp, named for the small town just outside the park’s gates, is a primeval wonderland of towering trees, peaty bogs and warm springs.

Crouch at the edge of a lagoon, as the spring-fed ponds are called locally, and the sweet scent of wild onion wafts skyward. Spanish moss drips from elm, hackberry and cottonwood trees. Trumpet vines and wild grape twist around gnarled trunks and climb toward the canopy.

Everywhere, palm fronds rustle in the breeze. The park’s namesake palms, dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), give the swamp an otherworldly atmosphere.

The ground-hugging, trunkless palms normally are found in the moist forests of East Texas and Louisiana. The extensive stand in Palmetto State Park was isolated thousands of years ago, considerably west of its natural range.

“Kids call it Jurassic Park,” says Bradley Williams, a long-time ranger at Palmetto.

It’s little surprise, then, that the exotic locale would give rise to its very own crypto-zoological legend: the “Ottine Swamp Thing” (and, like most such legends, this one is unconfirmed). The creature, said to resemble a diminutive Bigfoot, has been heard, or at least imagined, for decades by residents of the surrounding area .

According to Williams, it hasn’t been heard from in more than five years. It could be that the creature — whatever it is — moved out in search of wetter wetlands during one of the area’s periodic droughts.

Most of the park’s lagoons hold water through the long, hot summers. When a drought, such as the one experienced during the last year, temporarily stops many of the natural seep springs, park personnel rely on an artesian well sunk by the Civilian Conservation Corps 70 years ago. The well — along with a 1,000 gallon storage tank — provides enough water to keep the palmettos flourishing during dry spells.

Keeping the wetlands alive is critical for the survival of more than just campfire tales of mythic creatures. On one misty morning this spring, a group of students bent at the edge of a pool searching for the tiny Palmetto pillsnail. The animal was first discovered here, and the park’s wetland edge habitat is one of few places in the world where you can find it.

It may be that the chief joy of this place is, like the tiny snail, simply its unexpectedness. The transition between Blackland Prairie and its swaying grasses and mesquite, juniper and oak trees — and the brooding palmetto swamp — is fascinating.

“In the spring and summer time, the vegetation here is just amazing,” says Williams. “You have wild irises, incredible birds. … It’s amazing what you can see in just a short, 20-minute hike.”

For more information, call (830) 672-3266 or visit <http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/palmetto>.

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