More Fun, Less Fuss
Destination: South Llano River
Travel time from:
Austin – 2.5 hours
Brownsville – 5.75 hours
Dallas – 4.75 hours
Houston – 4.5 hours
San Antonio – 2 hours
Lubbock – 4.25 hours
Less time spent cooking means more time to enjoy South Llano River State Park.
By Janet Kilgore
Before our visit, we already knew that South Llano River State Park sits deep in the Hill Country just outside Junction, an ideal destination for all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts. My husband, Bryan, and I were surprised, however, when we learned that it’s a hundred-mile round-trip to the nearest big-box store.
What might be a deal-breaker for some folks is just the kind of challenge we like. It gives us a chance do the type of camping we prefer: minimalist camping.
For our visit, we checked in at the park in early November, shortly after the opening of deer season, which swells Junction’s population of 2,600 each fall. (The park closes a few days each season to accommodate permitted hunts for those chosen by drawing.)
No matter the time of year you visit, South Llano River is a family-friendly retreat, just a few hours’ drive from several Texas cities. The park is small, with 58 water and electric sites spaced far enough apart for a sense of privacy.
“The South Llano River is spring-fed from an area called 700 Springs, so it’s rarely affected by drought,” Superintendent Matthew Shelley tells us at the camp headquarters. “We also have one of the largest winter Rio Grande turkey roosts in Texas. You can hike into the preserve and see them.”
Texas state parks provide camping for everyone from backpackers to RVers. Bryan and I have been minimalist campers for more than 25 years, and it’s worked well for us in parks all over the state. This kind of camping falls between backpacking and staying in a pop-up camper and is fun for kids and adults.
Look for a state park near any vacation destination as an excellent way to stretch your travel or vacation dollars. Why stay in an expensive, cramped hotel room when you can stay in a state park for a fraction of the cost? Your children will wear themselves out running around after a day in the car and will sleep like little logs. Quiet campgrounds provide a welcome counterpoint to amusement parks and city traffic, and many parks offer swimming pools or cool wading streams. All you need are a few tips to transition to this kind of camping.
I was 40+ the first time I went camping, and before then I’d had every intention of avoiding it the rest of my life. Eight years of Bryan’s gentle prodding, and his promise to do all the work, convinced me to give it a try. As I packed for every possible contingency, the car sagged lower and lower, and we finally got away three hours late. Four miles from the house I panicked and demanded we go back for my mascara. Bryan drove on.
“There’s no mascara in camping!” he insisted.
That first camping experience ended on a rainy day. We couldn’t cook in the rain, so I sat in the car’s backseat and made bologna sandwiches. Holding a jar with a soggy label, slathering mayonnaise on soggy bread, I knew there had to be a better way.
The first time I enjoyed camping was the first time we left the cooler at home. Bryan and I took up minimalist camping and never went back. For us, that means not taking anything we could do without, especially the cooler. It requires learning to make good meals with nonperishable foods. Sodas become a treat, not a staple.
We have made accommodations for our aging joints over the years — now we sleep on padded cots — but our camp meals remain easy and our cooler remains at home. The average meal takes only 15 to 20 minutes to prepare, and cleanup is a breeze, usually consisting of just one pot. You won’t spend most of your time cooking and washing up, and you’ll have more time for fun and enjoying the outdoors.
South Llano River State Park is a Hill Country destination for nature lovers who want to go camping, hiking, paddling, wildflower viewing or wildlife watching. Ranger programs offer insight into the area's wildlife.
On our South Llano River State Park campout, Bryan was dealing with a badly broken finger and still had a couple of weeks to go before getting the cast off. I had to plan on three hands instead of four to pitch the tent, unload the car and set up the cots. We just didn’t know how much he would be able to do. We packed everything light enough for me to carry, just in case. As it turned out, we managed fine with Bryan’s one hand and my two.
Day One of our trip starts with loading the car and driving to the park. We arrive in plenty of time to set up the tent and settle into our campsite. Checking the bulletin board at the restroom, I discover a program about wild hogs and javelinas scheduled for early evening. Time for a nap and quick supper before making the short walk to the amphitheater area.
Park interpreter Bertha Schmalfeldt explains the difference between wild (feral) hogs and native javelinas — which are not hogs at all — and the pros and cons of each animal. The wild hogs are loaded with cons; they can be aggressive and they overpopulate. They tear up the ground as they root for food, destroying parklands and crops alike in the process. Schmalfeldt says javelinas may look fierce but are relatively harmless unless they feel cornered. I make a mental note not to corner any I come across.
On Day Two, Schmalfeldt hosts Bryan and three teenagers on a guided hike. A veteran hiker, Bryan finds the pace of the teenagers on the hilly trail a satisfying challenge. Tonight’s talk in the amphitheater is on porcupines, which are native to the park area. Viewed from a discreet distance, porcupines are fascinating animals with quirky personalities. Who knew?
One of my favorite aspects of camping is visiting with other campers and with locals in nearby towns. As soon as Bryan disappears over the hill on his hike, I head to town.
The spring-fed South Llano River near Junction provides opportunities for fishing, canoeing and swimming.
I follow the highway through Junction and stop at Plumley’s Country Store, a modern establishment made to look like an old-time general store. Inside, half the space holds refrigerated cases filled with local pecans, shelled and unshelled, and exotic city fare like yogurt. Shelves display spices, barbecue rubs, honey, syrup, books and other Texana. If you can’t find a souvenir in there, you’re not trying. The other half of the store has a lunch counter and a few booths, where customers can order hamburgers and old-fashioned milkshakes. It’s perfect for eating ice cream and people-watching.
I make it back to camp just in time to meet up with Bryan and fix dinner. His hiking group saw some wildlife signs (scat and tracks) on the hike, but he was most impressed by the teenagers. They enthusiastically asked questions, curious about everything around them. Bryan was inordinately proud of himself for being able to answer more of Schmalfeldt’s “Who knows…?” questions than the teenagers.
Dinner is Indian mushroom masala with potatoes, chicken, sliced ripe olives and artichoke hearts, served over rice. Sounds impressive for camping, but it’s easy, and remember, no cooler! The masala, rice and chicken come in ready-to-eat pouches I heat in pans of hot water on the propane stove. When our children camp with us, I usually cook some variation of mac and cheese and combine it with canned meats and vegetables. However, the variety of pre-cooked foods now available makes it easy to turn out truly impressive meals with minimal effort. These are not MREs or expensive pouch-chow from trendy sporting goods stores. This food is delicious, inexpensive and easy to find. We enjoy our feast and call it a day.
On the morning of Day Three, Bryan decides to hike along the two miles of riverfront. I go as far as the trailhead and take a seat near some large patches of grass that were upended by foraging wild hogs. Bryan later sheepishly admits that halfway down the trail, he saw a group of animals in the distance and was quite happy they turned out to be goats and donkeys, not wild hogs. He wants to come back in warm weather and kayak the river.
Bryan’s hike gives me a chance to sit and enjoy the scenery. The bright-blue sky is cloudless this November morning. Turkey vultures whirl above me, traveling the thermals like highways. Their aerial search for food fascinates this earthbound park visitor.
On our final day, we pack up and decide to eat lunch in Junction before heading for Austin. A ranger recommends locally owned Lum’s Bar-B-Que in Junction — a lot of food for the money. It turns out to be a great tip.
Outside, Lum’s looks like a store that sells live bait, but the interior is typical Hill Country café, decorated with new and vintage Texas sports posters. We choose our barbecue from the handwritten menu on a chalkboard. Bryan orders a barbecue sampler that would feed two people, while I opt for a brisket plate — some of the best brisket I’ve ever eaten. Even the sides are spectacular, especially the cucumber vinaigrette salad. While Bryan works his way through carnivore heaven, I finish up with a piece of truly magical homemade coconut cream pie. We’ll definitely come back.
South Llano River State Park is the perfect place to try out minimalist camping — or stick with what you know.
Indian Mushroom Masala with Add-Ins
1 10-oz. pouch of Indian Mushroom Masala
Spray saucepan with non-stick spray. Combine masala, olives, chicken and artichoke hearts in pan and heat through. Serve over rice. Serves 2 adults.
Beef and Bean Burrito with Spanish Rice
Two large whole wheat tortillas
Ham Mac and Cheese
1 24-oz. bag of macaroni and cheese
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