My second Texas stop was quite the internal debate. There are several locations I would still like to visit in Texas Hill Country. But for now, I decided to tackle Old Baldy – a highly rated Alltrails hike.
I am essentially leap frogging much of my 2020 Texas itinerary, so I when I saw Fredericksburg pop up in my GPS, I knew it would be a great chance to stock up at Wal-mart. That was about the halfway point of my drive. As I neared Garner State Park, I was amazed at the change of landscape. The red sand and scrubby brush were replaced with expanses of juniper and other greenery. The rolling hills grew into small mountains. Out of context, one might be convinced a picture was of Kentucky instead of Texas.
I rolled the dice since I was arriving on a Monday and hoped the check in clerk would hook me up with a great campsite. It is immediately apparent that this place would be a zoo on the wrong weekend. A giant parking lot was outside the ranger station which was set up with a number system for check-in! I can’t imagine! Fortunately only one other family was registering when I got there so I was immediately helped. I asked for a site with isolation and nature and I was rewarded with a great little spot backing up the hillside. Golden fronted woodpeckers and black crested titmouses abound.
Forgive me as I now share what a screaming deal Texas state park campgrounds are. So far, all have had at least water and electric. Some full hook ups are also available. Most go for under $30 per night. BUT, last year I bought the annual pass for $70 which is good for 13 months if you buy at the beginning of the month (I bought early December 2020 so it is good through December 31, 2021). This not only gets you into any state park without paying the entrance fee (often $7 per person), but it gives you 50% off your second night of camping. My itinerary happens to spend two nights at many of the campgrounds. Often I am averaging less than $20 per night for water and electric. Crazy!
I was surprised to find that there is zero Verizon service in this area. I actually dropped out about an hour before I reached the campground. I will be curious to see where I pick it back up. WiFi is available at the ranger station and it seems I might even have some at the campsite – my phone is showing something and there was a password in the window of the visitor center when I walked by. However, my Cricket hot spot seems to be getting great reception from AT&T so I have plenty of service at my trailer. I think this is the second time my plan to diversify my cell options has really paid off.
I only had time for a long walk around the campground before sunset. I awoke excited to explore, but was disappointed to see a heavy fog cloaking the hill tops and a fine misting rain. I have summited many a peak in fog, so didn’t need to see another hilltop with 100 feet of visibility. I fiddled around in the morning, and when the misting turned into spitting around noon, I headed out for my hike.
Garner State Park seems to have a compact but relatively impressive system of trails. While none of the trails I wanted to hike left from my campground, there is a trail that follow the main road to make walking to the trailhead a bit better than a typical road walk.
I started by climbing to Crystal Cave. Many of the hikes here are advertised as short but steep. They really live up to their hype. The trail immediately begins climbing and I was soon out of breath. Much of the trail was covered in loose rock, but I always felt like I had rather secure footing. Soon I reached the first highlight. The cave only reaches back about 30 feet and I felt very comfortable climbing in. I imagine on a popular day there would be a line to scramble in and back out, so I was pleased to have it to myself. Blue enjoyed exploring cave smells and loved hopping from rock to rock. Sadly she did not pace herself.
Another brief climb and ridge walk took us to our first true look out. I had assumed that maybe we were climbing the only decent hills in the area and our view would be a wide expanse of flat land, but this was not the case. The green hills continued beyond one another across the horizon. I also got quite a good view of what I assumed was the infamous trail up Mount Baldy.
After a quick snack we headed across the ridge trail. There was no sense in losing all the elevation we had just gained. Along the ridge, I was seduced by the “quick steep scramble down to White Rock cave”. I was less than a quarter mile, so I felt obliged to check it out despite losing and then having to reclimb a few hundred feet. This turned out to be the bad call of the day. White Rock cave was no more than 10 feet deep – not much more than a slight depression in the rock. And the way down and back was tough. I could see the last bit of enthusiasm and energy drain from Blue in this brief detour.
I managed to coax Blue further along as we crossed to Old Mount Baldy. I greatly enjoyed the views and juniper trees. But Texas is definitely not to be messed with. At one point, I felt a sharp pain in my heel and realized a thorn had gone through the sole of my shoe! Blue fared much worse with her bare feet and we made frequent stops to inspect for burrs. As we neared the intersection with the more popular Mount Baldy trail, we encountered our first people of the day. One group of locals informed us the climb ahead of us was the steepest in the park. Blue and I were both pretty tired, but we couldn’t quit this close to the peak. So up we scrambled!
We reached the summit in no time and were able to enjoy the views. We split a few snacks and Blue took a quick nap. We also managed to finish the last of the water. It was not a hot day, but the desert air means a thirsty hike. The climb back down was probably the worst part. Admittedly, I lost the trail a few times in an effort to find the easiest way down. I ended up coming out through and old wash. The trail was showing on my Alltrails, but I couldn’t believe it was a sanctioned path. When I emerged, I was greeted by a “Dangerous Area” sign, so I felt better about the park service not encouraging the use of the trail.
After the long hike, we headed straight for the Rio Frio. Blue walked straight in, enjoying the coolness as she took a deep drink. I enjoyed the giant trees bordering the blue waters. We still had over a mile back to the campsite, but it was a relatively easy walk and went fast. We were back in plenty of time to enjoy dinner and a campfire.