Amid extreme temperatures, Texas state parks can be a respite — or a heated hindrance all their own

Pablo Zapato, 14, of Mission, shakes water off his head after jumping into the creek at Upper McKinney Falls at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin on Saturday. (Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune, Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune)

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On a recent sweltering afternoon, Doug Cochran stood outside the visitor center of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area and pointed an infrared thermometer gun at the black tarmac in the parking lot. The display read 141 degrees. He swung it over to a nearby patch of dry soil. Even hotter: 163 degrees.

“Heat Warning! Feels Like 110°,” read a sign at the entrance to the park, famous for its exposed rock domes that have essentially spent the summer baking in the sun. “Know your limits!”

As superintendent of the park just north of Fredericksburg in Central Texas, Cochran likes to see well-prepared visitors come to Enchanted Rock in the summer. But he’s also happy when Texans opt for other outdoor experiences, often with water access, instead of the minimally shaded grasslands and bare granite.

“We can’t tell them, ‘You can’t go,’ but we want them to make wise decisions,” Cochran said about warning park visitors of the heat. “We’ve had 39 people get injured this year and we don’t want you to become number 40.”

Texas has already seen several heat-related deaths in state and national parks this summer, though it’s not alone. A 17-year-old hiker died after he was rescued from the Lighthouse Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park on June 21. Two days later, a 14-year-old died while hiking the Marufo Vega Trail in Big Bend National Park in 119-degree heat. His stepfather died while trying to get help.

Superintendent Doug Cochran checks the surface temperature of the granite floor at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, located north of Fredericksburg, on a hot summer day, July 26, 2023. The surface temperature in the area was around 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Superintendent Doug Cochran checks the surface temperature of the granite floor at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, located north of Fredericksburg, on a hot summer day. The surface temperatures in the area ranged from around 140 degrees to over 160 degrees Fahrenheit . Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

This year’s brutal summer — even by Texas standards — poses serious risks including heat exhaustion, heat stroke and, in the most serious cases, death. But the blistering heat, as sweat-inducing and uncomfortable as it is, hasn’t deterred nature lovers from enjoying the collective diversity of Texas’ 89 state parks, historic sites and natural areas this year.

There was no dramatic decrease in the number of visitors to state parks in May and June, despite record-breaking temperatures in some parts of the state. In June, state parks collectively logged 1 million visitors — the third highest number for that month since 2016 — despite recording an abnormally intense period of extended high temperatures that month.

While some parks become less hospitable in the hot, summer months, others have attracted more visitors because of aquatic amenities.

“It might drop at Stephen F. Austin Park where there's not a water feature, but at Galveston Island their visitation is increasing to counter that,” said Justin Rhodes, a deputy director in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Rhodes, like Cochran, is happy Texans are opting for parks with places to cool down, given the risks extreme heat can pose to the public at parks.

“We're seeing more and more new users come to Texas state parks who may not have experience in the outdoors and they're dipping their toes in the water, if you will, and just may not realize those dangers exist,” Rhodes said.

***

Just southeast of Austin, McKinney Falls State Park typically offers the antithesis of Enchanted Rock for park visitors. Cool water pours from limestone cliffs into a wide pool, which brazen youth jump into when water levels are high.

But a persistent drought paired with the heat wave has left the swimming holes of McKinney Falls with less — and warmer — water.

When Onion Creek runs through McKinney Falls at lower levels, the pools warm under the relentless sun. Yet for some Central Texans, the allure of relief from the triple-digit temperatures is enough to draw them to McKinney Falls.

“I like to be outside,” said Hannah Foote, an Austin resident who normally goes to that city’s beloved Barton Springs Pool to cool off but also wanted to hike around the park on Friday. “I’m trying to hit all the water spots near the city,”

Jailyne Garcia, 20, holds hands with Ezekiel Reyes, 4, while walking toward the creek to swim at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin on July 29, 2023. Garcia and Reyes drove from Houston to spend a day at the state park, a trip they do about three times every summer.

Jailyne Garcia, 20, holds hands with Ezekiel Reyes, 4, while walking toward the creek to swim at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin on July 29. Garcia and Reyes drove from Houston to spend a day at the state park, a trip they do about three times every summer. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

Alberto Mendoza IV, 18, of Mission, cannonballs into the water at Upper McKinney Falls at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin on July 29, 2023.

Alberto Mendoza IV, 18, of Mission, cannonballs into the water at Upper McKinney Falls at McKinney Falls State Park. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

Pablo Zapato, 14, of Mission, climbs out of the water and up through a hole in the limestone at Upper McKinney Falls at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin on July 29, 2023.

Pablo Zapato, 14, of Mission, climbs out of the water and up through a hole in the limestone. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

By Saturday, the park was drawing more people. Burning rays of triple-digit sunlight reflected off empty cars’ foldable silver sun shades. Sounds of splashing water resounded in the near distance. A group of 11 unpacked a truck with the essentials for the day: a blue inflatable kayak, a clear inner tube with pink flamingos and a cooler full of drinks on ice.

The Mendoza, Zapato and Alonzo families spent the morning driving up from Mission, and they wasted no time before jumping off the park’s short cliffs into its emerald green creek, joining a growing crowd of about 50 people cooling off in the natural waters.

Streaks of water meandered down 14-year-old Pablo Zapato’s skin as he climbed through a hole in the rock for several rounds of cannonballs. Alberto Mendoza IV, 18, Zapato’s cousin, joined in as his sister, Pamela, 17, sat atop the limestone, watching the others wade down below — trading the summer heat for a day of cool water.

At one point, two state park police officers walked around, checking to make sure the depressed water levels were still high enough for people to safely swim and jump into the water.

***

Back at Enchanted Rock last week, Ludwig Koops admired the bulbous, granite slabs known as exfoliation domes as he stood under a rotunda providing some of the only shade in the park. In the distance, a single group of hikers descended what appeared to be a massive ant hill under a magnified sun.

Koops, who was visiting family in San Antonio from the Netherlands, was on a tour of Texas when he made a detour to see Enchanted Rock. But the view from the shade was enough for Koops and his family.

He said the extreme temperature swings so indicative of Texas summers — from the scorching heat outside, to the artificial cold of air conditioning — was both unpleasant and unfamiliar compared to the Netherlands’ less-infernal climate.

But for other Enchanted Rock visitors, who are more acquainted with the inescapable heat, this summer is just another chance to get outside.

“If you grew up doing something and you always do it, then it’s not a big deal for you,” said Cameo Davis of Cypress, who was hiking with her daughter and two grandchildren last Wednesday. “I think it’s a mindset.”

Davis, unlike Koops, grew up in Texas and spent her childhood camping at nearby Inks Lake State Park. Davis said she goes jogging in this weather.

“One hundred years ago, no one had AC and everybody did just fine, right?” she said while descending from the summit of Enchanted Rock in 105-degree heat, equipped with four water bottles and an umbrella.

Ludwig Koop, along with family living in San Antonio, have made their way to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area while on summer visit to Texas from the Netherlands, on July 26, 2023.

Ludwig Koop, along with family members living in San Antonio, have made their way to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area while on a summer visit to Texas from the Netherlands. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

A visitor hikes downward from Enchanted Rock's summit at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, located north of Fredericksburg, on a hot summer day, July 26, 2023.

A visitor hikes downward from Enchanted Rock's summit. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

TKTK did not feel deterred by the heat as they hiked down Enchanted Rock's summit at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, located north of Fredericksburg, on a hot summer day, July 26, 2023.

Cameo Davis holds an umbrella as she and her family hikes down the rock's summit. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

When prospective visitors ask Cochran what it’s like to hike in Enchanted Rock in the summer, he says similar to opening an oven door when baking a pizza.

“We don’t have that wonderful smell but it’s that hot,” Cochran said.

Kevin Good, the president of the nonprofit Texans for State Parks, said the summer isn’t too much of a deterrent — especially for those traveling to state parks in air-conditioned recreational vehicles.

“I think folks just sort of get to where they accept it as part of the reality,” Good told The Texas Tribune recently.

One way Texans for State Parks supports natural areas and historic sites is through “friends groups,” Good said. These collectives draw together volunteers who are passionate about individual parks and offer their help to conserve and protect these areas. That can include teaching park visitors how to safely enjoy state parks in the summer heat.

In some parks, those friend groups station themselves at trailheads to offer additional water and warn hikers how much hotter the heat index is — the external temperature that the human body feels considering humidity — than the measurable temperature, Good said.

To prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke, Cochran recommends carrying at least one quart of water, per person, per hour of hiking; taking frequent breaks in the shade; and hiking with a buddy. In the event someone needs to call emergency assistance, either the park headquarters or 911, Cochran emphasized the importance of staying in one place so rescuers can quickly locate the individual in distress.

But the best advice, Cochran said, was to come visit Enchanted Rock in the spring or fall instead. Days that don’t manage to exceed 100 degrees are a blessing in the summer, he said.

“Double digits? We’ve got a cold front,” Cochran joked as the white-hot sun beat down on his exposed neck.

Disclosure: Texas Parks And Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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