Length: About 310 miles, plus Star Route side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Not to be missed: Fiesta San Antonio (10 days in April with nonstop music, food, and parades), San Antonio. Rodeos (held every Tuesday and Saturday in summer only), Bandera. Texas State Arts and Crafts Fair (Memorial Day weekend), Kerrville.
Nearby attractions: McNay Art Museum and nearby Botanical Gardens, San Antonio. Brackenridge Park (including the San Antonio Zoo and Japanese Tea Garden), San Antonio. The Admiral Nimitz Museum and Park, Fredericksburg. Historic town of Comfort, near Kerrville. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Austin.
Further information: Texas Tourism, P.O. Box 141009, Austin, TX 78714; tel. 800-888-8839, www.traveltex.com.
Highland Lakes Tour
This lake-hopping excursion follows the chain of man-made gems that stairstep along the Colorado River northwest of Austin. Setting out from Cedar Park on Rte. FM1431, you’ll first see serpentine Lake Travis to the south, followed by Lake Marble Falls and Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, the latter ringed by steep hills and domes. Farther along, the drive skirts the south end of giant Lake Buchanan and loops around tiny Inks Lake on Park Road 4 before terminating at Rte. 281.
Geologists call the uplands west of Austin an eroded plateau. To Texans they’re known simply as the Hill Country, and they’ve been a favorite retreat since pioneer days. Here tree-shaded rivers wind beneath limestone bluffs, their waters pooling at picture-perfect swimming holes. Woodland wildlife ranges from white-tailed deer and wild turkeys to armadillos and endangered songbirds. German and Mexican influences blend with the Texas ranching tradition to form an invigorating potpourri that typifies the Southwest region. And all this rich variety is neatly bookended by two of the state’s most beautiful and historic cities.
1. San Antonio
If this is your first visit to San Antonio, begin your stay at Hemis Fair Park’s 750-foot-high Tower of the Americas—a soaring spire set in a landscaped oasis on the edge of the downtown area. A glass-walled elevator zooms to an observation deck where you can make out the rolling green Hill Country to the northwest. Nearer at hand, as you look down, you will see that the city straddles a fault zone: a long slope dividing the Hill Country from the Gulf Coastal Plain to the southeast.
Back on the ground, you’ll soon discover that San Antonio bridges history as well as geography. The Alamo—the little Spanish mission where Texas, in a symbolic sense, was born—is just steps away from the elegant hotels and restaurants that line the River Walk (or Paseo del Río), an immensely popular series of flagstone and cobblestone paths beside the San Antonio River.
In the midst of this thoroughly modern metropolis, reminders of a proud and diverse heritage endure: the Victorian mansions of the King William District; the arts community at La Villita, where adobe and limestone buildings recall one of the city’s original settlements; and the venerable churches of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, including Mission Concepción, Mission San José, and several others.
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Pushing northwest on Rte. 16, the drive glides through San Antonio’s suburbs and enters the Hill Country, where the terrain ranges from gently rolling to rugged but is always a delight for the eye. This distinctive landscape was formed in stages: first, a thick layer of limestone (originally sediment deposited on an ancient seabed) was lifted high above the Coastal Plain, creating what geologists call the Edwards Plateau. Rivers and streams then etched deep valleys into the rocky upland, leaving the erosion-resistant hills we see today.
The little town of Bandera, once a center for cattle drives, now celebrates its past by claiming to be the Cowboy Capital of the World. Each year the numerous dude ranches in Bandera and its environs are visited by thousands of city slickers, who, after a few days on horseback, leave saddle-sore but mellow, having sampled fresh air, hearty campfire cooking, and the robust flavor of the cowboy life.
The drive continues west on Rte. FM470, winding among grassy hillsides dotted with junipers and live oaks. White-tailed deer graze near the highway, and in spring and summer, wildflowers decorate the hills and meadows along the way.
Set in the picturesque Sabinal River valley, Utopia is a historic ranching and farming community dating from 1852. In a grove of pecan trees behind the Methodist Church, the town has held outdoor dinners, church revivals, games, and camp meetings since the 1890s —all with a style that can fairly be called utopian.
4. Garner State Park
Imagine yourself in a swimsuit on a hot, lazy afternoon, easing into an oversize inner tube and drifting down a cool, crystal-clear river. Tubing, in fact, is one of the Hill Country’s most popular summertime pursuits, and an invigorating place to try it is the Frio (“Cold”) River at Garner State Park.
Stately bald cypresses (a species of tree usually more associated with swamps) tower over the Frio, creating shade for the floaters and illustrating a lesson in natural history. The river valleys of the Edwards Plateau are like fingers of America’s humid East reaching into territory where the uplands are most definitely part of the drier West. Species from both regions coexist here: pecan and mesquite trees, for example, are neighbors in the Hill Country; and the Carolina wren, an eastern species, sings its tremulous song within earshot of the canyon wren, a western bird. Few places in the country boast such an intriguing diversity of flora and fauna.