Texas Hill Country Road Trip

Route Details Length: About 310 miles, plus Star Route side trips. When to go: Popular year-round. Not to be missed:

Route Details

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.

Star Route

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.

2. Bandera
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.

3. Utopia
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.
5. Lost Maples State Natural Area
The scenery along Rte. FM337 east of Leakey is among the Hill Country’s finest. The drive twists through valleys below oak-covered ridges and climbs to panoramic-view-offering heights of the eroded plateau and its many hills.

Where the highway descends toward the Sabinal River, turn north on Rte. FM187 to Lost Maples State Natural Area, by any standard one of the loveliest places in Texas. The “lost” bigtooth maples here are actually relics of a prehistoric age when the climate was wetter and cooler. Surviving in a deep canyon carved by the Sabinal, the maples (along with oaks, walnuts, and other trees) are protected from the hot summer temperatures and drying winds found throughout the entire Hill country region.

Guadalupe bass, found only in central Texas streams, glide along the rocky Sabinal, while tiny green kingfishers not much bigger than sparrows patrol the river for prey. Rare golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos nest on hillsides above the river. Endangered, these birds symbolize the area’s unique natural heritage.

6. Kerrville
Before turning northeast on State Rte. 16 at Kerrville, stop at the Cowboy Artists of America Museum for a look at historic and recent artwork that captures the romance and vitality of the largely bygone era of open range ranching. Nearby Kerrville-Schreiner State Park, along the Guadalupe River, is a fine spot for a short hike, a picnic, or a refreshing swim.

7. Fredericksburg
Shortly after German immigrants settled here in 1846, the town’s leaders offered a peace treaty to their fierce and feared Comanche neighbors. While talks were under way, one family’s children became frightened by Indian signal fires on nearby hills. Their mother calmed them by saying that the Easter Rabbit had started the fires to boil eggs for the holiday. To this day, Fredericksburg celebrates a yearly Easter Fires Pageant in memory of that story—and of the fact that the treaty became the only one in Texas history never to be broken by either side.

Fredericksburg still echoes its strong German influences, from the cuisine in local restaurants to the town’s Old World fachwerk (timber and stone) architecture. Distinctive “Sunday houses” were built around the turn of the century by farm families who came to town on weekends to shop and to attend church; many of these simple dwellings have been renovated for modern use, including service as bed-and-breakfast inns.

8. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
Indians, who heard strange noises and saw eerie lights emanating at night from this colossal mound of pink granite, believed it was possessed by supernatural powers. Today we know that the sounds are caused by expansion and contraction of the rock, and the illumination results from reflected moonlight—yet Enchanted Rock retains its magical appeal. Geologists call it a batholith and claim it is more than a billion years old. Visitors, with or without scientific interest, are awestruck by its sheer enormity. Encompassing 70 acres and rising to 400 feet in the air, Enchanted Rock is included among the largest monolithic masses of exposed granite in the United States, nearly comparable to Stone Mountain in Georgia. The view from the summit rewards those who hike the trail to its top.

Bluebonnet Fields Forever
One of Texas’s most enjoyable spectacles is the kaleidoscope of wildflowers that carpet its roadsides—the result of decades of planning. Beginning in the 1930’s, the state harvested tons of seeds from donors and planted them along the highways (thus eliminating mowing expenses). In 1982 one of the program’s most ardent champions, Lady Bird Johnson, founded the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, where visitors can enjoy the sight of such native wildflower species as the Texas bluebonnet, the official state flower (shown here in the scattered company of red Indian paintbrushes). 9. Ranch Road 1
President Lyndon B. Johnson, like his fellow Texans, pronounced the Pedernales River as PURd-‘n-allis. As you drive along Ranch Road 1, which branches north off Rte. 290 and parallels the river into the heart of LBJ country, you’ll quickly understand why this land was so beloved by the late president. The meandering Pedernales, flanked by rolling pastures and scattered groves of live oaks, seems to be the very embodiment of true pastoral serenity.

10. Lyndon B. Johnson State Historical Park
Cattle that escaped from Spanish ranchers in 18th-century Texas had to be tough to survive. And so they were—a hardy breed with extralong horns to combat predators, and an ability to thrive on the sparse vegetation. Texas longhorns were popular in pioneer times, but as modern breeds were introduced, their count declined. Mindful of its heritage, Texas now maintains a herd of longhorns that thrive at Lyndon B. Johnson State Historical Park.

Another of the park’s attractions is the Sauer-Beckmann Farm. Here folks in period costumes demonstrate the daily chores—canning, milking, churning, plowing—of a Texas-German farm family at the turn of the century. Buses leave from the state park for tours of the LBJ Ranch—the Texas White House—where Johnson conducted official business on his visits home. The route passes the reconstructed house where he was born, a one-room school he attended, and the cemetery where he is buried under a large oak tree.

11. Johnson City

For five years after the Civil War, Sam Ealy Johnson (LBJ’s grandfather) drove Texas longhorns up the Chisholm Trail to markets in Kansas, running the business from his ranch near the Pedernales River. When the price of beef dropped so low that cattle drives could no longer turn a profit, he returned for good to his home turf.

Here, at a unit of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, visitors can browse every part of Sam Johnson’s original farmstead. In town, at the visitor center, they can view a film and displays relating to the life and times of LBJ and tour the white Victorian house where the longtime politician spent his formative years. Authentic family furnishings—even toys—create the illusion that the Johnsons have just stepped out, perhaps for a walk down one of the town’s quiet, tree-shaded streets.

12. Pedernales Falls State Park
Hill Country geology is plainly written in the landscape at this attractive park on the north side of Rte. FM2766. At the falls the Pedernales cascades down broad slabs of limestone tilted like tables with broken legs—evidence of the Llano Uplift, which long ago raised the Edwards Plateau. Deer and wild turkeys roam the hillsides, and farther downstream there is a fine spot for a refreshing swim. The short, easy Hill Country Nature Trail, which begins in the park campground and winds down to Twin Falls Overlook, provides a close look at native plants. Mesquite, shin oak, Ashe juniper, Texas persimmon, and sycamore are among the trees you’ll see along the way. In spring and summer also take time to listen for the short, buzzing notes that flow from the golden-cheeked warbler’s throat.

13. Austin
Almost fifteen feet higher than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Texas-size state capitol in Austin is the largest in the entire country. Its construction in the 1880s called for some 15,000 railroad carloads of pink Hill Country granite. The immense building is just as imposing indoors, with details in its oak, walnut, cherry, cedar, ash, pine, and mahogany woodwork. The capitol is open for tours daily; a gallery and balcony on the fourth floor offers visitors impressive views of the finely worked terrazzo tile floor below and the sweeping arch of the rotunda above.

The city of Austin is studded with parks, among them the famed swimming hole at Hamilton Pool; Zilker Park with its formal gardens; Wild Basin Preserve; and nearby McKinney Falls State Park.

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in downtown Austin engages visitors with the compelling story of Texas, using interactive exhibits and an IMAX motion picture as large as the state itself. From its signature Lone Star sculpture out front to a campfire scene with enduring appeal to the westerner in all of us found inside its lobby, the museum brings Texas to life.

For nature lovers an especially intriguing spot is the Congress Avenue Bridge across the Colorado River, south of the city center. Over a million Mexican free-tailed bats live here during the summer months—the largest urban bat colony in the country. Emerging each evening to feed on nocturnal insects, the swirling swarms of tiny mammals create one of the Lone Star State’s most wondrous wildlife spectacles.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest