Here’s our guide to off-the-beaten-path adventures found deep in the heart of Texas.
The small towns and two-lane roads that fan out westward from Austin make up the heart of the Texas Hill Country. There you will find the unexpected gems of Texas—rivers that wind through stands of bald cypress trees, shimmering lakes cupped in limestone canyons, and rustic German towns with such names as Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Boerne, and Kerrville.
Winding through tunnels of towering bald cypress trees on its way to Bandera, the Medina River doesn’t get the crowds that flock to the Guadalupe River. So you have most of it to yourself as you spend a couple of hours of bliss in a kayak rented from the Medina River Company, 830/796-3600.
When you get to Blanco, about an hour’s drive southwest of Austin, roll down the windows and take a deep breath. Perfume scents the air starting in mid-May when flowers start to bloom at nearly a dozen farms that dot the Lavender Capital of Texas. Some of the farms open to visitors at the start of the blooming season, and Blanco celebrates harvest time with the Blanco Lavender Festival June 10-12; 830/833-5101.
You’ll have to wait a while—the first peaches don’t ripen until the end of May—but it’s worth it to taste a sweet Hill Country peach plucked fresh from a tree at Marburger Orchard, 830/997-9433, near Fredericksburg. Gary Marburger grows 13 varieties that ripen in stages until early August. Can’t wait till then? Strawberries!
Wake up to the smell of rosemary, thyme, and other fresh scents when you stay in one of the newly opened Sunday Houses at Fredericksburg Herb Farm, 830/997-8615. The cozy cottages are styled like the old-time “Sunday Houses” built by German farmers for weekend stays when they came to town for church and shopping. Owners Rosemary and Dick Estenson also added an elegant spa and restaurant to the herb farm that hides away on a residential lane just a few blocks from Fredericksburg’s Main Street. he farm’s Rock House Bistro features dishes made with freshly harvested herbs and produce.
Bluebonnets generally begin blooming in mid-March and continue into April when they’re joined by other later blooming varieties of native flowers. Southern Living Senior Photographer Van Chaplin traveled more than 600 miles through the Hill Country photographing flowers last spring. His advice for finding the most beautiful blooms: “Drop in at small-town cafes and ask locals. They know the country better than anyone else.” Or, call the Texas Department of Transportation Wildflower Hotline, 800/452-9292.
In Dallas, Houston, and other big cities, you have to go to the mall to buy jewels. In the Hill Country, you find them lying
on the ground. Topaz, the state gem of Texas, is found only in Mason County, about an hour’s drive from Fredericksburg. Clear
or blue-tinted stones are generally located close to the surface around granite outcroppings in creek beds and ditches. Hunt
all you want at Lindsay Ranch, 325/ 347-4052. Or buy a stone custom faceted with a Lone Star cut by gemologist B. Diane Eames at Gems of the Hill Country Lapidaries & Jewelers, 325/347-0475, on the town square in Mason.
One of the most scenic wildflower drives in Texas takes you along State 16 through Llano and Ranch Road 501 to Colorado Bend State Park, 325/628-3240. Reaching Gorman Falls, the park’s main attraction, takes a 1.5-mile-long hike through rugged ranch country. The last 100 yards is a rocky descent down a steep path to the misty chill of half a dozen cascades that spill from a 60-foot-high limestone cliff into a moss- and fern-draped grotto. I almost have it all to myself. There’s only one other couple here, and we’re all so mesmerized by the falls that none of us says a word. We’re just content to let the waterfall do all the talking.
It twists so much you have to slow down to a crawl in a few places, but this sidewinder of a highway that climbs through the Hill Country for 30 miles between Kerrville and Medina is one of the most scenic in Texas. Ancient live oaks and white-flowering yucca plants decorate the roadsides, and green grasses cling to limestone outcrops like the hide on a rawboned longhorn steer. You can also find a little local color along the highway.
Snowy apple blossoms welcome you to the pocket-size town of Medina. Orchards spread out from the highway in row after row of the miniature varieties that grow in the apple capital of Texas. Apple pie is an art form here, and there’s none better than the fresh-baked desserts loaded with Golden Delicious types at Love Creek Apple Store, 800/449-0882. Orchard owners Baxter and Carol Adams moved from Houston to Medina in 1980 to start a cattle ranch. Luckily for apple lovers they decided to switch from raising beef to growing beautiful fruit.
Round as a giant Easter egg, Enchanted Rock sits half-buried in the hills near Fredericksburg. It’s the nation’s second largest granite dome, next to Georgia’s Stone
Mountain. It’s a half-mile hike to the top, but for an unforgettable experience, make the trek at the end of the day, about
a half hour before sunset. You won’t forget the view, or the sound. Because this rock talks. At least that’s what the Tonkawa
and other Native American tribes who revered it believed. They swore they could hear strange noises at night. Scientists contend
it’s fissures in the granite expanding at the end of a hot day, but you should come hear for yourself.