When spring comes to the Texas Hill Country, break away from the herd and take a trip on the back roads of the Colorado River Trail.


Thump. Thump. Thump. A cattle guard rattles beneath my tires, and a sign announces: "Loose livestock, next 3.2 miles." I'm driving northwest of Austin on Ranch Road 1431, one of the most spectacular roads on the Colorado River Trail. It twists and dips across the Texas Hill Country like a runaway longhorn steer.

Twilight in the Canyon of the Eagles
The late-day sun sparkles on Lake Buchanan as I unwind from the day's journey and take a seat on the porch of my cabin at the Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park. At the lodge, which perches on a cliff, guests have a soaring view of the lake. Rooms are rustic but comfortable. Meals are served in a large dining room reminiscent of a national park lodge. Most activities center around nature programs in the surrounding 940-acre park owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority.

After a leisurely breakfast, guests gather at the park's dock to board the Texas Eagle II for a trip up the Colorado River on a Vanishing Texas River Cruise. Bordered by big ranches and rimmed with tall cliffs, the river is a place of solitude. Bald eagles soar the corridor of the canyons in winter, and when the weather warms, the refreshing river is a magnet for wild turkeys, ospreys, foxes, deer, and other wildlife.

At the wheel of the Texas Eagle II, owner Shawn Devaney watches water cascade over 65-foot-high Fall Creek Falls and smiles. He's happy to be able to navigate upriver again after a drought made the river impassable for more than a year. In spring, yuccas rise from lofty perches on stalks as tall as brooms, and mountain laurels decorate the canyons with fragrant blooms. "The first time I saw the river," Shawn says, "I thought it was the most beautiful place on earth."

A Land of Hills and Lakes
On its way to Austin, Route 71 explores the craggy folds of a landscape that drapes over these rawboned hills as rugged as the hide on a rangy longhorn. Every bend in the highway--every country lane that crosses--offers another good reason to go astray. Here and there, the road dips into cool valleys to smell the wildflowers, then climbs lofty hills to admire the ribbons of lakes that sweep along beside it.

In Austin, I spend a couple of hours paddling a rented canoe down the clear waters flowing from Barton Springs to Town Lake. Within the tunnel of trees lining the springs, I feel as if I'm in the midst of wilderness rather than at the edge of one of Texas' largest cities. After a day of sightseeing, I end the evening with dinner at the Hula Hut, a popular restaurant on Lake Austin, where the lights of colored lanterns dance on the water.

Small Towns and Painted Churches
Early the next morning, an hour's drive from Austin, I hike to see the wildflowers at McKinney Roughs. The 1,100-acre preserve, one of the Lower Colorado River Authority's newest, edges down to the river, just off Route 71 near Bastrop. More than 17 miles of trails and an excellent Environmental Learning Center give visitors an up-close look at nature along the river corridor.

It's lunchtime when I arrive in La Grange, one of the oldest towns on the trail, settled by Czech and German immigrants. I stop at Lukas Bakery, where Lucille Lukas still waits on customers just as she has since the bakery opened in 1947. I buy braided pastries called "snails" and sausage-filled pigs in blankets for a picnic at Monument Hill State Park. The park, high on a bluff with a panoramic view of the river, is one of the most enchanting places along the trail. On my way out of town, I tune my radio to KVLG, a local station broadcasting in Czech and German.

My trip on the trail ends in Schulenburg, another small town rich in tradition, just off I-10. Visitors come to High Hill, Praha, and other tiny communities around Schulenburg to see wildflowers, but the fields blanketed in blooms don't get all of the attention. Most people are drawn by images of lilies, lilacs, and other symbols that adorn the walls and ceilings of modest country churches. Old-world settlers, remembering the cathedrals of Europe they left behind, commissioned the paintings to add beauty to their small churches. Take a look inside this season as you drive on the Colorado River Trail. It's guaranteed to refresh your spirit.

Canyon of the Eagles Lodge: 16942 RR 2341, Burnet, TX 78611; (512) 756-8787, 1-800-977-0081. Rates: $87-$137 per night.

Hula Hut: 3825 Lake Austin Blvd., Austin, TX 78703; (512) 476-4852. Polynesia meets Mexico in dishes such as Hawaiian fajitas ($18.95). Don't miss the fresh homemade tortilla soup ($3.95).

Lukas Bakery: 135 North Main Street, La Grange, TX 78945; (979) 968-3052. Hours: 5 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday. On Saturdays as many as 400 customers show up to buy fresh bread, cookies, and pastries.

McKinney Roughs: 1884 State 71W, Cedar Creek, TX 78612; (512) 303-5073. Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $3 adults, $1 seniors and ages 13 and under.

Monument Hill State Park: 414 State Loop 92, La Grange, TX 78945-5733; (979) 968-5658. Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission: $2 adults, $1 students.

Painted churches near Schulenburg: Guided tours offered regularly. For information and a detailed map, call Schulenburg Chamber of Commerce; (979) 743-4514.

Vanishing Texas River Cruises: RR 2341, Burnet, TX 78611; 1-800-728-8735 or www.vtrc.com . Hours: Trips at 11 a.m. daily except Tuesday. Tickets: $15 adults, $13 ages 13-19 and seniors, and $10 ages 6-12. Vineyard cruises and dinner cruises offered on Saturday; reservations recommended.

Zilker Park Boat Rentals: in Austin's Zilker Park; (512) 478-3852. Hours: 11 a.m.-one hour before dark during spring and summer months Monday-Friday, and 9 a.m.-one hour before dark Saturday and Sunday. Cost: Canoe rental is $7.75 per hour.

For more information: Contact the Lower Colorado River Authority for a free copy of the Colorado River Trail Explorer's Guide; 1-800-776-5272 or www.lcra.org .

This article is from the April 2001 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.