16 Adventures in Texas' Hidden Hill Country
Explore 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.
1. Belly Up to the BBQ
Barbecue is a religion in Texas, and one of its high altars—Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que—lures folks off the well-worn tourist trail in Llano, deep in granite country. Stop first at Cooper's porch, where pool table-size smokers scent the air with mesquite. Point at a cut of meat—brisket, sausage, ribs, cabrito—and head inside for the sides (potato salad, coleslaw, and more).
2. Take in the View
Roads usually serve a utilitarian purpose: to get people from point A to point B. But in the Hill Country, you might suspect that a road was paved purely for pleasure—to take drivers past stirring vistas, expansive pastures, or dense spreads of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes. In the spring, wildflowers dot nearly every corner of the landscape, but particularly flamboyant throngs can be found on Farm Road 1323, which heads west off U.S. 281 about 3 miles north of Johnson City.
For even more dramatic driving, head to where the hills get larger and take on shapes like traffic cones and gumdrops. The incomparable Farm Road 337 in the southern part of the Hill Country, west of San Antonio, winds from Medina through Vanderpool to Leakey, skirting rock ledges where oaks and cacti barely cling to solid ground.
3. Escape the Crowds
For relief from crowds, head 20 minutes south of Fredricksburg to the aptly named town of Comfort. You'll find stone architecture by acclaimed architect Alfred Giles and a slew of restaurants and shops, including High's Cafe & Store and The Elephant Story.
The quirkiest spot in this town of 2,300 has to be a tavern called the Comfort Meet Market, which is located in a former meat market. There you might find locals gathering around a cake to celebrate someone's birthday, clapping along with a guitarist, or toasting the too-short life of a favorite town character.
4. Go for a Swim
You have so many choices if you want to take a dip—from the more widely known Blue Hole in Wimberley to Hamilton Pool, a massive crater created when the dome over an underground river caved in, outside the town of Bee Cave. But the lushest, and least crowded, swimming spot is at Krause Springs ($7 cash only) in Spicewood. The privately owned, 115-acre park features 32 springs, several of which burble through a man-made pool then tumble over a fern-lined cliff into a deep hole. The brave can fly into the water on a rope swing.
5. Enjoy the Music
Music is such a huge part of the Hill Country culture that one whole town is dedicated to it—Luckenbach. Take a spin in its dance hall under rafters draped in white lights. If you want a more low-key, under-the-radar setting, head over to Alamo Springs Café, which is—as the owners say—"inconveniently located in the middle of nowhere."Dig into hand-battered onion rings and juicy, fat burgers that are beer-bottle tall with such toppings as jalapeño chiles and grilled onions. On weekends, local bands play on the outdoor stage.
6. Be a Stargazer
You know what the song says about the stars being big and bright in the heart of Texas? See for yourself at Tres Lunas Resort, a 112-acre spread that sits on a ridge with little distracting man-made light. But the night sky is just one reason to visit. The rooms are furnished in a style that should be called Tex-Zen—Western rustic with sleek touches (rooms from $209). Yoga classes, massages, and wellness weekends are available.
7. Kayak the Medina River
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.
8. Smell Lavender
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; 830/833-5101.
9. Pick Peaches
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!
10. Sleep in a Garden
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.
11. Swim in Texas Bluebonnets
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.
12. Dig for Topaz
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.
13. Hike to Gorman Falls
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.
14. Drive Scenic Highway 16
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.
15. Eat Apple Pie
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.
16. Watch a Sunset from Enchanted Rock
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.