Contributing editor Paula Disbrowe pulls on her boots for trail rides, rowdy honky-tonks, and a rustic drive through the land of ranches and rivers.

Credit: Jody Horton

I was determined to be in the saddle before sunset. Having spent four years cooking on a ranch in the Texas Hill Country, I can only go so long without heading for the region's rugged, rolling hills. As much as I love living in Austin, for me heaven is the land of caliche-dusted pickups, cactus blossoms, and Stetson hats. No place offers a fuller immersion in cowboy culture than the area around Bandera, Texas, known as the cowboy capital of the world. It's the kind of town where honky-tonks outnumber stoplights.

So on a recent spring morning, I headed to Kerrville, a historic town founded in 1846 that's known for its beauty—the Guadalupe River cuts through downtown—and beloved by generations of summer campers and game hunters. I was excited to check out Schreiner Goods, a surprisingly hip new clothing and home furnishings boutique. After some antiques shopping in nearby Ingram, I hit a couple of winding, two-lane highways through the familiar gold and green landscape (parched earth and wild mountain juniper trees) to Comfort. The quaint restaurants, wine bars, and antiques shops offered plenty of spots to linger, but I wanted to get on a horse, so I kept going.

I pulled into Bandera just as sunlight was starting to fade. A few miles out of town, I arrived at Dixie Dude Ranch, a 725-acre property founded in 1937. We dropped our bags, headed to the stables, and made it just in time for the day's last trail ride. After our guide, Arnulfo, sized me up and chose a caramel-colored mare, I swung a leg over the saddle. We headed out to the familiar sounds of mourning doves and the clop-clopping of hooves on loose rock, plus the horses' occasional heavy sighs.

Later that night, we enjoyed a hearty ranch supper in the lodge: slow-cooked salty pork, green beans with bacon, and warm rolls served family style. To our surprise, the evening offered one more ride under the stars, this time on a 2,400-pound longhorn steer named Casino (led by a seasoned cowboy), who took us to a campfire and shameless number of toasted marshmallows. It felt good to be back on the range.

Top Detours: Ingram to Bandera

1. Best Cowhide Furnishings
Check out high-end consignment furniture (think leather sofas and sculptures by Western artists) at Grand Wows in Ingram. 3167 Junction Highway; 830/367-7511

2. Best Designer Denim
Sip a mimosa while you peruse top-label jeans and other offerings at Schreiner Goods, a hip take on the downtown mercantile. 214 Earl Garrett Street; 830/315-5000

3. Best Ceviche
Housed in an 1890 building, Francisco's serves tilapia ceviche with pico de gallo ($10.95) and other seafood bites, plus cold bottles of beer.

4. Best Prairie Art
Sculptures and paintings of cowboys, Native Americans, and settlers are on display at the Museum of Western Art ($7 admission). 830/896-2553

5. Best Culinary Detour
Local brews, 18 wines by the glass, and small plates such as Havarti Nachos ($6.95) make for tasty happy hours at The Plaid Goat, a friendly eatery and wine bar in Comfort.

6. Best Reason To Go Now
May brings the Cowboy Capital Rodeo Association's rodeo—three days of barrel racing, roping, kids' activities, a barbecue cookoff, and more—to Bandera.

7. Best Pearl-Snap Shirts
Stock up on this cowboy staple plus other Lone Star essentials like artisan jewelry, hand-tooled leather bags, hats, and boots galore at Gunslinger Dry Goods.

8. Best Watering Hole
It's not uncommon to see horses tied to the hitching post in front of the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, where dusty ranch hands, bikers, and hipsters convene for great live music accompanied by ice-cold beer.

9. Best Reader Deal
Check in as a guest at the 725-acre working cattle ranch Dixie Dude Ranch, where highlights include trail rides and home-cooked meals served at communal tables. $ Reader deal! 10% off a three-night or longer stay in May and June. (Mention Southern Living.)