15 Hidden Adventures in Texas Hill Country

Swim in Texas Bluebonnets
Photo: Van Chaplin

Texas has it all. From mountains and beaches to rolling hills, and flat lands where you can see for miles, Texas is known for its wide variety of landscapes. While there are endless places to explore in Texas, we have found that Texas's Hill Country might just be the best spot to start your Texas travels. The Texas Hill Country is simply put, beautiful, and there are many things to do (and some cool places to stay) in its expansive region. Whether you want to gaze at an endless sea of wildflowers, eat a delicious apple pie in the Apple Capital of Texas, take a dip in a natural swimming hole, kayak along the Medina River, hike the second largest granite dome, chase a waterfall, or find your own beautiful Topaz gems, Texas's Hill Country is the perfect place for adventure and exploration. Here's our guide to a few off-the-beaten-path adventures found deep in the heart of Texas.

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Explore the Heart of Texas

Explore the Heart of Texas
Photo: Van Chaplin

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 an abundance of bald cypress trees, shimmering lakes cupped in limestone canyons, and rustic German towns with names such as Boerne, Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, and Kerrville.

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1. Belly Up to the BBQ

Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
Photo: Jody Horton

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 much more). This is a must-stop for all you barbecue lovers out there!

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2. Take in the View

Farm Road 1323
Photo: Ryann Ford

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, and dense spreads of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes. In the spring, wildflowers dot nearly every corner of the landscape, but particularly vibrant ones can be found on Farm Road 1323, which heads west off U.S. 281 about three 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.

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3. Escape the Crowds

High's Cafe and Country Store
Photo: Jody Horton

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 small town 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, or clapping along with a guitarist.

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4. Go for a Swim

Krause Springs
Photo: Jody Horton

You have plenty of choices if you want to take a dip in the Hill Country—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. But the lushest, and least crowded, swimming spot is at Krause Springs ($9 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.

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5. Enjoy the Music

Luckenbach Dance Hall
Photo: Jody Horton

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 burgers that are beer-bottle tall with such toppings as jalapeño chiles and grilled onions. On weekends, local bands play on the outdoor stage.

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6. Be a Stargazer

Tres Lunas Resort
Photo: Ryann Ford

You know what the song says about the stars being big and bright deep in the heart of Texas? See them 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. Yoga classes, massages, and wellness weekends are available too for those that are in need of a little relaxation.

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7. Kayak the Medina River

1. Kayak the Medina River
Photo: Van Chaplin

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.

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8. Smell Lavender

2. Smell Lavender
Photo: Van Chaplin

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 cover the Lavender Capital of Texas, some which are open to visitors at the start of the blooming season. Blanco celebrates their lavendar harvest with the Blanco Lavender Festival, a weekend long celebration with a lavender market, free admission to a lavender farm, live music, and lots of good food.

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9. Sleep in a Garden

Sleep in a Garden
Photo: Van Chaplin

Wake up to the smell of rosemary, thyme, and other fresh scents when you stay in one of the cottages at the Hill Country Herb Garden, which is a garden, day spa, and place to stay, all in one. Book one of their 14 cozy cottages, each of which comes with a porch with a swing and a set of rocking chairs, along with a complimentary breakfast that comes to your door each morning. During your stay, find relaxation at the day spa, which offers everything from facials and massages to aromatherapy. And make sure to check out the serene herb garden and on-site restaurant!

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10. Swim in Texas Bluebonnets

Swim in Texas Bluebonnets
Van Chaplin

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. 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."

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11. Dig for Topaz

Dig for Topaz
Photo: Van Chaplin

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 The Historic Lindsay Ranch.

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12. Hike to Gorman Falls

Hike to Gorman Falls
Photo: Van Chaplin

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. Reaching Gorman Falls, the park's main attraction, takes a one and a half 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. The breathtaking view of the waterfall, along with the peaceful sound of the rushing waters, makes the trek well worth every step.

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13. Drive Scenic Highway 16

Drive Scenic Highway 16
Photo: Van Chaplin

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.

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14. Eat Apple Pie

Eat Apple Pie
Photo: Van Chaplin

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. 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.

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15. Watch a Sunset from Enchanted Rock

16. Watch a Sunset from Enchanted Rock
Photo: Van Chaplin

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. 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, or at least that's what the Tonkawa and other Native American tribes who revered it believed. Scientists contend it's fissures in the granite expanding at the end of a hot day, but you should come hear it for yourself and decide what you believe.

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