The Ultimate Hill Country Tour

From Devil’s Backbone to Utopia—and, yes, Fredericksburg—here’s a guide to the towns, scenic views, back roads, and all the stops along the way.

Some say it is the green hills, rising out of the flatlands as Texas’ gateway to the west, that make the Hill Country special. Others are drawn to the noble oaks, the pastoral fields, the artesian springs from which rivers flow clear and cold past limestone bluffs, the abrupt ravines and pocket canyons, the rock-strewn ranchland, the fine sturdy craftsmanship of its German towns, and the even sturdier stock of people who built them. For me, though, the real beauty of the Texas Hill Country lies in its many contradictions. The Hill Country is the geographic and emotional essence of Texas, yet it is like nowhere else in the state.

The Hill Country is an abrupt change from the plains to the east, but it is by no means mountainous, like far West Texas. The land appears gentle, but it has thin, difficult soil—but no part of Texas has more wild-flowers in the spring. The Hill Country shares in none of the great Texas myths: no cotton, no cattle kingdoms, no oil. In an urban state, it remains a place of small towns and villages. Railroads bypassed the Hill Country because of the difficult terrain, and even today, with the exception of Interstate 10, no heavily traveled major highway traverses it, thank God.

President Lyndon Johnson brought the first national attention to the Hill Country in the sixties, when his ranch east of Fredericksburg was the Texas White House. Until then, the Hill Country was a well-kept secret, known primarily to well-to-do folks from Dallas and Houston who sent their children to summer camps on the Guadalupe River around Hunt. That anonymity, it turns out, was a blessing. While practically everywhere else worth visiting in the American West was getting loved to death, the Hill Country remained unsullied.

The first wave of visitors who started showing up in large numbers twenty years ago or so were bluebonnet lovers, peach eaters, canoeists and tubers, fishermen and hunters—your basic harried urbanites fleeing the city in search of an escape. Many were inspired by a 1975 song called “Luckenbach, Texas,” sung by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. It didn’t matter that the song was written by a Memphis producer and a Nashville musician who’d never actually been to the little village with five buildings, including a dance hall. Their sentiment in romanticizing the Hill Country experience was dead on target, as expressed in the refrain, “Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics.” Crowds responded in kind, returning to the roots they never had.

More recently, though, movie types have been moving in from Hollywood, and a second wave of vis-itors has come from all over Texas and the world beyond. The word is out that the Hill Country has the same enchanting natural beauty once attributed to places like Santa Fe, Se-dona, Scottsdale, and Carmel. But being discovered often comes at the expense of the very qualities that attracted visitors in the first place. Hill Country land values, formerly pegged to the amount of tillable soil or the availability of water, are escalating rapidly based solely on aesthetic beauty. Visitors are being turned away from Enchanted Rock whenever the parking area fills to capacity. The Hunt general store now carries the Sunday New York Times. All of which raises the specter of the Hill Country’s becoming more of a hot spot and less of a state of mind.

For all of my adult life, I’ve visited places in and near the Hill Country—Kerrville for the folk music festival, Fredericksburg for peaches, Llano for barbecue, the rivers for swimming and canoeing. Yet, I have seldom thought of the Hill Country as a single place, rather than as individual destinations. So I got in my pickup and started driving. I came back with a route I call my ultimate Hill Country tour—a four-hundred-mile trip that can be done in a weekend but that I savored over four days. I purposely excluded towns on the geographic fringe, such as Llano, Brady, Rocksprings, and Burnet (sorry, but the Hill Country is not north of the Colorado, at least not in my book), and places that have already made the transition from bucolic small town to big-city suburb, like New Braunfels, Boerne, and Dripping Springs. Also bypassed were stand-alone tourist destinations like Bandera and the LBJ historic attractions on the way to Fredericksburg. But if you want to find out what the real Hill Country is all about, hop in and see for yourself—before it changes too much.

Devil’s Backbone to Fredericksburg

SAN ANTONIO AND AUSTIN are the usual entry points to the Hill Country, since that’s where the major highways are. But mile after mile of suburbia deflates the drama of entering the hills. A better approach is from San Marcos on Ranch Road 12. Just west of Interstate 35, the limestone escarpment known as the Balcones Fault rears up dramatically from the prairie. About four miles past the turnoff to Wimberley are two classic examples of Texas roadhouses, Riley’s Backbone Place and the Devil’s Backbone Tavern (both are named for the ridge line called Devil’s Backbone). Riley’s is a hangout popular with Southwest Texas State University students headed to nearby Canyon Lake, but the Devil’s Backbone Tavern is more my style, with a fireplace and a just-plain-folks clientele.

The vistas finally kicked in just beyond the two beer joints, as the road began its serpentine ride atop the Backbone, which separates the Blanco and Guadalupe river basins. I pulled over to a picnic area on the right about a mile past the taverns so I could take in the views of the Blanco winding its way through gentle Wimberley Valley. I’d arrived in the Hill Country.

The first town, Fischer, is one of the smaller German settlements in the region, distinguished by a 121-year-old community dance hall and a nine-pin bowling club— nine pins being another imported German tradition that persists in the Hill Country. (Although the bowling club is private, members usually tolerate visitors who stop in for a look.) Fischer’s town

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