Head for the Hills
25 Things I Love About the Hill Country.
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SURE, I ADORE THE HILL COUNTRY. Of course, I have to avert my eyes from a few aws, like towns where I can sling a baby back rib and hit a Home Depot or a Chili’s restaurant. (Good-bye Boerne, Kerrville, Marble Falls, and Touristenburg—uh, I mean Fredericksburg.) But if you know where to look, the spirit of the old Hill Country can still be found— in a hidden cabin, a dog-friendly beer joint, an unspoiled stretch of river. So even though I have to dig a bit deeper to uncover its treasures, I’ll never stop loving this celebrated heart of Texas.
1. If I were a green kingfisher or an escaped black buck antelope seeking asylum from encroaching suburbs, I know where I’d live—at the 2,300-acre Honey Creek State Natural Area, east of Boerne. Although the adjacent Guadalupe River State Park is, according to park officer Rex Shaddox, “under attack by San Antonio” on summer weekends, when a couple thousand carloads of water-seeking city folk take over the riverside picnic area, the preserve surrounding Honey Creek remains tranquil. Why? Because access is limited to weekly guided tours. The creek, its teal water as deep as a swimming pool, swirls around cypress knees and limestone boulders, one of them known as Dealer’s Rock for the land swaps and other transactions that early pioneers are rumored to have negotiated here. Access through Guadalupe River State Park, entrance on Texas Highway 46, thirteen miles east of Boerne; 830-438-2656. Park admission $4, senior citizens $2, children 12 and under free. Two-hour tours Saturdays at 9 a.m., starting at the park’s Rust House; suggested donation $2 per person or $5 per family.
2. Maybe it’s because I slipped in the back door of the Friendly Bar, a habit that Johnson City locals are rumored to have gotten into during Prohibition, but the folks were friendly, from Debbie, the bartender, to Paco, one patron’s pony-size retriever, who chased a stick in the vast, near-empty space. Soon, however, the place would fill up for the Tuesday-night acoustic show. The old watering hole began its colorful life as the King Casparis Palace Saloon in 1916, and Jason Hohenberger, who bought it last September, has refrained from tarting it up with ferns and other froufrou. In addition to Tuesday’s shows, he keeps the joint jumping with Monday pool tournaments, Wednesday domino tournaments, karaoke on Thursdays, live bands on Saturdays, and Sunday jams. 106 N. Nugent, half a block north of Texas Highway 290, Johnson City; 830-868-2347.
3. Once a month for the past four years, traditional country musicians ranging from earnest but wobbly locals to professional entertainers like Pretty Miss Norma Jean have taken the stage at the Mason Country Opry, in the town’s vintage Odeon Theater. I caught the varied acts at the Christmas show last December, when I was wowed by Frank Torres. He was so soft-spoken during his introduction that I wondered if I’d be able to hear him sing above the house band. I shouldn’t have worried. Torres, who works at a grocery store in Brady, roared into action as soon as the music began, belting out “Blue House Painted White” and “Little Red Rooster,” threatening to crack the theater’s aging plaster. I left my night at the opry with the satisfying feeling of having discovered a great talent all on my own. Truth be told, credit for the Mason showcase goes to the Heart of Texas Country Music Association and Tracy Pitcox, the music director of Brady’s KNEL 95.3, which occasionally broadcasts the performances live. 112 Moody, Mason; 915-347-5407; hillbillyhits.com. Fourth Thursday of the month (with some exceptions), $7 to $10.
4. Is it illegal to stalk candles? If so, I’ve been guilty of this crime ever since I saw Jon Peavy’s appealing creations at the Beeswax Company, his little shop in Johnson City, several years ago. Then the store and its ocher-colored, pure beeswax candles simply disappeared (self-imposed exile to Aspen, Colorado, I later learned). Now the company has reappeared in Texas, sharing space in Photography as Art, the sophisticated, spare gallery that Peavy’s wife, Lee Ann, opened last summer on the square in Mason. In addition to the coveted toxin-free candles ($1 for a palm-size star to $50 for a hefty block), the couple also sells the work of several photographers, including arresting images of Mexico by Francisco Mata Rosas and the mysterious silver-gel prints of Austinite Dennis Fagan. 118 Fort McKavitt, Mason; 915-347-1099; beeswaxco.com. Closed Sunday.
5. Independent bookstores may be disappearing from urban life faster than you can say “Barnes and Noble,” but they’re still alive and surprisingly well in the Hill Country. One of my favorites is Backroads Books, in Bandera. Mom-and-daughter team Pat and Susan Harrison fled Dallas and opened the shop in 1998, moving it two years ago into a historic building half a block off the town’s main drag. The selections of Texana, contemporary fiction, and children’s books alone merit praise, but it’s the regular signings and readings—by the likes of local octogenarian rancher-turned-storyteller Bob Ramsey, western writer Elmer Kelton, and mystery master Rick Riordan—that have transformed Backroads Books from a mere commercial enterprise into the center of a literary community. 1107 Cedar, Bandera; 830-796-7748.
6. How fast must you travel to outrun stress? Oh, only about one mile an hour—as long as you’re navigating the Llano River by kayak. On a perfect January day—the kind that reminds me why I endure August in Texas—I hired river guide Dub Dietrich, the owner of Hill Country River Adventures, to take me on a watery trek through a pristine slice of the Edwards Plateau south of Mason. While I swore not to reveal our exact put-in and take-out locations, I can tell you that the route included exhilarating (but novice-friendly) rapids, deepwater stretches where fish lurked ten feet below the surface, two-hundred-foot-tall cliffs encrusted with swallows’ mud villages, and coves ringed by gargantuan live oaks. I even saw a beaver (okay, it could have been a nutria, but it also could have been a beaver), as well as hawks, plovers, and great blue herons. Because Dietrich has a day job as an oil-and-gas geologist, I also came away from the adventure with a rocky knowledge of the rugged landscape and the sea that once covered it. 512-292-8215; kayaktexasrivers.com. Full-day trips $250 for one, $100 each additional person; includes all equipment, shuttle, drinks, and lunch.
7. The overwhelming selection of goodies at Chrissy’s Homestyle Bakery, in Llano, would turn even Dr. Atkins into a carbo-addict. I had a hard time deciding between the cracked-wheat bread, key lime bars, chocolate cake, cinnamon rolls, and torturous variety of cookies but finally settled on the lemon dream, a crispy butter cookie with a hint of citrus. I bought a dozen one day and, to my horror, arrived home a couple of hours later with one lone dream. 501 Bessemer Avenue (Texas Highway 16), Llano; 915-247-4564. Closed Sunday and Monday; no credit cards.
8. Ever since word spread among wayward kitties that my place is a safe haven (mandatory spaying aside), I’ve experienced a feline housing crunch. Imagine my surprise at discovering a non-governmental, non-faith-based solution to the problem. At Moody’s Feed Store, in Kingsland, I found whimsical multi-cat complexes created by Rod Norris and his wife, Billie, such as the six-unit bordello-inspired Cat House. Dogs aren’t discriminated against in this home market; some of their fancy abodes even come with a rooftop sundeck (pet houses $200 to $500). And if your furry friends aren’t house-hunting, Moody’s also has a selection of pet supplies—beds, bowls, collars, and toys—that puts the big chains to shame. 4623 FM 1431, Kingsland; 915-388-6217; moodysfeed-texas.com.
9. Sure, 10,000 visitors may swarm the Lost Maples State Natural Area on weekends when the fall foliage is at its peak, but off-season you can have the park practically to yourself, especially if you get off the (literally) beaten path, i.e., the Maple Trail. One weekday this winter, I shared the 4.7-mile-long East Loop Trail with only a quartet of feral piglets (awww) and (yikes!) their bristly, growling mother. (Although I didn’t climb a tree, I did hide in the latrine for a spell.) But trust me: The beauty of this trail, with its limestone canyons filled with towering hardwoods and hut-size boulders, its emerald-green pond and crystal-clear creek, and its dizzying views from the canyon lip, cannot be diminished by a drab winter day, searing summer heat, or even hostile pigs. Five miles north of Vanderpool on Ranch Road 187; 830-966-3413; tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lostmap; $4 ($5 in October and November), senior citizens $2 ($3 in October and November), children 12 and under free.
10. The Shiner Bock is cold, the ceiling is festooned with dingy brassieres, and the walls are covered with snapshots from wild parties (I don’t think I want to know about the naked fat man on what I can only assume is a bar stool). There’s an inviting side yard where you can escape the smoke or enjoy the acoustic jam sessions on Sundays. But what I like most about the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, in Bandera, which has been in business under various names for over a century, is its hairy clientele. As I patted Rose, a gregarious Australian shepherd who was perhaps the best-behaved creature in the place, one two-legged patron admitted that “sometimes there are more dogs in here than people.” Now, that’s my kind of bar. 307 Eleventh, Bandera (in the historic district, one block west of Texas Highway 16); 830-796-4849.
11. Of the thousands of lodging options in the Hill Country (hundreds in Fredericksburg alone), only a fraction are outstanding. I’ll admit to a strong bias toward cabins, but I’d rather spend the night in the Bates Motel than in some of the plywood sweatboxes I’ve seen crammed together on a barren strip of river frontage. (Oh, who did your decorating? A prison warden?) What a relief, then, to discover Don and Lisa Yaklin’s Frio River Cabins, especially cabin 7. Tucked away in a thicket of huge oaks in a remote corner of 170 nature-friendly acres, the masonry cabin is comfy without being fussy, with two bedrooms, a full kitchen, and even an electric fireplace. And if you’ve come here for the river, you won’t be disappointed. A short path leads from the porch down a slope to one of the most idyllic, private spots on the Frio that I’ve ever seen. 1.5 miles north of the entrance to Garner State Park, on U.S. 83 between Concan and Leakey; 830-232-5996, fax 232-6566; friorivercabins.com; $139 May 15 through August 15 and holiday weekends, $85 the rest of the year; linens provided for an additional charge.
12. In a desolate corner of Gillespie County, amid bleak groves of oak wilt victims, stand the weathered remains of the town of Morris Ranch. It sprang up in 1893 and quickly became a national center for breeding racehorses, then withered away after anti-racing laws were passed around the country in the late 1890’s. But, oh, what a run it had. At its peak, the community boasted a racetrack, jockey club, cotton gin, mill, hotel, and limestone schoolhouse, a castlelike structure designed by the English-born architect Alfred Giles that is now owned by the Heard Ranch and in reasonably good repair. One gray and blustery day, as I stood admiring the school from the crumbling cemetery that shares its windswept hilltop, I was so caught up in the gothic atmosphere that I swear I saw Heathcliff storm from the building, coattails flapping, and ride off across the Hill Country moors on his dark steed. And, no, I hadn’t just come from a Fredericksburg biergarten. From U.S. 290 in Fredericksburg, head south on Texas Highway 16 for 2 miles, turn right on FM 2093 for 7 miles, then left on Morris-Tivydale Road for 1.5 miles to Morris Ranch Road, where the town begins (turn right for the jockey club, school, and cemetery).
13. So much of the Hill Country has squandered its charms in the name of progress that the preservation success story of the Old Blanco County Courthouse has the ring of a fable. Like some cursed princess, the beautiful limestone building, built in 1885 and 1886 and dedicated in 1888, lost its county crown to Johnson City in 1890. As the years passed, she served the town as a hospital, a temporary school, a Wild West museum, and even a barbecue restaurant before finally falling into neglect in the eighties. In 1986 a prince of sorts arrived to save her, except he planned to dismantle her stone by stone and rebuild her at his private kingdom in Sandy. Realizing that their courthouse square would be rather grim without a courthouse, the locals formed the Old Blanco County Courthouse Preservation Society. In May 1998, after years of fundraising and renovations, the building was reopened and now houses commercial offices and a visitors center. Best of all, the palatial former courtroom on the second floor, with its soaring ceiling, banks of tall windows, and aged wooden floor, can be rented for parties. In the center of Blanco, 830-833-2211. Visitors center closed Sunday.
14. This drive isn’t a mere noun; it’s a full-blown active verb. The route I’ve dubbed the James River Loop begins tranquilly enough a mile or so south of Mason, rolling past grassy ranchland and a scattering of old farmsteads, but it becomes increasingly rambunctious as it wheels down a hillside to a scenic Llano River crossing. If the roads are soggy, the weak-of-heart and low-of-clearance might as well turn around here. As for the rest of you, why did you buy that strapping off-road monster if not to tear through gravelly red dirt and dip into rock-lined streambeds fringed with yuccas, forests of black persimmon, and stunted oaks? And then there’s the formidable crossing of the James River. It took half an hour for this middle-aged woman, traveling alone on a late afternoon in January, with temperatures near freezing and no cell phone reception, to decide to brave the shin-deep (or deeper?) water in her Lilliputian Japanese SUV. I’m glad I took the plunge, because I’d hate to have missed the towering creek-side cliff farther south, the battalions of deer patrolling the hills, and the stone farmhouses clustered around the tiny community of Hilda, which look like they’re made of gingersnaps and springerle. (Bat-season bonus: The Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve is on this wild route. Open Thursday through Sunday from mid-May to mid-October; 915-347-5970.) From U.S. 87 just south of Mason, turn right on FM 1723 for 2.4 miles. Veer right on FM 2389 for 4.8 miles, crossing the Llano River, then turn right again on James River Road (follow the bat cave signs). Ford the James River about 8 miles farther south, then continue to Salt Branch Road. Turn left, and after about a mile, veer left again on Salt Branch Loop for 15 miles to FM 783. Turn left and continue north back to U.S. 87. A compass and a good county map wouldn’t hurt.
15. If the view of the Sabinal Canyon from the Foster Haus were a song, it would be one of those rousing overtures from a star-studded fifties western. The only guest cabin on Hoyt and Bonnie Foster’s 1,120-acre ranch, it perches on a secluded hillside among mountain laurel and Spanish oaks, where it can catch the breeze, the sunrise, and that jaw-dropping panorama. The compact log cabin is decorated with stuff from the couple’s barn: his dad’s saddle slung over the loft railing, his grandfather’s wooden scythe hung above the bed, and a row of chicken nesting boxes impersonating shelves in the kitchenette. Although it may be well-nigh impossible to tear yourself off of the porch, you do have access to a swimming hole in the Sabinal River, where springs gush from under rocks and cypress roots. Off FM 187, four miles south of Vanderpool; 830- 966-3498, fax 966-2263; texashillcountrymall.com/sabinalcanyongetaways; $85 for two, linens provided.
16. The service at the Welfare Café one Saturday lunch was friendly enough but mystifyingly slow, considering that I was the only customer at this 1916 general-store-turned-restaurant. But the tomato-garlic soup was so tasty and soul-warming on that drizzly afternoon, I quickly forgot about the wait. Anyway, it had given me time to contemplate the wide-ranging selection of imported beers, the German entrées, and the ambitious dinner specials, like a wild-mushroom-and-vegetable cassoulet; take a peek at the rambling outdoor patio; and imagine the cafe when it’s hopping on a balmy spring night. To get to the town of Welfare, take the Welfare exit off Interstate 10, seven miles north of Boerne; 830-537-3700. Lunch Saturday and Sunday, dinner Wednesday through Sunday (entrées $10 to $21.95).
17. Bet you never thought you’d see the words “Johnson City” and “poached salmon in champagne sauce” in the same sentence. But last October Kay Pratt and Karen Granitz opened the Silver K Café, introducing this hotbed of the barbecued and chicken-fried to the likes of field greens with roasted pecans and goat cheese. Not to worry: The chic but comfortable eatery, housed in a portion of the town’s old lumberyard, has plenty of Lone Star flavor. The ever-changing menu features some of LBJ’s favorite dishes, like corn pudding and buttermilk pie; local produce when possible; and Texas wines and beers. And the owners promise that the newly hatched weekend music program, directed by Larry Joe Taylor, will be 100 percent Texan. 209 E. Main, Johnson City; 830-868-2911; silverKcafe.com. Lunch daily, dinner Friday and Saturday (entrées $8.95 to $15.95).
18. Approaching the Eagle Eye Observatory at Canyon of the Eagles during a star party is a bit like stumbling into a cult gathering, what with the dim red lights dotting the open field, the enthusiastic chatter about things like zodiacal bands and gegenschein coming from shadowy figures in the dark, and the beams of laser pointers flickering across the sky. But you soon realize that the devotees gathered here are too intelligent and friendly to belong to a cult (although things can turn ugly if you ignore party etiquette and blind somebody with a flashlight). Most of them do, however, belong to the Austin Astronomical Society, which hosts the monthly event. They share their impressive knowledge and their telescopes with anyone who wanders up, offering glimpses of Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its moons, or the beautiful Orion Nebula. From U.S. 281 in Burnet, take Texas Highway 29 west for four miles, then turn right on Ranch Road 2341, which ends at the entrance to Canyon of the Eagles; 800-977-0081; schedule at austinastro.org or canyonoftheeagles.com. First Saturday of the month, weather permitting.
19. As a frustrated Central Texas gardener whose sole crop is bulletproof rosemary, I revere those who manage to coax abundant produce and flowers from this hardscrabble world of rock, ravenous varmints, droughts, and floods. One of the best places to worship such miracles is Mark and Cathy Itz’s McCall Creek Farms Market, outside Blanco. While the Itzes bring in a few goodies from family and friends who farm nearby, like blackberries and plums from Mark’s father’s farm in Fredericksburg, the vast majority of the produce is grown right on the property. This means picked-that-day freshness—from bouquets of snapdragons in early spring to mid-summer’s tomato bonanza (more than a dozen varieties, from tiny currants to hefty Heat Waves) and butternut squash in the fall. And if you eat all your veggies, you’re allowed to indulge in Cathy’s homemade pies, cobblers, and jams. On U.S. 281, 3.5 miles north of the only light in Blanco; 830-833-0442; mccallcreekfarms.com. Open daily May through December.
20. The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge wasn’t established as your personal outdoor playground. That honor goes to the golden-cheeked warbler, the black-capped vireo, and other lucky Texas critters. But humans can enjoy at least a small chunk of this 19,000-acre patchwork preserve in the dramatic hills northwest of Austin. If you question the necessity of conservation, drive out to the refuge’s Doeskin Ranch through the suburban sprawl of North Austin. Then, with that vision burned in your brain, hike the ranch’s 2.2-mile Rim Rock Trail—past the clear waters of Doeskin Branch Creek, through native grasses so thick they trip you, and up to one of the highest elevations in the preserve for a warbler’s-eye view of the canyons. From the intersection of U.S. 183 and Mopac in Austin, take 183 north for about 10 miles to Cedar Park, turn left on FM 1431 for 26 miles, then right on FM 1174 for 5.5 miles; the entrance to the Doeskin Ranch Public Use Area will be on the right. Event and tour information at friendsofbalcones.org.
21. The monarch butterflies that migrate through Central Texas each fall on their way to the Mexican state of Michoacán are flying somewhere they’ve never been along a route they’ve never flown, and they make this three-thousand-mile journey guided by nothing more than instinct and a brain the size of a pinhead. I learned this bit of mind-bending lepidopterology from William Calvert, one of a variety of speakers presented by Walk in the Park, a group that aims to educate folks on the natural wonders of the Hill Country. Catch talks by geologists, botanists, and entomologists like Calvert, or tag along on a field trip, such as birding in Blanco or trekking to nearby dinosaur tracks. Lectures at the LBJ National Historical Park Visitor Center (100 Lady Bird Lane, Johnson City) and the Blanco Community Learning Center Auditorium (814 Eleventh, Blanco). For schedule of lectures and field trips, call 830-868-7303 or go to walkinthepark.org.
22. I was lured into Santos Taquería, in Mason, by the profusion of bougainvillea blossoms cascading down the stucco wall of its sunny patio. But you can’t eat bougainvillea (I don’t think). You can, however, gorge on Santos’ fajita gorditas, handmade on the premises and stuffed with cheese, grilled onions, and strips of poblano pepper, plus chicken, beef, or shrimp. Southeast corner of the square, Mason; 915-347-6140. Lunch only; closed Monday.
23. I’ll never own a Hill Country ranch that’s been in the family for generations, but I can pretend I do at one of the outposts of Century Ranch Lodging. Luckily for landless dreamers like me, fifth-generation Texan Gene Hall Miller has gussied up three of the old houses on her two spreads and opened them to paying guests. I could choose to live out my Giant fantasies in a one-bedroom cabin or a spacious ranch house on the 2,600-acre Pecan Creek Ranch just north of Llano, where Gene and her husband, Bill, live. But as long as I’m dreaming, I’ll pick the lodge at Dutch Mountain Ranch. Situated on 1,245 spectacular acres adjacent to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, this ranch is a piece of the “league and a labor of land” (4,428 acres) awarded to Gene’s great-great-grandfather Matthew Moss for service in the Texas Revolution. I liked the remoteness of the lodge, a rambling three-bedroom house that has an attached one-bedroom cottage, both with lots of windows and easygoing decor. But it was the land itself that I fell in love with: spring-fed lakes and a winding stretch of the aptly named Sandy Creek, thickets of ancient elms, and rising from the grassy fields, enormous globs of granite that include a baby version of Enchanted Rock, complete with a view of its mom to the south. And guests have the run of it all, just as if they owned it. Century Ranch Lodging, 915-247-4074; centuryranchlodging.com. Dutch Mountain Lodge, $200 per night for up to four people, $25 each additional person, two-night minimum, all linens included.
24. One Friday night as I strolled High Street in Comfort’s historic district, I watched a foursome set up a card table in a parking space just down from the Ingenhuett Hardware Store and proceed to play dominoes. Were these descendants of the town’s Freethinking founders? Or were they thinking at all? I mean, it was so cold I don’t know why they bothered icing down their beer. But I understood their desire to be here. (Hey, I was out in the cold too.) Something about this part of town, considered one of Texas’ best-preserved nineteenth-century business districts, is irresistible. You’ll find more than one hundred pre-1910 buildings within strolling distance, like the former Comfort State Bank, with its stout granite pillars; the sweet Otto Brinkmann cottage, built in 1860 and a fine example of the limestone-and-timber construction technique called Fachwerk; and the handsome August Faltin Building, one of seven structures here designed by Alfred Giles. Considering the town’s wealth of antiques stores, you might even find a piece of history to take home with you. Comfort Chamber of Commerce, 830-995-3131; a detailed self-guided tour is included in Walking Hill Country Towns, by Diane Capito ($14.95).
25. Having tasted success with their lunch business, cafes in tiny towns from Camp Verde to Waring are venturing cautiously into the dinner trade, opening one night a week and serving a limited menu, typically a choice of grilled steak, chicken, or fish. On a recent Friday night I popped into Mimi’s Café, in the 1908 building that was once Comfort’s post office. I squeezed in among the locals who were sipping wine or beer and putting away simply prepared but perfectly cooked tuna steaks and tenderloins while guitarist Jay Sims serenaded them with his original tunes. 713 High, Comfort; 830-995-3470. Lunch Tuesday through Saturday, dinner Friday only (entrées $9.95 to $15.95).