It’s not easy to pin down why the Hill Country tugs so hard on the heartstrings of Texans. The reasons go far beyond the obviously beautiful landscape. You have to savor first-hand the people, places and experiences that capture its enduring charm to understand the magic. Here are a some of the touchstones that define the Hill Country.
1. Willow City Loop
Drive the 13 miles of this twisting and turning country lane and you might wonder if you’re still in Texas. The climbs are steep, valleys drop off dramatically, and the isolation seems absolute. Take your time and watch for sleepy-eyed mama cows and calfs, flocks of butterflies, and lots of blue sky overhead. If it’s wildflower season, be warned: you’ll be in a convoy of bluebonnet fanciers. Plan your visit.
2. LBJ Ranch
Outside Johnson City along the banks of the Pedernales River, is the officially-named Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. You can tour the home of the 36th president of the United States and see where he lived before, during and after his term of office. Arguably the Hill Country’s most famous resident, Johnson loved to tour visiting dignitaries around the area and was often seen speeding along the local roads in his Lincoln Continental, which is among the historic artifacts housed at the park. Plan your visit.
3. Enchanted Rock
In geological terms, it’s a pink granite dome. But looming in front of you, it’s amazing—a sleeping behemoth of rose-colored stone. The urge to climb this rock is irresistible. The good news is that it’s an easy ascent. Most anyone wearing tennis shoes from toddlers to grandmas can tackle the main-face trail and arrive at the top for a stunning view. Once there you’ll know how the rock got its name, as enchantment seems entirely possible. The name derives from legends of mystical happenings that the Tonkawa indians relayed to Texas settlers. Hold onto your hat as it’s always windy at the top. The park has nature trails, rock-climbing and picnic areas if you want to make a day of it. Plan your visit.
A rustic general store that’s been in business since 1849. A shady knot of liveoaks and some picnic tables. It may not seem like much, but for Texans it’s the beating heart of the state’s outlaw-country musical heritage and a place “where everybody’s somebody.” The Waylon Jennings song paid tribute to an ethos of laid-back chill and Luckenbach embodies that in every way. There’s a regular lineup of music and the beer is cold. Plan your visit.
5. Frio River at Neal’s Lodges
A Hill Country institution since 1926, this family-owned operation keeps things basic, all the more to focus on the main attraction: the icy immersion in the waters of Frio (the Spanish word for cold—and they weren’t kidding. It’s cold.). Giant cypress trees stand guard on the banks of the river and slabs of limestone provide great spots for sunbathing. Rope swings, slides, and tubes are the main attraction. Cabins, RV hookups, and campsites make this a great destination for family gatherings. Plan your visit.
6. Natural Bridge Caverns
What makes the Hill Country the hill country in the first place? It’s science, folks. The Balcones Escarpment which runs along the western edge of the Hill Country was formed some 20 million years ago when tectonic movements buckled the limestone and uplifted the land. Meanwhile below the surface subterranean rivers were carving out the limestone to create massive caves. You can see the state’s biggest at Natural Bridge Caverns and marvel at the awesome interior vaults, stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones, chandeliers and soda straws. Plan your visit.
7. Gruene Hall
The town of Gruene (pronounced “green”) is a destination in itself. Situated on a quiet bend in the Guadalupe River, the town has lots of great places to eat and makes a good jumping off point for a day of tubing. But the main attraction is Gruene Hall, built 1878 and Texas’s oldest continually operating dancehall. Its well-worn wood floors and screened windows are the real deal—there’s no air-conditioning. For two-stepping around the floor to live music, Gruene Hall is the go-to place. Plan your visit.
8. Shopping in Fredericksburg
There’s a reason why the sidewalks are packed on any day of the week in Fredericksburg. It’s just a lot of fun and the shopping can’t be beat. “Fred” might be the number one destination for girlfriend getaways in Texas due to its fabulous confluence of walkable streets and city center, clothing boutiques, antique shops, home furnishing stores, top-notch restaurants, and day spas. Combine this mix with an ever-increasing list of posh B&Bs, Sunday houses, and trendy boutique hotels and you have the Hill Country’s most popular destination. Plan your visit.