Few things are more satisfying than a perfect Texas porch. It need not be fancy, but there are some key ingredients: comfortable seating, a nice view, and good company, preferably enjoyed with a beverage in hand. One of my favorite porches is at the Sabinal River Lodge, in the Hill Country hamlet of Utopia, about eighty miles west of San Antonio. Hummingbirds and painted buntings jostle for position at a dozen bird feeders hanging from the eaves, and the second-story deck overlooks the shady banks of the Sabinal River. On this long, communal log-cabin space, a cozy wicker chair and loveseat sit outside each generously sized guest suite. One of the resident cats might sidle by, and deer stroll on the big, sloping lawn below. I like to bring a French press and a book out there in the morning and just sit for a while, letting my worries fade. At $125 a night, a stay here is a steal.
Nearly everything in Utopia is down-to-earth, rustic, and affordable, in fact. So far, this quiet patch of the Hill Country seems relatively untouched by the development boom that has reshaped the region around Austin, bringing crowds and limousine winery tours to Fredericksburg and Dripping Springs. Sure, the Frio River tubing scene in nearby Concan can get a little rowdy, and Garner State Park regularly hits capacity in the summer, but all that action is a comfortable twenty-minute drive away.
The town’s population today (211 souls) isn’t much higher than it was in 1880 (150), around the time when postmaster George Barker changed its name from Montana to the more colorful Utopia. According to a historical plaque in the central plaza, Barker chose the name to praise what he considered to be the region’s perfect weather. In the summer, that’s arguable—temperatures are in the 100s as I write this, and drought often reduces stretches of the Sabinal River to a trickle—but the name still fits. With a handful of nice restaurants and cafes, plus cozy lodging and an under-the-radar swimming hole, Utopia has everything you’ll need for a quiet weekend, and not much more.
With rope swings over a placid swimming hole, a leafy canopy of live oaks and bald cypresses, and a treehouse playground for the kids, Utopia Park is a hidden gem. Fish from the mossy banks, point a canoe up the shady Sabinal River, or string up a hammock between tree trunks. On my last visit, an old-timey string band serenaded the crowd at the Lions Club’s annual ice-cream crank-off, where cherry cheesecake earned the top prize. Tent campsites and shade structures are available for rent; a day pass is $10.
Tee up for a one-of-a-kind round at Utopia Golf, where a bucket of balls is $5, or you can play nine holes for $12. More deer than golfers wander the sloping green here, which is so pretty and peaceful that it inspired both an inspirational Christian book, Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia, and a stinker of a film adaptation starring Robert Duvall (quoth Roger Ebert: “I would rather eat a golf ball than see this movie again.”)
If you haven’t been to Garner State Park, it’s a Texan rite of passage, and less than a twenty-minute drive from Utopia. Garner always makes me feel like a kid at summer camp, with its bustling atmosphere and wide range of activities: mini-golf, canoeing, country dancing under string lights every night in the summer, swimming in the Frio River, hiking up Old Baldy, and camping in a big, open field with hundreds of your closest friends (we could hear kids telling ghost stories in the next tent over). You won’t find solitude or serenity here, but that’s part of the fun.
Tubing on the chilly Frio is another classic Texas pastime. The little town of Concan has lots of outfitters, such as Andy’s on River Road. Twenty bucks gets you a tube and a shuttle ride. The scene on the river can be downright bacchanalian on summer weekends and holidays, with hordes of drunken twentysomethings blasting music and downing six-packs; go on a weekday or in the off-season if you prefer a family-friendly vibe.
Also near Concan, Frio Bat Flight Tours takes you to the mouth of Frio Cave, where as many as 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge each evening, spring through fall, to hunt. This is the planet’s second-most populous bat colony, after Bracken Cave, closer to San Antonio (and also open for tours). Guided tours are $12 per person. It’s not uncommon to see hawks, owls, and rattlesnakes gathered nearby at dusk, hoping to catch an unlucky bat for dinner.
Lost Maples State Natural Area, fifteen miles north of Utopia, is one of the few places in Texas to see spectacular fall colors. The atmosphere here is much quieter than at Garner, with three thousand sprawling acres to get lost in. Longer hikes can be hard to find outside of West Texas, but there are seven- and eleven-mile options here for those feeling adventurous. Follow the park on Facebook; in the fall, rangers post foliage reports with advice on the best days to go leaf-peeping.
Dine + Drink
Only at the Laurel Tree can you sample farm-to-table French-Texan cuisine while aloft in a private treehouse dining room. (The restaurant has the same owners as Treehouse Utopia, though the two are on separate properties.) Chef and co-owner Laurel Waters, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before returning home to the Hill Country, opens her one-of-a-kind restaurant on Saturdays only, and reservations are a must. The treehouse books up months in advance, but the earthbound dining room is just as lovely, with kitschy decor including lots of poppy-themed art—there’s a field of red poppies just outside—and a wall that shines with Waters’s collection of copper pans. The food is eclectic and artfully presented; we enjoyed the edamame hummus and a creamy crab dish with avocado and mango. Each plate was garnished with an edible flower. After your meal, stroll the grounds, which include an herb garden and a greenhouse. This would be the perfect place for a Mother’s Day or Valentine’s date.
Pull up a red chair at one of the retro Formica tables on the Lost Maples Cafe patio, and contemplate which of eight kinds of pie to order (I went with chocolate meringue). The menu is mostly old-school diner classics, such as chicken-fried steak and a BLT, alongside a few surprises: the lamb sliders, with fresh feta, homemade Greek sauce, and meat raised just down the road on the 3R Ranch were a highlight.
Postal Brews (named for its location in an old post office) may look from afar like a sleepy little coffee shop, but it’s a lively community hub. There’s live music, cider, and beer on tap in the evenings, and the gift shop inside has quirky art, jewelry, candles, and other ephemera; I brought home a hand-lettered Utopia sticker from Dallas’s Whiski Designs. Save room for the excellent baked goods, including flaky croissants, cupcakes piled high with frosting, and sumptuous slices of bundt cake.
The Taqueria Utopia food truck isn’t always open on schedule, but keep checking back and you might luck out. Open a Styrofoam clamshell to find generous portions of Tex-Mex favorites such as chalupas, gorditas, and enchiladas swimming in cheese—or pick up foil-wrapped breakfast tacos to go.
The Lunchbox makes big, extravagant burgers, including the John Wayne (bacon, guacamole, fried onions, and pepper jack queso) and the Clint Eastwood (a hefty beef patty topped with . . . more beef!). If you aren’t in the mood for a heart attack on a plate, never fear: there’s a well-stocked salad bar.
Lost Maples Cafe is the only dinner option in town, other than the Saturdays-only Laurel Tree; once you’ve been there and want to venture a little farther afield, Hippie Chic’s River Shack, in Concan, has wood-fired pizza with fresh toppings and a crispy crust. There are two outdoor bars, lawn games, live music on the weekends, and a hang-loose attitude, as tubers in flip-flops and swimsuits emerge from the Frio and look to keep the party going.
The aforementioned Sabinal River Lodge is $125 a night year-round; no peak-season price hikes or hidden fees here. Each spacious room has a kitchenette, mini-fridge, dining area, two queen beds, a TV, and Wi-Fi (though you really should log off and linger on the porch).
If you want to stay at Treehouse Utopia, you’ll likely have to book at least three or four months in advance (more for the summer), but it’ll be well worth it. Perched in live oaks as old as eight hundred years, the property’s four intricate treehouses each have a different, vaguely French theme—one evokes a carousel, another a library—and it’s obvious that they were designed and decorated with care. Every detail is deliberate, from the ceramic frogs hopping on the sink in the Biblioteque to the stained-glass windows in the Chateau. Rates start at $475 a night—but when are you ever going to sleep in an architecturally marvelous treehouse again? Kids aren’t allowed here, in order to keep things quiet and romantic, but you’ll feel like one when you climb into your tree.
Both cabins at Four Sisters Ranch are typical of the vacation rentals you’ll find in the area: simple, rustic, but with all the amenities you could want. Guests are welcome to explore the family’s five-hundred-acre ranch, and both the Sabinal and the Frio rivers are a short drive away. On cooler nights, the firepit is the place to be, as you watch sparks sail up to a sky dotted with stars.
Utopia River Retreat has nine cabins spread over twelve acres. There are options for small parties and big family gatherings alike, ranging from $185 a night for two people to $695 for twelve. Take a dip in the swimming pool when you’ve had your fill of the river; there’s also an event space that often hosts weddings and reunions.