Driving in Texas is generally a point-A-to-point-B affair. On most of the state’s highways, all the visual interest is provided by cattle tanks and Dairy Queens. Except in the Hill Country. A stretch of high ground that arcs north and west from San Antonio toward the Pecos River, it’s just about the only part of Texas that can claim to have any topography.
The Hill Country’s central geologic feature is the Balcones Escarpment, a fault line that cuts across Texas from southwest to northwest. The imposing escarpment reminded Spanish conquistadores of balconies (hence the name) and is in large measure responsible for the Hill Country’s flora and fauna. There are plenty of cactus and tum-bleweeds, limestone and caliche in this rumpled country. But the landscape changes where the mesa rises as high as 1600 feet above sea level: air so clear that isolated trees, miles away, stand out against the sky; cedar and oak-covered ridges stippled with yucca; deep valleys where spring-fed streams twist past white ranch houses and blankets of bluebonnets; a chain of seven lakes that stairsteps up the Colorado River on a winding course through green hills and granite bluffs. The result? A land with no relation to the stereotype of Texas.
Your first stopping place in a Hill Country drive is likely to be Bandera, a cypress-shingled settlement from the 1850’s, about 50 miles northwest of San Antonio. Stay overnight or longer at a dude ranch or guest ranch near town. At the popular Mayan Ranch (double $64-72, American plan), your day begins with eggs, bacon, grits, and cups of steaming blue-black coffee. After breakfast, fish for bass in the Medina River, float downstream on an inner tube, or ride horseback on a trail lined with gray-green live oaks and prickly pear.
Or drive into town and visit the Frontier Times Museum, with its Indian artifacts and Western relics, including posters advertising Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. The museum unexpectedly displays 500 ancient Chinese temple bells, brought to the Hill Country by a retired British naval officer and rancher; his widow willed them to the museum 35 years ago. In Bandera, there’s a rodeo or square dance nearly every weekend; in November the annual Hunters Free Barbecue is staged the night before deer season opens.
An even more scenic stretch of the Hill Country lies along Texas 16 between Ban-dera and Kerrville, a western Shangri-la that the Rockefeller Foundation claims has the best climate in the nation. The twisting, ear-popping road offers spectacular views from its many turnouts, then drops reluctantly to Kerrville, alongside the cypress-edged Guadalupe River.
Bunk down at the swank Inn of the Hills (double $33-40) before visiting Kerrville’s renowned flea market, held the second weekend of each month at La Bazaar del Artes. History buffs can put the day to educational use by driving to nearby Camp Verde, once the site of an Army outpost that was part of a ludicrous experiment to use camels on the route from Arizona’s Fort Yuma.
About 25 miles northeast of Kerrville lies the little town of Fredericksburg, founded in 1846 and named in honor of Prince Frederick of Prussia. In five minutes you can cover 150 years, overhear German spoken as a first language, and if it’s Saturday evening, listen as the abendglocken, the simultaneous ringing of all the town’s church bells, reminds everyone of Sunday services. Or amble through Vereins Kirche, an exact duplicate of the octagonal, coffee-mill-shaped building used by early settlers as a church, meeting house, school, and fortress. The reproduction stands like a snug rampart on Main Street, housing the chamber of commerce.
The compact houses of wood and stone that sit gracefully back from Fredericks-burg’s quiet streets are “Sunday houses,” built by practical farmers for weekend shopping and Sabbath visits before the turn of the century. One of them, the 1856 Tatsch home, features a stone fireplace large enough to roast an ox, and the slope-roofed Kammlah house boasts the Pioneer Museum with furniture, clothing, tools, and weapons that belonged to the settlers.
The once-glamorous Nimitz Hotel, also located on Main Street, was erected in 1847 by the grandfather of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. At its peak, the Nim-itz (also called the Steamboat) was the last “real hotel” this side of San Diego. Its inevitable list of illustrious clients includes Rutherford B. Hayes, Robert E. Lee, and Jesse James, who registered under the alias “C. W. Howard.” Now a naval museum, the Nimitz is a great spot to watch the Easter Eve Fires celebration, when residents light bonfires on surrounding hills. The tradition dates from the days when pioneer mothers calmed youngsters by explaining that the Indian watch-fires and smoke signals were made by the Easter rabbit, boiling cauldrons of dye as he prepared eggs for delivery.
A Night in Old Fredericksburg, held the third Saturday in July, recalls the revelries of Munich’s Oktoberfest; the Masked Ball, staged in February, recaptures the traditional style of German Fasching.
If you succumb to Fredericksburg’s charm (most people do), the Sunday House Motor Inn offers excellent accommodations at reasonable rates ($18-20 for a double). In any event, have dinner at Immigrants Landing, an attractive restaurant in the heart of town specializing in local favorites like seafood Germania and Austrian chicken.
US 290, east from Fredericksburg, leads straight to Stonewall and Ranch Road 1, which parallels the Pedernales River valley for a discreet view of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson’s white two-story ranch home. Open to the public nearby is a replica of the farmhouse in which Johnson was born, and the family cemetery in which he is buried. Adjacent, the LBJ State Park serves as a visitors’ center with picnic facilities, a small but fascinating museum, and a wildlife preserve where Longhorn cattle, buffalo, and native wild turkey still rule. Fifteen miles away, at Johnson City, is the late president’s modest boyhood home. It contains mementoes from his White House years, amid the family’s centuries-old furnishings.
Then follow Farm-Market Road 2766 to Pedernales Falls State Park, eight miles east of Johnson City. This little-known swatch of greenery is an enchanting 4800-acre wilderness, where you can swim by. cascading waterfalls and picnic in secluded groves of live oak. Daydreamers swear there’s nothing comparable in the state.
North of Fredericksburg via Ranch Road 965, rockhounds flock to Llano to comb for garnet, milky quartz, opalized wood, amethyst, even gold, since tales of lost Spanish treasure persist. Along the way is Enchanted Rock, 500 feet high and a mile around. The majestic hulk of granite awed the Indians with its nocturnal groanings, produced by contraction as the rock cools; the unearthly creakings still raise gooseflesh.
Note the boulders along the highway. The material is mostly granite, often reddish-pink, extremely hard, and easily polished. This is the Llano Uplift, where ancient igneous rocks, once buried deeply, have risen to the surface; they are some of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere.
The countryside slopes toward the higher hills, blue on the horizon, the hallmark of one of the most delightful areas of the Hill Country-the series of beautiful Highland Lakes that practically makes a 150-mile fish pond of the Colorado River. Here, whitetail deer and wild turkey abound (it’s been a hunter’s paradise since Indian days), and fighting black bass, crappie, and catfish thrive. These varied recreation areas provide some of the finest family fun in the state-signs at every hand point to marinas, boat ramps, plush resorts, lakeside state parks, and campgrounds.
Between Llano and Burnet is 23,060-acre Lake Buchanan, uppermost of the Highland chain, held back by the largest multiple-arch dam in the world. Southeast of Lake Buchanan, just a couple of miles from the intersection of Farm Road 2342 and Park Road 4, is a Hill Country showplace-Longhorn Cavern. The fourth-largest cavern in the world (locals stress that it hasn’t been fully explored), it isn’t well-known, though it has the modest distinction of having been visited by Robert E. Lee. While commander of nearby Fort Mason in the 1850’s, the colonel and his troops chased a band of Indians into the cavern. Unlike Lee, however, the Indians knew there were six other exits.
Eight miles of the subterranean labyrinth, lined with prehistoric footprints and dripping stalactites, are electrically lighted. Tour guides point out where cavemen once lived, a secret gunpowder plant used by the Confederacy, and a hideout used by outlaw Sam Bass.
In spring and early summer, wild flowers – red Indian paintbrush, blue-bonnets, yellow buttercups-transform this part of the Hill Country into a living palette called the Highland Lakes Blue-bonnet Trail. Nowhere is the palette more colorful than at the little town of Marble Falls, next to the lake of the same name. The placid lake is a reflecting pool for awesome Granite Mountain, from which huge slabs of pink granite were quarried and hauled by oxcart to Austin in the 1880’s for the construction of the State Capitol. In such a setting, it’s not surprising that at the southern city limits, where the highway climbs out of the Colorado River Valley, a roadside park contains a memorial to Oscar J. Fox. With this dramatic landscape as his inspiration, Fox composed the now-classic song, “Hills of Home.”
He might have gotten his inspiration today had he seen Lakeway Resort, 18 miles west of Austin and one of the most luxurious hideaways you’ll find anywhere. Perched on Lake Travis, the largest and longest of the Highland chain, Lakeway provides just about everything a Hill Country vacationer could ask for-yacht club, boat rentals, water-skiing, marina, two swimming pools, two championship golf courses, jet airstrip, shuffleboard, hiking, horseback riding, and a superb restaurant. Its newest feature is the World of Tennis, part of the World Championship Tennis complex. There are indoor courts (lighted, heated, and air-conditioned), outdoor courts, teaching courts, plus a videotape playback machine that enables you to see your mistakes and correct them on the spot.
It’s unlikely you’ll see everything in this neck of the woods on a single visit. Take the advice of der grosse opa (big grand-daddy) who named Fredericksburg’s streets west from the center of town. The signposts read Crockett, Orange, Milam, Edison, Bowie, Acorn, Cherry, and Kay. Combine the first letters of all the names and they spell “Come Back.”
Odds are, you will.