Long Weekends: Head for the Hills

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1996

Long Weekends: Head for the Hills

In the heart of Texas, the Hill Country offers more than fences
By Peter Nelson

The mere mention of the Texas Hill Country, just west of Austin and northwest of San Antonio, evokes images of LBJ, longhorn cattle, flowing rivers--and keep out signs. Indeed, Texas is known for its vast stretches of inaccessible private land, but there are no fewer than 15 state parks and natural areas within an hour and a half of the Hill Country town of Bandera, 45 miles northwest of San Antonio on Texas 16. Here are some highlights to satisfy a long weekend's worth of Texas-style touring.

Bandera, which bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World, does have great barbecued brisket, biweekly rodeos from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and cold Shiner Bock with Hank Williams on the jukebox at Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar. Fifteen guest ranches in and around town, including the Lost Valley Resort Ranch (doubles, $65 per night, including breakfast; 210-460-8008) bring out the wild in the west for you.
Canoeing, kayaking, and tubing are just around the bend on the cypress-lined Medina River, with a put-in where Texas 337 crosses the river 16 miles north of town. Fred Collins's Workshop rents canoes and kayaks for $30 per day, tubes for $5; call 210-796-3553.

For camping and hiking, try Hill Country State Natural Area (210-796-4413), ten miles southwest of Bandera on Ranch Road 1077. It has 36 miles of multipurpose trails and ten primitive campsites that can be reserved ahead of time. Ask for the Hermit's Shack, at the end of four-mile Hermit's Trace trail--it's the most remote. The adjacent Running R Ranch offers guided horseback tours of the 5,369-acre park ($16 for one hour, $43 for three; 210-796-3984).

For a short day trip, head 14 miles north of Bandera on Texas 16 to Medina, through lush grasslands covered with cedar, madrona, wild cherry, and live oak; then go 20 miles west on Texas 337 to Vanderpool and another five miles north on County Road 187 to Lost Maples State Natural Area (210-966-3413), whose 2,208 acres are laced with 10.5 miles of trails. Lost Maples is a 275-foot-deep canyon on the Sabinal River, providing a moist, relatively cool, and sheltered habitat for the ancient, 50-foot-tall bigtooth maples that give the park its name. Recommended hike: From the Overflow Trailhead, take the East Trail to the ponds and then follow the West Trail to the Western Loop and Mystic Canyon, about five miles with some steep terrain.

Rock climbers and anyone else who enjoys gargantuan boulders should visit Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (915-247-3903), about 70 miles north of Bandera, off County Road 965. Situated on the billion-year-old Llano Uplift, the park features a colossal dome of pink granite surrounded by giant stone pedestals and mushrooms that look like Fred Flintstone's dinner table. Commanche and Tonkawa Indians believed the dome was sacred because of the moaning noise it makes as it cools and contracts after sundown. The park is popular on weekends, so call the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (512-389-8900) early to reserve a primitive campsite. Check out the department's World Wide Web page (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us) for information about all of the state's parks. --peter nelson

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