Idling Through the Hill Country

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1991
Idling Through the Hill Country

Flamethrowers, enchanted rocks, and Texas Nirvana
By Stephen Harrigan

The best way to drive through the Texas hill country is aimlessly. Knowing or caring where you're headed shouldn't be the first thing on your mind in such a meandering landscape. In the Hill Country, you're likely to cross the same looping river every half-mile, and every casual tableau you encounter--a creek riffling through the massed, naked roots of a cypress, a trio of turkey vultures picking at the carcass of an armadillo, a longhorn steer staring off into space--leads you to believe that the land has folded you deeper into its heart.

Unfortunately, this being Texas, much of this exquisite country is privately owned and jealously guarded--you can't just park your car by the side of the road and tramp off into an alluring canyon. So it's not a bad idea, while you're taking a few days to wander these byways, to seek out a few of the half-dozen state parks that constitute the Hill Country's public oases.

Generally, these parks are too small for serious backpacking or wilderness reveries, but they're perfectly in keeping with the pastoral, beckoning quality of the landscape. The first one you'll come to, if you take Highway 290 west out of Austin, is Pedernales Falls State Park, which is only 38 miles outside the city limits of Austin. The centerpiece of the park is a series of bedrock sculptures carved by the Pedernales River (pronounced, as Lyndon Johnson taught us, "Purd-a-nallis"), but there are some backcountry stretches as well, and even a few longish hiking trails that you'll usually have to yourself, especially during hellish summers.

Keep heading west on 290 and you'll notice the landscape beginning to roll and climb and parcel itself out into sharp limestone canyons and meadowy expanses. When you get to Fredericksburg, a deeply quaint German village of antique-filled stone houses, folk crafts, and restaurants serving sausage-on-a-stick, you might want to check into one of the venerable bed-and-breakfasts, such as the Country Cottage Inn, built of solid limestone in 1850. The next morning, head north on Farm to Market Road 965 and drive another 18 miles toward Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, the home of Texas's most sacred geological monument. Enchanted Rock is an immense blister of sparkly pink granite that swells 325 feet above the rolling scrub. It's a bracing uphill walk to its looming summit, and there is good rock climbing on the mountain's sheared-off backside, but the most rewarding activity is to simply sit on the Rock's vast, windswept brow and ponder.

The roads southwest of Fredericksburg--highways 16, 27, and 29--lead through a series of glady towns and low-water crossings. This section of the Hill Country is every Texan's idea of Nirvana--the place where someday he will finally buy that ranch, raise a few registered longhorns, and spend the rest of his days walking around with heavy-duty gloves repairing fences or burning the needles from his prickly pears with a flamethrower. Hereabouts is the center of that fractured limestone tableland of central Texas called the Edwards Plateau. The rock in these parts is latticed with underground water, which emerges in innumerable springs and seeps, finally converging into a handful of brisk, clear rivers. These rivers--the Guadalupe, the Nueces, the Frio, the Sabinal, the Medina, the Comal--tend to run narrow and shallow, occasionally accelerating in bursts of whitewater. Tubing is the great sport here--idling along beneath the cypress boughs in a truck inner-tube, slipping off when the water deepens into a perfect swimming hole.

Speaking of swimming holes, if you turn south at Highway 83 and drive about 30 miles, you will come to one of the best in the Hill Country, if not the known world. It is hardly private (it's owned by a vacation camp named Neal's Lodges), but if the sometimes lazy Frio River is up, you won't mind sharing. The water is clear, and if you've packed a mask and snorkel, you can put them to good use probing along the undercut bases of the stark stone islands that rise from the center of the river.

As you drive back toward Austin, take the turn-off for Highway 337 heading east and stop in at the Lost Maples State Natural Area near the town of Vanderpool. The trees there are a remnant stand of bigtooth maple, a species that thrives only in the cool canyons cut by the Sabinal River. In the late fall, the road through the park is jammed with pilgrims who have traveled to the only spot in Texas where there is a demonstrable display of autumn foliage. If you're not a leaf freak, the park is perfectly congenial the rest of the year as well--even in summer, when the shady canyons block out the worst of the sun. If you're considering camping at Lost Maples, it's wise to phone ahead to reserve one of the campsites, as space among the maples can sometimes grow a bit scarce.

Lost Maples is a perfect spot for a slow-paced, naturely ramble. There are golden-cheeked warblers in the trees, and summer tanagers, and black-capped vireos. There are vultures circling above the canyon rims, and red-eared turtles sunning on river boulders and exposed tree roots. And if you close your eyes, you'll hear the reverberating calls of doves, the wind sluicing through a leafy canyon, and the water traveling through its hidden veins and channels within the porous rock. Those are the sounds of the Hill Country.

Stephen Harrigan is a senior editor at Texas Monthly and the author of Water and Light, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.

Copyright 1991, Outside magazine

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