Idling Through the Hill Country
Outside magazine, August 1991
Idling Through the Hill Country
Flamethrowers, enchanted rocks, and Texas Nirvana
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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