One of several towns in central Texas founded by German immigrants, New Braunfels is now best known as the home of the sprawling Schlitterbahn Waterpark. Many summer visitors come for a day and leave, without experiencing all that New Braunfels has to offer. A three-day will visit give you and your family time to stretch your legs and do a little exploring.
Day 1 - Heidelberg Lodges and Gristmill
Established in 1935, Heidelberg Lodges (1020 North Houston Avenue, 830-625-9967) offer a glimpse of what New Braunfels was like before it became such a well-known vacation destination. Tucked away on a quiet stretch of the Comal River, the property features A-frame cottages and cabins. Kids can take a dip in the pool, sunbathe on the huge lawn or hop in a kayak or paddleboat to explore the river. If the kids get tired of all the outdoor fun, there’s also a game room with ping pong tables, pool tables, and video games.
Many families come back year after year, so it’s a great way for kids to make new friends beyond their usual social circles.
Assuming you arrive midday, you can easily spend the entire afternoon getting settled and enjoying the on-site amenities.
For a hearty dinner, take a short drive to the Gristmill Restaurant (1287 Gruene Road, 830-625-0684). The multilevel restaurant overlooks the river, and the indoor and outdoor dining areas are huge, so the wait is usually short even during busy times. The menu is varied enough to satisfy even the picky eaters in the family. Choices include burgers, steaks, salads and Polish sausage.
To walk off the meal or simply stock up on snacks, head to the nearby Gruene General Store (1610 Hunter Road, 830-629-6021). You can pick up some homemade fudge, ice cream or gourmet coffee. The store also sells hats, souvenirs, preserves, honey butter and hot sauces.
Day 2 - Schlitterbahn and Bracken Cave
To prepare for the days’ big adventures, get the kids up early and have a big breakfast at the quaint Union Street Station (512 East San Antonio Street, 830-627-1727). Young kids, in particular, will appreciate the pancakes emblazoned with smiley faces. Dad will love the giant biscuits-and-gravy plate. Or you can choose from 55 different types of omelets!
Be careful about eating too much, though, because the next stop is Schlitterbahn Waterpark (400 North Liberty Avenue, 830-625-2351). The earlier you can get there the better; the place fills up fast, particularly on weekends. The Wolfpack Raft Slide is an excellent place to start. The ride starts at the top of Blastenhoff Tower, and the line to the tower can get ridiculously long later in the day. The rafts wind through five stories of twists and turns before dumping you into a pool.
For a mellower experience, there’s a tubing route that meanders around the whole park. Note that some rides do have a minimum height requirement. Sea Creature Cove is designed for the littlest ones, with a slow-speed slide and a colorful dragon to climb on.
No matter how big breakfast was, the kids will have worked up a big appetite again by lunchtime. Fortunately, the delicious solution awaits nearby at Underground Pizza (202 North Seguin Avenue, 830-625-2630). The basement location feels like your own personal hideaway. The pies range from standard pepperoni to more creative concoctions like the turkey meatball with roasted green chiles.
After all this food and fun, a relaxing afternoon back at the lodge is in order. If you have an aspiring fisherman in the family, this might be the ideal time to try out Heidelberg Lodges’ own private fishing hole near the headwaters of the Comal River.
While many central Texas visitors are familiar with the Congress Avenue Bridge Bats, Bracken Cave (26100 FM 3009, Gardenridge, Texas) offers a next-level bat-watching experience. Advance online reservations are strongly recommended. While the Congress Bridge has 1.5 million bats, Bracken Cave is home to a colony of 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats. It is believed to be the largest bat colony in the world. You’ll need to arrive promptly at 6 p.m. for the three-hour tour. Wear comfortable shoes, and be prepared to walk about a half mile on uneven ground.
There are benches available near the main viewing area. There is a port-a-potty on site, but the surrounding land is otherwise undeveloped.
The cave is on land owned and managed by Bat Conservation International, a group dedicated to educating the public about the value of bats in the ecosystem.
Make sure the kids are aware that nature can be both beautiful and brutal. Hawks and other predators often lurk near the mouth of the cave and swoop in to gobble down a tasty bat or two. Near sunset, the bats begin to emerge, and the cloud of bats turns into a kind of bat tornado. The cave itself looks like little more than a sinkhole. That makes it even more amazing when wave after wave of bats emerge from the cavity. If your children are often bored by typical tourist attractions, you can rest assured that this one will hold their attention.
The BCI volunteers do an excellent job of describing the important role bats play in controlling insect populations. They’ll also point out fun facts about owls, skunks and other flora and fauna in the area.
Day 3 - Chuck’s Tubes and Naegelin's Bakery
One of the best things about tubing on the Comal River is the refreshingly cool water. At Chuck’s Tubes (493 N. Market Street, 830-625-3991), you can rent tubes and then hop on a shuttle bus. You then float back to a pre-designated spot. Though weekends can get a little raucous on the river, the employees at Chuck always manage to stay focused on providing cheerful customer service.
Need a snack or a full meal? There’s a general store and a restaurant at Chuck’s place. Bands also play on the outdoor patio on most weekends.
For dessert or pastries for the road, check out Naegelin’s Bakery (129 South Seguin Avenue, 830-625-5722), the oldest bakery in Texas. In business since 1868, the bakery makes masterful kolaches, cream puffs, apple strudels and German pretzels.