Located west of Austin, the Texas Hill Country is a popular road trip destination for residents of all of Texas’ major cities. The rolling hills are dotted with rivers, lakes, farms, wineries and quaint small towns. Whether you’re looking for a nature experience or a shopping adventure, you’ll find plenty of options in this scenic region.
Float Down a Cool River in a Tube
There’s no better way to forget about your cares than gliding along a lazy river with a beer in hand. Of course, at the height of the summer season, you might be accompanied by thousands of rowdy revelers. If that’s the kind of experience you’re looking for, proceed directly to Rockin’ R River Rides in New Braunfels. They can set you up with everything from tubes to beer coolers. For a mellower experience on the relatively uncrowded Comal River, head to Chuck’s Tubes in New Braunfels. For a low-hassle option in the heart of San Marcos, the Lions Club Tube Rental offers reasonable rates and a convenient shuttle. Plus, a portion of your rental fees will support a variety of charitable causes in central Texas.
Take the Plunge at Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels
The tower for the Blastenhoff area at the center of the park is one of the tallest structures in New Braunfels, so it’s hard to miss. The Wolf Pack raft slide begins at the top of the tower and can accommodate up to four people on a 72-inch raft. Since the water park is wildly popular, it’s a good idea to get there as early as possible. Wait times for the rides that start at the tower can sometimes be an hour or more. Fortunately, there are plenty of other slides and attractions for people of all ages. Parents will appreciate the slow-moving waterway for tubers that loops around the park.
After you work up an appetite, you can head down the road to the Grist Mill restaurant. The rustic multilevel building overlooks the river and is an excellent choice for large groups. If you decide to stick around all day, the Grist Mill is next door to the oldest dance hall in Texas: Gruene Hall. Offering music seven nights a week, Gruene Hall presents everyone from Joe Ely to the Band of Heathens.
Climb a Pink Rock and Visit Fredericksburg
Enchanted Rock is basically a massive chunk of pink granite. Native Americans in the area believed the dome-shaped formation had mystical powers because of the sounds it emitted. Modern scientists attribute the sounds to the expansion and contraction that occurs during major changes in temperature. The rock is mostly bare, which can make it tricky to climb, especially after rain. It’s best to zigzag your way to the top, where you can enjoy a gorgeous panoramic view of the Hill Country.
The minimally developed park offers a few campsites, but if you don’t want to rough it, you’re only 20 minutes away from the bed-and-breakfast capital of Texas: Fredericksburg. Originally settled by German pioneers, Fredericksburg still has several “Sunday homes.” The small houses were once used by farmers who only came into town on the weekends. Now, many of them are quaint B&Bs. However, that’s far from the only type of accommodation in Fredericksburg. There are chic second-floor apartments in downtown, rustic log cabins and private homes for rent. The town’s bustling Main Street is home to antique shops, restaurants and wine bars.
If you’re visiting in spring, Wildseed Farms is a must-see. That’s the best time to lose yourself in the heavenly scent of fields of lavender. There are also fields of bluebonnets and other wildflowers. The farm sells wildflower seeds, fresh jam and jelly, locally crafted jewelry and other gifts.
Drive Through a Sea of Wildflowers
During April and May, hillsides throughout the Hill Country come alive with color. Many of the best places to view wildflowers are on the small country roads around Kerrville. If you only have time for a short drive from Kerrville, take TX-27 to the even smaller town of Hunt. The drive takes only about 20 minutes, but it’s chock full of wildflowers, scenic views and quaint farms.
A longer drive on TX-16 from Kerrville to Fredericksburg offers views of more expansive meadows of flowers along the road. Near Fredericksburg is the most heavily traveled wildflower drive in the state: the Willow City Loop. This route is known for the mind-blowing variety of color. In addition to bluebonnets, you’ll see pops of yellow, red and purple.
Eat Some Pie and Hike It Off in Marble Falls
The most famous landmark in Marble Falls is the Blue Bonnet Café. The masterful creations that routinely earn high praise include the coconut cream, chocolate meringue and German chocolate pies. While the dessert is the star of the show, the restaurant also serves up excellent pot roast, pork ribs and chicken and dumplings.
After such a high-calorie lunch, you’ll need a place to shed a little of that excess baggage. Fortunately, the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is only a short drive away. The gorgeous (and endangered) golden-cheeked warbler nests in the park, but they’re usually hard to spot. The nature trails wind through peaceful canyons, along small creeks and past scenic overlooks. You may also spot armadillos, skunks and deer on the trail.
Learn About LBJ and Science in Johnson City
The modest boyhood home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson is located in the heart of Johnson City. The tour takes only a few minutes, but it offers a glimpse of the humble beginnings of a boy who would go on to be one of our country’s most colorful and consequential presidents.
The LBJ Ranch is located a few miles west of Johnson City. In keeping with LBJ’s wishes, the property is still a working ranch. This is where LBJ welcomed world leaders and toyed with a few journalists. LBJ’s amphibious car is on display at the ranch. He used to offer journalists a ride without mentioning that the car could float. Then he would enjoy their reaction as he drove the car directly into a small lake on the property.
Among his many achievements, LBJ helped launch the space program, and Lady Bird Johnson is sometimes considered the mother of the modern environmental movement. So it seems fitting that Johnson City now has a hands-on museum devoted to science. The Science Mill is focused on getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. The exhibits cover everything from computer gaming to Tibetan singing bowls. Built out of an old grist mill, the site offers a wealth of visual stimuli to get those little brains whirring. Both children and adults alike will be mesmerized by the Mindball. Two competitors square off to see who can move a ball with their brain. A headband measures brain waves, and the ball’s motion is based on whoever can focus and relax the most.
Take a Glass-Bottom Boat Tour in San Marcos
The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment offers mellow rides on glass-bottom boats that cruise around Spring Lake. In the clear, spring-fed water, it’s easy to spot fish, turtles and interesting aquatic plants. Knowledgeable guides explain the intricacies of the ecosystem and its flora and fauna. Once the site of the Aquarena Springs amusement park, the center is now much more focused on its environmental mission and protecting this delicate natural resource. In addition to the boat tours, visitors can participate in guided kayak and standup paddleboard tours.
Visit the Canyon of the Eagles in Burnet
Bald eagles were very rare in Texas until just a few years ago. They’re still not common, but there are several nesting pairs in and around Burnet during the winter months. At Canyon of the Eagles Nature Park, the Vanishing Texas River Cruise offers an excellent way to tour Lake Buchanan and enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. Back on land, the park also offers a range of other family-friendly activities, including group dog walks, wildlife shows and craft classes.
Witness Nature's Big Comeback in Bastrop
Bastrop State Park was devastated by a massive wildfire in 2011. Since then, hardworking staff members and volunteers have planted thousands of pine trees, and the park is slowly returning to its former glory. The region’s pine forest was known as the Lost Pines because the trees are uncommon in central Texas. Fortunately, the park’s rustic cabins made it through the fire unscathed. This is an excellent place to teach children about both the fragility and resiliency of nature. Some plants actually thrive after a major fire.
To continue the nature theme for the day, head down the road to the Texas Reptile Zoo. The small zoo is home to snakes, crocodiles, tortoises and lizards. The site was formerly a plant nursery, and many of the greenhouses and other equipment have been repurposed to create habitats for the animals. In addition to displaying animals and educating the public, the staff at the facility participates in behavioral research, helping to unravel the mysteries of these strange creatures. Since most of the animals favor hot climates, the indoor spaces are kept warm. Make sure you dress appropriately and be prepared to sweat.
Take a Hill Country Wine Tour
Dozens of wineries and vineyards have popped up in the Hill Country over the last few years. As long as you have a designated driver, it’s fairly easy to come up with your own winery tour. The Texas Wine Trail organization even offers a handy online tool for mapping out DIY wine excursions. Texas Wine Tours, based in Fredericksburg, caters to groups of up to 10 people and operates several buses and vans. The tour company visits many of the most popular wineries, including Torre di Pietra, Becker Vineyards, Messina Hof and Santa Maria Cellars.
Visit South Llano River State Park
South Llano River State Park is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled natural areas in the hill country. As an added benefit, it tends not to be as crowded as many other Texas parks. Paddling and floating on the river is the main attraction during the summer, but there are also bike trails and excellent spots for bird watching and fishing. A flock of wild turkeys roams the park and keeps campers amused with their goofy antics. There are also more than 250 other species of birds that frequent the park.