Hill Country



This vast, hilly area (more than 10,000 sq mi/25,900 sq km) is situated in south-central Texas (north and west of San Antonio and west of Austin). It's a tranquil setting of lakes, natural springs, abundant wildlife, hidden limestone canyons and rugged juniper- or oak-covered hills. It has small towns, state parks, ranches, wineries and scenic drives (a spring wildflower excursion is nearly a religious rite for some locals). The following destinations are of particular interest:

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area has a massive dome of pink granite. The park appeals primarily to hikers and rock climbers who scramble up, around and over the granite faces. If you hike to the top of the dome, take a flashlight and you can squeeze and crawl (and scrape) yourself through some 1,000 ft/300 m of Enchanted Rock Cave—one of the largest granite caves in the world. The dome mountain held great significance for the area's Native Americans, who believed it was possessed by spirits—hence its name. We enjoy sitting at the summit as the sun goes down, watching the acrobatics of buzzards soaring on the updrafts. For camping, make reservations far in advance. http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/enchanted_rock.

Fredericksburg, known for its German heritage and its peaches, is a touristy town full of antiques shops, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Tour the National Museum of the Pacific War (it has, of all things, a Japanese garden behind it—a gift from the nation that native son Adm. Chester Nimitz battled against) and the Pioneer Museum (http://www.nimitz-museum.org). Fredericksburg can get crowded, particularly in the spring, but it has more amenities than most other Hill Country towns. It's a good base from which to explore the area and enjoy German culture and cuisine. An Oktoberfest celebration takes place on the first weekend of October.

Kerrville, at the gateway to what may be the prettiest part of the Hill Country, is the site of the Kerrville Folk Festival (May-June), which draws performers and audiences from all over the continent (http://www.kerrvillefolkfestival.com). It's also the site of the Museum of Western Art, where you can peruse cowboy art (http://www.museumofwesternart.org). In the nearby town of Hunt is Crider's, a delightfully noncommercial bar/dance hall/rodeo where, every Saturday night in the summer, ranch hands and their families get together to two-step (a must if you're in the area). Also nearby is Bandera, which proclaims itself the "Cowboy Capital of the World" and is home to several dude ranches.

Lost Maples State Natural Area (Vanderpool) is in the heart of the most beautiful part of the Hill Country (south of Kerrville). The "Lost Maples" won't impress New Englanders, but in early November, the park provides one of the few splashes of color in this part of the country. The park has a visitors center and nature and hiking trails. Camping and picnic facilities are also available. For the fall foliage season, campsites must be reserved well in advance, and if you're just going for a day hike, you'll still have to get there early (only a limited number of people are allowed in).

New Braunfels, like many other Hill Country towns, shows off its German heritage. It has more than 25 antiques shops, as well as factory-outlet stores and a few museums, including the Sophienburg Museum (showcasing the area's German heritage and Texas history; http://www.sophienburg.org) and the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture (made by German immigrants in the 19th century;http://www.nbheritagevillage.com). Schlitterbahn, a gargantuan water park that makes use of the waters of the Comal River, is the town's top attraction (http://www.schlitterbahn.com). Not far away are the "Dinosaur Flats," where hundreds of dinosaur tracks are preserved. The local barbecue is excellent, and so is the sausage at the Wurstfest Sausage Festival (held every November). http://www.wurstfest.com.

Just 4 mi/6 km northwest of New Braunfels is Gruene (pronounced green). It's a restored town that was once a cotton-growing center but was completely abandoned from the 1920s to the 1970s. Today, it's a popular weekend destination, with shopping and a famous old dance hall (circa 1880) that still hosts live bands and dancing. A wine-tasting hall will let you try a few of the wines produced in Texas. Tubing, rafting and kayaking on the nearby Guadalupe River are popular in the summer. If you follow the River Road out of Gruene, you'll reach an area upriver where outfitters rent tubes and boats. The river is packed in summer and during spring break.

Pedernales (pronounced PURD-en-AL-ess) Falls State Park is a beautiful 4,800-acre/1,940-hectare park along the Pedernales River near Johnson City. The "falls" may be a mere ripple or a torrent, depending on the water level, but the pools they form are spectacular. There are abundant deer, birds, swimming holes, hiking trails and fishing spots.

Wimberley is a pretty but touristy town filled with antiques and craft shops. Some nice roads run near the town, including Highway 32 (south of town), which runs up over the scenic "Devil's Backbone" formation.

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