Hamilton Pool, a natural swimming hole near Austin, Texas.

Swimming at Hamilton Pool Preserve. Photo © Matthew Carroll/123rf.

A road trip in the Hill Country is an adventure into both beautiful parks with natural wonders and tiny towns that meticulously preserve remnants of Americana and the Wild West. Get ready to do some serious wine-tasting, antiques hunting, horseback riding, and hiking. Before setting out, do some planning. It may be wise to arrange for accommodations ahead of time as well as prearrange activities such as horseback riding.

Day 1

Start your road trip with a splash by taking a dip in Hamilton Pool Preserve. From Austin drive west on Highway 290, and then go north on Highway 71. If it’s hot, take a dip; if it’s cold, gawk for a while at the beauty. Afterward, head south on Highway 12 through Dripping Springs en route to Johnson City and eat some great Texas barbecue at Ronnie’s Ice House. Before leaving town stop at Whittington’s Jerky, because no road trip is complete without some additional beef to gnaw on. Swing by the old limestone jail, which was built in 1894 and is still in use, and then proceed westward on Highway 290 toward Stonewall to LBJ State Park and Historic Site.. This ranch was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s retreat from the world. While here see the Texas White House and watch an old movie about the 36th president. Once you’re back on Highway 290, stop off at Becker Vineyards to do some wine-tasting. After buying a bottle, continue westward on Highway 290, but make sure the poor sap who didn’t drink is behind the wheel.

Fourteen miles down the road you’ll come to the German hamlet of Fredericksburg. For dinner there’s schnitzel, beer, and German polka music at Auslander Biergarten. If there’s a jazz band playing at the Hangar Hotel, head out to the airport for a swinging time. You can also stay at this World War II-era hangar for the night.

Day 2

Walk Fredericksburg’s Main Street to check out the various shops and boutiques, and pay a visit to the Pioneer Museum and funky Gish’s Old West Museum. If you’re a World War II buff, check out the National Museum of the Pacific War, where you can see artillery used in the war. Then head north on RR 965 to one of the Hill Country’s most precious natural wonders, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Take the time to hike the face of the enormous granite-domed rock to check out the view and ponder the myths and legends that were born here. If it’s not past noon, take a drive on the most scenic country road in Texas, the Willow City Loop.

From Fredericksburg your journey will continue south on Highway 16 to Kerrville and on to RR 1340 toward Hunt. Out here you’ll be looking for Stonehenge II, a small version of the mysterious rock formation in Salisbury, England. After pondering this oddity, head back to Kerrville, where you’ll head south on RR 173 to get to your final destination, the Cowboy Capital of the World, known as Bandera. Once in Bandera, have a meal at O. S. T. Restaurant. The food is down-home country cooking in the presence of John Wayne memorabilia. One of the area’s many dude ranches, such as the Mayan Dude Ranch, is where you’ll want to stay.

Cattle at a stream flanked by blooming wildflowers along the Willow City Loop.

Wildflowers and cattle seen along the Willow City Loop in Texas. Photo © Steve, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike.

Day 3

Start the day with a big cowboy-style breakfast at the dude ranch mess hall, followed by a horseback ride. A guide will take you into the backcountry on trails that have been trodden under hoof for eons. After lunch in the mess hall and a siesta, head downtown and explore the strange Western shops that line Bandera’s dirt sidewalks. Also pay a visit to the Frontier Times Museum.

The American and Texas State Flag fly outside the Bandera Courthouse clocktower.

The courthouse in Bandera, Texas. Photo © Davidlohr Bueso, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Once you’ve seen Bandera, leave town by way of Highway 46, toward the historic German pioneer town of Boerne. This lovely spot on Cibolo Creek is a great place to hunker down for the rest of the day. The main activity here is walking Main Street, known to locals as Hauptstrasse. Here you’ll find dozens of antiques shops, boutiques, and eateries, all in historic limestone buildings built by the German pioneers. When you get hungry, walk over to the river, turn left, and walk down to the Dodging Duck Brew Haus. Dinner with a beer on the outdoor patio is the only way to go. Most folks who come to Boerne stay in a bed-and-breakfast. A reservation service can help you find the right lodgings for your budget.

Day 4

The first thing you’ll want to do in the morning is drive north on RR 474, where you’ll explore the CaveWithout a Name. The cave is full of intriguing rock formations, stalagmites, and stalactites. After this head back to Boerne, and then go east on Highway 46. Along the way you’ll encounter Guadalupe River State Park. Stop off here for some incredible scenery, or even better, go tubing down the Guadalupe River. Afterward, make your way to New Braunfels and the charming town of Gruene. Explore Gruene’s quaint buildings full of antiques and a few restaurants overlooking the beautiful Guadalupe River. At the base of the old town is the Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar, situated in the ruins of an old cotton gin.

A grand finale to your road trip should be famous Gruene Hall. This old structure with chicken-wire windows is Texas’s oldest dance hall. Country music legends still fill this joint with great foot-stomping music.

Travel map of Austin and the Hill Country in Texas

Austin and the Hill Country


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Austin, San Antonio & the Hill Country.