Head for the Hills: Travel through Texas' Hill Country

A surprising mix of German heritage, regional history, and Spanish Colonial influences await travelers in south-central Texas.

Pretty and historic may not be the first words that come to mind when you think of Texas. Much of the state’s geography is flat and featureless. But San Antonio and the more rural Hill Country are a whole ’nother Texas, filled with historical charm and rolling landscapes.

The two cities nearest Hill Country are Austin and San Antonio, sprawling metropolises 80 miles apart on the region’s eastern and southern fringes, respectively. Austin has its own appeal, but San Antonio, one of Texas’ first -- and quirkiest -- cities, is my preferred gateway.

The Hill Country can claim the state’s two largest springs, scores of clear-running creeks and eight major rivers, dozens of underground caverns, and the second-biggest granite dome in the United States. The old tagline for Pearl Beer, a storied, once-locally made product, called it “the country of 1,100 springs.” All of these environmental features support a rich diversity of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, armadillo, and two endangered bird species: the black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler.

With roots dating to mid-19th-century Germany and central Europe as well as 18th-century Mexico and Spain -- not to mention thousands of years of Native American history—Hill Country culture follows its own distinctive rhythms. Wurstfest in New Braunfels every November celebrates beer and polka in a nod to Munich’s Oktoberfest. And the Easter Fires in Fredericksburg re-create both German and Comanche lore. Sixteen historic dancehalls, an emerging wine trail, and an explosion of specialty crop producers and locally sourced dining establishments join ubiquitous roadside produce stands.

In San Antonio each April, the town shuts down for a 10-day Fiesta. A thriving city, San Antonio also boasts an array of historic accommodations, including four in the Historic Hotels of America (HHA) program. The Menger is located across from the Alamo; its bar served as a sort of recruiting station where Teddy Roosevelt mustered his Rough Riders.The Omni La Mansion Del Rio, a personal favorite of mine, was once the St. Mary’s Institute, built in 1853. The other two HHAs are The Crockett and the Riverwalk Vista. Also steeped in history are the Emily Morgan in the circa-1924 13-story Medical Arts Building and the buzzy boutique Hotel Havana, which used to be a residence hotel for wholesale grocery buyers.

The city remains proudly idiosyncratic. What out-of-towners call snow cones are raspas here. Convenience stores are known as icehouses, acknowledging the pre-air-conditioning and pre-refrigeration days when they provided a place to buy ice and drink a few cool ones. A mascot of Minor League Baseball’s San Antonio Missions is Henry the Puffy Taco.

All roads in San Antonio’s city center (confusing as they are, because they follow traditional footpaths and cart paths) seem to lead to the Alamo, site of the dramatic 13-day siege in 1836. The Alamo, originally known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, was established by Spanish Franciscan priests in 1718 as the first of five missions built along the San Antonio River. The block across the street has been heavily commercialized, but cut through the passageway between the buildings and the reward at the bottom of the steps is the River Walk, or Paseo del Rio.

The city’s premier promenade hugs both sides of the San Antonio River. It’s lined with stately cypress trees, lush landscaping, stone arch bridges, and patios of restaurants, bars, and hotels. Created in 1941 to control flooding, the River Walk feels like a lost tropical world, relaxed and far removed from street noise. Local diners frequent Boudro’s Texas Bistro, Paesanos, and Biga on the Banks. At the newly renovated Esquire, which has been operating since Prohibition’s end in 1933, pub enthusiasts are once again bellying up to the longest wooden bar in Texas.

A recent 1.3-mile northern extension to River Walk reaches the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Pearl Brewery, a 133-year-old institution that closed in 2001. The Pearl tagline was reborn last year as a mixed-use project designed by San Antonio’s acclaimed Lake|Flato Architects. It contains apartments, shops, restaurants, bars, the city’s best independent bookstore, the San Antonio branch of the Culinary Institute of America, and a year-round farmer’s market.

Directly south of downtown lies the King William Historic District, Texas’ oldest residential neighborhood with several blocks of opulent 19th-century homes, including Villa Finale. Once the home of Walter Mathis, a leading preservationist in San Antonio, Villa Finale is now a Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and open to the public. The museum features not only beautifully preserved architecture, but also an extensive collection of Texas paintings, decorative arts, and silver, as well as Texas furniture and Texian campaign ceramics.

Four routes lead from San Antonio to the Hill Country, each with its own particular highlights. The Bandera Road (aka State Highway 16) winds through urban and suburban sprawl to the once-rural settlement of Helotes and the John T. Floore Country Store cafe/dancehall (tamales recommended), where Willie Nelson relaunched his career back in 1971. Bandera’s brag as the Cowboy Capital of Texas is backed up by 12 dude ranches surrounding the town, most offering horseback riding, and a main drag that feels authentically Western. Real saddles serve as barstools at the OST Restaurant adjacent to the John Wayne Room. You can’t make up a honky-tonk like Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon: dimly lit, low ceiling, jukebox packed with classics, Dolly Parton–themed pinball, Hank Williams’ name carved on a table, bullet holes in the ceiling.

A 20-mile meander through the Medina River Valley leads to pies at Love Creek Apple Store in Medina, the Apple Capital of Texas. Veer west on Farm-to-Market Road 337 to Vanderpool and Leakey. The tight two-lane route rises and falls through the hills and canyons like a rollercoaster. Eventually you’ll hit the Frio River, western Hill Country’s tubing, floating, and swimming mecca.

Interstate Highway 10/U.S. 87 is the most direct route from San Antonio to Fredericksburg and beyond to Enchanted Rock, the Hill Country’s signature natural landmark. But before you get to Fredericksburg, exit at Mile Marker 523 and take a look around Comfort. Founded in 1854 by German Freethinkers and abolitionists (some 35 of whom were chased and killed in the Battle of the Nueces during the Civil War), Comfort boasts more than 100 century-old buildings in its business district. Seven were designed by Alfred Giles, who also designed the county jail in Bandera and the county courthouse in Fredericksburg. Sleep in Comfort at Hotel Faust, a 130-year-old hotel constructed of sturdy limestone block.

The alternate route from San Antonio to Fredericksburg, U.S. Highway 281, takes you through LBJ country -- the pastoral Pedernales River Valley that our 36th president loved showing off to the world. Lyndon Johnson is credited with bringing electricity and progress to the Hill Country when he was a congressman in the 1940s. The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Johnson City, which features LBJ’s boyhood home, recognizes that legacy. The 30-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 290 from Johnson City to Fredericksburg passes the town of Hye and its red, white, and blue post office; Stonewall, Johnson’s birthplace; and the LBJ Ranch. It also winds through the heart of Texas’ wine trail, fruit stands selling the state’s sweetest peaches, and the turnoff to Luckenbach, made famous in the 1970s by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s song “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).”

Someone is always picking a guitar around the one-building town of Luckenbach. You can pitch horseshoes or washers, or just buy a beer or soda and soak up the ambience. On weekends, the wooden window slats of the Luckenbach dancehall are raised, and sawdust is sprinkled on the polished wooden floor to facilitate two-stepping to live bands.

Fredericksburg is where the action is. Every weekend, visitors flock to bakeries, restaurants, antiques shops, and the Nimitz Museum of the Pacific War along East Main Street. Two blocks from the East Main action, Hoffman Haus bed-and-breakfast offers serenity, quiet, and standalone cabins where breakfast is delivered to your door. Other Fredericksburg bed-and-breakfasts, such as Metzger Sunday House, are actually restored Sunday houses, small second homes built by area ranchers and farmers in the late 19th century for their church days.

For a sampling of native cuisine, try Otto’s, Silver Creek, the Auslander, Der Lindenbaum, and Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn. The Hilltop Café, 10 miles outside of town, whips up imaginative Cajun-Greek fare in a converted gas station.

On the 18-mile drive from Fredericksburg to Enchanted Rock, the landscape’s bedrock transitions from limestone to granite, culminating in a pink granite dome rising from the landscape. Enchanted Rock can receive thousands of visitors daily during peak times. Arrive early on weekends; park gates close when visitor capacity is reached, as early as 11 a.m.

The closest relief in Hill Country from city stress can be reached via Interstate 35. After a half hour drive northeast from San Antonio, exit at New Braunfels, go west for a mile, and you’re in the Texas version of Germany, full of leafy boulevards, century-old buildings, a plethora of bakeries, and an abundance of water. Comal Springs are the largest freshwater springs in the Southwest. They feed the Comal River, which runs through Landa Park, home of the New Braunfels’ annual Wurstfest. During the summer, the biggest crowds gather at Schlitterbahn, a family-owned water park built in 1979 on the banks of the Comal.

On the northern edge of New Braunfels lies the one-time ghost town of Gruene. Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, Gruene is now a weekend magnet for city folks from around the state. Since 1878 these urbanites have come to dance at Gruene Hall, billed as the oldest continuously operating dancehall in Texas, to the sounds of acts such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, and touring bands like Los Lobos, and to dine next door at The Gristmill, an 1870s cotton gin creatively transformed into Gruene’s busiest restaurant.

Too much dancing to drive back to San Antonio? Stay over at the Victorian-era Gruene Mansion Inn Bed & Breakfast, once the residence of town founder H.D. Gruene. Or consider backtracking to downtown New Braunfels and the Faust Hotel and Brewing Company, a 1929 Art Deco-style hotel. You’ll sleep well knowing you’ve uncovered another side of Texas.

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