Texas's famed hill country is a bucolic, rumpled terrain marked by wooded canyons cut by spring-fed rivers. It's also laced with endless miles of appealing two-lane blacktop—and, best of all, it's quirky. One minute you'll see a vista of bluebonnets and the next a sign advertising "Emu Oil, Next Exit" or "Cowboys for Christ Silent Auction."
The Hill Country begins just north of Austin, continues south to San Antonio, and sweeps west some 200 miles (322 kilometers) before the land begins to flatten out. Follow a route linking state and U.S. secondary highways, which lead to a series of colorful towns fit for dawdling.
Start in San Antonio
These attractions form a loop starting in San Antonio and taking in Bandera, Kerrville, Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock, Johnson City, and New Braunfels, before returning to San Antonio.
From San Antonio, follow Highway 16 northwest to Bandera, which considers itself the hell-raising "Cowboy Capital of the World." Here you can order a chicken-fried steak bigger than your "haid" and dance to live country music. But nowadays you're apt to see travelers' SUVs parked in front of Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar saloon alongside the usual beat-up pickup trucks. The Frontier Times Museum in Bandera (510 13th St.; tel. 1 830 796 3864; www.frontiermuseum.org) has a bewildering collection of prehistoric arrowheads, mounted animals, bells, and a shrunken human head no bigger than an orange. Duck into the gift shop, which stocks those must-have rubber tomahawks. Also in Bandera is the Old Spanish Trail Restaurant (305 Main St.; tel. 1 830 796 3836), famous for its home-cooked pot roast, catfish platter, and chicken-fried steak.
Next stop is Kerrville, which you can reach by looping around on Highway 16 or cutting straight to it on 173. Stop for a meal at Billy Gene's Restaurant (1489 Junction Hwy.; tel. 1 830 895 7377; www.billygenesrestaurant), known for its chicken-fried steak and its views of the Guadalupe River. Then check in at the Inn of the Hills (1001 Junction Hwy.; tel. 1 830 895 5000; www.innofthehills.com), with such amenities as live country music and an Olympic-size pool. Next door is a family sports center with a 16-lane bowling alley, so pack your finest bowling shirts.
Among the first non-natives to settle the area were German immigrants who'd purchased millions of acres sight unseen. Old-timers still refer to the "German Hill Country," where the mother tongue was commonly spoken until the 1970s. One town that clings to its German heritage is Fredericksburg. Besides its more than 300 B&Bs, it has a Main Street lined with galleries, boutiques, bistros, and specialty shops with names like Der Küchen Laden.
Follow the oompah music to the Ausländer Biergarten (323 E. Main St.; tel. 1 830 997 7714) featuring German cuisine and an astounding selection of beers. Order a frosty mug of Paulaner Salvator and feast on kasseler rippchen—smoked pork chops—with hot German potato salad, sauerkraut, and a slice of Black Forest chocolate cake for dessert.
Fredericksburg native son Chester Nimitz served as commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. Honoring his memory are the Admiral Nimitz Museum and the National Museum of the Pacific War (340 E. Main St.; tel. 1 830 997 4379; www.nimitz-museum.org), displaying over a thousand artifacts, including a Japanese midget submarine captured during the Pearl Harbor attack.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
Detour 18 miles (29 kilometers) north of Fredericksburg to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, whose centerpiece is a 425-foot (130-meter)-tall dome-shaped mountain of pink granite about a billion years old. Hike to the top, then overnight in pleasant campgrounds at the base (tel. 1 830 685 3636; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/enchanted_rock).
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park Visitor Center
A few miles away in Johnson City, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park Visitor Center (Ave. G and Ladybird Ln.; 1 830 868 7128; www.nps.gov/lyjo) offers a self-paced stroll past video monitors with footage of the War on Poverty, Vietnam, and other events of Johnson's life. Most surprising is a retirement photo of him with long hair, looking a little like Timothy Leary without the beads.
New Braunfels and Gruene
- Nat Geo Expeditions
In New Braunfels, the 65-acre (26-hectare) Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort (305 W. Austin St.; tel. 1 830 625 2351; www.schlitterbahn.com/nb) has more than enough waterslides, tube chutes, and high-speed thrills to put dear old dad in traction for months. Not far away is a must-see, Gruene (pronounced "green"), the historic district of New Braunfels, which, according to the town motto, has been "gently resisting change since 1872." It's home to Gruene Hall (1281 Gruene Rd.; tel. 1 830 606 1281; www.gruenehall.com), a landmark on the country music scene. Opened in 1878 and touted as the oldest continuously operated dance hall in Texas, Gruene Hall features a huge, scuffed-up dance floor with a big stage at one end and an even bigger bar at the other. The dance hall seems out of place among the boutiques and restaurants that sprouted around it, but it's still genuine, complete with spartan restrooms and old boys sitting at the bar, yukking it up in German.
A block away is the New Braunfels Museum of Art & Music (1259 Gruene Rd.; tel. 1 830 625 5636), affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and celebrating Texas artists. Afterward, stop in for the best tasting tea this side of Istanbul at the River House Tea Room (1617 New Braunfels St.; tel. 1 830 608 0690). It serves legendary salads, homemade soups, and marble-bread sandwiches. A premier B&B experience awaits you at the Gruene Mansion Inn (1275 Gruene Rd.; tel. 1 830 629 2641; www.gruenemansioninn.com), an 1872 Victorian-style time warp overlooking the Guadalupe River.
Comal and Guadalupe Rivers
Cap off your drive with an inner tube trip down the Comal or Guadalupe Rivers, both of which run through New Braunfels, making it a haven for paddlers and floaters. On either stream, the warm sunshine filtering through the oaks and cypresses overhead creates a soothing strobe effect as you glide downstream. Just kick back, shift your mind into neutral, and go with the flow. That's the best way to see the Texas Hill Country.
To find out more, contact Texas Tourism (tel. 800 888 8839; www.traveltex.com). Check out B&Bs in Fredericksburg at www.fredericksburglodging.com, and for the New Braunfels region, www.texasbedandbreakfast.com. Also see www.hat.org, the website for the Texas Bed & Breakfast Association.
—Text by Patrick J. Kelly, adapted from National Geographic Traveler