Blogger, Writer, Urban Adventurer
While I always enjoy trips to San Antonio and Austin, I truly believe that the charm of Hill Country really lives in all of the small in-between cities off the beaten path. Over the past few years we have been taking road trips to Texas Hill Country and have made an effort to visit more of these tiny towns and explore their hidden gems. From cliff jumping and aquifers to caverns and Stonehenge II, these five Hill Country towns will have you packing up the minivan to go road-tripping in no time.
Shop: If shopping is your jam, then you’re in luck. In Fredericksburg there are more than 150 shops with antiques, home goods, art, jewelry, western wear and everything in between. Cruise down Main Street for the best browsing. Don’t forget to check out The Christmas Store and Fredericksburg Fudge.
Hike: The famous Enchanted Rock is less than a 30-minute drive from Fredericksburg. The hike to the summit is relatively short, but you can easily spend a few hours exploring the 11 miles of trails at the base of the rock. Before you go, be sure to check their Twitter and Facebook pages. Keep in mind they sometimes close due to capacity, extreme heat or rain.
Sample wines: There are a number of great wineries in Fredericksburg. Wine and kids don’t always make the perfect pairing, but if want to have a taste of the scene, consider going to 4.0 Cellars. On Saturdays you can often find a food truck parked there for an easy dinner and there is a wide green space for the kids to run while you sip.
See a museum: The Pioneer Museum, National Museum of Pacific War and Texas Rangers Heritage Center all call Fredericksburg home. They are all relatively small museums, so if you are so inclined, you can soak up a ton of history in one day!
Pay homage to the Johnsons: LBJ was born in Stonewall, Texas, just outside of Fredericksburg, so it makes sense that Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park are nearby. The former president’s “Texas White House” is located at LBJ ranch in Stonewall. Unfortunately, they are no longer giving interior tours of the house due to some structural issues, but you can do self-guided driving tours on the property.
2. Gruene & New Braunfels
Visit the dance hall: Gruene’s claim to fame is Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest continually operated dance hall. Gruene Hall has been drawing crowds since 1878 and is a top tourist destination and sought after venue for artists in all stages of their careers. George Strait, Garth Brooks, Lyle Lovett, Loretta Lynn, and countless other greats have played the hall, but mostly it is a great venue to catch up-and-coming singer/songwriters. All ages are welcome at Gruene Hall (unless noted), and for all “Cover At The Door” shows, kids under 10 pay half-price. Just check their calendar for all of the performance details.
See the General Store: The Gruene General Store was founded in 1925 to serve the city of Gruene and its population of cotton sharecroppers. It also served as a stop for stagecoaches on the journey to San Antonio. After Gruene became a ghost town in the 1920s, the store sat abandoned for almost 50 years before it was re-opened in 1989. Today, the Gruene General Store still exists in its original building serving up homemade fudge, soda fountain drinks, Texas memorabilia and plenty of souvenirs.
Go tubing: Floating down one of Hill Country’s many rivers practically a Texas kid rite of passage. Gruene is located near the Guadalupe and Comal Rivers. Both Rockin’ River Rides and the Gruene River Company can get your family outfitted for a day of floating in comfort.
Swim: If the idea of floating the river doesn’t appeal to you, but you want a water experience, visit Landa Park Aquatic Complex. Located just down the road from Gruene in New Braunfels, this spring-fed pool was established in the early 1900s. It is open to the public in summer months and the waters stay a cool 72 degrees. There is a small water park/splash pad attached to the Olympic size pool, plus and a two-story “Wet Willie Slide” for your daredevils. The complex is outfitted with a small playground and they do allow coolers for picnicking.
Attend Wurstfest: Prior to moving to Texas, I had no clue it was infused with so much German culture. I had my first kolache in Houston! German farmers settled Gruene in the 1840s, so it’s no surprise the area is home to Wurstfest. This 10-day festival is typically held in early November on the grounds of Landa Park in New Branufels. You’ll find food, dancing, music, entertainment, and, of course, some beer. Kids under the age of 12 are free, so grab some lederhosen and prost.
Cool off in an aquifer: If it’s summertime and you are looking for a natural spot to cool off, Wimberley has you covered. Both Blue Hole and Jacob’s Well are two of the best swimming holes in all of Hill Country. Blue Hole is located within a 126-acre regional park with 3.5 miles of trails and is open for swimming in the summer months. They do require you to make a reservation ahead of time as they limit the amount of swimmers each day. Jacob’s Well is another aquifer-fed swimming hole in Wimberley that is popular for families and divers alike. Swimming is seasonal and by reservation only, but the nature area around Jacob’s Well is open year-round.
Try Texas olive oil: When we first took the tour at Bella Vista Ranch and learned about how Jack Daugherty successfully got olives to grow in Texas, I was impressed! (No pun intended). The ranch gives tours every Saturday at 1pm, but they are only for children 12 and older. However, the gift shop and tasting room are open during business hours, and you are welcome to try their various 100% Texas olive oil varieties, local fruit jams, wines and other gourmet foods.
Get a different point of view: If you want to get a whole different viewpoint on Hill Country, consider checking out Wimberley Zipline. The whole course consists of 10 different zip lines ranging from 150 to 900 feet. Guides will take you through the course, which takes up to two hours to complete, and you’ll learn some history about the wildlife along the way. There is one catch, your kids need to be at least nine and weight 65 pounds to participate, as they do not offer tandem ziplining.
Pig out on destination BBQ: The Salt Lick BBQ may have its roots in Mississippi, but it has become a Texas institution. They have been serving up traditional slow-cooked open pit style BBQ since 1967 and are well known for their brisket, sausage, and pork ribs. Come hungry and bring cash! Also, with the purchase of an adult family-style meal, kids three and under eat free, and those 11 and under are just $9.95.
Visit artisans at work: There is something truly special about seeing an artist at work and I find glass blowing particularly mesmerizing. Wimberley Glass Works has a demonstration on the art of glass blowing five days a week (no demos on Monday or Tuesday) that are open to the public. They also have a gallery with many of their works on display. The demos are for all ages and if you ask, kids can participate in a scavenger hunt inside the gallery.
Explore a cavern: The Longhorn Cavern is particularly unique as it was formed by an ancient underground river, which left the appearance of smooth walls in parts of the cavern. It was excavated in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps or the CCC under FDRs New Deal and took over five years to complete. You can take guided walking tours of the caverns weekdays from 10am to 3pm. Tours last about 90 minutes and are good for all ages. You’ll learn some history of the area as well as some geology and possibly see some of the tiniest bats I’ve ever laid eyes on. Just try and get your kids to stop ogling in the Hall of Diamonds.
Try cliff jumping: Inks Lake State Park has nine miles of hiking, picnic areas and easy access, walk-in areas for lake swimming. But the real highlight for us was the cliff jumping at Devils Waterhole. There are three different heights that people jump at from this small corner of the lake. We spent a few hours watching people take the plunge before all three of our children decided to go for it! I suggest bringing your own floatation devices as the lake can get pretty deep pretty quick. You are welcome to bring your own food into this state park an there are various picnic tables around the grounds.
Hang at the Slab: If you want to skip the heart attack moments of cliff jumping for a more mellow speed, visit the Llano Slab. This spot is on the Llano River in Kingsland and is best for wading, sunbathing, and generally hanging out. You can bring a pop-tent and easily spend the afternoon here exploring the rocks and wade pools.
Search for a bald eagle: November to March marks the nesting season for eagles to return to Lake Buchanan. Vanishing Texas Cruises offers various Eagle Season Cruises to spot our national bird in the wild. Vanishing Texas has been providing these tours for more than 35 years and gotten pretty good at spotting the birds for you to observe in their natural habitats. The company also offers Lake Buchanan, sunset, wilderness, history, and winery cruises if those are more your speed.
Try “The Big Chop”: Coopers Old Time Bar-B-Que is the home of the two-inch-think pork chop known affectionately as “The Big Chop.” This no-frills, smoky pit-style BBQ joint is a Llano staple. You can’t really go wrong with pork chops, brisket, sausage and a side of beans!
5. Hunt & Ingram
Visit Stonehenge II: I am a sucker for unique roadside attractions and Stonehenge II fits this description perfectly. This limestone replica of the original Stonehenge was erected in 1989 by Al Shepperd and Doug Hill on private property. It was moved in 2010 to Ingram, Texas and is now open to the public from dawn till dusk. In addition to seeing the circle of stones, visitors will find 13-foot tall Easter Island heads also on site, because, why not? Did I mention visiting the kitschy spot is free? I love everything about it.
Hang at the rodeo: From Memorial Day to Labor Day, every Saturday is a rodeo day at Crider’s Rodeo and Dance Hall. The rodeo starts at 8pm followed by music and dancing at 9pm. For a fee, little ones can participate in Mutton Bustin’, Mini Bull Riding and calf scrambles. Sign us up!
Picnic by a river: Schumacher’s Crossing is a picturesque spot on the Guadalupe River where you can take a dip and enjoy a picnic. There are a few gentle waterfalls in the area and if you are so inclined, it is also a great spot to launch a kayak to make your way south about 30 minutes to the Ingram Dam.
Eat at the Hunt Store: At the Hunt Store you can expect to find a little bit of everything–groceries, a café, live music, and BBQ all co-exist here. Whether you make it a point to catch one of their live events or you’re just stopping in for a bite to eat, you won’t be sorry you stopped by “The Store.”
Support the arts: Ingram is home to the Hill Country Arts Foundation, which has a wide variety of theater performances, art classes, and hosts an annual Texas Arts and Crafts Fair. They often have drop-in open studio drawing workshops on the weekends as well as a 1,700-square-foot gallery that is open for public viewing. Due to HSAF’s efforts, the art community is thriving in the Hill Country.