Texas Hill Country
San Antonio is part of Texas Hill Country that you’ll undoubtedly want to spend some time exploring. Just to check out the wild flowers along the highway (Thank you, Lady Bird Johnson!) is well worth a circle tour the historic small towns along this dazzling route. The Hill Country “DNA” is as mixed and varied as its flowers are, born of Native, Mexican, Spanish and German blood, mixed through generations of warriors, soldiers, prospectors and ranchers who have called this lush place home. The hill country claims its share of heroes; Lyndon B. Johnson and Admiral Chester Nimitz are part of its progeny.
The adults in your group are likely to remember the popular 1950’s Mickey Mouse Club that featured “Anything Can Happen Day.” Well, this day trip sprint through Texas Hill Country is like that. From visiting authentic swimming holes (shored up and created by the legendary Civil Conservation Corps that descended on Texas in the 1930’s developing landmarks and places of refuge across the state) to antique stores, dance halls, art galleries, Presidential Homesteads and some of the country’s best “country cookin',” this trips pack an agenda full of anything-can-happen delights.
Appropriately, your circle tour begins from the Salado Creek Villas in San Antonio. The entire suggested trip circumferences 241 miles and takes about 5 hours to drive straight through, with minimal stops. Plan for a long day and two drivers—especially if you want to take in some of the sights and activities along the way (and, you do!). (You may want to dedicate a day to visiting the swimming holes around Canyon Lake and not try to pack this fun outing into the Hill Country trip? Of course, it’s up to you.) Generally, the Hill Country route takes you north on US Hwy 281 toward Bulverde (and Canyon Lake, exit 306), to Blanco and Johnson City where you’ll turn west on US Hwy 290 towards Fredericksburg. From there you’ll go south towards Comfort and Boerne TX and then swing back into the San Antonio metro area. Naturally the time of year you travel will shape your experience, so pack accordingly for sunny skies, humid conditions, rainy days and sometimes even snow. Remember, it’s anything can happen day.
Today, Texas is the country's fifth-leading wine-producing state in the nation and is home to more than 54 wineries—and more than half of them are concentrated in Texas Hill Country. The climate and soil is ideal for raising grapes, which produces excellent vintages! Take a tour on your own or leave the planning to a professional tour company, whichever suits your group, budget and inclinations. (Texas Wine Tours./ Two weeks notice + reservations and deposit required. Picks up in San Antonio; minimum 8 persons.)
Also, the Texas Hill Country (around Kerrville and Fredericksburg) offers incredible scenic bicycle riding! An extensive network of Farm to Market roads link the beautiful ranches in Kerr, Real, Bandera, Gillespie and Kendall Counties and offer easy-to-challenging routes satisfying every riders’ ability and time frame. Rentals of suspension mountain bikes, road bikes, and recreational, all-purpose bikes are available at Hill Country Bicycle Works in Fredericksburg, TX. (Rates vary by bike type/duration; call for quotes: Kerrville: 830-896-6864 or Fredericksburg: 830-990-2609)
Blanco, Texas is located in the extreme south central section of the county about 40 miles away from San Antonio at the intersection of Hwy. 281 and the Blanco River. The hill country has been blessed with thousands of natural springs and there is evidence that native people lived and hunted deer and turkey here for over 10,000 years before the arrival of settlers from the south and the east. They gathered pecans and mesquite beans and fished the rivers. More importantly they found a special stone in the Hills; it’s known as Edwards Chert, or flint and was essential in the crafting of their tools and implements. (The Spanish named the stone pedernales, which means flint, and named the Pedernales River after it.) Additionally, Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg was considered a sacred and holy spot. The Apaches enjoyed their nomadic way of life and ferociously resisted the building of a Spanish presidio in the 1700s (near the foothills town of today’s Menard). The mission was attacked, the wooden church was burned to the ground and the Spanish soldiers eventually chose to move on when their true interest in the area, silver, was not found. In fact, no trace of their “lost San Saba mine” has ever been discovered.
Blanco was settled in 1853 by pioneer stockmen, former Texas Rangers, and multi-cultural immigrant families (mostly German). You’ll want to see the town square where you’ll receive “the warmest welcome in Texas Hill Country” from shop owners and restauranteurs. (At the intersection of Hwys. 281 and 165; call 1-830.833.5101.) The picturesque Blanco County Courthouse (ablaze with lights during the Holiday season) now serves as a visitor center and gift shop; there are over 30 buildings on the town square that have earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places. A walking tour delights everyone in your group—especially those interested in finding a special gift or something yummy to eat. Look for Cranberry’s Antiques, with two floors of unique Texan “relics” or Brieger Pottery, a family-owned gallery displaying the true whimsy of hill country ceramics. There is also a famous Texas Dance Hall in the area, the Blanco County Line, emblematic of dance halls across Texas that have sprouted some of the best “honky tonk” talent over the years that the United States has ever seen.
Blanco State Park
On the south side of Blanco. 4 blocks south of the town square, is Blanco State Park (turn on Park Road 23) where you may want to hike the Ira Caswell Nature Trail, an easy 3/4-mile loop, stretch your legs, or fish for perch, catfish, bass or Rainbow trout. There’s also tube, canoe and kayak rentals available. The park has restroom and family-friendly picnicking facilities; playgrounds and a Texas State Park Store. The group picnic pavilion was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.), part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery program that established work camps across Texas and the United States to help unemployed men make a living after the disastrous Stock Market crash of the early 1930’s. Texans enjoyed the fruits of this labor as much, if not more so, than any other locality nationwide, having nearly 7% of all the CCC workers nationwide assigned to their state. Located on the Blanco River-830/833-4333.)
Johnson City, Texas is best known as the hometown of the last native Texan to become president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The town, founded by LBJ’s distant relative, James Polk Johnson, reflects the ambience of rural America in the 1920s and allows you to visit the Johnson Family Home, fully restored by the National Park Service in 1973 after Congress designated as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site in 1969. The Folk Victorian house was initially built in 1901 and was bought by Lyndon’s father in 1913 along with 1.75 adjacent acres. Lyndon and his rather large family lived in the home from the time he was 5 years old until he was nearly 30. Nearby is the Johnson family cemetery where the former President is buried.
In 1994 the Pedernales Hospital in Johnson City became the LBJ National Historical Park Visitor Center (located at Ladybird Lane and Avenue G in Johnson City, TX). It is open daily to help plan your tours—both of Johnson’s boyhood home and the LBJ Ranch, which is accessible only by bus from the other LBJ visitor center near Stonewall, TX, 14 miles west of Johnson City. A permanent exhibit gallery showcases Lyndon Johnson's life and accomplishments including his Great Society programs and two original LBJ Ranch branding irons. Visitors to the LBJ Ranch, operated as a State Park enjoy picnicking, fishing, swimming and the chance to view Texas longhorn cattle. And, is it any wonder that the Park is also famous for its spring wildflower display.
Even if you’ re not a history buff, there's plenty to explore around Johnson City including Pedernales Falls State Park (located 9 miles east of Johnson City on FM 2766) where you can spend time biking and hiking in unspoiled Hill Country splendor. Visitors are warned about flash flooding in the Hill country; please be aware of weather conditions, especially around the Pedernales River that flows boldly through the Park. On Main Street in Johnson City you’ll find more remarkable quaint restaurants, shops, galleries and antique stores. Supposedly Johnson & Barrett Molly’s on Main antique store is a popular stopping point—even for locals. And, don’t leave home without tasting the world famous Whittington’s Jerky (made from smoked turkey and beef) manufactured in Johnson City. ( Main Store & Manufacturing Facility, 604 Hwy. 281 South, Johnson City, Texas 78636. 830-868-5500; toll free: 1-877-868-5501).
Or, how about old-fashioned malt? Soda fountains will be soda fountains and the Johnson City Soda Fountain is genuine. Grab quick snacks and fountain favorites. (830/868-9000. 300 E. Main, Johnson City)
Wilkommen! The folks in this friendly little Texas town know how to say Welcome—in German and in English, and mean it. Here you’ll enjoy the ongoing celebration of German heritage and genuine Texas hospitality—like happy visitors have for over 150 years. This is not just another dot on a Texas road map, but a delicious, quaint historic town offering outdoor adventures, unique museums, wine country tours and, of course, excellent (and quirky) dining and shopping establishments. Check out Fredericksburg’s robust events calendar. If possible, time your visit to coincide with the Cherry Springs Festival (in early June) at the Mansefeld Sheep Barn—a 4-day series of art exhibits, concerts, food, wine and music. (830- 990-2299); the Gillespie County Fair (it’s been held for over 120 years!)—with agricultural displays, livestock, live horse racing, concerts, dances, and a authentic carnival and midway experience ( 830/997-2359); Oktoberfest, with German beer and foods, music, dancing and gaiety (first weekend in October; or Weihnachten (Dec. 5-7), a Christmas festival and market in the beautifully-decorated old world Marktplatz in Fredericksburg. (Free; features a Christmas tree forest and gingerbread house displays. (830-997-6523) Also, Fredericksburg lies in the top peach producing county in Texas so enjoy June, July, and August visits when the town has a lot road-side stands selling peaches seasonal fruits and goodies.
Fredericksburg is famous, it’s fun and, therefore, it is often crowded—so have a visiting game plan in advance and try to be vigilant about your agenda. No matter what, you won’t be able to fit everything you want to see and do in one day. If your plans require being outdoors, check the weather forecast in advance so you’re not sidelined. This part of Texas Hill Country is an agricultural and quarrying region (producing cattle, peaches, wine & lavender plus granite, sand and gravel); The National Museum of the Pacific War, Pioneer Museum, and Bauer Toy Museum are located in Fredericksburg. From Johnson City, head west on US Hwy-290. Past Stonewall (the LBJ Ranch Visitor Center). (Visitor Information Center, 830-997-6523, 302 E. Austin, off Main St., between N. Lincoln and N. Washington Sts.)
Fredericksburg Attractions and Family Adventures:
- Bauer Toy Museum – Kids, parents and grand parents will enjoy this nostalgic romp through “their vintage toy chest.” Featuring over 3000 toys including cars, fire trucks, toy lead soldiers, dolls, guns, and airplane replicas, this museum will delight everyone. See a miniature village that’s been lovingly hand crafted and features trains and automobiles. Kids marvel at the wonderful 35-ft diorama that depicts the Charles Dickens Story, “A Christmas Carol.” (210-997-9394, 233 E. Main. Open 1–4:30pm weekdays and Sunday. Saturday 10–5:00pm. Winter hours vary. Admission by donation).
- Fredericksburg Butterfly Ranch & Habitat- Bet you’ve never been to one of these? Located in the historic Loeffler-Weber House, built in 1846, and on the adjacent grounds this working butterfly ranch specializes in Monarch and native butterflies and shows the butterfly life cycle from it’s beginning. Just guess what their nature gift shop carries? Butterfly related mementoes, of course. (508 W. Main Street, 830-990-0735).
- Pioneer Museum - This interpretive pioneer complex, operated by the Gillespie County Historical Society, showcases an 1849 eight-room stone Henry Kammlah pioneer home and store, completely furnished, displaying pioneer kitchens with open hearths, a wine cellar and flagstone hof (yard). You can also visit the Walton-Smith log cabin, a smoke house, the authentic Weber Sunday house and the one room White Oak schoolhouse on the site. 210-997-2835, 309 W. Main. Hours Monday—Saturday 10–5pm; Sunday 1–5:00pm. $3 per person—12 & up).
- Dulcimer Factory & Factory Store – Striking a “ uniquely country note”, your clan may enjoy seeing dulcimers, personally handcrafted from a variety of woods, right in front of your eyes. Tours are said to be conducted by the owner; he includes dulcimer history. Did you know it’s the oldest original American stringed instrument? You won’t see this back in the “big city.” (830-997-6704. 715 S. Washington. Tours: Mon-Fri.)
- The National Museum of the Pacific War, an area star attraction and point of patriotic pride, is America’s only institution (in the continental United States) that specifically interprets World War II's Pacific Theatre battles. http://www.nimitz-museum.org/ A key player in this saga is a homegrown hero, Admiral Chester Nimitz, who was an Allied Pacific Commander during World War II. His museum anchors a six-acre complex displaying a part of its 15,000+ WWII artifacts and memorabilia: aircraft, tanks, and other large items used during the campaigns of our Pacific fleet. Historic uniforms and equipment from that period, owned by the museum, are frequently utilized by educators and local organizations for commemorative and interpretive programs.
Points of interest include:
- George Bush Gallery – An engrossing, experiential chronologically organized exhibit and dioramas that make history come alive. There are heart-wrenching personal items on exhibit plus many remnants of WWII aircraft. The engaging stories include all branches of the military service and cover a long, harrowing period of time and various battles.
- Admiral Nimitz Museum – in 1966, the year of his death, Fredericksburg locals rallied to create a museum in memory of Admiral Chester Nimitz. The Museum, now operated as a Texas State Park, grandly displays the life & history of Admiral Nimitz in galleries appropriately housed in the boat-shaped 1880’s landmark Steamboat Hotel built by Chester’s grandfather. You might say the hotel was Chester’s “boyhood home.” And the story just gets better!
- Plaza of Presidents – A memorial area honoring the ten US Presidents who served in WWII.
- Japanese Garden of Peace – This tranquil refuge and place for reflection was offered as a gift from the military leaders of Japan to the people of the United States, in honor of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
- The Pacific Combat Zone looms across 3 acres and is accessed with tour/docent leaders only. The Zone, a sophisticated sensory experience, transports visitors through Pacific combat locations—and various “realistic” situations typical in the daily life-scape of the soldier. Aircraft carriers and hangar decks. PT’s boats on night missions. Pacific island military medical units. All this and more comes alive for the tour participants! (340 E. Main St.; open every day (except Thanksgiving and Christmas), 9 to 5:00pm. Veteran admissions vary; call for pricing and accessibility information.)
Eat. Drink. Shop Fredericksburg
Park the car and walk around downtown or cruise outside city limits for some tasty selections for shopping and dining. Here’s just a few for starters:
- Fredericksburg Fudge - Chocoholics, take note. This fudge has been voted “best” at the Dallas World Trade Center, Gourmet Food Show. What else needs to be said? (830-997-2133. 105 N. Llano St.)
- Gotta Hava Java? Fredericksburg Gourmet Coffee & Tea is the place to be. (338 W. Main St., 830-997-8327). Hoorah, a coffee shop that has LOCAL written all over it.
- Showcase Antiques - Wow. In business since 1970, this place has been dazzling shoppers with antique china, crystal, and silver for decades. Cut crystal is their specialty; lovers of fine tableware will be hard to pry out of here. (119 E. Main, 830-997-5505)
- Homestead (230 E. Main, 830-997-5551) offers an impressive collection of both American and European art and antiquities.
- Nearby Johnson Newman Antiques specializes in European furniture from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries including Flemish woven tapestries, Majolica and intriguing clocks. (233 E. Main. 830-990-9394)
History and the Great Outdoors
- Fort Martin Scott - This pre-Civil War military post was established in 1848 (just 3 years after Texas joined the Union) and was the first Federal/U. S. Army frontier fort in Texas. Located on the west bank of Baron's Creek today’s site includes four main museum structures, two reconstructed officer's quarters, the fort's guardhouse, a visitor's center, and a well stocked museum store. You can view recovered documents and artifacts, which are varied as the fort was occupied by Texas Rangers and both Union and Confederate troops plus served as a center of commerce between Native Americans, settlers and soldiers. Originally the fort had 21 buildings; the only original structure still standing was the post’s guardhouse. The grounds are accessible all the time, but the fort itself is only open for self guided tours Tuesdays through Sundays, 10-5:00pm. Be sure to check out the Fort’s Museum and its fantastic collection of books related to the Fort, the turbulent West, the Civil War, etc. In the 1880’s the fort site became the first location for the Gillespie County Fair and morphed to include a saloon and dance hall. (1606 E. Main, Fredericksburg, 830-997-9895)
- Enchanted Rock State Park – Native “visitors” had been coming here for over 10,000 years. Said to be an ancient native site for performing human sacrifice, The “Rock” rises 425 feet above ground, 1,825 feet above sea level, and covers 640 acres, making it one of the largest batholiths (underground rock formations that are gradually exposed by erosion) in the U.S. Enchanted Rock was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1970 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Native peoples believed that ghost fires flickered on the Rock’s crest on moonlit nights; this area was a sacred spot to many different local tribes. Mid-week visits are recommended; the Park is popular and often fills by 11:00am on weekends. Enjoy hiking, rock climbing, rappelling and picnicking; open year round. Just 18 miles north of Fredericksburg—16710 Ranch Rd. 965.
- Gardeners will want to visit Wildseed Farms —the largest working wildflower farm in the United States. Wildflower seed, grown here on the farm, is available for purchase on site and through a large mail order network. You can buy seeds for over 90 varieties of wildflowers, grasses and herbs! ( (800)-848-0078. Just 7 miles east of Fredericksburg on US Hwy 290. Open daily 9:30–6:00pm. 425 Wildflower Hills. Free.)
- Fredericksburg Herb Farm – Take the family and roam organic herb gardens. Soak in the scents, the colors and views. Bring a camera. On site you can stop for tea, dine in a gourmet restaurant, shop for gourmet foods and herbal body products—and, if there is time, you can indulge a fantastic day-spa ritual utilizing the Farm’s herbal products. Ahhhh…..(830-997-8615. 402 Whitney St., 6 blocks off W. Main)
Comfort & Boerne , TX
To begin the completion of your Hill Country circle tour head the car south, toward Comfort, TX — just 23 miles south of Fredericksburg. (Go southeast of US-290/US 87 toward N. Liano St./TX-16. Turn right at us US-87 and travel 21 miles; take US-87-BR S) You’ll find it quieter here, the pace slower. The town is aptly named.
This quaint historic town is a gem; nearly every building in town is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been preserved beautifully. There’s a neat Historical Museum (838 High St.) but it’s only open by appointment or on the 2nd Sunday of each month. Check out the 1880’s Ingenhuett-Faust Hotel, the 1907 Faltin Store, the 1930 Comfort movie theatre, the City Library (the 1916 Otto Schwethelm Building) and many historic stone houses build by German immigrants. If you’re here on Monday don’t expect much to be open in town. This is still a small town with it’s own small town tempo. Hungry??? You’re in the perfect place to stop. Head for the blue plate special at Arlene’s, a popular lunch spot and Sunday-dinner destination; locals come from all over Hill Country to enjoy the feel-good victuals. Pot roast, garlic mashed potatoes, renowned homemade desserts that, of course, include peach cobbler (in season). Diet be damned…give Arlene’s a whirl. You might even see the owner, former San Antonio journalist Arlene Lightsey, lording over the kitchen. (426 Seventh St., 830/995-3330) The Double D Restaurant is also well known in these parts. A reputed “good old boys” hangout, Double D is famous for its hamburgers, bakery and Biergarten. (1004 Front St, Hwy-27 @ Hwy-87, 830-995-2001)
OR, keep those wheels spinning towards home via Boerne, just 16 miles northwest of San Antonio city limits. (From Comfort, go south on US-87-BR toward Idlewilde Blvd. Take the left ramp to I-10E/US-87 S (12.7 miles) to Exit 537 – US-87-Business route toward Boerne.)
Come to think of it, Boerne is such a great place and is so close to San Antonio that it probably merits a day trip all it’s own. Drive up like the locals do and relax and look around. Have lunch or dinner at family-owned Po-Po Family Restaurant (829 Farm Rd. 289, Boerne, 830-537-3835). After dinner "whoop it up" at the nearby Nelson City Dance Hall. Swing your honey to grassroots Texas music including Tejano, Country, Zydico, Rock'n 'Roll, Blues and Bluegrass. It’s family friendly so it’s a lively experience for the entire group. There’s usually live music every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but it varies. You’ll do well to call in advance and check hours and pricing. Meat lovers (and who isn’t in Texas?)—Friday night is steak night! (830-537-3835. US Hwy-289. Wed & Th, 5-11pm, Fri & Sat, 4pm-2am, Sun. 2-10pm.).
Yep, you guessed it. Boerne (pronounced BUR-nee) is another town built by German immigrants complete with its picturesque architecture and an authentically restored “Hauptstrausse” (Main Street) alive with galleries, coffee shops, antique stores and restaurants. (1-888.842.8080) Visitors love to stroll the gardens and greenbelts and generally appreciate the Texas hospitality extended by the locals. The town was plated in 1851; its position on stagecoach routes helped spur Boerne’s growth. By 1856 William Dietert opened Boerne’s first business, a Cibolo Creek gristmill and sawmill. It is ironic that the Saint Scholastica Monastery, a Benedictine Sisters Community, is located here. Boerne was initially settled by Germany’s “free thinkers” who did not believe in religion. They banned all churches, and threatened to shoot preachers “still in town after dark.” In 1860, George Wilkins Kendall wanted to build a Catholic church in town to honor his wife but there was to be no such luck. Mr. Kendall was forced to build south of town, outside of the city limits. Today there are churches. The Benedictine convent grounds are located in central Boerne, and serve as a place of refuge, reflection and relaxation. There are no formal tours, however, there are retreats and seminars at the Monastery throughout the year. You are welcome to stroll the grounds and visit the unique gift store. (416 W. Highland; 830-816-8504)
For something a bit more stimulating and educational, visit The Cibolo Nature Center located on what was once Herff Ranch—which was established in 1852 by pioneer surgeon Dr. Ferdinand Herff. Opened on Earth Day, 1990, the Center introduces visitors to 4 totally different eco-systems: the riparian forest; the live oak savannah, a tall-grass prairie and a spring-fed marsh. You can hike the trails every day of the year from 8am – dusk. The informative onsite Visitors Center is open from 9am-5pm seven days a week. (830-249-4616. 140 City Park Rd., Boerne). Plus, if you’re interested in the area’s agricultural roots, the Agricultural Heritage Center is practically next-door—and certainly worthy of a visit. Here you’ll see an impressive collection of farming implements and equipment and, on Saturdays, a working blacksmith demonstration that’s very informative. (210-445-1080. 102 City Park Rd., just off of Hwy 46, next to the Herff Park and the Kendall County Fair Grounds. Open Sat, 10-4pm, Sun, 1-4pm.)
Are the kids asleep in the back seat yet? Not to worry, it won’t be long before you’re back in San Antonio and your comfortable accommodations! (From Boerne, head west on TX-46 toward, US-87-BR. Turn left, follow 2 mi to I-10 E/US-87 S (20.8 mi). Take Exit 564 to merge onto I-410 E (9 mi). Take Exit 25B toward FM-2252/Perrin-Beitel Rd., merge onto the NE I-410 loop and turn LEFT to stay on NE I-410 loop.) You’re home. Anything Can Happen Day has been successfully completed—and you’ve seen the quaintest countryside in all of Texas. Here’s betting this will be a day to relish for years to come.