Growing up in the Houston area, where the land is mostly flat, I looked forward to regular family trips to visit relatives in the famed Texas Hill Country to the west. Once we reached Austin, the road began to rise and fall, and around every curve, new sights greeted me: a blue lake, fields of wildflowers, splashing water running beneath a bridge, rugged granite slopes.
Now I'm a mom, and I've raised my three kids on the doorstep to the Hill Country. Ever since they were babies (they're now in their teens), we've made frequent jaunts to explore this beautiful region, which lies west of Austin and south of Waco. I recently took my daughters, Holley and Bridget, and Bridget's friend Jordan to revisit old favorites and try a few new adventures.
A Cool Swimming Hole
Setting off from Austin, it's not long before we're whizzing through the Hill Country along State Highway 29. We're headed for Burnet, where we've booked a cabin at Inks Lake State Park (see Road Trip Resources for all contact information). We could pick up supplies for a cookout on the cabin's grill, but since we're feeling lazy, we opt for burgers on the deck at Storm's Drive-In. Then it's on to Inks, where, first thing, we stash our stuff and don swimsuits to hit the water.
The lake is mere feet from the door of many of the cabins, but the best spot for swimming is Devil's Waterhole. This thumb of water at the far end of the park is surrounded by a jumble of granite boulders that are perfect launchpads for leaps into the deep water (if you have little ones, go early in the day; hotdoggers take over in late afternoon). We also love to rent kayaks at the Park Store (doubles are good with small kids) and paddle toward the Waterhole, scanning the shoreline for turtles and herons. Later, the girls watch the nearly tame white-tailed deer out for their evening meal. We cap the day with a cozy campfire before hitting the sack.
A Cave and a Climb
At Longhorn Cavern State Park, a short and scenic drive down Park Road 4, my kids know the tour almost by heart. Tops on their list are the lights-out experience (for 10 seconds, we're plunged into total darkness) and the tales of outlaws using the place as a hideout. With the cave an un-Texas-like 68 degrees year-round, the hour-plus tour is always a nice respite. For lunch, we head to the city of Llano, famous for barbecue. A fun alternative is Stonewall's Pizza on the quaint town square, where they hand-toss the dough and kids can write on the walls.
After our meal, a climb up Enchanted Rock is a welcome workout, and a memorable experience to boot. The drive to the rock from Llano offers tantalizing glimpses of the 640-acre granite dome rising high above its surroundings. It's one of the nation's largest batholiths (an underground rock formation uncovered by erosion). We've learned that by zigzagging on the steep parts and taking our time, we can summit the dome even with little kids. The reward: a jaw-dropping view of the Hill Country. I whip out granola bars, water, and a camera, and we savor our victory.
From here, we head to Fredericksburg, a community that bears the stamp of its German founders in its stone architecture and its expansive main street, which the town fathers made wide enough to accommodate the maneuvers of their ox-drawn carts. The town has many family-friendly hotels; this trip, we opt for the 1940s-style charm of the Peach Tree Inn and Suites. A dip in the pool refreshes us for a few hours of perusing the shops along Main Street. First stop is usually the Clear River Pecan Company for one of 37 flavors of homemade ice cream. Between bites, such oddities as a rack of wacky sunglasses and a singing Elvis vending machine amuse the girls. This is peach country, so peach honey butter is a must-purchase.
When the budget's blown, it's time for dinner at Fredericksburg Brewing Company. Yes, the giant copper tanks hold gallons of beer, but the atmosphere is family friendly and the menu ranges from Tex-Mex to German. After dinner, it's off for an 11-mile drive to a Hill Country-esque nature sighting at the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area: around dusk from May through October, 3 million bats fly from the mouth of an abandoned tunnel to hoover up insects.
Touring the Treetops
A lovely morning drive takes us to the LBJ State Park and Historic Site, where we tour the sprawling, iconic LBJ Ranch, the "Texas White House" of the 36th U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson. In nearby Johnson City, we hit El Rancho restaurant for lunch. It serves the state's best breakfast tacos all day (there's a full menu, but we never get past the tacos). Then we head for Krause Springs, a beautiful swimming hole where water bubbles up and cascades over a fern-covered cliff and into a wide creek. There's a rope swing, of course, and lots of shade.
Finally, since I've often (lovingly) accused my kids of acting like monkeys, I can't resist taking them to swing through the towering trees at the nearby Cypress Valley Canopy Tours. In a centuries-old cypress forest, guides help visitors fly from platform to platform on a zip line and teach them a few tidbits about the natural world along the way. Only kids age 10 and up can take the 1 1/2-hour journey, but there's a picnic and swimming area for the younger set (or ground-loving parents). When they finally take off their zip line harnesses, I promise my monkeys that someday we'll sleep in one of the canopy's treetop rooms instead of reluctantly heading home
From Family Fun Magazine