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Heart of the Hill Country

Destination - Kerrville

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Renowned for its legendary music festival, Kerrville also abounds with attractions for art buffs, history hounds and river rats.

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 2.25 hours /
  • Brownsville - 5.25 hours /
  • Dallas - 5.75 hours /
  • El Paso - 8.25 hours /
  • Houston - 4.25 hours /
  • San Antonio - 1.25 hours /
  • Lubbock - 6.5 hours

A gusty breeze blows as my daughter and I paddle our kayaks on Flat Rock Lake, the largest of a series of small impoundments along the Guadalupe River in Kerrville. Technically, we're rowing downstream, but the wind makes it feel like we're paddling upstream the entire way. We haven't even been on the water for 10 minutes yet, and I'm already looking forward to the trip back.

Our goal: reach the dam that's beyond a string of skeletal bald cypress and a tree-covered island, and then return to the boat ramp where we launched, at Kerrville-Schreiner Park. I estimate the distance to be more than a mile, and we've got about an hour to complete the voyage before Corey Miller with Kerrville Kayak & Canoe Rentals will pick up our kayaks.

Lindsey, who discovered kayaking on a trip we made to Arkansas two summers ago, paddles steadily and stays well ahead of me. A typical teenager, she's oblivious to the riverbanks, shaded by ancient bald cypress and live oaks on the south side, the manicured grass and young trees of Flat Rock Lake County Park on the other. The Lower Colorado River Authority dammed the river in 1959, creating this lake and leaving behind the line of dead cypress we see ahead.

"Turtle nose, nine o'clock!" Lindsey doesn't hear me or see the three scissor-tailed flycatchers tussling in the air above the county park. Below them, a mallard — trailed by a domestic white duck — paddles in the water along the bank.

More than halfway into our allotted hour, I announce that we're not going to make the dam. With the wind at our back after we turn around, I'm relieved to find the paddling much easier. As we glide toward the boat ramp, several families are picnicking and swimming beneath the cypress.

BoJack Jalowy, assistant park manager, tells me that families especially gravitate to the 517-acre park, located 5 miles southeast of downtown Kerrville. "Our park isn't like Enchanted Rock State Natural Area or Garner State Park, which have spectacular natural features," he says. "Instead, people come here to relax and unwind."

Kerrville-Schreiner Park originally opened as a city park more than 70 years ago. In 1934, the city deeded the property to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which maintained the state park until it reverted back to the city in 2004. Camping facilities range from tent sites with water only to RV spaces with full hookups. Twenty-three shelters eventually will be converted to secluded cabins with heat, air, bunk beds, satellite television, a kitchen that sleeps six and a table — but be sure to bring your own linens and towels.

The park, bisected by Highway 173, also teems with white-tailed deer along with axis deer and black buck. More than 7 miles of hike-and-bike trails crisscross the park's western quadrant.

It's time to change into dry clothes, so we head to our lodge, the Y.O. Ranch Resort Hotel. The sprawling complex of limestone buildings with red-tiled roofs is named after the historic Y.O. Ranch established in 1880 by Captain Charles Schreiner. In Kerrville, the name "Schreiner" resonates nearly everywhere — more on that later.

The next morning, we head to the Museum of Western Art (formerly the Cowboy Artists of America Museum), where docent Bob Hokanson gives us a tour of the two main galleries. "People come in looking for [Frederic] Remingtons and [Charles M.] Russells, but everything here was generally created from the 1940s to the present," he explains.

During our visit, we stroll through an exhibit entitled "Heart of a Horseman. The Art of Jim Reno," a collection of approximately 76 examples of the Kerrville sculptor's work. The miniature bronzes depict Comanches on horseback, cowboys corralling cattle and other Texas scenes. Exhibits rotate every four months at the museum, which also houses an extensive Western art and history research library.

Next we drive to the Riverside Nature Center, an urban wildlife sanctuary where more than 140 species of native trees thrive, along with a multitude of wildflowers, native grasses, herbs and cacti. At the visitors' center, we stand on a back porch with Executive Director Cassandra Keen, and survey the jungle of greenery.

"Mom, there's a bug in your hair," Lindsey announces, peering closely at my head before she thwacks it away.

"That's a boxelder bug," Keen says. "They won't hurt you. They're everywhere!" She's right; later, during our exploration of the sanctuary, we see dozens of the black insects with red markings scuttle across the gravel trail. We also spy a couple of lime green anoles that pose for photographs on plant identification markers.

Texas pistache, Texas madrone, American smoketree and a toothache tree are just a few of the specimens we see along the trail. The deep red, heart-shaped leaves of the forest pansy redbud intrigue me, and I'm excited to find a Blanco crabapple tree, a rare Texas species that's native to Blanco County where we live. A ligustrum, however, makes me sniff with disdain, because I had to prune so many of them as a kid. This invasive species from China is spread in the wild by cedar waxwings that eat the bush's blue-black berries.

Lindsey wants to see a huge bald cypress that's reportedly the state's second largest. From the visitors' center, we trek down a dirt path to a creek bank, where the massive tree stands. Keen later tells me the Kerrville cypress has an approximate 300-foot circumference. Two years ago, lightning struck the tree and left a huge black wound. Despite the damage, it continues to put out new growth annually.

After lunch, we meet Karen Tucker at the Hill Country Museum downtown. For the next hour, she leads us through the two-story mansion built of native limestone in 1879 by Captain Charles Schreiner, a title he earned while serving with the Kerrville Mounted Rifles. Like so many pioneers of his time, Schreiner — a French immigrant with nothing but his name — acquired land, started a ranching business and then diversified his interests with time. By the late 1890s, he'd amassed 600,000 acres of ranch land west of town in addition to a hotel, bank, mercantile store, mill and public works department — all in Kerrville.

Family furniture and belongings furnish much of the home. Amazingly, the kitchen windows still retain their original glass. "And that's an original restored light fixture," Tucker says, pointing to a chandelier in the parlor. "The house was wired for electricity in 1895, which was early for Texas, but you can do that if you own the electric company; and Captain Schreiner did!"

A wooden trap door in the kitchen's floor opens to a tunnel that leads next door to the Schreiner Co. store, which opened in 1869. "At the store, he'd hide the money in the floor under a loose plank and put a flour barrel over it," Tucker says. "Then he'd carry the money from the store through the tunnel to the house."

After the tour, we walk the short distance to see Schreiner Co., which still attracts a steady clientele. Reminiscent of the department stores I remember from the '60s, the linoleum floor creaks as Lindsey and I cruise through a maze of luggage, candles, dishware, linens and, as singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith calls them, "unnecessary plastic objects." No structured aisles of shelved goods here; tables, racks and shelves brimming with items stand hodgepodge throughout the store.

Next we head for the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center, housed in the former post office building (built in 1935) on the other side of the Schreiner mansion. Three galleries display different art exhibits every month. "What makes us unique is that we have 13 groups and 900 members," says president Jim Derby. "So when we have a show, we have a lot of different media."

He's right. Lindsey wants me to see "Fluorexcent Mineral Display," sponsored by the Hill Country Geoscientists. A rock show in an art gallery? I'm dubious. That is, until the light dims to blackness in the small room where we're standing. Then magically, behind a glass pane, chunks of calcite, quartz and fluorite begin to glow in soft hues of yellow, red, green and purple. Overhead, a narrator explains radiant energy, ultraviolet light and how some minerals "fluoresce." The geoscientists win — I'm a rock art convert.

A host of art galleries, eclectic shops, antique stores and cafes beckon from along Water and Earl Garrett streets, the heart of historic downtown Kerrville. For supper, though, we've chosen The Lakehouse, a popular restaurant with down-home cooking on Highway 27. I'm in the mood for a salad topped with crispy chicken strips, and Lindsey orders her usual dry burger.

The next morning, we pack up our suitcases and head west again on Highway 27. Our destination: Stonehenge II, a down-sized replica of the prehistoric monument in England. I've seen this unexpected landmark before, but this will be Lindsey's first glimpse. The 13-mile drive takes us through Ingram, a quaint town consisting mostly of art galleries. From there, the two-lane road meanders alongside the Guadalupe River, lushly shaded by bald cypress and oaks. And, wow, everyone's driving below the posted speed limit, so I'm able to sneak peeks out the window, too.

We round a curve on FM 1340, and Stonehenge II appears, jutting out from a broad, fenced pasture. I park the car in a graveled area; we walk across the highway to read an information board and see Stonehenge up close. The late Al Shepperd got the idea in 1989 to create the replica after his neighbor, Doug Hill, gave him a limestone slab left over from a patio project. Shepperd stood the rock upright and — voila! — inspiration struck. Shepperd put up the money, and Hill put up the "boulders," which are actually fabricated from steel, metal mesh and plaster. Shepperd later added a pair of moai statues, replicas of giant stone faces that stand on Easter Island in the South Pacific.

We trek back to the car and wave goodbye to a couple of weekend motorcyclists from Abilene. It's time to wrap up this adventure and get ready for another week. I just hope the wind's at our backs for the trip home.

Kerrville Music Festivals

Quiet Valley Ranch, located 9 miles south of Kerrville on Highway 16, hosts two popular music events every year: the Kerrville Folk Festival (starts May 25, 2006) and the Kerrville Wine and Music Festival (Sept. 2-4, 2005).

Begun in 1972, the famous Kerrville Folk Festival hosts 18 days of live performances by more than 100 singer-songwriters and their bands. At night, the music continues with impromptu jam sessions across the ranch's campgrounds.

Dubbed "Little Folk" by some, the Kerrville Wine and Music Festival features performances by songwriters and entertainers from across the nation along with food and wine tastings and seminars.

For more information, contact the Kerrville Convention and Visitors Bureau: <www.kerrvilletexas.cc> or (800) 221-7958; for reservations at the Y.O. Ranch Resort, call (830) 257-4440 or visit <www.yoresort.com>; to book a kayak or canoe trip, call Kerrville Kayak and Canoe Rentals at (830) 459-2122; to reserve a campsite or cabin at Kerrville-Schreiner Park, call (830) 257-5392; for more information about the festivals, call (830) 257-3600 or visit <www.kerrville-music.com>.

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