Slice of Paradise
By Bernadette Noll
Travel time from:
- Austin - 2.5 hours /
- Brownsville - 5.75 hours /
- Dallas - 5.75 hours /
- El Paso - 8.75 hours /
- Houston - 4.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 1.5 hours
- Lubbock - 6 hours
In Utopia, you'll find giant trees, rope swings, starry skies and tasty pies.
The anticipation of going to a place called Utopia had the whole family feeling quite exhilarated; even our 4-year-old understood there was magic in the word. All week long we spoke of it with reverence and joy, as if a town thus named must surely hold some enchantment.
So, on a Sunday morning, before the sun had risen, we loaded up the four kids and coolers, maps, binoculars, swimsuits and a field guide or two and hit the road to Utopia. We arrived 150 miles later, after a beautiful and winding drive through the Hill Country, where an extremely rainy summer had created a lushness or-dinarily unheard of in Texas in August.
Utopia, located in the Sabinal Canyon, circled by the glorious hills of the Hill Country, is on the Sabinal River at the junction of Ranch Roads 187 and 1050, in Uvalde County. Archaeologists have found evidence that the land there was once inhabited by Paleo-Indians, nomadic bands of ancient Indians who moved through Mexico and around the Southwest for more than 10,000 years. In the late 1700s, Spanish explorers made many expeditions into the canyon to name the rivers, mountains and streams and to record the tribes there.
Capt. William Ware, a soldier in the Texas Revolution, moved to the canyon in 1852, after his first visit in 1835 inspired him to declare his love for the area. More settlers arrived soon after, and in 1856, Waresville, as it was then called, opened its first post office/store. In 1873, Ware's son-in-law moved a mile north, plotted out land for houses, stores, schools and churches, and named it Montana. But in 1884 a survey revealed that a Montana, Texas, already existed, and so the town's name was changed to Utopia.
We arrived in town early Sunday morning when everything, except the Lost Maples Cafe, was closed. After a two-and-a-half-hour drive with four kids we were not feeling exactly "restaurant-friendly," so instead we followed our Great Texas Wildlife Trail map to site 36 on the Heart of Texas West Wildlife Trail: Utopia on the River Bed and Breakfast. These trail maps, available through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, have been the impetus for some great natural road trips around the state and have led us to places we surely would not have found otherwise.
As we emerged from the van, we were overwhelmed by the number of ruby-throated hummingbirds that ate from the multitudinous feeders. We tripped down the grassy slope and got our first close-up view of the crystal clear Sabinal River. In seconds our shoes were off and our kids were immersed in exploration and waist-deep water. The cypress trees along the banks were some of the biggest trees we had ever seen, and we stood around one, fingertip to fingertip, to see if we could encircle the trunk - we weren't even close.
Though it was torturous to pull the kids away from the water, we got back in the van, cool and fresh, and headed to Utopia Park. A dam there made a great swimming hole, but our eyes went instead to the three see-saws lined up in the shade. "See-saws!" we all shouted, and it dawned on me that see-saws were ancient relics from a time when insurance restraints didn't rule the playgrounds. A towering metal ladder leaning on a tree and leading up to a platform over the river testified that this small town may be untouched by such a phenomenon. My kids stared up in reverent awe with their mouths agape. To divert their desire, I promised lunch, and we headed the few blocks into town. We'll come back to that one when they're teens.
Now that we had sufficiently run off our road buzz, we were ready for a late lunch at the Lost Maples Cafe. The place was delightfully casual and perfectly suited our family of six with its array of booths, big tables and mismatched chairs. A homestyle menu matched its decor and while the kids went for the burgers, I opted for the roast beef and mashed potatoes special, which was fall-off-the-bone good. For dessert we ordered coconut cream and lemon meringue from an extensive pie menu. We debated which was better as we shared our way through both. Later, a local told me the pecan fudge pie is about the tastiest pie he's ever eaten in his life. We'll have to save that for next time.
The Sabinal Canyon Museum, open only on weekends, was our next stop. It was perfectly sized for this small town. The museum's president welcomed us joyfully and answered any questions we had about the array of maps and artifacts on display, such as the 7-foot-long wooden bathtub built by and for the town's blacksmith, a giant of a man. The museum's maps gave us an overview we hadn't gotten from road maps.
Next, we headed to our rental house, La Hacienda on the River, arranged for us by Rio Frio Lodging. As we approached the house down the winding dirt road, we saw trees full of eastern bluebirds, lesser goldfinch and even a vermilion flycatcher, so aptly named. The promise of birding from the deck had my husband just a tad excited. We donned our swimsuits and headed to the water's edge, where we could see the rocky bottom even at 15 feet deep. "First one on the rope swing!" called my son as he swung off the cypress-lined riverbank. I watched him go, knees up, feet tucked, as he swung way out. Then my daughters went off, making it look easy enough. I grabbed hold, took off with a burst and dragged pathetically into the water.
After brief instruction and a few hysterically lame attempts, I finally mastered it when my 4-year-old yelled from the side, "Feel the power, Mommy!" In Utopia, Texas, I felt the power and spent the next couple of hours perfecting my skills.
That evening we headed for the sunset bat flight at Frio Cave, about 20 miles from Utopia. We met with our guide from Hill Country Adventures, LeAnn Sharp, and about 25 others and drove to the mouth of the cave, on a rocky hill on a private ranch. Sharp gave a brief presentation about the Mexican free-tailed bats that live there, and as she spoke, the first bats emerged. In awe, we watched as nearly 7 million bats streamed out against the setting sun and the hot pink sky. A few red-tailed hawks appeared from seemingly nowhere, grabbing their prey just above our heads - a spectacle like no other.
Monday morning, after a swim, we met with Lee Haile, professional storyteller and big-tree tour giver, who works with Sharp. Haile took us on a five-hour journey, showing us back roads, edible plants, birding spots and several of the biggest trees in Texas. In what he has dubbed the Valley of Champions, we saw 17 different species of trees, some of them champions in the Texas Forest Service's Big Tree Registry and some darn close. On our meandering tour, Haile showed us a former champion live oak. We could easily imagine a family of gnomes living in such a tree with its far-flung canopy and countless curling limbs.
Haile explained that this region is the biological crossroads of the state, where many species from every direction come together. For many plants and wildlife, it is the end of the road. His knowledge and love of the area and its flora and fauna were palpable. The glory of it all could be seen in his expression as we hiked up a stream and he showed us where the cold spring water was bubbling right out of the ground. We filled our water bottles, dipped our feet and splashed our naked baby. Lee filled his hat and took us to our last stop, on the grounds of Crider's Camp on the Frio River, where we stood at the base of the largest bald cypress tree in Texas. Dumbstruck, we gaped and we laughed as we realized yesterday's tree was not even close.
After that, we were spent and headed back to the house for an early supper on the deck. The cold beverages we had brought with us never tasted as good as they did on that river's edge. A post-dinner swim guaranteed an easy bedtime, and the kids drifted off to sleep with visions of tree limbs dancing in their heads. On the deck that night, my husband and I marveled at the incredibly starry sky, the barred owl hooting in the distance and the fact that we actually needed a jacket in Texas in August.
We started our third day with another swim and took turns snorkeling in the clear waters. Late morning, we headed the few blocks into town and stopped at the very urbane Utopia Joe's coffee shop, filled with bright paintings and cozy places to sit. A fellow customer, picking up some sweets for the Tuesday women's group, invited us to view the wonderfully renovated Methodist Church around the corner, originally built in 1866.
On the main drag, we stopped at what looked like a permanent garage sale but was actually the entrance of Heaven's Landing - a junk shop, florist, video rental, toy store and ice cream stand where there was truly something for everyone. Just up the street, we found Hidden Treasures resale shop, where we bought a small owl sculpture as a souvenir. The thrift store junkie in me was pleased to see that even Utopia's general store had a section in the back for old junk.
For lunch we were torn between Hick's House, a bakery and restaurant in an old renovated house, and Chiquita's Mexican Restaurant. I let the kids choose where we would eat, and after running into Hick's House for a look at the menu and a jar of homemade pomegranate jelly, I was sorry they had chosen Mexican. I savored the Hick's House menu of sandwiches and salads and vowed to return.
That night we headed to Concan for a last night's stay at Neal's Lodges on the Frio River. As it was the last week before school, the crowds were thick and the place had the feel - and the bugs - of a summer camp. The river was flowing fast and a late afternoon tubing expedition proved to be a little bit more than we bargained for - a few of the rapids had to be walked. My kids definitely deserved some sort of merit badge for that ride.
The next morning, before heading home, we stopped for a quick swim at Garner State Park and were once again thankful for our Texas State Parks Pass, which affords us the ability to pop into a state park without a daylong commitment.
We loved our time in Utopia and left knowing we would definitely return. We love the way the rivers serve as a lifeline and infuse everyone there with an appreciation and connection to the outdoors - whether it's fishing, swimming, boating or just enjoying the view. And, while we couldn't agree on our favorite pie, we could all agree that Utopia is perfectly named.
- Utopia on the River Bed and Breakfast (830-966-2444, www.utopiaontheriver.com)
- Rio Frio Lodging (830-966-2320, www.friolodging.com)
- Neal's Lodges (830-232-6118, www.nealslodges.com)
- Hill Country Adventures (830-966-2320, www.hillcountryadventures.com)
- Crider's Frio River Resort (830-232-5584, www.cridersonthefrio.com)
- Garner State Park (830-232-6132, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/garner)