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Lovin' Llano

Destination: Llano

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 1 hour /
  • Brownsville - 6.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 3.75 hours /
  • Houston - 4 hours /
  • San Antonio - 1.75 hours /
  • Lubbock - 5 hours
  • El Paso - 8.5 hours /

This Hill Country gem is home to bounteous birds, butterflies, barbecue and llanite.

The sound of clinking marbles rattles in the cool morning air as we trek across a jumble of granite boulders, some skirted with rivulets of murky water. "Hear that? It's a cricket frog," I tell my husband, who's leading our short hike along Pecan Creek at the Llano County ranch where we're staying. Plop! Instantly I jerk my head around, but I'm too late. Only rings of ripples remain where probably another frog, startled by our intrusion, dove into the water. We linger, hoping to spot at least a bug-eyed head. No luck.

We follow what appears to be a trail. "Wait! Look at this!" I exclaim, squatting close to the ground where James has just stepped. I pull back some foliage to expose a black butterfly, teetering on a stem. Its folded wings reveal a row of bright orange spots against an iridescent blue background. "See?" I say, pointing to a yellow-orange sac attached to the same stem, "it just emerged from its chrysalis!" Wow, we've just met a brand new pipevine swallowtail.

Such memorable experiences make us love Llano in the Hill Country even more. We've visited a few times in the past, but never stayed overnight. This time, we will. Still, we already know what makes this town so special: a plethora of historic buildings, granite outcroppings along the spring-fed Llano River, great places to eat and browse, and wildlife adventures to boot.

Historically, little is known about a Tonkawa tribe of Sanas that once inhabited this region. Spanish explorers who later befriended the Indians called the river Rio de los Sanas. Through time, the name morphed into Llano, pronounced "lan-o" by the locals. (For the record, llano – Spanish for "plain" – is pronounced "ya-no.")

In 1856, Llano County residents chose a site on both sides of the river as their county seat. In the 1890s, Llano boomed after iron deposits and other minerals were discovered in the area. In 1892, rail service from Austin arrived on the city's north side. On the south side, the county constructed a grand new courthouse to replace one that had burned the year before.

Iron ore mining waned before 1900, ending Llano's opulent era. Fires – probably set to collect insurance – later destroyed many buildings north of the river. Most of Llano's more than 7,000 residents left. After the boom, farming, ranching and the granite industry largely kept the town alive. Another blow came in 1935 when a flood swept Llano's bridge away. In its place stands the steel Roy Inks Bridge, a four-span architectural wonder built in 1936.

Day One

First, we want to bone up more on Llano, so we cruise across the bridge to the historic rail yard district. Here we visit the new Llano Depot, Visitors Center and Railroad Museum, a replica of the original depot that burned in 1961. Railroad exhibits, tourism brochures and friendly staff provide us with plenty of information.

Across the river, the old Llano County jail has always piqued our curiosity. Mike Reagor with the Llano Main Street Project meets us at the four-level structure, built in 1895 of pink granite and used as a jail until 1982. During Llano's boom days, ol' Red Top – so called for the red paint that once colored its roof – hosted a steady clientele of drunks and other lawbreakers. Most had to be physically coerced to head up the same iron staircase we're climbing. On the second floor, we stop in front of an iron-grated cell.

"This is why they call it the 'slammer,' Reagor says, pulling a mechanism – patented in 1874 by the Pauley Jail Building Co. – that loudly bangs as it jams the heavy door shut. Two more levels up, Reagor guides us up the traditional 13 steps to the gallows, better known as the Drop Dead Room. "Until 1923, county jails had charge of their executions," Reagor explains. "We've tried, but we can't confirm any hangings here."

For a late lunch, we duck into Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, world renowned for their smoke-kissed delicacies served on butcher paper. At the outside pit, James points to his choices, then "pit guy" Paul Herrera slices some sausage, beef ribs and pork chops. Inside, we nab some potato salad in the service line, pay for our meal, then find seats at one of the long picnic tables.

Next, we head over to the 1907 Dabbs Railroad Hotel, one of the Victorian-style hotels built in the area to accommodate travelers. "It's the last one still standing," says owner Phyllis Alexander, who bought and restored the two-story Dabbs in 2006. Gangster Clyde Barrow reportedly favored the Dabbs as a hideaway in the 1930s.

James can't pass up antiques, so we run into Llano Railyard Antiques, where we peruse vintage glassware, oak dining chairs, funky lamps, retro clothing and crocheted doilies. At Mudd's Antiques, James spots a Kodak Brownie camera. I ponder old-time baking in a porcelain E-Z-Est oven with attached gas canisters.

We're spending the rest of the afternoon with Gene and Bill Miller, who own Pecan Creek Ranch, a 1,900-acre spread northwest of Llano. First, we unload our stuff at their guest cottage, where we're staying. Right away, we note the small dish of M&Ms on the coffee table, homemade sand tarts in the kitchen, and breakfast fixin's in the fridge. Not to mention bedroom windows with tranquil views and a porch bench for morning coffee. We already feel at home.

In the Millers' SUV, we bump down granite gravel roads that pass live oak mottes, cattle grazing in pastures, and several large ponds (stocked with catfish, bass and bluegill). Along a slow-moving creek, we admire huge granite boulders that remind us of nearby Enchanted Rock.

"Our calling card is privacy and seclusion," says Gene, who started her guest business, called Century Ranch Lodging, in 1992. "When people are here, they're not jammed up against one another."

From Pecan Creek, we head south on Texas 16, then west on County Road 113. Some 22 miles from Llano, we reach the gate to their other cattle operation: 1,240-acre Dutch Mountain Ranch, which adjoins Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Like at Pecan Creek Ranch, the couple runs a guest lodge and cottage here, too.

"This all started with a league and a labor – about 4,700 acres – given to Matthew Moss, my great-great-grandfather, after he fought in the Battle of San Jacinto," says Gene, the fifth generation in her family to own this land. Such longevity earned the ranch designation in the Texas Family Land Heritage Program, which honors farms and ranches kept in continuous ag production by the same family for a century or more.

Views from the lodge's porch look across a small pond and beyond to Watch Mountain, a pink granite outcropping less than a mile away. "The time to be here is in the evening when those rocks just come alive," Gene says. "Artists love it here."

For more than an hour, the Millers drive us around the ranch. We spot a painted bunting winging from a tree, a roadrunner dashing across the road, and some Mexican buckeye trees in a valley. Bill also points out "the first 'high fence' in Llano County," built in the 1940s with barbed wire and cedar posts. From a vantage point called the High Spot, we gaze across treetops to nearby pink outcroppings - Dutch Mountain, Watch Mountain, Bullhead Mountain and Enchanted Rock. Talk about phenomenal scenery.

After farewells, we head back to Llano and straight to the Badu House, a former bank built of brick and native granite in 1891. Fortunately, a bank director by the name of N. J. "Professor" Badu bought the building in 1898 after the bank failed. For several generations, he and his family lived there. In later years, the Badu – a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark – housed a B&B and restaurant. In 2005, Ted and Sharon Lusher of Austin bought the Badu and turned it into one of our favorite places to dine.

What's more, the Badu's saloon boasts something special: one of the world's largest assemblies of polished llanite covers the bar's lengthy counter. The black granite-like stone – flecked with bluish quartz crystals – is found only in Llano County.

This evening, James orders the half-pound cheeseburger, grilled and served open face with crispy fries. I select Sharon's spinach salad, a fresh medley of baby spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions, all tossed with feta, candied pecans and strawberry balsamic vinaigrette. No leftovers tonight!

Back at the Pecan Creek Cottage, we nibble sand tarts on the porch and watch purple martins flit by. Later, while James readies for bed, I grab a flashlight and sneak back outside for some spider hunting. Holding the flashlight at eye level, I pan the ground in search of "sparkling diamonds." Ah, there's a pair! Keeping the diamonds in sight, I walk toward them, crouch down, and – voila! – find a dime-sized wolf spider, lurking in the grass. Subsequent searches turn up more wolf spiders, nocturnal hunters by nature.

Day Two

The happy call of phoebes wakes us the next morning. From the cottage windows, we spot painted buntings, cardinals, eastern fox squirrels and wild turkeys. As we head out for our short hike, we admire wine cups, dayflowers, Indian paintbrushes and other wildflowers still in bloom. Our trek along Pecan Creek will turn up the pipevine swallowtail.

It's time to go, so we pack up and head for Llano, where we tour the Llano County Historical Museum. Docent Karylon Russell points us toward the Cecil Smith exhibit, which honors Llano's polo hero. Smith – who at 20 learned the game by hitting tin cans in a pasture – achieved stardom in the 1930s playing the highbrow sport. We also find out that James Fields Smathers – inventor of the electric typewriter – was born in Llano County in 1888.

For lunch, we mosey over to the square and stroll into the Acme Cafe, formerly the town's dry goods store. We share two chili dogs, then we're fortified for more touring. Frank Rowell, who owns Enchanted Rocks and Jewelry, takes us inside the LanTex Theater, first opened in 1927. Today, first-run movies and the Llano Country Opry draw visitors. Next, county judge Wayne Brascom escorts us through the renovated courthouse, a Romanesque Revival-style beauty. I love the softly lit courtroom, warmly appointed with oak furnishings, wainscoting and banisters.

On East Main, we check out some of the cool shops. In Create, funky bottle cap pendants, handmade mosaic crosses and other mosaic art intrigue me. In Sagebrush, acclaimed Western artist Jack Moss shares his studio with Diane Willmann and Jean Rostron, who tout leather sofas, greeting cards, candle holders, jewelry and lamps.

Tonight, we're staying in the Pinkerton House, one of three lovely homes that comprise the Railyard Bed and Breakfast Houses complex in the rail-yard district. After exploring the house, we walk to the nearby Llaneaux Seafood House, which occupies a 1903 Victorian-style home. For supper, we share a delectable fried seafood platter – shrimp, oysters, frog legs, crawfish tails, catfish – that's served with sautéed zucchini and fries.

Day Three

At the Hungry Hunter, James orders a fried egg with bacon and pan fries. I snag one of his biscuits. Then we're off to see the eagle nest 8 miles east of Llano on Texas 29. Since 2004, a pair of American bald eagles has reared their young in a pecan tree not far from the Llano River. Early on, so many folks pulled over to look that the highway department paved a marked viewing area.

Dale Schmidt, a TPWD wildlife technician, later tells me that "the best time to see and photograph them is in the early morning, from sunrise on." Llano's nesting Texas eagles arrive in late September, start rebuilding the nest, and lay one or two eggs in December. Eaglets typically fledge by April; everyone migrates north thereafter. As for us, it's time to migrate back toward home. But like the eagles, we'll be back soon. There's a lot to love about Llano.

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