Forks of the Llano
By Melissa Gaskill
Travel time from:
- Austin - 2.5 hours /
- Brownsville - 6 hours /
- Dallas - 5.5 hours /
- El Paso - 5.75 hours /
- Houston - 4.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 1.75 hours
- Lubbock - 5.5 hours
Junction boasts first-class fishing, plus all the meat and pie you can eat.
I expected the fresh air and open sky. After all, Junction is located on the rim of West Texas, elevation ranging around 2,000 feet. The abundance of outdoor activities was no surprise, either; the town is named for the junction of the north and south forks of the Llano River, ideal for fishing, tubing and related activities, and there are scores of low-traffic roads for biking and a sprawling state park and wildlife management area checkered with hiking and biking trails.
What I hadn't planned on was so many places to eat, and eat heartily. Junction is a great place to work up an appetite, and, it turns out, to satisfy it, too.
We arrived mid-day on Saturday of a three-day weekend and promptly headed to Cooper's Barbecue for the pork chops, ribs, turkey, chicken, brisket, sides, homemade sauces and cobbler. The Cooper family opened its original barbecue joint in Mason in the early 1950s, and Cooper sons later took the tradition to Llano – a location eventually sold outside the family – and here. Roy and Sheila Cooper, their son Mark and daughter-in-law Kim and their children all work at the restaurant, which has been in its current location for nine years.
"Brisket is one of our specialties, and our pork chops are really thick," Sheila says. "All our meats are prepared fresh daily."
That explains the giant barbecue pits outside and the stacks of firewood piled higher than a man's head like fortress walls across the back. On pleasant days, the picnic tables under the spread of an enormous oak are perfect.
South Llano River State Park seemed a good place to work off such a hearty meal. The 524-acre park and adjacent 2,155-acre wildlife management area were donated to the state by cattle rancher Walter Buck Jr. Two miles of park front the river, but most folks congregate around the bridge near the entrance. (October through March, much of the river bottom is closed to protect roosting turkeys, and the bridge area is the only river access. The WMA is occasionally closed for TPWD activities.)
There are more than 20 miles of hiking trails available, 15 of them prime for mountain biking, too. My husband and son spent the afternoon on bikes while my youngest daughter and I hiked, then rested in one of the park's top-notch bird blinds. These comfy shelters overlook water and feeding stations frequented by birds pretty much all day, although morning and evening are prime times. Common sightings are flycatchers, swallows, wrens, warblers, hawks and hummingbirds; laminated photos and guide books in the blind came in handy for us novices.
The family met up at the bridge for a cooling dip before heading to our home for the weekend, the three-bedroom Sugar Shack at CAVU Canyon Ranch. CAVU, from the aviation term for skies that are clear and visibility unlimited, aptly describes conditions here.
The cabin's back deck overlooks a flowing creek and a high cliff that effectively separate you from signs of civilization. This former angora ranch has two other adjacent cabins, a large fire pit, several photo blinds and stately Watusi cattle. A variety of birds, deer and other wildlife are easy to spot, and there are also ranch cats to keep guests company. Our active day, plus the ranch's peace and quiet and fresh air, made for a great night's sleep.
On Sunday, my teenage son had steak in some form at every meal. At the Segovia Truck Stop not far from our cabin, he ordered steak and eggs to properly fuel up for several hours in a kayak. Then it was on to Menard to meet Brent Frazier, our guide for the outing on the San Saba River. Frazier provides kayaks and equipment, a ride to put-in and from take-out, and guide service if you like.
It's possible to kayak, canoe, tube or otherwise propel oneself down the Llano River as well, but according to local son Frazier, the fishing on the San Saba is much better. Fewer people and thus less fishing pressure on the San Saba meant we spent the better part of four hours easily catching panfish, black bass and Guadalupe bass. We also saw, through the clear, sunlit water, catfish, gar and carp.
Our mode of operation was paddle, shoot through some picturesque rapids, coast to a shady pool, cast, reel in a fish. The first to toss a lure into a particular spot was darn near guaranteed a hit. We took lots of photos and tossed the fish back to be caught another day. Depending on how much fishing a body wants to do, this trip can take as little as two hours or as much as six.
For non-fishing types, there's scenery – towering oaks and pecans, hillsides of wildflowers, rocky cliffs, waterfalls and deep pools. Frazier pulled us over in some shallows to swim in a deep pool just below, and we might never have left except that big breakfast was wearing off and we needed to eat again.
For lunch, we stopped at Side Oats Cafe and Bakery on the main road back in Menard. The daily special was cattleman's pie – like shepherd's but with beef – and the menu also included soups, salads, sandwiches and other entrees. The son ordered chicken-fried steak and answered in the affirmative when the waitress inquired "Large?" Large it was, and delicious. Even so, the dessert display was irresistible, and we circulated around the table tuxedo cake, apple pie, bourbon chess pie, chocolate silk pie and coconut cream pie. (Yes, that's more desserts than people – fishing is hard work.)
Next stop, Fort McKavett State Historic Site, one of the best preserved of a chain of military posts built in 1852 to protect settlers and travelers on the road between San Antonio and El Paso. Thanks to near-continuous use of the complex after the military withdrew in 1883, many structures on the wind-swept, limestone hill were mostly intact when it became a historic site. There is a comprehensive display on the fort's history in the visitor center, and don't miss the "dead house" (aka morgue) and exhibit on cleaning the bathrooms around back.
Then, a self-guided walking tour of restored buildings and ruins surrounding spacious parade grounds helped walk off the pie, as did a short hike down to a wooded valley where springs feed the headwaters of the San Saba. Ruins of a lime kiln used to build the fort are also on this trail.
After a stop at our cabin to shower and rest a bit on the deck, we drove into town for dinner at La Familia restaurant, a local hangout judging by the crowd. The third steak of the day was Mexicana style, smothered in peppers and onions. This time we all passed on dessert.
Back at the cabin, our hosts, Lynn and Bob Foreman, had a fire blazing in the pit, so we made ourselves comfortable and gazed at the stars. The Milky Way is clearly visible out here, a real treat after the over-lit skies back in Austin.
Next morning we lingered over coffee on the deck one last time before heading to Isaack's Restaurant, serving Junction since 1950. The place is easy to find by its vintage neon sign on Main Street, just past the Christmas-style tree made entirely of antlers (incongruously called the Deer Horn Tree). Breakfast is available all day at Isaack's, along with seafood, chicken-fried steak, catfish and steaks cooked to order. For the record, our son had pancakes (too bad we missed the Saturday night special, sirloin steak and all the trimmings for $8.95).
Of course, a three-day outing isn't complete without a little shopping. Most of Junction's shops, as well as many of its restaurants and a few hotels, are on the half-moon-shaped main street that connects back to I-10 at either end.
West Bear Creek General Store is stuffed with western wear, jewelry, boots, local novelties and more, and the friendly proprietors will be happy to help you find what you need. Sutton Pecan Company sells in-shell, cracked and shelled pecans – something good to remember the area's beautiful trees by - as well as seasoned pecans, peanuts and candies. Conchos and Crosses has women's apparel, accessories and gifts, and a door directly into the Let'er Buck Coffeehouse, which serves gourmet coffee drinks, pastries and sandwiches.
But we picked the Sunshine Cafe and Bakery for our final meal before heading home and probably starting diets. Run by David Lawrence, a former caterer at the Ohio State Fair, and his sister Becky Long, this is another one of those places where the desserts are worth hurting yourself for, especially the meringue pies. It's safe to say no one goes hungry in Junction.
- CAVU Canyon Ranch (325-446-9135, cavucanyonranch.com)
- South Llano River State Park (325-446-3994, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/southllanoriver)
- Cooper's Barbecue (325-446-8664)
- San Saba River Adventures (325-396-4364, sansabariveradventures.com)
- Side Oats Cafe & Bakery (325-396-2069, sideoatscafe.com)
- Fort McKavett State Historic Site (325-396-2358, www.thc.state.tx.us/hsites/hs_fort_ mckavett.shtml)
- La Familia Restaurant (325-446-2688)
- Isaack's Restaurant (325-446-2629, www.isaacksrestaurant.com)
- Sunshine Cafe and Bakery (325-446-2497)
- Kimble County Chamber of Commerce (junctiontexas.net, texashillsandrivers.org)