Travel time from:
Austin – 1.5 hours
Brownsville – 5 hours
Dallas – 3.5 hours
Houston – 3.5 hours
San Antonio – .5 hour
Lubbock – 6.5 hours
El Paso – 9.25 hours
by Dyanne Fry CortezScenic hikes, free Sunday night dances and general horsing around abound.
Some parts of the Texas Hill Country are hillier than others. West of Boerne on Highway 46, the road narrows. Ups and downs get more dramatic. We start seeing wood fences instead of barbed wire, a sure sign that we’re coming into horse country.
Our first stop is BR Lightning Ranch in Pipe Creek, where we’ve arranged a late-morning ride. We pull up to the log-cabin office 20 minutes early. While awaiting our wranglers and the rest of our riding party, Javier and I take a look around the place.
A winding walk leads to seven bed-and-breakfast cabins with tin roofs and wide, comfortable porches. In the arena across the way, we see a high-dive platform with a stock tank below. Office Manager Margaret Davis, who has just arrived with forms for us to sign, says that’s where the diving mules perform. “We have a rodeo every Saturday from mid-May to mid-August,” she says, “and bull riding every third Sunday in winter.”
In addition to these typically Texan pastimes, ranch owner Bill Rivers trains animals of all types for movies and special events. We glimpse camels and ostriches in the distance. Later, on horseback, we find a water buffalo lounging beside the trail.
Our one-hour ride takes us through a dense cedar break, across sunny meadows, and down a rocky wash into a forest of stately cedar elms. The ranch offers longer rides, including overnight trips at Hill Country State Natural Area.
On to Brighter Days Horse Refuge, where no one rides. It’s a rehab center and retirement home for horses that have been injured, abused or abandoned or have simply grown old. With good food and TLC, some recover and go to new homes. Others spend the remainder of their lives at Brighter Days. The nonprofit corporation is supported by many groups and individuals. Much of the hands-on work is still done by the resident founders, Jeannie and Bill Weatherholtz.
“I’ve always loved horses,” says Jeannie. As a girl growing up in England, she put out treats for the horse that pulled the milkman’s cart. She and Bill started their operation near Boerne in 1986 and moved to their present location in 1994. Visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Donations of money are always welcome, but a bag of carrots or apples will get you in the gate.
On the day we visit, there are 81 horses in residence, plus a few donkeys. We meet Clyde and Rusty, two ponies in their mid-30s; Party of Three, a young Welsh Cob cross who had a cataract removed from his right eye; and Champ, who arrived as a colt nearly 10 years ago. “He’d put his foot through a fence, and they were going to put him down because they said he’d never walk again,” Bill Weatherholtz recalls. Champ not only walks; he smiles at visitors, rolling his lip all the way back to show off his teeth.
We’ve handed out a bag of horse treats. Our appetites tell us it’s way past lunchtime. We sit on the back deck of Brick’s River Café in Bandera, looking over the cypress-lined bank of the Medina River and drink iced tea from wide-mouthed Mason jars. My Southwest chicken is tender and juicy, smothered with sautéed peppers, onions and melted Jack cheese. Howard is a liver-and-onions guy, and judges his meat to be tender and not overcooked. Javier’s chicken-fried steak also gets a favorable review; I steal a bite of his creamy-smooth mashed potatoes. There are pies and cakes in the display case, but nobody has room for dessert.
We take Howard home to Pipe Creek and head south toward Medina Lake. On a whim, we turn west on Park Road 37 and drive through the sprawling community of Lakehills on the north shore. We stop for the night at Bob’s Cove. The campground is situated on a sloping point of live oak–juniper woods with water on three sides. We’re just in time to set up camp, walk out on the floating dock and watch the sun go down across the water.
Government Canyon State Natural Area is a patchwork of creeks, cliffs and caves, located on the Balcones Escarpment just 16 miles from downtown San Antonio. I’ve read about the canyon’s unique natural history, the coalition of groups that worked to save it from urban sprawl, and the care taken to develop recreational facilities with minimal impact on the environment. Today, at last, I’m seeing it with my own eyes.
In a state natural area, as opposed to a state park, the often-dicey balance between people and nature is tilted toward conservation. There’s a lot to protect here: golden-cheeked warblers, endangered cave bugs, historic artifacts and archaeological sites. At the deepest level, all those concerns connect to one overarching theme.
“It’s all about water,” says Resource Specialist Niki Lake. “That’s the reason this road was established. That’s why the Native Americans were here.”
We’re hiking on the Joe Johnston Route, an old military supply road from San Antonio to points north and west. The road runs alongside Government Canyon Creek and forms the backbone of the natural area’s backcountry trail system.
Before starting our hike, Javier and I took in the water-saving features of the visitor center: the drought-tolerant native landscaping, the rainwater harvesting system, and a series of three-dimensional exhibits that illustrates how a karst aquifer works. Almost 90 percent of the property sits over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. By living lightly on this land, visitors and staff help to preserve Central Texas streams and drinking water for the whole city of San Antonio.
There are 40 miles of hike-and-bike trails here, with about 30 in the “backcountry” or recharge zone. Some trails are pretty rugged. Helmets are required for mountain bikers, and shock absorbers are strongly recommended. Signs at the visitor center warn guests to pace themselves, carry plenty of water and be prepared for extreme temperatures.
But today is a beautiful, breezy day, and the Johnston Route is fairly flat. We admire stands of mountain laurel, possumhaw and escarpment black cherry. Niki tells of the August 2007 flood that scoured the creek bed and washed away topsoil. Since the area opened for public use in 2005, floods and feral hogs have proved to be a greater threat than people.
We turn onto the Canyon Overlook trail, which puts us on a bluff at treetop level, looking down on the creek. Descending again, we pass the base of the bluff and suddenly find ourselves in a strange, gray forest of Spanish moss. It hangs in blankets and curtains, not just from oaks and cedar elms, but also from mountain laurels and junipers. Niki says experts have tried to figure out why. Unusual nutrients? A band of Native Americans who carried in seeds? “What I think is, this place has awesome energy. It just feels special,” she says.
We hike on to the Zizelmann house, a 19th-century remnant of the area’s ranching past, and scramble downhill for a look at Government Canyon Spring. When we make it back to the visitor center, we’ve covered 6 miles.
After a workout like that, a bit of luxury couldn’t hurt. We check into the Grey Stone Manor, a bed-and-breakfast outside of Helotes, and head for the free Sunday night dance at the Floore Country Store.
Ann Miller, coordinator for TPWD’s Angler Education Program, recalls seeing Willie Nelson here in 1972. She had barely heard of Willie at the time, and had never been to a place like Floore’s. She sat cross-legged on the outdoor dance floor, right in front of the stage. “I looked up into those blue eyes and was blown away by the music. I became an instant fan,” Miller says.
Willie still plays two shows a year at this historic venue, which looks much the same as it did 35 years ago. We order burgers at the Honky Tonk Café (counter service until 9 p.m.) and watch the Jimmy Cribb Band on the indoor stage. Big shows still happen in the fenced outdoor backyard, with picnic-table seating and big shade trees.
We wake up in a cozy room with stone walls and hardwood floors. Our front door opens onto a wooden deck that overlooks an expansive lawn. There’s a bubbling fountain, a gazebo and benches in picturesque spots. I pretend for a moment that I’m a pampered lady of the manor — but there are no servants to bring us breakfast. We go into the kitchen and serve ourselves, Continental-style.
The house has several rooms for overnight guests, but we’re the sole occupants today. The decorator had a whimsical eye for antiques and objets d’art. Delightful surprises lurk everywhere; I could stay here for a week and still find new things to look at. The pool house is a case in point. Wooden fish and butterfly kites are suspended from the rafters, reflecting in the blue water of the pool. Lovely, but the Jacuzzi in the next room looks more inviting at the moment. After a good soak, we pack our things, coast down the curved driveway and close the wrought-iron gate behind us.
Helotes is full of craft galleries and funky antique shops. Many are open weekends and closed on Monday. We admire some vintage buildings, read a historical marker or two, and find our way to El Chapparal Mexican Restaurant, a family-owned eatery that dates back to the 1950s.
Javier orders the Fajitas Famosas. I go for Valerie’s Special, a cheese enchilada with fajitas on the side. The back of the menu mentions sopapillas, homemade flan, tres leches cake and three types of cheesecake. Stuffed and happy, we head for home.
• BR Lightning Ranch, 818 FM 1283, Pipe Creek (www.lightningranch.com, 800-994-7373)
• Brighter Days Horse Refuge, 682 Krause Road, Pipe Creek (www.brighterdayshorserefuge.org, 830-510-6607)
• Brick’s River Café, 1205 Main, Bandera (behind River Oaks Inn) (www.bricksrivercafe.com, 830-460-3200)
• Government Canyon State Natural Area (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/governmentcanyon, 210-688-9055)
• John T. Floore Country Store, Helotes (www.liveatfloores.com, 210-695-8827)
• Grey Stone Manor, 20058 Scenic Loop Road, Helotes (www.greystonebnb.com)
• El Chaparral Mexican Restaurant, Helotes (210-695-8302)