Travel time from:
Austin – 1.5 hours
Brownsville – 6 hours
Dallas – 4.5 hours
Houston – 4 hours
San Antonio – 1 hour
Lubbock – 5.5 hours
El Paso – 8 hours
History and natural wonders abound near Fredericksburg.
By Wendee Holtcamp
How do you show Texas to someone who has been living in the big city and hasn’t seen the Lone Star State’s natural beauty since moving here a couple of years ago? That was my challenge. I picked the Hill Country because of its diversity — waterfalls, bats, rocks for climbing, quaint towns, wine country and good food. We chose Fredericksburg as our home base.
Fredericksburg has a fascinating history as one of Texas’ early German settlements. People settled where Barons Creek meets Town Creek, four miles from the Pedernales River. My friend Doug and I arrive in late evening at the 103-room Fredericksburg Inn & Suites, which sits on five acres bordering Barons Creek. The main building, hewn of whitewashed stone, is a registered Texas historic landmark built in 1848 — the old Mueller-Petmecky House. Fredericksburg’s German settlers built fachwerk homes, constructed from timber frames with spaces filled with stone and painted white, and the inn’s historic building is original fachwerk. The owners have created Texas flair at the modestly priced inn — iron lone stars for decor, an outdoor fireplace, and a beautiful pool and hot tub, which we climb into for a relaxing chat under the stars.
First stop the next morning is the Fredericksburg Herb Farm. A couple of wood and rock buildings are marked with hand-painted signs for “Restaurant” and “Shop,” and in one of several garden beds kneels a slender, 50-something woman, weeding. She introduces herself as Rosemary Estenson and generously shows us around, telling us her plans for the place, offering us fresh-brewed coffee as we talk. She only recently purchased the herb farm out of bankruptcy, and plans to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast with Sunday House cottages, open by year’s end. For now she continues the tradition of crafting delicious meals, for which the chef picks herbs and vegetables from the gardens, and creating homemade toiletries with fresh herbal infusions on site, along with offering spa treatments.
We drive about 20 miles to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area where, because we arrive early, we get a primo campsite — secluded, a few feet up a path and near a beautiful rock ledge. Doug wants to climb, but we have a schedule to keep!
After pitching camp, we drive about 60 miles north to Colorado Bend State Park, where I’ll show Doug one of the most beautiful sights in Texas — Gorman Falls — a 60-foot waterfall over delicate calcite mineral deposits. It’s always lush, green and mossy, some years wetter than others. We have time for a swim in the swiftly flowing but shallow Colorado River before the ranger-guided hike to the falls at 2 p.m. I dip my toe in, surprised at how warm the water is. Rocks line the bottom and one side of the river, which has a steep bluff on the opposite side. We frolic in the water for a while, floating downstream on the current, before we climb out and change into our hiking clothes.
We follow the ranger’s truck and a line of cars several miles down the road to the trailhead. The trail winds across desert-like Hill Country, then down a steep incline using a handrail. Everyone gets 30 minutes at the bottom to rest and snap photos, but Doug and I head back early and take a trail in the opposite direction to Gorman Spring, the waterfall’s origin.
We finish our hike, then drive to the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, a dozen miles southeast of Fredericksburg, where we will see millions of bats emerge at dusk. First, though, we dine at the Alamo Springs Café, opened by Mike Tangman five years ago for families who arrive hungry. It’s perfectly situated for bat viewers, but well worth the drive just for the food. We both order cheeseburgers, and I must say I see why they’ve earned their reputation as one of the best burgers in Texas. They’re huge, juicy and delicious, and the homemade jalapeño cheese bun truly makes the meal. We also eat very flavorful fried portabella mushrooms. Funny signs bedeck the walls, and a live band plays outside. Tangman and his wife, Cindy, wear black T-shirts emblazoned on the back with “Jefe.” I like their style!
Stuffed, we walk across the street to wait for the bats to emerge from the aptly named Old Tunnel. As we wait for the bats with a couple dozen adults and kids, TPWD biologist Nyta Brown gives an informative and interesting talk. Railroad workers carved the 920-foot tunnel straight through bedrock starting in 1913, but it’s been abandoned since 1941. Bats arrived by the 1950s. It’s a pseudomaternity cave because females arrive in April and May, leave to give birth elsewhere and then return once their pups are weaned. Unlike true maternity caves, males also roost here. Brown tells us that if you walk through the tunnel, which is cordoned off, you’ll step in four feet of bat guano. She talks for 30 minutes, and then someone sees a bat fly overhead. Soon, more and more emerge, swirling in a “tornado of bats” flying out from the tunnel, which we are sitting atop. They fly southeast, into the wind. After about 15 minutes, most have emerged.
We arrive back to our campsite after dark, and Doug builds a campfire so we can make s’mores, though we’re still stuffed from dinner. I point out some constellations I know to Doug, and then we head to bed. Note to self: When camping on stone, which this campsite is, don’t forget the sleeping pad.
The next morning I rise early and sit on the rock face behind me to journal, while Doug sleeps. Then I wake him. The morning’s getting on, and we have to climb Enchanted Rock. It’s my third time, and it’s just as exhilarating as the first.
“From afar, it didn’t look as steep as it does when you get here,” Doug says.
The trail starts out gently but climbs steeply up the rock face, though not for very far. It takes only 30 minutes or so to get to the top, and I watch as he looks for the metal survey marker at 1,825 feet. It must have rained recently because the vernal pools are full of water and flush with colorful mosses and flowers.
We finish our climb around noon and head to Fredericksburg to grab brunch at Java Ranch Espresso Bar and Café, with walls painted in murals of ranchland and historic downtown Fredericksburg. We explore the shops for a bit, and when I can wrestle Doug from the old-time toy store, we head east to the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site.
The park has a self-guided audio tour on CD. First we check out the Sauer-Beckmann living history farm, which re-creates life from the early 1900s, the era Johnson lived here. Park Ranger Rita Carleton, dressed in full early-20th-century attire, speaks to an audience gathered on the porch.
“Our day at the farm begins with lighting the fire in the kitchen stove and starting the cowboy coffee,” explains Carleton, who has worked here five years. Next, “the chickens are let out and someone has gone out to feed all the animals and milk the cow.”
They wash clothes by hand, cook all meals from scratch, and butcher and prepare meat in winter. After we snap some photos, we take the driving tour of the working LBJ Ranch, operated by the National Park Service, the place where Johnson and Lady Bird spent their last years.
Just 14 miles out of Fredericksburg, we make one final stop at Becker Vineyards, established by Dr. Richard Becker and his wife, Bunny, in 1992. The Hill Country has many wineries, and this one sells several award winners. Bunny shows us around the property, including the B&B, which is the original homestead of the Heinrick Peese family, the vineyards and lavender fields out back and the main building with a tasting room. I buy a half-dozen of the locally grown wines for gifts.
“I imagined it being more mountainous than it was,” Doug says on the way home as we discuss what he saw versus what he’d expected. He also adds, “It’s less of a desert than I thought it would be.”
He’d been keen on seeing cactus, and we did see prickly pear throughout our excursions at Enchanted Rock and Colorado Bend State Park. Both desert and mountain increase the farther west one goes in Texas, but the Hill Country is fantastic because of its rivers, gently rolling hills, unique towns and many outdoor adventures to be had.
And this was just his humble introduction to the best of Texas.
• Fredericksburg Inn & Suites, 830-997-0202
• Fredericksburg Herb Farm, www.fredericksburgherbfarm.com, 830-997-8615
• Colorado Bend State Park, 325-628-3240
• Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 830-685-3636
• Alamo Springs Café, www.alamospringscafe.com, 830-990-8004
• Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, 830-644-2252
• Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, 866-978-2287
• Becker Vineyards, 830-644-2681