A RETURN VISIT is JUST AS MUCH FUN AS THE FIRST VISIT WHEN YOU ARE IN THE Texas HILL COUNTRY
After 16 months of social isolation, the Graytripper was finally able to get back out on the road again. So, one bright, sunny day, LaVerne and I packed up and headed back to one of our favorite spots - the Texas Hill Country. This trip also coincided with peach time in Fredericksburg. After the unusually frigid weather that blanketed Texas in February, I wasn't sure whether the trees had survived or not. Luckily, they all made it and this year's crop was one of the best in several years. It was time for the freestone peaches and they were not only delicious but very juicy - about 3 napkins to a peach. After making a stop at Burg's Corners in Stonewall, which is about 15 miles east of Fredericksburg, we arrived at our destination in time to check in at the hotel and grab a few minutes of relaxation before heading out to dinner at Mamacita's and some great salsa verde.
The drive from Dripping Springs to Fredericksburg is flanked by wineries on both sides of the highways. There are several wine tours companies with full day, half day or private wine tours available. If you prefer a less structured way to visit the wineries, there are a Wine Shuttles that depart from downtown Fredericksburg and run every 10 minutes on Saturdays. Fredericksburg is also known for its restaurants some of which offer traditional German food. A couple of the favorites are the Old German Bakery Restaurant and Otto's German Bistro. Note: Always check the business hours of the restaurants as some of them close in the early afternoons. Along with good food, there are a couple of interesting museums in the city. The Pioneer Museum contains examples of early German structures and other items that were in use during the days of the German settlement in that area. They offer special events several times a year that can be enjoyed by the whole family although it would be a good idea to check before going since Covid might have necessitated changes in the schedules.
Outside of being a wonderful place to visit, Fredericksburg is centrally located in the Hill Country and offers easy access to points of interest around the area. One of the more popular destinations in the Enchanted Rock State Park. The Park is located about 17 miles north of Fredericksburg on Ranch Rd. 965. The huge pink granite dome which is actually a batholith formed billions of years ago when magma cooled and turned into granite under the surface of the earth. Through time, the uplifting, erosion, and seas that came and went brought the mass to the surface. Fortunately, it was saved from the fate of other batholiths in the area that were heavily quarried and destroyed. The area has now become a favorite for hikers and rock climbers and offers hiking trails and a variety of other activities. Due to the popularity of the park, reservations are recommended.
Since we had already purchased our peaches, which was the main objective of the trip, we spent the next day driving around and purposely getting “lost” to discover what else was in the area. We headed north to Llano and took Hwy 29 east to Burnet. We passed by Lake Buchanan and were able to see the dam in the distance. Buchanan dam is the largest multi-arch dam in the world and is open for visitors. The town was initially a construction camp for the workers building the first major flood-control and power-generation plants on the Colorado River. Visitors can also take a 2 1/2 hour river cruise where the spectacular wilderness and wildlife along the Canyon of the Colorado River is visible. We also visited Inks Lake State Park which is right off Hwy 29. Reaching Burnet, we turned south onto Hwy 281 on our way to Marble Falls and lunch. We had heard about the 85 year old Blue Bonnet Cafe, famous for home style food and mile high pies and decided to give it a try. We were not disappointed. Lunch was great. My chicken fried steak was done to perfection and covered with a delicious cream gravy. The portions weren't skimpy and LaVerne and I both ended up with doggie bags and pieces of pie for later. A wonderful place to stop even if the traffic can be a little challenging getting to the restaurant. After lunch, we got back on the road heading south to Johnson City and then west on Hwy 290 towards Fredericksburg.
A few years back, we had visited Luckenbach and decided, since we were close, to stop by again and see what changes had been made, if any. Luckenbach, Texas with Waylon, Willie, and the boys is the mecca of country music and any true Texan needs to make a pilgrimage every so often just to soak up the atmosphere and feel the beat of the heart of the Lone Star state. If you go there, don’t expect a small town or even any town. Luckenbach used to consist of a small store, post office, and beer hall. They have added larger buildings and outdoor spaces that comprise 13 music venues. You can check the Luckenbach Concerts tour date calendar on the website: www.luckenbachtexas.com. If you do plan a visit, I would suggest reading up on the history of the area. That just adds another element to the enjoyment of your trip.
Leaving Luckenbach, we took a winding road towards the Old Tunnel State Park. This area located on Old San Antonio is an abandoned railroad tunnel that has now become home to more than 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats. The tunnel was part of the Fredericksburg and Northern Railway that connected Fredericksburg with San Antonio and operated until 1942 when it was discontinued due to an inability to be profitable. With the trains stopped, the bats moved in and the area was acquired by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1991 and in 2012 became a part of the State Parks Division. Once the discovery of the bats became known and the number of visitors increased, the parks department added viewing areas and stairs down to the tunnel to make it easier for people to enjoy the nightly exit of the bats from the tunnel. We had visited the park on a previous visit also and again, I was surprised to see how many improvements had been made. There was a small covered deck at the entrance that led to the steps leading down to the tunnel. It was a very warm day when we visited and there is one little issue with visiting an area that is home to millions of bats - the closer we got to the tunnel, the stronger the odor of bat guano. I decided that going half way down was close enough for me to get a reasonably good picture. Making our way back up to the top again, we met a very nice couple, Johna and Bob DeVoe, from Homosassa, Florida who were on a vacation touring all around Texas. One thing I enjoy most about traveling is talking with other travelers. This couple was especially nice since they only had great things to say about the state and had enjoyed every place they visited - even west Texas in the summer heat!
We headed back towards Fredericksburg through the winding two lane roads that are not heavily traveled. Roads like this often provide some of the most stunning scenery and unusual sights that are not readily seen on major highways. We discovered beautiful old stone and chinked log homes that were probably well over 100 years old. Austin stone is plentiful in that area and was used as the primary building material when early settlers came to the area. One house still had an old stone smoke house by a creek and a water well in the front yard. The house had a large chinked log addition that was probably an add on as the family grew. All in all, the drive was beautiful; the narrow road wended its way through rocky hills with wide vistas that glowed in the setting sun - much more enjoyable than the high-speed wide highway busy with cars all frantically trying to reach their destination.
If you haven't visited San Antonio, you need to plan a trip. The San Antonio River makes a path through the center of the downtown area and there are shops, restaurants, and hotels along the banks of the waterway. There are wide sidewalks that parallel the river on both sides and the shops have entrances on the river side as well as on the street level - lots of great places to eat and shop. The Alamo is in the center of San Antonio and is close to many other interesting tourist attractions like the Governor's Palace near the city square and the Mercado located a short distance by Trolley from the city center. San Antonio is also known for Six Flags Fiesta Texas amusement park, Sea World, the zoo at Brackenridge Park and Sunken Gardens along with a mission trail drive that goes to four southernmost Spanish colonial missions - Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada. Mission San Jose is a beautiful limestone church with a well-known rose window. Mission San Francisco de la Espada is the oldest having been established in 1690 and relocated in 1731 to its present location in San Antonio. I remember this mission from childhood visits many, many years ago. At that time the mission was in a state of disrepair but my grandmother's brother lived very close to the church and when we visited, my great-uncle would take me walking to see the church and look around. On one occasion, his dog accompanied us to the mission. While we walked around looking at the various buildings, we discovered the dog had gone in the open chapel and was contentedly drinking the Holy water. My uncle chased the dog away as he laughed and told me that dog would probably live forever. I always felt like Mission San Francisco was my own special place and I was very happy when it later was restored. (Note: pictures of the River Walk and Mission San Jose are professional. The rain and traffic did not cooperate enough for me to get out and take a photo but I wanted to give my readers a chance to see the areas.)
LaVerne and I had been to San Antonio many times but we had two new places to see on this trip. The first thing we wanted to do was to visit the remodeled Pearl brewing company and then have lunch at the Pig Stand. Pearl beer was one of the early bottling companies in Texas. It was the drink of Texas during the 1940s but in later years, with all the craft beers, the company scaled down its operations and closed the San Antonio brewery turning the iconic, old brick building into apartments and lofts with areas for retail and restaurants. The remodel is very well done and a lot of the original equipment and signage from the brewery remains on the premises making it an interesting and quaint place to spend a day. There is also a twice weekly Farmers Market so if you plan your trip, you could be taking home a variety of fresh produce.
After our eventful morning, we decided to venture out to the last place we wanted to visit - the Pig Stand. Pig Stand restaurants were started in 1921 with the first one opening in Dallas. The history of the company is Interesting as its legacy is in being the first drive-in. The Dallas based restaurant boasted of selling 50,000 pulled Pork sandwiches a week in a town with only about 250,000 residents! Whether that is fact or not, the Tennessee-Style barbecued-pork sandwich gained a lot of popularity and the Pig Stand became a nationwide chain. There was a Pig Stand close to my childhood home in Houston and we would frequently stop by for the tasty sandwich served with a side of onion rings. Unfortunately, after a meteoric rise in popularity, the acclaimed sandwich began to be copied by other restaurants causing a decrease in business for the Pig Stand and after a slow downhill spiral, the company officially closed in November of 2006. Luckily one of the long-time managers of the Pig Stand on Broadway in San Antonio bought the restaurant and today, you can still get a Pig Sandwich and onion rings while listening to a jukebox at your booth in a restaurant that has the same neon signs and décor that was there in the 1940s. The restaurant was also very close to the brewery so we were there in no time and the smell of the barbecue quickly awakened our taste buds. Our sandwiches and onion rings arrived and the first taste evoked a familiar flavor from bygone times. There aren't too many ways pulled pork can be ruined but when it is served with a side of nostalgia, you can't beat the taste.
One of the many good things about Texas is that if you wander off the beaten path, you will always run across the most interesting sights and towns. That is my favorite way to travel - no itinerary and if you see a road that looks like it holds promise - take it. You'll never know what you will discover.
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