Texas Hill Country – Day-3 (Saturday) – Part-1… Scenic Drive and Lost Maples…

Another couple, retired, was staying in the Texan cabin, next door to mine.  The routine was, the guests would head up to the main house at 9:00am for what turned out to be a-MAZ-ing breakfasts, made and served by Brett and Gil, along with conversations that helped us get to know each other a little, and get ideas of places to go and things to see in the greater-Bandera area, depending on our interests.

I wish I had the presence of mind to have snapped a few pics of the first morning’s breakfast: venison bacon, venison sausage, homemade fried green tomatoes, Gil’s homemade biscuits with gravy (she taught us the proper way to prepare them on our plates…you break up the whole biscuit and drizzle your own gravy over it), scrambled eggs made with eggs from the ranch, yellow tomatoes and red habanero peppers from their garden.

I didn’t know how to eat the whole habaneros (which were small enough to eat whole, but pack a bite), so Brett instructed me.  You first take a bite of other food, then take a little bite off the tip of the habanero, while the original bite of food is still in your mouth.  Then, chew the mix together before swallowing. Worked like a charm.  Adds just a little kick to whatever you’re eating.  Now, I want to try it back home.

So, this was how guests’ mornings started on the Double U Barr Ranch.  I highly recommend staying here when you’re in the area.  I got very lucky finding this lodging during my pre-trip research.

Today, my main goal was to hike one of the trails at Lost Maples State Natural Area, which I think may be one of the few…or the only…place in the Hill Country, or Texas, to see fall foliage colors.  I was there too early in the season to see the foliage, but that was fortuitous, since the park has limited parking, and the park and main road to the park get jammed up with traffic at the height of the foliage.

Brett suggested that I take the East Trail at Lost Maples, as this is the one with the highest elevation and best scenic views, so that became my goal.

Brett and Gil also highly recommended that, since I was going to be out that way, that I should stop for dinner on my way back, in Tarpley at Mac & Ernie’s, which is where Brett said that he and Gil always go when they want a special dinner in the area.  So, I added Mac & Ernie’s to my day.  With ranch breakfasts as amazing as Brett and Gil’s, I knew I was in for something special at Mac & Ernie’s.  You just have to go with the flow when you get local insider info like this.  I’ll get into Mac & Ernie’s in my next post.

I had also planned a scenic route to get to Lost Maples that started west of Kerrville, which is north of Bandera and is the largest town in the Hill Country.  My entire route for the day made a large counter-clockwise circle from Bandera…north to Kerrville (where I stopped for an oil change.  That’s how many miles I’m logging on this trip!)…onto TX-39 west…out to Ranch Road 187 South…down to Lost Maples…continuing south on RR-187 (after my hike) to Ranch Road 470, out to Mac & Ernie’s in Tarpley…and returning to the Double U Barr Ranch in Bandera.

But, the stretch from Ingram (southwest of Kerrville), down along the Guadalupe River, and continuing down RR-187 South to Lost Maples was the main scenic route.  This was beautiful countryside, and was arguably my second favorite scenic drive in the Hill Country.  The entire Lost Maples area is beautiful.

As Brett suggested, I did hike the East Trail, and as a park ranger suggested when I got to Lost Maples, I did the trail loop counter-clockwise, which is a little easier than clockwise.

Following my experience hiking Enchanted Rock, I opted not to take my DSLR camera, or my cellphone, to save weight (the DSLR is a bit brawny), and for fear of dropping and damaging my cellphone (which I’m relying so heavily on for GPS on this trip) on the rocks (which luckily did not happen at Enchanted Rock).  In hindsight, it would have been nice to have a couple of snapshots from the trail and the scenic overlooks on the ridge, but it was one less thing to worry about, not bringing them.

The East Trail is about 4 ½ miles long and is beautiful.  It’s also very challenging and a bit treacherous on the two steep stretches (heading up to the ridge…and then back down).  But, the lengthy level areas…leading to and from the steep stretches and along the ridge…are really pleasant.  The level stretches at the lower elevation cross a number of trickling brooks via stepping stones, which is cool (and challenges your balance!).

Hiking the loop counter-clockwise, the steep ascent to the ridge heads nearly straight up the side of the hill via a mix of natural rocks and manmade rock steps (versus any sort of traversing back and forth).  This is easier on the way up, when your legs are fresher.

The steep descent is a seemingly endless loose-rock-and-gravel slope that heads nearly straight back down the hill.  Although you really need to watch each and every step to avoid gaining any momentum, whatsoever, and to avoid slipping on the loose gravel, I think this is still a little easier than climbing down an endless stone staircase when your legs might be close to rubber by this point.  Just my personal preference.  Folks were hiking in both directions.

By the end of this hike, it was getting to late afternoon, and Brett and Gil strongly recommended that I get to Mac & Ernies before 5:30 (it opens at 5:00), because items on their limited menu quickly begin to get crossed off, the later you get there.  So, off I went.  Yikes!

Prelude to the Texas Hill Country…

From Houston, I’ll be spending my next few days taking some scenic drives (actually, somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 miles of scenic drives…yikes!), visiting a few of the very cool nature preserves and, hopefully, dancing at a couple of dancehalls or honky-tonks, all in the Texas Hill Country.  The Hill Country is generally…arguably…considered the prettiest region of Texas…outside of the Big Bend National Park region in the southwest.  The Hill Country is beautiful, but in my limited experience, so far, I’ve found many areas of Texas quite beautiful for a variety of reasons.  That said, I’ll be starting this portion of my trip at the eastern edge of the Hill Country, in San Marcos, which is south of Austin.

According to the website, texasthestateofwater.org, geologically-speaking, the area of the Hill Country is comprised of the 31,000 sq. mile Edwards Plateau, plus the 5,000 sq. mile Llano Uplift, which is located inside the Edwards Plateau.  Other figures I’ve found, state that the area of the Hill Country ranges from somewhere between 8,100 sq. miles, to around 14,000 sq. miles.

By comparison, Connecticut, my home state, is a mere 5,543 sq. miles in area…the entire state.  Suffice it to say, the Hill Country is a big, open landscape, comprised of rolling hills crisscrossed with many streams and rivers.  It’s pretty country, no matter how you look at it.

This leg of my trip is a happy accident that evolved out of a huge mistake on my part, early in my trip-planning.  In my research, I stumbled onto a very long, detailed article online, in Texas Monthly Magazine, titled The Ultimate Hill Country Tour, which I didn’t realize until I was in too deep, had been published twenty years ago.  Written by Joe Nick Patoski, a Hill Country resident, the article is a meticulous description of the author’s quintessential Hill Country scenic drives, along with some favorite places…restaurants, shops, nature preserves…to stop along the way.  After dipping my toe in the Hill Country on my last trip three years ago…Hamilton Pool PreserveThe Salt Lick BBQLuckenbach…I was hooked and wanted to see more.

The author did not provide a map, so I made the crazy decision to comb through every detail of the article…scribbling notes in the margins…highlighting passages…piecing clues together…and eventually…after days of intense scrutiny…pretty much figured out every state highway, byway and back-road he had described, mapping it all out in Google Maps.

Mr. Patoski drove this route in four days, which is how I have it laid out, with a couple/few deviations.  I’m hoping I’m allowing enough time.  It’s a lot of curvy, hilly, back-road driving with nicknames and road-names, like “Devil’s Backbone” and “Willow Loop”, plus stops for some scenic hikes.  And I hope I have enough energy after driving and hiking all day, to enjoy some dancing, out at a couple of cool dancehalls.  Google Maps claims my driving times are reasonable.  But, we shall see.

If you look at a map of central Texas, and begin literally or visually drawing an irregular, counter-clockwise loop (maybe a lasso would be more appropriate)…connecting the dots…starting from Austin…north to Lampasas…further north to Meridian…west to Comanche…southwest down to Brady…further southwest down to Junction…due-south to Uvalde…east to San Antonio…and back north, returning to Austin…you will have generally outlined the area known as the Hill Country.  This is not my route.  My route falls inside this rough perimeter and is considerably more irregular…more like the beginnings of a child’s Spirograph drawing.

Here’s a link to this cool Cartoon Map of the Hill Country (click on the 4-arrows icon at bottom-right of image to enlarge) that I came across in my trip-planning.  If you look closely, a little northeast of Johnson City in pale letters, you’ll see Pedernales Falls State Park.  This will be one of my nature stops.  North of Johnson City, you’ll see Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, a pink granite dome rising 425 feet above the surrounding landscape, the second largest granite dome in the U.S., which is known to be a very cool spot for hiking…another planned stop.

And in the southwest area, north of Vanderpool, you’ll see Lost Maples State Natural Area, which is another hiking area and planned stop, that’s known for being the best place to view fall foliage in Texas, during the last two weeks in October and the first two weeks of November, depending on the weather.  From what I’ve read, there is limited parking at Lost Maples, and the park and main road can get very crowded during the peak season, especially on weekends (which is when my schedule brings me there), so I may be setting myself up for disappointment.  I’ll just have to wing it.

I’ll be staying in the Hill Country for three nights, two of which I’ll be staying in a guest cabin on a working Longhorn cattle ranch in Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital” of Texas.  I also hope to be able to go on a horseback trail-ride on another ranch in Bandera.

My point is, there is a lot to see and do in the Hill Country, and you can really only get to a few things at a time.  Also, you might think I’m crazy, devoting all of this time to scenic drives…and you may be right…because, among many other attractions, the Hill Country boasts an extensive wine-trail, with over fifty wineries, and I’ll be lucky to have time to stop at even one on this trip.  But, aren’t wine-trails best enjoyed with company?  So, since I’m ridin’ solo, I’ll save the wine-trail for another time.

I’m explaining all of this in advance, partly because the Hill Country is just that…hilly.  And partly because, despite how crowded the cartoon map makes it look, the Hill Country is also mostly very rural, open countryside, so my internet…as well as my GPS…may be spotty.  I don’t want my family or friends to be concerned if I don’t surface for a few days.  I’m sure I’ll be fine, and will just be having a blast, getting myself lost in the Texas countryside.

I’ll be spending a couple of days in Austin on my way out of the Hill country, so hopefully, I’ll have some time to catch up a bit there, if I’m behind.  As always…best laid plans.  I really don’t know how any of this will work out.  All I can do is plan and go.