Texas Hill Country – Day-1 (Thursday) – Part-3 – Turn-by-Turn Driving Directions…

Although I didn’t mention it in the two prior posts for my first day in the Hill Country, the driving itself, particularly beginning from the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, through Blanco…to Pedernales Falls…taking a different back road from Pedernales Falls west to Johnson City…and ending in Stonewall, where I stayed that night, included beautiful scenic roads.  So, I thought I would start separately providing my actual turn-by-turn driving directions for each of my four days in the Hill Country, in case anyone was interested for their own little adventure.

GPS is non-existent on some back roads in the Hill Country.  I found that when I’d get out to a state park for a hike, using GPS, that for some reason, there was no signal there when I was leaving the park, in order to find my way to my next destination.  So, I needed hard-copies of those turn-by-turn driving directions.

And where you do have GPS, but there was no landmark to plug in, I sometimes had to know the actual road-name and plug that in, in order to find the beginning of certain sections of my route.  So, turn-by-turn directions to and through the scenic drives that I assembled from the original Texas Monthly article were indispensable.

Also note, that throughout Texas, in addition to interstate-highways, US-Highways and Texas State Highways, you will find the designations FM, RM and RR preceding many road-numbers.  These refer to “Farm to Market”, “Ranch to Market” and “Ranch Road”, respectively.  It’s confusing at first, but eventually, I learned to ignore the letter-prefixes and focus on the road-number.

Here is Day-1 in the Hill Country:

Texas Hill Country – Scenic Drive – Day-1 (Thursday)

(Note: Call Kim at Dixie Dude Ranch (in my contacts) re reserving trail-ride spot for Sunday a.m.)

Starting from:  San Marcos (south of Austin)

Take TX-80 > Old Ranch Road 12.

Stay straight onto FM-32/RM-32 toward Fischer (when Old Ranch Road 12 turns RIGHT toward Wimberley.  STOP at Devil’s Backbone Tavern (4 mi. past Wimberley turnoff).  STOP again, at picnic area about a mile past the Tavern, on the right, to enjoy views of Blanco River.  Continue through the Devil’s Backbone area on FM-32/RM-32, on the way to Fischer.

STOP in Fischer at Community Dance Hall (and private 9-pin bowling alley).  They may let you watch and maybe take a few photos.

Continue on FM-32/RM-32 northwest, merging onto US-281 near Blanco.  STOP at Blanco State Park (101 Park Rd. 23) (have to cross Blanco River entering Blanco, and double-back, slightly to get to park.  See Blanco Dam in park).

Return to US-281, heading north into downtown Blanco.  STOP at Blanco Bowling Club Café (310 4th St. IN the bowling alley) (known for their truck-stop-style enchiladas, and STOP at The Bean & Biscuit Bakery, 310 Pecan St.).

Continue north on US-281 (NOTE dazzling vista, looking back toward Blanco, as you rise out of river basin)…turning RIGHT onto US-290 EAST (toward Henly)…then LEFT onto Ranch Road 3232…RIGHT onto Pedernales Falls Rd….and in 200ft turn LEFT onto Park Rd….STOP at Pedernales Falls State Park.  Easy stroll to Falls.

Exit Park via Park Rd. (same road as entered on)…TURNING RIGHT onto Robinson Rd (if you turned left, it would be called Pedernales Falls Rd.), which is the scenic back-road to Johnson City.

At Johnson City…continue straight, onto US-290 west to Stonewall, and The Italian Place B&B (236 Loring St.).

Freshen-up at The Italian Place, before heading out to the Albert Ice House Dance Hall (5435 RR 1623, off US-290…(RR 1623 takes you directly to Albert Ice House, about 9 mins from The Italian Place).  BBQ dinner at Albert Ice House.


Texas Hill Country – Day-1 (Thursday) – Part-2 – Blanco River and Pedernales Falls State Parks…

On my way to Pedernales Falls State Park I stopped briefly at the Blanco River State Park in Blanco.  You could do a free 10-minute quick drive-through, or pay the nominal park fee.  I opted for the drive-through, since the park is primarily for camping, fishing and swimming.

The striking feature is the color of the river.  It’s difficult to capture it well, but it is representative of the color of all of the rivers and creeks I saw in the Hill Country…a sort of transparent to translucent green jade.  I was later told by Gil (Jill) one of my lodging hosts, that the color of the creeks and rivers changes, and that she thinks that the water reflects the color of the trees on the banks, which change over the course of the year.

Anyway, here are just a couple of quick snapshots of the Blanco River that I jumped out of my car to get.  They don’t really show how deep the jade color is, but they’ll give you an idea.

Pedernales Falls is another story…really more of another planet.  It’s a 6-mile drive into the park to get to the short trail to the falls.  In CT, six miles is likely bigger than the entirety of any park, itself.  Before I saw it, I was thinking, “Oh…picturesque water falls, lazily flowing over some rocks.”  Pedernales Falls is not that kind of falls.  To me, it was a little unnerving.

You begin by looking down over the falls area, which is expansive.  The falls area…on this dry day…was probably a couple/few-hundred yards wide and stretches out in both directions as far as you can see.  From high up on the viewing area, it looks like a series of fairly smooth, gradually sloped and descending rock ledges, interrupted by pools and ponds of water.  Peaceful enough.

Here are a few individual images and one panoramic image of the falls from the viewing area.  They really don’t capture what you are seeing, but it’s the best I could do.

If you’re a little adventurous (which most people are), you can take the single narrow stone stairway down onto the rock ledges and explore them to your heart’s content.  The first thing is, you don’t realize how vast the ledges are until you are walking on them.  The second thing is, once you’re down on the rock ledges, which look fairly smooth from the viewing area, you realize that they are actually full of all different size and shaped smooth shallow holes, worn in from the water over the millennia…basically stone Swiss-cheese…and that there are cracks and drop-offs all over the place, so you have to watch every step you take.

And as you begin to explore, it’s very easy to lose track of where that single narrow stone stair trail is, that dropped you onto the ledges, since there are no signs.  But, all of the rock and water textures and features continue to draw you further out onto the rocks.  And you wonder where the falls are.  You wonder where all of the water is that created all of the holes in the ledges and that left pools and ponds of water behind.  A part of me was a little disconcerted and a little anxious, but it’s probably mostly just my nature.

Here are a few random photos from down on the ledges.  They don’t at all capture the Swiss-cheese texture, unfortunately.  But, the enormous boulder that’s jammed into the huge hole in the cliff face might make you wonder how it got there.

Other visitors are also wandering around on the ledges.  They don’t seem the least bit concerned.  Eventually, I decided to begin to head back to the stone stairway.  Because of all of the holes and cracks and drop-offs, it takes time to carefully pick your way back, especially since you lose track of just how far you have wondered.

And then, I couldn’t find the stone stairway.  It’s just one, narrow, unmarked opening in a steep slope covered with brush and boulders.  Again…there’s no sign.  They couldn’t put up a little sign?  A sign would probably get washed away, so I understand the logic.

I ended up combing back and forth over the slope a few times before I found the exit stairway.  That was a little nerve-wracking, because I’m thinking about flash-floods, despite it being a dry day.  That’s just how my mind works.  I’m a worrier.

I was also wondering how anyone could get quickly off the ledges in the event of a flash flood, since I only saw the one narrow exit.  Once back up to the viewing area and on the short trail back to the parking lot, I bumped into a young man who told me that he grew up in the Hill Country and that as a Boy Scout, he had taken trips to the falls, where he was cautioned that it’s a fine line between when it’s safe to be down on the ledges, and when it is not…if there is water flowing over them.  Because, if a flash flood starts, the water could be eight feet deep and surging in about ten minutes.

In the end, I was glad that I was able to explore the ledges on a dry day, despite no dramatic falls to view.  The ledges were interesting enough to explore.

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.