The Texas hill country is defined by the rugged limestone hills west of Austin and north of San Antonio that separate the coastal plain from the Edwards Plateau. How do we know we are in the hill country as the definition seems a bit fuzzy to this Texas transplant? From my research, it is better defined by what it is not. If it is not “hilly” then it is not in the Hill Country. If it is not “country-like”, then it is not Hill Country. If it is Austin or San Antonio it is not the Hill Country. If you get to a flat plain, you are no longer in the Hill Country.
RM and I recently vacationed for two days in the hill country celebrating New Year’s Eve at the Canyon of the Eagles Resort about thirty minutes west of Burnet. If you get to Llano, you missed the country road that winds around Lake Buchanan and dead ends into the resort. Canyon of the Eagles has a restaurant, sweet views of Lake Buchanan, well managed trails, a small bar, assorted cabins, an outdoor fire ring and fireplace, a swimming pool (unheated) and its own observatory called Eagle Eye. RM and I spied Andromeda through the looking glass on our first visit to the Eagle Eye on a clear and cold evening. I got goose bumps as I contemplated the vastness of space and the stars. RM suggested it was the freezing temperatures more than my wonderment.
There is a technician on hand at Eagle Eye to line up the telescopes and he will answer all of your questions no matter how silly. He is relieved to have visitors and folks interested in astronomy stopping by. One of their telescopes was gifted to the observatory and is an antique made of a hardwood outer shell that RM took an obvious interest in during our visit.
It takes a little over three hours to drive to the Hill Country from Fort Worth. This area is also known as the Bluebonnet Capital of Texas but in late December, the local activities center around deer hunting and we saw so many on the preserve surrounding the resort along with wild boar, little bunnies, and of course, eagles.
Since RM and I are not hunters, we opted to explore the natural features of the region with two great adventures. Day 1 we drove to Enchanted Rock Nature Area with a stop for a light breakfast in Llano at the Berry Street Bakery. At the bakery, we nibbled on flaky apple and cherry turnovers and gulped down our first cup of coffee of the day. The little coffee maker in the resort cabin was on the fritz much to our chagrin. The quaint bakery, warm and inviting, is operated by a female entrepreneur and only open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday but worth a stop for sure. Here is a link to their FB page. https://www.facebook.com/Berry-Street-Bakery-Cafe-251342688243974/info/?tab=overview
We arrived at Enchanted Rock from Llano which was a plus when we reached the lone gate to find a long line of cars waiting to get into the parking area. The line from the other direction went on for a couple of miles but our line moved quickly and we were in the park within 20 minutes. We purchased our tickets, $7 each, and headed up the trail to the huge pink granite dome, planning to hike the 1,825 feet to the top. The dome stands out so alien in the Hill Country that it looks as if the surrounding land were giving birth to a pink baby. Enchanted Rock appears like a bald giant in a landscape carpeted with scrub and limestone rock. It is impossible to miss and RM and I wanted to reach the top of it so we set out with a backpack full of trail maps, Apple products, sunglasses, extra jackets, water and granola.
Remember how your thighs felt on your most recent Stairmaster workout? That is what your legs will feel like as you climb to the summit and back. It is not steep but it is a constant climb for over 30 minutes. RM and I stopped several times to give our legs a break and enjoy the vistas. There are a lot of people (children and dogs too) on the trail and we could hear a steady pant behind us as we ascended. Everyone encouraged one another and most of us were able to make it to the top. I would imagine the rock would be slippery if wet but the day we climbed it was dry and my jogging shoes clung to the smooth rock with ease.
It was worth it when we made it to the top as the views are memorable. Here is my favorite picture from the day we hiked as it was cool, clear with sunny blue skies and not too breezy. I would not want to make this hike on a hot summer day or in the rain and wind.
On Day 2, we drove to Marble Falls and lunched at Storm’s Drive In on good hamburgers and onion rings before some shopping in the historic downtown. We then ventured for a scenic drive around Lake LBJ and Inks Lake before heading to Longhorn Cavern State Park for some spelunking. The cave is a comfortable 68 degrees and the walking tour takes about an hour and half. At $15 a person, you get an underground adventure and lots of colorful stories shared by the tour guide. Our guide was a retired geologist, name of Al Jarreau, so you can imagine his first introductory line, right? It went on like that for most of the mile plus walking tour which the kids loved. There is also an observation tower in the park which has a winding staircase that leads to some spectacular vistas (you all know how I like heights and here I found myself once again following RM up a ladder high off the ground).
Many legends and stories surround the cave. According to one, the outlaw Sam Bass hid a $2 million cache of stolen money inside. Another legend says Texas Rangers rescued a kidnapped girl from Indians in the cave. Confederates made gunpowder in the cave during the Civil War. In the 20’s, there was a speakeasy and there are pictures in the park cafe capturing black and white photos of women and men dressed in their Sunday best, dancing and drinking during prohibition days inside the cave.http://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/longhorn-cavern
After the cave, we searched for a vineyard and winery and lucked upon the Torr Na Lochs just at happy hour. The winery is located on Hwy 29 above the Colorado River Valley overlooking both Inks and Buchanan Lakes. Their wines are made with 100% Texas fruit with their first estate wine expected to be released in Fall 2016. Only open for a bit, the hardworking owners are sure to be a success for their quaint touches to the building, the tasting room, the gardens, stone works and the sweet donkeys and faithful pets that share the rocky acreage around the winery. How they found soil in all the rock to plant grapes is a beyond me but after chatting with co-owner, Karen DeBerry, about their trials getting the place opened, you can appreciate their hard scrabble Texas grit and determination (along with a huge financial investment). Torr Na Lochs (translated from Gaelic to Hill Over Lakes) is a hidden treasure to enjoy. Here is a link to learn more about the story behind Torr Na Lochs. http://www.torrnalochs.com/