Whether an Austinite or just visiting, you will want to experience the splendor that is Central Texas. Whatever direction you choose, there is a fantastic road trip to be found.
Whether you have a couple of hours or a long weekend, you may choose from arid deserts or snow-capped mountains. Drive through Cedar-filled forests that give way to authentic Texan towns and unique National Parks.
Take Highway 290 to The Cowboy of the World
This route starts on Mopac South as you exit the city through South Austin.
Zilker Park and Barton Springs
But before you leave Austin for your trip, take a few minutes to explore Zilker Park and Barton Springs. Zilker Park’s 358 acres surround and protect Barton Springs Pool and the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. The pool is fed from underground springs, stretching over three acres.
Zilker Park is part of the heartbeat of Austin.
Home to festivals and events, including the:
• ABC Kite Festival
• Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum
• Blues on the Green
• Austin City Limits Music Festival
• Zilker Christmas Tree
• Trail of Lights
• Deep Eddy public pool
If nothing else, put a placeholder to come back and explore one of Austin’s most famous and iconic locations.
As you leave town, just south of the Greenbelt and Barton Springs, Loop 1 merges into the Hwy 71 interchange and finally onto Hwy 290 West — leaving the city and traffic behind.
Voila! You are off on your Central Texas adventure.
As you meander along US 290, you will pass through sleepy Texas towns such as Henly and growing areas like Dripping Springs. If you are interested in wineries and distilleries, make plans to return to this area, for there is much to explore.
Along the last couple of miles on 290, keep an eye out for Miller Creek, an off-shoot of the Pedernales River to the north.
Soon, you will approach a hard right onto 281 South, and you are on your way to Blanco.
Blanco River and State Park runs through downtown Blanco, hugging a one-mile stretch of the river. Choose to swim, fish, or boat. On land, you can picnic, hike, and geocache. Geocaching is a type of community hide and seek – geo means earth, and cache means hidden item.
A popular activity, these camouflaged (not buried) items are hidden treasures. Geocaches range from very small (a film canister) to large (metal box).
Real Ale Brewing, located in downtown Blanco, is a family-owned and operated tradition. Founded in 1996, visitors can tour the brewery and distillery.
Another place unique to Blanco is the Hill Country Lavender Farm — Texas’ first commercial lavender farm. The farm produces a full lavender product line, including soaps, lotions, and culinary items. Admission to the farm is free. In June, look up the Lavender Festival, with fresh lavender, wine, and music.
The Buggy Barn Museum showcases over 200 unique buggies, carriages, and wagons from the 1860s to the 1900s. The museum includes Pine Moore Old West Studio, an authentic Old West town often used for western movies.
Back on the road, as you cut across the western edge of Canyon Lake and skirt Guadalupe River State Park.
As you travel Hwy 46, you will eventually arrive at Boerne’s quaint old ranching town (pronounced Bernie).
Founders named the town in honor of German author and publicist Ludwig Börne.
If you have the time, check out the natural living Cave Without a Name, located 11 miles northeast of Boerne. The breathtaking natural wonder remains at a constant 66 degrees. You will see spectacular Stalactites, Stalagmites, Cave Drapery, and magnificent Flowstones here. If you can’t stop, swing by the Dienger Trading Co for fresh coffee and pie.
From Boerne, it’s a quick 30 minutes to Bandera, TX.
Bandera claims to be the ‘Cowboy Capital of the World.’ And between trail rides, cowboy bars, and the Mayan and Dixie Dude Ranches, it just might live up to its name. Browse at a few cowboy-themed shops and taste wine from Lost Maples Winery for an authentic Bandera experience.
If you are not staying over, then it is time to head back. The trip is 118 miles to Bandera, and you must retrace your route home. With a few necessary stops to gas up and recharge for the drive, it should take about 2.5 hours to get back to Austin.
Austin to Enchanted Rock Via Ranch Road 1323
There are several routes to Enchanted Rock, and it is a bit hard to get to but worth the trip.
This route spans from Downtown Austin to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, by way of Loop 1 south, Hwy 290 west, and Farm Road 1323 – then to North State Highway 16 and 965 to enter the park. The route totals about 200 miles round-trip, and driving time should be 3.5 hours without the stops and sightseeing.
It is an easy and gorgeous drive, especially in the Fall and Spring. If you have a convertible, drop the rag-top, plug in your favorite MP3 list, and enjoy.
Getting out of the city is straightforward, but depending on traffic may take a bit. You’ll pass through Dripping Springs and then on to Pedernales Nature Preserve near Johnson City.
There are scenic stops along the route, including Bell Mountain Vineyards and the Willow City Loop, where you can enjoy the bluebonnets in the spring.
Johnson City, Texas
James Polk Johnson founded Johnson City. Uncle to Lyndon B Johnson, LBJ — 33rd President of the United States. The area is full of history, like the Texas White House, the former childhood home to LBJ, and the functioning White House throughout his administration.
The Exotic Resort Zoo stands on 137 wooded acres, housing over 500 animals of 80 different species — more than half on the endangered species list. The preserve enables the animals to raise their young. Daily safari tours are available year-round.
In addition to cowboys and trail rides, the Texas Hill Country is home to spectacular art. The 140-acre Sculpture Ranch & Galleries sits 23 miles north of Johnson City – taking advantage of the tranquility of the Hill Country. MuseoBenini includes a 14,000 sq.ft., Studio Building, a library, and a 6500 sq. ft. gallery featuring 40 years of Italian-born Benini’s work.
And if you are looking for a nearby winery. There are no less than 16 in this part of the state. But don’t drive through town without a quick stop at Whittington’s Jerky.
Back on the road, the scenery is peaceful. Farm roads crisscross the area, but much of the land remains untouched.
Pedernales Falls State Park
Situated just north of Johnson City along the banks of the Pedernales River, the Pedernales Falls State Park houses a .5-mile Twin Falls Nature Trail and scenic overlook. Too easy? Try the six-mile Wolf Mountain Trail, which wraps around Tobacco and Wolf mountains ending at the canyons created by Mescal and Tobacco creeks—along the way, refreshed at Arrowhead Pool, stair-stepped pools fed by Bee Creek. Pedernales Falls State Park is great for camping, hiking, geocaching, bird watching, and tubing.
Enchanted Rock State Park
A go-to place for Austinites in the know in the 1980s, this exquisite location is worth the drive. Enchanted Rock is a natural formation and park about 2 hours west of Austin.
If you intend to climb the 325-foot tall rock, which is why you came, the pinkish dome is a breathtaking view, but the trek will take some time. Call the park for reservations-it gets busy.
Austin to Fredericksburg via Highway 290
You will find traffic on MOPAC south a little stop as you pass through the Barton Creek Greenbelt to expertly navigate the South Austin HWY 71/290 jumble. But once through Oak Hill on Highway 290 West, you are on your way to the town of Fredericksburg.
Drivetime is about 78 miles or 1.5 hours one-way. But, unless you find a cow in the road, you shouldn’t run into too much traffic along the way.
The first stop is Dripping Springs. One can spend an entire weekend in this area. Yes, there are numerous wineries in the area, but if you are a true ‘foodie,’ make time for the Texas Hill Country Olive Company. Owned by the Gambini family, it is a delicious and unique way to spend an hour or two. The staff offers tastings and tours daily.
Live Music in Luckenbach, Texas
Nestled deep within the heart of the Hill Country is the tiny town of Luckenbach, where just 13 residents officially live.
Luckenbach was settled by German farmers, the Lukenback brothers, and made famous by a 1977 Willie Nelson song. The town is a country music mecca with a working saloon, general store, and a unique outdoor music venue. And if you time it right, it has been said that the moon is ‘bigger’ in Luckenbach.
And the trees in the area are a combination of Cedar, Elm, and Oak, including Live Oak and Texas Mountain Laurel. These hardy species combine to create a splendid display for your drive.
With an elevation of 1693 feet, Fredericksburg’s winters are temperate, and the summers can be warm, but the spring and fall are perfect.
And with such fantastic weather, one can take advantage of all there is to see and do. The area shops and antique stores are perfect for browsing, and Fredericksburg’s Pioneer Museum highlights the town’s first German immigrants.
In the Fall, Fredericksburg is home to pick-your-own pumpkin farms at Jensckhe Orchards and Vogel Orchard, while roadside peach stands pepper the area.
Fredericksburg’s Gillespie County is home to over 50 wineries, vineyards, and tasting rooms — and dozens more located within an hour or so of the city.
If you brought your bike, the gently rolling terrain of Fredericksburg is perfect for cycling for the whole family.
Bird watching is a popular pastime in Texas. Central and Southern Texas is part of the migration route of dozens of birds. And approximately 300 bird species make the Texas Hill Country home, including turkey vultures, snowy egrets, all manner of owls, and red-tailed hawks.
At night, the stars of Texas shine. The Fredericksburg area is perfect for stargazing as the city lights are far away.
Looking for a place to stay overnight? Fredericksburg has a bit of everything, including a bed and breakfast, camping and RV areas, quaint hotels, and rustic cabins.
Central Texas City Centers: Austin-San Marcos-Lockhart Loop
Eager to get out of town for a day? A drive from the Texas Capitol in Downtown Austin, through San Marcos, east to Lockhart, and back may be just the thing to clear your mind. Driving time is about 1 hour 45 minutes, or 80 miles, round trip — depending on traffic along Interstate 35 South. If you have never been, Lockhart is worth the time on the road.
But before you go, why not start your trip with a free 30-minute tour of the Texas Capitol building?
It is one of the most splendid state capitols — constructed of a distinct and rare pink granite. Like other granite forms, Texas pink granite comes from ancient volcanic processes forming the Granite Mountains and Enchanted Rock.
The majestic Capitol dome stands 302 feet tall. The Texas Capitol indeed stands 14.64 feet taller than the nation’s Capitol in Washington D.C. In 1881, Architect Elijah E. Myers designed the Capitol Goddess, calling it Texas’ own Lady Liberty, and caped the Texas Dome with the statue.
In 1970, the Capitol was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Historical paintings and photographs line the corridors as Elisabet Ney’s statues of Stephen F Austin and Sam Houston guard the entrances.
The Square in San Marcos
At the center of San Marcos’s Square is the recently restored and architecturally distinctive 1909 Hays County Courthouse. The courthouse is open to the public, and historical exhibits fill the first few floors for browsing.
Around the square, locally-owned stores and restaurants are on every corner, and Laid-back cafes sit next to trendy Texas fusion restaurants. Walk the area as you shop in chic boutiques or for vintage clothing. And handmade or antique furniture is displayed on the sidewalks.
Urban Art and murals fill Kissing Alley — a well-kept secret in the downtown area. And the seven-foot-tall mermaid statues populate the city.
After leaving San Marcos, head east to Lockhart.
Historic Downtown Square in Lockhart
Lockhart is a lively, growing Texas community with a solid Texas history, including the famous Battle of Plum Creek in 1840.
Looming tall in the center of town is a striking courthouse. The city has preserved numerous architecturally unique locations giving it a small-town vibe. And the attention to history has paid off. Lockhart has been a popular Hollywood go-to set location – serving as a small town in over 50 films.
In 1999, Lockhart was deemed by the Texas Legislature as the ‘The Barbecue Capital of Texas,’ with four BBQ restaurants located in the downtown square — a short walk from the Caracara Brewing Company.
Within the area are over two dozen antique shops and specialty gift stores for your shopping pleasure.
As you leave Lockhart Square, on the way back to Austin via Texas 130, you will pass through the small town of Mustang Ridge and the Plum Creek Wetlands Preserve before skirting Austin Bergstrom Airport and back home.
Central Texas never ceases to amaze.
If you are lucky enough to live in Central Texas, you will quickly find a never-ending supply of fascinating things to do and see. With a little bit of research, you may find it easy to combine unforgettable scenery, historical locales, artistic venues, and warm and friendly residents.