It doesn't get much better than a road trip through Texas's Hill Country. It has just about everything you'd want: Beautiful countryside, friendly locals, hidden swimming holes, rolling hills and small towns that are just bursting with charm. "Bucolic" doesn't even begin to describe Hill Country. One need only stumble upon the tiny hamlet of Luckenbach, outside Fredericksburg, where live music plays in an outdoor, make-shift theater pretty much 24/7. Here, you'll find old-timers, young folks, moms with kids dancing around, bikers hanging in the shack that's actually a bar, and a guy in the back that lets you take pictures on his massive ox. Driving around Hill Country really is like being in another world. Time moves slower here, the people speak their own language, and life is just a bit sweeter when you're exploring spring-fed rivers, rambling through wooded canyons, and driving past fields of bluebonnets. The Hill Country sunrises and sunsets alone will make you believe in magic.
Start off in Austin, TX where there's loads to see (and tons of delicious places to eat.) Grab a donut and some coffee at Gourdough's - Big. Fat. Donuts for breakfast, and head to local favorites like Top Notch Hamburgers or Franklin's Barbecue for lunch. Then head down to Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon if you need to wash it all down with a cold beer. A few other notable joints in town include Spider House and the Hula Hut, when you're looking for a place with a li'l extra kitsch.
An amazing place for breakfast in Austin is the Magnolia Cafe. Open 24/7 and serving up diner fare that's a little more refined than you might expect, it's been a staple in Austin for ages. Pro tip: the French toast is to die for.
Austin is also home to a few refreshing swimming spots, like the Deep Eddy Pool (and there's also a Deep Eddy Cabaret if you're looking for some evening entertainment). A couple miles away from Deep Eddy Pool is another swimming hole: Barton Springs Pool. It's a massive spring-fed pool where the water is always a refreshing 68 degrees, making it a great place to spend a hot afternoon.
Once you leave Austin, you'll head about 12 miles to Driftwood. Driftwood was first settled in the mid-1800s and still retains that Old West feel. In fact, the town has been almost a ghost town since the 1970s, but its still got some pretty important places to visit, like the world-famous Salt Lick BBQ and Driftwood Estate Winery. Both are must-stops along your way to Jacob's Well Natural Area, which is about 8 miles from Driftwood. Jacob's Well is a hidden gem in every sense of the word. It's actually a spring-fed swimming hole with a system of caves running underneath it. The hike to Jacob's Well is a bit strenuous, and there are cliffs you have to circumnavigate in order to make your way down to the hole itself. But, it really is a gorgeous spring and one of Hill Country's best kept secrets.
Hop in the car and enjoy a scenic drive to Devil's Backbone Tavern in Canyon Lake. This tavern is considered a local Texas legend that comes complete with plenty of ghost stories. No spoilers, though! You'll have to buy a drink here and have one of the locals tell them to you.
Then head to San Marcos, which is a pretty sizable town with loads of amazing places to eat and drink and one of the best bed and breakfasts in the Lone Star State: The Crystal River Inn, located in a grand Victorian mansion. Be prepared though... San Marcos can be pretty busy during the school year, because it's actually a bustling college town. This settlement has earned loads of national attention as one of America's "best small towns to raise kids," and one of "the most exciting small towns in the country".
When you're hungry, a couple miles down the road is Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar. Then walk over and dance the night away at Gruene Hall (one of the longest continuously running dance halls in America.) While you're there, you can check out the Gruene Historic District.
New Braunfels is also home to the world-famous Schlitterbahn Waterpark, which has a resort attached as well (The Resort at Schlitterbahn.) If you want to shell out some extra cash, you could even spend the night in one of the Treehaus luxury suites!
Once you get to San Antonio, definitely hit up the San Antonio Zoo & Aquarium and Six Flags Fiesta Texas if you're traveling with kids. A few other can't miss attractions in San Antonio are the Tower of the Americas, Mission San Juan Capistrano, La Villita Historic Arts Village and of course, The Alamo. El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel is a stylish, yet very affordable hotel that's just a few minutes' walk from the Riverwalk and the Alamo, and pretty much everything else in downtown.
Just thirteen miles south of Fredericksburg is Luckenbach Texas, a very, very special place. This hill country hamlet is an iconic country music venue that looks like a working Old West town. There's a blacksmith shop, post office, on-site bar shack, dance hall and cotton gin. During summer, this place gets busy; I mean packed, with thousands of people. In fact, during music festival season, you'll need to get tickets well in advance if you hope to visit. But, during the off-season, fall and winter, it's a great place to pop down to during a weekend or weekday, grab a beer and listen to whoever's on the stage.
Next up is Fredericksburg, TX, which has an incredibly vibrant downtown with loads of shopping and plenty of places to eat. If you're in the mood for a wine tasting, there's the Fredericksburg Winery, or the Fredericksburg Brewing Company if you're more of a beer-drinker. Hondo's on Main is an eatery that's a local favorite, thanks to its tasty burgers and BBQ and charming vibes. For history buffs, Fredericksburg is the childhood hometown of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz who commanded the Pacific Fleet to victory in World War II. Visit the National Museum of The Pacific War right in the middle of downtown; it's a phenomenal history museum and there's a fantastic on-site gift shop.
Just 20 miles down the road from downtown Fredericksburg is Enchanted Rock State Park. If you're up for a bit of hiking, this state park is perfect. It would be difficult managing this hike with a baby or toddler because it involves a lot of walking and there's really not much shade, so a summer or early fall hike would be considerably hot. Bring plenty of water though, and even if you just picnic at the park, it's absolutely worth the detour.
Next, drive to the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre House" (from the movie) in Kingsland. The iconic horror home was actually dismantled after filming and relocated to Kingsland, where it's currently operating as a delicious restaurant called the Grand Central Cafe. It's actually pretty surreal. Not only did the filmmakers use the house for exteriors, but it was used for interior shots as well. Order the "Leatherface Lemonade"... it's a killer cocktail.
Longhorn Cavern State Park in Marble Falls is a fantastic place to work off your lunch. Once a month, they offer paranormal cave tours during "the witching hours." The cavern is a limestone cave that was made by an old underground river. Over the years it's been used by Native Americans, Confederate soldiers, and outlaws like Sam Bass. The cave was also used as a dance hall and speakeasy during Prohibition.
Founded in 1955, the 115-acre Krause Springs in Spicewood, Texas (about 30 minutes outside of Austin) has become a classic stop for roadtrippers traveling around Hill Country. It offers camping and swimming at their historic natural springs. It's open year-round, but be aware that pets are not allowed, and there's no lifeguard on duty. Also, it's cash only so come prepared for the $7 adult admission fee (the price is $5 for kids 4-11), and if you wanna camp it's $14 per adult, $6 per kid, and $14 for an RV spot.
Next, head to Hamilton Pool in Dripping Springs; remember to check beforehand to make sure it's open. You might even be able to make a reservation in advance, because this collapsed grotto-turned-swimming hole has become pretty popular. It's not hard to see why, though: imagine cooling off in the pool underneath that waterfall!
When you're ready to rest your weary head, check into Lakeway Resort and Spa, and be prepared to get pampered. It's pretty much the perfect ending to your Texas Hill Country road trip.
Best time to visit Texas Hill Country: The climate in Texas Hill Country is rather hot and humid in the summer, and is pretty much perfect in the fall. Winters can bring chilly temperatures in the evening, but for the most part, the climate of much of Hill Country is classified as a humid subtropical zone, so expect mild to hot temperatures.