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With so much to do in Austin it is easy to overlook what lies outside this dynamic city. However, just west of Austin lies a vast region of broken escarpments and valleys known as the Hill Country or Edwards Plateau that can make for an enchanting Texas excursion. Trips to the south, west, or north can also give you a larger view into why Texas is sometimes called "like a whole other country."
One of the first noteworthy things to encounter on a trip into the Hill Country is Lake Travis. This large impoundment of the Colorado River has a very picturesque appearance with its aquamarine color and limestone bluff surroundings. One good way to see Lake Travis is to take FM 2769 (off of FM 620) to Volente, but be prepared for a little hair-raising mountain driving! There is a dining landmark up here called the Oasis that repeatedly gets raves for its sunset views. Besides the restaurant, numerous parks along the lake such as Mansfield Dam and Pace Bend offer some rather exquisite swimming and boating recreation.
After checking out Lake Travis, a good way to continue your exploration of the Hill Country is along scenic FM 1431. This will bring you past Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Region, a habitat for the endangered golden cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo. FM 1431 winds around juniper-covered hills and pastoral settings. Hang a right in Marble Falls on HWY 281 N toward Burnet and continue west on Park Road 4 to see Longhorn Caverns State Park and Falkenstein castle rise out of the beautiful surroundings until you encroach upon another picturesque and recreationally charged area known as Inks Lake State Park. Inks Lake, like so many bodies of water emerging from the Edwards Aquifer, is incredibly clear. Don't miss Devil's watering hole at one of Texas most beautiful parks for some diving into the clear waters and light rock climbing and hiking up to the waterfall after wet weather. Do stop just past the entrance to Inks Lake State Park at the Devil's Watering Hole overlook for a spectacular view including Falkenstein Castly you passed earlier on your trek. Yet another Hill Country lake, and a big one at that, in the vicinity worth visiting is Lake Buchanan which is known for Striper Bass fishing when the lake is full, and the old city of Bluffton when there is drought which was submerged when this lake was formed. The dam at Lake Buchanan is also unique and beautiful.
Down highway 29 a piece is a town called, Llano, which fames itself as being "The Deer Capital of Texas." Doubtless, your chances of coming across some deer in this region are pretty good, as well as nesting Eagles between Lake Buchanan and Llano. In fact, some communities such as Sunrise Beach and Horseshoe Bay to the southeast of Llano almost seem to be blanketed by the little beasties. Llano is also highly regarded for its barbeque. One eatery in particular, Cooper's, has made itself widely known, and may be worth a try if you don't mind spending a fair amount. While in Llano, you can also stop at the park along the Llano River for an engaging a view of an iron trestle bridge crossing the river.
To the south of Llano, more delights are in store for the outdoor enthusiast. Before you even arrive, you will likely visualize the large dome of rock that makes up the key component of Enchanted Rock State Recreation Area. What is so exciting about this attraction, besides just the fact that there is a huge rock sticking up out of the earth, is that you can climb to the top of this mound for some unimpeded 360 degree views of the surrounding environs.
Continuing south on highway 16, you will soon find yourself approaching the fine community of Fredericksburg. You could probably find enough diversions alone here to keep you busy for a day, but the defining feature of Fredericksburg is its German heritage. From Oktoberfests to schnitzels to Bavarian architecture, this place seems to exude all things German. Some other noteable entities worth checking out here include the Admirial Nimitz State Historic Site, which has become quite a center for history on engagements in the Pacific theater during World War II; gardens showcasing herbs, wildflowers, and butterflies; wineries; and some kitschy museums about pioneers and the Old West.
From Fredericksburg, you could begin a homeward course back to Austin on highway 290 that would take you past many more engaging if not exhilirating points of interest. For starters, a stop in Luckenbach would allow a firsthand glimpse of this very significant place in the heritage of country western music. Returning to highway 290 near Stonewall, you will find yourself in the heart of Texas' peach country. Also here is the tribute to former President LBJ at the LBJ National Historical Park, with recreations and dioramas of this historical figure's life in Texas and beyond. Johnson City is also home to the Hill Country Science Mill, a science center housed in a former grain silo dating back to the 1880s which has exhibits for visitors of all ages to cultivate an interest in STEM careers. Nearby Johnson City is the home to a wild animal park, and not far to the south you will find the pristine waters of the Blanco River preserved in a state park in the comely town of Blanco. But for the sake of time, you could just continue to head east on FM 2766 to Pedernales State Park and enjoy a stimulating hike along the Wolf Mountain Trail that skirts Twin Falls.
If you continue travelling east on FM 2766 (which becomes Fitzhugh Road), then north on FM 12, and finally west on Hamilton Pool Road, you will be in store for perhaps the most aesthetic points of interest of all along this meaty Texas excursion. Out here lies Hamilton Pool and Westcave Reserves, places that will likely open your eyes a little. Here, the effect of erosion on the limestone in both places has created a breathtaking backdrop of alcoves, pools, and balconies draped in uncommonly lush vegetation.
It is not easy to appreciate how something could surpass this array of highlights heading east of Fredericksburg, but be assured that you could find quite a contention of robust delights further south of Fredericksburg such as Garner and Lost Maples State Parks, the "cowboy" town of Bandera, and Lake Medina as well. Unfortunately (or fortunately maybe, depending on how you look at it), there is probably too much to see in this area for the time-constrained tourist. However, any diversion into the Texas Hill Country is likely to leave you with unique memories not soon to be forgotten.
Lockhart is the Official Barbecue Capital of Texas and it's flavorful array of classic Texas BBQ make this town just southeast of Austin a popular daytrip for visitors & locals alike. Which of the town's great BBQ restaurants is best is a matter of perrennial debate; try as many as you have time for! The town itself is the county seat for Caldwell County and boasts an impressive courthouse which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Just outside of town is a small state park, mostly good for stretching your legs or having a picnic. The park also boasts the only staffed 9-hole golf course in the Texas State Parks system. Lockhart can be an easy & worthwhile destination during wildflower season (but be prepared for larger than normal lines at the BBQ spots on weekends during the heart of wildflower season).
While San Antonio is worth a visit in it's own right, it's also very possible as a day trip from Austin. Start relatively early and plan to return relatively late, and you can easily pack in most of the favorite San Antonio tourist spots including the Alamo, Riverwalk, and the Mission Trail -- or skip those and just spend the day at Fiesta Texas or Sea World. Traffic from Austin to San Antonio can be heavy on weekends, but most of the time, this drive south from Austin will take about an hour and a half (depending on where exactly you start & end, of course!).
New Braunfels, south along I35, is another easy day-trip Austin for people visiting Austin who want to branch out and see more of the surrounding area. New Braunfels is a city with a heavy Germanic influence which shows in their civic architecture, restaurants, annual events, and even in the city's great summer attraction: Schlitterbahn waterpark. You might also choose to go in this direction to go tubing on the river with your family, or to drive around picturesque Canyon Lake (just west of New Braunfels). Gruene is now technically part of the city limits of New Braunfels, but it retains it's own atmosphere with restaurants & cute shops in the shadow of the town's landmark historic water tower.