Dip, Sip, & ’Que: A Texas Trilogy

Day Trips on the best barbecue and swimming holes in Central Texas

Summertime in Texas goes better with the cooling effects of dipping your body in water, sipping an adult beverage, and eating barbecue.

photos by Gerald E. McLeod

The Austin area has been blessed with some of the best swimming holes in the state. Now that the latest five-year drought has relaxed its grip on the state, the lakes and rivers are full once again and ready to be enjoyed.

This is just a short guide to point out some of the highlights that make Central Texas such a special place.

South of Austin: Central Texas Rivers

Within an hour’s drive south of Austin, cold springwaters feed the San Marcos, Guadalupe, and Comal rivers.

Operated by Texas State University’s Meadows Center, the tours on the glass-bottom boats are daily and last 30 minutes. To make reservations, call 512/245-7570.

Just 32 miles south of the capital city, San Marcos is a cool college town with big opportunities for exploring. The San Marcos River’s headwaters at Spring Lake is one of the oldest continuously occupied spots in North America. The swimming pigs of the Aquarena Springs theme park are gone, but the Aquarena Center’s glass-bottom boats still ply the lake and give a peek at the springs and fish below.

San Marcos has multiple parks along the river as it winds through town. Rio Vista and Cheatham Street parks have small dams and tube chutes that make for a chilly but exciting swim.

From its spring-fed headwaters, the cold river water winds through San Marcos with public parks lining most of its course. Rent an inner tube at the Lion’s Club stand in City Park for a two- to four-hour float. If you just want to get your feet wet, Rio Vista and Cheatham Street parks off South C.M. Allen Parkway provide easy river access, shade, and picnic tables, but not a lot of parking.

After working up a thirst, head over to the Middleton Brewing off RR 12 outside of San Marcos toward Wimberley. The little brewery in the country has a well-rounded menu of Belgian and American style beers.

The San Marcos area has no shortage of great barbecue. In Central Texas, the holy trinity of barbecue is brisket, sausage, and ribs. The question is: Do you want your brisket moist or dry?

Whether you take it to go for a picnic or eat it there, Hays County Bar-B-Que is one of the most popular smoked meat purveyors in town. If you get there early, there might be some beef ribs left. If not, the juicy brisket is an excellent choice. Kent Black’s BBQ is a little closer to the San Marcos River parks, has good food, and a very nice outdoor beer garden.

A few miles south of San Marcos, the Guadalupe River on the north side of New Braunfels is one of the state’s top swimming holes. A 20-mile section of the river below Canyon Dam is an amazing float trip or a cool place to hang out. There are multiple options for where you put in and take out, whether you float by tube, canoe, or raft.

The Comal River is the shortest navigable river in Texas. The 2.5-mile long river begins in Landa Park and is contained entirely within the city limits of New Braunfels. You can rent tubes at Landa Falls, or shoot the mill race and just relax in the waters at Prince Solms Park.

Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que and Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q are near the junction of TX 46/Loop 337 and East Common Street between the two rivers. Gruene, a small town on the north side of New Braunfels and on the Guadalupe River, also claims the legendary Gruene Hall, the oldest continuously operated dance hall in Texas, plus restaurants and shops.

Southwest of Austin: Land of LBJ

Nobody enjoyed an adult beverage, a swim, and barbecue more than Texas’ native son – President Lyndon B. Johnson. While he was in the White House, LBJ often hosted meetings and parties at his ranch near Stonewall on the Pedernales River. The LBJ National Historical Park offers tours of his home, which has been remodeled to its Sixties elegance.

The Pedernales River drops over a series of rock ledges and through sculpted rock formations as it makes its way through the state park. The swimming is great whether you want a playful current or a relaxing pool.

On the way to Johnson City from Austin, there are two state parks that offer outstanding opportunities to get wet. The road to Pedernales Falls State Park off U.S. 290 is 34 miles from Austin. The emerald-green Pedernales River runs over a limestone outcropping and rock ledges to create chutes and pools along the cypress-tree-lined banks. The park also has a large campground and miles of rugged trails.

About 50 miles from Austin, Blanco State Park is in a little community that still has the county courthouse before the county seat moved to Johnson City 125 years ago. The park has swimming above and below the dam across the Blanco River. While you’re in town, grab a bite to eat at the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe. In the evenings, the four 9-pin bowling lanes in back of the cafe are usually keeping the “pin monkeys” setting pins by hand.

Texas Hills Vineyard is just one mile off U.S. 290 in Johnson City and seven miles from the gate of Pedernales Falls State Park. The winery uses mostly grapes from the Texas High Plains, but has 25 acres of estate-grown grapes. With their wide selection of wines, it’s easy for everyone to find one they like.

US 290 – or "Wine Road" – between Johnson City and Fredericksburg is lined with a high concentration of winery tasting rooms and fruit stands (peach season runs May through August). Although the two are not connected, the pair allows plenty of opportunities to sample the agricultural output of the area.

Two wine tasting rooms to look for are Becker Vineyards and 4.0 Cellars. Becker is one of the oldest wineries in Texas and they have added fields of lavender to the rows of grapevines. Three elite Texas wineries came together to open the 4.0 tasting room, which offers a long list of locally made wines.

When LBJ was a boy, he often walked from his father’s farm to the post office in Hye, a cluster of a few building along the highway. Today, Hye is home to Garrison Brothers Distillery, the oldest whiskey distillery in Texas. The distillery gift shop offers tours Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (reservations recommended).

Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach especially if they have a longneck in one hand and a guitar in the other. The former post office and general store sells souvenirs and cold drinks.

Willie, Waylon, and the boys put Luckenbach on the map, but it is the town’s personality that has kept it alive. The old store and post office serve cold drinks to take to the song circles that gather under the towering oaks. The dance hall is hopping on most weekends.

West of Austin: The Highland Lakes

Lakes Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis, and Austin stair-step their way down the Colorado River about 80 miles to Austin. The chain of reservoirs was created in the Thirties and Forties to provide flood control, hydroelectric power, and a water supply for the drought-prone region. Each lake has unique characteristics and recreation opportunities. The lakes are managed by a quasi-governmental utility, the Lower Colorado River Authority, which has set aside several public parks.

South Side of the Highland Lakes

TX 71 runs northwest on the south side of the Highland Lakes from Austin to Llano. About 35 miles out of Austin, Pace Bend Park is one of the largest and most popular recreation areas on Lake Travis. At more than 1,300 acres, it is known for its mix of rocky cliffs and gently sloping banks. The park has campgrounds, hiking trails, and charges a fee.

The road off TX 71 to Pace Bend Park (FM 2322) passes through Briarcliff, a bedroom community for Austin that has its own personality, primarily due to its most famous resident. Willie Nelson purchased a scenic 9-hole golf course there next to his home and recording studio in 1979. During Nelson’s IRS troubles, he lost and regained the golf course. With his tax issues behind him, Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Cut 'n' Putt Golf Club is once again open to the public.

A little further west on TX 71 is the little settlement of Spicewood, announced by the sweet smell of Opie’s BBQ at the intersection with Spur 191. Pick your slab of smoked meat right off the pit, grab some free pinto beans and a side dish (the tater tot casserole is a signature dish), and prepare to be stuffed.

After a meal like that, you’ll want to soak your satiated body at Krause Springs. The privately owned swimming hole charges a small fee, but it’s worth it. You can either relax in the concrete swimming pool or climb down to the cypress-tree-lined Little Cypress Creek with a waterfall adorned with ferns growing out of the cliff. They also have a small campground.

If you want a little more rustic environment, follow FM 404 from Spicewood around to the LCRA’s Grelle Recreation Area, where swimming is plentiful and campsites are primitive.

A short distance west from Opie’s BBQ is the entrance to Spicewood Vineyards on the south side of the TX 71. The winery has been making quality wines since 1992. The scenic winery produces a wonderful Viognier and an award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon.

North Side of the Highland Lakes

The apex of our tour of the Highland Lakes is Llano, about an hour and half west of Austin. At one time, this was a resort town with excursion trains running from Austin for the wealthy to escape the summer heat in the capital. Now, it’s a quiet little town popular with deer hunters.

Barbecue in Texas means selecting your cut of meat right off the pit and eating it on red butcher paper with a frosty red soda water. Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano has a history that goes back to 1953. The family’s Llano outpost has been smoking hot since 1964.

West of the intersection of TX 29 and TX 71 is Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, one of the best barbecue joints in the state. Mosey up to the pit and pick your meal, take it inside for weighing, cutting, and paying. The picnic tables in the dining room have plenty of paper towels and white bread to go with the juicy barbecue and steaks.

To head back toward Austin from Llano, go east on TX 29. The state highway is a scenic drive and the fastest route back to the capital, but there are other options.

About 17 miles east of Llano, turn north on County Road 261 off TX 29 and wind through the countryside past the ghost town of Tow to Fall Creek Vineyards. This is one of the oldest wineries in Texas with roots going back to 1975. The tasting room is open daily to sample their world-class selection of wines.

If you continue east on TX 29 you will come to Park Road 4 (9.5 miles west of Burnet) and the entrance to Inks Lake State Park. Inks Lake is a constant-level reservoir and offers numerous places to get wet from the pink granite outcrops. Take a short hike to the Devil’s Water Hole, a small canyon where waterfalls tumble into the lake.

A short distance south of Inks Lake State Park on Park Road 4 is Longhorn Caverns. Escape the summer sun by going into the cave formed by an underground river and once used as a dance hall, gunpowder factory, and an outlaw hideout.

While you’re in the area, take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the scenic drive on RM 1431 along the north shore of the Colorado River and the Highland Lakes. The two-lane road meanders through the hills and offers expansive views of the valley and lakes.

Well, there you have it, a quick guide to some of the best swimming holes, wineries, and barbecue joints in Central Texas with a few extras thrown in. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but rather a short list to get your exploring started.

Gerald McLeod has been traveling around Texas and beyond for his "Day Trips" column for the past 24 years. Keep up to date with his journeys on his archive page. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips," is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 40312, South Austin, TX 78704.

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