The Texas Grandeur That Roped Lbj

Lyndon B. Johnson called it "a special corner of God's real estate." Few who have traveled along the Texas Hill Country's undulating roads or stargazed beneath its glittering sky would disagree with the former President's assessment. Smack-dab in the middle of the state, the region has an untouched beauty, thanks to its rugged terrain and a paucity of oil and minerals. Long a retreat for well-heeled residents of Austin, Dallas, and Houston, its grassy pastures, limestone bluffs, and cedar-shaded riverbanks appeal to anyone who feels at home on the range.

The Hill Country is a circular swath of land that starts outside Austin, sweeps south to just above San Antonio, and extends west some 150 miles. The region is hundreds of feet higher than surrounding territory because of a prehistoric tectonic shift that also created its rumpled terrain. "It's a rolling, brushy, woody landscape filled with streams, gullies, and rivers," says Christopher Davies, professor of geography at the University of Texas. The Hill Country is further marked by its German heritage: The area was settled in the mid-1800s by Germans, so you're as likely to get Wiener schnitzel as you are chicken-fried steak in country cafes.

Fall is a particularly fine time to visit. The weather is lovely: Daily highs range from 70F to 80F, with lows 40 to 60. There are Oktoberfest celebrations, craft shows, and chili cook-offs. And, rare in Texas, there's even autumn color. The best place to start your trek is San Antonio. Head west on I-10. After 15 miles, strip malls give way to golden grasslands dotted with tufts of mesquite. Be careful of armadillos darting across the road. Stop for lunch or at least a slice of homemade pie at Po-Po Family Restaurant in Boerne (take exit 533). Short for the Mexican volcano, Popocatepetl, the place started out as a dance hall in 1929 but now serves terrific homestyle meals.

You may also want to go spelunking in some of the nearby underground caves. A good bet is Cascade Caverns, known for its 90-foot subterranean waterfall and glittering formations of rock and crystal. Guided tours are available every day except Tuesday. And don't pass up Bandera, which bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World. Saddle up at one of its dude ranches, which offer resort-type lodging along with trail rides and hearty meals in campy dining halls or off the chuck wagon.

Although it's hard to find a Hill Country road that isn't scenic, route FM 337 between Bandera and Vanderpool is particularly beautiful. The 30-mile drive offers panoramas of limestone formations and meandering rivers. Vanderpool is also home to Lost Maples State Natural Area, where the trees in the cool river-valley microclimate are ablaze with color from late October to early November. See them along with the area's abundant wildlife--such as deer, fox, and javelina--while hiking The 2,200-acre state park's 10 miles of trails. Stay a stone's throw away at Foxfire Cabins, whose brochure boasts: "For your family's enjoyment, we have no TVs or room telephones." Sit on your cabin's front porch at night for a breathtaking view of the cosmos.

TWO-STEP. If you get cabin fever, travel about 30 minutes north to see Stonehenge II, a replica of England's mysterious neolithic monument on a quirky rancher's pastureland just outside Hunt. In Hunt proper, join the two-steppers that pack Crider's Dance Hall & Rodeo Grounds on Saturday nights. Continue east on Highway 27 toward KerrVille to find numerous comfortable and serene lodges along the shady banks of the Guadalupe River. Particularly nice are the River Inn Resort & Conference Center and the River Oaks Lodge.

You'll know you're in Kerrville when you see a massive Wal-Mart, but keep going and you'll find a pleasant main street, circa 1850, and Bill's Bar-B-Que, where "the bull goes on forever." Stop in for a plate of beef, ribs, or sausage, and sit with the regulars clad in overalls out on the patio. Complimentary sacks of white bread are on the table to sop up extra sauce. Also visit the Cowboy Artists of America Museum in Kerrville, which houses Western paintings and sculptures underneath 18 boveda domes--an intricate type of Spanish colonial masonry. Not far away is Luckenbach (pop. 24), where you can test your tongue's tolerance for spiciness at the annual Ladies' State Championship Chili Cook-Off the first weekend in October.

Another charming town is Comfort, where you can enjoy an ice-cream sundae at the local soda shop or buy cast-iron stew pots, cowbells, and bamboo fishing rods at Ingenhuett Store, the oldest continuously operated general store in Texas. Equally quaint is Fredericksburg, named after Prince Frederick IV of Prussia by the German immigrants who settled there in 1846-- after signing a peace treaty with local Comanche Indians. The German influence is especially thick here, with many restaurants offering dishes suffixed "wurst" and "kraut." Needless to say, Oktoberfest is exuberantly observed. This year's sausage-on-a-stick shindig is set for Oct. 1-3.

LOCAL PRIDE. The town's main street is full of antique and crafts shops, most of them housed in buildings that are historic--or at least done up to look that way. Same goes for the scores of almost-too-cute inns and bed and breakfasts. A source of local pride, and worth your time, is the Admiral Nimitz Museum & Historical Center. The World War II hero was born in Fredericksburg, and the museum chronicles his life and military exploits. Next door is the George Bush Gallery of the National Museum of the Pacific War, which opened in June and has a Japanese two-man submarine and B-25 bomber on display.

At sunset, drive 18 miles north of town to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. The 1,643-acre park is dominated by massive dome-shaped hills of pink granite, which glow in the twilight. Indians believed the rocks were populated by spirits because they make moaning sounds as they cool off and contract after a hot day. A four-mile trail winds about the granite formations with views of the hills and valleys beyond. The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is also nearby, 16 miles east of Fredericksburg. It includes the LBJ Ranch, Johnson's birthplace, and family cemetery. The bus tour features taped commentary by Johnson in which he expresses his love for the Hill Country. After winding through some of its back roads, it's hard not to share his sentiment.

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