Travel

Texas Hill Country Is the Ultimate Spring Road Trip

Find your bluebonnet wildflower and smokey barbecue nirvana.

Kristine T Pham Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images
Kristine T Pham Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images
Kristine T Pham Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

With its kaleidoscopic wildflowers, rolling farmland, and-oddly-mermaid lore, Texas Hill Country sounds more like Neverland than the Austin suburbs-but instead of Captain Hook, it’s Leatherface. Fear not, though, because the fictional feelings are only there in spirit, and the region’s age-old barbecue institutions only conjure Texas Chainsaw vibes in quaint ways.

What wine country is to San Francisco, Hill Country is to Austin-an easy jaunt to bucolic towns like Dripping Springs, Driftwood, Lockhart, and Kyle. Though close to the big, noisy city, and literally a 20-minute drive from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Hill Country feels worlds away-a pastoral paradise teeming with iconic bluebonnets, tropical-blue rivers, dreamy boutique inns, national park sites, and breweries so in line with the “Keep Austin Weird” ethos they come with goat yoga and vegan pizza.

With wildflowers abloom and warm sunshine casting a glow across the meadows, spring is prime time to explore Texas Hill Country. And there’s no better way to sink your teeth into the region than by car, road tripping from a sotol distillery in Driftwood to the dusty town of Lockhart, where the whole community wafts of smoked meats. Welcome to Texas, y’all.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Frolic with flowers come springtime

Texas weather can be a drama queen. Come summer, the Austin metro scorches with sky-high temps, humidity, and unrelenting sunshine that feels downright oppressive, necessitating a plunge in Barton Springs. Then there’s winter, which can look fully dystopian. Sure, it doesn’t normally snow much or get too frigid, but spring is a time for celebration nonetheless.

The towns south and west of Austin, particularly, come alive with wildflowers, prickly pears, and fresh produce. With lipstick-red poppies, Indian paintbrushes, purple tansies, wine cup flowers, and ox-eyed daisies, Hill Country starts to look like an artist’s palette typically late-March through mid-May, just before the heat starts to get rude. The star of the floral show, though, is the bluebonnet: a deep-purple lupin lookalike that’s come to be synonymous with spring in Texas. When these beauties start to flower, you know spring has arrived, beckoning you to twirl through the fields, Sound of Music-style.

While the flowers pop up in Austin on occasion, your best bet for a bluebonnet moment is driving out into nature. The Willow City Loop is a particularly striking 13-mile drive through flower-filled fields and past mesquite trees, oaks, and a fence lined with cowboy boots, because Texas. The town of Burnet is so abundant with bluebonnets that they host an annual Bluebonnet Festival, which is basically a floral Coachella with art, food, music, and family-friendly entertainment. For something a bit more convenient from the city, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a gorgeous botanic garden on Austin’s southwest side, with guided garden tours, spring plant sales, an arboretum, and 70 acres of stroll-worthy trails.

Mermaid Society SMTX
Mermaid Society SMTX
Mermaid Society SMTX

Mingle with mermaids(?) and Leatherface lore

This is the time of year when people get back out on the water, especially the turquoise-blue San Marcos River. This waterway is so tropical-looking and crystal-clear that the Mermaid Society of San Marcos is an actual thing, hosting Mermaid Week festivals in September with mermaid parades, a mermaid art ball, and “MERtini” cocktail competitions. It’s technically called the Mermaid Capital of Texas Festival, though we can’t imagine there’s much competition from other Texas-based mermaid festivals? So with longer days, warmer temps, fertile farmland abloom, and umm, mermaids, this is Texas’ time to shine in Hill Country.

Speaking of strange fiction, Hill Country is also infamous as the setting of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, exemplified by the fun fact that many of these quiet towns look like the kinds of places you do not want your car to break down in. Though not actually based on real events (that we know of??), the horror classic was filmed primarily at a house in present-day Round Rock, just 30 minutes north of Austin. If that’s a little close for comfort, don’t worry, because the house has since been uprooted and moved to Kingsland, a more reassuring 64 miles away. Nowadays, the house operates as the Antlers Inn, which has been thoroughly refurbished so that it doesn’t too closely resemble the stuff from your nightmares. In fact, it’s perfectly charming and pleasant today, with traditional hotel rooms, cottages, and even an antique train car with guest rooms on board. There’s also a cute on-site restaurant, Grand Central Cafe, with chicken Chardonnay, pancakes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre memorabilia, and the unmistakable staircase from the film. Like we said, cute.

Lone Star Court, by Valencia Hotel Group
Lone Star Court, by Valencia Hotel Group
Lone Star Court, by Valencia Hotel Group

Where to stay in Texas Hill Country

If you’d rather not sleep in the same building where Leatherface went on a killing spree, Hill Country has other options with distinct vibes, style, and flavor-and nary a chainsaw in sight.

For Hill Country vibes with big-city amenities, Lone Star Court is your go-to gateway to Texas’ road trip epicenter. Located in Austin at The Domain, this beautiful boutique property gives access to urban splendors and Hill Country adventures, coupled with a transportive atmosphere that’ll make you feel like you’re on a bougie farm. It also doesn’t get any more TEXAS than this, where guests are greeted with free Lone Star Beers, the decor resembles a chic ranch, the bar feels like a barnyard saloon, and the pool is designed like a Hill Country swimming hole. There’s even a signature scent, redolent with notes of sueded leather, sage, and cypress, wafting from the lobby. The huge four-acre property is outfitted with fire pits, lawn games, picnic tables, and twinkling bulb lights, all of which lend a sense of cozy countryside rusticity, while retro-style rooms boast marshmallow-soft beds, vintage refrigerators, and rocking chairs outside every door. For food and drink, mosey up to the bar-or sit by the huge central fireplace-at the Water Trough, a Texas-style pub with requisites like chili con queso, smoked brisket, chicken tacos, and “cowboy” bread pudding studded with pecans, raisins, and whiskey creme anglaise.

Out in Hill Country, if you just can’t get enough Jester King, the brewery expanded its offerings with on-site lodging at the Jester King Inn. Accessible to the brewery through a private gate for overnight guests, the inn is comprised of five intimate accommodations, each one thoughtfully and uniquely appointed, from the cozy A-frame Bobcat Cabin to the expansive Ruby Cabin, equipped with three patios, a full kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an outdoor shower so you can soak under the stars.

For the utmost bucolic vibe, book a stint at Sage Hill Inn & Spa. Nestled in the quiet forested hills of Kyle, the luxe adults-only property looks more like Napa than Texas, with cozy abodes that run the gamut from private cabins to enormous suites with fireplaces, tubs, and patios. Amenity-wise, there’s a pool, bocce court, a 14-person hot tub, a restaurant, and an impressive trail system through the hills.

The Texas Pie Company
The Texas Pie Company
The Texas Pie Company

Eat dessert first in the “Pie Capital of Texas”

Half an hour southwest of Austin, the quaint town of Kyle is an apt stopover for anyone with a sweet tooth and a bottomless pit of an appetite. The community might not look like much, but it’s earned the nickname the “Pie Capital of Texas” for its most popular local restaurant, the Texas Pie Company. The joint is courtesy of proprietor Julie Albertson, a veritable Julia Child of pie, whose laundry list of family recipes runs the gamut from savory pot pies and chicken tetrazzini casserole to sweets like peanut butter mousse, lemon chess, chocolate fudge, coconut cream, Almond Joy, and pecan pie bars. The whole place has serious “grandma’s kitchen” vibes, which makes sense considering Albertson learned how to bake pie from her grandmother.

Down the block from Texas Pie Company is another sweet stop, La Ola Pop Shop, a tiny nook slinging ice cream, mangonadas, and paleta pops in flavors and colors as vibrant as a field of wildflowers. While the heat may not be sweltering quite yet this time of year, there’s still something refreshing about slobbering on a “POG” paleta with passion fruit, orange juice, and guava, or a pineapple-tajin pop with a splash of sweet-and-spicy chamoy sauce.

 

Jester King Brewery
Jester King Brewery
Jester King Brewery

Find boozy bliss in Dripping Springs

The smattering of breweries and wineries in Johnson City is the tip of the vast, boozy iceberg in Hill Country, which has emerged as a mecca for craft beer and spirits in recent years. The heart of it is Dripping Springs, where the main thoroughfare of Fitzhugh Road weaves through hilly pastures and past a dizzying array of expansive distilleries and breweries.

The king of the crop is Jester King Brewery, an enormous woodland destination that feels like the Dollywood of breweries with its huge farm tours, goat yoga, outdoor movie screenings, and even a two-mile nature trail that surrounds the 165-acre ranch. Three different bar areas pour limited-release beers, mostly made with locally foraged fruits, grains, and native yeasts. From the changing lineup, you can expect to find anything from a barrel-aged wild ale with Marion blackberries to a farmhouse ale with oat malt and blue corn or a rosemary and smoked honey variation re-fermented with plums. There’s also a full-blown-and staggeringly impressive-food menu, with an emphasis on pizza, barbecue, and baked goods and breads with indigenous yeast from the ranch. Like the beers, pizzas change seasonally, but beyond the staples like the red-sauce Clasico, examples include the vegan Caulis pizza with kale and radish greens pesto, cashew “cheese,” cauliflower, pickled radishes, and fried capers. Or try the aggressively non-vegan Pectoralis with bechamel, smoked sliced brisket, Swiss cheese, dressed arugula, and pickled red onion. Along with fluffy blue corn muffins with chile-honey butter, you can grab a bonus trail beer and trek the woods to work it all off.

Further west down Fitzhugh Road, you’ll pass other equally sprawling breweries and distilleries, like Beerburg Brewing, Revolution Spirits Distilling Co., and Fitzhugh Brewing, but one essential stop is Treaty Oak Distilling, which is less a straightforward distillery or bar, and more like a whiskey wonderland complete with folksy live music, a barbecue restaurant, a mercantile shop, a barnyard bar, and copious outdoor grounds. The open-air Rickhouse Bar is a particularly cool place to linger, with ample spirits and beers to choose from, including an impressively smooth, cherry-kissed, barrel-aged Old Fashioned that might ruin you on all other Old Fashioneds.

Just seven miles south of Dripping Springs, one of the biggest-and booziest-surprises in the region is Desert Door Distillery, the first sotol distillery in the US, where spiky agave-looking plants, traditionally distilled in Mexico, take the spotlight in a chic, twee tasting room. Channeling its inner west Texas, where the sotol plants are harvested, the space looks like an adobe-style Marfa art gallery with equally photogenic cocktails, like the Desert Paloma with sotol, grapefruit juice, agave nectar, soda, bitters, and lime. While the plant may look like an agave doppelganger, it’s entirely its own thing, and the resulting elixir tastes like a smoky mezcal with a hint of anise.

Unsplash/Kyle Vena
Unsplash/Kyle Vena
Unsplash/Kyle Vena

Chase waterfalls and presidential history in Johnson City

As the name “Hill Country” suggests, there’s plenty of both hills and country out this way, which means lots of ways to recreate in nature. Johnson City, about 30 miles west of Austin, is a beautiful place for an afternoon trip, where you can hike, embrace your inner Lyndon B. Johnson groupie, and disobey TLC by chasing waterfalls.

The latter can be seen at Pedernales Falls State Park, a 5,000-acre swath of green space, hills, babbling brooks, and small-but-mighty waterfalls along the Pedernales River. Ideal for swimming, hiking, picnicking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and exploring with your dog, there’s much to do in a relatively contained area. While you can’t swim by the falls, the more docile portions of the river provide refuge from the ensuing heat, along with fishing, tubing, and kayaking. For hiking, options range from the modest half-mile Twin Falls Nature Trail, culminating with a panorama of the falls, to the more strenuous six-mile Wolf Mountain Trail, zigzagging through canyons and along Mescal and Tobacco Creeks.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Nearby, about 14 miles west of Johnson City, the National Park Service oversees the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, including the LBJ Ranch and the “Texas White House.” This is where America’s 36th president was born, lived, died, and buried-and one scenic drive across the grounds makes it easy to see the appeal of the peaceful farmland. Along the way, you’ll encounter the Johnson family cemetery, the cottage-like house where he was born, a bunch of roving cattle, and the mighty ranch house where Johnson spent much of his life, conducted plenty of business, and hosted dignitaries from across the globe. For these reasons, the ranch has its own private airport hangar, complete with a presidential jet that visitors can enter, and there’s an enormous garage with a vintage car collection that would make Jay Leno jealous.

Portions of the Texas White House have been opened for public tours, but they’re currently closed due to safety concerns with structural issues. The adjoining visitor center and museum, though, is fully loaded with immersive exhibits and films, including a whole space dedicated to the environmental work of Lady Bird Johnson.

In Johnson City, there’s another section of the national park site that includes a one-mile loop trail to the Johnson Settlement, where the president’s grandparents first settled in the 1860s, which will get you up close and personal with longhorn cattle (separated by a fence, thankfully). Then, explore the rest of Johnson City’s charming downtown, lined with cute cafes, wine bars, and boutiques, like Lady Bird Lane Cafe, Pecan Street Brewing, 290 Vinery, and Farmhouse Vineyards.

The Salt Lick
The Salt Lick
The Salt Lick

Follow the scent of smoked meats to barbecue nirvana

While Austin proper has its fair share of cult-followed barbecue institutions, you gotta rove through Hill Country for the real-deal institutions: the kind of theme park-sized eateries that have been stoking the same flames for generations and piling sliced brisket on platters like bovine Jenga towers.

Among such hallowed grounds, The Salt Lick reigns as one of the most popular-and rightfully so, both for its proximity to Austin and the fact that the enormous restaurant makes you feel like you’ve been transported to a bygone era, feasting on ribs like some kind of bacchanalian cowboy cookout. Located in Driftwood, The Salt Lick is a complex of barn-like buildings, rustic dining rooms, and tree-shaded patios, all anchored by a huge barbecue pit absolutely heaped with ribs, sausages, slabs of pork, and brisket. There’ll likely be a wait for a table, despite the fact that this place is the size of the Mall of America, but you can hunker down by the bar out back, offering local brews and Salt Lick’s own wine label. Once seated, brace for a meal that’ll make Thanksgiving look like the Master Cleanse by comparison-we’re talkin’ family-sized sliced brisket sandwiches, smoked turkey, rib plates, and snappy sausages. Bison ribs are a newer novelty, though the size of these things look like they came from a brontosaurus.

Black's BBQ
Black’s BBQ
Black’s BBQ

For something less touristy and a bit more off the beaten path, road trip out to the sleepy hamlet of Luling, about 53 miles southeast of Dripping Springs. The type of quintessential Texas town where you half expect to see tumbleweed bouncing down the street, it’s a worthwhile haul from Austin to visit City Market, a timeworn cornerstone that feels like a community cafeteria, complete with non-gimmicky black-and-white photos and rocking chairs on the front porch. It’s utterly lacking in frills, including utensils, so check all decorum at the door, roll up your sleeves, and tear into smoky sausages, plump ribs, and slabs of beef brisket. The menu, like the space, is refreshingly sparse, emphasizing quality over quantity. But don’t sleep on the banana pudding for dessert.

The Salt Lick and City Market are good and all, but you haven’t done barbecue in Hill Country right until you’ve risked getting gout in Lockhart. Hill Country may be home to the “Pie Capital of Texas” and the “Mermaid Capital of Texas,” but the accolade that’s the least surprising is the fact that this little town is the “Barbecue Capital of Texas,” a fact made abundantly clear in that the whole town kinda smells like smoked meat. About 15 miles north of Luling, Lockhart is home to some of the oldest, most enduring barbecue institutions in the country, including Black’s Barbecue, Smitty’s Market, and Kreuz Market, each one massive and unrelentingly meaty. If you’ve only got time-or stomach space-for one, make it Kreuz Market, a local family-run icon that’s been slinging meat since 1875. Though the building has changed, it’s remained in the same family through multiple generations, and the original coals used in the barbecue pits have moved to its current location. Nowadays, folks queue up for ‘cue alongside blazing-hot brick pits, where pitmasters slow-cook brisket, beef ribs, sausages, pork chops, and pit ham in the style of traditional German meat markets. All orders are ruggedly rolled in butcher paper and served, sans utensils, for diners to get primal with. This is probably the closest you’ll come to feeling like a lion.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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