2021 11/3 – 11/21 Joan and Stu Explore Texas Hill Country Fall Foliage

2021 11/3 Leg 2 State Parks in Hill Country

Joan flew into Austin on a rainy Wednesday to start Leg 2 of our 2021 Autumn visit to Texas Hill Country.

We interrupted the cold rain on Joan’s arrival day with an excellent hot lunch at Pho Vin on route from the airport to our campsite home. As is usual with Pho, it was excellent. The hot flavorful broth was loaded with our choice of noodles, vegetables, and our choice of various chicken, and meats. We set aside the cold and enjoyed the sunshine packed in the generous bowls.

On the way to the Bluebonnet Cove RV Campground, the rain had stopped, and we noticed the beautiful Black Rock Park, a county park just above the Buchanan Dam. The park must be very busy in the summer; however, during our visit we were nearly the only people on the grounds.

In addition to the usual beach areas, the park has a colorful rental fleet of kayaks and canoes, a large, well equipped RV camping area with only a few occupied sites, and a small village of rental cabins, each a different happy color.

2021 11/4 We were greeted early in the morning with a gorgeous sunrise, directly behind Winnie over Lake Buchanan, a great start to the day.

Kabobzi storefront

2021 11/5 Our visits always seem to center on good places to eat. Kabobzi Mediterranean Grill was  perfect. We had an errand in Austin that carried into lunch so we were hungry for a tasty meal, an outside park setting, and lots of sunshine. Kabobzi (as in Chicken Kabobs, for example) exceeded our requirements with hot tasty food in a light welcoming environment and a substantial outdoor eating area with comfortable tables in the sunshine.

Joan enjoyed her chicken with Greek Salad and babaganoush while Stu had lamb kabobs, also with greek salad and a side Babaganoush.

2021 11/6 Visit to Longhorn Cavern

Longhorn Cavern evolved over many thousands of years, cut by flowing water and tumbling rocks. During a six-year period beginning in the mid-1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) sealed the original river entrance, effectively freezing the erosion and cave forming process.

The workers of the CCC opened an entrance at an existing sink hole where the earth had collapsed, making a giant opening. They removed rock, trans, and signs of previous civilizations including mastodon bones, and “improved” the cavern by adding beautiful stone stairs, electric lights, paved paths, and pumps to control the water flow.

The CCC turned the ancient cavern into a museum for our enjoyment. The operators run many tours each day. We enjoyed one for a 90-minute tour of history and learned a bit about the CCC and how they learned the skills of living outside that prepared them for entry into World War I.

Exploring Longhorn Cavern left us hungry for lunch at the Grand Central Cafe. Stu had a tempting Phila. Cheesesteak that shamed the image of Philadelphia with tasteless bread and over cooked meat. At least they tried and the surroundings were beautiful.

2021 11/07-11/10  Lost Maples

We departed Bluebonnet for the Lost Maples State Natural Area. It is called a Natural Area, rather than a State Park, which means the primary focus is the maintenance and protection of the property’s natural state. Our goal was to photograph the “Lost Maples” at the peak of their bright red fall colors.

Unfortunately, the Lost Maples were nowhere to be seen. Over two days, we hiked the valleys and gorges publicized by the Chamber of Commerce, but apparently they were truly Lost Maples between the time Chamber of Commerce took the images and our arrival. Our plan was to return in a week and hope to see if what once was lost now is found – stay tuned.

NOTE: For anyone interested in what the lost maples really are, here is an explanation. When the Ice Age ended and the climate warmed, the only maple trees that survived were the Bigtooth Maples in the protected canyons. Most of these maples live in cooler climates, making the Texas trees seem out of place or “lost.”

Starting the Lost Maples Trail

The Sabinal River weaves back and forth through the park and beyond. As we hiked along the trails, we kept coming to places where the only way to continue was to cross the Sabinal River where rocks had been strategically placed to facilitate (sometimes with great difficulty) our crossing. Rock river crossing is more fun for younger kids who skip better and don’t mind falling in quite as much as I do. The crossings were a challenge for both of us.

Stu was captured on video bravely crossly the raging river.

Sometimes with the help of hiking poles, we all managed to get across each crossing and proceed down the trail. Not to be outdone, Joan bravely crossed the river just after taking the photo.

In the Lost Maples parking lot we found a tiny building to enter and enjoy the “bird blind,” with many species of birds partaking of the bird feeders out the window on the other side of the structure.

The park had a postal address of Vanderpool (population 97), which is a town with nothing that we saw but a general store and RV park, and Lost Maples Park. We went looking for a neighboring town for food, and headed for Utopia 12 miles south (population 167), which had a mediocre restaurant that people enjoyed because, I suppose, it was the best they had. It was a cute town to walk through, but not for nourishment. Judging by the number of churches, the people hadn’t quite found a utopia.

Talking to people on the hiking trails, we were directed to the town of Leakey, (population 642) which did not disappoint us. We drove the 15-mile “scenic route” west and had a wonderful lunch in the outdoor patio of Mama Chole’s Mexican Restaurant.

We left Lost Maples, knowing that we planned to return in a week, hoping to see the advertised brilliant red foliage. The next park, Garner State Park, had been full on the 10th (several months in advance) so we booked an intermediary 4-day stay while we waited for our site in Garner.

2021 11/10 – 11/14  Parkview Riverside RV Park

Parkview Riverside RV Park was our home between state parks. Our campsite was on the Frio River across from Garner State Park. We initially had some problems finding the park; the main one was our introduction to the Frio River. We drove past the park on our first approach and came to a part of the road that the Frio Rio crossed without a bridge. We watched a car drive through the river safely, so we plunged ahead, holding our collective breaths. We did reach the other side, turned around and drove back to our park.

 

We had a lovely shaded site with a view of the Frio down a 40′ or so embankment that encouraged me not to back up too far when parking Winnie.

They provided a large fire pit with a cooking shelf that was just the right height for our gas BBQ, so we could sit and watch the river as we grilled. As with most commercial sites in this area, this place grew up to handle the overflow from the much larger and less expensive Garner State Park, just a mile away by road.

Parkview is located just across the Rio Frio from Garner State Park. Access to the Rio Frio from the Parkview side was via either 37 steps down or two very steep ramps, walkable but too much for Stu’s kayak. We decided to use day passes (free with our Texas State Park Pass) and drive the short distance to Garner.

We visited with day passes for the few days before moving to Garner State Park.  Texas has a unique system for frequent campers such as us. We purchased a State Park Pass for a modest fee that was immediately “refunded” by reducing the price of our first and every subsequent use of the Texas park system. The pass made our day visits to Garner free (and then the cost of our campsite substantially less).

On the first day-pass day, Stu launched his kayak and paddled from one end of the small man-made lake at the Rio Frio Dam to the shallow rapids made by visitors piling stones into wing dams on either side of the slowly flowing water. The dams made some interesting near-white water mini-rapids.

2021 11/14 – 11/18 Garner State Park

Garner State Park was our home for several days – in site 459 of the Rio Frio section.

[PHOTOS OF GARNER STATE PARK HERE]

One of our biggest challenges in Hill Country was finding groceries. We kept asking where we could buy a head of lettuce, and finally someone on a trail pointed us to Leakey Mercantile (Leakey’s population is 642) where we bought not only lettuce, but also the one remaining chicken to grill. The butcher said that deliveries there were unpredictable.

Garner has a number of lovely hikes, some hard and some easy. They all wear us both out, calling for some extreme rest and relaxation.  Stu set up a hammock between two branches of an old tree and Joan tested it out, immediately falling asleep for a short, refreshing nap.

The Rio Frio (Cold River) separates the commercial Parkview RV Park from the much larger Garner State Park. River Frio is a beautiful, crystal clear slowly moving river that is dammed up to form a pool about 2 feet deep in most places. The concessioners rent kayaks and paddle boats. A short hike along the river yielded some beautiful vistas including several shots of kids swinging from strategically placed ropes.

Rebecca sent Stu a photo taken from the top of Old Baldy, a mountain trail rated as difficult by the park. Well, if they can climb it with a Sierra, surly Stu can do it!  Well, not so much. Stu climbed to  beautiful vista and apparently took a wrong turn ending up in a graffiti dead end. He backtracked and found a blaze mark showing the correct trail and climbed some more. Eventually, within sight of the peak, he was just to tired to continue. Rebecca said it wasn’t so hard since Miguel carried Sierra part of the way. Nice trail with nice views.

Also, we were delighted to find some wonderful restaurants in the little towns during our 2 weeks in the area. The Mill Creek Cafe, Bent Rim restaurant, Neal’s Dining Room, Mama Chole’s, and Vinny’s Italian Restaurant amply and deliciously provided the food we couldn’t purchase in the stores.

[PHOTOS OF RESTAURANTS]

2021 11/18-11/21 South Llano River State Park

South Llano River State Park is best known for the large Turkey Roost, a protected area that dominates the central flat area of the park. There are several well groomed trails that lace the park and travel across the turkey roosting area.

In spite of our persistent efforts (and hikes) to find the turkeys to view, we left without seeing any. Stu decided that the turkeys were all hiding for Thanksgiving – but not so – they are protected in the park. We were fortunate to see several armadillos, cute little armored animals that exist to eat as many ants as possible. These basketball size creatures crawl around the base of the forest with their nose and mouth just underground, following and eating the ants that carpet the forest floor. They seem unafraid of people and allow you to get quite close before they scurry into the underbrush with their shell blending into the background.

We were also fortunate to see several hog families that seem to frequently cross the road in search of whatever is better on the other side. The largest hog senses our presence as we approach and snorts off into the underbrush calling the smaller and baby animals to follow along.

We did some hiking on the elaborate series of trails and bird blinds that lace the state park.

Stu climbed to a scenic overlook above the power lines that seemed to be in every direction. The hike wasn’t very difficult and the view point was in line with the hike, moderate at best.

The campsites at Llano were terrific. Spaced comfortably distant, well equipped with covered picnic table shelters on a good concrete patio.

Stu appreciated the approach to the site. This was the first place we had encountered that had clearly marked the site approach with white lines painted on either side of the paved drive. It was easy to park safely.

 

Stu also appreciated the fried catfish dinners at the nearby restaurants – two nights in a row. Too good to resist.

 

We reluctantly left Hill Country. Our visit there was quite a treat.