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Tree Houses, Tubing, and Tacos: The Ultimate Texas Hill Country Road Trip

By Ashlea Halpern

08.01.19

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The Hotel Emma is one of San Antonio’s most chic locales.

Photo by Nicole Franzen

The Hotel Emma is one of San Antonio’s most chic locales.

This five-day excursion starts and ends in San Antonio and zigzags through Uvalde and Bandera, two lesser-explored counties in Texas’s bucolic Hill Country.

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In the loosest geographic terms, the Hill Country is where South Texas, Central Texas, and West Texas meet. It’s where enormous live oaks and Ashe junipers flirt with dusty scrubland, where granite karsts rise like hunchbacks from the plains, where bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush festoon the landscape in a watercolorist’s daydream. Bound in by the Balcones Escarpment, the southeastern edge of the Hill Country starts just above San Antonio. After spending a day exploring Texas’s second most populous city, cut northwest toward Bandera and Uvalde counties, where you can sleep in a TV-famous tree house, explore the unspoilt Sabinal and Frio rivers by inner tube, and stuff yourself silly on tacos and country-fried steak.

Suggested itinerary:

This five-day excursion begins in San Antonio, home to the efficiently run San Antonio International Airport. The first night is spent in the city; the next three in the countryside. Can you hear the cicadas yet?

Day one: Shopping and taquerias

Grab a rental car and get thee to Carnitas Lonja. Chef-owner Alex Paredes’s southside taqueria always sells out of its crispy-delicious pork, sometimes as early as 1:30 p.m. For two diners, order a pound of meat with six homemade corn tortillas and beans on the side. If you’re there on a weekend, try a seafood tostada and Clamato-spiked beer from Fish Lonja, Paredes’s brand-new sister kitchen, run out of Carnitas Lonja’s backyard.

Take refuge from the Texas heat in a cute, air-conditioned boutique like Nativa.

In the hottest part of the afternoon, make like a Texan and seek out shops with air-conditioning. Fiesta On Main sells a broad array of colorful San Pablito and Otomo quilts, painted tin signs, and Día de los Muertos figurines. Fair-trade Mexican boutique Nativa has some of the city’s cutest clothing and home goods, including palm earrings, carved gourd bowls, and flowing caftans. Cheever Books is loaded with rare first editions and autographed tomes, heavy on the Texana. In tony Alamo Heights, sloan/hall is good for Turkish floor pillows and couture dresses, while Temple of Offering caters to an earthier, neo–New Age crowd with its Ojai-esque ceramics and smudge sticks.

Making the museum rounds is another smart way to avoid the blistering heat: The San Antonio Museum of Art has a remarkable collection of ancient Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Egyptian sculptures, plus creative traveling shows. (On view now: Men of Steel, Women of Wonder, featuring works inspired by Superman and Wonder Woman.) The Briscoe Western Art Museum, meanwhile, covers five centuries of the American West, from the Spanish conquistadors to present day. Look for Apache-woven baskets, bronze sculptures by John Coleman, and a full-size replica of a Wells Fargo & Co. stagecoach.

After 3 p.m., drop your bags at the 146-room Hotel Emma, located in the heart of San Antonio’s revitalized Pearl District. The Roman and Williams–designed inn was named after Emma Koehler, the CEO who ran the former brewery during Prohibition. Boutique touches include luxurious Frette linens, lavender bath salts from Los Poblanos, supple leather sofas contrasted with vintage kilim rugs, and mini-larders stocked with Topo Chico and Mexican Cokes. Head down to the hotel library to indulge in a free welcome cocktail and canapés or go for a stroll along the Pearl’s handsomely manicured section of the ever-expanding River Walk.

The Japanese Tea Garden is a bucolic place for a stroll.

As the sun starts to set, drive over to the Japanese Tea Garden, a rock quarry turned green space with stone arch bridges, a lily pond, and a 60-foot-tall cascading waterfall. You’ll see turtles, ducks, koi, and wedding parties snapping photos.

Dinner has got to be at Ray’s Drive Inn, originator of the puffy taco. The beef or carne guisada, enveloped in a fresh-from-the-fryer crackly taco shell, is the way to go. For dessert, loop north to El Paraiso, San Antonio’s first paletería. José Flores’ real-fruit pops take their inspiration from his Mexican home state of Zacatecas, as well as Guadalajara and Aguascalientes. The neon green pickle pop is sour and tangy, with bits of pickle skin floating in its frozen orbit. Sweeter teeth might prefer horchata, coconut, or pineapple.

Day two: More Mexican bites and a Treehouse Utopia

After checking out of Hotel Emma, kick things off with a leisurely meal at Cascabel Mexican Patio. The daily brunch service starts with a complimentary bowl of fideo: thin noodles submerged in a restorative chicken broth. The machacado is a Nuevo León dish made with dried beef, diced jalapeños, onions, and tomatoes, served in warm tortillas. The enmoladas, or chicken enchiladas in mole poblano, are equally tempting. If you’re anxious to hit the road faster, swing by the downtown location of La Panadería, an upscale Mexican bakery where the decadent tequila almond croissant deserves write-in nominations on election ballots and the vanilla conchas are so light and airy, you’d think they were filled with helium. 

The tres leches croissant at La Panadería is something to write home about.

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From here, you’re heading to Utopia (population: 227) via a scenic two-hour route through Bandera. There are two reasons for this. One, to meet Billy Howard, owner of Flashback Funtiques in Boerne. Howard started collecting gumball machines at age 11 and now sells beautifully refurbished soda dispensers from the 1950s, mint-con Mobil gas signs, and larger-than-life Big Boy statues. Two, to hang out with Kymberli Word, one of the hilarious, down-to-earth owners of Hill Country Cellars Winery in Bandera. She and her husband, Rhett, set up this tasting room three years ago but have been making wine—two whites (chardonnay and symphony), three reds (cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and lenoir), a rosé, and a dessert wine—for almost a decade. Word doesn’t take kindly to snobs from California telling her Texans don’t know how to make wine, and she’s determined to prove it—one mind-changing flight at a time. 

Treehouse Utopia overlooks the lazy Sabinal River.

From Bandera, it’s another 40 minutes to Utopia, where you’ll be checking into your home base for the next three nights: Treehouse Utopia. The extraordinary property, which overlooks the lazy Sabinal River, turned a year old in June. Texas-born chef and entrepreneur Laurel Waters teamed up with “tree whisperer” Pete Nelson of Treehouse Masters, a popular TV show about arboreal living that ran on Animal Planet from 2013 to 2018, to construct this quartet of luxury tree houses. Inspired by Waters’s love of antiquing and her extensive travels throughout France, the Chapelle has a 25-foot steeple, stained glass, and a decor rife with French ecclesiastical artifacts. The two-story Chateau has an expansive deck, fairy tale–like spiral staircase, and a grand clawfoot bathtub. The Carousel features a hidden porch and a vintage merry-go-round horse as its centerpiece. And the Biblioteque is jammed wall-to-wall with books, plus two cozy leather armchairs that invite guests to linger. 

The grounds are blessedly remote (even Google Maps doesn’t have the address, which is how Waters likes it), yet centrally located to everything you’ll want to see and do in Uvalde and Bandera counties in the coming days, starting with a no-fuss dinner at Neals Dining Room in Concan. The family-owned café has been serving up country-fried steak, lima beans, buttered rolls, and yes-ma’am/no-ma’am hospitality since 1929.  

Day three: A cowboy storyteller, trail riding, and a Twisted Sister

Start with breakfast at Lost Maples Cafe in Utopia, where the Redden family makes buttermilk pancakes the size of hubcaps and the building is notable, too: Dating to 1904, it has served as a Masonic lodge, a drugstore, a classroom, and a doctor’s office.

Next, join “cowboy storyteller” Lee Haile for a guided nature tour to some of the Hill Country’s mightiest trees, including a 96-foot-tall, 438-inch-round Bald Cypress next to Buffalo Creek. The trees are located on private land, so you need permission to access them. Besides, Haile is good company—entertaining his troops with campfire songs and an impressive knowledge of the local ecology.

After bidding Haile adieu, drive to Elm Creek Stables in Concan, a quarter mile north of Garner State Park, to go trail riding. Beverly and George Streib have run the Frio Canyon Horse Refuge for nearly a quarter of a century. Of the 30+ horses in their stable, only a dozen or so people-loving equines lead tours; the rest of the seniors are free to simply enjoy their retirement. The horses are gentle and the terrain is easy to navigate, dotted with dainty wildflowers and strapping oaks. The low trails are particularly novice-friendly; experienced riders may request a steeper amble along higher paths.

Ten minutes north of Elm Creek, turn right onto Ranch Road 337. This is one of the Twisted Sisters, three routes widely considered the best motorcycle drives in the Hill Country. But even in a car, it’s a blast of a roller-coaster ride, winding past shallow creeks and under towering limestone bluffs.

Thirsty yet? Cool off under a shade tree, sipping chilled Polvadeau Vin Symphonique. Order a glass of this smooth white wine at Lost Maples Winery and Polvadeau Vineyards in Vanderpool, or request a flight with 10 generous pours. (The winery’s best seller, Polvadeau Vin Elegante, is a velvety Hill Country cab with hints of plum and currant.)

You’ll have to plan well in advance to nab a seat at The Laurel Tree, which is open just one day a week.

Dinner tonight is at The Laurel Tree, back in Utopia, the restaurant where Treehouse Utopia co-owner Laurel Waters really shows off her Le Cordon Bleu training. The antiques-stuffed hideaway is open just one day a week, on Saturdays, and reservations are essential. Waters grows many of her own vegetables and herbs, and her five-course menu is seasonally inspired. (Count your blessings if she’s making her tangy lemon-artichoke soup or signature brisket Wellington.) In the backyard, you’ll notice yet another stunning tree house: this one perched in a 450-year-old live oak. This tree house was Waters’s first collaboration with Nelson, before they cofounded Treehouse Utopia. The tiny lofted abode seats two to six people and may be reserved for private dinners. Alas, nabbing a reservation in the tree house dining room requires considerable planning because seatings book out six months in advance.

Day four: Floating on the rio

Rise and shine and put on your finest swimming costume: Today you’re floating the Rio Frio, a spring-fed river that winds conveniently through Leakey and Concan. Many locals bring their own floats, but you can rent yours from Andy’s on the River, a Concan-based outfitter that provides shuttles to pick-up and drop-off points. 

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Tubing is like one big river party. Coolers with built-in radios blast country and western and reggaeton songs. Folks are drinking and singing and flipping out of their floats for maximum Instagram laughs. You’ll bump tubes with strangers at least half a dozen times in the slower patches and that’s OK: Everyone is out here to have a good time.

The length of the trip depends on the water levels, but bank on three to six hours. For food, you can gulp down a Texas-sized cinnamon bun from Bonnie’s Bakery at Crider’s on the Frio in Concan before hitting the water; pack a picnic lunch with provisions from Concan General Store, stopping to eat it on a deep rock ledge about halfway down the river; or save your appetite for a late lunch at Bear’s Den in Leakey. Tucked behind Bear’s Market & Specialty Meats, the warehouse-like space with comfy couches and stadium TVs welcomes folks in all their messy post-float glory. Order a basket of brisket quesadillas and fried green beans with jalapeno-ranch dressing and life is good.

Back on the road, heading south toward Concan, look for the rainbow-striped bus parked in front of The Inn Between, a clutch of rental cottages just off Highway 83. Married co-owners Jake and Leah Guerrero make a mean mangonada inside the cheerfully painted bus. The icy Mexican fruit treat tastes great in the wicked Texas heat. Stick with the classic combo (chamoy, mango, lime juice, and chili powder) or go wild with pickle sauce, gummy worms, an ice pop, a Tootsie Pop, and a chewy tamarind-coated straw. 

Around 7:30 p.m., meet at the first gate south of the Frio River in Concan, about a third of a mile down FM 2690. This is where you and probably two dozen other folks will find a real-life batman. Bain Walker has been leading the Frio Bat Flight tours for 20 years and knows everything there is to know about bats, guano, and the poor souls whose job it is to collect bat guano for our fertilizers and toothpaste. After paying for your tour (advance reservations recommended) and trailing Walker down a dusty gravel road through a 10,000-acre private ranch, you’ll schlep up a small hill, listen to his spiel about bats, and then wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, after the sun sinks over the distant hills, they’ll appear—10 to 12 million of them, mostly ladies—racing like madness out of the cave and turning the pink sky above into a ribbon of black. After the Bracken Cave Preserve in Comal County, this is the second largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in the world. Their en masse flight is spectacular to witness.  

Garner State Park is the place to go for day hikes and summer evening dances.

The night is still young though, so jump back in the car and drive 20 minutes north to Garner State Park. This 1,774-acre green space is great for day hikes (Old Baldy is a popular summit), but it gets extra busy after dark thanks to its family-friendly jukebox dances. Folks of all ages have been gathering at this open-air pavilion on summer nights since the 1940s, with country and western shindigs held nightly (8 to 11 p.m.) until August 17. After Labor Day, check the calendar for special events.

Day five: More tacos and back to San Antone

Bid adieu to the tree house of your dreams and hop onto scenic Ranch Road 187 toward Sabinal. Your final breakfast in Hill Country will no doubt be your best: Nora’s Tacos. The unimpeachable egg, potato, bacon, and cheese combo is the top choice if you’re craving a classic breakfast taco, although owner Nora Gomez has a huge blackboard menu of other options—queso flamenco, machacado, nopalitos—all of them absurdly tasty. 

Mission San Jose is one of the stops in San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

From Sabinal, pick up U.S. 90 East back to San Antonio. This leg takes about an hour without traffic, leaving you enough time to pack in more sightseeing. Visit San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which encompasses four historic missions spaced about 2.5 miles apart. There are 10 miles of pedestrian-only trails connecting the missions, should you feel a burning desire to walk or rent a bike, or you can park for free. 

And don’t you dare board your plane home without sampling San Antonio’s absolute best barbecue: 2M Smokehouse. A pro order goes something like this: half a pound of brisket (“moist”), a quarter pound of juicy pulled pork, two big honkin’ pork ribs, a sausage spiked with Oaxaca cheese and Serrano chilies, and sides of soupy borracho beans, chicharrón-topped macaroni and cheese, and pickled nopales. Arrive by 11:30 a.m. to avoid a crazy line and the crushing disappointment of seeing the words Sold Out.

What to bring

Summers in Texas are no joke. Pack light, breathable clothing, sunblock, bug spray, a good hat, sweat rags, and a reusable water bottle. If you plan to float the Frio, bring a swimsuit, rashguard or coverup, water shoes, waterproof camera casing, and a good length of rope. That last one is so you can tether your inner tube to your fellow travelers’ tubes—or your floating beer cooler (no judgment). Should you forget any of these items, Frio’s Dry Fifty in Concan sells all this and more. 

Additional tips

  • Besides the Alamo, the Pearl District is one of the greatest tourist draws in San Antonio. If you’re struggling to find parking, check the multilevel Ace parking garage at Isleta Street and Emma Koehler. It’s free and almost always available.
  • One can only eat so much jerky on a road trip. Stop by the Pearl Farmers’ Market to pick up fresh fruits and veggies for your drive. It’s Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Treehouse Utopia is blissfully out of range for anyone who doesn’t have cell service with AT&T. Though the Wi-Fi is fast, why not log off and read a book? The Gates of the Alamo, by Stephen Harrigan, is considered one of the best novels ever written about this neck of the world.

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