Travel time from:
Austin – 1.75 hours
Brownsville – 5.25 hours
Dallas – 5 hours
Houston – 3.75 hours
San Antonio – .5 hour
Lubbock – 6 hours
El Paso – 8.5 hours
This Hill Country jewel boasts an Old West town and the Cave Without A Name.
By Rob McCorkle
At the turn of the 20th century, Boerne reveled in its reputation as an idyllic health resort. The coming of the railroad from San Antonio to the small Hill Country community in the late 1880s had provided greater access for ailing Texans to visit “the most natural sanitarium in the world.”
I stumbled upon this interesting historical tidbit at a wayside exhibit during my second afternoon in town while walking the Old No. 9 Greenway Trail that slices through the heart of the city. City fathers, responding to the wishes of the citizens for more trails and open space, converted the former rail bed into a paved, 1.4-mile hike-and-bike trail.
The exhibit panel notes how the railway company promoted excursions on the railroad’s Kerrville branch that passed through Boerne (pronounced BURN-ee) as a “beautiful side trip to the mountain resort.” The marketing worked, at least until the Great Depression hit.
By the early 1900s, Boerne’s population of about 1,000 consisted of more ailing patients than healthy citizens. Thirteen hotels and sanitariums catered to health-seekers and weary travelers looking for fresh country air and “mountain” scenery.
One of those establishments was The Boerne Hotel, which began in 1859 as a boarding house. After two wings were added, the hotel functioned as an authentic stagecoach inn in the 1880s and 1890s.
It was this national landmark (now called Ye Kendall Inn) that served as my base of operation during my stay in Boerne. Today, the bedroom community, 30 miles from San Antonio, boasts a population pushing 7,000.
The wood-frame Blanco House where wife Judy and I stayed is one of a number of historic structures moved onto the hotel’s 6-acre grounds. With its wood floors, high ceilings and a covered porch perfect for sipping morning coffee, the cottage looks like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. Its central location just off the Main Plaza proved ideal for accessing the Hauptstrasse, or Main Street, the town’s retail center.
Our first stop — Enchanted Springs Ranch — sits a few miles south of Boerne off Texas 46. We find the parking lot of the 86-acre working ranch and authentic-looking Old West town almost full. Co-owner Steve Schmidt, attired in Western duds, and Woodrow, a Texas longhorn, are greeting visitors who’ve come from as far away as New Mexico to experience a slice of the late 1800s. On occasion, we’re told, movies and television documentaries are filmed at Enchanted Springs.
“We tell the story of the real cowboy, the cattle drive cowboy where the legend came from,” Schmidt says. “By definition, they were teenagers after the Civil War who worked hard to help their families. Not rodeo cowboys, but young men who weren’t afraid to work.”
After leaving Enchanted Springs, we make the short drive to Boerne to check in at Ye Kendall Inn. We spy a banner across the street advertising Boerne Market Days, an arts and crafts bazaar held the second weekend each month on the Main Plaza, but that was forced to relocate this weekend because of a large hot rod rally. Boerne, we discover, is big on festivals and events of all kinds throughout the year.
Spring brings the annual Chuck Wagon Cook-Off and Heritage Gathering (March 7, 2009), the Cibolo Wilderness Native Plant Sale, performances by the Boerne Concert Band and several art events. On 2nd Saturday, art aficionados can take a trolley tour of the galleries.
After perusing the market, we sit down to enjoy a gordita and listen to a local band playing on the old courthouse steps. But the shops on Main Street are calling and will be closing soon.
Hitting the Main Street shops has whetted our appetite. We’re off to the Dodging Duck Brewhaus, a local brewpub and restaurant across from Cibolo Creek, where white ducks rule. Judy opts for fried shrimp, while I order a salmon sandwich. Sated, it’s time to turn in.
The next day dawns humid and drizzly. It seems a perfect morning to head to Main Street to the Daily Grind, the Boerne Grill’s in-house coffee shop, where tourists and locals gather to drink a cup of joe.
Employee Vernon Newhouse brings a delicious kolache and cinnamon roll to go with our coffees. Vernon explains that the photos and cutouts of the English bulldog overlooking the place are of the owner’s dog, Otis. Most mornings, Otis can be spotted out back lounging in the owner’s truck, but no such luck today.
Judy’s visit is being cut short, so it’s time to grab lunch before she hits the road. We make our way through the parking lot of pickup trucks to the unassuming interior of Taqueria Guadalajara. I order the green enchiladas, the dish by which I judge all Tex-Mex establishments, and Judy settles on the No. 1: a chalupa, gordita and taco. We leave stuffed to the gills.
On my own now, I decide the drizzling day is perfect for touring the Cave Without A Name, just a short drive from Boerne. In 1940, a year after it opened to the public, a boy won the cave-naming contest that gave the cavern the moniker it still carries, saying it was too pretty to name. Turns out the kid was right.
I join a mother and her son from Austin for a tour of the cave led by Mike Burrell, an accomplished spelunker. He tells us about the cave’s history as a surreptitious location for locals to operate a still during Prohibition years. He points out the soot-stained black ceiling not far from the entrance to the cave that today draws more than 10,000 people a year.
The cave was formed by an underground sea that carved out the limestone 100 to 400 million years ago. During periods of heavy rainfall, much of the cave is flooded with several feet of water. As a result, rimstone dams have formed to trap pools of water in parts of the cave.
Running water and water seeping from above ground through crevices and pores into the cavern has created some geological magic. Icicle-shaped stalactites and stalagmites protrude from the cave ceiling and floor, and columns the size of a tree trunk dot the cave where the two calcium carbonate formations have grown together.
Mike uses his flashlight to illuminate odd geological features called draperies and helectites, which are gravity-defying, corkscrew, pencil-thin formations that sprout from the ceilings and walls. He rattles off the names given various, peculiar cave formations that resemble bacon, popcorn, a fried egg, a carrot, white grapes and a four-scoop ice cream cone. Another cave landmark depicts a scene from the Bible, complete with a lamb, three wise men and a Christmas tree. My favorite part of the 70-minute tour, however, turns out to be the Throne Room, with a queen’s throne surrounded by her court that includes a wizard, an owl and even Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars. Amazing.
Back in town, I pass by the Old No. 9 trail referenced earlier. According to Chris Turk, the city’s director of planning, the asphalt trail is only one of several trails in the works catering to the citizenry’s keen interest in having more greenbelts, open space and trails. Chris says new guidelines for developers have been passed, too, requiring them to focus on natural and cultural resources and leave at least 20 percent of the development as open space.
That pro-environment stance is also reflected in Kendall County voters’ passage of a $5 million bond issue designed to promote preservation of the county’s natural heritage through purchase of public parkland. More than 400 acres already have been purchased for two county parks.
Having worked up a thirst by the day’s end, I decide another visit to the Dodging Duck is in order. I enjoy an informative conversation with a local cycling enthusiast, who regales me with stories about the town’s vibrant arts scene, its penchant for throwing festivals and the resurrection of vintage baseball played by 1800s rules. Did you know Boerne had a team called the White Sox back in 1860? I sure didn’t.
Dining in at Ye Kendall Inn seems like the thing to do at the end of a busy day. It proves a prescient choice. The tomato eggplant soup accompanied by herb focaccia bread gets the meal off to a good start. For an entrée, I choose the prime bites, pieces of prime beef dipped in sherry au jus, surrounding a mound of mashers. Meat and potatoes never fail to satisfy this traveler, and the perfectly prepared offering proves a home run.
My last morning in Boerne calls for a quick meal on the front porch — breakfast tacos from the nearby Guadalajara Diner — and at long last, a visit to the highly acclaimed Cibolo Nature Center.
The Cibolo Nature Center stands as one of the Texas Hill Country’s greatest conservation success stories. The center preserves 100 acres of the Cibolo Creek corridor that includes a mile of wildlife-rich creek frontage, a 30-acre restored native prairie, extensive woodlands and restored native marsh, all interconnected by trails. It serves not only as a nature refuge, but also as an outdoor classroom for field researchers and schoolchildren.
I’m lucky during my visit to find the driving force behind the center, Carolyn Chipman Evans, on-site and still wrapping up from the center’s 20th anniversary celebration. She’s still on a high from a successful event and the nonprofit Friends of Cibolo Wilderness’ recent purchase of her great-great-grandfather Dr. Ferdinand Herff’s original 1850s homestead across the creek.
“It’s only 56 acres,” Carolyn explains, “but it adds a critical buffer to the nature center. There’s a phenomenal historic home where Ferdinand Herff lived, and it will allow us to expand programming, do farm demonstrations and connect to city trails.”
She points out that the nature center’s neighbor has opted to set aside 500 acres, which includes two miles of creek frontage, for preservation. That brings to about 700 acres the amount of Cibolo Creek watershed acreage now under protection.
Carolyn leads me on a short hike past the restored prairie to the banks of the creek, where sparkling waters riffle over stones beneath ancient cypress trees. A small group of inner-city children from San Antonio’s Douglass Academy cavort on the creek banks downstream.
While Carolyn takes her leave to head back to the office, I continue on past the Lende Learning Center and the adjacent Visitor Center on the Marsh Trail to a boardwalk overlooking the rain-starved pond. Screams of elementary school-age children fill the air as they scamper about looking for critters and plants to chronicle in their nature journals.
My three-day tour wrapping up, I figure there’s just enough time for this LSU alum to grab some lunch at one of my favorite eateries, the Louisiana-inspired Cypress Grille. Chef Tom Stevens’ dishes never fail to satisfy. The inviting ambiance — the airy, sunlit dining-room side of the restaurant and a second room with a handsome bar — adds to the dining experience.
While I rarely eat gazpacho, I make an exception and am not disappointed with the chilled, slightly pungent ambrosia. I order the daily special, fried catfish. While the catfish is a bit thin, the side of crawfish-and-sausage jambalaya smacks of the best in bayou country cuisine. A caramel-infused crème brulee proves the culinary coup de grace as I slump toward the exit. Finishing on such a high note, Boerne in my rearview mirror is a true bummer.
• Boerne Visitors Bureau (www.visitboerne.org, 888-842-8080)
• Ye Kendall Inn (www.yekendallinn.com, 800-364-2138)
• Cibolo Nature Center (www.cibolo.org, 830-249-4616)
• Cave Without A Name (www.cavewithoutaname.com, 830-537-4212)
• The Dodging Duck Brewhaus (www.dodgingduck.com, 830-248-DUCK)
• Enchanted Springs Ranch (www.enchantedspringsranch.com, 800-640-5917)
• Cypress Grille (www.cypressgrilleboerne.com, 830-248-1353)