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Fire in the Hills

Destination: Kerrville

Travel time from:
Austin – 1.75 hours
Brownsville – 5 hours
Dallas – 4.5 hours
Houston – 3.5 hours
San Antonio – 1 hour
Lubbock – 4.5 hours

Kerrville's natural wonders transform into campfire dreams.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Flames fascinate me. So as soon as I spot the fire pit at the guesthouse, I know what my future holds. My husband’s, too. But before I can light any logs, we have places to go during our three-day stay in Kerrville. No time to waste.

A hearty lunch at the Hill Country Café kicks off our midday arrival. The self-proclaimed “Texas legend” on Main Street has dished up down-home cooking since 1942. Local folks fill up most of the diner’s tables.

Alas, no room for the coconut meringue pie, though we could have stashed a piece in our refrigerator at the Ranch House, where we’re bunking. The former three-bedroom home is a guesthouse at Kerrville-Schreiner Park, a 517-acre getaway on the Guadalupe River. Originally, it was a city park built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s. In 1934, the city deeded the property to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which maintained the state park until it reverted back to Kerrville in 2004.

After unloading our stuff, we explore the full kitchen and cozy living room. Outside, I note the aforementioned fire pit. Nosy me also peeks inside the nearby Bunk House, which visitors can rent in conjunction with the Ranch House. The additional space sleeps six with bunk beds and a double bed.
Texas Highway 173 divides the park into two sections, which we tour by car. On the River Side, day-use visitors and campers have access to the river.

A boat ramp accommodates canoes and kayaks (seasonal rentals available).

Also on the River Side is the park’s Butterfly Garden, a native garden planted with nectar and larval host plants. Following mulched paths, we wander past fall bloomers like golden-eyes, Gregg’s mistflowers, boneset and salvias. At our feet, a young Texas spiny lizard scuttles onto a limestone boulder.

On a bush sunflower, I spot a bordered patch butterfly, sunning her wings.

More than seven miles of marked trails wind through the Hill Side, the other section of the park. With our park map in hand, we meander down the Green Trail, vegetated with native grasses, live oaks and junipers. Off the trail, we spot a gravestone inscribed with “Snow Ball.” Someone’s beloved pet? Farther down the trail, a lizard and I play peek-a-boo around the huge trunk of a centuries-old oak.

For supper, we dine on leftovers at the picnic table on our porch. Then I hang out by the fire pit, which is encircled by cinder blocks. Fun turns into frustration, however, when my neatly arranged logs, stuffed with twigs and crumpled newspaper, refuse to catch. James, my husband, offers to take over, but I decline. I will start the blasted fire!

At dusk, park hosts Bob and Carol drive up, so I take a break. While we’re chatting, the fire ring catches my eye. An orange glow illuminates the blocks.

“Look, James!” I exclaim. “The fire’s going!” Sure enough, the evening breeze had kicked up some embers and ignited flames. High-five!
From our kitchen window the next morning, we watch white-tailed deer and a long-eared jackrabbit cross the grassy slope in front of the house. While James brews coffee, I toast bread in a skillet on the electric stove.

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The Kerr Wildlife Management Area is one of the nation’s top deer research facilities. It also serves as a popular birding spot.

Then we head west to Kerr Wildlife Management Area. Our 45-minute road trip follows the scenic but narrow Texas Highway 39, which rolls alongside the Guadalupe River. At Hunt, we turn onto FM 1340, another beautiful drive that hugs the river’s curvy North Fork. James drives at a leisurely pace so we can take in the limestone cliffs, stream crossings and Hill Country views.

Similar live oak and juniper vistas dominate the 6,493-acre Kerr WMA, purchased in 1950 by TPWD as a research and demonstration site. Trained staff makes use of permitted hunts, prescribed burns and other tools to manage native habitat. For an overview, James and I drive the four-mile road that passes informational kiosks highlighting habitat management techniques.

Thanks to a healthy ecosystem, Kerr WMA draws birders from around the world to see endangered golden- cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos that nest in the area February through May. Site manager Ryan Reitz suggests that visitors check in at headquarters for birding pointers.
Across the highway, we park our car and hike through tall grass to the WMA’s fishing access on the Guadalupe River. While James admires steep limestone walls upstream, I watch gambusia dart around a gray treefrog that had just plopped into the shallow water. For a few moments, I stand still and simply relish the warm sunshine and remote surroundings.

Game for one more hike, we tromp along a dirt road in the Spring Trap pasture, located off FM 1340 east of the WMA’s entrance and seasonally accessible by foot only. A few October bloomers, such as mealy cup sage, white four o’clocks and thryallis, catch my eye. So does a prickly clump of claret cup cactus, nestled against a limestone rock.

For lunch, we experience the Hunt Store, a Hill Country hub since 1946.

“We’re a community center and a country store,” owner John Dunn says. “Nearly all day, we have locals who come to drink coffee by our fireplace and discuss the news.”

Grocery staples, souvenir T-shirts, barbecue and even a commercial bank draw a steady stream of customers to the store. Live music some nights brings in more.

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En route back to Kerrville, James brakes at Stonehenge II, a downsized rendition of England’s prehistoric monument. Originally, the roadside oddity — built of metal mesh and plaster in 1989 by the late Al Shepperd and his neighbor Doug Hill — stood on Shepperd’s land near Hunt. Shepperd later added two replicas of the giant stone heads that stand on Easter Island in the South Pacific. In 2011, the entire entourage was moved to the Hill Country Arts Foundation campus in Ingram. Another side tour leads us down Old Ingram Loop, where we amble past some of the town’s shops and art galleries.

Next stop: the Riverside Nature Center, an urban wildlife sanctuary planted with Texas natives. Since 1992, volunteers have educated visitors about the importance of habitat restoration and water conservation. A visitors center houses nature exhibits, classrooms and a gift shop.

“Even though we’re located in a city, all kinds of things show up here,” founder Susan Sander says. “One morning, we had 150 pelicans! We may be a small garden, but small does matter.”

Outside, crushed gravel paths lead us past turk’s cap, elbowbush, yaupon, golden-eyes, thoroughwort, mountain laurel and tasajillo. I stop to note a globe mallow with sherbet orange flowers (Sphaeralcea ambigua), a species related to the pink-bloomed copper mallows (Spaheralcea angustifolia) that grow in our certified Texas wildscape at home.

We also lope down the connecting River Trail, a multi-use walkway that will, when completed, stretch six miles along the Guadalupe. A bicyclist and two dog walkers pass by while we examine raccoon, opossum and other animal tracks set in the wide sidewalk’s concrete.

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Visitors learn about native plants at the Riverside Nature Center.

Our last stop is Gibson’s Discount Center, once a large 1960s franchise that had a store in our hometown of Corpus Christi. (Only one other Gibson’s, in Weatherford, still operates.) Feeling nostalgic, we poke up and down aisles crammed with canning supplies, cast iron skillets, board games, firearms, house paint, bird feeders and oodles more stuff. I buy a butane lighter (to assist my fire-making, of course!).

The next morning, we skip breakfast and pack up. James loves Mexican food, so we mosey down to Conchita’s on Main, a tiny eatery decorated with bright abstract art. Owner/cook/waitress Theresa Womack shares stories about her grandmother Conchita, who loved cooking and telenovelas.

Our three-day exploration ends with a stroll around the downtown historic district. Inside Wolfmueller’s Books, James scours Texana titles while I buy a plant booklet written by the late wildflower enthusiast Carroll Abbott, who lived in Kerrville. At the Sunrise Antique Mall, a two-story emporium packed with treasures, a vintage pink-tinseled Christmas tree becomes ours.

Briefly, we tour the Schreiner Mansion, built of native limestone in 1879 for businessman Charles Schreiner. Family belongings furnish much of the two-story home.

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Stream crossings highlight the drive near Hunt.

“Captain Schreiner started with $5 in his pocket after the Civil War and had $6 million to his name when he died in 1927,” docent Alice McDaniel says.

Next door, at the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center, an exhibit of  “plein air” paintings captures abandoned barns, Hill Country creeks and wide Texas skies. Inside a darkened room, the Fluoride Mineral Display demonstrates how calcite and other minerals glow purple, green and orange under certain lighting conditions.

On the way home, I suggest that we return to the Ranch House with friends or family.

“I know what you’re thinking, little Miss Fire Starter,” James laughs.

Who, me?

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