Off the Beaten Path
Travel time from:
Austin – 1.5 hours
Dalls - 4.5 hours
El Paso – 9.5 hours
Houston – 3.5 hours
Brownsville – 4 hours
Lubbock – 7.75 hours
If you’ve only visited Main Street, there’s more Fredericksburg to explore.
By Abe Moore
As a producer for the Texas Parks & Wildlife television show, I like to stay away from well-traveled roads. I’m used to a simple setup — a tent, a tripod and a quiet sunset when I work.
So when there’s free time in Fredericksburg, I try to find unique places off the beaten path. Weinerschnitzel, antique shopping and trendy boutiques are available in abundance in this German-infused Central Texas town, but you can also find hidden gems if you travel beyond the town’s historic square.
Don Cash, another wanderlusting TV producer, is my cohort on this trip for a video shoot at nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. We had a few tips about places we’d never tried, so we combined fun with work, starting with food.
Airport Diner at the Gillespie County Airport.
Fredericksburg’s known for its German fare, but I’m choosing instead to seek out a fly-in diner where you can land your plane and grab a burger. We pull into the Airport Diner, next to the Hangar Hotel out at the Gillespie County Airport, as a helicopter lands. A couple of old Cessnas are tied down; a classic biplane practices touch-and-go landings.
Flying in from Burnet, Robert Talamantes and co-pilot Aaron Garcia step out of their 1964 Cherokee 180 to grab lunch at the diner.
“It’s pretty nice to be able to land and it’s right here,” Talamantes says. “Somebody might make this a weekend trip, but we can make it a day trip.”
During her shift, waitress Claudia Avalos meets people from all over.
“We get people from everywhere, from New York, Abilene, Florida; I mean they come from everywhere,” she says. “A few people come two or three times a week. They just fly, eat and fly back home. It’s fun!”
The diner’s classic 1940s retro design paired with a delicious sandwich starts this trip in the right direction.
We’d heard there was a store just up the road from Enchanted Rock that’s worth a visit. After a short 40-minute drive past spring wildflowers and some free-ranging cows and donkeys, we end up in Castell (population 72, established 1847), an unincorporated riverside town in Llano County at the intersection of farm roads 2768 and 152.
Castell General Store.
“Twelve years ago this was a ghost town,” says general store owner Randy Leifeste. “Three or four people lived here; there was nothing, nothing.”
Springtime events like the Testicle Festival and the Castell Grind (a bicycle race) started up, bringing new visitors to Castell. There’s a recording studio to round out the eclectic mix of attractions.
“There’s only one rule in Castell: there are no rules,” Leifeste laughs.
“The Llano River is the best river anywhere,” says Leifeste, whose family originally settled here in 1850. “I still drink the water straight out of the river and pump it into my house, not filtered.”
His son Marc will take over the beer, tackle and barbecue store someday. He says he’s noticed more folks from the city looking for a nearby escape.
“We get more and more locals from Fredericksburg who just want to get away and relax and walk to the Llano River,” Marc says. The porch fills up here on weekends as urban escapees hang out at the bright yellow general store and take a selfie with Duke, the stuffed chicken.
After being here for an hour or two, you can’t help but slow down, take in the country breeze and chill at a true Hill Country hangout while Leifeste spins a tall tale.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.
Don and I reluctantly say goodbye and head over to Enchanted Rock, unpacking the video camera and heavy gear to start filming. Enchanted Rock is one of the more popular parks in the system; on a busy weekend, this state natural area sees more than 3,000 folks a day who seek to top the summit of the pink granite dome.
“We try to get people to explore other parts of the park, not just the summit,” says park interpreter Scott Whitener. To get people excited about other features at Enchanted Rock, he hosts star parties, demonstrates prickly pear preparation and leads some amazing night hikes. His latest project sounds right up my alley — special evening performances by musical guests.
“Eco-musicology, music inspired by nature,” he explains. “Matching the sunset with someone’s interpretation, from the musician’s side of it. We can open their ears to something they haven’t heard before, and not take the park for granted.”
Insider’s tip: The best way to visit Enchanted Rock is to come during the week when no one’s there or during the off-season. You’ll practically have the place to yourself. While the sun was intense during our shoot, we enjoyed the view and the solitude. (Watch the show in January 2017 to see what we filmed.)
After our shoot at Enchanted Rock wrapped up and it was time to call it a day, we were tempted to try out the wonderful libations produced in the Hill Country. There are more wineries now in this area of Texas than ever before. Just six years ago, there were a couple of dozen Hill Country wineries; now there are more than 50.
But we hear the siren call of beer and stop in at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company, which claims to be the oldest brewpub in Texas.
Fredericksburg Brewing Company.
“This brewery actually follows what’s called the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law, with four ingredients in beer: the water, the hops, the barley and the yeast,” says Abure Scofield, the bar manager. “In Germany, if you have anything else in your beer, you can’t call it beer.”
Brewmeister Rick Green has worked here close to 20 years.
“My hobby became my job, so I’m happy,” he says, smiling. “I’m doing what I love to do in a place that I love.”
We don’t have to be on assignment to enjoy the natural wonders of the Hill Country, of course, so while we’re in the area, Don and I decide to head south on Old San Antonio Road for a winding, scenic drive that ends with bats and burgers.
It’s only a five-minute walk from Old Tunnel State Park to Alamo Springs General Store and Cafe, but it’s a well-worn one. Best known for its hefty burgers (permanent residents on statewide “best of” lists) and hand-cut fries and hand-breaded onion rings, the eclectic menu also features less common fare like goat cheese with roasted garlic, fresh fruit smoothies and strawberry key lime pie.
Alamo Springs is hardly a secret any longer, so give yourself lots of time to relax while you wait for a table or your food. You’re on Hill Country time now — no need to rush. Some days they even sell out of food, so it’s not a bad idea to call ahead. After all, they’re the only sustenance for miles around. A sign inside kindly points the way to the nearest McDonald’s (12 miles) for those too impatient to wait.
All good things come to those who do choose to wait, and the juicy half-pound burgers, smothered in caramelized onions on jalapeño-cheese buns, do not disappoint. Pretty sure this “regular” burger is a full meal for two.
Bats at Old Tunnel State Park.
Like any good out-of-the-way joint, there’s a contest for the truly adventurous. Down the Jefe Burger (six patties) in 30 minutes and your meal is free.
Time to walk off those burgers, so we trace our footsteps back to Old Tunnel to join others for the seasonal evening bat emergence. There’s still plenty of daylight, so we take a quick hike around the half-mile nature trail, then settle in with our binoculars to watch a wonder of nature.
Don’t be fooled by its modest stature as Texas’ smallest state park: The abandoned railroad tunnel and surrounding 16 acres are home to up to 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats from May through October. The swirling column of bats can travel as high as 10,000 feet and as far as 120 miles each night to feed on agricultural pests such as corn earworms, cutworms and webworm moths. Each bat can eat its weight in insects nightly — the Old Tunnel colony may devour over 25 tons of moths per night. Even for a couple of crusty old videographers who have spent years chronicling nature’s displays, the sight is impressive.
Visitors can watch red-tailed hawks feed on the spiral of outpouring bats from the park’s upper viewing platform, or pay $5 to take a tour that includes an educational program and a closer look at the emergence from the lower platform. Come early, especially on holiday weekends.
Trying to keep up with the many faces of Fredericksburg is tough to do because the area has so much to offer. With swanky stores, wonderful restaurants and natural wonders, it’s no doubt this Hill Country hub has something for everyone, even an off-the-beaten-path guy like me.
Airport Diner: www.hangarhotel.com/diner.htm
Castell General Store, (325) 247-4100
Alamo Springs Cafe: (830) 990-8004
Enchanted Rock: www.tpwd.texas.gov/enchantedrock
Old Tunnel: www.tpwd.texas.gov/oldtunnel
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