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Highland Fling

Destination: The Highland Lakes Area

By Erica H. Brasseux

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 1.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 4 hours /
  • Houston - 5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 2.5 hours

About an hour outside Austin I turn off the congested, four-lane highway and follow a quiet, two-lane blacktop winding along the Highland Lakes.

I roll down the windows, turn up the radio and set the mood for a weekend of outdoor recreation and relaxation.

En route to Canyon of the Eagles Lodge, where I'll be spending the next two nights, I see brown signs signaling a state park, which beckon me to stray from my path. Longhorn Cavern State Park, one of the most frequented and talked about parks of them all, is at first glance not nearly as awe-inspiring as say, Enchanted Rock or Davis Mountains, whose majestic appeal are evident even before you pull through the entrance gate. At Longhorn Cavern, it's what lies beneath that sets this park apart.

Before we venture into the cave, our tour guide, Kaye Barlow, explains how a high-velocity river that flowed through the limestone cracks formed the cave some 280 million years ago. As we file down the first chamber, the cave's year-round, 68-degree temperature is a welcome relief from the sultry Texas heat.

Perhaps the most impressive of the cave's numerous and distinctively different rooms is Crystal City. It's like walking into the middle of a giant geode. Two magnificent domed rooms, known as the Indian Council Room and Church Room, contain most of the cave's unusual history. In the 1920s and '30s, Burnet County residents used the Indian Council Room as a nightclub, dance hall and restaurant. The Church Room, complete with bleachers, was used for religious services and theater presentations. A natural hole in the cave ceiling provided plenty of sunlight and ventilation.

For decades, Comanches occupied Longhorn Cavern, and in more recent history it served as a Confederate stronghold where gunpowder was manufactured in secret during the Civil War. One rumor suggests that the cave served as a hideout for the notorious Texas outlaw Sam Bass, who allegedly stashed gold there.

An hour and a half later we emerge, and I push onward to Canyon of the Eagles, a 900-acre lodge and nature park nestled along the northeast shoreline of Lake Buchanan.

Greeted with a warm welcome and a key to one of the lodge's 64 charming cabins, I unpack my bags and check out my view of the lake from my private porch. Birdfeeders, which adorn the limbs of numerous trees throughout the property, attract more than 150 species, including the endangered black-capped vireo and golden-cheeked warbler. But it's a feisty squirrel that frequents the feeder outside my window. His clumsy though diligent attempts to acquire the seeds from inside the feeder are highly acrobatic and very amusing.

I thumb through a brochure that outlines the park's daily activity schedule. From guided nature hikes to reptile programs, it's hard to decide what to do first. Perhaps such decisions are better made after a catnap in a porch swing, followed by a few cups of freshly brewed coffee. It seems to work for me, anyway.

I burn off my caffeine buzz on a nearby trail, which leads to the park store down by the lake. Volleyball nets, canoes, kayaks and a fishing pier create a natural mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and family vacationers. Inside the store I purchase a ticket for tomorrow's Vanishing Texas River Cruise. A picnic lunch and scenic float down the Colorado River strikes me as the ideal way to spend the afternoon.

Tonight the coffee will again come in handy as the Austin Astronomical Society will host an all-night star party at the lodge's Eagle Eye Observatory. Sleeping in tomorrow morning will be a much-needed luxury.

The Climb

Today's ride takes us through the drainage area below Ojo Escondido Springs, where a giant cliff looms overhead. "That's where we're going," says Walker, pointing to the top of the cliff. "We'll eat lunch up there." I scan the intimidating sheerness of rubble and rock for a trail, but my eye cannot pick one up. But soon, in a series of switchbacks, we are loosening our reins to let our horses put their heads down and work their way up a tiny rocky trail. To our left are giant looming boulders; a foot to the right of where the horses are carefully planting their feet, the rocks drop away to the valley below.

The word "breathtaking" has just taken on a whole new meaning for me. The silence of my saddlepals is tacit agreement.

At the top of the hill, I express my appreciation to Little Red with a series of pats, head scratches and murmured endearments, and my companions (who have also regained their voices) are doing the same. We dismount, and pull out our lunches, water, cameras and binoculars as the wranglers secure the horses. The landscape sweeps away from us in every direction as we slake our thirst and fall greedily on our lunches.

The afternoon ride, on a different route after we work our way down the steep trail, takes us on a big loop back to the ranch by late afternoon. Tired and exhilarated, we have time for a brief rest and shower before a fajita feast prepared by the TPW staff. Then we watch the sunset over the Bofecillos Mountains and a meadow of stars blooming in the darkening sky.

Bon Voyage

The 70-foot vessel is only half-full on the 11 o'clock voyage, but later this evening some 200 passengers will arrive for a privately chartered wedding and reception cruise. White tulle and greenery already garnish the archway on the pier, providing a festive prelude of the upcoming sunset ceremony.

Known primarily for the Bald Eagle Cruises from November through March, the river cruise operates year-round and offers various seasonal opportunities.

This afternoon more than 12 miles of hiking trails will keep me busy. Later in the evening the main patio, beneath a towering live oak tree and a blanket of stars, provides an enchanting venue for guests to enjoy live entertainment. Brad Collins kicks off the night's events with cowboy storytelling, followed by western singer and yodeler Jill Jones. An impressive fire-spinning demonstration culminates almost three hours of back-to-back entertainment. By 10 p.m. I'm exhausted and ready for bed.

The Big One

After a good night's sleep and a buffet breakfast, my husband, Eric, joins me for a morning on the greens of nearby Highland Lakes Golf Club, a nine-hole public course at Inks Lake State Park overlooking scenic Inks Lake.

But after donating my last remaining ball and last ounce of patience to the water hazard on the sixth hole, I am ready to trade in my clubs for a rod and reel. We refuel with a pre-packaged turkey sandwich and soda from a nearby convenience store, and are off to try our luck striper fishing on Lake Buchanan.

As we approach the end of the pier to load the boat, our guide, Bas, owner and operator of the Boss Striper Guide Service, greets us. A 10-year-old boy fishing at the end of the pier dangles his muddy, untied sneakers over the edge, waiting patiently for a small perch or crappie to nibble on his line. A skinned knee and unkempt hair provide convincing evidence that he's making the most of his family's weekend retreat.

An excursion with Bas earlier today proved successful for the young fisherman. Relishing the opportunity to show off his prize catch to a new crowd of admirers, he flashes a proud grin as he hoists a 30-inch striped bass high above his head.

Initially, all I wanted was a relaxing afternoon puttering around the lake, soaking in some rays, and maybe catching a few fish. Now, however, enviously eyeing the boy's silver trophy glittering in the sunlight, I can feel my competitive spirit begin to stir.

At 18 to 25 inches, our first few catches are hardly anything to complain about. Set up with four downriggers, which secure the rods and troll the line at a depth of about 25 feet, we kick back and chitchat as we wait on the fish to bite. Our progress is sporadic but steady, and Eric and I take turns reeling fish in.

Late afternoon, Bas spots a group of gulls circling and diving in the distance, and heads that way to get in on the action. Like silver bullets breaking through the surface, hundreds of stripers blanket a quarter-mile radius, flipping and flailing in a mad feeding frenzy. Our lures prove appetizing, and in seconds all four rods droop. For the next 20 minutes, it's all we can do to get the lines re-rigged and back in the water before reeling them right back in again.

Then in an instant the fish disappear, and the water is as smooth as glass. With almost our daily limit in tow, the calm after the storm leaves me doubtful that I'll be bringing back any trophies today. Winding down from our adrenaline rush, we ride into a pink September sunset as we head back to the dock.

Amid the jovial recaps of the day and an Eagles tune blaring from the radio, it's a wonder we even notice one of the rods, bent like a half moon over the back of the boat. The line hisses at the formidable force on the other end. Could this be it?

For what seems like an eternity, I fight to bring it in, the pole digging into my hipbone as I struggle for more resistance. It's more than I can handle, and Eric steps in for the finale. Every bit of 29 inches, this striper's a trophy in my book, though one inch short of a mounter by Bas' standards.

As we pull up to the dock, the boy's crooked grin welcomes us. By now my competitive spirit has subsided, and I humor him with regrets that we didn't catch a fish as big as his. Pleased with himself, he helps us unload the boat.

My smile is genuine as we pose for pictures with the day's impressive harvest. His memories will hang on a wall; mine will fill a scrapbook.

For More Information:

Longhorn Cavern State Park
(877) 441-CAVE
Longhorn Cavern State Park
Inks Lake State Park
(512) 793-2223
Inks Lake State Park
Canyon of the Eagles
(800) 977-0081
Canyon of the Eagles website
Boss Striper Guide Service
(512) 515-6518
Boss Striper website
Lake Buchanan/Inks Lake Chamber of Commerce
(512)-793-2803
Highland Lakes website

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