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Surprising Salado

Right off the interstate, Salado offers shopping, springs and Scottish history.


Salado’s got a cool vibe on a hot Texas summer day. An hour north of Austin, Exit 284 drops visitors off the stressful chaos of Interstate 35 right into small-town heaven, where they can be amazed by the interesting twists of local history, fill their bags with shopping booty and cool off at the local springs.

Like many travel destinations across the state, Salado has brushed off the welcome mat and polished up the store windows for an inevitable influx of isolation-weary visitors. On a spring midweek visit, the shops and attractions have that perfect feeling of sharing the place with just the right amount of company, never rushed, free to wander at will.

The small-town feel is apparent in the craftsmanship of buildings along Main Street, each containing a unique shop or business. No strip centers here in the heart of Salado, but rather sculptures and brightly colored butterfly benches adorning walkways and the banks of Salado Creek. Quite a contrast to the mind-numbing sameness I’d just left on the freeway, where I couldn’t tell which town was which unless I saw the name on the exit sign.

Art plus nature is my siren call, so my first stop is the Salado Sculpture Garden, a perfect choice for lowering my blood pressure and awakening my sense of wonder. I admire the artistic planters blending glass-art flora with real cacti at the entrance sign, then stop to take a video of the whirling whatchamacallit. Native plants share the shady space with a variety of sculptures along a gentle path.

Though there’s still a bit of traffic noise from the street, the whimsical sculptures and birdsong soon transport me to a small labyrinth created by a local Eagle Scout. “We are all on the path exactly where we need to be,” a small sign reassures me.

I’m exactly where I need to be to introduce myself to sweet Salado, and I take my time admiring a large crow made of tire rubber, giant sunflowers, a very realistic bronze of a boy and his pup and modern art shapes (masks atop crutches and geometric wonders) that beg me to look through them to see the world a bit differently. I laugh out loud at the oversized red metal fireman climbing a bright yellow ladder to rescue a cat stranded in the tree.

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Hungry and in need of caffeine, I pass through a charming courtyard (it shows up on my phone as Peddler’s Alley) to the relaxing atmosphere of the Lively Coffee House and Bistro. When an older tourist wanders slowly up to the counter to join his wife, who had already ordered and called to him, no one seems to mind the wait while he peruses the menu. We all need an extra moment to savor the options of mouthwatering varieties of grilled cheese sandwiches and avocado toast, plus signature sandwiches to please all palates.

I settle on a latte and a gourmet grilled cheese called a BBT (with creamy brie cheese, crispy bacon and oven-roasted tomatoes). The sandwich was a microcosm of Salado: earthy, artistic, welcoming. If I lived here, I’d be a regular at Lively’s. I notice a posted flier for a Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering for the previous weekend, just missed it.

Reinvigorated, I walk off the mountain of cheese with a shopping tour. 

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The Salado Sculpture Garden showcases artwork (such as Johnny Shipman’s ‘Marvin the Moose’) in a natural setting.

Salado’s well known as a shopper’s mecca, offering artist demonstrations at galleries, fashionable wear at boutiques, antiques for every taste, retro candy shops and more.

I can’t resist those old-fashioned general store-type shops with endless displays of homemade jams and pickles, gourmet sauces and coffee mugs with funny sayings, local history books and postcards. The owner of the Strawberry Patch is deep in conversation with a friendly law enforcement officer while I browse, leaving me free to endlessly debate myself silently on the merits of apricot (my tangy go-to) vs. strawberry habanero (intriguing combination). Considering the name of this establishment, I finally select a quart jar of spicy strawberry jelly.

While I’m still too satiated to sit down for an elegant meal at the Stagecoach Inn, I can’t pass up an opportunity to walk around the famed stop on the Chisholm Trail and ponder the history and the menu. The elegant two-story whitewashed restaurant and 48 restored guest rooms and suites sit on seven acres on Salado Creek.

Even if I don’t have room for an order of the restaurant’s signature hushpuppies and I may never be hungry enough to try their traditional tomato aspic, I’m fascinated by the history and legends surrounding the town’s oldest structure, built on a Tonkawa campground. After all, Main Street used to be the Chisholm Trail, so it doesn’t take much more inspiration to dream about Sam Bass burying stolen gold in the property’s caves or what may have happened beneath the 275-year-old oak that still graces the site.

Back when the Shady Villa Hotel (original name) was founded during the first year of the Civil War, Sam Houston (who delivered a passionate speech about the perils of the war on the balcony), George Custer and Jesse James were among the guests. In the early 1940s the Dion Van Bibber family bought the old hotel, restoring it and renaming it the Stagecoach Inn. The inn closed for remodeling for several years recently but is now open and looking fresh and welcoming.

Don’t let that tomato aspic scare you off. I did find a bit of tummy space for the traditional Stagecoach Inn dessert: the magical Strawberry Kiss, basically a meringue basket full of strawberries and whipped cream. Bliss.

Across Main Street from the Stagecoach Inn, I take some time to learn more about Salado’s fascinating history from Dave Swarthout, who’s spending his retirement as the director of the Salado Museum and College Park.

The first question most visitors ask is probably the one I offered: “What’s up with all the kilts and Scottish stuff?”

Elijah Sterling Clack Robertson, a Scot, founded Salado and soon realized that there was a need for education. He started Salado College, the state’s first coeducational, nondenominational college.

“To help fund it, he sold off lots,” Dave tells me. “The people bought the lots and moved here and started going to school.”

Many of the early settlers were Scottish.

Notable Salado College graduates include Texas governors Ma and Pa Ferguson. Well, actually, Pa (James) was expelled, but Ma (Miriam) was more successful in her academic endeavors.

Five thousand-plus visitors will attend the 60th annual Scottish Gathering and Highland Games November 13-15 to enjoy festivities such as the Bonniest Knees Contest, live Celtic music, a clan parade, Highland dancers, a Celtic marketplace, a Scottish dog parade/contest and the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan, where people ask for blessings on their clans. (Forgot to pack your tartan? The museum gift shop has plenty, plus cool accessories.)

Lucille Robertson, a descendant of Robertson, started the museum in 1958. It’s since been expanded up to 8,000 square feet. If you visit during July or August this year, stop by to see the exhibit “Women, Aviation and World War II,” honoring Rosie the Riveters, home-front workers and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) like Salado’s own legendary fashion icon Grace Jones.

Dave tells me the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has helped fund some work at College Park, where visitors come to see the ruins of the old college. Events like that just-missed Cowboy Poetry Gathering help fund the museum, where local art graces the walls and renovations are underway. A new balcony overlooks a beautifully accessible sidewalk provided by the Texas Department of Transportation, with a little urging from Dave when they were first bypassed.

If you need to relax with some nature time, you’ve got options.

Locals and tourists mix it up at Salado Springs, right off Main Street, for a cool swimming hole. Look for the statue of the Native American mermaid, Sirena, with her permanent tears of sorrow. Sirena’s legend is a story of making a deal with a sneaky catfish for the love of a young man in her tribe, then being double-crossed and doomed to live forever as a mermaid. Her tears keep the springs flowing.

Take a short drive out to Chalk Ridge Falls Park, on the outskirts of Stillhouse Hollow Lake, off FM 1670. The park is just below the dam and runs along the Lampasas River. There are walking trails, places to fish and plenty of room to play in and above the falls. It’s free, and dogs on leashes are welcome. The falls (about a mile hike in from the parking area) are quite lovely; don’t miss the swaying suspension bridge on the trail. Bring plenty of drinking water, wear walking or river shoes and don’t forget your fishing license.

Make plans to visit soon and you can nab reservations to see Salado Legends, a long-running outdoor musical drama, that graces the stage at the Tablerock Amphitheatre in July and August. The play combines local history and fictional embellishment to tell the tales of the Tonkawa Indians, Spanish explorers and Scottish settlers.

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