As fun as it is to spend a few days in Austin, there are only so many daiquiris to drink and museums to meander through. Consider taking a weekend road trip to experience more Central Texas culture. In Texas, that means barbecue, and those interested in sampling some of the finest the Lone Star State has to offer should make a pilgrimage to the meat mecca of Lockhart. The region’s other college towns offer a fresh take on university life outside a large metro area, and the Highland Lakes are renowned for their placid waters and abundant recreational opportunities.
The Highland Lakes
A series of dams was built along the Colorado River in the late 1930s, resulting in the creation of seven lakes. The three most popular (and navigable) are Lakes Travis, LBJ, and Buchanan, 20–60 miles northwest of Austin. These clear, clean bodies of water are a welcome respite from Texas’s hot summers, offering an ideal place for residents and visitors to swim, sail, fish, drink, and water-ski.
Information and Services
The best way to find out about up-to-date lodging and event information is through the various chambers of commerce scattered throughout the Highland Lakes region. They’ll also provide plenty of handy maps and brochures with helpful info about places to go and things to do in the area.
For Lake Travis area information, visit laketravis.com or contact the Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce (1415 RR 620 S., Suite 202, 512/263-5833). For the upper Highland Lakes, contact the Burnet Chamber of Commerce (229 S. Pierce, 512/756-4297), the Marble Falls/Lake LBJ Chamber of Commerce (801 Hwy. 281, 830/693-4449), and the Llano Chamber of Commerce (100 Train Station Dr., 325/247-5354).
Sights in the Highland Lakes
Lake Travis is an extremely popular destination for Austinites looking to get away for some r&r on the weekend; so popular, in fact, it’s often difficult to navigate around all the party barges and ski boats that descend on the lake during the summer months. Beware (or seek out) Devil’s Cove, in particular. Sailors, parasailers, windsurfers, fishers, scuba divers, Jet Skiers, and partiers occupy most of the space, and when things are hoppin’ on the lake, it’s quite a spectacle to behold. One of the busiest places is Volente Beach (16107 FM 2769, 512/258-5109, $15– 20), offering sandy shores (as opposed to the lake’s typical limestone banks) along with water slides, a swimming pool, volleyball courts, and a restaurant. Lake Travis boasts 18 parks, eight marinas, more than a dozen restaurants, several nature preserves, and a variety of fishing and sporting goods businesses providing boat and equipment rental. For more information about these services and a comprehensive listing of upcoming lake events, visit laketravis.com.
Named after President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lake LBJ is a 21-mile-long constant-level body of water, making it ideal for sailing, boating, and other water sports. Aside from Lake Travis, this is one of the most developed of the Highland Lakes, with hundreds of homes on the shoreline, most of them occupied by retirees and weekenders. If you’re looking to rent a condo or lakefront home in a quiet, relaxing environment for a few days, this is the place to be. Anglers flock to Lake LBJ for the abundant largemouth and Guadalupe bass, and the lake’s white crappie population is considered the best of any of the Highland Lakes chain. Those angling for a tasty bite to eat have plenty of options at the cafés and Tex-Mex restaurants in the small nearby communities of Horseshoe Bay, Kingsland, Granite Shoals, and Sunrise Beach.
This is a big ol’ lake in a sparsely populated area. Lake Buchanan isn’t the hot spot destination for partiers or retirees, and that’s its appeal. Tree-lined shores and vast open stretches of blue (sometimes brownish) water are welcome scenery for the boaters and fishermen who dot the lake’s surface. Lake Buchanan is well known for its striper (striped bass) fishing, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department helps keep this reputation thriving by stocking the lake with the species. Fishing guides are available to take visitors to the best spots. Much like the other nearby lakes, accommodations on Lake Buchanan range from campgrounds and RV parks to rental homes and even houseboats.
Those in the area November through March should consider taking advantage of a unique opportunity to commune with nature. The Vanishing Texas River Cruise (800/474-8374, $13–20) offers a rare chance to see one of the largest colonies of American bald eagles. The Texas Eagle II, a 70-foot, 120-passenger vessel, has two observation decks and covered viewing areas for catching a glimpse of the magnificent bald eagle in its natural habitat.
Located 26 miles south of Austin, San Marcos (population 47,181), home of Texas State University, can rightfully claim the title of I-35’s “college town” now that the metropolis to the north has seemingly outgrown the term. Appropriately enough, it’s well known for the laid-back recreational activity of tubing, where young adults lounge around half-dressed drinking beer, all while floating on an inner tube down a refreshingly cold river. Despite the appeal of this pursuit, it doesn’t draw nearly as many visitors as the outlet malls on the outskirts of town.
Information and Services
San Marcos has two visitors centers offering plenty of helpful brochures and maps about attractions in the area. For general information, contact the Tourist Information Center (617 I-35 N., 512/393-5930, Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.–4 p.m.). Another reliable source is the San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau (202 N. C.M. Allen Pkwy., 512/393-5900, open weekdays 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m.).
Recreation in San Marcos
Tubing the San Marcos River
Compared to New Braunfels, San Marcos’s tubing scene is pretty tame. Despite the proximity of Texas State, tubing in San Marcos is marketed as a family activity, resulting in fewer booze cruises and less questionable activity than in New Braunfels. Regardless, the appeal remains the same—escaping from the Texas heat by floating in a refreshingly cold river (approximately 71°F) through picturesque countryside with a beverage in hand. For the most part, the pace is slow and relaxing; however, there are occasional swiftly flowing areas, and a river chute on a dam creates a fun rapids effect. The entire trip takes about an hour and a half. The best place to begin your trek (equipment rental, transportation upriver, etc.) is San Marcos Lions Club Tube Rental (at City Park off Charles Austin Dr., 512/396-5466, open daily in the summer, weekends Mar.–May and Sept., tube rental $7–9, $20 tube deposit required).
Serving as the source of the San Marcos River, Aquarena Springs discharges 150–300 million gallons of water daily and is the focal point of Texas State University’s Aquarena Center (921 Aquarena Springs Dr., 512/245-7570, daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m., $7 adults, $6 seniors, $5 children 4–15). For much of the 1900s, the area was a resort and entertainment park known as Aquarena Springs, featuring amusement-park-style rides, water shows with mermaids, and Ralph, a pig that swam around in the river performing amazing tricks. Texas State University purchased the aging theme park in 1994 and transformed it into a nonprofit nature center dedicated to conserving natural resources and educating the public about the role water plays in daily life. The park has a natural aquarium with local endangered species and archaeology exhibits with 12,000-year-old artifacts. One of the most popular attractions is the glass-bottom boat tour, offering a spectacular view of the bubbling San Marcos River springhead and the plants and animals that rely on its cool, clear water.
Take a break from shopping to visit Wonder World (1000 Prospect St., 512/392-3760, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily Memorial Day–Labor Day, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. weekdays, until 6 p.m. weekends Sept.–May, $19.95 adults, $14.95 seniors and children 6–12). The main attraction is an enormous cave formed by a prehistoric earthquake along the Balcones fault line, resulting in distinctive geographic formations not found in typical erosion-based caves. At the end of the tour, visitors ascend the 146-foot-tall Tejas Tower via elevator, offering a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the region’s geographic features. Other park attractions include a train ride through a wildlife park and a wacky antigravity house.
Shopping in San Marcos
San Marcos’s outlet stores rank among the top four tourist destinations in Texas. Depending on your perspective, this is either fascinating or depressing. Regardless, shopping for bargains is a phenomena that’s unlikely to wane in popularity anytime soon, so people will continue to flock to San Marcos to spend hours or even days sifting through racks of clothes, shoes, accessories, and housewares in search of the ultimate deal at one of the nearly 250 stores in two main centers. The biggest is Premium Outlets (3939 I-35 S., 512/396-2200, Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.–7 p.m.).
Unironically designed after a classic shopping plaza in Venice, Italy, Prime Outlets offers more than 130 luxury and brand-name shops such as Last Call by Neiman Marcus, Giorgio Armani, Lacoste, Salvatore Ferragamo, Polo Ralph Lauren, Barney’s New York Outlet, Banana Republic Factory Store, Nike Factory Store, J. Crew, and Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th Outlet.
The other main attraction, located just north of Premium Outlets, is Tanger Outlet Center (4015 I-35 S., 512/396-7446, Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.–7 p.m.). Tanger contains more than 100 stores, including Calvin Klein, Charlotte Russe, Cavender’s Boot City, Kenneth Cole, Liz Claiborne New York, Hot Topic, Samsonite Company Stores, and Wilsons Leather Outlet.
Best known as home to Texas A&M University, the Bryan–College Station area is truly representative of the A (agriculture) in A&M. Ranches, farms, and rolling prairies surround the two cities, which serve as agricultural supply and market centers for the small surrounding communities. Despite rumors to the contrary emanating from Austin, College Station is actually a cultural asset to the area by drawing educated instructors and students, and regularly scheduling impressive exhibits and speakers.
In fact, College Station’s influence—particularly from Texas A&M University—has had a major impact on the region’s development. Texas A&M opened in 1876 as Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, a male-only military institution with Corps of Cadets participation required. During the early 1900s, Texas A&M kept a strong military association, but in 1963 the Texas Legislature approved a bill changing the university’s name to Texas A&M, ushering in a new era. Women were officially admitted, and the Corps of Cadets became a voluntary organization. An enrollment surge followed, with a mighty increase from nearly 8,000 students to more than 25,000 in 1976.
The university has positively influenced the region’s history and culture by bringing in an impressive range of faculty, students, and ideas from across the globe. Texas A&M has created opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist in this part of the state, including professional connections, diversity, and a lot of money that have improved the lives of people in Bryan–College Station for the better.
Information and Services
To learn more about Texas A&M or to take a campus tour, contact the Appelt Aggieland Visitor Center (located on the first floor of Rudder Tower, 979/845-5851, Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–5 p.m.). For information about the Bryan–College Station area, including maps and brochures related to attractions and lodging, stop by the Bryan–College Station Convention & Visitors Bureau (715 University Dr. E., 979/260-9898, Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.–2 p.m.).
Sights in Bryan-College Station
Texas A&M University
Home to more than 49,000 students, Texas A&M University is one of the country’s premier schools for agriculture-related studies (veterinary medicine, geosciences, and landscape architecture in particular). Aggieland is truly a phenomena—the immense school pride manifests itself in ubiquitous “Gig ’em Aggies” signs and stickers, the omnipresent color of maroon, and “yell practice,” a pep rally event in which the name alone prompts rival students at the University of Texas to guffaw. Aggies’ attempts to insult UT (referring to the school as t.u. and calling them “tea sippers”) don’t tend to rile up the Longhorns, but the Aggies’ nostalgic sense of being true to their school is endearing if not commendable.
Texas A&M has a proud history dating back to 1871 as the all-male Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. In the 1960s, it opened its doors to women and changed its name to Texas A&M. Until that time, all students were required to undergo military cadet training, and although it became optional afterward, the school still has the largest uniformed cadet corps in the nation (outside the service academies). More than 2,000 male and female students serve as military cadets each academic year, and their Fightin’ Texas Aggies Band, which performs mesmerizing precision-filled routines at football halftime shows, is the world’s largest military marching band.
Those interested in touring the campus should contact the Appelt Aggieland Visitor Center (located on the first floor of Rudder Tower, 979/845-5851, Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–5 p.m.). Corps of Cadets Center (979/862-2862, Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–5 p.m.), showcasing the proud history of the university’s iconic cadets. Dozens of displays feature artifacts and pictures documenting the cadets’ occasionally eyebrow-raising rituals such as Fish (freshmen) Drill Team, yell practice, 12th Man, and the Aggie Band.
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
One of College Station’s biggest claims to fame is former U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush. Although he didn’t even attend Texas A&M, Bush was so impressed with the school after accepting an invitation to deliver a commencement address, he agreed to have his presidential archives preserved and displayed there. It’s well worth making the trip to Aggieland to experience the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum (1000 George Bush Dr. W., 979/691-4000, Mon.–Sat. 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m., $7 adults, $6 seniors, $3 students 6–17).
Renovated in 2007 to add interactive touch-screen and video displays (check out the clip of Bush’s first steps in 1925), the museum’s main exhibits demonstrate the life and times of Bush Sr. Popular displays include a section of the Berlin Wall, a Gulf War exhibit, an Avenger similar to the plane Bush flew in World War II, and a replica of the White House situation room. One of the most memorable portions of the museum is the Oval Office exhibit that allows visitors to sit in the “seat of power” and have their photo taken behind the president’s desk.
Another popular draw is the White House in Miniature, offering visitors a peek into the residence George Bush once called home. Now that Bush and his wife, Barbara, have an apartment on the museum grounds, they make occasional “surprise appearances,” shaking hands, signing autographs, and interacting with visitors.
In addition to these exhibits, the site also contains an archives with more than 38 million pages of personal papers and official While on the campus, visitors can also experience the Sam Houston Sanders documents from the vice presidency and presidency, an extensive collection of audiovisual and photographic records, and approximately 60,000 historical objects including personal items and gifts from the American people. Of particular interest is the exhibit dedicated to gifts given by international dignitaries and supporters, ranging from small painted rocks to a gilded replica fortress.
The Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History
Regional heritage is on display at Bryan’s small yet interesting Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History (3232 Briarcrest Dr., 979/776-2195, Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m., $5 adults, $4 seniors and children 4–17). The museum has plugged steadily along since 1961, achieving its mission to increase the public’s awareness of the region’s cultural and natural heritage. The museum features permanent displays with artifacts, maps, and photos, highlighting the events and people that shaped the area’s history along with regular traveling exhibits.
Lockhart (population 14,237) is the true mecca for barbecue lovers, with four legendary restaurants offering enough lore and smoked meat to satisfy connoisseurs of this uniquely Texas food style. In fact, barbecue is Lockhart’s biggest draw, making it an ideal place for a quick 30-minute road trip from Austin. Visitors can walk off their brisket-and-sausage laden meal by strolling around the small historic downtown area, punctuated by the majestic and magnificently restored Caldwell County Courthouse.
Information and Services
Lockhart doesn’t have a convention and visitors bureau or chamber of commerce, but you can direct general questions about area attractions and lodging to the city hall at 512/398-3461 or visit the city website.