Travel

8 Reasons to Drive to Central Texas’ Highland Lakes

Take a break from it all.

There’s so much more to the Texas Hill Country than the little glimpse you get driving down I-35 from Dallas to Austin or San Antonio—though we won’t fault you for stopping to sample a few different kolaches on your way to the Highland Lakes Region. Located about 90 minutes northwest of Austin, picturesque landscapes accentuate the area’s six major bodies of water: Lake Buchanan, Inks Lake, Lake LBJ, Lake Marble Falls, Lake Travis, and Lake Austin.

You’ll find Burnet County (pronounced BURN-it) to be the main hub of activity in the region, though a well-rounded itinerary may find you hopping outside its borders here and there, whether it’s for napkin-soakin’ BBQ or an award-winning bottle of Texas wine. As an idyllic road trip destination from anywhere in Texas, the Highland Lakes Region lures adventurers and culinary thrill-seekers alike. So when you’re ready to get back to nature and a welcome change of scenery from your past year of limited exploration beyond your own neighborhood, you’re going to love this laidback part of the Lonestar State.

Settle in at a lakeside home away from home

You’ll find every conceivable type of lodging in the Highland Lakes, from tent camping to vacation rentals ideally suited to the number of people you’re traveling with and your preferred level of luxury (or lack thereof). But you’re in some truly scenic country, so we recommend taking full advantage of that fact while resting your head in comfort when a long day of exploring’s over.

At Canyon of the Eagles in Burnet, you’ll enjoy plenty of amenities in the 940 acres of this nature-based resort overlooking Lake Buchanan. In addition to being a cozy place to sleep, guests can partake in guided hikes, stargazing at the on-site observatory, and educational programs about the many species that call this area home. The Overlook Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner should you decide to make a full day of it on property. RV and campsites offer that rustic element many people crave (us not included). 

Meanwhile, 30 miles south on the shores of Lake LBJ (though still in Burnet), Long Country Cove features 170 acres of natural beauty and cabins with anywhere from one bedroom to extremely spacious retreats with six bedrooms and their own pools and hot tubs, a fantastic option when you’re ready to travel with large groups of friends and family again.

Or check out Airbnbs here.

Enjoy the best Texas cuisine at breakfast, lunch, and dinner

While many of the accommodations you’ll find in Highland Lakes feature full kitchens, this is your vacation, after all, so kick back and let somebody else do the cooking. Plenty of mom-and-pop eateries, some of which have been around for decades, offer a variety of cuisines and views that can make country life so appealing. Most places have takeout options, so you can always get your meals-to-go for an impromptu picnic or to enjoy back at your lodging. 

Depending on the route you take into the Highland Lakes Region, you’re likely to pass Opie’s BBQ in Spicewood. Otherwise, make a special trip to this barbecue joint where diners are greeted by a 12-foot smoke pit right inside the door. Point to the meat(s) you want to try and they’ll build your plate right there. Baby back ribs and tater tot casserole are absolute musts.

For breakfast, dessert, or dessert-for-breakfast, Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls has been famous for its pies since 1929, and you can order them by the slice or whole pies for a tasty souvenir. Much like dessert, chicken fried steak can be ordered at any time of the day. Also in Marble Falls, River City Grille offers spectacular views of the Colorado River and an extensive menu sure to please anyone and everyone traveling with you. From fried catfish sandwiches and green chile pork tacos to hand-cut rib eye steaks and seafood platters, you’ll find plenty of craving satisfiers. 

Located right on the water in Kingsland, Wakepoint offers fuel for cars, boats, and human beings from one location right on the Llano River. Burgers (single, double, and triple) are the go-to, but you’ll find delicious pizzas, barbecue, and bar snacks, too. And if you want a little small town charm, check out Trailblazer Grille on the historic Burnet County Square. Homestyle cooking will warm your soul, with chicken pot pie, classic meatloaf, and hand-cut steaks among the many rib-stickin’ options.

Explore Burnet’s underground scene

Especially in the summer, Longhorn Cavern State Park makes a great place to beat the heat with a constant 68 degrees in the spectacular, ancient underground caverns, deemed the National Cave of Texas. If you’re truly feeling the need for an adrenaline rush, book the Wild Cave Tour that takes you through the undeveloped lower levels of the caverns viewed through headlamps—and often on your hands and knees. Don’t worry, you’ll get a commemorative T-shirt at the end for wearable bragging rights. 

Get out on the lake

Of course, it would be bonkers to head to this part of the state and not take advantage of the actual rivers and lakes. You can rent watercraft from a variety of places, including hotels and other accommodations, but two businesses have our first-hand seal of approval. 

Vanishing Texas Cruises lets you relax while someone else does the navigating. A variety of cruises can be purchased from up-close-and-personal encounters with birds of prey from your boat to sunset cruises with optional dinner and live entertainment components, you’re bound to find a water-based excursion to fit your needs. Or rent kayaks and canoes if you prefer to explore on your own time with your own agenda.

Ride a ski lift (no snow required)

Head to Spider Mountain and your vacation’s all downhill from there—in the most exhilarating way possible. Ride to the top in a chair lift (the only one in Texas) and partake in one of nine downhill mountain biking trails rated blue (easiest) to double black (advanced). Rental bikes can be secured directly with the company or you can opt to take a scenic roundtrip ride to simply enjoy the views or hike instead of bike.

Watch out for some wildlife

Bird-watching might not seem like the most exciting use of your time, but at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge you’ll encounter hundreds of species of birds, as well as other wildlife, including armadillos, beavers, deer, and sheep. Of course, definitely watch out for the bobcats, rattlesnakes, and skunks that call this habitat home, too. Getting back to nature could be a truly wild experience if you know where to look.

Pop your cork at a local winery

The Texas Hill Country has grown to be one of the best wine destinations in the state and Highland Lakes boasts several top-notch vineyards and tasting rooms. At Torr Na Lochs Winery, savor wines made from Syrah, Malbec, and Petite Syrah grapes grown on their property. Wedding Oak Winery has three area tasting rooms, but the most convenient will be the Burnet location just across the town square from Trailblazer Grille. And out at Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow, a $20 tasting gets you samples of five of their best-selling wines, then stick around for a bottle of your favorite. 

Grab a cold one from a Hill Country brewery

When you’re ready for a change of pace from vino, breweries in the region have you covered. 

Bear King Brewing Company has some incredible offerings, especially the Bird’s Word Pecan Porter that has a real depth of flavors. Best of all, the burgers and tacos here are so good you can easily spend a few hours sipping and supping on their spacious patio. 

Also in Marble Falls, Save The World Brewing Co. makes a real difference as a 100% philanthropic brewery. All profits go directly to charity, so the more beer you drink (and take to-go) the better you’re making the world. A variety of local, national, and international non-profits receive the benefits of their generous spirit.

Steven Lindsey is a Thrillist contributor. 
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