11 Reasons to Drive to Central Texas’ Highland Lakes

Book it to Hill Country for a summer weekend getaway you won’t soon forget.

The Texas Hill Country sprawls out over 31,000 square miles of Central Texas real estate, yet somehow, Austin and San Antonio grab all the attention. Hidden gems abound throughout the region, and thanks to the easy drive down I-35, they’re easy to explore over a weekend (but even better if you can throw in an extra day or two). One such jewel in the big Texas belt buckle is the Highland Lakes Region. Located about 90 minutes northwest of Austin, picturesque landscapes accentuate the area’s six (yes, 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) the main hub of activity, though a well-rounded itinerary will 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 just about anywhere in Texas, Highland Lakes lures outdoorsy adventurers and culinary thrill-seekers alike. Here are 11 amazing reasons to point your GPS toward this refreshingly laid-back corner of the Lonestar State.

Container City, Texas | Courtesy of Container City
Container City, Texas | Courtesy of Container City

Settle in at a lakeside home away from home

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

Templeton's Tavern
Templeton's Tavern

One of the newest additions to the overnight stay scene is also one of the most unique. Container City, Texas is a self-contained metropolis featuring six full-sized shipping containers that have been transformed into slick accommodations complete with rooftop decks. If you’re one of the lucky few who purchased an RV during the pandemic, you can also park it at one of nine RV slips onsite. The property sports biking and walking trails out to Spider Mountain (more on that later) plus enticing food and beverage options like Peddler’s Pies for hand-tossed pizza and a bar called Templeton’s Tavern.

Canyon of the Eagles - A Calibre Resort
Canyon of the Eagles - A Calibre Resort

At Canyon of the Eagles in Burnet, you’ll enjoy plenty of amenities across the nature-based resort’s 940 acres overlooking Lake Buchanan. In addition to being a cozy place to sleep, guests can partake in guided hikes, stargazing at an onsite observatory, and educational programming detailing the many species that call this area home. Hungry? Overlook Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner should you decide to make a full day of it on property, while a host of RV slots and campsites offer that rustic element many braver vacationers crave.

Log Country Cove
Log Country Cove

Meanwhile, 30 miles south on the shores of Lake LBJ, Log Country Cove features 170 acres of awe-inspiring beauty alongside cabins spanning everything from one-bedroom hideaways to extremely spacious retreats stocked with six bedrooms, private pools, and hot tubs. Springing for the latter is a fantastic option if you’re rolling deep with friends and family.

Sweet Berry Farm, Marble Falls
Sweet Berry Farm, Marble Falls

Go berry pickin’

What could be more idyllic (not to mention bucolic) than an afternoon harvesting strawberries while they’re in season at Sweet Berry Farm? The fact that they’re only $3.25 per pound, that’s what. From late May to July 4, you can also PYO sunflowers. Both activities make for great photo-ops, but then again so do all the cuddly farm animals you can pet and feed onsite.

Austin Steam Train
Austin Steam Train

Hit the rails (in a good way)

If you want to check off two of the three modes of transportation at the heart of one of the best movies of all time—Planes, Trains & Automobilescruise over to the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, park your car, and hop aboard the Hill Country Flyer, a steam locomotive that winds its way through the scenic countryside to Burnet County. You can also book mimosa, wine, and sunset trains directly from starting points in Highland Lakes, because that sounds like a helluva good idea.

JB Manning/Shutterstock
JB Manning/Shutterstock

(Do) go chasing waterfalls

Head north of Lake Buchanan to explore Colorado Bend State Park, a 5,328-acre former fish camp lined with 35 miles of rugged hiking and mountain biking trail plus fishing and swimming opportunities in the canyons along the epic Colorado River. Make time for the three-mile round trip hike to Gorman Falls, a 70-foot spring-fed waterfall that guarantees at least a few moments of sweet, sweet serenity.

Wingman Brothers Smokehouse
Wingman Brothers Smokehouse

Dig into Texas’ best cuisine morning, noon, and night

While many accommodations you’ll find in Highland Lakes feature full kitchens, this is your vacation, after all, so kick back and let somebody else handle the cooking. Plenty of mom-and-pop eateries, some of which have been around for decades, offer a variety of culinary styles paired with the kinds of views that make country life so damn appealing. Most places also happily provide takeout, so you can always get your meals-to-go for an impromptu picnic or a night in at the cabin.

Depending on the route you take into the 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 front door. Point to the meat(s) you want to try, and they’ll build your plate right there. Pro tip: Baby Back Ribs and Tater Tot Casserole are absolute musts. And if you find yourself in Marble Falls, head to Wingman Brothers Smokehouse for some tender, juicy brisket to rival anything Austin has to offer.

Blue Bonnet Cafe - Marble Falls, TX
Blue Bonnet Cafe - Marble Falls, TX

For breakfast, dessert, or dessert-for-breakfast, Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls has been dominating the pie game since 1929, and you can order them by the slice or whole for a tasty souvenir. Much like dessert, Chicken Fried Steak is also on hand whenever hunger strikes. 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-eyes and Seafood Platters, they’ve got it all.

Wakepoint LBJ
Wakepoint LBJ

Perched on the water in Kingsland, Wakepoint offers fuel for cars, boats, and human beings from a location right on the Llano River. Burgers (single, double, and triple) are the go-to, but you’ll also 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 hearty Steaks among the many rib-stickin’ draws.

IrinaK/Shutterstock
IrinaK/Shutterstock

Explore Burnet’s underground scene

During the summertime, Longhorn Cavern State Park makes a great place to beat the heat with its constant 68 degree weather inside the spectacular, ancient underground caverns, deemed the National Cave of Texas. If you’re feeling the need for an adrenaline rush, book the Wild Cave Tour that takes you through the undeveloped lower levels of the caverns illuminated by headlamps—sometimes even dropping to your hands and knees to discover the smaller nooks and crannies. Don’t worry, you’ll get a commemorative T-shirt at the end for wearable bragging rights.

vanishingtexasrivercruises
vanishingtexasrivercruises

Get out on the lake

Of course, it would be bonkers to visit this part of the state without taking advantage of the lush rivers and lakes crisscrossing the horizon. You can rent water crafts from a variety of places, including hotels and other accommodations, but one business has our first-hand seal of approval.

Vanishing Texas Cruises lets you relax while someone else does the navigating. A variety of cruises can be booked, from up-close-and-personal encounters with birds of prey to sunset cruises with optional dinner and live entertainment components. Or you can always rent kayaks and canoes, if you prefer to explore on your own time with your own agenda.
 

Spider Mountain
Spider Mountain

Ride a ski lift (no snow required)

Ascend 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, while hiking down on you own or simply taking the lift round trip is always an option.
 

Friends of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
Friends of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

Watch out for wildlife

Bird-watching might not seem like the most exciting use of your time, but at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll set your sights on hundreds of species of birds, as well as other critters, including armadillos, beavers, deer, and sheep. Of course, definitely keep an eye out for the bobcats, rattlesnakes, and skunks that also call this habitat home. Getting back to nature can be a truly wild experience, long as you know where to look.

Fall Creek Vineyards and Winery
Fall Creek Vineyards and Winery

Pop your cork at a local winery

The Texas Hill Country has grown to be one of the top wine destinations in the state and Highland Lakes boasts several outstanding vineyards and tasting rooms. At Torr Na Lochs Winery, you can savor wines made from Syrah, Malbec, and Petite Syrah grapes grown on their property. Wedding Oak Winery operates three area tasting rooms, but the most convenient is the Burnet location, stashed 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, but you should also stick around for a bottle of your favorite once you’ve settled on a winner.

Bear King Brewing Co.
Bear King Brewing Co.

Crack open a cold one at a Hill Country brewery

When you’re ready for a change of pace from vino, the region’s many breweries have you covered. Bear King Brewing Company has some incredible offerings, especially the Bird’s Word Pecan Porter, which bursts with a real depth of flavor. Best of all, the burgers and tacos there 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 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 reap the benefits of their generous spirit.

Steven Lindsey is a Thrillist contributor.