11 Reasons to Drive to Central Texas’ Highland Lakes
Book it to Hill Country for a summer weekend getaway you won’t soon forget.
When it comes to the Texas Hill Country, everything’s bigger—much like Texas in general. Sprawling over 31,000 square miles of Central Texas real estate and most famously encompassing the cities of Austin and San Antonio, the small towns surrounding the region’s six (yes, six) major bodies of water are well worth a visit. Lake Buchanan, Inks Lake, Lake LBJ, Lake Marble Falls, Lake Travis, and Lake Austin make up the Highland Lakes and hidden gems abound throughout the region. Thanks to the easy drive down I-35, you can attempt to explore them all in a single weekend, but you might have better luck zeroing in on a single lake each visit and experiencing each on a deeper level (pun intended). Located about 90 minutes northwest of Austin, picturesque landscapes can be found throughout the Highland Lakes region and exemplify the scenic diversity of the second-largest state in the union.
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, 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 14 amazing reasons to input this refreshingly laid-back corner of the Lone Star State into Waze and hit the road.
When it’s hot outside—and it’s really hot outside everywhere in Texas right now—locals and visitors will always be on the hunt for enjoyable ways to cool off. Of course, plunging into one of the six lakes in the region will always be an option, but if you prefer to not swim with the fishes, perhaps a crystal clear pool overlooking a lake is more your speed. Or maybe an afternoon getting pampered at an air-conditioned spa with massages, facials, and a Lady Bird Wildflower body wrap sounds even more appealing. Fortunately, you’ll find both of these fantastic ways to escape the high temperatures at Lakeway Resort & Spa on the shores of Lake Travis. The rooms are gorgeous, so you’re going to want to make a weekend of it in a lakeview room. And multiple restaurants and bars mean you’ll never have to leave the property if you don’t wanna.
Inks Lake may be one of the lesser-known bodies of water to those living outside the Highland Lakes, but it’s a helluva fun place for a swim. Inside Inks Lake State Park, you can hike a trail to an overlook above the Devil’s Waterhole before venturing down to the pool itself, where Spring Creek enters the lake. It’s also a great spot for kayaking and canoeing. Other swimming spots along the lake include the Spring Creek Delta and Valley Spring Creek Waterfall.
In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was responsible for creating Lake Buchanan—but also the demise of what is now known as Old Bluffton. There’s a new Bluffton now, too, a small town with fewer than 100 residents, located 2.5 miles from the lake. In 2012 during a severe drought, the old church, a portion of the cotton gin, homes, and an old cemetery all could be seen along the lake bottom. So if you’re looking for a great vacation story, you can recount your adventures to family and friends about swimming over, around, and through a creepy underwater ghost town. On a clear day, who knows what you might see.
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.
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 onsite RV slips. 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.
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 the property, while a host of RV slots and campsites offer that rustic element many braver vacationers crave.
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.
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 & Automobiles—cruise 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.
(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. Even if water levels are low and certain features are dryer than normal, it’s a gorgeous place to visit.
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.
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.
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 is the draw here, with picks like Chicken Pot Pie, classic meatloaf, and hearty steaks. (Consider waiting 30-minutes to swim after leaving this place.)
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.
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.
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 your own or simply taking the lift round trip is always an option.
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.
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.
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.