Texas Hill Country Is the Ultimate Spring Road Trip
Find your bluebonnet wildflower and smokey barbecue nirvana.
With its kaleidoscopic wildflowers, rolling farmland, and—oddly—mermaid lore, Texas Hill Country sounds more like Neverland than the Austin suburbs—but instead of Captain Hook, it’s Leatherface. Fear not, though, because the fictional feelings are only there in spirit, and the region’s age-old barbecue institutions only conjure Texas Chainsaw vibes in quaint ways.
What wine country is to San Francisco, Hill Country is to Austin—an easy jaunt to bucolic towns like Dripping Springs, Driftwood, Lockhart, and Kyle. Though close to the big, noisy city, and literally a 20-minute drive from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Hill Country feels worlds away—a pastoral paradise teeming with iconic bluebonnets, tropical-blue rivers, dreamy boutique inns, national park sites, and breweries so in line with the “Keep Austin Weird” ethos they come with goat yoga and vegan pizza.
With wildflowers abloom and warm sunshine casting a glow across the meadows, spring is prime time to explore Texas Hill Country. And there’s no better way to sink your teeth into the region than by car, road tripping from a sotol distillery in Driftwood to the dusty town of Lockhart, where the whole community wafts of smoked meats. Welcome to Texas, y’all.
Frolic with flowers come springtime
Texas weather can be a drama queen. Come summer, the Austin metro scorches with sky-high temps, humidity, and unrelenting sunshine that feels downright oppressive, necessitating a plunge in Barton Springs. Then there’s winter, which can look fully dystopian. Sure, it doesn’t normally snow much or get too frigid, but spring is a time for celebration nonetheless.
The towns south and west of Austin, particularly, come alive with wildflowers, prickly pears, and fresh produce. With lipstick-red poppies, Indian paintbrushes, purple tansies, wine cup flowers, and ox-eyed daisies, Hill Country starts to look like an artist’s palette typically late-March through mid-May, just before the heat starts to get rude. The star of the floral show, though, is the bluebonnet: a deep-purple lupin lookalike that’s come to be synonymous with spring in Texas. When these beauties start to flower, you know spring has arrived, beckoning you to twirl through the fields, Sound of Music-style.
While the flowers pop up in Austin on occasion, your best bet for a bluebonnet moment is driving out into nature. The Willow City Loop is a particularly striking 13-mile drive through flower-filled fields and past mesquite trees, oaks, and a fence lined with cowboy boots, because Texas. The town of Burnet is so abundant with bluebonnets that they host an annual Bluebonnet Festival, which is basically a floral Coachella with art, food, music, and family-friendly entertainment. For something a bit more convenient from the city, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a gorgeous botanic garden on Austin’s southwest side, with guided garden tours, spring plant sales, an arboretum, and 70 acres of stroll-worthy trails.
Mingle with mermaids(?) and Leatherface lore
This is the time of year when people get back out on the water, especially the turquoise-blue San Marcos River. This waterway is so tropical-looking and crystal-clear that the Mermaid Society of San Marcos is an actual thing, hosting Mermaid Week festivals in September with mermaid parades, a mermaid art ball, and “MERtini” cocktail competitions. It’s technically called the Mermaid Capital of Texas Festival, though we can’t imagine there’s much competition from other Texas-based mermaid festivals? So with longer days, warmer temps, fertile farmland abloom, and umm, mermaids, this is Texas’ time to shine in Hill Country.
Speaking of strange fiction, Hill Country is also infamous as the setting of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, exemplified by the fun fact that many of these quiet towns look like the kinds of places you do not want your car to break down in. Though not actually based on real events (that we know of??), the horror classic was filmed primarily at a house in present-day Round Rock, just 30 minutes north of Austin. If that’s a little close for comfort, don’t worry, because the house has since been uprooted and moved to Kingsland, a more reassuring 64 miles away. Nowadays, the house operates as the Antlers Inn, which has been thoroughly refurbished so that it doesn’t too closely resemble the stuff from your nightmares. In fact, it’s perfectly charming and pleasant today, with traditional hotel rooms, cottages, and even an antique train car with guest rooms on board. There’s also a cute on-site restaurant, Grand Central Cafe, with chicken Chardonnay, pancakes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre memorabilia, and the unmistakable staircase from the film. Like we said, cute.
Where to stay in Texas Hill Country
If you’d rather not sleep in the same building where Leatherface went on a killing spree, Hill Country has other options with distinct vibes, style, and flavor—and nary a chainsaw in sight.
For Hill Country vibes with big-city amenities, Lone Star Court is your go-to gateway to Texas’ road trip epicenter. Located in Austin at The Domain, this beautiful boutique property gives access to urban splendors and Hill Country adventures, coupled with a transportive atmosphere that’ll make you feel like you’re on a bougie farm. It also doesn’t get any more TEXAS than this, where guests are greeted with free Lone Star Beers, the decor resembles a chic ranch, the bar feels like a barnyard saloon, and the pool is designed like a Hill Country swimming hole. There’s even a signature scent, redolent with notes of sueded leather, sage, and cypress, wafting from the lobby. The huge four-acre property is outfitted with fire pits, lawn games, picnic tables, and twinkling bulb lights, all of which lend a sense of cozy countryside rusticity, while retro-style rooms boast marshmallow-soft beds, vintage refrigerators, and rocking chairs outside every door. For food and drink, mosey up to the bar—or sit by the huge central fireplace—at the Water Trough, a Texas-style pub with requisites like chili con queso, smoked brisket, chicken tacos, and “cowboy” bread pudding studded with pecans, raisins, and whiskey creme anglaise.
Out in Hill Country, if you just can’t get enough Jester King, the brewery expanded its offerings with on-site lodging at the Jester King Inn. Accessible to the brewery through a private gate for overnight guests, the inn is comprised of five intimate accommodations, each one thoughtfully and uniquely appointed, from the cozy A-frame Bobcat Cabin to the expansive Ruby Cabin, equipped with three patios, a full kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an outdoor shower so you can soak under the stars.
For the utmost bucolic vibe, book a stint at Sage Hill Inn & Spa. Nestled in the quiet forested hills of Kyle, the luxe adults-only property looks more like Napa than Texas, with cozy abodes that run the gamut from private cabins to enormous suites with fireplaces, tubs, and patios. Amenity-wise, there’s a pool, bocce court, a 14-person hot tub, a restaurant, and an impressive trail system through the hills.
Eat dessert first in the “Pie Capital of Texas”
Half an hour southwest of Austin, the quaint town of Kyle is an apt stopover for anyone with a sweet tooth and a bottomless pit of an appetite. The community might not look like much, but it’s earned the nickname the “Pie Capital of Texas” for its most popular local restaurant, the Texas Pie Company. The joint is courtesy of proprietor Julie Albertson, a veritable Julia Child of pie, whose laundry list of family recipes runs the gamut from savory pot pies and chicken tetrazzini casserole to sweets like peanut butter mousse, lemon chess, chocolate fudge, coconut cream, Almond Joy, and pecan pie bars. The whole place has serious “grandma’s kitchen” vibes, which makes sense considering Albertson learned how to bake pie from her grandmother.
Down the block from Texas Pie Company is another sweet stop, La Ola Pop Shop, a tiny nook slinging ice cream, mangonadas, and paleta pops in flavors and colors as vibrant as a field of wildflowers. While the heat may not be sweltering quite yet this time of year, there’s still something refreshing about slobbering on a “POG” paleta with passion fruit, orange juice, and guava, or a pineapple-tajin pop with a splash of sweet-and-spicy chamoy sauce.
Find boozy bliss in Dripping Springs
The smattering of breweries and wineries in Johnson City is the tip of the vast, boozy iceberg in Hill Country, which has emerged as a mecca for craft beer and spirits in recent years. The heart of it is Dripping Springs, where the main thoroughfare of Fitzhugh Road weaves through hilly pastures and past a dizzying array of expansive distilleries and breweries.
The king of the crop is Jester King Brewery, an enormous woodland destination that feels like the Dollywood of breweries with its huge farm tours, goat yoga, outdoor movie screenings, and even a two-mile nature trail that surrounds the 165-acre ranch. Three different bar areas pour limited-release beers, mostly made with locally foraged fruits, grains, and native yeasts. From the changing lineup, you can expect to find anything from a barrel-aged wild ale with Marion blackberries to a farmhouse ale with oat malt and blue corn or a rosemary and smoked honey variation re-fermented with plums. There’s also a full-blown—and staggeringly impressive—food menu, with an emphasis on pizza, barbecue, and baked goods and breads with indigenous yeast from the ranch. Like the beers, pizzas change seasonally, but beyond the staples like the red-sauce Clasico, examples include the vegan Caulis pizza with kale and radish greens pesto, cashew “cheese,” cauliflower, pickled radishes, and fried capers. Or try the aggressively non-vegan Pectoralis with bechamel, smoked sliced brisket, Swiss cheese, dressed arugula, and pickled red onion. Along with fluffy blue corn muffins with chile-honey butter, you can grab a bonus trail beer and trek the woods to work it all off.
Further west down Fitzhugh Road, you’ll pass other equally sprawling breweries and distilleries, like Beerburg Brewing, Revolution Spirits Distilling Co., and Fitzhugh Brewing, but one essential stop is Treaty Oak Distilling, which is less a straightforward distillery or bar, and more like a whiskey wonderland complete with folksy live music, a barbecue restaurant, a mercantile shop, a barnyard bar, and copious outdoor grounds. The open-air Rickhouse Bar is a particularly cool place to linger, with ample spirits and beers to choose from, including an impressively smooth, cherry-kissed, barrel-aged Old Fashioned that might ruin you on all other Old Fashioneds.
Just seven miles south of Dripping Springs, one of the biggest—and booziest—surprises in the region is Desert Door Distillery, the first sotol distillery in the US, where spiky agave-looking plants, traditionally distilled in Mexico, take the spotlight in a chic, twee tasting room. Channeling its inner west Texas, where the sotol plants are harvested, the space looks like an adobe-style Marfa art gallery with equally photogenic cocktails, like the Desert Paloma with sotol, grapefruit juice, agave nectar, soda, bitters, and lime. While the plant may look like an agave doppelganger, it’s entirely its own thing, and the resulting elixir tastes like a smoky mezcal with a hint of anise.
Chase waterfalls and presidential history in Johnson City
As the name “Hill Country” suggests, there’s plenty of both hills and country out this way, which means lots of ways to recreate in nature. Johnson City, about 30 miles west of Austin, is a beautiful place for an afternoon trip, where you can hike, embrace your inner Lyndon B. Johnson groupie, and disobey TLC by chasing waterfalls.
The latter can be seen at Pedernales Falls State Park, a 5,000-acre swath of green space, hills, babbling brooks, and small-but-mighty waterfalls along the Pedernales River. Ideal for swimming, hiking, picnicking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and exploring with your dog, there’s much to do in a relatively contained area. While you can’t swim by the falls, the more docile portions of the river provide refuge from the ensuing heat, along with fishing, tubing, and kayaking. For hiking, options range from the modest half-mile Twin Falls Nature Trail, culminating with a panorama of the falls, to the more strenuous six-mile Wolf Mountain Trail, zigzagging through canyons and along Mescal and Tobacco Creeks.
Nearby, about 14 miles west of Johnson City, the National Park Service oversees the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, including the LBJ Ranch and the “Texas White House.” This is where America’s 36th president was born, lived, died, and buried—and one scenic drive across the grounds makes it easy to see the appeal of the peaceful farmland. Along the way, you’ll encounter the Johnson family cemetery, the cottage-like house where he was born, a bunch of roving cattle, and the mighty ranch house where Johnson spent much of his life, conducted plenty of business, and hosted dignitaries from across the globe. For these reasons, the ranch has its own private airport hangar, complete with a presidential jet that visitors can enter, and there’s an enormous garage with a vintage car collection that would make Jay Leno jealous.
Portions of the Texas White House have been opened for public tours, but they’re currently closed due to safety concerns with structural issues. The adjoining visitor center and museum, though, is fully loaded with immersive exhibits and films, including a whole space dedicated to the environmental work of Lady Bird Johnson.
In Johnson City, there’s another section of the national park site that includes a one-mile loop trail to the Johnson Settlement, where the president’s grandparents first settled in the 1860s, which will get you up close and personal with longhorn cattle (separated by a fence, thankfully). Then, explore the rest of Johnson City’s charming downtown, lined with cute cafes, wine bars, and boutiques, like Lady Bird Lane Cafe, Pecan Street Brewing, 290 Vinery, and Farmhouse Vineyards.
Follow the scent of smoked meats to barbecue nirvana
While Austin proper has its fair share of cult-followed barbecue institutions, you gotta rove through Hill Country for the real-deal institutions: the kind of theme park-sized eateries that have been stoking the same flames for generations and piling sliced brisket on platters like bovine Jenga towers.
Among such hallowed grounds, The Salt Lick reigns as one of the most popular—and rightfully so, both for its proximity to Austin and the fact that the enormous restaurant makes you feel like you’ve been transported to a bygone era, feasting on ribs like some kind of bacchanalian cowboy cookout. Located in Driftwood, The Salt Lick is a complex of barn-like buildings, rustic dining rooms, and tree-shaded patios, all anchored by a huge barbecue pit absolutely heaped with ribs, sausages, slabs of pork, and brisket. There’ll likely be a wait for a table, despite the fact that this place is the size of the Mall of America, but you can hunker down by the bar out back, offering local brews and Salt Lick’s own wine label. Once seated, brace for a meal that’ll make Thanksgiving look like the Master Cleanse by comparison—we’re talkin’ family-sized sliced brisket sandwiches, smoked turkey, rib plates, and snappy sausages. Bison ribs are a newer novelty, though the size of these things look like they came from a brontosaurus.
For something less touristy and a bit more off the beaten path, road trip out to the sleepy hamlet of Luling, about 53 miles southeast of Dripping Springs. The type of quintessential Texas town where you half expect to see tumbleweed bouncing down the street, it’s a worthwhile haul from Austin to visit City Market, a timeworn cornerstone that feels like a community cafeteria, complete with non-gimmicky black-and-white photos and rocking chairs on the front porch. It’s utterly lacking in frills, including utensils, so check all decorum at the door, roll up your sleeves, and tear into smoky sausages, plump ribs, and slabs of beef brisket. The menu, like the space, is refreshingly sparse, emphasizing quality over quantity. But don’t sleep on the banana pudding for dessert.
The Salt Lick and City Market are good and all, but you haven’t done barbecue in Hill Country right until you’ve risked getting gout in Lockhart. Hill Country may be home to the “Pie Capital of Texas” and the “Mermaid Capital of Texas,” but the accolade that’s the least surprising is the fact that this little town is the “Barbecue Capital of Texas,” a fact made abundantly clear in that the whole town kinda smells like smoked meat. About 15 miles north of Luling, Lockhart is home to some of the oldest, most enduring barbecue institutions in the country, including Black’s Barbecue, Smitty’s Market, and Kreuz Market, each one massive and unrelentingly meaty. If you’ve only got time—or stomach space—for one, make it Kreuz Market, a local family-run icon that’s been slinging meat since 1875. Though the building has changed, it’s remained in the same family through multiple generations, and the original coals used in the barbecue pits have moved to its current location. Nowadays, folks queue up for ‘cue alongside blazing-hot brick pits, where pitmasters slow-cook brisket, beef ribs, sausages, pork chops, and pit ham in the style of traditional German meat markets. All orders are ruggedly rolled in butcher paper and served, sans utensils, for diners to get primal with. This is probably the closest you’ll come to feeling like a lion.