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The interstate highway connecting Austin and San Antonio roughly traces a boundary between the Hill Country to the west and the coastal prairie to the east. This relatively narrow strip of land extending from north of Austin to south of San Antonio is dotted with natural springs, which were formed when the uplifting that produced the Edwards Plateau and the Hill Country opened fissures in the limestone substrate along the Balcones fault line. Rainwater on the plateau seeps into these cracks and flows underground for many miles before bubbling back up to the surface at the lower elevation of this boundary zone.

Some of the largest of these springs are found in San Marcos, 26 miles south of Austin. These springs and the wildlife they attracted were probably what brought the first human inhabitants to the region, some 12,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence points to continuous settlement along these springs in one form or another, prompting local scholars to boast that San Marcos is the oldest continuously inhabited site in the Western Hemisphere. Temporary home to two Spanish missions in the late 1700s, as well as to the Comanche and Apaches, this area was eventually inhabited by Anglo settlers in the middle of the 19th century. Now host to Texas State University-San Marcos (formerly Southwest Texas State), the alma mater of LBJ, San Marcos has the laid-back feel of a college town. It's also fast becoming a bedroom community of Austin, only half an hour away.

Just 15 miles farther south, toward San Antonio, is the town of New Braunfels, which has several attractions for visitors, including caverns, a large waterpark, tubing on a river, and a classic country dance hall (in Gruene).

What to See & Do

Before arriving in San Marcos, you pass through two small towns, Buda, a corruption of the Spanish word for widow, viuda) and Kyle. These are old towns that now are almost entirely bedroom communities for Austin and have lost any distinctive character that they may have had.

But in Buda, you'll find one of those destination stores for outdoor gear called Cabela's (tel. 512/295-1100; www.cabelas.com). You'll see signs marking the exit (220), and can see the store from the highway. It's a cavernous structure with an indoor waterfall, a large aquarium area, and a diorama of the African savanna. It sells a lot of gear to hunters, fishermen, campers, and kayakers, as wells as clothing and footwear.

To get to San Marcos, take exit 206 and turn right on to Aquarena Springs Drive. This will lead you directly to Spring Lake, which is filled entirely by natural springs. The waters are astonishingly clear and maintain a constant temperature of 72°F (22°C). On the lake's shore sits the Aquarena Center, 921 Aquarena Springs Dr. (tel. 512/245-7570; www.aquarena.txstate.edu). An exemplar of tourist trends, it was a somewhat cheesy theme park, once home to Ralph the Swimming Pig, until it was purchased in the mid-1990s by Texas State University, which spent $16 million to convert it into an environmental research center (no swimming permitted in the lake). Glass-bottom boat tours, which allow you to view the lake's rare flora and fauna, cost $9 for adults, $7.50 for seniors 55 and older, and $6 for children ages 4 to 15. These enjoyable tours run on a regular schedule, depending on the season. In addition, there are environmental tours (2 weeks' advance arrangement required), an endangered species exhibit, a natural aquarium, hikes, and a boardwalk over the wetlands, where more than 100 species of birds have been spotted. You can also visit the log home of Gen. Edward Burleson, who built the dam that created Spring Lake to power his gristmill.

Spring Lake is the headwaters of the San Marcos River, which from here crosses under I-35 and begins its winding course down to the Gulf of Mexico. If you want to get wet, the river is your best option; it's probably the cleanest river in Texas. Common activities include tubing, kayaking, and canoeing. Log on to www.sanmarcosriver.org to find out about conservation measures taken by the San Marcos River Foundation. Tubing is possible from May through mid-September: The local Lions Club (tel. 512/396-LION [396-5466]; www.tubesanmarcos.com) rents inner tubes and operates a river shuttle at City Park. Check the website for a schedule and rates.

Tip: You can also tube the Guadalupe River in nearby New Braunfels.

For canoeing or kayaking, a great outfitter is TG Canoes & Kayaks (tel. 512/353-3946; www.tgcanoe.com) at 402 Pecan Park Dr. They provide watercraft, gear, and transportation. Most of the popular trips are downstream from San Marcos, closer to Luling. The best time for kayaking is in September and October, after the summer vacation season, when the crowds are gone. If you would like to take a class in kayaking, contact Olympic Outdoor Center (tel. 512/203-0093) before your trip. The center teaches a white-water course. The class takes place at Rio Vista Park, a section of the river where the city has created some small rapids for the benefit of kayakers. This newly refurbished park is also an attractive place to go swimming in the calm pool of water above the rapids. Rio Vista is on the west side of I-35, not far from the San Marcos Visitor's Center, mentioned below.

If you would like to see some of the town, take a stroll around Courthouse Square. San Marcos, like Kyle and Buda, has seen rapid growth in the last 30 years, which has produced little of interest for visitors. Downtown and the university hold most the attractions.

San Marcos is the seat of Hays County, named after John Coffee Hays, whose bronze statue stands by the courthouse. Hays led a wild life as a Texas Ranger, explorer, surveyor, and lawman. He was one of the earliest members of the Texas Rangers and fought many skirmishes with Mexicans, Apaches, and Comanche in the Hill Country and South Texas. During the Mexican War (1846-48), he and his comrades gained national fame for their exploits in several battles, including the siege of Monterrey. The newspaper accounts of these battles were what really began the myth and lore of the Texas Rangers. When peacetime returned, Hays explored several routes between Austin and El Paso, and later traveled to California during the Gold Rush and was hired as sheriff of San Francisco to bring law and order to that unruly boomtown. In the statue, Hays is shown on horseback gripping a Colt revolver. Hays and another Texas Ranger, Samuel Walker, were instrumental in the development of the Colt revolver, working closely with Samuel Colt, testing some of his early models, and giving valuable input on how they could be improved.

Around the square are several old storefronts in various stages of restoration. One building facing the square is the State Bank and Trust Building, dating back to the late 1800s. It was robbed by the Newton Gang in 1924 and (most likely) by Machine Gun Kelly in 1933. San Marcos's entire downtown area is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Also facing the square from across Guadalupe Street is a small museum documenting LBJ's early years. It concentrates on his childhood and has old newspapers and photos of San Marcos and the region. Admission to the LBJ Museum of San Marcos (tel. 512/353-3300; www.lbjmuseum.com) is free. For more information on what to see in San Marcos, go to the Visitor's Center at 617 I-35, on the west side of the highway (tel. 512/393-5930). Hours are Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 10am to 4pm.

Texas State University's Albert B. Alkek Library is home to some of the state's most important literary artifacts, as well as to a good gallery specializing in photographs. The Wittliff Collections, on the seventh floor of the library, at 601 University Dr. (tel. 512/245-2313; www.thewittliffcollections.txstate.edu), showcases materials donated by the region's leading filmmakers, musicians, and wordsmiths. You might see anything from a 1555 printing of the journey of Spanish adventurer Cabeza de Vaca to a songbook created by an 11-year-old Willie Nelson to the costumes worn by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove. (The collection was founded by screenwriter Bill Wittliff, who wrote the script for that TV miniseries as well as for Legends of the Fall and A Perfect Storm.) The collection is generally open to the public Monday, Tuesday, and Friday 8am to 5pm, Wednesday and Thursday 8am to 7pm, Saturday 10am to 5pm, and Sunday 1 to 6pm, but hours change with university holidays and breaks. It's a good idea to call ahead to confirm. Another part of the collections, the Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection, focuses on the photographic works of this region from the 19th century to the present. Its holdings include the works of many famous photographers, including Ansel Adams, Edward Curtis, Alvarez Bravo, and Annie Leibovitz.

When the Balcones Fault was active some 30 million years ago, an earthquake created the cave at the center of Wonder World, 1000 Prospect St., off Bishop (tel. 877/492-4657 or 512/392-3760; www.wonderworldpark.com). You might not want to visit this much-hyped attraction. The petting farm, for example, is essentially a tram ride through an enclosure of depressed-looking deer. A tour of the cave eventually takes you to the so-called Anti-Gravity House, where you can see water flowing upward. The cave is okay, but there are better ones, such as Natural Bridge Caverns. And the Anti-Gravity House is just tacky. This attraction is open daily from June through August from 8am to 8pm; Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 6pm the rest of the year; it is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas. Tickets for the entire park cost $20 for adults, $15 for kids 6 to 12, and $7.50 for children 3 to 5.

Outlet Shopping

The other attraction that brings people to San Marcos is the outlet shopping mall. There are actually two of them, but they're right next to each other a couple of miles south of downtown San Marcos, on the east side of the highway (exit 200): Tanger Factory Outlet Center (tel. 800/408-8424 or 512/396-7446; www.tangeroutlet.com) and the larger and tonier Prime Outlets (tel. 800/628-9465 or 512/396-2200; www.primeoutlets.com). Among the almost 150 stores, you'll find everything from Dana Buchman, Anne Klein, and Brooks Brothers to Coach, Samsonite, and Waterford/Wedgwood. There's also a Saks Fifth Avenue outlet.

Where to Stay & Dine

The Crystal River Inn, 326 W. Hopkins, San Marcos, TX 78666 (tel. 888/396-3739 or 512/396-3739; www.crystalriverinn.com), offers something for everyone. It's located a few blocks from the courthouse. Nine rooms and three suites, beautifully decorated with antiques, occupy a large 1883 Victorian main house and two smaller houses behind it. All three houses have character. The four guest rooms in the main house are decorated more traditionally, while the four in the Thomas house are more contemporary and eclectic. Those in the Rock house fall somewhere in between. Rates, which range from a low of $105 for a room during the week to a high of $175 for a two-bedroom suite on the weekend, include a full breakfast. The innkeepers have been running this B&B for years and are quite good at it. They even host murder-mystery weekends, which are elaborately scripted and enthusiastically acted. Other than this place, most of the lodging is along the highway, where there are more than a dozen hotel/motels.

If while you're walking around the courthouse you get a bit hungry, try the Café on the Square (tel. 512/396-9999) at 126 N. LBJ. It's not fine dining, but it's reliable, has good service, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and has bargain prices. It offers burgers, sandwiches, Tex-Mex, and a few local standards, such as fried catfish.

If you're looking for something more upscale, go to Palmer's, 216 W. Moore (tel. 512/353-3500; www.palmerstexas.com), just off Hopkins Street. Here you can eat outside in an attractive courtyard or inside in one of the wood-paneled dining rooms. This is a comfortable restaurant with good seating, and it doesn't get very noisy. The cooking is contemporary American, which the owners call Hill Country cuisine. To be sure, they use local providers whenever possible, and add a Texas twist to some of their standards. Main courses include grilled chops soaked in brine and topped with a habañero-honey sauce. There's also a good tortilla soup, which is vegetarian. Palmer's is known for its desserts, including Key lime and chocolate satin pies, and especially its margaritas. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily, and meals are moderate to expensive.

If what you're looking for is beauty, I think the prettiest place to eat in San Marcos is on the outdoor deck of the Saltgrass Steakhouse (tel. 512/396-5255) at 211 Sessoms Dr., just off Aquarena Drive. It's a one-of-a-kind setting, perched out over Spring Lake right where it feeds into the river. This is a chain restaurant, and the food isn't of the highest quality, but if you stick to the steaks or chops, you'll be fine. If you're on Aquarena Springs, drive past the Aquarena Center and make a right turn just after it crosses the river. The restaurant will be immediately on your right.

A Literary Aside

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Katherine Anne Porter, best known for her novel Ship of Fools, spent most of her childhood just a few miles south of Buda, in the town of Kyle. In 2001, the 1880 Katherine Anne Porter House, 508 W. Center St. (tel. 512/268-6637; www.english.txstate.edu/kap), was dedicated and opened to the public, as well as to a visiting writer chosen by the Texas State University-San Marcos. The house, which was restored and furnished with period antiques, hosts Porter's works and a collection of her photographs. There's no admission charge, but you need to call ahead for an appointment.

Nearby Wimberley

From San Marcos, you can take a quick trip into the Hill Country by driving to the town of Wimberley. From central San Marcos, you can leave town via Moore Street. Wimberley is a scattered community, with a dense little commercial center. The center of town is located on the banks of the Blanco River, some 15 miles northwest of San Marcos. Texans from different parts of the state treat it as a weekend getaway and patronize a varied collection of bed-and-breakfasts -- it's a favorite setting for family reunions. In addition to the countryside, shopping for antiques and art objects is one of the main attractions here. From April through December, the first Saturday of each month is Market Day, a large crafts gathering on Lion's Field; check www.visitwimberly.com/marketdays for additional information.

If you like artsy-craftsy (and, especially, country cutesy) stuff, you could spend all day browsing the shops and boutiques on and near the town square. But one of the most interesting places to visit, Wimberley Glass Works, is on the highway halfway between San Marcos and Wimberley (R.R. 12 at Hugo Rd.). The showroom is full of beautiful, vibrantly colored works of art. And many of the creations are made for sconce and pendant lighting and show off their colors all the more when lit from within. Behind the showroom is the studio where during regular business hours from Tuesday to Saturday you can see demonstrations and watch glass blowers at work. Of the places to stay in Wimberley, nicest is the Blair House Inn, 100 Spoke Hill Rd., Wimberley, TX 78676 (tel. 877/549-5450 or 512/847-1111; www.blairhouseinn.com). It's a luxury property on 85 Hill Country acres, offering eight spacious rooms and three separate cottages in a Texas limestone ranch complex. With a cooking school on the premises, you know the breakfasts -- and dinners, offered to outsiders as well as guests every Saturday night -- are going to be good. Rates run $150 to $209 for double rooms, $244 to $289 for the cottages. The cooking classes and dinners are popular with Austinites (and others), so book in advance if you want to attend.

For information about other places to stay, eat, or shop in Wimberley, contact the Chamber of Commerce, 14100 R.R. 12, just north of the town square (tel. 512/847-2201; www.wimberley.org).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.