Bandera is a small town of 1,000 inhabitants 30 miles west of Boerne. Take Hwy. 46 west to Hwy. 16 and turn right. Bandera began as a lumber camp in 1853, harvesting cypress trees along the Medina River for making shingles. It's now a popular getaway for city folk to come and enjoy rodeos and other cowboy activities. It's the seat of Bandera County, and a commercial center for all the surrounding guest ranches and working ranches. Bandera isn't a pretty town, like Fredericksburg, but its unassuming, genuine feel grows on you. A lot of the buildings are rustic affairs that would never meet the building standards of big cities. The interiors have a certain rough-cut, unpolished look to them. In this, they are a reflection of the general attitude of the natives, who are open and friendly and have that unhurried pace which denotes a life unfettered by schedulers and smartphones.
What to See & Do
Interested in delving into the town's roots? Pick up a self-guided tour brochure of historic sites -- including St. Stanislaus (1855), the country's second-oldest Polish parish -- at the Bandera County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1206 Hackberry St., Bandera, TX 78003 (tel. 800/364-3833 or 830/796-3045; www.banderacowboycapital.com), open weekdays 9am to 5pm, Saturday 9am to 2pm. Or explore the town's living traditions by strolling along Main Street, where a variety of crafters work in the careful, deliberate style of yesteryear. Shops include Kline Saddlery (tel. 830/522-0335; www.klinesaddlery.com), featuring belts, purses, briefcases, and flask covers as well as horse wear; the Stampede (tel. 830/796-7650), a good spot for Western collectibles; and Love's Antique Mall (tel. 830/796-3838), a one-stop shopping center for current local crafts as well as things retro. Off the main drag, buy beautiful customized belt buckles, spurs, and jewelry at Hy O Silver, 1107 12th St. (tel. 830/796-7961; www.hyosilver.com). Naturally, plenty of places in town, such as the Cowboy Store, 302 Main St. (tel. 830/796-8176), can outfit you in Western duds.
Bandera holds its major rodeos on Memorial Day weekend and on Labor Day weekend, but you can find a smaller rodeo just about any week in between. Ask around when you get there, or try the visitor center.
The Great Outdoors
Most people come to Bandera to do some horseback riding. This is easy to arrange. Many guest ranches offer horseback rides for day-trippers, and the going rate is about $35 to $40 an hour. But it's even easier and more cost effective if you elect to stay at a guest ranch . This is one of the best ways to experience some of the beautiful country out there.
One place that offers ample room for horseback riding is the Hill Country State Natural Area (tel. 830/796-4413; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/hillcoun). It's 10 miles southwest of Bandera and is the largest state park in Texas. It has about 40 miles of trails for the use of riders, hikers, and mountain bikers. A few adjacent ranches can provide mounts. You can locate one through the Bandera Visitors Bureau. Be sure to take water along because none is available at the park.
A visit to the nonprofit Brighter Days Horse Refuge, 682 Krause Rd., Pipe Creek, about 9 miles east of Bandera (tel. 830/510-6607; www.brighterdayshorserefuge.org), will warm any animal lover's heart. The price of admission to this rehabilitation center for abandoned and neglected horses is a bag of carrots or apples; donations are also very welcome.
Another set of activities involves the pretty little Medina River, which runs right by the town. There are a couple of outfitters who rent tubes and kayaks. One is the Bandera Beach Club Kayak & Tube Rental, 1106 Cherry St. (tel. 830/796-7555). Another is the Medina River Company (no phone), at 1307 N. Main St., next to the Longhorn Saloon at the north end of town. You'll see a big sign. Swimming is another option; there are a couple of good swimming spots just upstream from the town. In that part of the river, the current is usually slow, but check it before you decide to go swimming.
Going fishing is possible, but not quite so easy to do. First, you need to obtain a fishing license. A single-day license for a nonresident is $16. Visitors can buy one at Boyle's Market (tel. 830/796-3861) at 1002 Main St. Bandera County Park at Medina Lake (tel. 800/364-3833; www.wildtexas.com/parks/medinalk.php; take Hwy. 16 to R.R. 1283) allows fishing, but you have to have your own gear because there's no regular outfitter in town. But if you do, you can hook crappie, white or black bass, and especially huge yellow catfish; the public boat ramp is on the north side of the lake, at the end of P.R. 37.
If you feel like taking a hike, you also have several options. The closest is Bandera Park (tel. 830/796-3765). It's a 77-acre green space within the city limits where you can stroll along the River Bend Native Plant Trail or picnic by the Medina River. Slightly farther away is the Hill Country State Natural Area, mentioned above. But to hike through some particularly beautiful country, especially during autumn, head west about 40 miles to Lost Maples State Natural Area (tel. 830/966-3413; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lostmap). Take Hwy. 16 to Medina, then R.R. 337 to Vanderpool, then R.R. 187 to the park.
Fantastic Foliage -- Locals make annual pilgrimages to Lost Maples State Natural Area (tel. 830/966-3413 [info] or 512/389-8900 [reservations]; www.tpwd.state.tx.us) to see the best display of colorful fall foliage to be found in the Lone Star State. Covering 2,174 scenic acres north of Vanderpool on the Sabinal River, the area attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year and is a popular place for Sunday drives, hiking, biking, and camping under magnificent big-tooth maple trees. The stunning area can be jampacked and traffic-filled in the fall (go on weekdays if you can), but nobody seems to mind -- the colors are worth it to see autumn in its full glory. Fall colors usually peak in early November, and reservations are necessary that time of year for overnight stays.
Where to Stay & Dine
If you opt not to stay at a guest ranch, there's an inexpensive motel in Bandera, the River Oak Inn, 1203 Main St. (tel. 830/796-7751). It's a motel with simple rooms, some of which are decorated with large murals. For most of the year, rates are between $60 and $70.
Dining in Bandera is downright cheap. You should stick to country cooking and Tex-Mex. O.S.T. (tel. 830/796-3836), named for the Old Spanish Trail that used to run through Bandera, has been open since 1921. It retains the feel of an old place with wooden paneling, framing, and furniture. Along one side of the main dining room is a bar with saddles for bar stools. It opens at 6am every day for breakfast and closes around 9pm. It serves burgers and Tex-Mex, and is known the chicken-fried steak platter. Check out the John Wayne room, which is covered in photos and old movie posters of "the Duke."
Brick's River Cafe, 1105 Main St. (tel. 830/460-3200), is behind the River Oak Inn at the north end of town. It serves up down-home country standards such as chicken-fried steak, fried catfish, and liver and onions. The menu includes green salads, too, and plenty of vegetable side dishes. There's a deck perched in back (half enclosed, half open-air) from which you can look out over the Medina River. It's open daily for lunch and dinner.
Mi Pueblo, 706 Main St. (tel. 830/796-8040), offers a large variety of Tex-Mex cooking, including fajitas and some good green enchiladas. It's open for all three meals.
Staying at a Guest Ranch -- Accommodations in this area range from rustic cabins to upscale B&Bs, but if you're looking for lots of activities to do, stay at one of Bandera's many guest ranches (you'll find a full listing of them, as well as of other lodgings, on the Bandera website). Most of these places are big enough that you can get away from everybody and enjoy the countryside. It's much easier to do this at a guest ranch than at a state park, because the state parks are crowded, and, for the most part, are relatively small compared to the size of the state. Note that most of them have a 2-night (or more) minimum stay. You wouldn't want to spend less time at a dude ranch, anyway. Expect to encounter lots of European visitors, who flock to these places.
Rates at each of the following are based on double occupancy and include three meals, two trail rides, and most other activities.
At the Dixie Dude Ranch, P.O. Box 548, Bandera, TX 78003 (tel. 800/375-YALL [375-9255] or 830/796-7771; www.dixieduderanch.com), a longtime favorite retreat, you're likely to see white-tailed deer or wild turkeys as you trot on horseback through a 725-acre spread. The down-home, friendly atmosphere keeps folks coming back year after year. Rates are $135 per adult per night.
Tubing on the Medina River and soaking in a hot tub are among the many activities at the Mayan Ranch, P.O. Box 577, Bandera, TX 78003 (tel. 830/796-3312 or 460-3036; www.mayanranch.com), another well-established family-run operation ($150 per adult). The ranch provides plenty of additional Western fun for its guests during high season -- things like two-step lessons, cookouts, hayrides, singing cowboys, or trick-roping exhibitions.
The owner of Silver Spur Guest Ranch, 9266 Bandera Creek Rd., Bandera, TX 78003 (tel. 830/796-3037 or 460-3639; www.ssranch.com), used to be a bull rider, so the equestrian expertise of the staff is especially high ($135 per adult). So is the comfort level. The rooms in the main ranch house and the separate cabins are individually decorated, with styles ranging from Victorian pretty to country rustic. The ranch, which abuts the Hill Country State Natural Area, also boasts the region's largest swimming pool, some roaming buffalo, and a great kids' play area.
Twin Elm Guest Ranch, 810 FM 470, Bandera, TX 78003 (tel. 830/796-3628; www.twinelmranch.net) features a variety of horseback rides through different terrain and plenty of fun on the river, too ($145 per adult, assuming double occupancy).
Some Local Honky-Tonks
If you spend the night in town, you can go honky-tonkin' pretty easily. Bandera seems to have a high bar-per-capita ratio. And after a night of doing this, you'll have a pretty good idea of what locals consider the proper ambience for having a drink. First, it must be a study in rusticity -- nothing should be shiny or polished. Second, there must be a lot of rough-cut wood, a solid-looking wooden bar, old beer signs, and a mounted head or two. And, third, it has to be semi-exposed to the elements, preferably with a patio area attached. If you're in town on an off night, all the better. You can chew the fat in peace with some of the other patrons. On weekends, there's usually live music, so come prepared to dance.
One popular joint is Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar Bar, 308 Main St. (tel. 830/796-8826). Arkey is a well-known figure in Texas country music and has written many songs for and played with some of the biggest names in the state, including Willie Nelson. It's a downstairs bar, below the Bandera General Store. Sawdust is strewn on the floor to provide a better surface for boot scootin'. On a table in one of the corners, you can see where Hank Williams, Sr., carved his name.
Just down the street is the Bandera Saloon, 401 Main St. (tel. 830/796-3699), aka the Chicken Coop, because it used to have chicken wire in place of windows. It has live music on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, anything from rockabilly to Western swing.
Another favorite drinking hole is the Longhorn Saloon, 1307 Main St. (tel. 830/796-3600). It's another ramshackle affair with exposed, rough-cut wood framing and siding. On weekends, there's live music, always country. One of the owners is Clint Black's brother, and sometimes he and his brothers minus Clint will play some tunes for the audience. It can draw a lively crowd.
En Route to Kerrville
There are two ways to get from Bandera to Kerrville. If you like to drive and aren't in a hurry, take the longer route (37 miles), Hwy. 16 through Medina. It's a nice curvy road through some beautiful country -- new-growth forest, river-bottom lands, and rolling ranch land. But if it has been raining, avoid this route because it has too many low-water crossings. These flood easily, and flash floods are a serious matter in the Hill Country. In Medina, you can make a stop at Love Creek Orchards Cider Mill and Country Store (tel. 800/449-0882 or 830/589-2588; www.lovecreekorchards.com) on the main street. You can buy apple pies, apple cider, apple syrup, apple butter, apple jam, and apple ice cream -- you can even have an apple sapling shipped back home. If you're in the mood for more substantial food, there's a restaurant out back that serves burgers.
The main highway to Kerrville is Hwy. 173, which passes through Camp Verde, the former headquarters (1856-69) of the short-lived U.S. Army camel cavalry. There's little left of the camp, but you can tour the 1877 General Store and Post Office (tel. 830/634-7722), purveying camel memorabilia and artifacts. This route is only 26 miles.
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.