26 miles SW of Austin 

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 is dotted with natural springs, formed when the upheaval 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. These springs and the wildlife they attracted were probably what brought the first human inhabitants to the region, some 12,000 years ago. 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 suburb of Austin, only half an hour away.

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Exploring San Marcos

Before arriving in San Marcos, you pass through two small towns, Buda, a corruption of the Spanish word for widow, viuda), and Kyle. Both are almost entirely bedroom communities for Austin and have lost much of their distinctive character. Kyle, however, has a claim to literary fame—see below.

A Literary Aside

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Katherine Anne Porter, best known for her novel Ship of Fools, spent most of her childhood in the town of Kyle. In 2001, the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center, 508 W. Center St. (512/268-6637), was dedicated and opened to the public, as well as housing 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.

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To get oriented, stop at the excellent San Marcos Tourist Information Center, 617 I-35 (512/393-5930); take exit 204 B and travel 1/2 mile on the frontage road. It’s open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. 

San Marcos’s entire downtown area is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Start your exploration around Courthouse Square. San Marcos is the seat of Hays County, named after John Coffee Hays, one of the earliest members of the Texas Rangers; they fought many skirmishes with Mexicans, Apaches, and Comanche in the Hill Country and South Texas. A bronze statue of Hays stands by the 1909 courthouse. 

Around the square, several old storefronts are in various stages of restoration, including 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. Facing the square from across Guadalupe Street, the small LBJ Museum of San Marcos, 131 N. Guadalupe St. (512/353-3300), documents LBJ’s early years, including those at Texas State University-San Marcos. The museum is open Thursday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. Admission is free. 

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Texas State University’s Albert B. Alkek Library, at 601 University Dr., is home to the Wittliff Collections, on the library’s seventh floor (512/245-2313). It showcases materials donated by the region’s leading filmmakers, photographers, 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, manuscripts by Sandra Cisneros, and photographs by Edward Curtis. The collection was founded by screenwriter Bill Wittliff, who wrote the script for Lonesome Dove—thus the display dedicated to that miniseries—as well as for Legends of the Fall and A Perfect Storm. Check the website for hours. 

Just northwest of the Texas State campus, follow Aquarena Springs Drive to reach 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 Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, 201 San Marcos Springs Dr. (512/245-9200), an environmental research center (thus no swimming is permitted in the lake). Glass-bottom boat tours, which allow you to view the lake’s rare flora and fauna, cost $9.75 for adults, $8 for seniors 65 and older, and $6 for children ages 3 to 12. Thirty-minute tours are available during the week; on weekends longer tours are offered, including guided tours via a boardwalk over the wetlands, where more than 100 species of birds have been spotted.

Spring Lake is the headwaters of the San Marcos River, which from here 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. (Log on to www.sanmarcosriver.org to find out about conservation measures taken by the San Marcos River Foundation.) Common activities on the river include tubing, kayaking, and canoeing. Tubing is possible in the warm months from May through mid-September, while the best time for kayaking is in September and October, after the summer vacation crowds are gone. The local Lions Club (512/396-LION [396-5466]) rents inner tubes and operates a river shuttle at City Park, across the river from Texas State. TG Canoes & Kayaks (512/353-3946) provides watercraft, gear, and transportation. If you would like to take a class before your trip, contact Olympic Outdoor Center (512/203-0093); the center offers a whitewater course at Rio Vista Park, which lies just north of I-35; it’s also an attractive place to go swimming in a calm pool of water above the rapids.

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When the Balcones Fault was active some 30 million years ago, an earthquake created the cave at the center of Wonder World, southwest of downtown at 1000 Prospect St., off Bishop Street (877/492-4657 or 512/392-3760). The first commercial cave show in Texas, this attraction is a throwback to an era when natural phenomena had to be gussied up rather than let stand on their own—thus the rather tacky Anti-Gravity House and petting farm, which is basically a tram ride through an enclosure of deer. It’s not inexpensive either. That said, if you’re traveling with kids, it’s a good place to keep them entertained for a few hours. Check ahead for hours; Wonder World is generally open daily in summer, but only Friday through Sunday the rest of the year. Tickets for the entire park cost $25 for adults, $18 for kids 6 to 12, $17 seniors and military, and $9.50 for ages 3 to 5. 

Side Trip to Wimberley

From San Marcos, you can take a quick trip into rural Hill Country by driving to the town of Wimberley, on the banks of the Blanco River, some 15 miles northwest of San Marcos. Texans from around the state treat it as a weekend getaway, staying at a varied collection of bed-and-breakfasts—it’s a favorite setting for family reunions. Shopping for antiques and art objects is one of the main activities here. From April through December, the first Saturday of each month is Market Day, a large crafts gathering on Lion’s Field; it’s the oldest outdoor market in the Hill Country. Check www.shopmarketdays.com for additional information. Most of the artsy-craftsy (and often overly cutesy) shops are on or near the town square. Head 1 1/2 miles south of the town center to find the Wimberley Glass Works, 6469 R.R. 12 (512/393-3316), which stands out for its rainbow-like array of blown glassware, especially hanging light fixtures and lamps. You can watch glassblowers at work in the studio behind the showroom from Tuesday to Saturday. The nicest place to stay in Wimberley, the Blair House Inn, 100 Spoke Hill Rd. (512/847-1111), sits on 85 acres; it offers eight beautifully appointed rooms and three separate cottages in a Texas limestone ranch complex. There’s a cooking school on the premises, so you know the breakfasts—and dinners, offered to outsiders as well as guests every Saturday night—are going to be good. Rates run $160–$209 for double rooms, $230–$270 for suites, $285–$310 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 (512/847-2201), open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm. 

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SAN MARCOS OUTLET SHOPPING

Some people bypass all the other tourist attractions in San Marcos and come solely for the outlet shopping. A couple of miles south of downtown, on the east side of the highway (exit 200), are two adjacent malls: Tanger Outlets (800/408-8424 or 512/396-7446) and the larger, more upscale San Marcos Premium Outlets (512/396-2201). Between them, they have almost 300 stores. You’ll find the usual outlet mall suspects such as Famous Footwear, Bath & Body Works, and Sunglass Hut, along with such exclusives as Elizabeth Arden, Jimmy Choo, Kate Spade, Prada, and LaCoste. The food options are mostly kid-friendly chains, including Outback, Taco Bell, Johnny Rockets, and Auntie Anne’s. Both malls also offer play areas for children. 

Where to Stay & Eat in San Marcos

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A few blocks from the courthouse, the Crystal River Inn, 326 W. Hopkins St. (512/396-3739), offers something for every architectural preference. Nine rooms and three suites, beautifully decorated with antiques, occupy a large 1883 Victorian main house, a 1920s Mission-style house, and a 1930s rock bungalow. Rates run from about $115 to $170 for rooms and suites; there are sometimes 3-day minimums (or discounts during quiet periods). Day spa services are available, and sometimes murder mystery weekends are offered. 

Closer to the courthouse, Café on the Square, 126 N. LBJ Dr. (512/396-9999) serves burgers, sandwiches, Tex-Mex, and local standards like fried catfish at bargain prices. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For something more upscale, try Palmer’s, 216 W. Moore St. (512/353-3500), just off Hopkins Street. Here you can dine on American standards with a Texas twist—for example, grilled pork chops topped with a habañero-honey sauce; eat outside in an attractive courtyard or inside in one of the wood-paneled dining rooms. Save room for the Key lime pie. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily, and meals are moderate to expensive. Probably the prettiest place to eat in San Marcos is on the outdoor deck of the Saltgrass Steakhouse, 211 Sessoms Dr. (512/396-5255), 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, but if you stick to the steaks or chops, you’ll be fine. 

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.