One of the nice things about touring these lakes is that you have to take it slow: The roads that wind around them force you to meander rather than beeline it to your destination. And, of course, engaging with that water -- whether submerging in it or just gazing at it -- is the reason most people come here. For additional information about where to kayak, sail, swim, or fish, check with the chambers of commerce and visitor centers listed in this section.
From Austin, it's 48 miles northwest on Hwy. 71 to the town of Marble Falls, known for two natural features, only one of which still exists. The cascades for which the town was named once descended some 20 feet along a series of marble ledges, but they were submerged when the Max Starcke Dam, which created Lake Marble Falls, was completed in 1951. (You can occasionally get a peek at the falls when the Lower Colorado River Authority lowers the water level to repair the dam.) The town's other natural claim to fame is the still very visible Granite Mountain, from which the pink granite used to create the state capitol in Austin was quarried.
The main reason most people come to Marble Falls these days is its three parks and two lakes (Lake LBJ lies a little upstream), but it's also pleasant to wander around the center of town, where there are a number of historic homes, antiques shops, and the Old Oak shopping complex.
One of the town's other attractions is also the place to get details on what to see and do in the area: The Marble Falls/Lake LBJ Visitor Center, 801 Hwy. 281 (tel. 800/759-8178 or 830/693-4449; www.marblefalls.org), is located in the Historic Depot Building, built to serve the railroad spur used to transport granite to Austin. The visitor center is open Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm.
Viewing Bluebonnets & Other Wildflowers
Of its many names -- lupinus subcarnosus, lupinus texensis, buffalo clover, wolf flower, even el conejo -- bluebonnet is the most descriptive. And when the official state flower of Texas puts in an appearance, starting in March and peaking in April, hordes of people descend on the Hill Country to ogle and photograph the fields of flowers.
To enjoy the bluebonnets and other wildflowers, you must be flexible. When the conditions are perfect, they can be blooming everywhere, but sometimes the rains don't fall where they should. In 2010, the northern Hill Country had few wildflowers for lack of rain. Greater numbers were seen in the southern parts, and even more were blooming in the coastal prairies south and east of Austin and San Antonio.
For up-to-date info on where to find the best views of wildflowers in central Texas, contact the Wildflower Hotline (aka the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin) at tel. 512/929-3600.
Trains no longer make it to Marble Falls, but they do go to Burnet, some 14 miles to the north. The Austin Steam Train Association restored the five rail coaches and the 1916 locomotive that you can board for the Hill Country Flyer Steam Train Excursion (tel. 512/477-8468; www.austinsteamtrain.org), a leisurely 33-mile ride from Cedar Park, a northwest suburb of Austin. The train runs Saturday and Sunday March through May, Saturday only June to November, and selected December evenings. Fares are $28 adults, $25 seniors, and $18 for children 13 and under in coach with no heat or A/C; or $33, $30, and $23, respectively, with heat or A/C; and $43, $39, and $27, respectively, for a lounge car ticket. (On some days, the train only goes half the distance and is called the Bertram Flyer, and the tickets are correspondingly cheaper.) The train makes one trip per day -- departure times vary, so call or check the website.
The train makes a 3-hour layover on Burnet's historic town square, which, with its impressive courthouse -- not to mention its collectibles shops and cafes -- is also a good spot for visitors who drive into town to explore. (Beware: A gunfight is staged at 2:30pm on most Saturdays when the train comes in.) Burnet grew up around a U.S. Army post established in 1849, and you can still visit the Fort Croghan Grounds and Museum, 703 Buchanan Dr. (Hwy. 29 W.; tel. 512/756-8281; www.fortcroghan.org), home to several historic outbuildings and more than 1,200 historic artifacts from around the county. Admission is free; the museum is open April through August, Thursday through Saturday, from 10am to 5pm. In the same complex is the Burnet Chamber of Commerce (tel. 512/756-4297; www.burnetchamber.org). Here, among other things, you can find out why Burnet calls itself the Bluebonnet Capital of Texas. The chamber is open 8:30am to 5:30pm Monday through Friday.
Some 11 miles southwest of Burnet, Longhorn Cavern State Park, Park Road 4, 6 miles off U.S. 281 (tel. 877/441-CAVE [441-2283] or 830/598-CAVE [598-2283]; www.longhorncaverns.com), has as its centerpiece one of the few river-formed caverns in Texas. Its past visitors include Ice Age animals, Comanche Indians, Confederate soldiers, and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who, in the 1930s, built the stairs that descend into the main room. The cave's natural and human history is detailed on narrated tours -- the only way you can visit -- that last about an hour and a half; they're offered from Labor Day to Memorial Day Monday to Thursday at 11am, 1, and 3pm, Friday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm every hour on the hour. In summer, tours run every day on the hour from 10am to 4pm. Admission is $13 adults, $12 for seniors and teens, and $8 ages 2 to 12.
Continue north on Park Road 4, beyond where it intersects with R.R. 2342, and you'll reach Inks Lake State Park, 3630 Park Rd. 4 W. (tel. 512/793-2223; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/inks), offering some 1,200 acres of recreational facilities on and adjacent to the lake for which it's named: hiking trails, canoe and paddle-boat rentals, swimming, fishing -- even golf on an 18-hole course. Don't miss Devil's Waterhole, flanked by pink granite boulders and a waterfall. You can canoe through it, hike to it, or just view it from a scenic overlook on Park Road 4.
Those with limited time might want to skip Inks Lake in favor of the oldest, most remote, and largest of the Highland Lakes, the 32-mile-long Lake Buchanan. The best way to see it -- and the highlight of any trip to this area -- is the Vanishing Texas River Cruise (tel. 800/4-RIVER-4 [474-8374] or 512/756-6986; www.vtrc.com), which departs from the Canyon of the Eagles Lodge & Nature Park, at the end of R.R. 2341 on the lake's north shore (call for directions, or check the website). The lake's banks are still startlingly pristine (though private development may soon make the "vanishing" part of the cruise's name too true), and no matter what time of year you come, you're bound to see some wildlife. From November through March, bald eagles troll the skies, while the rest of the year wild turkeys and deer abound. These expertly narrated tours, which offer a lot of historical as well as natural information, vary season by season; prices range from about $20 for adults for the basic 2 1/2-hour naturalist tours to $33 for sunset dinner cruises ($30 for children ages 2-12). Reservations are recommended.
Where to Stay & Dine
Rustic lakeside cabins and small motels dot this entire area, but two lodgings stand out. If you head 15 miles east of Marble Falls on FM 1431, you'll reach the town (such as it is) of Kingsland and the Antlers, 1001 King St., Kingsland, TX 78639 (tel. 800/383-0007 or 916/388-4411; www.theantlers.com), a restored turn-of-the-20th-century resort occupying 15 acres on Lake LBJ. You've got a choice of bedding down in one of six antiques-filled suites in the 1901 railroad hotel, as President William McKinley did ($140-$160); in one of three colorful converted train cabooses ($120) or a converted railroad coach ($150-$160), parked on a piece of original track; or in one of seven appealing cabins scattered around the grounds ($140-$250). Some of the accommodations sleep four or six people comfortably, and one of the lodges accommodates up to eight. Activities include strolling several nature trails, boating or fishing on the lake, or browsing the antiques shop in the main hotel building. For fortification, cross the road to the Kingsland Old Town Grill, a good place for steak, regular or chicken-fried. Look eerily familiar? This 1890s Victorian house served as the film set for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Opened in 1999 on 940 acres owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority -- most of it still wilderness preserve -- the Canyon of the Eagles Lodge & Nature Park, 16942 R.R. 2341, Burnet, TX 78611 (tel. 800/977-0081 or 512/756-8787; www.canyonoftheeagles.com), is ideal for those seeking serious escape. You can indulge in the Lake Buchanan excursions or adventures described in the previous section, hike the property's trails, stargaze at the lodge's observatory, or just kick back on your porch and watch birds flitting by. The Canyon Room restaurant offers everything from Fredericksburg bratwurst to pecan-crusted trout. Rates for the rooms, which are country-style rustic but feature such conveniences as phones (in case your escape is not that serious) and, in the Cottage Rooms, minifridges and microwaves, range from $130 to $170. A minimum of 2 nights is required for popular weekends, but you wouldn't want to stay less time than that anyway.
In addition to the Kingsland Old Town Grill and the Canyon Room -- the latter has the advantage of being BYOB and the disadvantage of being far from most everywhere if you're not staying at the lodge -- I'd recommend another place in Marble Falls, for a change of pace. Blue Bonnet Cafe, 211 Hwy. 281 (tel. 830/693-2344; www.bluebonnetcafe.net), first opened its doors in 1929 and has received accolades for its down-home country food -- chicken-fried steak, pot roast, fried okra. It's open every day for breakfast and lunch, and serves dinner every day except Sunday. Prices are inexpensive to moderate.
If you're in the mood for barbecue and you're in the vicinity of Llano, you can stop by a well-known joint called Cooper's, where the Wootan family has been smoking big meat in a big pit forever, at 505 W. Dallas St. (tel. 325/247-5713; www.coopersbbq.com). Cooper's is open daily 10:30am to 7pm. Prices are moderate.
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.