Coming out of COVID-19: A Taste of the Texas Hill Country

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted in the biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

I haven’t been out of Houston since our ill-fated trip to Vietnam in March.  Here in our urban setting (Houston is the 4th largest city in the USA), we are still wearing masks, social distancing, and sanitizing like crazy.  It’s Mother’s Day weekend, so Emma invited me on a Girls Weekend to her new ranch in the Texas Hill Country.  There will be only three of us and only family- Emma (my sister), Maggie (her daughter, my niece), and me.

IMG_0027Somehow we managed to make a 4-hour car ride last 7 hours.  In addition to stops for gasoline, lunch, and a “necessary stop”, Maggie really wanted to go to Buc-ee’s, an iconic travel stop, known for their clean restrooms, wide array of snack and logo items and their ballcap-wearing beaver mascot.  They also have a plethora of suggestive billboards dotting the Texas highways.  I read a great article in Texas Monthly about how the chain got started which I recommend.  I was pleased to see that Buc-ee was also wearing his facemask.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen

We did a stop for groceries in Comfort, Texas (northwest of San Antonio) and then went to the ranch about 10 miles east, between Comfort and Fredericksburg, near the Old Tunnel State Park.  The park is centered around an old railway tunnel that is now home to millions of bats.  The Northern and Fredericksburg Railway ceased operations in 1942.  “The abandoned railroad tunnel that gives Old Tunnel its name is home to up to 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasilienses mexicana) and 3,000 cave myotis (Myotis velifer) bats from May through October. During those months, visitors come to watch the bats emerge from the tunnel nightly. Bat-viewing opportunities are available seven nights a week, and nightly educational presentations are given Thursday through Sunday.”  Texas Parks and Wildlife Official website.  The park is currently open on a reservations-only basis.

OLD-TUNNEL_web_1644Nearby is the Alamo Springs Cafe.  According to their website, the cafe is “[i]nconveniently located in the middle of nowhere between Fredericksburg and Comfort, TX, Alamo Springs Café serves serious food with a laid back atmosphere.  Cold beer. Live music. No frills.  Just the best food in Central Texas.”  Can they really make that claim?  Well they did snag the cover of Texas Monthly’s Best Burger Issue.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. With the barndamium in the distance, the J&J Crossing Ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas

Emma and her husband built their new barndamium at a high point on their property so we had a slow ride in on a rough road.  Totally worth it.  The new build is beautiful with a wood-paneled barn and and two-bedroom living quarters attached.  It really is so much more than the barndamium term implies and Emma has done a beautiful job even in her preliminary decorating.  Maggie and I stayed in twin beds in the Texas Room (guest room).  The old Spanish trail cut through their property and you can still see ruts made by the wheels of the stagecoaches that passed through.

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Joining us at the ranch was Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Maggie’s dog, whose beautiful coloring perfectly matched Emma’s new comforter.

There was time for happy hour on the patio, a beautiful sunset, dinner, and then a movie on the 75-inch tv screen.  Wow!  We even went back out to enjoy the weather before turning in.  Morning found us once again on the patio.  No noise pollution here; you can only hear the birds.  After breakfast, we got dressed and headed towards Fredericksburg.  Unfortunately the Polaris (off road vehicle) is broken and it is the only way to get around most of the property, so we are going to do some touring of the local area instead of exploring the ranch.  (I am ok with this because once the Polaris is fixed I can hopefully wrangle another visit to the ranch.)  Things are starting to open up in Texas as we have (hopefully) passed the peak of the virus here.  We set out, face masks at the ready.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, just outside Fredericksburg, Texas.

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Emma loves to take selfies. This one is at the biergarten outside the Pecan Grove Store near Fredericksburg, Texas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. You can find Texas Historical Markers all across the state.  Texas is the only state in the Union that was an independent nation (The Republic of Texas) at one point in time. However, this particular sign is a humorous tribute to the authentic ones.

Before the Willow City Loop, we stopped for a dino burger lunch at the biergarten at the old Sinclair Gas Station at Pecan Grove.  We stood in the gravel lot on the 6-feet apart markers with the cyclists, locals, and highway patrolmen.  They had spaced picnic tables across the lawn leading down to Marschell Creek.  (Emma has been inside when COVID-19 wasn’t raging.)  The burger and fresh-cut fries were awesome! We enjoyed the ideal setting overlooking the creek.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. I remember green stamps and the stores from my youth. This sign is on the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Pecan Grove Store near Fredericksburg, Texas. The original building on the property was a Sinclair gas station.

It is also fun to check out all the vintage signs from the Sinclair Gas Station that was originally at this location.  I remember this type of roadside store from my youth.  Before open container laws, my Daddy would stop at a place just like this and get a Lone Star beer for our drive out into the country.  The Pecan Grove Store was built in 1957 by Lawrence Segner who held the Segner homestead. The homestead dates from the 1800s and is just across Marschell Creek.  The first building on this property was the Sinclair service station.  The store and garage were added later.  Segner also “built a dance floor and band stand in the pecan grove where he had Saturday night dances. A local hub for years. He was a well known German sausage maker.”  Pecangrovestore.com

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Lining the fence posts with boots along the Willow City Loop, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Willow City Loop, Texas.

After lunch, we drove to the nearby Willow City Loop.  This 13-mile ranch road is maintained by the county, but all the land is privately owned and you pass over cattle guards as you go from ranch to ranch.  My favorite was the ranch where the owner had lined all the fence posts with old cowboy boots.  The drive is particularly spectacular when the wildflowers are blooming.  We are a couple of weeks too late.  Emma said two weeks ago, the bluebonnets were almost finished but the lovely red and yellow wildflowers were in full bloom.  We just got a taste of the few that hung on.  Wildflower season in the Texas Hill Country is March through May.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Willow City Loop, Texas

The ride takes you through canyons and fields and is very popular, particularly with motorcycles.  To reach the Willow City Loop from Fredericksburg, take highway 16 North  towards Llano, Texas.  During the ride “the terrain changes from pastoral, gently rolling hills to a dramatic, rugged landscape of deep canyons, sky reaching jagged cliffs, meandering streams and phenomenal panoramic views.”  Fredericksburg Texas Online.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vintage building along the main street in Fredericksburg set against the big blue Texas sky.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Fredericksburg, Texas

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. There are lots of wineries in the area. But this is Texas-old German Texas-so you have to have a local brewery as well.

After the loop, we went back into Fredericksburg.  I wanted to check out the vintage buildings.  Emma is a member of one of the local wineries and she gets a free tasting when she stops in the local tasting room.  Wine was a priority for Maggie; she just finished exams for her second year of law school.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Practicing social distancing while enjoying the wines at the Grape Creek Tasting Room in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Fredericksburg had lots of wonderful shops.  We might check those out tomorrow.  Today, Maggie’s priority was wine tasting.  As we walked down the main street, we were shocked at how few people were wearing masks.  It was crowded, but only a handful of people were wearing them.  We stopped into Grape Creek Vineyards’ tasting room and the three of us shared two tastings (6 choice per tasting).  We bought several bottles of wine to enjoy at the ranch and to take home.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Emma and Maggie at tasting stop #2 in Fredericksburg, Texas.

We did some window shopping, but the next stop was the Fat Ass Tasting Room.  Maggie likes her sweet wines and she had a ball with these sightly cheaper, and definitely less sophisticated selections.  She also tried the frozen sangria.  I offered to drive to our next stop, so I passed on these selections.  I tend to like the dry varieties anyway.  The labels were great and this would be a fun wine to gift.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Heath’s new tasting room dedicated to sparkling wines outside Fredericksburg, Texas.

Grape Creek Vineyards is affiliated with Heath Vineyards in California.  They have recently opened another new tasting room at the winery outside Fredericksburg.  This sister operation is dedicated to sparkling wines, a favorite of mine.  In fact, Boris and I recently enjoyed time at wineries in the Champagne region of France.  Since we had already had our tasting in town, we were not eligible for a free tasting at the Grape Creek Winery-we’ll enjoy dinner there later in the evening.  We decided to try the Heath Sparkling.  This time Maggie and I were doing the tasting.

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Maggie and Natasha during the Heath Sparkling Wine tasting at Grape Creek Vineyards, Fredericksburg, Texas

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Enjoying our “pour” on the patio of Heath Sparking Wines overlooking the vineyards near Fredericksburg.

The four varieties are served with a food paring (very small).  If you decide to take home some bottles, your tasting fee is credited on your purchases.  There is a personal guide to your tasting and video presentations on the process of creating the Heath sparkling wines.  The building is very sleek and modern.  I am rather picky when it comes to sparkling wines, and I didn’t care of anything they served. Emma decided to join because the perks offered would be nice for her to share with her ranch guests.  Since she joined the three of us were able to enjoy a complimentary “pour” on their patio overlooking the vineyards.  Very nice.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The open air patio at Stout’s Trattoria at Grape Creek Vineyards outside Fredericksburg, Texas

We shut the place down.  We were literally the last people (besides staff) to leave the building.  We just crossed the parking lot to enjoy our dinner at Stout’s Trattoria, the on-property restaurant.  Although we didn’t partake, you are also able to tour and taste at the Grape Creek winery.  Of course, there is also a store for your purchasing pleasure.  Maggie, recognizing how much she had drank that day, immediately asked for some bread to soak up the alcohol.  Bread never tasted so good.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the patio at Grape Creek Vineyards, Fredericksburg, Texas, holding it together after a day of wine tastings.

You can sit inside, on a covered patio, or on the open-air patio.  The sun had lowered so we were able to enjoy the open patio without too much heat.  All the spaces overlook the vineyards.  The food was very good.  Nothing too fancy, but very tasty.  We particularly liked the Hill Country Pizza.

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Fred, masked, along the Old San Antonio Road between Fredericksburg and Comfort, Texas.

After that, it was back to the ranch.  On the way, I asked Emma to stop so I could get a picture of Fred, a masked bull (ok, not real), who overlooks the highway.  First Buc-ee with a mask and now Fred.  I am on a roll.  Back at the ranch, we enjoyed the sunset on the porch.  There was movie time, but we crashed pretty early (no surprise given the day’s main activity.)  Looking forward to another day in the hill country and celebrating Mother’s Day.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Sunset from the porch of the J&J Crossing Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted in the biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

About travelbynatasha

I am a retired attorney who loves to travel. Several years ago I began working on a Century Club membership achieved by traveling to 100 "foreign" countries. Today, at 49 years of age the count is at 82. Many were visited on land based trips. Some were cruise ports. Some were dive sites. Most have been fascinating.
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2 Responses to Coming out of COVID-19: A Taste of the Texas Hill Country

  1. Lynn Luster says:

    Wow – what a great trip. We have some very good friends that live in a ranch out of Comfort- in the same area as the bat cave!! We have been there quite a few times.
    Loved your descriptions!!
    Lynn Luster

    • Love to have your recommendations on things to do in the area. The barndamium was just completed this spring and it was my first visit. I am hoping to have the chance to go out there many times in the future. It would be fun to see you there too. I also went to summer camp just outside of Comfort as a child. Hermann Sons Youth Camp.

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