Ride Tall in the Saddle Bandera

STORY and PHOTOS BY JANIS TURK

Each year, Texas celebrates the official National Day of the Cowboy, and on that hot, dusty July day, there’s no better place to be than the cool Hill Country town of Bandera. But even in winter, visitors love this little Wild West hitching-post town that locals proudly call “The Cowboy Capital of the World,” because it truly lives up to its nickname.

A quiet town that looks a little like a spaghetti Western movie set, Bandera (population 857) rests less than an hour’s drive northwest of San Antonio, riding tall in the saddle at the head of what once was the Great Western Cattle Trail (also called the Dodge City Trail and the Old Texas Trail), embodying the brave spirit of the Texas cowboy. Home to rodeos and horseback riding, river fun and dude ranches, Bandera feels like the kind of place where real-life cowboys ride off into the sunset.

From this tree-shaded Hill Country range high in the Edwards Plateau region, riding along rich rambling rivers, deep green valleys and tall limestone cliffs, Texas cowboys drove cattle from Bandera to Dodge City, Kansas, and points west, from about 1866 through 1900. Although Texas’ brief but epic cattle trail era ended more than a century ago, the myth and mystery of the American cowboy still live on in Bandera. Here rodeos, trail rides and campfires continue to be everyday parts of small-town life.

Named “Bandera” for the Spanish word for flag, the town was first a Polish settlement. Today it is thoroughly Texan. Resting near the banks of the Medina River, Bandera is the quintessential Wild West watering-hole, where visitors are still likely to see horses tied to downtown hitching posts near hopping honky-tonk bars — a place where the beer is cold and the dance floor is hot. Small blue-plate-special-style cafes, “Mom-and-Pop” shops and an old-fashioned general store line Main Street, where trucks and horse trailers are parked out front. On the streets, horses are almost as common as cars.

Sure, lots of locals still wear cowboy hats (white straw in summer, dark felt in winter), and just about everyone owns — and often wears — cowboy boots. Bandanas are a common handkerchief, too.

What’s there to do in Bandera? Since 1933, visitors have enjoyed Bandera’s little Frontier Times Museum, featuring more than 40,000 Old West relics, Western art, antiques, Indian artifacts and posters of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. The museum also celebrates the National Day of the American Cowboy with special exhibits each summer.
Another must-stop spot on Main Street is the OST Restaurant, named for the Old Spanish Trail. An authentic old-time diner and gossip spot, this casual cafe features country cooking, like chicken-fried steak smothered in cream gravy and hot steamy enchiladas drowning in melted cheese, along with heaping helpings of Southern hospitality. Although they have a bar along one wall, alcohol isn’t served here — just drinks like hot coffee, iced tea, Dr Pepper, root beer, lemonade and such. Taxidermy moose mounts adorn the walls, and the barstools were made from actual saddles. There’s also a room full of photographs of iconic cowboy actor John Wayne.HillCountry-Bandera

No visit to Bandera would be complete without a cold brew at an old school Texas beer joint, bar or honky-tonk dance hall, as they call them there. Some of Bandera’s best include Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, the Longhorn Saloon, the 11th Street Cowboy Bar and the Chickin Coop. There, families with kids of all ages are welcome, and folks can get a cold drink, try a dance lesson or two, hear live Texas music and dance the two-step.

The 11th Street Cowboy Bar will be the Mardi Gras headquarters during Carnival season this winter as it hosts the annual Bandera Cowboy Mardi Gras celebrations, Jan. 28-30, featuring an hour-long Mardi Gras parade at noon on Saturday, Jan. 30, as well as a gumbo cook-off, Zydeco music and dancing, other big-ticket bands and more, so get your beads and boots on and grab a mask before heading there this January. Bandera’s Carnival celebrations will take place in advance of the actual Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day, Feb. 9, so busloads of Louisiana folks come to Bandera for the fun, and locals can still make it to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, too.

All year long, though, locals love to ride horses — and not just in big parades. Visitors and residents alike enjoy the Sunday trail rides that start at the Longhorn Saloon at 1 p.m. They bring their own horses (visitors can rent horses or wagons at the bar), and the whole posse moseys on over from one Bandera watering hole to the next and then ends up eating chili and enjoying a full bar back at the Longhorn Saloon, where a live band plays for an early evening dance. Motorcycle groups also love to roll through — and stop — in town.

On most Saturday afternoons, the Bandera Cattle Company’s gunfighter re-enactments take place again at 2 p.m., and it all happens at the Bandera County Visitors Center. Mid-March through November from noon to 4 p.m., guests may also see cowboys on horseback, a chuck wagon, a longhorn steer, cowboy musicians, a trick roper or character re-enactments at an event called “Cowboys on Main.”

Although they won’t start up again until June, be sure to put Bandera’s summer rodeos on your calendar this year. Rodeos take place on weekends all summer through theend of August. During the rest of the year, cowboys practice roping skills at private arenas in the area.

Besides all that, Bandera County is probably best known for its dude ranches, offering guests a chance to experience life as a cowboy with horseback riding, trail rides and chuck wagon meals. Many ranches edge the sprawling back country of the Hill Country State Natural Area, covering 5,400 acres of rugged state-protected land. With nearly 40 miles of multi-use trails, deep valleys, spring-fed streams and stone-studded hills, the area allows visitors to experience the same things and see the same lands that cattle drive cowboys did 100-plus years ago.

But don’t think Bandera is just an old-fashioned place — it has lots of activities modern adventure travelers enjoy. From professional golf courses, to river fun, to endurance runs and races, day hikes and so much more, there are many different ways to experience Bandera. It’s also close to Lost Maples State Park, where fall colors draw throngs of visitors each autumn.

Bandera offers visitors the Texas they’ve longed to find, and it’s the perfect place to celebrate the spirit of the Wild West for Mardi Gras in winter, the National Day of the Cowboy in summer or any other time of year. So, naturally, it’s no wonder Texans consider Bandera the yippie ki-yay cowboy capital of, yes, the world.

To see a weekly calendar of Bandera events or learn more about visitor events, visit Bandera online at www.banderacowboycapital.com.