Many San Antonio locals take scenic Sunday drives up U.S. 281 to places like Marble Falls, Burnet, Lake Buchanan and Llano, or they make the turn off 281 onto Highway 290 and head to Fredericksburg for winery tours, dining and shopping.
Those tried-and-true towns are always worth the trek for a weekend road trip, but along the way, drivers often pass through other friendly little towns without stopping. It seems they’re always in a hurry to get to places they’ve already been.
That’s too bad because towns along that route, like Blanco, Johnson City and Stonewall, deserve more than a passing glance. Why not slow down and explore the unexpected surprises of these under sung spots?
Blanco offers more than just its attractive old courthouse, and Johnson City is not just a lovely little place to make a left-hand turn onto Highway 290. Famous for its tiny summer peaches, Stonewall is always a sweet stop, too. The entire area is home to tree-lined rivers, like the Blanco and Pedernales, historic sites, state parks, antique shops, down-home diners, food trucks, lavender farms, breweries and wineries.
So stop and smell the peaches—or sip a cold brew—in these amazing, though often overlooked, small Texas towns.
Sure, the Texas Hill Country is known for fields of grapevines and wildly popular wineries, but in Blanco, it’s all about beer.
Since 1996, Blanco (population 1,876) has been home to the Real Ale Brewing Company, an award-winning craft brewery where visitors (with designated drivers, of course) can spend an afternoon visiting the new tap room and taking a tour. Real Ale began as a small family operation in the basement of Cranberry’s Antiques in downtown Blanco, but it has grown to a full-scale brewery on the edge of town that now employs more than 45 people. Making some of the highest-quality craft beers in the state, today this little Blanco brewery produces over 58,000 barrels of beer. The taproom is open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.- 5 p.m., and beer is available for purchase starting at 11 a.m. Free tours are given on Friday and Saturday afternoons.
Blanco is also big on small town restaurants, such as the Blanco Bowling Club Café (featuring 9-pin bowling) and fine little organic bistros like the Redbud Café and Market, Oak Creek Café, and local favorite spots like the Chess Club and Old 300 BBQ. It’s also a fun stop for shoppers who enjoy art and antiques and gifts at places like Rain Bird Rustic Furniture, Art and Antique Gallery, Cranberry’s Antiques and The Vintage Cottage. Others head to Blanco for fishing and other outdoor fun along the Blanco River or in Blanco State Park. (Note: Call before you go, as the park had to close in recent weeks because of flooding). Guest houses, rural ranch resort properties and little bed-and-breakfast inns are also big draws in Blanco.
One more thing to know about Blanco is that it is also the “Lavender Capital of Texas,” so, depending on the season, it’s the place to start a lavender trail road trip, too.
Never been to Blanco and not sure where to start?
Here are 10 “Best-of-Blanco” things to do.
1. Bask in the beauty of Blanco State Park.
2. Have a tour and taste at the Real Ale Brewing Company Tap Room (try the Devil’s Backbone beer or the Fireman’s #4 blonde ale.)
3. Tee off at the Vaaler Creek Golf Club, voted the “#1 Golf Course in the Texas Hill Country” by Golf Now. The 18-hole championship course, designed by Michael Lowry, provides a challenging, yet relaxing round of golf for players of all skill levels.
4. Duck into the Rain Bird Gallery to check out the rustic hand-crafted wood furniture.
5. Visit the Buggy Barn Museum Complex with its exceptional collection of vintage buggies, wagons and carriages from across the U.S. and Canada. On display are unusual wagons and buggies dating from the 1860s to early 1900s, including Studebakers and Deere & Webbers. Some of the buggies, carriages and wagons here have appeared in movies such as True Grit, Lonesome Dove and There Will Be Blood.
6. Cut your own lavender at the Hill Country Lavender Farm. Lavender season generally runs from late May through early July, and in June they just celebrated the 11th annual Blanco Lavender Festival. During lavender season, visitors may even reserve a special lunch served beneath a large live oak in a breezy spot with lovely views of the lavender fields.
7. Meet the potters at Brieger Pottery, offering their own handmade functional stoneware pottery and pieces by other local artists and craftsmen, as well as Hill Country Lavender products.
8. Stroll around the grounds of the Old Blanco County Courthouse and visit the stands and stalls of local vendors on Blanco Market Day, held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month, March through November, with a special Christmas Market Day on the second Saturday in December.
9. Play shuffleboard at the Blanco Riverside Bar, throw darts, sit outside and sip a brew, or stay late for live music on Saturday nights.
10. Visit Uptown Blanco, a one-stop art and entertainment complex including its Art Center with local arts and crafts; its Textile Studio, where visitors can get lost in fabric; and its courtyard and ballroom, a wedding and special event venue.
Johnson City and Stonewall
Most people think of these two small towns as the epicenter of the Lyndon Baines Johnson legacy— and, of course, they’re right. But this is also the sweet spot where fruit orchards line the highway and little Texas peaches are sold from friendly folks at roadside stands each summer.
Whether heading to historic sites like Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, playing along the Pedernales River, or sipping wines on a vineyard tour, be sure to stop at a peach stand during peach season.
The two towns, and the tiny communities all along the 16-mile stretch of Highway 290 in between, are ideal family road trip destinations.
Here are 10 great stops in Johnson City, Stonewall and all the peach stands
1. Visit the LBJ Ranch and tour Lady Bird and LBJ’s “Texas White House” at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Stonewall near the banks of the Pedernales River.
2. Visit the white-picket-fence wonders of Lyndon B. Johnson Boyhood Home in Johnson City, also part of LBJ National Historical Park.
3. Experience the natural beauty of Pedernales Falls State Park and Pedernales River Nature Park.
4. Feed the animals and enjoy the petting zoo at the Exotic Resort Zoo (just outside Johnson City).
5. Visit the Sculpture Ranch and Galleries, a 144-acre ranch with large-scale sculptures from a selection of artists scattered throughout the property, as well as an art gallery set in a hangar that once housed LBJ’s helicopter. (Just 6 miles west of Johnson City).
6. Visit Hill Country wineries and vineyards or take a Hills of Texas Wine Tour with winery tours and tastings from Johnson City to Fredericksburg.
7. Stop and taste the jerky at Whittington’s Jerky and General Store.
8. Stop and eat the peaches (and peach cobbler!) at Gold Orchards in Stonewall. Taste homemade peach-themed pastries, pies and treats (including peach ice cream), or grab a bag of peaches for the road. They often sell farm-grown vegetables there, too.
9. Show your kids how cool science and technology can be at the Hill Country Science Mill, a family destination offering a fun, interactive learning environment for all ages.
10. Grab a slice of heaven (authentic home-style pizza), a big juicy hamburger or their own house-made craft beer at Pecan Street Brewing in Johnson City, or better yet, make a pit stop at the local favorite farm-to-market-fare food truck, Lot 102, parked along Main Street—said to serve the best homemade pie in the Hill Country.
By Janis Turk