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A Sunday Drive in the Texas Hill Country by Aaron Reed

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Sabinal River
Aaron Reed
The Texas Hill Country is actually a large plateau, carved and eroded by rivers like the Sabinal River. This view is near Vanderpool.

The Oldtimer
Aaron Reed
The Oldtimer, a general store with groceries, beer, bait and tackle, is the sole place to get gas in Medina.

Texas wines
Aaron Reed
Awards on wines in the tasting room of Sister Creek Vineyards shows how far Texas wines have come in the last decade

We joined U.S. Highway 281 in Blanco and headed south on the sparsely traveled, four-lane blacktop, then turned west on Ranch Road 473. We made our first stop in the antebellum German farming community of Sisterdale (population 63), where an old cotton gin beckoned. The cotton fell victim to a boll weevil infestation in the 1920s, and after a period of neglect the barn-like structure was remodeled into a winery. It was open.

Wineries dot the Texas Hill Country these days, and their bottlings are generally reckoned to be good, if not outstanding. Sister Creek Vineyards is no exception. The winery boasts a rare Texas pinot noir and has a well-established muscat canelli. My favorite, though, was the heavy, dry chardonnay.

After the self-guided tour and free tasting, Tamara and I continued west across Interstate Highway 10 before heading south again on Farm Road 480 and State Highway 173, through that natural break in the hills at Bandera Pass, and on to Farm Road 2828, which took us into the tiny, riverside community of Medina.

Medina is home to Love Creek Orchards; an amusing assemblage of Burma Shave signs about "Adams Apples" paces visitors into town. The town also offers the orchard's Cider Mill Patio café and a single gas station. We refueled there, then swung out of town on Farm Road 337, heading west.

Farm Road 337 is one of the loveliest drives in Texas, in my book. The two-lane road winds and climbs and plunges nearly 60 miles to Camp Wood on the Nueces River. At the tops of the hills and ridges, travelers are treated to panoramic views of wooded canyons and limestone outcrops that march relentlessly over the horizon. Many of the views offer no trace of human habitation. Where one does see a home, it's often on the shoulders or crown of a hill -- a sure sign that it's a city dweller's weekend or vacation retreat. The old-timers stay in the fertile valleys, protected from the worst of the weather, close to their water and their livestock.

We drove the first part of the road, to Vanderpool on the Sabinal River, then turned north on Ranch Road 187. Five miles outside of "town" (a real estate office, a general store and a law office), we pulled into Lost Maples State Natural Area. Park Superintendent John Stuart greeted us at the entrance, and told us we were just in time to see the first hint of color on the State Champion Bigtooth Maple.

The 40-foot tree is the biggest in the park's isolated stand of old-growth maples - relicts of a cooler, Ice Age climate. The maples continue to thrive here in the cool, wet canyons and most years they put on spectacular fall color displays. The state champion is always the first to turn.

Stuart expects to see some great fall foliage this year, the result of abundant rainfall in the spring and summer; some trees, he said, had put on three feet of new growth over the summer. "We're just looking for sunny days and cool nights now," Stuart said. "That's really ideal for the best color."

Come October, the foliage will draw probably 50,000 people to the park. The colors generally peak around Nov. 10, Stuart told us, and the best time to visit is early in the week, Monday through Thursday, when the crowds are relatively small.

But on that late-September evening, we saw only one other car in the parking area near the trailhead. There, we circled the champion bigtooth - the biggest in Texas -- straining to catch the brilliant colors of fall foliage before the last of the twilight faded. At the top, I saw it -- just a few branches with leaves mottling toward orange. It was enough to make me smile.

On the short walk back to the car, I heard a rustling in the trees. I glanced over to see a female cardinal, just a few feet away, the feathers above her beak stained black by the ripe Texas persimmons she is gorging on.

Tamara and I breathed deeply of the cool air, tinged with the scent of cypress and cedar and spring water, and watched a nearly-full moon ride up over the hills.

Aaron Reed
10/1/07

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