The Top 10 Travel Stops in Central Texas

Central Texas holds a special place in my heart. I lived there from 1985-1991 and met some of the best people I’ve ever known. This area of the world isn’t highly populated, nor will you find attractions like Disney World or the Grand Canyon. What you will find is a vibrant cultural heritage that permeates every small community in the hill country surrounding the Texas state capital of Austin and that is what makes central Texas such a great place to visit and live. Some of my favorite events, places and activities can be found in the central region of the state and I want to share a few of those with you here. This article is geared toward people who may be interesting in exploring this lesser known part of Texas on a weekend road trip or something of that nature. Central Texas has a lot of fun little things to do so staying in one area of four or five days probably isn’t the best way to spend your time. But if the explorer in you likes to get out on the open road, see some beautiful scenery and mix it up with local people sharing their culture and heritage with you, then this article is for you.

1. Rodeo Austin

1

Barrel racer at Rodeo Austin

This event happens every March and offers world-class Texas rodeo events and athletes with a great infusion of the modern. With an option black tie gala, a scholarship fund and numerous concerts by major label bands, Rodeo Austin is not only exciting and culturally significant to the central Texas region, but it’s also a ton of fun, inexpensive and a great way to spend a weekend. The website has all the details you will need to make a great road trip for spring break, or just to spend a weekend in the capital city of the great state of Texas. Rodeo Austin won’t disappoint! Bring your boots!

2. Ogletree Gap Heritage Festival

Map of the counties typically considered to be in central Texas

Map of the counties typically considered to be in central Texas

Every year in October, the community of Copperas Cove in Lampasas Country, Texas celebrates the community’s roots by holding the Ogletree Gap Heritage Festival. This festival features Civil War reenactments, Native American story tellers and all kinds of pioneer craft making demonstrations as well as live music and a ton of local people you’re sure to enjoy. This is classic central Texas in that not everything in the festival necessarily pertains to the community but they adopt it and love it anyway – it’s a rural area so they make the most of it. For example, no Civil War battle took place in the Ogletree Gap community, now Copperas Cove, but who cares about technicalities like that, people love the reenactments and they’re an annual favorite for festival visitors. This is truly a local event and you should expect small crowds and happy people. There isn’t a whole lot to do in Copperas Cove, but visiting the festival while on a road trip will be a fun thing to do. While there, be sure to check out Fort Hood, the largest Army base in the United States and the home of the famed 1st Cavalry Division. I toured it and can say it is an impressive place that will give you a great look back at the role Fort Hood has placed in our nation’s history and you will be in awe of the sheer amount of military equipment and vehicles housed on this massive base.

3. Antiquing in Central Texas

Antique store in Hillsboro, Texas

Antique store in Hillsboro, Texas

Few areas of the country can claim better antique shopping opportunities than central Texas. I am a big fan of the mom and pop style store and prefer this over commercialized antique retailers. The sense of discovery that comes from rummaging around old rooms full of stuff that someone acquired years ago appeals to me much more than shopping for antiques in a setting more commonly associated with a modern day furniture store. I guess I prefer holding onto the possibility that I may find some hidden gems of the past in a dusty back corner somewhere and buy it for next to nothing. While this does happen, business is business and the antique businesses in central Texas have definitely formalized over the years, but every single community has at least a couple old-style antique stores where you can spend hours looking at pieces of the past. It’s a great way to spend a weekend and is a great theme for a central Texas road trip. See my article about how to have the perfect road trip.

Some favorite antique shopping towns include:

  • Hillsboro – Hill County
  • New Braunfels – Comal & Guadalupe Counties
  • McGregor – Coryel & McClellan Counties

No matter what community you pass through, you are sure to find a fun and interesting antique store to rummage through as you pass the time enjoying the central Texas weather, people and food.

4. Norwegian Country Christmas

Norwegian dancing at the Christmas festival in Clifton, Texas

Norwegian dancing at the Christmas festival in Clifton, Texas

Clifton, Texas is a place I lived as a child and this place is central to a lot of the best that central Texas has to offer.  Sitting on the banks of the Bosque River, this area was settled by Norwegian immigrants and maintains much of that heritage to this day. The Norwegian Country Christmas is an annual event for the entire family! Clifton is known as the “Norwegian Capital of Texas” and rightly so. The Norwegian Country Christmas is located in a great park near the river and features wood carving, food, arts and classic crafts like quilt making. While you’re there you can schedule tours of some of the historic homes and churches associated with the Norwegian settlement of the area. You’ll find all kinds of interesting heritage sites in this area. The community of Norse, just miles from downtown Clifton is a central aspect to the area’s original settlement and has some really cool old buildings and places to check out from that time period. I enjoy a lot of the history that central Texas provides because it isn’t commercialized. You can literally drive up, walk in and check a place out without having to wait in long lines or pay large fees.

5. National Championship Barbecue Cook Off

Grub-time at the National Barbecue Championship in Meridian, Texas

Grub-time at the National Championship Barbecue Cook Off in Meridian, Texas

Meridian, Texas, just up the road from Clifton, is the county seat of Bosque County and has a number of fun little festivals each year. The most popular and the best tasting is the National Championship Barbecue Cook Off. This little town explodes with would be world champions hoping that their recipe makes the final cut and with people like me who just want the chance to taste some of that amazing cooking for just a couple of bucks. Cheap and easy to access with a down-home, local vibe, the town of Meridian does it right and you’ll love your time spent at the National Championship Barbecue Cook Off. What a great pit stop on a central Texas road trip!

6. “Brushy Bill” Roberts and Billy The Kid

Was "Brushy Bill" Roberts really Billy The Kid?

Was “Brushy Bill” Roberts really Billy The Kid?

Hico, Texas, located as part of Hamilton and Erath counties has the motto of “Where Everybody is Somebody” and this is so true! One really cool part of the local lore is the story of “Brushy Bill” Roberts. This old guy in the 1940s revealed that he was in fact the outlaw Billy The Kid. While much of this has been discredited over the years, one can never be positive. The city of Hico has a fun little Billy The Kid museum that will give you all the facts and details and let you decide if “Brushy Bill” was really The Kid or not!

7. Hamilton Dove Festival

Hamilton County, Texas is full of great old scenes like this

Hamilton County, Texas is full of great old scenes like this

Just a short drive from Hico is the town of Hamilton. This is where you’ll find The Hamilton Dove Festival taking place each October. The only way I can describe this festival is three days of down home awesomeness! Wine tastings, gospel music, a wild wing cook off challenge, a deviled egg making championship and all the other things you would expect from a central Texas festival like a gun show, car show, a horse shoe tournament, a ranch rodeo and dance. Talk about a great way to spend a weekend in central Texas on the cheap! For next to nothing you can get a hotel, park the car and just roam around downtown Hamilton doing anything and everything you want in the beautiful fall season of central Texas.

8. Washington-On-The-Brazos Historic Site

School house at Washington on the Brazos, Texas

Independence Hall at Washington on the Brazos, Texas

Known as “the birthplace of Texas”, Washington-On-The-Brazos is a great place to stop and spend a few hours learning about the origins of the State of Texas. Barrington Living History Farm is found here and you can see people in period costumes raising cotton, corn, hogs and cattle using the same techniques that would have been used in the early 1800s. This site is well maintained and is operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department so you can imagine that the area will continue to gain in popularity over time. You can see it all and get a great little Texas history experience in just about an hour.

9. Central Texas Swimming Holes

Hamilton Pool one of central Texas' amazing swimming holes

Hamilton Pool one of central Texas’ amazing swimming holes

These things are legendary! It’s the type of thing you city slickers read about in old time books and wonder if these still exist today. They do! Most of the best, and safest, swimming holes in central Texas are within a 45 minute drive of Austin, so if the capital city is your starting point, you’ll have easy access no matter what.

Here are the Top 5 and best of the best!

  1. Hamilton Pool – gorgeous location, great water
  2. Barton Springs Pool – beautiful and fun
  3. Krause Springs – legit old time swimming hole
  4. Comal River – tubing
  5. Jacob’s Well – amazing spot

10. Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL Fest)

1

Typical view at ACL Fest. This day was really sunny for a bald guy like me, but temperatures in Austin in late Sept. and early Oct. tend to be nice.

View from my mirror as I passed through Hill County, Texas

View from my mirror as I passed through Hill County, Texas

Me in front of the ACL Festival sign 2014

Me in front of the ACL Festival sign 2014

I’ve gone to this event a number of times and it always improves and always provides a safer, more fun and valued experience each time I go. The tickets cost a pretty penny, and so does the beer, but wow are they worth it! There are free water filling stations, so just buy a bottle of water and fill it up for free – easy! There are usually over 130 bands at the festival which takes place in the fall (late Sept or early Oct) over two weekends. Smart wrist bands are your ticket into the festival and once activated through their website (a 30 second process), you can attach your credit card info to the wrist band and securely pay for things at the festival without needing to bring cash or a credit card. Legit! I love this festival! The people are cool, everyone is in a great mood, there are no super-drunks stumbling around and throwing up on everyone. This is a legitimate world-class operation that offers something for everyone. The surrounding area is right in the heart of Austin so there are plenty of bars and restaurants to hang out in whenever you want. Some of my favorite artists, I discovered randomly while walking through the ACL Fest venues at Zilker Park taking in new music. If you love festivals and you love live music, Austin City Limits Music Festival is a must-see for you! And, the most important and coolest part of this event is that you are definitely going to go home with a few really great new people added to your list of telephone contacts. For me, this year was all about my new friend Roy! This gentlemen from Victoria, Texas was the highlight of the event for my friend and I and you’re bound to encounter your own super-cool new friend as well. ACL Fest is a bucket list type event!

So there you have it! 10 really awesome events and places to see and visit in the great hill country of central Texas. Like I said at the beginning of this article, the sites and events that make central Texas great are not on the scale of the Great Wall of China or the Eiffel Tower. The things that make central Texas an awesome spot to visit are the organic interactions with the people of the area that will keep you wanting to visit once again.

Cheers!