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Hill Country getaway: The best place in Texas to see bluebonnets, rare birds & take a hike

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Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_horse back riding
Horseback riding through bluebonnet fields at Colbert Ranch. Photo by Keith Hajovsky
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_canoeing
Kayaking on Lake Buchanan. Photo by Keith Hajovsky
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_ranch
Canyon of the Eagles Resort & Nature Park Photo by Keith Hajovsky
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_sunset
The sunsets over Lake Buchanan, as seen from Canyon of the Eagles, are magnificent. Photo by Keith Hajovsky
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_telescope
Incredible stargazing at the Eagle Eye Observatory. Photo by Keith Hajovsky
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_horse back riding
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_canoeing
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_ranch
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_sunset
Austin Photo Set: News_shelley_hill country_april 2012_telescope

It’s a central Texas tradition; somewhere between the winter dormancy of our landscape and when the heat turns unbearable for months on end — a brief span of time otherwise known as spring — everyone is abuzz with wildflower sightings. For a few weeks, the days are glorious and the nights still crisp, no one can stay inside for long, and the Hill Country is ablaze with its vibrant profusion of native blossoms.

This year is a particularly lush wildflower season, after last year’s drought. And nowhere is the spring tradition more in full bloom than around Burnet, officially recognized by the Texas legislature as the "Bluebonnet capital of Texas." In fact, Travel + Leisure Magazine named this area No. 1 of America’s Best Spring Drives. 

At Canyon of the Eagles, a unique resort off Highway 29, there are 940 acres of hiking trails that come complete with their own expert botanist and birding guides to help you identify both wildflowers and wildlife.

Top destination

With 62 comfortable lodge rooms with all amenities as well as campgrounds and RV hookups, the fabulous Overlook Restaurant, numerous activities and even its very own observatory, Canyon of the Eagles is a top Hill Country destination. The food by executive chef Sean Huitt is fresh and inventive; don’t miss the Eagle’s Nest breakfast dish, one of the best I’ve had anywhere with an incredible sauce that Huitt will not divulge the secret to.

The private nature park, located on land owned by LCRA, offers 14 miles of groomed hiking trails; although during bird nesting season from March to August, up to 70 percent of those trails are closed to people. Roughly 800 of its acres are home to three endangered species: the American bald eagle, the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo.

 “We value the birds over the people,” explains Bill Gibson, a naturalist guide at Canyon of the Eagles. Gibson, along with other naturalists and biologists, are on hand to guide guests in exploring the incredible nature of the park.

 “We value the birds over the people,” explains Bill Gibson, a naturalist guide at Canyon of the Eagles. Gibson, along with other naturalists and biologists, is on hand to guide guests in exploring the incredible nature of the park.

Most weekends there are regular presentations such as the “Shake, Rattle and Coil” reptile show, “Scales, Tails and Shells” aquatic demonstration, and seasonal Owl Prowl.

Outside of the nature, which is plentiful and fascinating, there are also plenty of other activities at Canyon of the Eagles. You can get out on the water in a kayak with the on-site Buchanan Adventure Tours, or go fishing for bass and striper with sports fishing guides Ray or Clancy. At night, there is often live music or movies under the stars.

And speaking of stars, Canyon of the Eagles boasts one very impressive observatory. Away from the lights of the city, the Austin Astronomical Society operates the Eagle Eye Observatory where two massive, research-grade telescopes are housed beneath a roof that slides open to the night skies. Regular “star parties” are held, and tables dot the land around the observatory for visitors to set their own telescopes or computers for stargazing, with AC outlets.

“When afforded a clear night with good transparency the universe comes to life,” says AAS president Dawn Davies.

Other things to do in the area

I highly recommend a boat ride on Lake Buchanan with Vanishing Texas River Cruise, whose guides are a wealth of knowledge on not only the native and migratory birds, wildlife and geography, but also the history of the area. Lake Buchanan is the largest lake in Texas and is home to a myriad of water fowl and birds of all kinds.

The cruise will pass by Garrett Island, the largest uninhabited island on the lake. It is a wildlife sanctuary for migratory birds such as the blue heron, white egrets and particularly two birds of prey, the osprey and the American Bald Eagle.

Also interesting, while the lake is at record low water levels, is a visit to the remains of a town called Bluffton. Abandoned in 1937 when the Colorado River was dammed and flooded to create Lake Buchanan, the ghost town has been buried in an underwater grave ever since. But with the lake still 30% below its normal depth, the site of Bluffton has re-emerged as a sandbar that Vanishing Texas River Cruise can take you to, with a guide to explain the haunting ruins that you’ll find.

If you’re really into adventure sports, head to nearby Reveille Peak Ranch, a 1,300-acre outdoor event, adventure and education center that offers trail running, Cross Fit challenges, marathons and other events, and top-notch mountain biking with miles of pump and flow tracks and a true downhill skills park. There are water sports as well, such as fishing and canoeing, and RPR is really dedicated to youth education in fitness and the outdoors.

 “I became convinced that certain parts of the Texas Hill Country would be ideally suited to grape growing,” says Ed Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards.

 “We want to get the next generation out from behind their screens and building healthy habits for life,” says owner Vol Montgomery.

If you’re more into letting another do most of the hard work, get on horseback for a trail ride at Colbert Ranch in Bertram. The ranch is owned by a retired attorney and his horse-loving wife, who started offering horseback tours to visitors in order to cover the overhead of caring for her beloved equine family. From complete novice to experienced riders, it offers a beautiful ride, much of it shaded, along the San Gabriel River (which you cross a couple of times), through woods and wildflower meadows, and along a ridge.

And when all this nature and activity has you craving some civilized refreshment, make your way to Fall Creek Vineyards. The Hill Country is known for its wineries, and the location of Fall Creek on the shore of Lake Buchanan creates the perfect microclimate for many grape varieties, due to the cool breeze coming in off the water and over the vines.

Established in 1975 by Texas businessman/rancher Ed Auler and his wife, Susan, the Fall Creek wines came about almost by accident. Ed was looking for an additional business to supplement his cattle ranching; Susan suggested they take a trip to France to look at wines. Ed agreed, with his primary intent being to check out French cattle for cross-breeding. But when he realized the comparable soil and climate of Central Texas, he was quickly bitten by the wine bug, and the rest is history.

“I became convinced that certain parts of the Texas Hill Country would be ideally suited to grape growing,” says Ed.

Walking through Fall Creek Vineyards, you might as well not even bother to count the hundreds of ribbons and awards that line the walls. Take a tour of the vineyard, learn about the Aulers wine-making process, and enjoy a wine tasting. The Meritus and Chardonnay are particularly popular, with many hailing the Meritus as the best Texas wine available.

Wildflower season is relatively brief in Texas, so now is the time to get out to Hill Country and enjoy it. But even after the wildflowers are gone, Canyon of the Eagles and the surrounding area make for one truly fine Texas getaway.

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