Technically, the hill country of Texas extends from just north of San Antonio, northward past Austin and encompasses a swath of land approximately 120 miles in width. The aptly named area is characterized by large rolling hills, arid conditions, prickly pear cactus, yuccas and ranches–lots of ranches.
However, Texas Hill Country is much more than its physical characteristics. Visitors will find an abundance of opportunities to connect with nature and experience a way of life that in many aspects has not changed much from the early days of settlement.
The town of Bandera, also known as the cowboy capital of the world, is home to a number of dude ranches that offer visitors an opportunity to experience the spirit of the Old West first-hand.
According to the Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site, “Even today you’ll often see horses tied to downtown hitching posts.”
The Web site was correct. When driving through Bandera recently, I and my fellow travelers first noticed that the main thoroughfare was blocked by police cars. We then noticed that a crowd had formed along the sidewalks and heard multiple gunshots not far from our car. We pulled into a parking lot. I jumped from the car, not expecting to see an extremely authentic gunfight re-enactment taking place in the middle of downtown, but it was. Apparently it was just a normal Saturday afternoon in Bandera. This gunfight served as somewhat of a primer to what we were about to experience and was the perfect segue from trendy downtown San Antonio to cowboy country.
Just a few miles outside of Bandera is Dixie Dude Ranch, a 725-acre ranch that has been owned and operated by the same family since 1901. The ranch is an actual working ranch with real cowboys who help tend to the iconic Texas Longhorn cattle, horses, Spanish goats and pigs that all call the ranch home.
Guests at the ranch can simply kick back and relax, ride horses, fish, hike, swim or participate in Western sing-alongs and dancing. Accommodations range from private cabins to shared bunkhouse spaces and are decorated in authentic Western décor. Meals are served family-style in the main dining room or chuck wagon-style on the grounds of the ranch.
According to fifth generation owner Clay Conoly, guests can also comb the land for fossils from a period when North America was under the sea, or hunt for arrowheads from the many Indian conflicts that occurred hundreds of years ago. Conoly showed our group fossilized conch shells, coral and other underwater remnants as well a rather impressive collection of arrowheads and other primitive tools and weapons that were fashioned of flint and quartz, all of which had been found on the property.
However, the main attraction at Dixie Dude Ranch is allowing guests to experience the true Old West with no frills, limited cell phone reception and a wide open range waiting to be discovered on horseback or on foot.
Conoly said there are many families who have been coming to the ranch for generations and often request to stay in the same bunkhouse or cabin that their grandparents may have stayed in years earlier.
Some 40 miles from Bandera and Dixie Dude Ranch is another must-see attraction that was dubbed by Oprah Winfrey as one of the best “Wacky Family Attractions” in 2008.
Enchanted Springs Ranch in Bourne, Texas, is not only a working ranch but is also a movie set, video location and a special events venue that can customize event packages with everything from rodeos, gunfights, dancing girls and horse-drawn buggy rides through the town of 40 rustic, Western-style buildings. Many of the buildings were built on-site of wood and other materials that have aged for several years in the rain and harsh sun of Texas Hill Country so that they have an authentic rustic look.
Owned and operated by husband-wife team Steve and Vicki Schmidt, this 86-acre ranch is home to Texas Longhorns, horses, buffalo, whitetail deer, a pot-bellied pig, reindeer, zebra and a variety of other African wildlife. Guests are treated to tractor-pulled wagon rides through the pastures to see the animals in the wild as they roam the property.
During our visit, we had the pleasure of a private guided tour of the ranch by staff manager and world gun twirler champion Pistol Packin’ Paula, who is the main two-legged attraction at the ranch when she displays her talents of gun twirling and slinging. Paula also helps train the many stunt performers who entertain with shootouts and riding and roping exhibitions.
We first stopped by to meet the star Texas Longhorn, Woodrow and side-kick Petunia the pig, who were lying next to each other while lazily relaxing in the shade of a mesquite tree. Just behind an Indian village complete with tepees and fire pits, we came upon a couple of zebra grazing along the edge of the pasture.
Note the previous reference to Oprah referring to Enchanted Springs Ranch as a “wacky attraction”; there aren’t likely many places where guests will see zebra grazing near an Indian village, but it can be seen at Enchanted Springs. Elvis has also been known to don his white bell bottomed, sequin-emblazoned jumpsuit and hop on the back of a bucking bronco to keep the guests entertained.
Next we toured the town area of the ranch that includes an old homestead, undertaker’s office, blacksmith shop, livery stable, hotel, and, of course, a couple of saloons and a chow hall. On the outskirts of town is an old-style Mexican village complete with a cantina, church and old home place. There’s even a Kid’s Korral with mini-sized saloon, stable, fort with ropes and slides, and swings fashioned in the likenesses of horses and Longhorn cattle that are actually made from old tires.
Dixie Dude Ranch and Enchanted Springs are only two of hundreds of ranches in the hill county that open their gates to visitors on a daily basis. There’s no better way to experience the Old West than to be a part of it, and one can certainly be a part of the ranch lifestyle when visiting this part of Texas.