Texas' Highland Lakes

Beyond the Bluebonnets

At Canyon of the Eagles Resort, in the Upper Highland Lakes region of Burnet County, the vast Texas night sky presents itself in sparkling glory. The Eagle Eye Observatory is just one of the on-site attractions at this full-service, nature-based destination resort on a private 940-acre preserve in the northern Hill Country.

The observatory’s 16-inch Cassegrain and 12.5-inch Newtonian telescopes offer research-quality views of the moon, stars and planets. Free observatory sessions take place nightly at the resort, and on cloudless nights, viewers can “visit” Jupiter’s stripes and the Milky Way.

Canyon of the Eagles Nature Park is an excellent home base for exploring this verdant region, with 14 miles of hiking trails within a wildlife sanctuary that is, indeed, a sanctuary for humans as well. I strolled down one of the trails from the main lodge to find a wide, dense swath of bluebonnets alongside Lake Buchanan, which the resort fronts.

Sitting down on a log bench, I felt the warm sun, inhaled the fragrance of the flowers and listened to the soft buzzing of bees and the “rrrumphing” of frogs. It was instant bliss.

The resort has the feel of a rustic dude ranch without the horses, with its hilltop guest rooms designed to be comfortable. The structures are reminiscent of 1920s Hill Country homes, built with native stone, rough board-and-batten siding and corrugated metal roofs, replete with porches and rocking chairs for relaxing and viewing the expansive scenery in all directions.

Sunsets are spectacular over Lake Buchanan, seen from the restaurant with its panoramic windows. Besides the nature trails and observatory, the pet-friendly Canyon of the Eagles has superb fishing, an outdoor swimming pool with rock waterfall, a recreation hall with big-screen TV, arts and crafts activities, bicycling, bird watching (this is an Audubon Birding Site), free outdoor nightly movies and guest naturalists presenting animal shows regularly.

The 1,800 square miles of the Highland Lakes region are in four Texas counties: Llano, Burnet, Williamson and Travis. Each is home to small towns with quaint downtowns, independently owned cafes and antique shops, and special events that attract visitors from near and far. Throughout spring, the area turns into a botanist’s fragrant dream, with endless fields of wildflowers. The years of drought have ended and the region is lush and green.

The lakes in the area were formed when the Colorado River was dammed by the Lower Colorado River Authority in the 1930s and 1940s; it’s just 100 miles from the tip of Lake Buchanan to the dam at Lady Bird Lake, so tourists to the Highland Lakes easily can visit all of them in a few days. It’s an area so rural and untouched that the local river cruise is called “Vanishing Texas,” due to the historical lore told on board as well as the unspoiled natural beauty seen on shorelines from the boat. This part of Texas looks much like it did long ago. Fall Creek Falls is the highlight of the cruise, with scenic waterfalls tumbling down through the reddish limestone cliffs adorned on each side by tall green vegetation, purple mountain laurel blooms and towering yucca.

There’s plenty to do and see in the Highland Lakes, of course, besides the lakes themselves.

Fort Croghan, established in 1849, is one of eight forts built by the U.S. government to protect frontier villages from raids by American Indians. This free “living history” museum depicts what early life was like in what is now the town of Burnet, with eight authentic buildings including a blacksmith’s shop, one-room schoolhouse, lookout tower and homestead cabins

A 645-acre state park since 1932, Longhorn Caverns opened after 250 Civilian Conservation Corps men removed tons of silt and sediment from the caves and built the rustic structures above them. The caverns have been a Texas Historic Landmark since 1989.

Created over thousands of years by the dissolving and cutting action of water on the limestone bedrock, Longhorn Caverns are mysterious, beautiful and astonishing. Guided walking tours are recommended, as the guides are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the caverns’ history, and without them, one might not even notice such features as the famous “Rockweiler” — a lookalike rock dog formed by erosion.

Longhorn is one of three river-formed caves in the U.S., and some 80,000 people come to tour the caverns each year — the bulk of them during spring break. “Most of the time,” our guide said, “you could shoot a gun in here and no one would get hurt, because no one is here!”

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