Parks & Recreation: Wine and Hiking in the Hill Country Make a Perfect Pairing

By Stacey Ingram Kaleh

The Texas Hill Country is known for its scenic beauty — its big sky, rolling blue hills, limestone cliffs, clear rivers and natural springs. It’s also known as Texas Wine Country, with more than 100 wineries ready to offer friendly service, a beautiful vineyard atmosphere and a dynamic range of high-quality wines that are the result of undeniable passion and determination, qualities of our signature Texas work ethic (just think of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was raised in Johnson City).

When you visit a state park or nature preserve in Central Texas, chances are you’re not far from a winery. And, on the flip side, it’s likely that when you visit a Texas winery, you’re just around the corner from an outdoor adventure. There’s much to discover, and not far from the beaten path.

Whether you are an outdoor enthusiast, a wine enthusiast or both (like me!), the Hill Country offers an abundance of hiking and wine tasting options that allow individuals, couples and families to curate the ideal summer day. And, if you’re really into wine, a park visit will add a layer to your tasting experience as you immerse yourself in the unique terroir that so vitally shapes each Texas Hill Country wine.

Kelsey Kramer, sommelier and tasting room ambassador at William Chris Vineyards in Hye, describes her perspective on the unique Hill Country terroir (the natural environment in which a particular wine is produced): “The Texas Hill Country spans a wholloping 9 million acres, making it the third largest designated region for quality grape-growing, called an AVA (American Viticulture Area). My favorite image to picture is Enchanted Rock: think semi-high altitude in many areas, intense sun rays, and rocky granite soil mixed with clay and sandstone. Certain areas will have influence from water sources, like the Pedernales River Basin does. It is lush and green and, honestly, humid as all get out! What we have here in the heart of Texas is a massive area of land with pockets of special combinations of soil, varying altitude and rich minerality that can truly define what a wine will eventually taste like, especially when from a single vineyard site. The grapes that thrive here like well-drained 'chunky' soil, don't mind too much rain and soak up the full, unencumbered Texas sun. And the wines? Aromatic, intense, complex, mineral, often worthy of aging.

Kramer captures the essence of what makes Texas wine so distinctive. An overused saying comes to mind, “Everything is bigger in Texas,” but I feel that it truly does apply to Texas Wine Country, from its vineyards and vistas, to the range of grape varietals grown in the region and the bold and complex flavors they produce, to the personalities of our winemakers and their audacious appetite for innovation. Yet, nothing seems to be a bigger priority than commitment to hospitality and creating an enjoyable experience for neighbors and visitors alike. In my opinion, a casual and welcoming atmosphere is one of the aspects that truly sets Texas Hill Country wineries apart from wineries in other regions across the U.S., and why it’s completely okay to show up to a tasting room or take a seat on the patio in your hiking gear. 

While you may have ventured to the summit of Enchanted Rock or driven Wine Road 290 into Fredericksburg (definitely worth the drive!), there are also many trails, swimming holes (and even caves and waterfalls!) and, of course, wineries to be explored closer to home. For instance, Hamilton Pool Vineyards and Farms, just down the road from Hamilton Pool Preserve in Dripping Springs, and El Gaucho Winery, close to Pace Bend Park in Spicewood.

Next time you feel the itch to get outdoors, head out early to one of many parks in Dripping Springs, Spicewood, Hye, Blanco and Driftwood. Pack lunch, snacks and plenty of water. Grab your sunblock and your camera. Allow yourself some flexibility on your drive home. Crank up your car stereo. Look for signs while you’re driving country roads—I’ve seen them in the form of upside-down boxes, homemade poster boards, flags, old pickup trucks and artful wrought-iron gates—and pull into a winery as you pass by. Get some exercise and then reward yourself with a delicious glass of local wine—all with an unbeatable hill country view. What better way to spend a summer day?

Below, explore some “perfect pairings” between park and winery visits to get inspired as you design your own Hill Country adventure. Happy trails!

Dripping Springs

Pedernales Falls State Park + Hawk’s Shadow Winery

This is the pairing that started it all for me. My husband and I had enjoyed a morning out at Pedernales Falls State Park, scaling its beautiful and enormous slabs of limestone and taking a dip in the cool Pedernales River. We were on our way home when we noticed a cardboard box on the side of the road with the words “Wine Tasting” and a simple hand-drawn arrow. Our curiosity was piqued, and after a few twists and turns in the road, we arrived at Hawk’s Shadow Winery. At the time they were still building their tasting room, where we were greeted with a delicious glass of dry orange muscat—a welcome treat on a hot summer day. It’s spontaneous moments and new discoveries like this one that make weekends memorable and, sometimes, even spark new traditions.

Bring your camera with you for this journey. Between the iconic limestone landscape and clear green-blue water of Pedernales Falls and the sweeping bird’s eye view of unobstructed rolling hills at Hawk’s Shadow, you are sure to find inspiration all around you. 

Taste the 2014 Sonrisa, a dry white wine aged in oak barrels for 60 months to give it a unique complexity. Soak in the aroma of orange blossom and grass, notes of citrus, and a mineral finish. If you prefer red wine, try the HSV Estate GSM Blend, handcrafted by the owners and their family members from low-producing estate vines.

Plan your visit and make reservations at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/pedernales-falls and hawksshadow.com


Hamilton Pool Preserve + Hamilton Pool Vineyards & Farms

No matter how many times you visit Hamilton Pool Preserve, it still holds an awe-inspiring, mystical beauty. Hamilton Pool Road may look a lot different than it used to as it now seems to merge with both Bee Cave and Dripping Springs, but don’t let the busy surroundings fool you. Just minutes from the city, it somehow remains a calm haven that can transport any visitor to what feels like a far-off destination. After a short down-hill hike that’s feasible for the entire family, you enter a canyon where trees tower next to limestone cliffs and Golden-cheeked Warblers may be spotted, ultimately arriving at the iconic collapsed grotto and 50-foot waterfall. Cool off by taking a seat in the shade behind the falls, or take a dip in the natural pool (when permitted). 

A relative newcomer to the Texas winery scene, Hamilton Pool Vineyards & Farms is located one sharp curve and one-lane bridge down the road from its namesake, on the property that formerly housed Westcave Cellars (Westcave has moved to Johnson City). The winery selected the location hoping it would allow visitors to plan a great day in the Hill Country. “When we set out to find a location, we wanted a property that highlighted the natural beauty of Texas Hill Country,” says Alfonso Castillo, chief operating officer at Hamilton Pool Vineyards & Farms. “We knew it was the right location to see out our vision of creating a space highlighting the natural beauty of the area. It only felt right to name the location after the popular spot [Hamilton Pool].”

After a morning hiking, venture over to the property to relax next to the vineyard with a glass of wine. “The vineyard is the perfect place to relax after a day of hiking,” Castillo says. “Guests can enjoy wine tasting in our outdoor courtyard right next to our ten acres of lush grapevines.” Soon, the winery plans to offer a seasonal menu to complement their wines. Created by executive chef Shandon Brockett, Hamilton Pool Vineyards will offer seasonal fresh bites with ingredients sourced from its onsite 2-acre farm.  

If you’re in search of a cool and refreshing wine to enjoy outdoors, try their 2017 Atomic Tangerine Gewürztraminer. Crisp and bright, yet with an undeniable floral citrus punch, this wine is like sunshine in a bottle. Don’t leave without trying the 2019 cabernet sauvignon. It’s a not-so-typical cab, with a smooth medium-body and notes of ripe bell peppers with subtle earth tones.

Make reservations for Hamilton Pool Preserve in advance at parks.traviscounty.tx.gov/parks/hamilton-pool-preserve

Plan your tasting experience at Hamilton Pool Vineyards & Farms at hamiltonpoolvineyards.com

Can’t get a reservation at Hamilton Pool? Have no fear! Visit Reimers Ranch Park, with plenty of options to spread out, swim, rock-climb, mountain bike and more, just minutes away.

Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center + Bell Springs Winery and Brewery

Learn about our unique Hill Country environment with a guided tour at Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center, a nonprofit that conserves the stunning 76-acre preserve and offers educational programs for groups of all ages. There’s no better place to explore the surprising dynamism of your surroundings. Tours begin in an arid savanna and take visitors through a limestone crevice into a sheltered canyon with lush plant life to reveal an ancient grotto—a small picturesque cave—with a 40-foot waterfall, dazzling greenery and a deep blue reflecting pool. Neighbor to Hamilton Pool, Westcave is a slightly more hidden gem that is absolutely breathtaking. 

After your Westcave adventure, follow the country roads to Bell Springs Winery and Brewery. Over the past decade, Bell Springs has become a popular spot for both wine and beer, likely due to its welcoming and accessible atmosphere. Walk up to the country house, complete with a wrap-around porch and rocking chairs, to do a tasting. Friendly staff members will walk you through their offerings so that you can discover the wines you like best. Or, amble up to the outdoor bar to grab a glass of wine to enjoy on the expansive patio, where it’s not uncommon to find a live band playing. You can also settle in at any number of picnic tables on the sprawling, shaded tree-filled property. Dogs are invited, too, so bring your pup with you! 

Be sure to taste the 2018 Montepulciano, a jammy red wine that is surprisingly light, and the 2018 viognier, a golden dry white wine with notes of lemon, hints of jasmine and a rich mouthfeel. If you are a fan of sweet and sparkling wines, try Bell Springs’ staple Drippin’ Sweet White, a chardonnay infused with fresh peach flavors. It’s easy to imagine it as the perfect base for summer sangria, with a natural effervescence. Friday through Sunday, enjoy made-to-order burgers, grilled cheese and truffle fries from Chef Mike Massaro. 

Reserve your Westcave Preserve guided tour at westcave.org, and learn more about Bell Springs Winery at bellspringswinery.com 

Spicewood

Pace Bend Park + El Gaucho Winery

A longtime popular spot for camping on Lake Travis, Pace Bend Park provides miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails as well as sandy swimming coves with beach-like areas. Park staff will happily recommend places to fish right from the shore. The park also offers two boat ramps for those looking to spend a day out on the water. It’s the perfect place to make lasting summertime memories. 

Just uphill from Pace Bend Park and only minutes from Highway 71 West, find El Gaucho Winery. With a passion for Argentinian wines and food, the husband-and-wife owners created a lovely hilltop outpost with warm and inviting imported décor, multiple outdoor terraces for taking in scenic views and a children’s play area. El Gaucho specializes in Argentinian malbec wines, known for their brilliant color, juicy black fruit flavors, medium acid and moderate tannins. They present visitors with a deep-dive into the varietal through their tasting menu, which features wines bottled in Mendoza, Argentina, and then shipped to the winery. If you are interested in the delightful nuances between characteristics produced by different vintages, terroir and aging processes, this is the place for you. Or, if you are in search of homestyle Argentinian cooking, visit for their buzzworthy Asado or empanadas, which perfectly complement their wines.

Don’t leave without tasting the Tierra de Gaucho Reserva malbec, with notes of blackberry and a slightly smoky appeal. 

Plan your day by visiting parks.traviscountytx./parks/pace-bend and elgauchowinery.com. 

Krause Springs + Spicewood Vineyards

Founded in 1955, Krause Springs is a well-known swimming hole and camping site. The 115-acre estate is on the National Registry of Historical Sites and has been privately owned by the Krause Family for more than 50 years. Unwind in the butterfly gardens as you take in the soothing sounds of windchimes, bring a picnic and then jump in the pool or stake out a spot to lay out on a rock and catch some sun near the natural springs. There are 32 beautiful springs on the property which feed the man-made pool and the natural pool that flows to Lake Travis.

Spicewood Vineyards is the perfect destination to continue to build on those relaxed, sun-soaked vibes. With a philosophy centered on celebrating life with incredible wine, Spicewood vineyards is dedicated to making the highest quality Texas wines. Ron Yates, who purchased the vineyard in 2007, has infused his multigenerational Texas family heritage and passion for Spanish wines, which he fostered during time spent in the vineyards of Ribera del Duero. Spicewood Vineyards takes pride in producing many award-winning wines with estate-grown grapes, and is home to some of the oldest grape vines in the area. Nine acres still produce fruit on vines that are more than 24 years old. 

On a hot day, try a chilled glass of the crisp 2019 Grenache rosé with refreshing strawberry undertones. Looking for something bolder? Ask for The Good Guy, a blend sourced completely from the Hill Country Estate, featuring tempranillo, graciano, merlot and cabernet sauvignon aged for 20 months in oak. It beckons to be paired with a grilled steak. 

Start planning your day out at krausesprings.net and spicewoodvineyards.com

Escape to Nearby to Stone House Vineyards

Also in Spicewood is Stone House Vineyards, an elegant villa-style winery on Lake Travis. The winery’s tasting room is constructed of massive limestone blocks, each weighing more than 2,000 pounds—a literal stone house. Owner and winemaker Angela Moench hails from the Barossa Valley wine country in Australia and sources grapes and winemaking techniques from that region to blend Texas and Australian methodologies and flavors. Visitors can sit directly next to the grapevines in the sprawling vineyard with a view of beautiful Lake Travis. Plan your visit at stonehousevineyard.com 

Hye & Stonewall

Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site + William Chris Vineyards 

History lovers—this one’s for you! Tour the farmstead home of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was born and raised in the Texas Hill Country. Experience life on a Texas-German farm through the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, admire wildflowers and greet American bison and Texas Longhorns as you walk 1.2 miles of trails. You can also fish, play tennis and baseball and swim in an Olympic-sized pool. While you’re at it, learn about President Johnson and see memorabilia from his time in office in the Visitor Center, or take a self-guided tour of historic cabins built by German immigrant H.C. Behrens in the 1870s. Start a driving tour of LBJ Ranch that will lead you to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park where you can see LBJ’s childhood home, the Johnson family cemetery, the Texas White House and the Johnson Settlement, a cluster of stone barns and buildings built by LBJ’s grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson, Sr., and his brother. 

A stone’s throw away, William Chris Vineyards offers much for wine lovers to explore. Its Hye estate spans 23 acres with stunning views of the Hill Country and Pedernales River Valley. It is also rich in history. As a boy, LBJ was known to play baseball with the Deike boys, whose family were the original owners of the estate. A historic farmhouse on the property plays host to curated wine experiences. Just across the street, LBJ mailed his first letter and swore in the Post Master General on the steps of the Hye Post Office—today, Hye Market.

It’s nearly impossible not to have a great time at William Chris Vineyards, with its multiple tasting areas, including a new light-filled tasting room with sky high windows, an ACL-fest inspired photo frame so you can capture your Instagram-worthy moment and an amazing selection of Texas wine made from 100 percent Texas grapes. After a day exploring the state and national parks nearby, you won’t want to miss the newly released 2020 roussanne, the 2020 Cinsault rosé sourced from La Pradera Vineyards or the winery’s signature Artist Blend. Each year, the blend of mourvèdre, grenache, syrah and tannat features an artist-designed label that makes it something of a collector’s bottle. Sommelier Kelsey Kramer recommends serving it at a cooler temperature to allow fruitiness to come out or warmer to let its savory notes emerge. This wine is a favorite for barbecues and summer potlucks.

Map out your summer plans at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/lyndon-b-johnson and williamchriswines.com

Pedernales River Nature Park & French Connection Wines

Spend the day at Pedernales River Nature Park in Johnson City where you can hike, bike, canoe, fish, and swim, or sprawl out with a picnic under one of their pavilions. The 223-acre riverfront site has everything you need to seize the day. Then, drive into Hye to relax on the covered patio at French Connection Wines. 

Devoted to making 100-percent Texas-grown wines onsite at the winery, French Connection Wines is the second Hye outpost from Calais Winery owner and winemaker Ben Calais. Calais is known for combining his passion for his French heritage with his love for Texas. Whereas Calais Winery focuses on Bordeaux-style wines, French Connection specializes in Rhône-style wines, which pair well with rising summer temperatures. 

Opt to sit outside on French Connection’s gorgeous patio to take in unobstructed vineyard views, set back from the noise of Highway 290.  Be sure to try the 2019 Côtes de Hye, and splurge for a bottle of the La Connection rosé—one of Texas’ finest and most refreshing dry rosés. It’s as close as you can get to experiencing Provence, the birthplace of rosé, without actually visiting.  

If you decide to turn a fun-filled day into a Hill Country wine weekend, book one of the cottages on the property through Airbnb for an overnight stay. 

Book your park and wine pairing at lcra.org/parks/pedernales-river-nature-park and frenchconnectionhye.com 

Blanco

Fish, paddle, picnic and hike at picturesque Blanco State Park. Nestled between Austin and San Antonio, the spring-fed Blanco River creates an idyllic getaway spot near the charming small town. Bringing the kids along? There’s a shallow, child-friendly wading pool near Falls Dam. Looking to paddle out pent up energy from a year at home? Rent a kayak at the park store. Opting for a more relaxing route? The park store also offers tubes for rent so you can float to your heart’s content. 

Not-to-be-missed nearby is Esperanza Winery’s tasting room on Main Street. Stop in to taste their Texas Hill Country tannat, a well-balanced dry red wine with notes of plum that is all-too-easy to sip. It’s an elegant wine with just enough complexity to keep your tastebuds wanting more. For the hotter days ahead, take home a bottle of the 2018 sauvignon blanc, featuring the clean, acidic brightness with notes of grapefruit and grassy, herbal aroma characteristic of the varietal. 

Don’t pass up these Blanco destinations on your next road trip! Learn more about how to plan your day at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/blanco and esperanzawinery.com 

Wimberley and Driftwood

Jacob’s Well + Salt Lick Cellars

Ready to take a dive off the deep end? If you’re the more daring type, make a reservation at Jacob’s Well Natural Area in Wimberley for a hike and cool swim. Hiking is permitted year-round, while swimming is allowed only in the summer months to protect the aquatic wildlife of Cypress Creek. The second-largest fully submerged cave in Texas, Jacob’s Well is an artesian spring that releases thousands of gallons of water from the Trinity Aquifer each day. The deepest part of the cavern system is 140-feet deep. Visitors can often be seen jumping from rocks into the cold, crystal-clear water. If you’re not ready to dive in, Jacob’s Well Natural Area covers an expansive 81 acres primed for you to explore.

If you’re traveling through Driftwood to make your way to and from Wimberley, don’t miss the opportunity to stop by the legendary Salt Lick BBQ. Did you know, the Salt Lick also has a large vineyard on its property as well as a tasting room, Salt Lick Cellars? It’s common to find long lines and wait times to be seated at one of Central Texas’ most famous barbecue joints, and you can easily pass that time by venturing next door to Salt Lick Cellars to taste a variety of wines, including their house BBQ Red and BBQ White, designed to pair with brisket, ribs and all the fix-ins. Salt Lick is still BYOB, and now it is also BYOW—bring your own wine. So, grab a bottle to bring with you to your table as you refuel after a day well spent. 

While the barbecue is always mouth-watering, don’t let it overshadow the quality Texas wines at Salt Lick Cellars. Even without the Salt Lick next door, the tasting room would be a worthy destination in its own right. From its outdoor patio and garden, look out at 35-acres of vineyards, including tempranillo, mourvèdre, syrah and grenache grape varieties. Ask to taste their delectable mourvèdre—one of my favorites in the Hill Country—bursting with blackberry with notes of tobacco and a hint of black pepper. 

Plan your day at hayscountytx.com/departments/hays-county-parks-recreation/jacobs-well-natural-area and saltlickcellars.com

 

Blue Hole Regional Park + Driftwood Estate Winery

Wimberley’s Blue Hole, which the city saved from the threat of residential development in 2005, is now a favorite community gathering spot. The 126-acre park features miles of trails, picnic areas, a community pavilion, playscape, basketball court, sand volleyball court, amphitheater and, of course, the iconic Blue Hole swimming area, which is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Find the activities that best fit your lifestyle and design a fun summer day out. 

If you’re a fan of summer sunsets like I am, find a relaxing spot to uncork and unwind at Driftwood Estate Winery. Perched on a westward-facing bluff overlooking their lush vineyard, Driftwood Estate was built around the romance of a stellar view. As you sip their wines made from 100 percent Texas grapes, you can truly experience a sense of place. Try their flagship blend, Longhorn Red, which is made with 50 percent cabernet sauvignon and 50 percent syrah, or go for the 2019 dry rosé, served chilled with aromas and flavors of strawberry and watermelon. There’s also an onsite bistro, in case you’ve worked up an appetite through all outdoor playtime.  

Start planning your summer getaway at cityofwimberley.com and driftwoodwine.com

Something Sweet: Do you love sweet wines? Stop in at Wimberley Valley Winery to discover a large selection of sweet wines including red, white, and rosé options, as well as wine made from 100 percent blackberries perfect for pairing with summer cobblers or ice cream. Make a reservation for a tasting at wimberleyvalleywine.com

Please note: Pay special attention to conservation and COVID-19 protocols at each park and winery. Most locations require advance reservations.