Elevation changes and several kilometres of twisty roads push the Texas Hill Country to the top of the riding list
Story by Ron Keys
Photos by: Ron Keys and Hank Howard
Texas: hot, flat, dusty, uninteresting roads, not at the top of my list to ride – how wrong can one be? Deep in the heart of Texas, between Austin and San Antonio, and running some 322 km west is the Texas Hill Country, a bucolic, rugged terrain with wooded canyons, towering mountains, mind-blowing scenery and endless winding paved roads with speed limits we can only dream of. One year ago, I was here in a car and I determined that I must come back with my motorcycle.
In the mid-1800s, a German exodus led to more than 20,000 people settling here, and today it’s still referred to by the old-timers as the German Hill Country. The town of Fredericksburg, in the very heart of Hill Country, and nearby towns Bulverde, New Braunfels, Boerne, Walburg and Luckenbach all derive their names from the old country. Around 1850, Baron Otfried Hans von Meusebach founded New Braunfels, followed by Fredericksburg. The Inn on Baron’s Creek in Fredericksburg derives its name from the baron himself and is our home for some late-March riding. Lined with galleries, boutiques, wineries, breweries and German restaurants, Fredericksburg’s Main Street is a mix of Tex-Mex-Deutsch.
The morning is perfect as Tina, Hank and I rendezvous with our friends Rich and Liz at their RV site. Leaving town on State Road 16, we follow the wandering Pedernales River to Kerrville. From here, the Junction Highway follows the Guadalupe River as it twists and turns and tumbles its way southward. High limestone cliffs make great diving platforms above the emerald-green waters, and the cypress-lined riverbanks complete the Monet-esque tableau before us. Rounding a bend, a long fencerow with a cowboy boot atop each post reminds me of the shoe trees often seen in Ontario.
Texas 83 runs us south to Leakey, where we pick up Ranch Road 337, the first of the “Three Sisters.” These three famous – or for some, infamous – roads, Texas Ranch Roads 335, 336 and 337, are the most renowned bike roads in the Hill Country, or maybe all of Texas. A sign warns that 10 motorcyclists have died here since 2006, and with a high population of deer and free-range cattle, I understand why.
The flatlands thread their way into canyons and then back again, and as I glance down at the pavement blurring by, I notice its coarse, granular surface. Fantastic traction, but don’t fall off: this is like coarse-grit sandpaper and would peel a rider like a ripe orange.
In Camp Wood, I’m ready for a Texas smoked beef brisket sandwich, so we look for Two Fat Boys BBQ, where I stopped last year, but it’s gone. Disappointed, we wander through town and, suddenly, there it is, Two Fat Boys, at a new location. But we are disappointed yet again; it’s closed today. As we wonder what to do, a friendly lady appears out of nowhere, and then Chug, one of the “Fat Boys,” strolls out from behind the restaurant. “Y’all shouda ben here on the weeken,” Chug says. “Wur closed on Mundees. The Chicken Coop café just up the road in Barksdale is open.” So we head up Twisted Sister number two, RR 335, and settle for chicken. But the homemade buttermilk pie at the Chicken Coop more than makes up for missing out on Chug’s offerings.
As we motor along at a brisk pace, gated entrances to regal Texas ranches blur by on our way into Nueces Canyon. With the sweeping curves, powdery white limestone cliffs rise up on one side and expansive panoramas stretch for kilometres across the valley, making it hard to concentrate on the riding at hand. I imagine more than one rider has succumbed to this bewitching scenery.
Watch for Roadblocks
At Texas 41, we go east a couple of kilometres and then catch Sister 336 south. The Angus range cattle have little interest in us as we guardedly make our way past these docile bovine beasts. The occasional sound of a cattle grid is a constant reminder that these warm-blooded mammals are imminent, roving roadblocks. Again, the road rises upward from the valley floor and begins its sinuous pathway threading through the hills. Enjoyable for me, but not so much for Tina, as I hear a gasp through our intercom. We settle on a mutually agreeable pace, but I can’t help feel that it’s a shame to waste such good corners.
Leaning hard, my shoulder close to the cliff, we emerge from the apex of a magnificent high-speed right-hander, and as we straighten up, I spot a man frantically waving his arms beside a huge broken-down truck blocking our lane. Adrenaline rises as I squeeze hard on the brakes, my tires squishing against the hot sandpaper surface. Hastily checking for oncoming traffic, I warily pass by the truck. My heart rate finally returns to normal, but I’m reminded of that caution sign a few kilometres back.
Let’s Go To Luckenbach
Rolling down from the hills over the last cattle grid and onto flat land, the Sisters diminish as we burn along 83 and then 41, where the 75 mph speed limit quickly ticks away the kilometres. Long stretches of tall fence on either side leave us wondering why, until we see antelope, deer, buffalo and a sign telling of an exotic pay-to-hunt farm.
It’s been a good day, and back in Fredericksburg, an authentic German meal at the Rathskeller Restaurant, located in the basement and former morgue of the historic Keidel Memorial Hospital. The setting gives us the perfect backdrop to reflect on the day’s ride over dinner before retiring for the night.
The next morning, just east of town, Ranch Road 1376 brings us to a tiny sign at the side of the road. We are in Luckenbach, population 3. Made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Luckenbach is named after founder Jacob Luckenbach, who came here in 1830; it’s more of a place than it is a town. As is said, “Many people come here expecting Fiesta Texas and instead find Siesta Texas.” Luckenbach has reinvented itself from an Indian trading post to a post office and now a general store selling memorabilia. On any given evening musicians play here, and you can simply listen, join in or dance. Behind the general store, a small stage backs onto Grape Creek, but more often than not, musicians sit and play on an old wooden bench between a couple of spreading oak trees. And as the sign says, “Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach.”
The Devils Backbone
A few kilometres from Luckenbach, bypassing Blanco, we find Ranch to Market Road 32, the Devil’s Backbone. Ghost stories abound about this scenic ridge and especially at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern. A sign on the wall says: “Old Ghost Warning: If doors and windows open and close by themselves, and you hear strange noises, just ignore it. It is just our ghost trying to get attention. He thinks it’s funny.” The room is filled with cigarette smoke from local characters playing cards at a table and the ceiling is covered with dollar bills. This is a breeding ground for tall tales and consumption; or maybe it is…