Texas Traveler: Enchanted Rock and Fredericksburg

Enchanted Rock, the legend says, was home to ghost fires. That's how the Tonkawas explained the crackling and popping sounds that emanated from the rock on cool evenings.

Today we know this: Enchanted Rock is one of the country's largest plutons, a gigantic pink granite pebble unearthed by erosion. The crackling sounds the Indians heard were likely caused by the rock's expansion and contraction due to the heat of the sun.

The rock (it's more of a dome, really) is about an hour north of San Antonio and makes up the bulk of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, the most popular park in Texas. Heed this warning! If you are going in the summer, the park often reaches capacity as early as 11 a.m. So get up early, or camp overnight. Park fees are $6 per person per day.

Hiking at the park can be interesting for all skill levels. The Summit Trail will take you to the rock's highest point, on a relatively level and low-gradation path. The loop trail is longer, 4 miles, but it's mostly flat. Both are easy, and scenic. For more adventurous climbers, the rangers basically let you wander all over the rock. It is extremely popular among rock climbers. Some areas have natural caves so be sure to bring a flashlight.

Fredericksburg, 18 miles to the south, offers a totally different atmosphere. Established as a German colonial settlement more than 150 years ago, the city still holds dear three tenets of German culture: beer, brats, and Lutheran churches straight out of a fairy tale. The town is an odd combination of historic buildings and museums paired with modern bars, country dance halls and boutiques selling the kind of unnecessary nick-knacks you might buy your Mom for Mother's Day. In other words, something for (almost) everyone.

Auslander Biergarten is a great place to have an afternoon stein (Texas and German beers available), catch some music on the back patio, or try a bowl of German potato soup. If Tex-Mex is your thing, Hondos has a huge dance floor and good margaritas. The food is mediocre, though, and the place can get packed on weekend nights. Just across the street, The Altdorf makes pretty tasty sangria.

Several small wine sellers line Main Street, and will sell you multiple small tastings or a glass to go for about $5. Fudge shops are also in vogue, and at Fromage du Monde you can buy chevre cheese milked from locally-raised goats.

Don't worry about drinking too much. The bulk of downtown Fredericksburg is walkable. Or you can drive to the east side of town for some interesting antique shops, book stores and restaurants when downtown feels a little too touristy.

The scenic route: From Fredericksburg, head north on FM 965 to Enchanted Rock. Get there as early as possible -- the park opens at 8 a.m. -- which will give you plenty of time to hike to the summit and explore before lunch.

When you leave the park, go north again on 965 to HWY 16. Turn right, heading south. After a few miles, look for a road on the left, the Willow City Loop, named one of the best motorcycle roads in the state by Ride Texas magazine. The views from the bluffs are stunning, especially when wildflowers are in bloom, but drive slowly -- much of the land is private and home to livestock.

In Willow City ("city" is pushing it), you can stop for a snack and a cold beer at Harry's, a filthy, smokey roadhouse whose reputation precedes it. For a better experience, head back towards HWY 16 south a few miles until you get to the cutesy-named Knot in the Loop. Have a hamburger and revel in the conversation with local ranchers.

From there, continue on HWY 16 south, which will take you right back to Fredericksburg.

Where to stay: There are a plethora of B&Bs in Fredericksburg and the surrounding areas, but quaint only goes so far when you're sharing a house with a stranger. Fredericksburg Inn and Suites, situated on the bed of a creek, is nice. It has a heated pool, hot tub, outdoor fireplace and free s'mores fixins, which kids will love. The rooms are clean and basic, starting around $100 a night, and the hotel is walking distance to the heart of Main Street.

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