Cruising along US 277 south of San Angelo, the flat cotton fields of Tom Green County soon give way to brush country, where natural vegetation gets scrawnier and colors fade as the distance from surface water increases.
Christoval Vineyards and Winery
5000 Cralle Road, Christoval
Tasting room hours are Thu-Sun, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
The Hummer House
Located a mile south of Christoval at 21301 Toe Nail Trail.
The Observation Room and Gift Shop are open April-Aug., Fri, 7-9 p.m. and Sat, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Admission is $3.
Children 12 and under are free.
Here, gaunt mesquites and mouse-eared prickly pear cover the landscape while muted earth tones dominate the color spectrum.
But tall trees and lush greenery ahead are sure signs of an oasis. Vegetation soars and hues brighten abruptly as I approach the town of Christoval and the South Concho River.
In bone-dry West Texas, water draws people together, and the cool, refreshing water of the South Concho once made Christoval, 20 miles south of San Angelo, a mecca for West Texans. In the early 20th century, Christoval—named for an early settler—had a hotel, mineral baths, a Baptist encampment that hosted thousands each summer, and an impressive artist colony.
Then a 100-year flood wiped out the Baptist encampment in 1936. The highway came through, and a bridge replaced the low-water crossing. Travelers had little reason to stop, or even slow down.
But Christoval, population 500, is mounting a comeback by capitalizing on its historic role as a West Texas retreat. These days the town is all about water, wine, and wildlife.
Vegetation soars and hues brighten abruptly as I approach the town of Christoval and the South Concho River.
Don’t bother looking for a run-of-the-mill swimming pool in Christoval. This place has something better; one of the most popular public swimming holes in the region sits at Pugh Park. No concrete pool can compete with a park that has 600 feet of river frontage and a half-dozen rope swings hanging from limbs of sturdy live oaks, all leaning gently over the emerald-green water. On a hot day, Pugh Park bustles with swimmers, fishermen, and kayakers. Admission is free, as are the primitive campsites, which are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Christoval Vineyards and Winery, a 25-acre estate wedged between US 277 and the South Concho River, showcases the trendier side of the hamlet. A chapel, which hosts weddings, special events, and nondenominational services every Sunday, sits just inside the iron gate beneath a canopy of live oaks. The double wooden doors, shuttered windows, steep roof, and stone construction give the chapel the look of a Mediterranean country house.
Beyond the chapel, the tall oak trees, shaded walking paths, manicured grounds, and grapevines planted in neat rows in the river bottom stand in stark contrast to the dry brush country less than a mile away. This isn’t Tuscany, but in West Texas, it’s as close as it gets.
The vineyard, established in the mid-1980s, grows a variety of grapes, including riesling, tempranillo, petite sirah, vermentino, and mourvèdre. The riesling vines, planted more than 35 years ago, are some of the oldest in Texas.
The tasting room, where visitors can sample some of the winery’s offerings, is a converted shed with 10 round tables, each with a spectacular view of the vineyard through large picture windows. There is a comfortable couch in the corner and a granite-top bar across the back. The shelves on the far wall display T-shirts for sale, medals collected in wine competitions, and dozens of bottles of award-winning wines, including the best-selling tempranillo.
The lunch menu at the tasting room features pizzas, meat and cheese trays, and cheesecake for dessert.
A cheesy Neapolitan pizza and a glass of tempranillo prove to be ample fortification for an afternoon exploring the town.
While the atmosphere inside the tasting room is relaxed and casual, the patio rings with boisterous laughter, tinkling glasses, and squeals of children. A group of young parents share food and wine while their children run and play on the grassy area between the patio and the river.
“My husband is stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo,” one young woman says. “When he has time off we bring our children to the park for a swim, and then come here to relax. Christoval is the best place around for a family outing.”
Don’t bother looking for a run-of-the-mill swimming pool in Christoval. This place has something better; one of the most popular public swimming holes in the region sits at Pugh Park.
Owner Drex Vincent agrees. “This is a place for people to unwind,” he says. “It’s a family place. We encourage people to bring their kids and dogs and just enjoy themselves.”
It’s not the taste of wine but the call of the wild that draws adults and children by the busload to the Hummer House and its one-of-a-kind wildlife habitat. The Hummer House, a lodging and preserve surrounded by ranchland, is the largest feeding and nesting area for black-chinned hummingbirds in Texas. The male hummers arrive in mid-March; the females arrive about a week later. And it’s not just hummingbirds—a bird-banding program has documented more than 160 species.
Inside the comfortable and spacious Observation Room, owners Dan and Cathy Brown entertain and educate visitors with hummingbird stories while just beyond the glass, hundreds of high-strung hummers hover at the feeders. They then dart away to their nests, almost too quick for the human eye to follow.
“A lot what we do is geared to children,” Cathy says. “We use birds to instill in them a love for wildlife and a respect for nature. You can see the wonder in their faces when they learn about hummingbirds and get to see them up close. It’s something they don’t forget.”
The Hummer House is part of a 1,200-acre ranch teeming with wildlife on the South Concho River. It hosts tour groups, family groups, school groups, birders, and day visitors looking to connect with nature. The ranch offers three bed-and-breakfast properties including a spacious two-bedroom house that sleeps six, a 1,850-square-foot lodge for groups of 12 to 14, and a romantic hideaway for two. But call early as they are booked up months in advance.
For those craving for Tex-Mex, Hidalgo’s Restaurant and its Christoval Plate (chile relleno, crispy taco, beans, and rice) make a fitting end to a busy day. The cheerful waitresses serve the food while it’s piping hot and keep glasses filled with iced tea while the dining room slowly fills with hungry people. Nothing fancy here, but the food is good and the atmosphere is warm and friendly.
Nearby the Concho Christoval River Retreat provides cozy lodging in the heart of town. The main cottage, called the Morning Glory House Bed and Breakfast, has a wraparound porch, tailor-made for drinking coffee in the morning and lounging on a lazy afternoon. The River View Bunkhouse is a larger accommodation across the road. Both spots have impressive views of the live oak, pecan, and transplanted bald cypress trees along the water, just yards away.
A doe grazes quietly a few feet from the front door, but she bounds away when visitors get too close. From the porch, the water sings as it tumbles over the rocks.
Christoval is no secret to natives of San Angelo and Tom Green County, but the rest of the state, beyond the Concho Valley, is rediscovering