You can keep your sprawling reservoirs buzzing with jet skis and fancy boats. We’ll take quiet, off-the-radar Medina Lake, which lures a smaller cadre of fans devoted to its clear, deep waters and old-fashioned family atmosphere.
The roughly 10-square-mile lake, which measures 152 feet at its deepest, was constructed a century ago for agricultural irrigation. Gamblers allegedly once gathered on Tiki Island, which rises from its center, and speed boat races and sailing regattas unfolded in its waves. Today, people head to the lake to swim, paddle, and wade in water so clear you can count your toes when you’re standing waist deep in it. Each September, the community of Lakehills on the north side puts on the Cajun Festival, complete with a gumbo cookoff and live music straight from the bayou.
The fishing’s great, too. In the 1940s, someone pulled the then-state record largemouth bass from its waters. Walk into any of the cabins or no-frills restaurants that sprinkle the lake’s length, and someone will tell you about the crappie, striper, or catfish they hooked earlier in the day.
“The crappie are big, fat, juicy, and tasty,” says Stephen Bonahoom, who opened Bedrock Resort near the dam more than 20 years ago. He no longer rents the lodge, but still operates a marina and members-only boat launch there. He also loves to show off an amazing collection of memorabilia, including antique boat motors, news clippings, and photographs from the old days.
Want to skim over the surface of the lake? You can do that with the help of Wallys Watersports and Boat Storage, which rents kayaks and this year celebrates three decades of teaching the finer points of water skiing. Owners Shirlee and Mike Crandall once performed on skis at nearby SeaWorld San Antonio.
“A lot of people have grown up here; it’s where they come with their families,” Shirlee says.
Scuba divers prefer the view from below, and families picnic, swim, and launch boats at Bandera County Medina Lake Park.
For a guided tour, check with former Olympic kayaker Ben Kvanli of Alamo Adventures, who loves pointing his nimble little boats down the drops and spills of nearby creeks, and leads organized paddle outings on the main lake.
“To me this is definitely the prettiest lake in Texas—the clearest water, the cliffs, the depth,” Kvanli says. “Most lakes in Texas are mud puddles. This is a miniature Lake Powell.”
When the day winds down, grab a burger and listen to live music while the sun sets at the Dancing Bear Cantina in Mico, or order up a plate of enchiladas at La Cabaña Café in Lakehills. —Pam LeBlanc
Today, the jagged shores of the Lake Meredith reservoir may contain a hidden Panhandle oasis, but just a few years ago, the lake nearly disappeared altogether. This national recreation area 40 miles northeast of Amarillo once attracted residents from across West Texas, but a devastating multiyear drought caused usage to plummet. Once deeper than 100 feet, the lake’s water levels plunged to 26 feet in the summer of 2013.
“When the water went down you could see things you weren’t able to see before—beautiful, huge boulders,” says Rebecca Weatherford, who owns Three Falls Cove, a bed-and-breakfast on Bugbee Creek, just north of the lake. “It was so sad, but it was a beauty all its own.”
That’s the story of the Texas Panhandle, where exasperating weather patterns expose pockets of splendor. The lake’s deep-blue water laps against rust-red canyon walls, a stark interruption to the arid flatland. “We’re down in nature itself, with rolling hills, canyons, and wildflowers,” Weatherford says.
Recent years of rain have restored lake levels to around 75 feet, which hasn’t just rejuvenated the area’s boating and fishing traffic—Meredith offers the best walleye fishing in the state—but also breathed new life into Hutchinson County itself. Fritch is the nearest true lake town, a community of 2,000 on Meredith’s eastern shore. From Wright-On Bait, Tackle & Watercraft Rental at the Sanford-Yake boat ramp to the Lake Meredith Aquatic and Wildlife Museum, Fritch residents’ livelihoods are closely tied to lake traffic.
Just a few miles down State Highway 136, the city of Borger tells a different story. Its history long predates Meredith, which was spearheaded by and named for a Borger city manager more than 50 years ago. Home to one of the first oil wells in the petroleum-rich Panhandle, Borger gushed to life as a notoriously lawless boomtown in the 1920s.
Today, its 13,000 residents still depend upon the petroleum and agriculture industries. But the rising lake levels and recent economic development incentives have brought the city a long-awaited resurgence. “There’s a buzz going on, a lot of new excitement in the air,” says Jamie Neumann, a Borger native who co-owns Neumann & Bailey boutique on Main Street. “Things are changing.”
Their shop sits two blocks from The Morley, a fully renovated 1947 theater complete with balcony seating. It’s the perfect destination after a hearty Tex-Mex meal at The Plaza, further down Main, or a rib-eye at Texas Rose Steakhouse. (For nostalgic chain restaurant fans, Borger is also home to the only remaining Bennigan’s in the state.)
Also on Main Street, Hutchinson County Historical Museum details the city’s rowdy history, highlighting the criminal elements of the oil boom as well as the nearby Battle of Adobe Walls in 1864. During this skirmish, Comanches and Kiowas fought United States troops in the Panhandle’s only Civil War battle.
But closer to Meredith, the true jewel of the High Plains is the 1,371-acre Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument—one of just two such monuments in Texas. Guided by rangers on a free tour (reservations required), visitors can explore the colorful flint deposits that supplied spear points for High Plains mammoth hunters and other ancient nomadic peoples. While the lake may be less than a century old, this scenic Panhandle gem has been attracting visitors for thousands of years. —Jason Boyett
Millions of drivers zoom beneath the Stillhouse Hollow Lake highway sign on Interstate 35 just two exits north of Salado, but few know all that this sign represents: sweeping vistas of sparkling blue against a backdrop of limestone hills, hikes along a waterfall, and miles of undeveloped lakeshore open to the public. Even fewer know that Stillhouse Hollow Lake, born in the 1960s when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Lampasas River for flood control, is named for the liquor stills that excavators unearthed during dam construction in limestone hollows along the spring-fed Lampasas. That clear, cool water was a gift to the moonshine makers, and it’s still a gift to us now, although one that’s kept on the down low.
Follow a curve on FM 2484 heading northwest out of Salado and behold the surprise of blue water shimmering in the sunlight. For a lakeside ramble, explore Dana Peak Park, popular among soldiers at nearby Fort Hood. Hiking trails let you wind your way—either by foot or mountain bike—among the cedar and oak-covered hills that rise up from the lakeshore. Although the view is captivating, take a moment to gaze down; you’ll find that these limestone trails are thick with fossils—relics of the land’s oceanic past. Cool off afterwards at the pebbly swimming beach down in Dana Peak lakeshore park, home to boat docks and fishing holes aplenty.
Another big draw is Chalk Ridge Falls, a meandering hiking trail favored by locals on the edge of the Stillhouse Hollow dam. “I grew up hiking Chalk Ridge,” says Teresa Pinkerton, a Salado native who works at the town’s recently revamped historic Stagecoach Inn. “It goes on and on. There are marked trails and then deer trails, but I often just go looking for caves.” The eponymous falls, fed with that fresh moonshine spring water, flow year-round.
Stop in to the Corps of Engineers office at Stillhouse Hollow Lake to get a map of the region, one that also includes Stillhouse’s big sister, Belton Lake. With the two lakes covering almost 19,000 acres, the possibilities are vast. “See all of this?” says Andreas Wooten, a park ranger at the office, pointing to swaths of orange on the lake map. “This is all Wildlife Management Area, and it is open to the public. If you can access the water from our land, you can get in it. But make sure you wear water shoes—we’ve got zebra mussels and fish hooks, and they’ll cut your feet.”
Whether swimming, hiking, boating, or paddle boarding (there are various marinas on both Belton and Stillhouse Hollow Lakes for boat access), lake exploring requires pitstops for really good grub. Cruise over to Belton’s picturesque downtown to feast on the inspired tacos at Arusha’s Coffee, a small-town coffee shop with big-time charm. Or enjoy food with a view at the Dead Fish Grill overlooking Belton Lake. For liquid refreshment, nothing beats the hibiscus margarita at the Stagecoach Inn restaurant and bar in Salado. When you’re ready to kick off your hiking boots, the Stagecoach Inn, with stylishly redone rooms overlooking the new poolside bar, makes for a cushy lake retreat. —Clayton Maxwell
Though it’s a mere five-minute drive from the cinematic charms and lively happy hours of Smithville, Buescher Lake is a world of its own, one dominated by birdsong, croaking frogs, and lofty trees reflected in a lake so small some might call it a pond. “This is a quiet park,” says a park ranger as he helps me drag a canoe to the water’s edge, where the only other soul is a lone fisherman. “Even when every campsite is full, it’s still a quiet park.”
With fewer than 60 camping sites, Buescher is a diminutive state park, a Texas version of Walden Pond, one dedicated to the simple pursuits of fishing, canoeing, and watching Mother Nature do her thing. There may be no better perch for nature-watching here than from the deck of one of the park’s three cabins tucked away in the woods. With bunkbeds, mini-fridges and—best of all—lake views, these wooden cabins feel almost too idyllic to be true. You’ll need plenty of lead time to get a reservation on weekends. Named for the German-American family who donated the land—they pronounce their name “Bisher”—Buescher, like its big sister Bastrop State Park, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. With its CCC-built pavilion and walking trails, a day spent on this bucolic 25-acre lake can feel like a day plucked from the 1930s.
And while it’s certainly family-friendly—there are wide fields for ball throwing, and the rentable canoes courtesy of Friends of the Lost Pines State Parks include kid-size life vests—Buescher also makes for an ideal couple’s retreat or a solo camping adventure, particularly if you enjoy some rigorous pedaling and a break from Wi-Fi. The 2-mile paved loop through the park is framed in oaks and loblolly pines; biking it is like flying through a tunnel of luminescent green. If you prefer two feet over two wheels, the Winding Woodlands trail—one of the park’s six interconnected hiking trails—is a fragrant romp through the woods on dry red pine needles.
Hiking, canoeing, biking—do them all and then scoot into town for some well-deserved barbecue. New to the quickly transforming town of Smithville, the pit masters of Micklethwait Market & Grocery have turned a spacious former automotive garage into a carnivore’s paradise with a retro vibe. Sink your teeth into juicy brisket, then balance out your barbecue high with sides like beet salad and lemon poppy slaw. For now, Micklethwait is a daytime-only operation, but there are many good choices for evening treats too; the pizza at Honey’s (try The Pines, a pesto-bacon pizza) and the sliders at The Front Room make you want to lick your plate. Then head home to your woodland retreat—full, happy, and worn out from so much good lakeside living. —Clayton Maxwell
With 21 miles of shady trails surrounding the 210-acre Lake Raven, Huntsville State Park offers a cool escape and excellent basecamp to discover the eclectic charms of Huntsville. You’ll know you’re getting close when you spot the towering statue of Sam Houston, known as “Big Sam,” standing sentinel over the ongoing construction along the Interstate 45 corridor between Houston and Dallas.
After setting up camp at the state park (that is, if you are prepared to sleep in a tent—if not, there are plenty of basic hotels in town, not to mention 28 screened shelters in the park), the choice of diversions could keep you running hard for a long weekend. Take a dip, rent a canoe, or string a fishing pole on Lake Raven, which takes its name from the nickname Houston was given during his adolescent sojourn with the Cherokee tribes of Tennessee. Three small streams feed the lake, which drains into East Sandy Creek and onward nearly 7 miles to the San Jacinto River.
On the edge of town, the statue of Big Sam has its own visitor center, and you can learn about its construction and Houston artist David Adickes, who designed the massive figure. Standing 67 feet tall on a 10-foot pedestal, it’s the tallest memorial of an American hero in the entire country. Houston-inspired art further paves the way to downtown Huntsville’s celebrated Cultural District. On the courthouse square, a three-panel mural by world-renowned painter Richard Haas depicts scenes from Sam Houston’s life, including his days as a frontiersman and the Battle of San Jacinto, where the would-be president of Texas defeated General Santa Anna.
Houston casts a long shadow across Huntsville, largely because he lived in the area on and off starting in 1844, when he purchased the Raven Hill plantation, just south of modern-day Oakhurst, 13 miles away. The Steamboat House where he spent his last days is part of the 15-acre Sam Houston Memorial Museum complex. The museum also features the dogtrot Woodland home Houston and his second wife, Margaret Lea Houston, called home, now housed on the Sam Houston State University campus.
You won’t go hungry in Huntsville either as there’s a variety of restaurants and food trucks, including Fatboys and its juicy burgers, and downhome cooking at the Farmhouse Cafe. Barbecue hounds should plan on swinging by New Zion Missionary Baptist Church for its acclaimed saucy, smoked meats and buttermilk pie, only open Thursday to Saturday.
While the state’s oldest penitentiary is headquartered in Huntsville, the Texas Prison Museum offers a glimpse of prison life for those just passing through. Nearing the completion of a $700,000 expansion project, galleries at the newly renovated facility include videos and memorabilia from the old Texas Prison Rodeo; a refurbished exhibit about the cruel exploits of Bonnie and Clyde; and a chance to see Old Sparky, the state’s retired electric chair. Although it’s a macabre relic, museum Director Bill Stephens says it’s probably the collection’s top draw.
If you’re like us, it’s enough to send a visitor running back to Huntsville State Park, to give thanks for the freedom and fresh air found on the shores of Lake Raven. —Dan Oko