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I went looking for Utopia, and I found it—even as my heart pounded and hands sweated.
There’s just no way around it: If you’re going to properly tour the deep Hill Country, you have to commit to driving some scary roads. That means hairpin turns—some tighter than a twist tie on a loaf of bread—spectacular drop-offs of 2,000 feet or more and guardrails not much taller than my knees. When the sign says 10 mph, it means it. On the steep and winding portion of RM 337 between Vanderpool and Leakey, I had to keep laying my perspiring palms, one at a time, against the air-conditioning vents in my car just to keep a tight, dry grip on the steering wheel.
The payoff, of course, when I dared look, was the scenery: steep canyon walls, gigantic rock formations and views with seemingly no end.
Ultimately, I drove about 140 miles on pretty two-lane roads exploring Real, Bandera and Uvalde counties in the heart of Bandera Electric Cooperative country. I drove along the Frio and Sabinal rivers and envied the tubers soaking up the water and the sun.
This sleepy little town on the Sabinal River serves a big purpose: It’s the southern gateway to Lost Maples State Natural Area, home of the revered bigtooth maples—relics from the Ice Age—whose leaves famously turn red, yellow, gold and orange in the fall. November is a great time to see the colors, but go on a weekday: Parking is limited, and Lost Maples officials estimate that 70 percent of the park’s 200,000 annual visitors come during autumn. Lost Maples is five miles north of Vanderpool on Ranch Road 187.
While you’re in the area, check out the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum one mile south of Lost Maples. The museum, featuring vintage German, American, French, Italian and British bikes, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday and is closed December through February.
Lost Maples State Natural Area, (830) 966-3413, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/lost_maples/
Lone Star Motorcycle Museum, (830) 966-6103, lonestarmotorcyclemuseum.com
Using the Real County seat as my launching pad, I drove one leg of the Three Sisters—a wicked yet scenic trio of country roads to the west composed of RM 337, RM 336 and RM 335. I also watched the Frio River run green and clean at Happy Hollow Frio River Outfitters, a rental haven for inner tubers eight miles south of Leakey on U.S. Highway 83.
After driving RM 337 west from Vanderpool to Leakey, I continued on to Camp Wood and rewarded myself with coffee and lemon meringue pie at BJ’s Cafe and Sweet Shop. Back in Leakey, where The Hog Pen’s barbecue draws motorcyclists by the dozens, I traveled south on U.S. 83 and FM 1120 to the tiny burg of Rio Frio on the Frio River. Stop here to admire a centuries-old escarpment live oak tree—a former national champion—with a trunk as big as a living room.
For accommodations in Leakey, try the 67-year-old Frio Canyon Lodge, a rustic place with red-cedar furniture.
Frio Canyon Lodge, (830) 232-6800, www.friocanyonlodge.com
GARNER STATE PARK
For many families, it’s an annual tradition to return to this park eight miles north of Concan on RM 1050, just east of U.S. 83. But get your camping reservations in early: This popular park fills up fast. Garner, built between 1935 and 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is all about summer tradition: The Frio River beckons swimmers and inner tubers who then dance the night away under a pavilion.
Garner State Park, (830) 232-6132, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/garner
After dipping my toes in the river at Garner, I continued east on RM 1050—a lovely two-lane road that more gently winds through the hills—and headed 15 miles to Utopia where I enjoyed a smooth cup of Guatemalan coffee at Utopia Joe’s Coffee House. In November 2007, a New York Times reporter stopped by and was so smitten with a Greek salad that he wrote a story about the place. More tasty food is found at Lost Maples Cafe, where homemade pie and chicken-fried steak fill diners’ plates.
Utopia Joe’s Coffee House, (830) 966-5656, www.utopiajoes.com
Lost Maples Cafe, (830) 966-2221
Camille Wheeler is the staff writer for Texas Co-op Power.