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Road Trip | Bastrop

Just 30 miles east of Austin, you can explore an entirely different world. Here, are our favorite fun, funky, and delicious reasons to get lost in the Piney Woods in and around Bastrop.

Most of us hop onto Highway 71 east to catch a flight. But there are plenty of alluring reasons to forge ahead, past Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and plan a day or a weekend exploring one of the most compelling areas in Central Texas. Perched on the banks of the Colorado River, with a quaint downtown surrounded by more than 6,000 acres of loblolly pines, Bastrop, TX, has true grit. After enduring the devastating wildfires of 2011, the place dubbed “the most historic small town in Texas” has worked hard to preserve its character, promote heritage tourism, and enhance its creative community. “Our historic downtown is home to more than 18 independently owned restaurants, many featuring locally sourced ingredients from Bastrop County growers and producers,” says Nancy Wood, director of the Bastrop Main Street Program. “There are 10 fine art galleries in the three blocks of the commercial district, each with unique art, jewelry, tableware and collector items. With the Colorado River running right through downtown, there’s the opportunity to rent a kayak or canoe for a short trip be back in time to enjoy a late lunch,” she continues. “We like to say, “come for a visit and we’ll capture your heart!”

Resident Maura Ambrose, the artist we feature on page 102, echoes the enthusiasm. “I love living in Bastrop because it feels like a small community of people working hard and enjoying the simple life,” she says. “With an abundance of farmers and cattle ranchers, a lot of the work here is done in cooperation with the land, and I can relate to that lifestyle.” It may be the best time yet to visit this beautiful, resurgent community. What follows, our picks for making the most of the adventure.

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Play

Pack your hiking shoes and a water bottle, because just 13 miles east of the airport, McKinney Roughs Nature Park offers 1,100 lush acres to explore by foot (across 18 miles of wooded trails) or on horseback (bring your own horse). The park is home to hundreds of native plant and animal species that flourish within the rolling box canyons, expansive wildflower meadows, and lazy river bends of the Texas Colorado River.

After you pay your entrance fee ($5; free for children 12 and under) and get the latest trail info at the visitors’ center, check out the Mark Rose Natural Science Center, where you can get up close and personal with the area’s indigenous species (including snakes and turtles) through interactive exhibits and learn more about the diverse confluence of ecosystems (including Post Oak Savannah, Blackland Prairie, East Texas Piney Woods, and a riparian zone) within the park.

Next stop, time travel. Sure, you can go to a museum to see skeletons, but at the fun and funky Dinosaur Park, you can walk along trails and behold dinosaur replicas roaring from behind plants, trees, and rocks. As you amble past your new friends (e.g. a velociraptor and a triceratops), you’re also likely to see real-life wild rabbits, lizards, and roadrunners. Kids can channel their inner Indiana Jones at the park’s fossil-dig and playground. Be sure to bring comfy shoes for the half-mile long gravel trail, and snacks (food and drinks are not available) for an afternoon picnic. A well-themed gift shop ensures that you won’t escape without a souvenir or two. The park is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday 10-4; admission is $7 per person, children under 24 months free.

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Eat

In Bastrop, there are enticing options round the clock. For breakfast, join locals downtown at Maxine’s Café (905 Main St., 512- 303-0919) for hearty, from scratch cooking like Jack’s Eye Opener ($5.75), flaky buttermilk biscuits topped with scrambled eggs and sausage gravy, or spicy migas ($9) with bacon or sausage served with breakfast potatoes, flour or corn tortillas, and homemade salsa.

When you’re ready to refuel after a day of gallery hopping or kayaking, Viejo’s Tacos y Tequila beckons with an appealing patio and signature drinks like the Basil Antigua ($9) with silver tequila, elderflower liqueur, fresh lime, hibiscus-infused agave nectar, fresh basil, and mint. (Purists can order a flawless top shelf margarita.) Round out your happy hour with their modern riffs on tacos, like Carolinas Pollo Frito ($4) with fried chicken, guacamole, mango, cilantro, and salsa verde or the Pirata ($4) with steak, Manchego cheese, and avocado.

With exposed brick walls, soaring beaded ceilings, and throwback 1920s décor, Baxter’s on Main sets the stage for a date night. Go for the cozy table by the window in the bar—it looks out onto Main Street—then settle into warm spinach-artichoke dip, hand-cut Angus steaks (ribeye and filet mignon), fresh Gulf seafood, and an appealing wine list.

We love the small town vibe (and sweet tooth nirvana) at Sugar Shack, a family-owned and operated sweet shop where you can tuck into chocolate-dipped strawberries, Blue Bell ice cream, waffle bowl sundaes, and handmade candies (chocolate-covered Rice Krispies treats, anyone?) by the pound.

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Shop

Kazem Khonsari’s Lost Pines Art Bazaar offers a surprising and thoughtfully curated mix of Persian culture with a Texas twist, including richly hued handwoven rugs, fine antiques, metal and wood art pieces, and western bronze sculptures. You’ll also find fair trade and handmade home décor items, such as Rifle Paper Company recipe boxes and Ten Thousand Villages serving sets.

Art Connections Gallery is a window into Bastrop’s robust art community. The historic building doubles as a working studio for three artists, while showcasing the collective vision of over 60 local arts and crafts workers. You’ll find fine art photography, wood carvings, and paintings (including oils by owner Deborah Johnson). Other works include fiber and paper art, colorful glass objects, handcrafted furniture, handmade jewelry, ceramics, and books and CDs by local writers and musicians.

Expect to smell leather when you open the door at Texas Boot Company, where you’ll find everything you need for a night of roadhouse fun. The store boasts the area’s biggest selection of western wear, including boots by classic brands like Ariat, Justin, and Lucchese, as well as cowboy hats, plenty of denim, pearl-snap shirts, hand-tooled belts, and more.

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Sweet Dreams

Sure, you can be home by nightfall, but it’s a lot more fun to linger. If you’re game for a weekend, book a room at Hyatt Lost Pines Resort and Spa (rooms from $269), which offers a luxurious setting to sink into the area’s diverse charms. The well appointed, nature-themed rooms have super cozy beds, and the grounds provide plenty of room to roam (thanks to 405 acres adjacent to McKinney Roughs and alongside the Colorado River). The best way to refresh upon arrival is to grab an inflatable tube and cool down at the Crooked River Water Park. If you and your little cowpokes yearn to be in the saddle, there are scenic trail rides ($85) and easy pony rides ($40 for kids 2 to 10) at Renegade Trailhead equestrian facility.

When you’re ready to put your feet up—and have them scrubbed and polished—head to Spa Django for a fragrant, rosemary-scented massage. At Wild Hare Youth Spa, moms and daughters can have their toes painted side-by-side with treatments like the Berry Serene Pedicure ($55). The rest of the day is easily rounded out with photo ops with their mascot longhorn steers, activities like raft rides, biking, and extraordinary birding tours. When the light fades, grab a margarita and a seat on a leather couch in the lobby for their new live music series. (We heard Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay, two of our favorite Austin singer-songwriters.). What’s the most delicious ending to day brimming with Texas swagger? Slice through a fat ribeye at Stories, which serves seasonal fare in a fine-dining setting (they even have gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids). Save room to end the evening as you should—under a sky full of Texas stars, with s’mores and tall tales around a campfire. Aren’t you glad you got away?

Credits

Photography by Nicole Mlakar

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