Steven DeBorde first discovered the Highland Lakes as a child, when his older sister took him hiking around its glimmering ponds and rivers. Today he runs Central Texas Outdoor Adventures, a SUP and kayak outfitter. When he’s not leading hiking trips and water tours, he hits the trails to explore the surrounding hills and hidden canyons.
With its rolling hills and hidden pools, Inks Lake State Park is the best introduction to Texas Hill Country. Start with open slopes bursting with wildflowers by leaving from the Pecan Flats trailhead (the first past the park entrance). The Lake Trail meanders through fields of Texas bluebonnets, orange-and-yellow firewheels, and crimson Indian paintbrush (peak bloom in April and May). In the same months, prickly pear and pencil cactus burst with yellow blossoms. Climb from the lake to pink rock islands of pre-Cambrian gneiss, where seasonal vernal pools and occasional swimming holes dot the landscape. These pools are the only place on Earth where two endemic wildflowers, grass-like rock quillwort and delicate white Edward’s Plateau cornsalad, grow. Continue onto the Woodland Trail through juniper, elm, and 15-foot-tall black persimmon trees, whose tubular white blossoms perfume the spring air. Pick up the .6-mile Connecting Trail and bear left at Pecan Flats, named for the trees arching overhead, then climb to a thousand-foot hilltop overlooking azure Inks Lake. Descend to the road to finish the 3.3-mile loop. Extend to 5.3 miles by taking the long way on the Woodland Trail, bearing right instead of left after it crosses Park Road 4.
Texas’s Colorado River feeds Lake Buchanan, the region’s largest lake, after sluicing its way through forested canyonlands. The forests here are part of Colorado Bend State Park, home to mountain lions and aoudads—the wild North African sheep that replaced West Texas’s dwindling bighorns after wildlife officials introduced them starting in the 1950s. Rimmed with steep hillsides, the valleys feel like a slice of the Rockies. “It’s like being in Colorado,” DeBorde says.
Plunge into this haven by following the river. From the North Camping Area parking lot, take the River Trail upstream alongside whitewater rapids for 3.5 miles to Gorman Falls. The cascade drops 70 feet into a staircase of travertine formations that form clear pools of spring water surrounded by thick undergrowth (no swimming allowed). From there, climb to the rocky ridge and follow it through a cedar-juniper forest. Connect the Tinaja, Cedar Chopper, and Lemons Ridge Pass Trails to meet up with the river again and settle at a primitive campsite ($10, reserve in advance). The next day, hike the half mile back to your car.
Birds and Butterflies
For a patch of wilderness solitude, Deborde recommends Canyon of the Eagles, at the northern corner of Highland Lake. Park at the Bird and Butterfly trailhead, then link its namesake trail to the Rocky Point, Lakeside, and Beebrush Trails for a 3.8-mile loop. Keep one eye to the sky for the bald and golden eagles that give this canyon its name. Don’t forget to watch the cedars, where endangered golden-cheeked warblers perch. Tangles of beebrush line the path, opening clusters of white, vanilla-scented flowers that attract Monarch butterflies in spring and summer. After half a mile, the brush gives way to wildflower fields that slope down to Lake Buchanan.
Pace Bend Park occupies a forest peninsula stretching into Lake Travis. With 9 miles of limestone cliffs, coves, peaceful shoreline, and 15 miles of trail through the oak- and mesquite-dotted interior, the park’s hiking has plenty of variety. DeBorde comes here to mountain bike, but the trails are just as good for hiking. He recommends watching the sun set over the hills across the lake. Camp under the stars at one of the first-come, first-serve campsites scattered above the cliffs and on the beach, or at the established campground above Levi Cove ($15 per vehicle).
Ridges and Rivers
A series of creeks spiderweb across Pedernales Falls State Park, carving out a landscape of limestone canyons. “You’re always on the edge looking down into a valley,” DeBorde says. He recommends a loop that zigzags 10 miles along the ridges of limestone uplifts, across trickling creeks, and to his favorite swimming hole. From the Wolf Mountain parking lot, follow the trail to the first junction and bear right, then left, then right again to connect the South Loop Equestrian Trail to the Juniper Ridge Trail, winding along hilltops above the Bee Creek valley. After five creek crossings, pick up the Wolf Mountain Trail, which will carry you to Bee Creek and a side path veering off into a canyon. You won’t find it on the map, but it leads to a swimming hole fed by a series of cascades; Deborde describes it as an “oasis.” Slip from the surrounding rocks to the clear blue waters for a respite from the heat. When you’re ready (or when daylight fades), follow the main trail back to the parking lot.
After you’ve had your fill of Hill Country wildflowers and highland limestone, grab a homestyle Texas hamburger from Bill’s Burgers in Burnet, a small town 13 miles east of Lake Buchanan. DeBorde recommends the Tex Mex, which comes with queso and guacamole. Wash it down with one of Burnet County’s many local brews.
SEASON Year-round (prime wildflowers March through June)
PERMIT None, but reserve campsites in advance to guarantee your spot
FEES Inks Lake State Park $6/person per day; Colorado Bend State Park $5/person per day; Pace Bend Park $3/person or $10 per car; Pedernales Falls State Park $6/person per day