There’s a soundtrack that plays in my head, which fills me with thoughts and yearnings of Bandera, a small Hill Country town that is so much more than just the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” A few of these songs that harken me back home include Robert Earl Keen’s (who lived in Bandera) “The Road Goes on Forever (and the party never ends),” “Take a Back Road” by Rodney Atkins where he encourages us to put a little gravel in our travel, and Tim McGraw’s “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” when he tells of the things you miss “in a world gone crazy.”
There are a myriad of highways that lead into the sawdust-covered gem that is Bandera (Hwy 16 from San Antonio, 173 from Kerrville or from Hondo) and each one can lead you off onto your chosen dirt road where you’re invited to discover a piece of peaceful pie.
There’s a saying (also used by my alma mater, Texas A&M University) that says “From the outside in, you can’t understand it, and from the inside out, you can’t explain it.” There exists a long list of reasons folks pilgrimage to Bandera time after time and you might just need to experience it for yourself.
The good news is that anytime of year is a great time to go to Bandera. A family trip during Spring Break allows you to see wildflowers on the way, taking the kids to see a simpler way of life. Memorial Day weekend provides an ideal place to harken back to years when servicemen and women came back to small-town parades or celebrate our country’s independence around Fourth of July by visiting one of the best role models in Texas. Over Labor Day weekend, what better place to take a break from the grind and enjoy a slower pace? During November, there’s no better place to celebrate gratitude around Thanksgiving, and the holidays provide a beautiful old town respite to see the annual Christmas parade down Main Street.
Bandera quilts a tapestry of feelings because of the unique setting it provides. Some folks enjoy the crackle of an outdoor fire while looking up at the stars or just sitting on a porch with a cold beer, laughing with really good friends or family. During the summer, you can find some of the most secluded and beautiful river tubing the state has to offer, and where else can you find a jewelry store in a bar like at the fun and famous 11th Street Cowboy Bar, where you can dance to live music on weekends.
Many visitors choose to stay at one of the dozens of guest ranches around Bandera, which run the gamut from a traditional family working ranch to a more tourist-filled experience, offering nightly hayrides where guests feed the animals “cow candy” or meander horseback on a trail ride.
Locals and visitors alike enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner at the OST (Old Spanish Trail), one of the centerpieces of town on Main Street. This diner has been around since 1921, and is one of the last remaining originally named eating establishments along the Old Spanish Trail. Visitors might flock there to sit on a real saddle at the old bar or to dine in the John Wayne Room, but locals go there because of their delicious and crispy chicken fried steak or cheesy enchiladas, served by good people who have worked there for more than three decades just because they love the place. (I’ve also been told they serve the best nachos in the state, which I can attest to.)
One of the beautiful things about Bandera is that some go to just relax but others go for some real exercise, as it’s a popular destination for mountain biking. The Hill Country State Natural Area (part of Texas Parks & Wildlife) has 40 miles of recreational trails popular with cyclists from across the state and beyond.
So whether you’re looking for a cool spot in the Medina River, a throwback country dance floor in a basement at Arkey Blues Silver Dollar Saloon or to experience an authentic show-deo rodeo with real cowboys on their own real horses, Bandera is where you relish in the slower pace and the simple pleasures of life, where the road does go on forever and the party really never ends.