For the best route into the Hill Country, head west on Highway 71. The vast and rugged landscape opens up beyond the Balcones Fault, leading to miles and miles of pleated limestone outcroppings blanketed in springtime by bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush. A chain of lakes formed by the Colorado River winds through the region, which offers the option to hike any number of trails, taste the Granite Blush at Fall Creek Vineyards (325-379-5361), spelunk in ancient caves, splash in spectacular waterfalls at Pedernales Falls State Park (830-868-7304) or fish for trout in the Llano River. The region is also rich in seasonal celebrations such as the Bluebonnet Festival in Burnet and the Hill Country Regatta on Lake Buchanan, both in April; the German community in Fredericksburg hosts an October festival of local foods and wines.
Hook 'em Horns
In Texas, football ranks up there with church, family and making sure the cattle get fed. With a little effort, you can score tickets to a University of Texas football game at the ninety-thousand-seat Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Tickets are available at the U.T. athletics office (texasboxoffice.com) or through the online brokers Ticket City (ticketcity.com) and StubHub (stubhub.com). Tailgating begins Friday afternoon for a Saturday game; follow the brisket smoke to Trinity Street and listen for the cowboy hat-wearing Longhorn band rehearsing "Deep in the Heart of Texas."
Austin's major popular music festivals attract thousands of enthusiasts to the city each year. The influential South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival made its start in 1987 with a modest audience of seven hundred. Today the rocking, nearly round-the-clock event, held in March, includes concerts and film screenings and draws more than ten thousand people. In mid-September, the Austin City Limits Music Festival brings thousands outdoors to Zilker Park, where Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Willie Nelson, Gnarls Barkley and Van Morrison headlined the 130-act lineup in 2006.
Where Willie Hangs His Hat
When he's not at his home away from home in Maui or on the road (again), country-music icon, Texas native and habitual golfer Willie Nelson resides on an 850-acre property between Austin and Horseshoe Bay that encompasses his recording studio, his Western-movie-set town called Luck and his tumbledown nine-hole course, Willie Nelson's Pedernales Cut-N-Putt (pedernalesgolfclub.com). A former country club that Nelson purchased nearly thirty years ago—and around which assorted family members, friends and roadies of his now live—this unpretentious hill-country layout is open to the public. But before booking a round, familiarize yourself with the course rules, including, as the web site states, "No more than twelve in your foursome." Afterward be sure to stop at Poodie's Hilltop Bar & Grill (poodies.com), owned by Poodie Locke, Nelson's longtime road manager, for live music and the hands-down best cheeseburger on Highway 71. If you're lucky, you might find Willie there, still going strong at age seventy-four, bending the nylon strings of his old Martin while he waits for lunch. —K.R.