A family vacation to the Texas Hill Country River Region
By Beth Kelly
I looked over my shoulder and smiled at my two girls, Sarah, 14, and Jane, 17, sitting in the back seat of our SUV, distracted by their phones. I looked over at Mike, our chauffeur, our rock, their father, my husband, and leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
“What was that for?” he asked.
“For being you. And for taking all of us on a summer getaway before Sarah starts high school and Jane becomes a senior.”
Jane rolled her eyes. “Mom, you’re so cheesy. And I’m missing Stephanie’s party for this vacation.”
Our girls were growing up so fast. The four of us needed a family vacation. A getaway that would bring us all together again. To get us away from the distractions of work, the girls’ boyfriends, and the incessant myth that parents are not cool.
I’d rented us a cabin in the hills of Uvalde County, where three rivers run close by: the Frio, Sabinal and Nueces. As we pulled up under statuesque cypress trees and saw a fire pit surrounded by hammocks spread across the lush grounds, Jane and Sarah finally set their phones aside and big smiles spread across their faces. Then they noticed the pool and were off to go check it out while Mike and I carried our bags inside. Our cabin had a rock fireplace, solid wood floors and vibrant artwork throughout.
I promised the girls we’d enjoy the pool later and suggested they get ready for the horseback ride I had booked for the whole family. We changed into jeans and boots and grabbed some of the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies that the owner had thoughtfully left on the kitchen table before heading out.
I’d reserved our ride on the “high trail” with Elm Creek Stables so we could experience the spectacular views of Frio River canyon. When we arrived, adorable kid goats ran up to us, looking to play. Jane and Sarah cuddled them and laughed at their antics.
Beverly and George, the stable owners, made us feel right at home, welcoming us to their patch of paradise. I couldn’t get over how green the area was. Our horses were well-trained, perfect for our group. George led the way to the trail and our family followed. Mike was in front and I rode behind Jane and Sarah. They were in awe of the wildlife we saw on the ride—deer, rabbits—and I was in awe of them. They were completely in the moment, no cell phones, just soaking up the experience.
The views were breathtaking. We were surrounded by nature and the four of us agreed this was one of the prettiest places we’d ever been.
A family feast
All that riding made us hungry. Luckily, I’d made advance reservations at The Laurel Tree in Utopia. Their menu changes weekly based on the seasonal herbs and vegetables they pick from their garden and their chef, Laurel, trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. As we drove through Utopia, we passed the golf course where Robert Duvall and Lucas Black played in Seven Days in Utopia. This place truly is a slice of heaven.
We arrived at The Laurel Tree early and strolled through the vegetable and herb gardens on the property. The herbs enlivened our senses. “Mom, is that what rosemary looks like?” Sarah asked. “Yes!” I exclaimed, embarrassed that I’d let my youngest reach age 14 before she knew what fresh rosemary looked like. We breathed in smells of sage, mint and chives.
Dinner was amazing. Seriously, the best meal we’ve had in years. Perhaps it was the ambiance—the candlelight, the fresh-cut flowers—or perhaps it was the company—the four of us engaging in conversation and laughing together. But, it was also the extremely fresh flavors of the dishes.
It was a five-course meal with chef’s choice appetizer, soup, salad and dessert, and our choice of two entrees. Jane and I chose the three-cheese seafood lasagna with scallops, crab, shrimp and mushrooms and a side of tomatoes and squash from the garden. Mike and Jane had the smoked pork chops with caramelized Honeycrisp apples and onions over Dijon mashed potatoes.
We left full and happy and when we got back to our cabin we made s’mores and sat around the fire pit telling stories. That night when I looked up, I saw a shooting star. I smiled—my wish had already come true.
A river runs through it
The next morning we woke early and enjoyed breakfast burritos on our porch before heading to Garner State Park. The Frio River is one of the most popular rivers in Texas, known for its cool, spring-fed aquamarine waters and nearly three miles of it winds through Garner State Park. We tossed sandwiches and Dr Peppers in our rented kayaks and took off. The Frio lived up to its hype.
The crystal-clear waters felt cool and refreshing in the Texas sun. We kept our eyes peeled for golden-cheeked warblers, known to be in the park. “I’ll hand it to you, Mom,” Jane said. “It’s beautiful here.” I nodded in agreement, taking in the scenery as we paddled beneath towering cypresses, past limestone cliffs, between cedar-studded hills.
We spent the entire day on the river, then got large waffle cones with stacks of gelato scoops for our drive to the Frio Bat Cave. After reading that the world’s second-largest bat population that’s open to the public was here, I immediately added it to our itinerary.
When we arrived, the deep-blue sky was turning yellow at its base to the west. Our guide said the cave is home to nearly 12 million Mexican free-tailed bats, typically from mid-March through September. The bats slowly started emerging from the cave at sunset, first a few, then some more, then they poured out in droves. I wouldn’t have been surprised if all 12 million were there that night. “Mom, it looks like the flying monkeys on The Wizard of Oz!” Sarah said.
It was an amazing sight to see. The bats swarmed overhead like giant flies; danced and darted in the sky like a school of fish riding the currents. We watched hawks and falcons dive for the bats, adding to the dance. We took a family picture in front of the bats and used it for our Christmas card.
We have that photo framed on our mantle now, a reminder of the vacation we all so desperately needed. A memory frozen in time. I framed a copy of the photo for Jane’s dorm room when she moved away to college the next year, and quietly noticed that it stood on her desk, appearing in the background of photos she shared with me. I’m so glad we took that family vacation to such a gorgeous part of the world, where time stands still.
Plan your getaway to beautiful Uvalde County.