After Snowmageddon finally dwindled away, we decided to leave Kerrville and drive to the nearby town of Bandera, Texas, 23 miles away; known as “The Cowboy Capital of the World,” with a population of 957. The charming little town struck our fancy right away. Just a scant few were wearing masks, and signs on most stores said it was encouraged but not mandatory. We chose to camp at Antler Oaks Lodge and RV Park, only 3 miles outside town limits in order to explore the area more.
We were impressed with the park’s impressive amenities. The friendly lady working the front desk explained she was the daughter of the owner. Antler Oaks was part of their larger, working ranch.
She said we were free to wander around the Grand Lodge but to excuse it a little because they were still in the process of cleaning up water damage from burst pipes from the recent weeklong freeze, so some things were temporarily rearranged for the cleanup and recovery process.
She went on to explain that many locals still had no running water, although most had regained their electricity. She added that the park was normally full of snowbirds, but most had made a hasty retreat headed to warmer climes before the ice storm struck so we had our choice of available spaces.
We felt particularly lucky because we were aware that most campgrounds in Bandera were already full or anticipated being full for the upcoming Thunder in the Hills Bike Week. Like a miniature version of the big Sturgis event in South Dakota. We decided to take no chances and registered for several weeks ahead.
In fact, it seemed like Bandera had something going on almost every weekend. Multiple live music venues at various locations were a daily attraction that ran into nights. You can hear everything from country tunes, classic rock and occasionally, even jazz.
During favorable weather, the popular 11th Street Cowboy Bar even has a “Steak Night” where one could bring their own steak and cook it on grills in the outdoor seating area while listening to popular country songs from a live band. Our host also suggested we check out old favorites like the Old Spanish Trail restaurant, called the OST which besides good American fare offered walls decorated exclusively with John Wayne photos and memorabilia.
The family-owned Antler Oaks RV Park has 100 sites available to guests, and is within walking distance to the Medina River. In addition, it features a pool which remained closed due to storm damage but we didn’t miss it. They also rent well-maintained cabins for couples and families. Antler Oaks is also popular as a venue for weddings, family reunions and other groups needing larger areas to entertain and meet. Restrooms, showers and a small laundry room are available on-site. It isn’t at all unusual to see the patriarch of the family on his golf cart while doing chores.
Gentle weather had finally returned to the Texas Hill Country by then, so one could wear short sleeves; although there was still a little chill on the breeze, particularly as night approached. Like some locals, I became adept at tying my down jacket by its sleeves around my waist when it was warm, but having it conveniently close when more warmth was needed. It reminded me of desert winters. The deep freeze had evidently killed off most insects, including mosquitoes, and we basked in the freedom it temporarily offered.
To our delight, animals like buffalo, long horn cattle, burros and even zebras were kept as pets on the ranch property adjacent to the campground. We found out that Texas Hill Country was one of the state’s top producers of many exotics for game hunters on sprawling ranches, only surpassed by big game ranches on the Edwards Plateau. Some of the animals occasionally escape, so it wasn’t unusual to see spotted axis, from India and Sri Lanka, or a majestic blackbuck from India and Nepal. Apparently axis and white tail deer don’t get along, so you won’t see them together but in our opinion, regal axis deer quite outshine their less flashy cousins. Axis venison is considered by many to be the finest deer meat in the world.
Grill guards for one’s pickup truck are very popular around these parts, for good reason. Axis and deer are very skittish. Unfortunately we saw too many road kills and dead axis on barb wire fences after the freeze. Highway 173 from Kerrville and Bandera has miles of scenic exotic game ranches that resemble small herds grazing on the Serengeti. More species and greater numbers of exotic big game are in Texas than anywhere else in North America. The recent severe cold killed many species like nilgai, blackbuck, aoudad and axis. Exotics are not protected by the regulations that cover native game animals, and are hunted at the desire of the landowner, with a few exceptions in neighboring counties.
We enjoyed the spaciousness and solitude of the resort. While taking our small dogs to the dog park, we stopped and talked with a few other campers and found them friendly and informative. Some of the campers we spoke with were also California refugees but were already in the process of having homes built in Bandera. Others were snowbirds from coastal Texas. No one camped on either side of us for several spaces over until Thunder in the Hills happened, but we were warned and anticipated it. What seemed like thousands of roaring motorcycles descended upon Bandera and its restaurants, gas stations and campgrounds, all in good fun. It was a people watchers paradise for a few days.
Everyone seemed to have a blast on the organized rides through rolling hills, including a popular, windy one called the “Twisted Sisters,” known for the Hill Country Farm to Market (FM) roads, 335, 336 and 337. Many of the bikes were beautifully maintained and the campers at Mansfield Park Rodeo Grounds just down the road from Antler’s Lodge, had fun showing them off.
The 14,000 square foot Grand Lodge is open to guests. You will also find a general store and library on-site. A newly renovated and expanded Lowe’s Market (no relation to the big Hardware stores) is in downtown Bandera, as well as a clean coin laundromat convenient to campers. There is also a good size hardware store, in addition to cowgirl boutiques, an old timey general store, a ranch store, lumberyard, nurseries, Dollar Generals, automotive and RV repair shops too. You won’t find a hospital, large mall, movie theatre, H-E-B or Walmart in Bandera, but they’re an easy 25 minute drive to larger towns. If you’re craving a city, check out San Antonio, only 45 minutes away from Bandera.
Bandera is also known for tubing on the Medina River in the summer. Numerous top-rated dude ranches offer lodging and horseback riding through beautiful Texas Hill Country, home cooked meals, riding camps and even pools for individuals and groups. In the summer, Bandera has a rodeo every weekend, complete with mutton bustin’ for the tykes. Bandera loves their hometown parades too, so expect them down Main Street for every holiday and home game. Cowboy Mardi Gras is very popular in February. For those looking for something on the quieter side, Bandera has two museums, a library, and bingo at the American Legion Hall.
Longhorn cattle are as plentiful as cowboy hats in Texas. If you want to know how much Bandera likes their cattle then go to the back of Western Trail Antiques on Main (173) and Highway 16 and look at their huge long horn steer skull hanging on the building. You can also sit in a saddle on a tethered longhorn steer with enormous horns in front of the visitors center near the courthouse every weekend for photo ops. You can also ride in a horse drawn carriage while you soak in the sights or rent a golf cart. Staged gun fights between desperadoes are a weekend occurrence in front of the courthouse.
It is true that Bandera was growing on us by the day. Certainly the hospitality of Antler Oaks, friendly locals and tourists alike made an impression. Bandera deserves its own stand-alone article, so keep an eye out for our future one. But would we take the leap and actually contact a realtor to test the buyer’s market or were we jumping in with both feet without looking further? Stay connected to find out where our adventures continued and if we still wanted to be Texans after all, or would vacation memories of west coast Florida’s green Gulf of Mexico entice us more.