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Mountain biking, paddling, and spelunking The Highland Lakes in Texas

Inks Lake State Park The water at Inks Lake State Park stays constant year-round and is a great spot for kayaking or canoeing. | Photo by Visit Marble Falls

I lived in Austin for many years, and since moving to Houston a decade ago, my trips to the charming, rustic Hill Country have been too few and far between. That’s why I was so happy to return recently to spend some time outdoors.

Marble Falls struck me as a fine base to reacquaint myself with the area. The town boasts a charming central district with shops and galleries, and plenty of nearby restaurants, cafés, and breweries. Marble Falls has a population of more than 7,300 and sits smack on the shores of its namesake Lake Marble Falls and within easy reach of Inks Lake State Park.

The town is also close to other state parks and refuges, not to mention Lake Buchanan, a huge reservoir popular with anglers and freshwater beachgoers, and Lake LBJ, named for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who grew up nearby. Lake Marble Falls, Inks Lake, and Lake LBJ are part of the Highland Lakes, jewels along the Colorado River that also include Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake) in Austin and Lake Travis on the city’s northwestern edge.

Day 1: Where to stay in Marble Falls 

A historic landmark, the 1907 McKenzie Guest House features six completely renovated suites. | Photo by Courtney Bianchi

A historic landmark, the 1907 McKenzie Guest House features six completely renovated suites. | Photo by Courtney Bianchi

I arrived at the well-appointed, homey McKenzie Guest House in Marble Falls late on a Thursday afternoon in January. A historic property converted to private guest suites, the inn is among many lakefront listings managed by Horseshoe Bay Living. The McKenzie offered a safe, solitary domicile with no-contact check-in. With a healthy and healthful itinerary ahead of me, I took a drive to orient myself along scenic Park Road 4. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the park road takes a westward jog off US 281 between Marble Falls and Burnet in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began construction on the parkway in 1934 to provide access to Longhorn Cavern State Park, and the completed road runs 15.5 miles north to Inks Lake State Park. Parkland protections have left much of its length undeveloped. I spotted a white-tailed deer in the shade of ancient live oaks, and pulled over at scenic points to relish views of shimmering lakes and pink-stained rock formations. It’s easy to envision the allure these rugged hills and rich forests held for the peoples who roamed the area 10,000 years ago. Taking in the bucolic landscape boosted my endorphins and whetted my appetite for many anticipated miles of smiles.

Day 2: Biking at Spider Mountain Bike Park

Ascend to the top of Spider Mountain on a chairlift, then ride downhill on the trails with thrilling speed. | Photo by Visit Marble Falls

Ascend to the top of Spider Mountain on a chairlift, then ride downhill on the trails with thrilling speed. | Photo by Visit Marble Falls

The next morning, after fueling up on a steaming latte at the comfy café Numinous, where the owner, Alex Payson, personally selects sustainably grown coffee (primarily from Central America), I headed for Spider Mountain Bike Park, 25 miles north of Marble Falls near Burnet. There, I caught my first glimpse of Lake Buchanan, shining beneath azure skies like a giant emerald. To date, Spider Mountain, developed by Mountain Capital Partners—the company behind Purgatory Resort and a handful of ski resorts in Colorado and New Mexico—remains the only lift-served mountain bike park in Texas, and the only year-round lift-served mountain bike park in the nation. I was thrilled to be there. 

When I arrived, Dennis, an old buddy from Austin, was waiting. We loaded our fat-tire bikes onto the chairlift and chilled out on the 350-vertical-foot ride to the top. Though I hoped the entire Highland Lakes tour might leave me relaxed, the selection of downhill trails—with names like Viper’s Den, Tarantula, and Sticky Icky—succeeded in raising my heart rate considerably.

Soon, we were hooting and hollering, gently jostling with other riders taking their laps and bombing down snaking trails that made driving the twisted roller coaster of Park Road 4 in the distance seem tame by comparison. Previous experience riding downhill at resorts in Montana and Colorado had been good preparation, though we decided to skip some wooden obstacles, which despite being solidly constructed rose precipitously above the dirt paths. “They’re definitely intimidating,” Dennis agreed. For us, conquering the natural features was plenty challenging.

Photo by Visit Marble Falls

After a few hours of thrills, throwing up dust and plenty of high fives, Dennis and I retreated back into Marble Falls for a bite to eat on the deck at Bear King Brewing Company. Tasty burgers and hop-heavy selections, including the superior Swiggy IPA and the more potent Jimmy Two Shoes, hit the spot. Needing to head home to Austin, Dennis split, and I headed back to the McKenzie Guest House. From my second-story porch, I watched the last rosy rays of sunset fade before I retired for the night.

Day 3: Stand-up paddleboarding at Lake Marble Falls and a cave tour at Longhorn Cavern

The calm waters at Lake Marble Falls, a reservoir on the Colorado River in the Texas Hill Country, are ideal for stand-up paddleboarding.  | Photo by Laurence Parent

The calm waters at Lake Marble Falls, a reservoir on the Colorado River in the Texas Hill Country, are ideal for stand-up paddleboarding | Photo by Laurence Parent

Early Saturday morning, a cool breeze was blowing when I met Rick Blackington of Just Yakin Kayak and SUP Rentals to pick up a stand-up paddleboard on the shores of Lake Marble Falls. I had the lake mostly to myself, paddling under the famed Marble Falls Bridge, a three-span structure nearly 1,000-feet long that carries US 281 across the lake. On my return, I toured the park’s quiet backwaters along Backbone Creek, surrounded by ducks and geese. “Isn’t the water cold?” a fisherman called out. “I’m just trying to stay on the board,” I answered, grinning.

Discover the geologic wonders of the Longhorn Cavern on a walking tour or a "Wild Cave Tour."  | Photo by Laurence Parent

Discover the geologic wonders of the Longhorn Cavern on a walking tour or a "Wild Cave Tour." | Photo by Laurence Parent

Feeling refreshed and relaxed afterward, I didn’t have time to stick around. About 15 miles as the crow flies northwest of Lake Marble Falls, Longhorn Cavern and Park Road 4 were calling me for a “Wild Cave Tour.”

Ironically, the same geological forces that created the heavenly mountains of Burnet County and the surrounding hills, known as the Llano Uplift, shaped a vast subterranean network of caverns. Local granite and limestone formations collided and fractured about 300 million years ago. In turn, rushing water sculpted the softer stone, creating Longhorn Cavern, which European settlers first explored in the mid-1800s.

My Texas Parks, a concessionaire, runs basic walking tours and more challenging spelunking into sunken caves, which are part of a 646-acre state park acquired by Texas in the 1930s, when the CCC was in full force. Wanting to dig deeper into the landscape, I joined the three-hour “Wild” tour. The adventure descends beyond areas dynamited by the CCC when the caverns were first developed for tourist activities (remarkably, earlier landowners constructed an underground dance hall, which is no longer in use). A band of seven guests donned helmets, headlamps, and kneepads—as well as a masks—and followed our guides down a narrow slot that led into a maze of hidden natural passages beneath the lighted, improved walkways that most visitors travel.

Visitors can rent kayaks at the Inks Lake State Park store. | Photo by Laurence Parent

Visitors can rent kayaks at the Inks Lake State Park store. | Photo by Laurence Parent

After a couple of hours underground, I was ready to step back into the sunshine. This time, rather than head back to town, I opted for Inks Lake State Park, where I had a campsite reserved. I pitched my tent and ate my dinner serenaded by wind and waves as the moon rose. Reflecting on the previous days, I gave thanks not only for the creature comforts of Marble Falls, but also for the fact that Texas still has places where a weary urbanite can soak up some nature, discharge some adrenaline, and get a little wild.

A frequent AAA contributor, Dan Oko is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Houston.

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