A summer afternoon in the Texas highland lakes region: cicadas buzzing, sun burning, even the snakes hiding out in bushes. People inside hugging the A/C, swigging sweet tea. But it doesn’t have to be like that. On my trip to Burnet County, Texas—58 miles northwest of Austin—in the blazing hot days of late July, I found ways to spend time active and outside without heat exhaustion or even a sunburn. Here are 5 ways to keep cool in the Highland Lakes region of Burnet County, Texas.
1—Eagle Eye Observatory at Canyon of the Eagles in Burnet County, Texas
One of the easiest ways to outsmart the sun is to venture out at night. The Eagle Eye Observatory welcomes visitors to peer through its two telescopes, an old one and a new one. This is dark sky country, so you’ll easily pick out constellations even unaided by a scope.
Astronomer Jim Sheets mans the telescopes at least five nights a week, pointing out stars and answering questions about our universe and beyond. The observatory itself is a low building with an old-fashioned roll-back roof. At the end of each night, Sheets secures the building with a system of pulleys to roll the roof back into place.
During my visit, he explains celestial bodies in simple terms. He tells us that while stars are all different colors, sizes and ages, they all do the same job of turning hydrogen into helium. “That’s what every star does for a living,” he says. “Stars live beastly long lives.” But eventually all die. “Some have puny little deaths, others huge explosions.”
We take turns looking at Jupiter and its four moons, and Saturn, rings and all. The older of the two telescopes is a homemade job built in the ‘70s, originally out of cardboard, and later beautifully laminated with cedar. It’s an art piece as well as an instrument.
2—Vanishing Burnet County, Texas River Cruise
Taking to the water is a tried and true way to dodge heat. The Vanishing Texas River Cruise, a Burnet County highlight, dates back to 1982. We board the 70 foot-long Texas Eagle on Lake Buchanan for the 22-mile, 2.5-hour journey. The Eagle seats more than 100 with a choice of an enclosed lower deck for A/Cphiles or an open deck for those who like the breeze.
The boat chugs out of the lake and onto the Colorado River. Tim Mohan, our tour guide, narrates on the way out, describing wildlife, local history and the area’s geology. Seven highland lakes begin with Buchanan and stair step down to Lake Travis near Austin. After 15 raging, destructive floods hit the Colorado between 1843 and 1937, the state decided to build these manmade lakes.
In recent years, drought has been more of a problem than flooding. At a low point, the river was only 18 inches deep in some places. Now, the most striking reminders of the drought are the thousands of tree tops sticking up through the surface of the river, born while the riverbed was bare.
We learn to distinguish between three kinds of egrets. Mohan enthusiastically points out a great blue heron. “Take that big old bird and see how gently he lands. It’s pretty amazing.”
3—Canyon of the Eagles Cruise in Burnet County, Texas
The Canyon of the Eagles Cruise is a newer, more intimate cruise on a pontoon boat that seats about ten. It departs from the Canyon of the Eagles Resort, following a similar route as Vanishing Texas but going further. The boat gets close to three waterfalls, herons, and other river highlights. It’s lighter on narration, but provides binoculars and field guides.
I’m glad to find a covering on the boat for our one afternoon boat ride. Even though the temperature edges towards 100 degrees, being on the boat feels perfectly comfortable. The seats are cushy. My whole group loves it.
I take both these cruises in one day. Afterwards, I’m not sure which I like better. The narration on the Vanishing Texas cruise gave the second cruise context. If you’re trying to decide between the two, I’d say Vanishing Texas is good if you want A/C, a bathroom and wheelchair accessibility, and for large groups. COTE is fun if you want a more personal boating experience that can get into tighter spots. If you have time and you want to stay cool, do both.
4—Kayaking Inks Lake State Park in Burnet County, Texas
You’ll notice a theme here: Water. It’s so often the antidote to heat. Interpretive ranger Jasmine Scott leads our group of six kayakers on Inks Lake, the second in the chain of Highland lakes, and much smaller than Buchanan.
After a brief paddling intro, we launch from the small, mucky beach. She leads us across the lake, stopping a couple of times for a geology lesson. Most of the rocks here are granite and valley spring gneiss, a type of rock named for the German word for sparkly.
We stop and watch kids jump off high rocks—which I’m sure look even higher from the top. I’m happy to stay in my kayak. Then we paddle to the turnaround point at the Devil’s Waterhole. Early settlers came to this natural hot springs to bathe. Being a bit short on science, they figured the hot water must be courtesy of the devil. Hence, the name.
Since Jasmine’s trips are part of the park’s interpretive programs, they’re a steal at three measly dollars. Or you can rent a kayak from the park store for $15 an hour. They also rent foot-powered pedal boats that are pretty and sparkly, but Jasmine said they’re slower than kayaks and it takes serious leg effort to make them go.
5—Longhorn Caverns in Burnet County, Texas
“You’re only going to see lady bats in this cave,” says our tour guide, Cosmo Omsoc, a former Bikram yoga teacher who changed his name to a palindrome and now leads tours of Longhorn Caverns State Park. An appreciation for bats and daddy long legs—or at least a tolerance—is highly recommended.
Turning caverns full of bat guano into an alluring state park was a job for the Civilian Conservation Corps, Omsoc tells us. Back in the 1930s, 200 Civil Conservation Corps members unloaded umpteen pounds of dirt, debris and bat guano so that the cavern could be used as a tourist attraction, make-out spot, speakeasy, restaurant and prom destination over the ensuing decades.
The general tour is easy footing for most people and a pleasant 68 degrees. In places, surfaces are slippery and uneven. One fellow in our group quickly turns back. On the other hand, if you enjoy shimmying through dark tunnels and stepping in mysterious cave puddles, try the more adventurous wild cave tour.
I’m not big on confined spaces, so the regular tour is sufficient for me. I especially enjoy the two-inch tri-colored bats hanging from the cave ceiling. They leave every three or four days to gorge on insects, Omsoc tells us, returning with round, protruding bellies. However, they’re not great hunters. They catch insects in their wings and tail, then eat by grooming themselves with their long tongues.
Omsoc waits until the end of the tour to point out the “cave moss.” “Why’s it moving?” I ask. There’s no breeze.
“It’s daddy long legs,” he says gleefully. I finally understood I’m looking at thousands of entangled legs and bodies inches from my upturned face. Word to the wise: wear a hat. And maybe a face mask.
Don’t let the heat stop you from visiting Burnet County, Texas even in summer. I’m so glad it didn’t stop me! If you go, check out Burnet County’s handy tourism page.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals, tours and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.