There’s much more to Central Texas than Austin. While the capital is an awesome city, full of fun and exciting things to do and known for fantastic live music, just down the road is another lesser-known destination with a very different kind of vibe. Texas is unique in that you can go from urban areas to rural areas abruptly.
And that’s precisely what you get when you leave Austin. Bastrop, the self-proclaimed “most historic small town in Texas,” is just 25 minutes away and is home to a rural lifestyle – full of forest lands, hiking trails, the Colorado River valley. A destination in and of itself, Bastrop is the place you want to go if you’re looking for a quiet retreat, where you can explore some of the Texas landscape, get outdoors, and enjoy a small-town existence, even just for a little while!
We traveled to Bastrop and spent two weeks hanging out in this little town and seeing all there is to see and do in the county. From kayaking the Colorado to eating enough barbecue for an army, here are the best things to do in Bastrop, Elgin, Smithville, Cedar Creek, and the rest of Bastrop County!
Go back in time at the Dinosaur Park
The Dinosaur Park is an outdoor museum featuring realistic life-sized dinosaurs surrounded by the wild, as if you’re actually touring the Jurassic Park!
The prehistoric era is just around the corner in Cedar Creek, Texas, at the Dinosaur Park! This outdoor museum features realistic life-sized dinosaurs, set in a tree-lined nature trail, so it feels like you’re sitting in the middle of Jurassic Park! There’s also a fossil dig area where you can uncover dinosaur bones, a playground, and a picnic area to have a little lunch! It’s an educational, fun adventure that the whole family can enjoy!
Fly through the treetops at Zip Lost Pines
There’s a zip line in the county as well. Not only it is exciting, but it also offers the beautiful nature while you’re in the air.
If you’ve ever wanted to zip line, I’d highly suggest you get yourself to Zip Lost Pines in Cedar Creek! The Texas Hill Country is incredible, and to see it from up high, flying across the treetops and winding Colorado River is fantastic! Be prepared to climb up a ladder with assistance and hike a few short trails to get to the line. They have six different lines set up for a full tour of the entire site, and are preparing to unveil upgrades and renovations for the 2020 season on March 1st!
The full-tour is about 2.5-3 hours total, and it was a fantastic experience. There are no age limits, just height, and weight requirements: minimum 52” and between 60 and 250 lbs. You should also know that when you make a reservation, that tours happen rain or shine. I can’t wait to go back and try out the night tour! It’s probably terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, but I would love to see those Texas stars from up there! Check this out!
Visit endangered species at the Capital of Texas Zoo
Here’s a closeup look at a hippo, swimming on the water at the Capital of Texas Zoo located in Cedar Creek.
When you walk into the Capital of Texas Zoo in Cedar Creek, you’ve entered a whole different world. This isn’t your typical zoo. This is a tiny, privately owned zoo manned by a very passionate, committed zookeeper who loves animals and wants to share them with the world. I love how intimate this zoo is!
Even though they have more than 500 rare wild animals, this isn’t a gigantic zoo where you’re running around trying to catch a glimpse through the enclosures. It’s small, and as such, you really can pause and view the animals up close and personal. These animals are very well cared for – they’re not cooped up in cages, but able to freely walkabout. You can really see the intimate relationships each animal has with the staff and zookeeper – it’s really a beautiful place! I personally loved Tank, the 4,000 lb hippo, who you can help feed!
What I loved most, though, is that the Capital of Texas Zoo actually has and supports breeding programs for 14 endangered species. All of their proceeds go directly to keeping the zoo going as a home for these animals and helping other species who are endangered regenerate. In fact, most recently, the Capital of Texas Zoo is working with China to help with the endangered Chinese Alligator! So visiting this zoo, you do not only get a once in a lifetime up close and personal experience with some of the rarest animals in the world, but you’re also helping out a great cause.
Get your sugar fix
In case you feel tired, there’s a place where you can indulge in sugar. The Sugar Shack serves amazing sweet cakes and other sweets!
If you’re a sugar addict like me, Bastrop has you covered! Right in the middle of historic Bastrop Center, you’ll find Simply Sweet Bakery, where they’re dishing out some of the most delicious homemade cupcakes I’ve ever tasted! In fact, we went twice! The red velvet cupcake is absolutely to die for – moist cake and a creamy, delicious cream cheese frosting!
If you’re not a cupcake fan and prefer a little variety to your sweets, then the Sugar Shack is going to be your new favorite place to hang out! This is an old school candy shop, and you can’t miss it from the Texas flag painted across the roof, located right in Bastrop near the Texas Colorado River. Family owned and operated, inside the shop, you’ll find two full walls of candy dispensers that include everything from gummies to jellybeans, Whoppers to Licorice. They even have some of the old school candy like Pop Rock and Fun Dip!
The chocoholics that we clearly choose the gourmet truffles and freshly dipped chocolate covered strawberries! Now, we’ve been across the country and have eaten a lot of gourmet chocolate, and this was by far some of our favorites! And I can’t wait to go back and try out the fudge – so delicious!
Explore the convergence of ecosystems at McKinney Roughs Nature Park
Bastrop is also a nice place to go for a hike. The McKinney Roughs Nature Park offers gorgeous view at the nature surrounding the city.
We’ve done a lot of hiking in Bastrop when we’re here, and our absolute favorite place to go is McKinney Roughs Nature Park. This place is unbelievably gorgeous and located right in Cedar Creek off Highway 71. I think what I love most about this place is that there are so many different ecosystems at work within the property, because of the unique location and the Lower Colorado River valley. You’ll have Post Oak Savannah, Blackland Prairie, East Texas Piney Woods all in the same area, contributing natural resources to each other. It’s fascinating!
I think what I love most about this area is that you really feel like you’re trekking through the backwoods of Texas. It’s not a very popular area, especially during the week, and you pretty much can have the trail to yourself. That said, we were able to see an entire herd of deer about 100 yards away, just grazing in a field.
They looked up, looked at us, and then continued to feed. Never phased! We’ve also seen some Mexican Crested Hawks while hiking, too, and word is there are bald eagles in the area! Spend the day here, it’s a wonderfully magical place, where you can really take in the beauty for the central Texas landscape!
View wildfire recovery efforts in Bastrop State Park
Almost a decade ago, the worst wildfire in the history of Texas happened in Bastrop County. Here’s a look at some burned trees still standing after almost 10 years.
In September of 2011, Bastrop County saw the worst wildfire in Texas history, which devastated more than 34,356 acres of land, including sections of the protected Lost Pines Forest. Bastrop State Park fortunately only lost 50-100 acres of its territory to the fire before it was contained.
Today, the effects of the fire almost 10 years ago are still prevalent when you visit Bastrop State Park. While the devastation still stands, thanks to forestry experts and rangers, the regeneration projects have successfully worked to restore the ecosystem. You can see new plants and growth starting to come in and take over the charred area. It’s a fascinating thing to see!
We spent the day exploring the 7 miles of trails and having a picnic in the afternoon. As two folks from the northeast, we’ve never seen the devastation of a wildfire before in person, and it was incredible to see the rebirth that is starting to take shape in the area.
Eat authentic Mexican food
Mexican foods are very popular in central Texas, and you can find a lot of authentic Mexican restaurants in Bastrop.
When in central Texas, you just have to check out the local, authentic cuisine and that it is Mexican! From taco trucks in gas station parking lots to roadside stands, you don’t have to go far to find some of the best food around.
There are a variety of places throughout Bastrop for really great Mexican food. For a sit-down experience, definitely try El Jalisco! The homemade guacamole, fresh warm chips, and unbelievably flavorful entrees were terrific. In fact, my personal favorite was the refried beans – some of the absolute best I’ve ever had!
Mexican food for breakfast? Oh, most definitely! You’ll find some of the absolute best breakfast tacos around at the Taco Shop in Elgin, just up the ways from Bastrop. This roadside truck is dishing out authentic, homemade breakfast tacos that draw lines of people day after day until they sell out! Their award-winning tacos feature both your standard bacon and eggs, but you can also add chorizo, Carne guisada, or fajita chicken! Create your own or choose one of the customer favorites – and don’t forget, they’re cash only, so hit the ATM before going!
Shop for Boots at Texas Boot Company
Boots like those on the photo above are very casual for Texans. You can find the Texas Boot Company in Bastrop, potentially the best in the whole county in designing boots.
Now, we travel a lot, so I know that logically we’re in Texas, but I don’t think I completely internalized that fact until I saw someone casually walking down the street wearing a cowboy hat and matching boots. As a New Englander, this is not something you see every day at home, but you can shop right in Bastrop for the finest in Texas styling!
Every Texan needs a good pair of boots! Fortunately, the Texas Boot Company in Bastrop has one of the best selections in the area! They carry a wide variety of manufacturers and designers, including devoting one-third of their inventory to their own designed collections! Walking in, you feel like you’ve entered a boot museum (they have one of those, too!), and the shelves and shelves of boots sprawling across the showroom floor! It’s crazy!
Whether you’re looking to show your Texas pride with UT or A&M logos or even the Texas flag itself, or prefer a more bedazzled look with intricate stitching, you’ll find the boot to match your personality right here in Bastrop!
Hit the Links
Of course, golfers have some places to stay during a tour in Bastrop, such as Wolfdancer Golf Club located in Cedar Creek.
If you’re a golfer, I know you want to know all about the courses that Bastrop has for you! Don’t worry, there are actually really excellent golfing facilities throughout the county. Starting with Wolfdancer Golf Club in Cedar Creek, Texas.
Located at the Hyatt Lost Pines Resort and Spa, the Wolf Dancer has been named the best practice facility in the area. The 18-hole course is 7,205 yards over 13 acres of land. You can also enjoy the bar and grill, golf shop, and locker rooms. The Hyatt itself also has a variety of amenities, from spa and water park to tennis and horseback riding, so it’s a great place to stay as well!
You’ll find a great course with a view overlooking the Colorado River at the Colovista Golf Club in Bastrop, where they have a pool as well as cottages for rent. They’re open to the public, and take bookings for tee-times that include a golf cart!
For a more diverse bit of scenery, head over to the Pine Forest Golf Club. This semi-private club offers both memberships and access to the public. The course is gorgeous, with five holes along Colorado, and then the other 13 through the hills and canyons adjacent! It’s a magnificent view, so it certainly won’t matter whether you hit par or not – it’s totally worth it!
Line Dance Under the Stars at Back 9 Bar
Back 9 Bar offers a very exciting space after a long day of walking or hiking. They have a wide variety of outdoor seating and hangout places to be with family and friends.
Driving down highway 71 in Bastrop in the evening, you can’t help but notice a little shack on the side of the road with an open yard strung with lights. That’s the Back 9 Bar! With a wide variety of outdoor seating, this local hangout is a fun place to kick back and relax after a long day hiking! It’s casual and cozy, has a variety of bar games, and happy hour specials every day.
What I loved most about this place is that on Friday and Saturday nights, they host local live bands and musicians at their outdoor stage. Country line dancing can happen in the blink of an eye, and you won’t want to miss it!
With fire pits going and heaters, the string lights softly lighting the yard, and the country music strumming in the background, it’s a fine place to hang out under the Texas stars and feel like you’re on a ranch somewhere! Because Texas is pretty mild year-round, the only inclement weather you need to worry about is a shower or two, so check ahead!
Kayak or Float the “Texas” Colorado River
The on the above photo travels from Colorado to Mexico, and in the area, it is called the “Texas” Colorado River.
We’re big outdoorsy people, and really like to get out in nature and explore new places when we travel. I love to see how landscapes change! We wanted to explore the “Texas” Colorado River – not to be confused with the Colorado River that travels from Colorado to Mexico! Bastrop River Company provides a variety of tours and rentals for you to check out the river and have a fun day on the water!
Bastrop River Company offers tours by kayak or canoe year-round, both a short and a long paddle, that includes shuttle pickup to get you back to the car. You can also rent a kayak or canoe hourly and explore the river on your own, fish, or lose yourself in thought! I love that they have both single and double kayaks to rent because we prefer the double, and not everyone has those!
In the summer months, the Bastrop River Company offers a whole different river experience: tubing! Yes, grab your friends (and your beverages) and take a lazy float down the river as a group, basking in the sun and taking in the gorgeous natural surroundings of the Colorado River’s bends! They’ll take you upriver by shuttle, and you can take your time coming back down, up to two hours based on the river’s current.
But you can get off wherever you want and hang out longer on the river. Alternatively, the Bastrop River Company can shuttle you back up to the top for another float – no charge! We definitely plan on coming back between May 1st and Labor Day so we can do a proper tube river float!
Get the “creepy crawlies” at the Texas Reptile Zoo
The Texas Reptile Zoo is one of the most popular attractions in the county. They showcase over 150 types of reptiles from around the globe.
If you’re visiting Bastrop during the spring, summer, or fall, take a trip over to the Texas Reptile Zoo. They have over 150 reptiles from around the world in four temperature-controlled areas, including snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and turtles.
On the weekends, they offer live feeding shows, as well, and you can learn about the reptiles and their habitats. This is a fun family adventure that you can have while visiting Bastrop, especially if your kids are into the creepy crawlies! We couldn’t go (darn it!) because it doesn’t open until March 1st for the season, but if you do know that there is a strict no flash photography policy, and of course, no touching for your own safety!
Eat your weight in Texas BBQ
Your visit in Texas will not be completed if you don’t go to some BBQ places around the county. The BBQ joints around Bastrop only serves authentic Texas-style barbecues!
Come on, you’re in Texas! I don’t care what destination you’re going to, if you’re in Texas, you need to get yourself some authentic Texas BBQ! There is certainly no shortage of barbeque joints throughout Bastrop County.
Out in Elgin, check out Meyer’s Elgin BBQ. This family-owned establishment specializes in sausage – their secret family recipe passed down for generations from Germany. They have a delicious menu of all the beef bbq treats you could want from brisket to dinosaur ribs, smoked entirely – the Texas way!
Billy’s Pit BBQ in Bastrop is a small, cozy place serving up delicious juicy brisket and handmade sausage by the pound! They’ll load you up with all the bread, pickles, and onions you want with a friendly staff always willing to help out! But what keeps them coming back is the food! In fact, you better get there early if you’re looking for barbeque because they close up shop when they run out!
Wherever you decide to go, you’re gonna get yourself a really fantastic meal. Just do yourself a favor and avoid the chain restaurants, like Southside Market Barbecue and hit the local places. Not only are you supporting the local economy of Bastrop, but you definitely have an authentically Texan experience!
Shop the historic Main Streets
Named as one of the landmark Texas Main Streets, Downtown Bastrop accomodates a large group of homes and buildings that is listed on National Historic Register.
Downtown Bastrop is named as one of the landmark Texas Main Streets and hosts a large number of homes and buildings that appear on the National Historic Register. The antiqued look of the quaint downtown reminds me of an old western, by the shape of the buildings and the details in the architecture. It’s a cozy area today that retains that historic charm but is now filled with local art galleries, vintage shops, and quaint restaurants! Grab a treat at Simply Sweet and pop into the many art stalls that line the streets, and get a good dose of that friendly Texas hospitality!
YOu’ll find a similar setup in Downtown Elgin, another historic main street on the Texas registry housing a large number of recognized historical sites as well. Downtown Elgin is adorable, with boutiques and an old general store, as well as a new home goods store that also is part wine bar! It’s this kind of vintage quirkiness that gives this place a very quaint small-town charm!
Get your art fix at the monthly Art Walk
The art scene in Bastrop is quite popular and is really amazing. Every first weekend, the community hold an Art Walk! celebrating the culture of art in the county.
Bastrop is an up and coming county that has a really developed art scene. It’s not totally surprising based on its vicinity to Austin, but, interestingly, they found their way to this “most historic small town in Texas.” To celebrate the culture of art in Bastrop, every first weekend, they hold an Art Walk! This monthly even sees all the local artists and galleries opening up their stalls and sharing their work with others. The community comes, and many of the galleries and shops have giveaways, activities, and specials running.
Visitors and locals alike descend on downtown Bastrop and mingle together while sharing art and music and celebrating the community. Often times, galleries and artists will host demonstrations, like glass blowing, or workshops that are free and open to the public. We stopped in on an oil pastel workshop, where a local artist demonstrated and helped students learn how to use and blend oil pastels as a medium! It’s a fun activity with something for everyone, supports the community, and is an excellent way to really experience Bastrop’s real culture.
Step into a horror movie set
Another fun place to go to in Bastrop is the Gas Station. Lots of horrors memorabilia are showcased here.
If you’re a horror movie fan, then you must go to The Gas Station! This is the original filming location for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! A few years back, the current owner purchased this place and restored right back to how you’d remember it from the movie, including the old pickup in the front yard!
Of course, unlike in the movie, the Gas Station is serving up some real barbeque! Enjoy what they’ve got smoking in the back while checking out the decor, full of horror movie memorabilia.You can even take home a piece of the cinematic history, like a piece of the original awning or brick, if that’s your thing!
Taking things a step further, the current owners added lodging cabins and campsites, so horror lovers can spend their entire stay right on the set of a horror movie – literally! If this horror-themed resort isn’t enough, they make it pretty clear right out front that they’re for real: “We slaughter BBQ” … rather than people. So, that’s comforting!
Visit a roadside honky-tonk
We all know Texans love country music so it is not very surprising to see a honky-tonk in some areas.
It may look a little sketchy from the outside, but The Waterhole Saloon is an authentic Texas roadside honky-tonk that you really just need to go in and experience! This casual place is a favorite of locals and has a variety of games, including pool tables and darts. The outside area features firepits and horseshoe pits, as well as an outdoor stage where they have live music on the weekends.
It’s a friendly place where you walk in strangers and walk out friends, as their saying goes, at least! This place definitely taught me a lesson about don’t judge a book by its cover – it’s a cool place, and everyone is incredibly friendly and welcoming! Plus – they have some of the best karaoke in the area, and some folks drive more than an hour to attend! It’s worth a stop in just for a show, in my opinion!
Grab some local pecans and get your picture taken with Ms. Pearl, the giant squirrel
Here’s a photo of Ms. Pearl, the Giant Squirrel, a very popular 14-feet tall squirrel statue, which is the largest in the world.
Driving down highway 71 in Bastrop County, you might be surprised to find a gigantic squirrel on the side of the road. Don’t be alarmed, she’s not going to run out in front of your car (and she’d win that battle anyway). Ms. Pearl, the Giant Squirrel, is 14-feet tall and the largest squirrel statue in the world! It sits right at the entrance to Berdoll Pecan Candy Company, the local purveyor of sweet treats made with the locally grown pecan – the only nut that’s indigenous to the region!
The Berdoll Pecan Candy Company is a Texas landmark! They offer a wide variety of pecan pies, pecan candy, and other baked goods. You can get pecan butter, which is even creamier than peanut butter! The area also home to one of the first-ever pecan pie vending machines in the world! Even though the shop is open 7 days per week, there was still a demand for after-hours pecan pies. That’s where the vending machine idea came from – to provide pecan pies to folks 24/7! Be sure to stop in for a sweet treat and get your picture taken with Ms. Pearl!
Have a pizza and wings while enjoying “Pickin’ on the Porch.”
Experience the way how Texans enjoy life with the monthly gathering in The Yard, where locals gather around and play music, sing and dance, just enjoying each others’ companies.
If you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of in love with Downtown Bastrop! It’s such the quintessential small town, like the kind you’d read about in an Americana novel about the western expansion in the 1800s! To make that small-town feel even more pronounced, they host a monthly gathering in The Yard. Located behind the shops on Main St and abutting the Colorado River, is a small “backyard” area where you’ll find a brewery, music shop, bakery, and Neighbor’s Kitchen & Yard.
On the first Saturday of the month, the community gathers together, and they jam on their instruments, sing, and dance while enjoying the cool evening weather. Folks can gather around the fire pits or outdoor fireplaces if it’s chilly, or play a game of giant Jenga while sipping local brews and eating wings from Neighbor’s. You’ll have folks on banjos, guitars, just jamming out. Grab a drink from the brewery, sit back, and enjoy the good life while watching the river go by in the background! It doesn’t get better than that!
Catch a mountain bike race
Located at Rocky Hill Ranch, this exciting terrain is one of the best mountain bike trails that you can find in Bastrop County, Texas.
Bastrop County is home to the best mountain bike trails in Texas, located at Rocky Hill Ranch. They play host to a variety of different races and events throughout the year, and folks are welcome to come and cheer on the competitors. On days that there isn’t a race, people can pay to get in and use the trails for mountain biking or hiking. You also have use of the showers and bathhouse, as well as an outdoor pavilion for lunch!
Have a picnic by the Colorado River
The side of the Colorado River is a popular picnic and dating area where you can just enjoy the surroundings with a special someone or a group of people.
Sometimes when you’re visiting an area, it’s nice to have a relaxing day to regroup, reenergize, and not worry about seeing as much as you can. Whether you’re here for vacation or on a work trip, taking time for yourself is part of self-care. Incorporate this into your trip by planning a day where you focus on resting.
The Colorado River Refuge is an easily accessible location right in Bastrop, with river access and a picnic area. You can fish and kayak with the public launch right there, or you can swim or tube in the summer months. We like to pack a nice picnic lunch and spend the day there. I enjoyed sitting by the river, reading and meditating while listening to the birds’ chip, while my partner fished away downriver. We came back together and had a lovely lunch and left more relaxed and rejuvenated!