Bandera is where the mythic Texas truly begins, the Lone Star State foreigners and Yankees all think we inhabit. It’s a two-fisted town of rootin’ tootin’ saloons, crusty cowboys and cowgirls, dude ranches and down-home food, set among rugged hills dotted with cactus and cedar. The Medina River runs through on the edge of town, its banks shaded with tall cypresses.
Poles, Germans and Mormons helped settle the area in the 1850s, and after the Civil War and the removal of the Comanches and Apaches, Bandera boomed as the staging area for the great cattle drives on the Western Trail up to Dodge City, and though the last drive was in 1893, Bandera remains today the “Cowboy Capital of the World.”
To this day, it’s not uncommon to find horses hitched to posts along Main Street, especially at the Cowboys on Main events (Saturdays) or during the Sunday afternoon Longhorn Saloon Trail Rides. There’s a rodeo every Saturday night (except Memorial Day weekend) at the Twin Elm Guest Ranch, one of no fewer than 12 such establishments in or near the town.
Cowboys have a reputation for heartily appreciating booze, and Bandera is famous for its saloons. The Longhorn, the Chikin Coop, the venerable Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, and the 11th Street Cowboy Bar all offer cold beer and live music on weekends, and for a town of around 1,000 people, Bandera draws some big names. Asleep at the Wheel performs May 27 at 11th Street, for example, closing out the newly-resurrected (and once-notorious) Bandera Stompede.
Back in its 1950s heyday, the Stompede drew thousands of revelers from all across Texas, many of them servicemen from San Antonio. It was a sort of proto-Spring Break: local cops were overwhelmed by a tide of drunks, many of them fighting in the streets and otherwise making nuisances of themselves. By 1961, despite the huge influx of cash to the local economy, the Stompede was reined in and put out to pasture for the next few decades. Now it’s back, albeit not as debauched as it once was.
More tranquil pleasures can be found along the Medina, in one of the antique stores or Western boutiques on Main, or in the Old Spanish Trail restaurant, a John Wayne shrine where you can dine on top-notch burgers and chicken-fried steaks and some of the best old-school Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas on the planet. The graveyard at St. Stanislaus church (America's second-oldest Polish parish) is home to a colony of spotted, burrowing and utterly charming Mexican ground squirrels. Other dining options include barbecue, Mexican, Italian and tapas and cheese boards at Mulberry’s Wine Bar and Bistro.
On May 11, the town will honor early settler Jose Policarpo Rodriguez. “Polly” Rodriguez was from a wealthy Mexican family that came to San Antonio in 1841, when Polly was 12. Eight years later, Rodriguez signed on as a scout with the perilous Whiting and Smith Expedition, a death-defying mission that helped establish a wagon route from San Antonio to El Paso. After 12 more years scouting and service in the Texas Rangers, Rodriguez purchased a 360 acre ranch just east of town, renounced Catholicism in favor of Methodism and became a preacher in a chapel of his own building, sat as a judge, and founded a town called Polly. After his first wife died, Rodriguez, then 74 years old, married a 16-year-old woman and fathered four more children. (Not to be outdone, fellow Bandera settler Amasa Clark had 19 children with this two wives.)
Rodriguez wrote a memoir (The Old Guide) and died in 1914 at about 85 years of age. His life inspired Jay Neugeboren to write a fictionalized account of his life called Poli in 1989.
All that remains of the town of Polly is the chapel and graveyard – the scene of his remembrance and a prairie chicken lunch fundraising on May 11.
Bandera lodging runs from dude ranches to riverside or in-town cabins and cottages to motels and RV parks. West of town, two winding, two-lane ranch roads out to Leakey and Garner State Park offer some of the most breathtaking mountain scenery this side of the Pecos; not for nothing is it billed as “the Swiss Alps of Texas.” Ranch Road 337 is especially stupendous.
To get there from Houston, take I-10 to Loop 1604 on the eastern fringes of San Antonio and head north and west for thirty miles to Highway 16. Bandera is another 30 miles up 16 from there.
San Antonio suburbia and traffic is ever on the march up Highway 16, so you might consider an alternate route: exit I-10 at New Braunfels and take Highway 46 through there and Boerne.