Last month, I stood at the top of sand-splashed Keyserville Road, a mile or two outside the tiny burg of Castell, and took in the scenery.
In the distance, a cloud of dust rose like smoke behind a pack of cyclists chugging their way up the dirt road toward me. Behind them, layers of hills rippled into the hazy distance. A cow mooed from afar, and all around, prickly pear cactus mingled with just-sprouting bluebonnets.
I had landed in the Hill Country west of Llano as official photographer for the Castell Grind, a gravel bike race that takes place every April. But a day behind the camera out here feels more like a vacation than a work assignment.
I’ve visited Castell a dozen times over the years. Usually I come to paddle the Llano River, ride my bike, play in the water, catch the bat show at a nearby sinkhole and drink beer at a picnic table at the old general store. I have friends who own a home nearby, and I’ve stayed up late there swinging in a hammock, counting shooting stars, too.
If you’ve never visited the area, known mostly for white-tailed deer hunting, you should first stop at the Llano County Historical Museum, 18 miles away at 310 Bessemer Avenue in Llano, for an introduction. (And, while you’re there, you can pick up brisket from Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.)
Whatever you do, come prepared to kick back and chill out.
Where to stay in Castell
Castell doesn’t have any hotels, but it does have a few rental homes and a smattering of cabins, including a few that front the Llano River.
I particularly like the Castell Cottage, a small white clapboard home at 19702 W. Ranch Road 152 with a nice swing on the porch and a huge yard. It’s just across the street from the river, and a 2-minute walk to the Castell General Store. El Castell on the Llano River, 102 Rockin River Road, is another good choice, and the Leifeste Campground at 2602 Jim Leifeste Road offers an inexpensive place to pitch a tent or park your RV.
Paddling the Llano River near Castell
If you’re into canoeing or kayaking, bring your boat with you. From Castell, take two vehicles and drive west, to where Highway 87 crosses the Llano River 20 minutes from town.
The 12-mile paddle back to Castell always takes longer than I think it should, as in four or five hours, depending on your motivation level. (I recommend a leisurely trip, with stops on gravel bars to snack, and watching for bird life along the way.)
The river spools out like a greenish-blue ribbon, slow and languid in places and twisty and churning in others. You’ll have to navigate a minefield of boulders, and if the water level is low (like it is now), you’ll have to drag your boat periodically. That’s just part of the fun, I promise.
The trickiest section of water comes just before you get to the FM 2768 crossing in Castell, where I suggest walking down a series of rocky rapids instead of trying to float through. (Check river flows on the Lower Colorado River Authority’s site, hydromet.lcra.org/full.aspx.)
Other tips? Make sure you’re fit and understand the risks. Paddle plastic kayaks instead of an aluminum canoe, which will stick to the limestone river rock. Bring lots of water. Pack all your valuables into dry bags in case you flip your boat and bring a personal flotation device. As always, carry out whatever you bring in. (Really good river stewards pick up what others left behind, too.)
And if you want smoked chicken at the finish, call Randy at The Castell General Store in the morning and ask him to set one aside for you to pick up when you’re done paddling. Otherwise, they’re liable to sell out.
Gravel biking around Castell
If biking’s more your thing, bring your gravel bike. One of the region’s most popular gravel rides, the Castell Grind, unfolds on the country roads surrounding Castell each April. (The 2023 event is scheduled for April 1; registration opens at noon Nov. 1 and will fill quickly.) More than 500 cyclists chug their way up Keyserville Road, make a loop and head back on undulating two-lane roads into town. Some peel off there, but those who ride the whole 100 kilometers cross the river and make a northern loop too, passing through dry creek beds and past fields of wildflowers.
Wherever your human-powered wheels take you, you’ll find truly Texan terrain, complete with burnt orange and white longhorns, bounding white-tailed deer, fields of wildflowers and prickly pear cactus, and vultures perched atop trees, their wings spread like capes to stay cool.
Take a drive and go a little batty
From Castell, it’s about an hour’s drive to the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve southwest of Mason, where 4 million Mexican free-tail bats roost each summer.
Visitors can sit on benches in a designated viewing area and watch the spectacle, which begins just before sunset on most evenings. It starts when a few scout bats flutter out of the mouth of the cave, a 65-foot hole in the ground. Soon they stream out by the thousands, a whirling vortex of furry, avocado-sized mammals. You’ll hear the flapping of wings and smell the guano, too.
Despite the bad rap they sometimes get, the bats are surprisingly cute. They also do critical environmental work by dispersing seeds, cross-pollinating plants and gobbling up insects that wreak havoc on farm fields.
The bats typically arrive sometime in May and depart with the first cold front of the season in October. The grounds are named for W. Phillip Eckert, whose children Richard and Virginia donated the cave to the Nature Conservancy in 1990. Typically, the site opens to the public Thursday through Sunday evenings during the summer, but it closed during the pandemic. Officials say it will open for bat watching season in 2022.
If You Go
Castell is located about 105 miles northwest of Austin, and 18 miles west of the county seat of Llano.
Book the cozy Castell Cottage, 19702 W Ranch Road 152, by calling 325-248-4270.
Eat & Drink
The bright yellow Castell General Store, 19522 Ranch Road 152, is open Wednesdays through Sundays, with live music on Saturdays and an in-house church service every third Sunday. The grill serves burgers, chicken sandwiches and pizza, and on weekends you can reserve a smoked chicken by calling ahead at 325-247-4100.
When you stop by the general store, be sure to ask about the long-gone but famously frisky rooster named Cockaroo that once lived there.