On 25th July, Texas celebrates the official National Day of the Cowboy, and on that hot dusty summer day, there’s no better place to be than the cool Hill Country town of Bandera. All year long, visitors love this little Wild West town which locals proudly call “The Cowboy Capital of Texas”.
A quiet Old West settlement that looks like an old movie set, Bandera rests less than an hour’s drive northwest of San Antonio, riding tall in the saddle at the head of the what once was Great Western Cattle Trail (also called the Dodge City Trail and the Old Texas Trail), embodying the brave spirit of the Texas cowboy. Along the trail of the Lonesome Dove heroes, home to rodeos and horseback riding, river fun and dude ranches, Bandera feels like the kind of place where real-life cowboys ride off into the sunset.
From this tree-shaded Hill Country range high in the Edwards Plateau region, riding along rich rambling rivers, deep green valleys, and tall limestone cliffs, Texas cowboys drove cattle from Bandera to Dodge City, Kansas, and points west, from about 1866 through 1900. Although Texas’ brief but epic cattle trail era ended more than a century ago, still the myth and mystery of the American cowboy live on in Bandera. Here, rodeos, trail rides, and campfires are still part of everyday small-town life.
Named “Bandera” for the Spanish word for flag, the town was first a Polish settlement. Today it’s thoroughly Texan. Resting near the banks of the Medina River, Bandera is the quintessential Wild West watering hole, where visitors are still likely to see horses tied to downtown hitching posts near hopping honky-tonk bars. Small blue-plate-special-style cafes, “Mom-and-Pop” shops, and an old-fashioned general store line Main Street, where trucks and horse trailers are parked out front. On the streets, horses are almost as common as cars.
Sure, lots of locals still wear cowboy hats (white straw ones in summer, dark felt ones in winter), and just about everyone owns – and often wears – cowboy boots. Bandanas are a common handkerchief, too.
What’s there to do in Bandera? Since 1933, visitors have enjoyed Bandera’s little Frontier Times Museum, featuring more than 40,000 Old West relics, western art, antiques, Indian artefacts, and posters of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. The museum also celebrates the National Day of the American Cowboy with special exhibits.
Another must-stop spot on Main Street is the OST Restaurant, named for the Old Spanish Trail. An authentic old-time diner and gossip spot, this casual cafe features country cooking – like chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy and hot steamy enchiladas drowned in melted cheese – along with heaping helpings of southern hospitality. Although they have a bar along one wall, alcohol isn’t served here – just drinks like hot coffee, iced tea, Dr. Pepper, Root Beer and Lemonade. Taxidermy moose mounts adorn the walls, and the barstools are made from actual saddles. There’s also a room full of photographs of iconic cowboy actor, John Wayne.
No visit to the Cowboy Capital of Texas would be complete without a cold brew at an old-school Texas beer joint, bar or honky tonk dance hall. Some of Bandera’s best include Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, The Longhorn Saloon, the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, and the Chickin Coop. There, families with kids of all ages are welcome, and folks can get a cold drink, try a dance lesson, hear live Texas music, and dance the two-step.
Locals love the Sunday trail rides that start at the Longhorn Saloon at 1 PM. They bring their own horses (visitors can rent horses or wagons at the bar) and the whole posse moseys on over from one Bandera watering hole to the next, and then ends up eating chili and enjoying a full bar back at the Longhorn Saloon, where a live band plays for an early evening dance.
On most Saturday afternoons, visitors may catch a high noon showdown. The Bandera Cattle Company‘s “gunfighter reenactments” take place again at 2PM, and it all happens at the Bandera County Visitors Center (or, if it’s raining, inside the General Store). From mid-March through November, from noon to 4pm, guests may also see cowboys on horseback, a chuck wagon, a longhorn steer, cowboy musicians, a trick roper, or character reenactors, at an event called “Cowboys on Main.”
Rodeos are also popular in Bandera every summer on weekends through the end of August. During the rest of the year, cowboys practice roping skills at private arenas in the area.
Besides all that, Bandera County is probably best known for its dude ranches, offering guests a chance to experience life as a cowboy with horseback riding, trail rides, and chuck wagon meals. Many ranches edge the sprawling back country of the Hill Country State Natural Area, covering 5,400-acres of rugged state-protected land. With nearly 40 miles of multi-use trails, deep valleys, spring-fed streams, and stone-studded hills, the area allows visitors to experience the same things and see the same lands that cattle drive cowboys did 100+ years ago.
Bandera offers visitors the Texas they’ve longed to find, and it’s the perfect place to celebrate the spirit of the Wild West on the National Day of the Cowboy, or any other time of year.
Partnering with Delta means we can connect you to numerous destinations across the United States and Canada, bringing your trip to San Antonio and Bandera within easy reach.
Have you visited the Cowboy Capital of Texas? What were your impressions? Tell us in the comments section below.
Written by Janis Turk