Cedar Park is a 93-mile drive from La Vernia and straddles both Williamson and Travis counties, just 16 miles north of Austin. This area has been inhabited since prehistoric time, as evidenced by discoveries made at the Wilson-Leonard Archaeological Site. Beginning in the 1600s, several Native American tribes -- including the Apache, Tonkawa and Comanche -- made this area their home, followed by European settlers in the early 1800s. The first organized community was known as Running Brushy, with some of the first leaders being George and Harriet Cluck, whose ranch formed the core of this new community. In 1883, the Austin & Northwest Railroad arrived and in 1887, the area was renamed Cedar Park. As Austin grew, so did Cedar Park, and was considered to be a suburb of Austin until 1973 when Cedar Park became an incorporated city.
As much as we had travelled in central and south central Texas, we didn’t know much about Cedar Park; that is, until a good friend mentioned that there was an old train there that provides rail tours of the Hill Country. Something kept resonating in the back of our minds -- it was the haunting whistle of an old railroad engine and a conductor announcing, “All aboard!”
One of the most interesting aspects of the Austin Steam Train Association is the volunteers, dressed in authentic uniforms of the railroad’s bygone days; their only goal is to make sure that each passenger enjoys their ride. One of the trainmen that we met was the son and grandson of a railroad man, and he told us stories of himself as a child on the rail between Chicago and Cleveland. One of the cars on our train was the “City of Chicago” and he remembers exactly where he sat on those trips.
There are two basic tours, one from Cedar Park to Burnet -- dubbed the Hill Country Flyer -- and the other from Cedar Park to Bertram -- the Bertram Flyer. They also offer many special tours at different times of the year. Pricing begins at $12 for children, $19 for adults, and $14 for seniors.
The Hill Country Flyer departs at 10 a.m. for a two-hour journey to Burnet in the Hill Country. Once there, passengers can get off the train right in the heart of Burnet and enjoy shopping, lunch, and even a Wild West gunfight. Passengers re-board the train at 2:15 p.m. for the return trip to Cedar Park. It does not operate during June, July, or August.
We chose the Bertram Flyer that runs on Sunday afternoon for the fall/winter schedule. It is a shorter ride, following the same route of the Hill Country Flyer as far as Bertram. It stops at the historic 1912 train station there, turns around, and returns to Cedar Park. We were able to tour the small station during the very short 15-minute layover.
Pay your money, take your choice
There are several choices for seating, ranging from coach class to first class. If you decide to go during a hot Texas day, be aware that coach class does not have air conditioning. There are two different lounge cars and a refreshment car, where passengers can purchase a variety of drinks and snacks for only $1 each. Passengers are also welcome to bring snacks and drinks on board in a small cooler. There is also a private party room that can be used for birthday, anniversary, or any other occasion for a party.
Be sure to consult the website, www.austinsteamtrain.org, for schedules, fares, and a wide variety of special trips.
Before we took our journey on the train, we read many reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, and the majority of them mentioned that the scenery was not what they expected. For those of us raised in this area, we know south Texas landscaping -- lots of cedar, mesquite, and oak trees, cactus, rocks, and fields of yellow wildflowers. All routes follow the same rail, passing through Cedar Park, Leander, Liberty Hill, and Bertram.
For us, it was not so much the scenery as it was the experience of riding the rails on this historic train; it was more about the gentle rocking back and forth almost lulling us to sleep and the steel wheels screeching against the rails as the train took a curve. It was the clanging of the warning lights on the crossing arms to warn oncoming vehicle traffic that a train was coming. It was the nostalgia and novelty of it all and the peaceful time with a loved one.
Harry and Linda Kaye Perez are freelance writers from just down the road from Floresville. Together they share a passion for traveling and writing, and discovering the very best in all corners of the world. Email them at Harry-Linda411@att.net.
The Austin Steam Train Association hosts a number of special rail rides each year, including:
•North Pole Flyer - December: All aboard with Santa and Mrs. Claus for a two-hour round trip. No stops.
•Main Street Bethlehem -- December: Cedar Park to Burnet for special Christmas activities presented by citizens of Burnet, departs 2:30 p.m. from Cedar Park, arrives Burnet at 4:30 p.m. Departs Burnet at 8 p.m. for the return trip to Cedar Park.
•The Ballad of Black Jack Malloy - August-September: Capital City Mystery Players portray outlaw “Black Jack” Malloy. No one on the train is safe with this bad guy on board. Includes boxed meal. No children.
•Twilight Flyers - Specified Saturdays during summer months. Experience a magical train ride after dark. Cedar Park to Bertram and back. First class ticket includes boxed meal.
•Other special rides include Murder at the Masked Ball, Who Shot JR, the Sweetheart Special, Bluebonnet Special, The Holy Ghost Revival Meeting Murder, and A Halloween Whodunit.