CASTELL — If you get one chance to show someone what Texas is all about, where do you go?
Not the plains of the Panhandle or the canyons of Big Bend. Not the forests of East Texas or the beaches of the Gulf Coast.
It’s got to be the Hill Country.
But the Hill Country is a 25-county region, far too large to see in one day. So you’ve got to focus on the best part of the Hill Country: the Highland Lakes.
And one spot in the Highland Lakes is the perfect destination.
It’s isolated. Whatever photos you take on your smartphone are staying there because you’re not posting them to social media when there is no service.
There’s a river for fishing or kayaking. The hunting is great. And the landscape is in pristine condition.
At night, you’ll get distracted by shooting stars as you stare into the middle of the Milky Way.
And although maybe six people live there, you’ll find a hundred or more from all walks of life getting together when the barbecue is ready.
It’s the water, the wildlife, the wide-open spaces, the hills and the granite. And it’s all in Castell.
“It seems like nobody comes to Castell once,” said Marc Leifeste as he surveys his store. “They think it’s a neat, charming place, and they come back again.”
Leifeste’s family has owned a ranch 300 yards from the big, yellow Castell General Store since 1852. Marc and his father, Randy, are co-owners of the gathering spot. On the weekends, the store serves dozens of people looking for burgers, barbecue, steaks, or just a couple drinks with friends new and old.
They see locals, hunters, fishermen, bikers and weekenders. And they’re all coming for the same things the first settlers came for more than 160 years ago: the river.
“The river really makes a difference,” he said. “Nothing else has a draw. We couldn’t make it without the river.”
The Germans who first emigrated to the area in 1847 must have found it charming as well. On the Llano River and 15 miles west of Llano, Castell is the first permanent settlement in Llano County. Two other settlements by the same group of Germans were abandoned shortly after.
Castell was a small town that once thrived. The Castell General Store, 19522 RR 152 West, was originally a blacksmith shop. Across the street was an automobile dealer. There was a cotton gin, a two-story hotel and a full-time doctor.
But over time, people left and the community turned into a ghost town.
“There was no reason to come to this side of the river unless we rode with my grandfather to go to the post office,” Leifeste said.
Leifeste went to college and raised his family in San Antonio. Because no one lived in Castell, houses were cheap. People bought them to renovate into rental properties. Slowly, tourists and hunters returned to the area, and the store grew. About seven years ago, Randy asked Marc to come back to Castell to help run the store.
With all the rains in the past year, Marc said each month has been better than the last as more people discover the community.
And not just the general store, but the bed-and-breakfasts, too. There are now 12 cabins in Castell, all dependent on hunters, anglers and tourists coming to enjoy what the river has to offer. You can stay at a place such as the Rockin’ River Cabins, just yards from the Castell General Store, and be on the river in the middle of nowhere or within walking distance of dozens of inns, all at the same time.
“Castell, to me, is the quintessential Llano River town. It’s small; it’s quirky; it’s quaint. And it’s got deep roots in history,” said Keith Barnes, a Llano County fisherman, who has spent decades on Texas rivers. “Whether you are there just to sit on the bank, go birding, go canoeing, see wildlife or you want to fish, you can do any of those things.”
The Llano River is clear and relatively shallow. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stocks the river with trout in the late fall, but plenty of other fish make the waters their home year-round.
The trout provide an opportunity for the entire family to fish together and experience fly fishing in a relaxed, social setting.
“When they’re releasing stocker trout on the Llano, you can take the family out, and you get to all experience the same river,” Barnes said. “I think it’s an amazing opportunity that a lot of people are missing.”
The weather is only too cold for fishing a few days out of the year. Some inexpensive waders and fleece leggings are the most you’ll need for winter fishing. By yourself, or with family, you can cast into the shallow waters all day and perhaps never see another person.
Whether you fish or not, the river is a psychiatrist for many.
“Whatever’s got you angry floats off down the river and leaves you behind,” Barnes said. “By the time I crawl back in my truck, I’m happy and life is perfect.”
Castell is something different for everyone. It’s a destination for wildlife enthusiasts. Many come on weekends from cities such as San Antonio and Austin to escape to a country setting. Bikers and car clubs enjoy the twisting roads that meander through the hills and stop for a break before continuing down the road. Hunters drive in from their deer blinds on all-terrain vehicles for supplies, and others just want to see exactly what it’s all about.
When you have to show someone your ideal version of Texas, tell them you’re going to Castell. And when they ask, “What’s Castell?”, you don’t have to tell them anything. Show them the river in a canoe, make new friends eating barbecue and then end the day in rocking chairs under the sky.
That will be your answer.
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