There’s a reason why going “off-road” is a thing. Sometimes leaving the comfort and familiarity of a paved street can lead you to some amazing discoveries of the natural world, especially in a huge state like Texas. However, going off-road in the Lone Star state requires a crucial element – a vehicle that is capable of getting you and your passengers through the Texas terrain. Jumping behind the wheel of the 2018 Toyota 4Runner with a 4×4 TRD OFF-ROAD package inspired me to do just that and embark on a road trip to a historical natural site deep in the heart of Texas – Krause Springs.
Drive This: Toyota 4Runner
Few vehicles can tackle a Texas road trip like the Toyota’s 4Runner can, particularly when that 4Runner has off-road capabilities and your road trip consists of venturing off the beaten path through Austin’s Hill Country. With sharp designs and a beautifully deep Nautical Blue paint job, the 2018 Toyota 4Runner, that my family and I drove down to Krause Springs, was at home on the winding roads of the picturesque Lakeway area just west of Austin. It felt equally rugged enough to fit in with the campers and RV vehicles on the campgrounds at the springs. With 47.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row and nearly 90 cubic feet with the seats down, there was plenty of room for camping tents, mountain bikes, coolers, and luggage.
Weekend Warrior Pro Tip: Opt for the nifty rear cargo sliding floor, which can be pulled out for easier cargo loading. The 4Runner sits high off the ground so you’ll be glad you did.
Our 4Runner came equipped with a 4×4 TRD OFF-Road package, which meant rocky inclines posed no problem on our road trip. Krause Springs is certainly accessible by any type of vehicle but every chance I saw to veer off the gravel road and onto Mother Nature’s path along the Colorado River, I took it. A 4.0-liter V-6 engine that produces 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque supplied the 4Runner with plenty of power to traverse steep hills, even with a full carload. The 4Runner’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System keeps the vehicle from leaning too far in one direction, both on the highway and on extreme terrain. Using a system that runs on hydraulics instead of electronics, this suspension system will soften when needed to allow for greater wheel articulation. It also allows anti-sway bars to reduce body lean by as much as 50 percent. You don’t really need to understand the science behind this system but you will feel safer when driving over rocky environments and you notice that the 4Runner stays surprisingly level.
Inside and out, the 4Runner is stylish without losing its edge. Its unique design is quintessential Toyota and certain elements like the attractively bulging head and tail lights fall in line with other vehicles in the brand. The hood scoop is a nice touch, in addition to a wide moonroof made for some memorable stargazing at night. The spacious cabin was made even more comfortable, with Toyota’s cushy SofTex seats. Not only is SofTex upholstery more environmentally friendly than normal leather, but it also retains cooler temperatures easier and is more affordable than traditional leather. To top it off, the 5.1 High-Res touchscreen in the dash was the perfect size to display directions as we drove the 4Runner to Krause Springs using Toyota’s navigation system.
Stay & Explore Here: Krause Springs
Tucked away in the green rolling hills that surround the Colorado River, just west of Austin is a 115-acre natural site with a stunningly beautiful natural pool at its centerpiece; this is Krause Springs. A whopping 32 natural springs surround the area and feed not only into the natural pool but also into a man-made pool on the grounds that is perfect for families and those hesitant to swim among fish. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Krause Springs is far enough off the “beaten-path” that it seemed like the ideal place to visit in the Toyota 4Runner.
Hiking, fishing, bird watching, camping, and picnicking are just a few of the activities Krause Springs offers year round. There is even a quaint butterfly garden filled with soothing wind chimes that can be heard from the welcome center. There is a small admission price of $8 for adults and $5 for children, but the experience of the natural pool is well worth the cost. RV hookups are available for reservation, while camping is first come first serve. Both options come with an additional cost of a few bucks more per person.
On the short hike down towards the natural pool, I marveled at some of the awe-inspiring cypress trees that fill the area. Similar to the trees you’d expect in the Pacific Northwest, these cypress trees are massive and some even date back to 1423! Oak trees also dot the landscape, with the oldest oak coming in at 366 years old. These oak and cypress trees are, in fact, the oldest trees in Central Texas and must be seen to be believed.
Of course, the main attraction at Krause Springs is the natural pool, which is surprisingly easy to access from the welcome center. Large stone steps lead you down the side of a granite cliff, where natural springs cascade downward to form twin waterfalls that land in a large pool of blue-green water. Opposite to the waterfalls is an outcropping of granite that gently slopes down towards the pool making for an ideal area to sit and enjoy the view. The pool is a popular swimming hole with outdoors enthusiasts, and there’s even a rope hung from a large nearby sycamore tree where kids of all ages can swing into the water. Photos do not do this area justice – it simply begs to be appreciated in person.
At an affordable price and with many ways to enjoy the grounds, Krause Springs is certainly a Hill Country treasure that is the perfect getaway for those wanting to reconnect with nature.
Eat Here: Mandola’s Italian Kitchen
After a day of traveling, hiking, and swimming in a natural pool, you’re likely to work up an appetite. Luckily, 20 miles from Krause Springs along a winding, scenic stretch of highway 71 is an Italian eatery that will have you salivating. Mandola’s Italian Kitchen is situated in a bustling shopping center in Bee Cave, Texas. Once you enter its doors, you’ll be treated to a restaurant that feels much like a cozy market you’d find in Italy. Pastries, dried pasta, cafe beverages, and gelato can be quickly purchased and enjoyed on-the-go, or patrons can grab a menu and order from Mandola’s robust menu of made-to-order Italian dishes.
We stopped into Mandolas on a Friday night and ordered the special: Large Gulf Shrimp sautéed in butter, garlic, white wine, and fresh lemon juice, served with Fettuccine Alfredo. The friendly staff also recommended that we order the Vegetariano-a Panini made with grilled eggplant, zucchini, onions, portobello mushrooms, and fresh mozzarella with artichoke spread, pesto mayo and red pepper relish on multigrain bread. We settled on a patio table with a bottle of wine and awaited our food while munching on fresh baked bread dips in seasoned olive oil.
Our entrees were plated attractively and smelled delicious. The Vegetariano was crispy and quite flavorful. The plump shrimp in the scampi was melt-in-your-mouth buttery and paired well with the cooked-to-perfection pasta. In fact, Mandola’s is known for their perfect pasta and with numerous variations of it on the menu, this is one place to visit again and again.
Fuel Economy rating for the 2018 Toyota 4Runner is 17 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. Starting price for the 2018 Toyota 4Runner TRD OFF-ROAD is $37,785.