BURNET — If you drive southwest from the Fort Hood area for a bit, you’ll come to an area called the Texas Highlands.  

That’s where you’ll find Longhorn Cavern State Park. Nestled amongst the hills, straddled by Buchanan and Lyndon B. Johnson Lakes, this State Park has the notoriety of being the only State Park that you don’t have to stop at a little shack before entering to pay an entrance fee.  You can drive right up to the parking area, park and start tromping around.

Home to miles of hiking trails highlighting beautiful Texas Hill Country scenery, Longhorn Cavern State Park has a three-story observation tower allowing a panoramic of the area.  But the main draw here is the state park’s namesake, Longhorn Cavern.

The cavern had been known since the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the Civilian Conservation Corps cleaned it up in the 1930s that it finally revealed a treasure that no one expected.

At one end, a lake of crystal clear water, full of blind albino catfish and translucent crawdads. At the other end, evidence of areas where Comanche warriors descended to harvest stone to fashion into arrowheads.

Somewhere in the middle, they found a pile of animal bones dating back to the ice age.  All manner of beasts, from mammoth to cattle, had fallen through a hidden hole, leaving a heap of history dating back tens-of-thousands of years.

The cave stretches deep beneath the Lone Star State, but only the first mile and change are available to explore.  A walking tour is $18 for adults and $13 for children ages 12 and under.  Active duty and retired military discounts are offered. For those willing to get down and dirty a “Wild Cave Tour” is conducted on weekends by reservation only and costs $55.  It’s for serious spelunkers only.

The walking tour consists of a 90-minute guided adventure through the more easily tread sections of the cave.  The group I toured with was comprised of myself, my wife and 22 other souls, including children and a couple of strapped-on babies.  We were led by “Mad Crash” Landers, a former crash-test pilot turned tour guide, who lived up to his nickname.  

The temperature of the cave remained a refreshing 68 degrees for the duration of our time underground, standing in stark contrast to the triple-digit heat on the surface.

We were taken past massive geological formations, glittering gemstones and native American artifacts.  More than just a visual mineral tour, we experienced a deceptively educational history tour, flavored with “Mad Crash’s” asides and factoids.

Longhorn Cavern State Park proved to be a refreshing getaway from modern life and could have easily been part of a larger tour of all the great things to do in the Texas Highlands … if we had more time.  

Still, for a day trip, it was just what the doctor ordered.