Learn to love the trains again with an Austin Steam Train tour through the Hill Country.
Photo by Jason Cook
The Texas Special: One of ASTA’s fully-restored vintage train cars.
Photo by Jason Cook
Hill Country Flyer train tours bring love, nostalgia to the rails
San Marcos has a love/ hate relationship with its trains. No matter where someone wants to go or when, there always seems to be a train in the way.
With the Hill Country Flyer in Cedar Park, however, a train can be something to celebrate.
“Where else can you ride in a living museum?” said Cassidy Bennett, the ticketing and event manager for Austin Steam Train.
The Austin Steam Train Association has a simple mission: to preserve and recreate the firsthand experience of historic steamera railroading for today’s families. Called an “excursion railroad,” Austin Steam Train sprung from a confluence of an historic steam locomotive and an historic rail line after both became property of the citizens of Austin. In 1956, Southern Pacific Locomotive No. 786 was donated to the city of Austin as SP was retiring its steam fleet in favor of diesel. Twenty years later, the SP ended its operations in Austin and sold the city 167 miles of its track from Giddings through Austin and into the Country, to Burnet, Llano and Marble Falls.
Railcar enthusiast and businessman Arthur U. Boone along with many other local rain aficionados joined forces to bring the city’s steam engine and new railroad into an authentic recreation of passenger railroading in Central Texas. In 1989, they incorporated the nonprofit Austin Steam Train Association and it has been chugging along ever since.
“We carry about 30,000 passengers a year,” Bennett said. “In fact, in 2022, we passed one million passengers total.”
According to Bennett, 90% of the passengers come from Texas, with Austin and San Antonio being the most common metropolitan areas from which they come. “We have three peaks each year,” Bennett said. “Wildflower season, which is April through May, Fall with September and October and Christmas Season, November and December. We carry about one-third of our total passengers in November and December on our North Pole Flyer ride.”
Though the North Pole Flyer is a big deal, the Hill Country Flyer proves to be in highest demand.
“The Hill Country Flyer, our signature ride, is our longest running and most popular route,” Bennett said. This trek allows passengers time to explore the fully-restored vintage train cars while traveling through the Texas Hill Country. The route crosses the San Gabriel River and Short Creek Canyon before a two-hour layover in Burnet. There, passengers can enjoy lunch, go shopping and explore Burnet's historic town square. This train tour is available most Saturdays, and there is a fully-stocked concession car where people can buy light bites and beverages, including wine and beer.
“Your own food is always welcome on board the train,” Bennett said. “We do have a concession car on board selling snacks and drinks, but not full meals.”
In addition to the Hill Country Flyer, ASTA offers a variety of special train packages throughout the year, including their second-most popular: The North Pole Flyer. This Christmas-themed twohour train ride features a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, all-you-can-drink hot cocoa and a locally- baked holiday cookie. For more information about this special holiday event, check the website at austinsteamtrain.org/ special-events/north-poleflyer.
In addition to various holiday events, ASTA hosts murder mystery tours periodically throughout the year. Check the website for the next available date at austinsteamtrain. org The next train event for ASTA is the Father’s Day Flyer, which takes to the rails on June 17. This six-hour excursion disembarks from the Cedar Park Depot with a two-hour layover in Burnet. For more information about Austin Steam Trains trips aboard the Hill Country Flyer, call 512-915-2340 or email firstname.lastname@example.org Wednesday through Friday.