Hill Country State Natural Area is an awesome, if far-flung, locale offering over 40 miles of trails including riding options from very easy to very difficult in a 5000+ acre setting. As the former Bar-O Ranch, the Natural Area designation leaves the area in a primitive state with minimal facilities - there is no potable water available.
The terrain varies from easy, flat pasture land, to cedar scrub covered bottomland surrounding the creeks, to cactus covered rock outcroppings. Several overlooks offer sweeping vistas of the surrounding Hill Country. This area is popular with equestrians, but I've never found more than a handful of people in the park.
In case you don't know, central Texas gets very hot in the summer and there is little shade along a significant part of the trails - plan accordingly. Also note that there is no potable water available in the park, so bring plenty of water.
This loop is shorter and skips some of the more difficult sections that will be covered in the Just Past Nowhere
Park at the alternate parking further into the park along the Park Road
past the visitor center. Start out with an easy warm-up on the Prairie Loop
. Then follow the gently rising Creek Bottom #2a
and Hermits Trail #3
out to a remote hermit's shack outpost at the northernmost point in the park. This is an easy pleasant section of the loop.
Turn around and head back on the Hermits Trail #3
until the intersection with the Madrone Trail #4
at about 5.75 miles. Turn right on Madrone Trail #4
, and you'll pass an impressive field of prickly pear cactus before reaching the first intersection with Cougar Canyon Overlook Trail #4a
. Here, you'll have a good preview of the upcoming climb.
The Cougar Canyon Overlook Trail #4a
is the more difficult of the two side loops off of the Madrone Trail #4
although it is singletrack whereas Vista Ridge Trail #4b
is a doubletrack. The climb up Cougar Canyon Overlook Trail #4a
is a steep 150-ft struggle up a rock strewn path, but with a little power and finesse most people should be able to master it after a few tries.
Once you've dispatched the climb, take a moment to enjoy the view back towards the ranch house from the top. Then you've got a really awesome mile of singletrack high on the mesa to look forward to. This section is nice and flowing and you'll have great views towards the northwest from the far reaches of the Cougar Canyon Overlook Trail #4a
. The descent back down to Madrone Trail #4
is also fun with long, sloping arcs.
When you reach the bottom, turn right onto the easier riding of Madrone Trail #4
. When you reach the second intersection with Vista Ridge Trail #4b
at mile nine, there is a former ranch house and some large shade trees which makes a good place for a break. Continue on Madrone Trail #4
which merges with the Spring Branch Trail
. There is an extremely technical (impossible?) climb just after this merge which I am sure most of us mortal riders will have to walk for a short distance. Then, you'll come to the four-way intersection with the West Peak Overlook Trail #5a
At this intersection, first continue straight up (emphasis on up) a quarter-mile to the West Peak Overlook which offers an impressive view of the park to the east. This climb to the overlook is rocky and you'll also have to dodge yucca plants and prickly pear. The view is worth it even if you aren't able to ride the whole climb and have to carry the bike. Riding down from the overlook is possible so long as you pick your lines carefully.
When you reach the four-way intersection for the second time, turn right back onto the Spring Branch Trail
. A right at this four-way intersection will send you quickly back to the parking area.
The next mile of the Spring Branch Trail
until you reach another four-way intersection with the Wilderness Trail
doubletrack is a technical descent on narrow, rocky singletrack. You'll also have to dodge the cacti on the side of the trail and the occasional low hanging cedar branch. There are also one or two places with a little exposure where a fall would have some consequences so walk if you are uncomfortable.
When you reach the four-way intersection with the Wilderness Trail
doubletrack, turn right with the knowledge that the difficult sections are all behind you. Or go straight at this point for another very difficult segment if you haven't had enough!
Assuming you turn right to stay on the Spring Branch Trail
, you'll enjoy easy cruising on rocky singletrack through one of the more remote parts of the park. You'll pass two ponds before nearly reaching Bandera Creek Road
which is another bail option. The Spring Branch Trail
twists and turns through the cedar scrub with a few rock ledges to climb before you reach the Wilderness Trail
for the final time around 14 miles and this takes you quickly back to the parking area.