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.
Bring $6 to cover the entry fee (or your Texas State Parks Pass) and experience the solitude available in this remote paradise. You'll not be disappointed.
This ride might be more difficult than the overall distance and climbing statistics indicate and dodging the rocks as well as a number of rock ledges will leave you with a good upper body workout in addition to your legs of course. There are lots of bail options in case things get too hairy though.
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.
You'll start with a gentle climb to the northern reaches of the park on singletrack (Creek Bottom #2a
, Hermits Trail #3
, and Side Track
) through the cedar scrub in the creek bottomland. If you want a real challenge and/or a walk, take the aptly named Good Luck Trail
when it intersects Side Track
Then head back towards Madrone Trail #4
and take the two loops Cougar Canyon Overlook Trail #4a
and Vista Ridge Trail #4b
. Both of these trails climb steeply from Madrone Trail #4
and then descend steeply to rejoin it. Cougar Canyon Overlook Trail #4a
is a singletrack that flows nicely up on the mesa and offers sweeping views of the Hill Country to the north. Vista Ridge Trail #4b
is a slightly easier doubletrack and it offers a nice view of the Ice Cream Hill area, which you'll ride later. You're doing good if you've cleaned all the climbs and descents on these two side trails.
After Vista Ridge Trail #4b
, turn right back onto Madrone Trail #4
, which shortly joins Spring Branch Trail
. Spring Branch Trail
is the crown jewel in the park. Shortly after merging with Spring Branch Trail
, you've got a very technical, ledged climb, which probably all but the very best and strongest riders will have to walk. Shortly thereafter, you'll reach the four-way intersection with the West Peak Overlook Trail #5a
. You should continue straight for a quarter-mile up to the overlook where you'll have a beautiful view of the eastern side of the park and the Hill Country beyond. The climb is difficult, rocky, rutted, and guarded on both sides by yucca plants and prickly pear but it's actually mostly rideable and the view is worth it even if you have to carry the bike a bit.
Pick your line carefully down from the overlook and you should be able to ride back to the four-way intersection. If you've had enough, turn right to go back to the parking lot. Otherwise, continue left on the Just Past Nowhere loop following Spring Branch Trail
The next mile 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 one or two places with a little exposure where a fall would have some consequences so walk if you are uncomfortable. Wilderness Trail
is an easier doubletrack right back to the parking lot if you need it.
The next mile until another intersection with the Wilderness Trail
is very difficult. You'll have yet another short, steep, 100-foot climb on loose rocks to the top of a small hill. Then you've got a difficult, steep descent down the other side. This trail is also lined with yucca plants and prickly pear cactus, so if you lose your momentum... let's just say some poor yucca plant was harmed in the making of this trail description. Actually, it seemed no worse for wear, except for the several thorns it left in my leg.
At the bottom of this hill, turn right and then quickly left to stay on Spring Branch Trail
. After a half mile, turn right onto Ice Cream Hill Trail #1b
for anther ascent/descent on rocky singletrack. At the end of Ice Cream Hill Trail #1b
, turn right to follow the section of Spring Branch Trail
that you've just done. At this point, you've completed the most difficult riding!
Follow Spring Branch Trail
until Bandera Creek Trail #7
, which is another rocky singletrack that takes you in and out of the creek bed back towards the visitor center. From there, if you've still got some energy left, head towards the Medina Loop Trail #8
. This trail is more difficult than it seems, becoming increasingly rugged as it winds towards the south through the cedar scrub. You'll have a lot of rocks embedded in the soil to dodge.
At the end of Medina Loop Trail #8
, take segments of the Pasture Loop Trail #9
, Wildlife Trail
, and Bar-O Trail #2
back to the parking lot.
If you haven't had enough, you are a real beast - go do it again!