Texas Map (Major Highways Only)
Tucked away in the rugged terrain southwest of Bandera is Hill Country State Natural Area, an undeveloped and secluded retreat. Approximately 40 miles of multi-use trails wind up grassy valleys, cross spring-fed streams, and climb steep limestone hills.
Hill Country State Natural Area is located in Bandera and Medina Counties, 45 miles northwest of San Antonio. The 5369.8-acre site was acquired by gift and purchase in 1976 and was opened to the public in 1984. The bulk of the site was a donation from the Merrick Bar-O-Ranch with the stipulation that it "be kept far removed and untouched by modern civilization, where everything is preserved intact, yet put to a useful purpose."
The Hill Country State Natural Area is a scenic mosaic of rocky hills, flowing springs, oak groves, grasslands, and canyons. The terrain ranges from flat, broad creek bottoms to steep, rocky canyons up to 2000 feet in elevation. The West Verde Creek has several spring-fed streams, and tanks in the park provide several swimming holes with limited fishing for catfish, perch, and large-mouth bass. Spring water is available for horses, but people should bring their own drinking water.
I was looking for a place to kick my butt into shape for Hardrock. After running here in 1998, I knew this was the best I could find within this distance from my home. This was and still is the place where I go to train. The course is all dirt, and as much as I hate roads, this suits me fine. Mater of fact, there are no paved surfaces in the park. The entire course is within this 5000 acre park. There are a few old abandoned jeep roads, but none are being used for auto traffic. The old roads that are on bedrock remain wide and clear, but most of the old jeep roads are dirt and rock and have worn down to rough terrain and single track. Most of the park's trail system is single-track, which really suits my single track desire. The single tracks are as different as each part of the park. Some are hard bedrock, some are rough terrain, some are on a bed of loose rock, and some are regular dirt. Most of this place is a real joy to run while some of it is downright nasty. The area of the 8/9 loop is our least favorite and is usually only run to get the extra distance. We prefer to stay up in the hills, but the flat sections in between allow you some time to recover and regroup.
There used to be a few other races here in years past. There was a 28mi race in January and then a small 100km in February. This race started in 2003 and has been much the same since it started. All the routes changed a bit for the first few years, but have stayed much the same the last few years.
Everything in Texas stings, bites, or scratches: this includes the plants. The sotol cactus is the biggest problem on this course. You might not notice one or two tiny little poke holes, but a couple hundred might get your attention as the sweat runs down into them. There is also an abundance of prickly pear cactus whose needles are very long and nasty. The trees are short and scrub, such as the mesquite. The bark is rough and the branches have thorns. There are also plenty of oak. Regardless, I would not idly brush against the branches, expecting them to move out of your way. Odds are good that they will push back and give you a scar for your rudeness. The plants in Texas demand as much breathing room as do the Texans. The creeks are usually bone dry but might have water in them. Depends on the recent rains. Some people might think they are swimming here, but I doubt the water gets higher than your ankles in most places.
The critters that I have seen here are rattlesnakes, wild pigs, scorpions, porcupines, armadillos, and skunks. Most of the nasty ones such as snakes and scorpions are in hibernation at this time though.
Elevation is a non issue here with a max of 2000 ft. More attention is paid to the trails that are filled with rocks.
Each year has been different & completely unpredictable. 8 degrees one year, 73 degrees two years later. The weather history has been posted.
We have names for different parts of this park (some are the park's, while others were invented by us)
Lodge Loop = starts at the Shade Tree just in front of the Lodge, loops around behind the Lodge in a ccw direction, and comes back in on the corral side of the Lodge. Roughly 7 miles and some of the roughest and hilliest in the park.
Outside Loop = starts at Boyle's House on #4, goes up onto one of the Twin Peaks, then continues ccw to Ice Cream Hill, down to Nacho's House, then back on the creek #7 to the Bar-O Camp. Roughly 8 miles. Has some very rugged sections and some relatively flat but twisted up sections thru sotol and creek bottom.
Inside Loop = starts and stops at the Equestrian Camp (CrossRoads) to (CrossRoads).
8/9 Loop = starts at Bar-O Camp on #8 and around to Chapa's House and then onto the section of #9 trails, followed by the section thru the field and back into Bar-O Camp. Approx 8 miles. Mostly easy rollers & dirt but embedded with rocks on the 8s. Very easy when dry. Very tough shoe sucking mud when wet.
Shade Tree = where #2a and #3 cross. It is just 50 yards off the road, within sight of the Lodge front porch, just across the cattle gate. It is a very shaded area, mostly by one huge tree. It is a wonderful place to sit and wait for your runner to come thru and only a 50 yard walk from the road. For both the 25km and the 50km, they are approx 2 miles from the finish at this point.
Bar-O Camp = is where the ranger's office is, also the overflow horse camping area across from the house. It is just behind the gate and just after the split in the main park roads. One road leads to the Lodge. The other leads to Nacho's House.
Equestrian Camp = This is the Equestrian Camping area between the Lodge & the Park entrance. #1 goes out one side of it and #6 passes just past the other side of it. Behind the parking area is the main camping area (213-thru-217) with large pull ins for horse trailers. We reserve all these sites for the race and use this area for the CrossRoads aid station. I allow some runners with large RVs to park & camp here if you ask me about it.
Chapas, Nachos, Boyles, & Lodge = These are the old houses that exist in the park. Nachos is used by the park ranger as his residence. Chapas has not been rebuilt but the barns behind it are in use by the equestrians. Boyle's is at the intersection of #4 and #4b and is also not livable. The Lodge is the only rental unit and our park headquarters. We use all these locations as aid stations.
Shady Grove = This is just out the back road behind the Lodge. Follow the road thru the creek and into the trees. This is the 25km & 50km start area.
Ice Cream Hill = The hill is on T#1b. It begins with 3 dips in and out of deep cut creeks that soften you up before climbing the final straight up ascent along a fence-line. The descent is very rugged but not as long, and leads through a few wide sotol cactus gardens... which tend to poke a lot of tiny holes in your legs.
The Saddle = is the area just under Sky Island. Many trails cross over in this location: T#5, T#5b, T#5c, T#6. One of the best places to get off course and go completely the wrong direction. You have to pay very close attention when here or you will go wrong. Lots of choices!
Sky Island = is one of the Twin Peaks just above the landmark we call 'The Saddle". T#5c loops around the summit and comes back the same way. Nasty rugged with rocks & scenic as well, if you dare to look up.
Big Nasty = This is a hidden delight. It begins at the intersection of T#4 and T#5 and ends in the Saddle at Sky Island. It's a nasty bit of climbing and loose rock, but not too terribly long. The park created a set of switchbacks to avoid this, but nobody ever uses them. It's a rock & roll kinda' trail.
Lucky Peak = on T#3b. Is not the highest peak in the park but is one of the nastiest. Lots of loose rock on one side and a few steep ledges on the other side. Especially entertaining when wet and covered in mud
Cairn's Climb = on T#4a. This trail was made specifically for this race. It was created so that we could use a very good climb and some very rugged steps from one level to the next. Can be a lot of fun... or fun to hate - depending on your mood.
Boyle's Bump = on T#4b. This goes to the highest point on this course. The climb is not very technical, but then it just seems to go on for awhile. Great scenic overlooks from the top down into the park. The descent down to Boyles House is all switchbacks. The only ones I know of in the park.
The Sisters = on T#5c. Between T#1 and T#6, this short section of trail rides over the near naked summits of three peaks with a shallow saddle between each. It's not very tough, but because there is nothing around them and no cover, you are very exposed to the elements and also treated to scenic views in all directions.
The Field = is the area between the Equestrian Camping and the main park road entrance. It is all very flat and wide open. There are a few trees but mostly it is all tall grass & open field. Because this area is all low lying flat land that abuts the creek, you can count on it to be very nasty when wet. Shoe sucking mud is very bad through here if it rains.