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Hoofbeats on Hollow Ground

At Hill Country State Natural Area, you can take a horse out for a wilderness experience.

By Steven Long

Bruja looks at the clear running water of Bandera Creek, deciding whether to get her hooves wet. Lucky for me, she’s willing to do whatever I ask, but she is a careful horse and I appreciate that on the steep and sometimes slippery limestone trails of Hill Country State Natural Area.

After more than 50 years of mostly casual riding I am still only a pleasure rider, albeit a dedicated one. This isn’t Bruja’s first time to see the Hill Country. We had spent a hard weekend riding at a nearby ranch. This is our sport. We don’t rope or barrel race. We aren’t competitive in any way. We love nothing more than to strike out on an upland trail to see what is on the other side of a hill.

We made our first such ride several years ago among the rugged rocks and mountains of Big Bend Ranch State Park. There, a roper — the kind of guy who is at home in chaps and can wear a giant hat with grace — urged me to try Hill Country SNA in Bandera County. It’s an hour northwest of San Antonio and an easy drive from my home in Houston.

Hill Country SNA is one of a handful of public places in Texas where you can take a horse out for a wilderness experience. This 5,300-acre park contains 22 trails totaling 36 miles that are open to backpacking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Three miles are reserved strictly for horseback riding and hikers. The tallest of the limestone hills is more than 1,900 feet and the views on the steep trails are spectacular. The spring-fed streams run over broad, rocky bottoms. Forests of oak and juniper shade the rugged hillsides. The equestrian campsites are equipped with corrals, picket lines and water for horses. If you don’t own a horse, you can rent from one of a score of liveries that serve the park from nearby Bandera, a town that bills itself as the “Cowboy Capital of the World.”

Bruja steps into the water and wades upstream a bit behind the other horses in our party, then follows them up the bank on the other side of the creek. We are riding the park’s trail No. 7, two challenging miles that follow the creek bottom. In many ways, this trail is more difficult than the park’s upland treks because it makes several trips up and down creek banks, always a difficult task for a horse.

The first time Bruja emerges from the water she stops, then carefully places a hoof on limestone as she climbs, then jumps to higher ground. She does this again and again as we ride from creek bottom to bank, horse and rider alert to the sights and sounds of the land and water.

Maneuvering the creek bottom is challenging for Bruja, yet I am confident she can handle it. Two weeks after I traded a surly line-back dun named Nitro for her, we had faced one of the most frightening things a horse and rider can endure together. On our first outing I took her to the high levee that borders Houston’s George Bush Park and contains Barker Reservoir for a quiet Saturday afternoon ride. She was then a green-broke 3-year-old and I expected that the noise from nearby Interstate 10 would be about all that she could handle.

That was until the 50-mph winds and marble-sized hail struck and lightning flashed all around. Bruja put her butt into the wind and stood there riding out the storm while other, older horses in our party bolted, throwing their riders to the ground. When calm came, we rode back, confident that the two of us could handle just about anything nature could throw our way. And now she was proving me right.

My plan for the ride through Hill Country SNA had been simple — get an expert to show me the park from its finest and most challenging trails. For this, superintendent Paul David Fuentes chose Jeanne Beauxbeannes, owner of Desert Hearts Cowgirl Club livery in nearby Bandera.

When we arrive at the park, we put Bruja, the only horse we’ve brought with us, into one of the park’s pens for the evening and erect our tents. The following morning, I saddle Bruja for the ride. Jeanne offers an Appaloosa named Centavo for photographer Jay Remboldt of Houston to ride and a buckskin named Cisco for my wife, Vicki.

Riding in the Hill Country SNA makes a sound I’ve encountered nowhere else. At some points on the nine trails and their offshoots, the tone of hoofbeats changes dramatically from a clap, clap, clap to a deeper, more resonant sound. Throughout my first day, I hear that strange tone again and again as we ride from lowlands to high ground up to almost 2,000 feet. The sound is distinct, whether the hooves are striking bare limestone or the soft dirt of the park’s lowlands. No matter what the pace — andante, allegro, allegretto, presto — the hollow tone persists.

Jeanne explains the phenomenon. Our mounts are walking above the ceilings of the 32 caves that have been discovered thus far in the park. Geologists speculate that many, if not most, of the caves are interconnected. The hollow sound is created by the caverns below our horses’ hooves.

All the caverns are still living, creating geological formations caused by the abundance of Hill Country water dripping and running over mineral-rich stone. These natural wonders are unmarked and kept closed to the public because untrained explorers could damage the rare resources.

As we ride, Jeanne begins a running commentary on the SNA. The Hill Country has enjoyed a wet spring and summer and the native gay feather blooms in abundance, its lavender flowers thrusting toward the sun as we begin our climb into the hills, which are green as far as the eye can see. Palmettos grow crab-like on the ground. Our horses climb the clearly marked trail, and eventually we reach an overlook where we can see for miles.

The hills we’re looking at were formed in the early Cretaceous period. It is part of what geologists call the Glen Rose formation, which is made of limestone, shale, marl and siltstone beds left along the shifting shoreline of the warm, shallow sea that once covered much of Texas. (The fossil remains of ancient clams and sea snails are found frequently in the area, and buckets of them are for sale in Bandera tourist shops.)

On top of the Glen Rose formation, the sea deposited another layer of marine limestone, the Edwards limestone. About 10 million years ago the entire region was uplifted several thousand feet, exposing both the Edwards limestone of the hilltops and the Glen Rose limestone of the river and stream bottoms.

West Verde Creek and Bandera Creek both have low, stairstep waterfalls created by the bedding character of the formation, an alternation of hard limestone and soft marl beds. It is through these formations that Bruja and I ride along trail No. 7.

That trail finally emerges from the creek near camp headquarters, where we come upon a sign showing hikers and bikers yielding to a horseback rider. Bruja takes me where no four-wheel-drive vehicle dares to go. In this state park, she gets her due respect.

Six months after first riding its trails, the now-experienced Bruja and I are back at Hill Country SNA with Jay and his newly acquired horse, Sandman. I like the area so much I have joined Hill Country State Natural Area Partners, (SNAP), the park’s volunteer group. About four times a year we donate weekends clearing brush, rebuilding corrals, marking trails and otherwise helping the area’s two full-time employees.

On our first trip, Jay and I had ridden up a steep hill on a trail designated “Four B.” This time, we decide to ride it without a guide. The trail begins modestly enough over limestone and runs through low-hanging limbs past bunches of prickly pear. As Bruja climbs, her hoofs sometimes slip on the limestone. The trail then begins a long and steady climb for 13⁄4 miles. At an elevation of 1,957 feet, the trail offers a vista to the east that seems to go on forever.

Coming down the hill turns out to be far more difficult for Bruja than climbing up. As the incline becomes steeper, Bruja puts her head down and surveys the ground, carefully looking at the polished top of a limestone boulder thinly camouflaged with sand. The rock poses danger for a horse less watchful. The hard steel of a horseshoe does not grip the surface of limestone worn slick by the ages. To establish solid footing for a half-ton animal carrying the weight of a man, the hoof must be placed carefully in the sand, not on the rock.

I look ahead as the trail slopes down a 50-foot incline. Slowly my horse places hoof in front of hoof, arching her back legs into her belly as she moves carefully down the trail, her bottom almost touching the ground as her front hooves dislodge pebbles that tumble down the hill. Occasionally, I hear the hollow sound as we cross over a cave. Bruja’s hooves are the featured instruments in the Hill Country concerto.

Horse Rental

To rent a horse at Hill Country State Natural Area, call the park at (830) 796-4413 or the Bandera Chamber of Commerce at (800) 364-3833 for a list of liveries. Rental prices range from $25 to $55 an hour, all with a two-hour minimum.

Getting There

To get to Hill Country State Natural Area from Bandera, go south on Texas 173 and cross the Medina River. Continue for about a quarter-mile to Texas 1077, turn right and take a scenic 10-mile drive to the end of the blacktop road. Stay on the caliche road and follow the signs to park headquarters.

Visitors to Hill Country SNA should remember that this is a natural area where many of the amenities of a state park are missing on purpose. For example, there is no garbage pickup, so be prepared to pack out what you pack in.

Hill Country SNA offers three walk-in, developed tent areas along West Verde Creek, two with a capacity of eight and one with a capacity of 25.

In the Comanche Bluff area, about 25 yards in from the road, three sites are available; one will hold 12 campers, and two each have a capacity of eight. The Chaquita Falls camping area has four sites with a capacity of eight campers each.

All of these campsites have fire rings and picnic tables. The West Verde Creek site also offers swimming and some fishing. Chemical toilets are provided nearby.

Chapa’s Camp is a group camp with a capacity of 20 horse-trailer rigs. The two-acre area is shaded with a large barn, electricity and a concrete floor. The site offers water for horses, fire rings, picnic tables and a chemical toilet. Here, campers can stall their horses, or tie them to one of three picket lines. Reservations are required.

Hill Country SNA also offers a group lodge, which may be reserved for both equestrian and non-equestrian use. The building accommodates 12, has three bedrooms with bunk beds; one bathroom; a kitchen that includes a stove and refrigerator; heating and air conditioning; a screened cook shack, as well as stalls and corrals for the horses. Bring your own linens and cooking gear.

There also are six developed equestrian sites with a capacity of six persons and their horses. Each has tables, fire rings, a chemical toilet in the area, corrals, picket lines and water for the horses.

Three primitive camping areas with fire rings are all offered on a first-come, first-served basis and are located 11⁄2 to 31⁄2 miles inland from the road.

Horse owners also may bring their animals to the park for day use. They may park at the Bar-O Developed Equestrian Area. This area holds up to 25 rigs near the park headquarters.

Late arrivals camp at the Backpack Trailhead Primitive Area.

All horses brought to the park must have proof (yellow copy) of a negative Coggins test. Hay and animal byproducts must be packed out of the camp.

It is important to note that while water is provided for animals, there is no potable water in the park for people — bring your own.

From February through November, the park is open seven days a week. December and January it is open from Friday noon through Sunday at 10 p.m. It is open for Thanksgiving week and Christmas/New Year week.

For more information, call (830) 796-4413 or go to Hill Country SNA.

To make a reservation, call (512) 389-8900 or go to State Park Reservations.

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