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Hill Country State Natural Area

Step back in time and enjoy a little “horsepitality.”

By Dale Weisman

Ranch Road 1077 is my kind of road. Trailing southwest of Bandera, it winds through hardscrabble Hill Country past welcoming dude ranches. The lonesome byway narrows into a single paved lane, then peters out to gravel road. Kicking up caliche dust for a couple miles, I cross West Verde Creek and leave the frenetic 21st century behind. I’ve entered Hill Country State Natural Area, a 5,370-acre sanctuary dedicated to preserving native plants and wildlife, as well as Texas’ ranching heritage.

I’ve come to HCSNA for the day to hike, horseback ride and let my inner wrangler roam free. Park ranger Randy Evans, a third-generation Bandera native, shows me around.

“I like to tell our visitors: where the pavement ends, the west begins,” says Evans as we head out by pickup to explore the park’s 40 miles of ranch roads and multi-use trails. Jouncing along a rutted road, we angle north past rich bottomland pastures where native grasses are staging a comeback. To the west, limestone hills — cloaked in live oak, juniper, mountain laurel and cacti — rise up like stacks of green sombreros, rolling to a 2,000-foot apex near Cougar Canyon.

HCSNA is steeped in ranching history dating to the 1870s. Last operated as the Merrick Bar-O-Ranch until the early 1970s, the land was donated to the state by Louise Lindsey Merrick. She stipulated that the acreage be “kept far removed and untouched by modern civilization, where everything is preserved intact, yet put to a useful purpose.” The state opened the natural area in 1984, then added 617 adjoining acres in 1987.

“This was once an awesome working ranch,” says Evans, showing me the stately, two-story 1892 ranch house near the park entrance. Old barns, stables, cattle pens, dipping baths and rusting farm equipment recall a time when the Bar-O was one of the finest ranches in Bandera County.

In keeping with its ranching heritage, the site is a premier equestrian destination. Barns, covered stalls, corrals and water troughs at several group camping areas reflect the park’s genuine “horsepitality.” Remote camp sites are also available for riders and backpackers. All campers should come prepared for a primitive experience, without showers and flush toilets. “If you need it, you better bring it because the only thing we have out here is nature,” advises Evans.

The park hosts equestrian events year-round, from family-oriented trail rides to endurance riding competitions. The Hill Country State Natural Area Partners (HC-SNAP) friends group organizes benefit rides, as well as the Ranch Heritage Weekend, a fun-filled Western fandango held in October. Neighboring dude ranches bring their guests here for trail rides.

Hard-core endurance runners gather here each January for the Bandera 100K race along 100, 50 and 25-kilometer routes. Mountain biking clubs use the rugged trails for bone-jarring rides. The area’s dark skies, free from light pollution, draw star-gazing clubs.

“There are all kinds of experiences here,” explains park superintendent Paul Fuentes.

Indeed, there’s room enough here for everyone, and this is something I plainly see when Evans takes me trail riding around Twin Peaks. My sure-footed buckskin, Cisco, carries me up a rocky, stair-stepping path. We pause at a windy overlook and admire the rumpled panorama unfurling to the next county. Now this is Hill Country!

To reach the natural area, head south of Bandera on Texas 173, cross the Medina River and turn right on Ranch Road 1077. Continue 10 miles until the pavement ends and follow the caliche road to the park headquarters. For more information, call Matador WMA at (806) 492-3405 or visit <Hill Country SNA>.

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