Just before sunrise, I fill a mug with hot tea, slide open the side door of my campervan and squint into the trees at off-the-radar Hill Country State Natural Area.
Something rustles in the thick brush next to my campsite in the Comanche Bluff area of the park, about 125 miles southwest of Austin near Bandera. It’s probably a raccoon, but I don’t see anything. Still, I’m awake, so I might as well go for a walk.
I spent yesterday hiking the 3.1-mile Wilderness Trail here, a winding pathway that dips and climbs through the center of a ring of green-capped hills. I didn’t see any other hikers, but I did encounter two groups of equestrians as I made my way toward the Ice Cream Hill Trail, which tacked another 1.5 miles on to my walk.
The history of Hill Country State Natural Area
This park was originally part of a Spanish land grant, inherited by John and Louise Merrick. Louise deeded the land to the state in the 1970s after her husband died, with the agreement that it would be set aside as a natural area where the public could ride horses. The 5,369-acre site opened as a park in 1984.
Today about 40 percent of the park’s visitors bring their four-hooved friends, and some of the campsites are set up with pens to accommodate them.
“There aren’t many places with more than 40 miles of trail where you can take a horse,” former park superintendent Reagan Faught told me the first time I visited, in 2016. “I like the fact that you can saddle up, get on your horse and you’re not surrounded by pavement.”
I liked it too. During that trip, I climbed aboard a borrowed horse and trotted through clusters of live oak, yucca and prickly pear. At one point I paused, my horse ankle deep in a creek, for a few minutes as she slurped up some water. I moseyed through some open meadows, then headed for the hills, where the trail zigzagged up a rocky hill. It got so ledgy and loose that I had to dismount and walk my animal down.
If you don’t have a horse of your own, you can arrange a guided horseback riding excursion with the help of a nearby outfitter.
Exploring Hill Country State Natural Area on foot
Or, like me, you can explore on foot. Just remember to pull off the trail and allow horses to pass if you encounter them.
On this breezy morning I putter to the start of the West Peak Overlook trail before the sun rises. In 15 minutes, I’m huffing my way up a steep incline. In another 10 minutes, I’ve reached the top where a bench awaits. It’s a good spot to contemplate, so I sit a while, watching the sky turn from gray to rose to gold. Birds chirp, a lizard scuttles under a nearby rock, and my pulse slows. Beneath me, fog has settled into the valleys like foam on a cup of latte. Eventually, the sky brightens, so I make the short loop around the top of the peak, taking in views from every direction.
Places like Garner State Park, the most visited state park in Texas, get all the attention. But I prefer solitude to crowds, and for that, Hill Country State Natural Area doesn’t disappoint. Besides the car camping spots, the park offers backcountry camping for folks with or without horses. (Those sites require a hike of 2 to 3 miles.) There’s an old ranch house available for rental, and a few of the campsites work if you’ve got a small campervan.
Check the park’s website for activities like birding hikes and night sky viewing. A star party is scheduled for June 4, a bass fishing clinic is scheduled for June 11, and an atlatl and dart throwing session will take place June 18.
If You Go
Hill Country State Natural Area is located at 10600 Bandera Creek Road, a 15-minute drive from Bandera. Entrance fee is $6 per person; free ages 12 and under.
The camp offers primitive or back country camping. Walk-in sites cost $12; more primitive hike-in sites cost $10. Book them at https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/hill-country.
Ride horses, pedal a mountain bike, hike and camp.
Eat & Drink:
The nearest restaurants are located in Bandera. Pack any food you’ll need in camp. There are no amenities at the park.