I chug up a twisting stretch of singletrack at Rocky Hill Ranch on my mountain bike, feeling like I might end up on my back, gasping, if I don’t reach the top, pronto.
I’ve chosen this trail because it bypasses one that’s ominously named Fat Chuck’s Demise. Still, I’m huffing and puffing when I finally crest the hill. Thankfully, a perfectly slanted tree trunk awaits. As soon as I stagger off my mountain bike, I flop on top of the log, stare up at the branches of a gently swaying pine tree, and suckh in air.
I love to ride my mountain bike. Usually, I head to the Slaughter Creek Preserve in Austin or Milton Reimers Ranch in western Travis County to get my fix. Both offer terrain I can handle as a beginner to intermediate rider. But both also serve up some jagged swathes of limestone. Fall off your bike in the wrong spot and you might gash your leg.
A little history behind Rocky Hill Ranch
Rocky Hill Ranch near Smithville, an hour’s drive east of Austin, offers something altogether different: Tall pine trees, big whoop-de-doos, a bed of soft pine needles, and pockets of smooth round stones , instead of sharp rocks. Yeah, you’ve got to navigate snake-sized roots and some steep drops, but that’s part of the deal anywhere you ride in Central Texas.
Grey and Pam Hill created Rocky Hill Ranch in 1993, opening their property up to mountain bikers and trail runners for a small fee. The park quickly earned a reputation as a great place to ride. But after a while the Greys left operations to lease-holders and moved to the coast. They’ve now returned to Smithville to actively run the ranch themselves again.
Changes have taken place since those early days. A small cafe and saloon that once served beer and burgers has closed, replaced by a covered pavilion. In 2021, the owners sold off a 1,000-acre chunk of the property, and a development is going in.
But the great vibe remains. So does a full slate of events. On Feb. 18-19, the ranch will host the annual Rocky Hill Roundup mountain bike race, and on March 31-April 1, it will host the long-running Hells Hills Trail Race, with running routes that range between 10 kilometers and 50 miles.
Cyclists can still access hot showers and flush toilets, and bike shops occasionally set up demo sessions.
My first ride at Rocky Hill Ranch
Until a humid weekend in early December, I’d only been one other time –– and I’d come to run the trails, not pedal a bike. This time I came to ride.
The property is long and narrow. About 16 miles of trails are packed into the rolling landscape. You’ll find stream crossings, a series of wooden bridges that rattle when you clamber over them, dirt banks and berms, and some flat winding stretches. There’s even a grassy, shady oasis with picnic tables for visitors who want to stay the night.
I’m partial to a spur trail called Pam’ s Picnic, even though it’s less than a mile long. But the ranch’s most famous trail is definitely Fat Chuck’s, which deals out the toughest climb on the ranch.
“Taking this trail has been known to lead to swearing, suffering, coughing up a lung, and, for those that make the climb cleanly, bragging rights,” the trail map explains. It also mentions that Chuck, who has passed on, helped make the ranch ready for riders in the 1990s. (No, he didn’t die on this section, despite what your friends may tell you.)
If you don’t want to slog straight up that intimidating section, take the singletrack that bypasses the climb. My other favorite runs are Corkscrew, Lemonade and Litterbox.
Hit the ramps at Freeride 512
Near the back of the ranch, you’ll find an area called Freeride 512. Admission to this section of the park isn’t included with a day pass to Rocky Hill Ranch, but you can either buy a membership or make a $15 donation and ride for the day. Either way, you’ll need to sign a waiver. (Check at the pay booth at the front of Rocky Hill Ranch or go to www.freeride512.com for more information.)
I watched a handful of cyclists zoom down a big launching hill and catch air as they romped over a series of Volkswagen-sized humps at the freeride park. I was hoping to see someone clatter down the elevated wooden boardwalk, too, but no such luck.
This isn’t the only Freeride 512 park in the area. Besides Rocky Hill’s collection of dirt jumps, technical descents, drops and skinnies, Freeride 512 has built terrain parks at Cat Mountain in Northwest Austin and Christ Church in Cedar Park.
I rode for about 12 miles before I hit the proverbial wall. I needed calories but didn’t have any with me. (You can top off your water bottle at any of the park’s three water stations.) I had to make my way to one of the ranch’s gravel roads to get back to the start.
To see all the trails at Rocky Hill Ranch, check out this map. Some of the most difficult ones feature technical features. You should get off and inspect them before blasting down.
I screeched to a halt at the site of one of those features –– a super steep down and up called The Wall. From my perspective, it looked like a near-vertical drop. I waited a few minutes, then watched in admiration as a 20-something-year-old cyclist blasted right through, without hesitation.
I walked it.
On the other side, I hopped back onto my bike and cruised it in, my legs feeling like overstretched rubber bands but my psyche in a good place.
I love mountain biking because it takes all of my focus. My mind can’t wander. All I can do is pump my legs, dodge trees and roots, and holler in glee. And that’s not a bad way to spend a day.
If You Go
Rocky Hill Ranch is located about an hour east of Austin, at 578 FM 153 near Smithville.
The park is an easy day trip from Austin, but there’s a campground if you want to stay overnight. Tent camping costs $15 per tent; RV camping is $30 per spot.
Ride your mountain bike. With 16 miles of trails rated green for beginner, blue for intermediate and black for expert, the park is suitable for all skill levels. Day-use fee is $10 per adult or free for ages 12 and under. Pets on leash only. Helmets required when biking.
Eat & Drink:
The onsite burger joint closed years ago, but you can bring your own food or head to nearby Smithville. There, try Comfort Café, which offers meals on a “pay what you can basis” ($15 minimum suggested) and is part of SerenityStar, a non-profit that helps people recovering from addiction. Honey’s Pizza and Mexico Lindo are solid options, too.
For current trail conditions, call (361) 548-5728.