Texas' Hill Country State Natural Area

It's amazing what nature can do with pasture a decade after the cows go home.
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It's amazing what nature can do with pasture a decade after the cows go home.

Little-Known Fact: The Hill Country Area was once the Merrick Bar-O-Ranch, which began in 1856 and prospered through the mid-1970s.

The limestone hills in central Texas' Bandera and Medina counties stand like a monument to the Old West. Rocky upland trails snake through the chaparral ~ a dense growth of cedar and sotol ~ upward to peaks overlooking grassy plains as far as you can see. Valley trails trace the West Verde Creek, which cascades over rocky ridges and creates small waterfalls, then lazily flows between stands of oak trees and soft green banks.

On the west bank of the creek, Comanche Bluff rises above a deep swimming hole. Named for Native Americans who once roamed the area, the bluff reminds you of a time when a "day on the trail" meant herding longhorns. Today, however, your time on the trail will be spent hiking through the Hill Country State Natural Area, which sprawls across 5,370 of these acres and offers 36 miles of remote wilderness trails.

Situated in the heart of Texas' rugged Hill Country, the park was once a working cattle ranch. The Bar O Ranch began in 1856 and prospered through the mid-1970s.

The last owner, Louise Merrick, began donating acreage to the state after the death of her husband. The park opened to the public in 1984, and since then, the land has been allowed to revert to its natural condition, honoring Louise Merrick's request that the terrain "be kept far removed and untouched by modern civilization." And, sure enough, night skies glisten with stars uninhibited by city lights.

Contact Information:

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Hill Country State Natural Area

Rt. 1, Box 601, FM 1077

Bandera, TX 78003

210/796-4413

Reservations: 512/389-8900

Location:

Hill Country is in southeast Texas, about 40 miles northwest of San Antonio and 110 miles southwest of Austin.

Getting There:

From San Antonio take Texas Rt. 16 northwest to Bandera. In Bandera, turn left and travel south on Texas Rt. 173 for a quarter of a mile to FM 1077, also known as the Dixie Dude Road. Turn right and travel west on 1077. A dirt road leads to the park entrance.

Seasonal Information:

It's best to visit the area in the spring and fall and avoid the hot Texas summer. Summer temperatures often reach the 100-degree mark. Winters are mild. The area is dry throughout the year.

Wildlife:

Whitetail deer, antelope, feral hogs, feral goats, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes call the area home. In the spring, birders are often rewarded with sightings of the endangered black-capped vireo or golden-cheeked warbler. In the fall, migrating monarch butterflies fill the skies.

The watering holes can also provide an evening meal of catfish, sun perch, or bass for lucky, motivated fishermen.

Insects:

Contact park office for information.

Plant Life:

You'll walk beneath canopies of oaks and cedar and across fields of bluestem grasses. In the spring, bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes decorate the hillsides.

Facilities:

  • Four designated backpacking camp areas are located 1.5 to 3.5 miles from trailhead parking. These first-come, first-served sites are equipped with fire rings and are $5 per night. A trailhead site for late arrivals is also available.
  • Ten individual walk-in tent sites are located 50 to 75 yards from the parking area on West Verde Creek near the swimming areas. These sites are equipped with fire rings and picnic tables and are $6 per night. A chemical toilet is located nearby. Two adjacent sites accommodate groups. Reservations are recommended.
  • Located in a secluded north section of the park, a group lodge operates on a reservation basis. The residence has three bedrooms, one bath, stove, refrigerator, air-conditioner, heat, and cook house with large brick-covered barbecue pit. There are stalls, corrals, and parking for stock trailers. The cost is $100 (includes entrance fee) for up to 12 people.
  • A reservation-only equestrian group camp offers a large barn, electricity, water for horses, fire rings, picnic tables, and toilets. Individual equestrian campsites with a two-horse corral, table, fire ring, water tank, pit toilet, and pull-through truck/trailer parking are also reservable. For day visitors, there is an equestrian camping/day use staging area located across from the park headquarters. This first-come, first-served site offers portable stalls, water trough, wash area, fire rings, pit toilet, public phone, and night security light. Standard equestrian sites are $5 or $8 per night.
  • Horse rentals are available off-site, adjacent to the park entrance, at Running "R" Ranch (210/796-3984). Ponds and streams provide an adequate water supply, although you should purify or filter all water.
  • If you're interested in learning more about the land's natural history, the park offers monthly guided interpretive horseback tours on topics like native plants, geology, songbirds, and archaeology. Tours are open to all but are discounted with a Texas Conservation Passport (TCP).
  • There are three designated swimming areas on West Verde Creek.

Parking:

There are parking areas near West Verde Creek Camp and Trailhead Camp.

Permits:

Visitors must register at park headquarters.

Fees are $2 per person if camping and $3 per person for day use only.

Policies:

The park allows open campfires, whether for cooking or warmth, as long as they're built within established fire rings. Unlike in many state parks, you can collect wood from the ground.

No overnight camping on Monday night. The area is closed to the public Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hazards:

Watch out for snakes, and don't mess with the hogs.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Trail maps are available from park headquarters. The USGS topo maps are Tarpley Pass and Twin Hollows quads.

For information on Texas State Parks, call 800/792-1112.

Other Trip Options:

  • Bandera (800/364-3833), just 10 miles away, is the "Cowboy Capital of the World." It's a town that embraces the Old West, rodeos, and dude ranches.
  • Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (915/247-3903) is an hour's drive north.
  • Lost Maples State Natural Area is 20 miles northwest.
  • Garner State Park is 25 miles west.
  • Medina, the "Apple Capital of Texas," offers plenty of orchards to visit.