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May 2007 Park of the Month
Hill Country State Natural Area

'Cowboy Up' at Bandera's Hill Country State Natural Area.

The look and feel of the Old West prevail at Hill Country State Natural Area just outside Bandera, which bills itself as the "Cowboy Capital of the World."

The former Merrick Bar-O Ranch spreads over 5,370 acres of oak and cedar-covered hills and valleys, where a state highway narrows and pavement gives way to dirt and gravel roads that provide access to only a small portion of the state natural area. Motorists approaching the state natural area pass a handful of guest ranches catering to "dudes" from as far away as Germany and Japan seeking to immerse themselves in the "cowboy" mystique.

Earl Nottingham, © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
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Trail riding is one of the most popular activities
for visitors to the Hill Country State Natural
Area in Bandera County.

Hill Country State Natural Area enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the nearby dude ranches and several other horse outfitters in Bandera, who will rent and trailer mounts to the park, and in some cases, lead trail rides on some 50 miles of wilderness trails.

Running R Ranch owner Ralph Kirchner says having the park right next door is "absolutely crucial" to the success of his business that draws a strong tourist contingent from his native Germany. "We would probably lose most of our business if we couldn't ride in the state park."

Operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW), Hill Country SNA is proof positive that less is more. Unlike its more common cousin, the recreationally-oriented state park, state natural areas (there are 11 SNA's in Texas) are classified by the state as such because of their primary significance as a natural resource.

Hill Country is not a park that appeals to RV users (no individual hook-ups), cell phone-dependent city slickers (no cell signal) or campers who don't like to "rough it" (only primitive campsites). It is a place, however, that will resonate with persons seeking to get away from it all and touch a part of Texas' ranching past.

"We cater to a segment of the population, people who can generate their own activities," park superintendent Paul David Fuentes explains. "We offer an opportunity for people to recreate what once was the past and live in that moment, to experience the Western ranching lifestyle of the Texas Hill Country that is rapidly disappearing."

Fuentes says the place "where the road ends and the West begins" remains true to its benefactor's wishes. When donating the land to the state, Louise Merrick stipulated that it "be kept far removed and untouched by modern civilization, where everything is preserved intact, yet put to a useful purpose."

Hence, Fuentes notes, another Hill Country SNA motto that embraces the park's minimalist philosophy: "If you think you'll need it, you need to bring it."

Earl Nottingham, © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
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A cowboy guides his ponies across Val Verde
Creek, a spring-fed stream that flows through
Hill Country State Natural Area outside Bandera.

While visitors to Hill Country SNA can pursue a number of recreational pursuits, such as horseback riding, mountain biking, backpacking, hiking, bird watching, camping, and the increasingly popular geocaching, they will do so amid mostly primitive conditions. The park offers no potable water, no state park store, no indoor restrooms with one exception (composting and portable toilets are available), and minimal electrical hookups. But what the Hill Country SNA lacks in amenities, it makes up for by offering a serene wilderness experience far removed from the hustle and bustle of civilization.

A system of multi-use trails - shared by hiker, biker and horseback riders alike -- crisscrosses the former ranch, challenging the novice and accomplished outdoorsman alike. The property sports numerous springs, waterfalls, creeks and scenic hilltop vistas, most easily accessed by the park's 23 marked trails maintained in part by the park's 150-member friends group, the Hill Country State Natural Area Partners, or HCSNAP. Visitors can stick to mostly flat trails through the grasslands and along creek bottoms, or scale rugged hills that climb to an elevation of 2,000 feet.

Overnight campers, which comprise 40 percent of the park's annual visitors, can choose from a variety of options. Equestrians can choose to stay in one of the six campsites dedicated to them, or opt for the Group Lodge or Chapa House - one of two group camping facilities. During my recent visit, I found the Boren, Summers and Sullivan families from Oklahoma and East Texas operating out of their campers parked around the Chapa House, their headquarters for several days of horseback riding. They were paying for a two-acre complex that includes a large barn with concrete floor, horse stalls, water troughs and electric hookups.

Visitors who prefer to experience a night in a ranch house can opt to stay in the four-bedroom Group Lodge, which features one and a half bathrooms, a kitchen, den, large outdoor barbecue facilities and revamped riding and roping arena. The climate-controlled lodge sleeps 12 inside. Overnight visitors pay an additional daily entry fee, as opposed to the day-use fee.

Additional overnight facilities include three backpacking campsites and three walk-in developed tent camping areas hugging picturesque West Verde Creek that boast fire rings, picnic tables and nearby chemical toilets. One of the 10 campsites is reserved for the handicapped.

To reach Hill Country State Natural Area, travel south of Bandera on State Highway 173 one quarter mile to Ranch Road 1077, turn right and go 10 miles to the park entrance. Hill Country SNA is one of 113 state parks that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information visit the Hill Country State Natural Area web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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