The next phase of our Southwestern trip has begun. We've traded
free-range longhorn cattle and sandy, rocky trails for
reclusive alligators and sandy, rooty trails this week.
In four trips here, we still haven't seen any alligators!
On Monday morning we drove about 120 miles east of Fort Hood to
Huntsville State Park, an
hour's drive north of sprawling Houston, TX. This is our second
time camping here this year; we spent a week in a nearby
site in the same campground back in early February for the Rocky
Raccoon 100-mile trail run. Now we're here for the Sunmart
One of our best decisions in February was purchasing a Texas
State Parks annual pass. We more than made up the cost in waived
entrance fees in five days at Huntsville and a second week on
Galveston Island -- AND the pass is good through the end of
February, 2009. When we arrived at Huntsville SP on January 31,
the staff clued us in to the fact that the pass would be good
for 13 months, not 12, if we waited until February to purchase
it. We are grateful for that tip. We'll continue to save on waived
entrance fees at least three more weeks when we're at various
state parks during this trip. The entrance fee is $4-5/day in
the parks where we've stayed so far.
The parks pass is a real bargain for anyone living in or near
Texas or even for those who want to enter one or more of the
numerous Texas state parks several times within a 12- or
13-month span of time. Just remember to get it near the
beginning of the month and not the end so it'll last longer.
View of lake from Raven Lodge
There are more savings, too. After we got home in February we
received four coupons for 50% off one night of camping with a
minimum stay of two nights per visit. We were able to use one of
those this week even though we have a discounted weekly rate
(stay for seven days, pay for six). So our already-inexpensive
$96/week camping fee came down to $88. And we can do that two or
three more times this trip! Our cost is a tiny bit higher here
than at Fort Hood but still a bargain. There are also discounts
for park stores but we haven't been to one of those yet.
I think I should get a discount for being such an enthusiastic
supporter of the Texas state park system!
OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS?
It would have been nice to arrive here a week earlier but when
we called in August to make reservations we learned that
Thanksgiving week was completely booked months before that. Why?
I finally asked this week and we were surprised at the answer:
lots of people like to camp here during the holiday.
would have guessed. Doesn't everyone go home to Aunt Alice's or Grandma's house
at Thanksgving?? Obviously not, and we haven't done that for
several decades, either. If we want to get here earlier next
year we'll have to call soon; you can make reservations
eleven months in advance.
View from our camper across the campsite next to ours
This week we've learned just how small is our window of
opportunity for camping here during the winter. First, I'm
not sure we want to deal with the crowd during the Thanksgiving
holiday. Now we've
learned about five other weeks in the winter that are closed to
In February we weren't aware that all those little wood-frame
structures throughout the park are "wildlife viewing stands"
which double as deer stands during public hunts (to control the
prolific deer population).
It dawned on us when we hit the trails Monday afternoon and
noticed that some of the 20+ stands are now adorned with
camouflage fabric (above) to give the hunters more cover. That made us
wonder when deer hunting is allowed -- turns out, the last three
weeks of December and the first two weeks of January. Folks can
camp on weekends but not during the week. Our timing here for
races in early December and early February are like bookends to
the hunting season so we can't extend those weeks by much.
CAMPGROUNDS DON'T GET MUCH BETTER
The past four nights we've had the place pretty much to
ourselves. For convenience on race day we are camped in Prairie
Branch, the unit closest to Raven Lodge. That's where both the
Sunmart and Rocky races start and
end. As at Rocky, we can just walk about two-thirds of a mile from
our camper to the start of the race (our warm-up) and not take
up one of the limited parking spots around the lodge. Meanwhile, there have been
only one or two other campers in this unit with 30+ sites the
four nights we've been here. There are maybe ten campers in the
larger Raven Hill camping area. We love having the place to
View toward our campsite and the lake;
that's one of the trees felled by Hurrican Ike last summer.
We weren't entirely happy with our nearby spot in February so
this time we came in knowing exactly which spot we wanted -- and
we got it, but not by much. The previous occupant was just
leaving when we arrived. Our second choice is occupied all week,
so we lucked out getting our first choice You can see from these photos how great this
site is. As long as someone doesn't park right next to us, we have lots of space and privacy at the end of a cul
de sac. The
lake is very close, with beautiful sunsets on the far side most
The first night (December 1) we got to enjoy a celestial treat that
doesn't happen very often: Venus and Jupiter were aligned
closely with the crescent moon and we could see them clearly.
That won't happen again until 2052 when I'm 103 years old.
(!) In the photo below, Jupiter is less visible than than Venus.
It's much larger than Venus, but much farther away:
Best of all, our camp site is the closest site to one of the Sunmart aid
stations, so I can check on Cody twice during the race and not
lose too much time. I have over 11 hours to finish the 50K;
I don't mind taking out ten or fifteen minutes (total) to
feed Cody and let him out of the camper for a little while. Jim
is more focused on his time, whether he does the 50-miler or
50K. He's vacillating between race distances. Runners can register or change races at Sunmart
as late as packet pick-up on Friday.
I'll write more about the race, our
personal history with it, and our readiness to run it in the next essay. Now I'll focus
more on this beautiful park and our activities in the area so
far this week. There are additional photos of the
trails and further information about the park in journal entries dated
TRAILS DON'T GET MUCH BETTER, EITHER
The multi-use trails at Huntsville State Park are great for hiking,
running, cycling, and riding horses. Over twenty miles of trail
are open to hikers and runners, plus the paved roads into the
park and through the campgrounds. The trail surface is much more
runner-friendly than the bike trails at Fort Hood. Jim and I
have enjoyed our runs, walks, and/or bike rides every day we've
I've never been to a park
that has such great maps of its trail system. Large maps are posted at
every major trailhead (above), along with colored or black-and-white
paper maps you can take. The maps appear to be accurate and they
are easy to follow; so are the well-marked trails
themselves. The two main trails, Chinquapin and Triple C, are
even marked every half mile, which is great. The 1.2-mile
marker, below, is a bonus where the two trails briefly coincide:
The 7-mile Chinquapin Trail is named for the big and little
creeks of that name. Chinquapins are a type of oak tree that no
longer grows here.
Section of Chinquapin Trail where a large
tree came down during Hurricane Ike.
Triple C Trail, which follows the park
boundaries, is partly jeep trail (next photo) and partly single-track. It
honors Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Company 1823, the men
who helped construct the park, lodge, and dam at the end of Lake
Raven in the 1930s. Triple C is about 9.5 miles long.
There are other shorter interconnecting routes that provide
trail users with varying terrain and distances.
This area of central Texas is called the Piney Woods. Huntsville
State Park and adjacent parts of Sam Houston National Forest are
full of loblolly pines, palmetto shrubs, and other plant life
that remains green all year long. You can see pines in
many of the photos above.
Evergreen pines and palmettos contrast with
deciduous autumn reds and oranges.
There are also some deciduous trees and shrubs. When we were
here in February the leaves had already fallen. In early
December there is more color because not all of the leaves have
I noticed these beautiful purple berries on shrubs several
places along the trails:
I've never seen berries like that and haven't had time to search their identity.
Huntsville SP is fairly hilly, with wetlands in low areas
throughout the park and especially around Lake Raven. It's a
great place to observe large water birds like white egrets
blue herons. I haven't seen as many of those large birds this
week as I did in February.
We haven't spotted an alligator yet, but park personnel and
local runners assure me they are here. Since
we're camped pretty close to the water this time we're being
more careful with Cody so he doesn't become gator bait.
Higher ground in the park that is more dry has different plants and animals.
It's fun to run in and out of the different eco-systems.
View of the marsh end of the lake from the
Prairie Branch Trail
That also makes the trails alternately wet and dry. Many of the
wet areas have bog bridges to keep feet dry and plants safe. My
biggest surprise this week is how sandy some of the trail
sections are. I just don't remember that from the miles I ran
and walked in February. I've been wearing gaiters on my training
runs here and I'll use them in the race.
The trailhead to my favorite short loop (1.5 miles) is
adjacent to our campsite:
Prairie Branch Loop. The Sunmart and Rocky races both use this
loop. Half the trail is next to the lake; there are many wooden bog bridges
in this low-lying area. The views of wildlife, wetlands, and
water are superb if you're going slowly enough to take your eyes
off the trail. This is the only part of the trail system where
bikes aren't allowed -- the terrain is too fragile. The other
half of the loop is on higher, drier ground where bikes can be
Jim and Cody walk over a bog bridge on the
Prairie Branch Trail near our campsite
In addition to forgetting how sandy the trails are, I also forgot how "hilly" they are. I'm not complaining;
hills are good during a long run or race so I can use
different muscles and not get sore from the same repetitive
motions. My problem is that after routinely running hilly and
mountainous trails for 28 years, I've been running much flatter
terrain the last year or more to save my deteriorating knees.
These hills don't hurt my knees. It's just that I'm not as
capable of running uphill as I used to be. We'll see how that
affects my race on Saturday . . .
REMINISCING WITH A VIET NAM BUDDY
We haven't had many other diversions our first four days here
beyond shopping for supplies, doing laundry, and hunting for a
YMCA that isn't just a child-care center (Huntsville's Y is only
for kids). I have to have proof of working out at a Y at least
four times a month while we're gone so I'll get my wellness
refund from my former employer next spring. The closest Y is
down in Conroe; we didn't realize that yesterday when we
were in that area so we'll hit it tomorrow on our way to Houston
for the pre-race dinner and briefing.
We had a very pleasant visit yesterday with Tommy and Shirley
Knight, who live near Conroe. Jim and Tommy served together in
the same detachment in the Army for about a year in Viet Nam.
They were there during the infamous Tet Offensive, when their
compound was attacked. Both soldiers
were radio repairmen. They have not seen each other or had any
communication since April of 1969, when they were both back
stateside (Jim was stationed at Fort Hood then).
Tommy (L) and Jim look at old photos of
their buddies in Viet Nam while Shirley looks on.
Jim found Tommy's contact information through a search on the
internet (fairly easy because Tommy and his wife have always
lived in this area) and decided to call him after we arrived in
Huntsville. Tommy remembered Jim's name right away and the
conversation flowed easily.
The Knights are also retired so we invited them to lunch at the
Olive Garden to get re-acquainted. Tommy suggested we go to his
house afterwards in order to have more time to talk. Jim said
he'd bring some photos; before we left for this trip, he
scanned a bunch of his pictures from Viet Nam to share with
Tommy on our laptop computer. Tommy said he'd dig out his old
photo album to show us.
Even though they hadn't seen each other in almost forty years,
Jim and Tommy recognized each other as soon as we walked into
the restaurant. Neither is a redhead any longer, but they still
have enough facial and other features to know their old buddy!
(One clue was Tommy's height, several inches over six feet
As you can imagine, Jim and Tommy both had plenty of stories to
tell about their shared war experiences as young men in a land
and culture that was very foreign to them. I was so interested
in hearing the stories and seeing the photos that I didn't spend
much time talking alone with Shirley before it was time to go.
We exchanged phone numbers and plan to get together again in
February. Although the Knights graciously invited us to stay in
their home next time, we'll still be in our camper then. We're
looking forward to spending more time with them.
Next entry: photos from our runs in the park and an
update on our training for the Sunmart and ATY races
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
Tater (in spirit)
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil