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(1st of two pages)


"Tucked away in the rugged terrain southwest of Bandera is Hill Country
State Natural Area, an undeveloped and secluded retreat. Approximately 40 miles of
multi-use trails wind up grassy valleys, cross spring-fed streams, and climb steep limestone
hills. Equestrians, hikers, and mountain bikers can enjoy exploring the trails . . ."
~ partial description of HCSNA on the Texas State Parks website
And so do trail runners, who flock to this venue every January in increasing numbers to challenge themselves over 25, 50, or 100 kilometers in Tejas Trails' difficult -- and very popular -- Bandera footraces.

What experienced trail runner can resist a race motto that proclaims, "A trail run of rugged and brutal beauty, where everything cuts, stings, or bites?"

Don't run into the ubiquitous Texas Sotol; it will cut you up.

Neither Jim nor I have ever been to Bandera, the nearby natural area, or this event before.

The location and timing work well for Jim to use the 50K as a long training run a month before the Rocky Raccoon 50-miler in Huntsville, TX but he put off entering Bandera until he could see whether he could train adequately for it. He's been having problems with a chronic case of plantar faciitis for about six months and unable to run much.

It was pretty obvious in December that running a gnarly race like Bandera wasn't in Jim's best interest, even if it was for "only" thirty-one miles. He was still interested in checking out the event for future years, however. So he wrote to Race Director Joe Prusaitis several weeks before the race to volunteer our services and ask about camping. That way we could still get a feel for the event and check out parts of the course.

Unfortunately, at that time we had no clue that we'd be camping in conditions more frigid than we've ever camped before! We kept our promise even when we saw it coming, however.

The gray sky makes it feel even colder.

Joe assigned us to work the very busy Crossroads Aid Station during the races. The aid station is located at one of the equestrian campgrounds in the natural area. Joe assured us that we could stay there for several days since Jim also volunteered to help set up aid stations and do other pre-race activities on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

The race organization pretty much has the whole natural area reserved all weekend -- the small group lodge, campgrounds, and aid station locations. Other folks could come in to ride or hike or camp in the back-country, but with over 600 runners on the trails all day Saturday and into the night, their ride or hike would be anything but secluded.

Our campsite in the equestrian campground

The HSCNA is well-suited for equestrians; trail riding is even more popular here than hiking and running. Although there are a few sites with electricity and water near the lodge for non-equestrian overnight RV camping, most of the campsites in the natural area are designed for equestrians. As you can see at our site above, there is a small corral for horses. Water is available nearby. A picnic table and fire ring are hidden behind our camper.

Our campground at the location of the Crossroads AS is called the Trailhead Equestrian Camp Area on the park map. It has only six campsites and no water or electrical hookups so we're using our boon-docking power sources: generator, propane, and solar. We are staying in the site our aid station captain recommended for four nights. It is more than convenient -- it's only a few feet away from the aid station! That's mostly a good thing.

You can see our HitchHiker below; the aid station will be set up to the right, where the tents and other pieces of equipment are lying in the background below:

Although we don't have the best Verizon signal (and it's extended network) out here in the boonies, we are very surprised we have any cell service at all -- and TV reception! We've been in more populated areas with no TV signals. We're glad to have internet and TV access for weather reports and other news.

Two fellas and their horses who were camped nearby when we arrived on Wednesday left on Friday just before more race volunteers came in to use their site. Their combination horse-people trailer is behind the bathroom in the next photo, which also shows the framing for some of our aid station tents:

I enjoyed watching the horses and wished I could go on a trail ride since I can't run long distances any more! I could have seen more of the trails that way.

I'll talk about the race in the next entry dated January 10. In this one, I'll focus on the recreational opportunities in the natural area, the trails I was able to explore this week (this page), and our pre-race volunteer activities (page 2).


The Hill Country State Natural Area covers about 5,400 acres ten miles west of the town of Bandera. It was acquired by the state of Texas in 1976 and opened to the public in 1984. According to the state park website, "The bulk of the site was a donation from the Merrick Bar-O-Ranch with the stipulation that it be kept far removed and untouched by modern civilization, where everything is preserved intact, yet put to a useful purpose."

That goal appears to have been met. Even though I didn't range more than two miles from our campsite on the trails, I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I like that!

Overnight accommodations are rustic: choices are staying inside a small group lodge, camping on grass in a tent or any type of RV, or primitive back-country camping.

Recreational activities focus on the 40-mile network of multi-use trails weaving through rugged terrain. Visitors can enjoy backpacking, hiking, running, mountain biking, riding horses, observing birds and other wildlife, and limited fishing and swimming in various spots along spring-fed West Verde Creek. Several nearby ranches offer horse rentals, tours, and other accommodations throughout the natural area.

Above and below: the beginning of the five-mile loop out of Crossroads AS in the 50K and 100K

If you come to HCSNA to hike, run, or ride a bike or horse be aware that the terrain features a variety of rocky hills, flowing springs and creeks to cross, shady oak groves, open grasslands, and scenic canyons. Some trails are wide and smooth for a while, like those above; others are rocky and narrow and climb through short but steep canyons (below) up to 2,000 feet in elevation.

Besides the limited trail photos shown here, check out the race website for more pictures of the race course.

I got out for several hikes with Cody and/or Jim but didn't range more than a couple miles out in several directions. I'm more of a weather weenie since I'm doing more waking than running now. I just don't enjoy walking in cold, windy, or wet weather because I can't generate as much body heat as I could when I ran. It's also not easy for me to negotiate rough or steep trails any more; I "ran into" those within half a mile of our campsite.

Jim was so busy helping Henry Hobbs, Mark "Crash" Johnson, and other core volunteers set up the aid stations in the days leading up to the race that he didn't have much time to run or hike. Besides, many of the trails at HCSNA aren't exactly conducive to healing his foot injury. Hopefully he'll be over the PF soon and can resume training as much as he wants.


Large numbers of birds live in the park, especially in the winter, although I didn't see or hear nearly as many as I did in the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area in southeast Arizona. As cold as it's been this winter in southern Texas, I'm guessing some of them wish they'd migrated farther south! (So do we.)

Deer, wild boars, armadillos, raccoons, ringtail cats, rabbits, rodents, and various reptiles can also be viewed. I saw deer, rabbits, mice, and squirrels on my hikes but no armadillos, boars, or ringtail cats. It was probably too cold for any rattlesnakes or lizards to be out and about.

Texas Sotol is very common in the natural area.

Like the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area in Arizona,  several different plant communities are represented in the Hill Country SNA. Just within a couple miles of our campground I observed grasslands, pine trees and oak groves, and rocky hills and canyons with more desert-like plants.

There are scenic vistas from all of the high points in the natural area. I hope the runners look UP enough during the race to see some of the scenery.

Continued on page 2 . . .

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil