2011 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   BACK "HOME" AT HUNTSVILLE STATE PARK

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 4

 
"The park lies in the pineywoods of the Sam Houston National forest, near the western edge 
of the Southern Pine Belt. These woods, dominated by loblolly and shortleaf pines . . .
provide attractive camping and picnic areas and surround scenic Lake Raven, a 210-acre
impoundment . . . Hiking trails have been constructed so that wildlife and birds can be
observed in a natural setting . . . Occasionally, alligators may be observed in the lake."
 
 
~ Huntsville State Park website home page
 
 
From the Lost Pines area to the Pineywoods region of eastern Texas . . . 

Note that we've never personally observed an alligator in this park, mainly because all the times we've been here were between December and February. Even on rare sunny, 70-degree Fahrenheit winter days the 'gators are in their excavated earthen dens or under the lake and swamp water trying to stay warm. The rangers confirm their existence, however.


Good place for a gator to live = bad place for Cody to get a drink

I've written a bunch of entries in previous journals (2008-2010) about the history of this park -- it's another one the CCC helped to build -- its terrain, trails, flora, and fauna, and activities that visitors enjoy.


The CCC built the lodge (above) and the dam that created Lake Raven.

I'm not going to repeat all that, just give you current information about the campgrounds and our activities here the last two weeks. If you aren't familiar with this park, click on this TPWD link for an introductory video and lots of information.  

RV TRAVEL NOTES

Two weeks ago we left McKinney Falls State Park near Austin to travel to Huntsville State Park so Jim can train on the great trails here before the Rocky Raccoon 50- and 100-mile races to be held tomorrow. Jim is entered in the 50-miler.

There is no direct route from Austin to Huntsville. We compared distances and estimated times on our Topo software for various routes on major two- and four-lane roads and chose the one through Bryan-College Station that looked the best.


View of Lake Raven from the Prairie Branch Trail as sunset begins one afternoon

Too bad we missed one of the turn-offs (we didn't program it into Maggie, our Magellan GPS). Oh, well. A quick look at the AAA map I was following showed about the same distance staying on four-lane US 290 longer and taking two-lane SRs 105, 90, and 30 through Navasota and on to Huntsville. The total distance was 168 miles.

This is an acceptable route for RVs of any length, as long as you don't mind going slowly through several towns. It was probably as fast as going through the cities of Bryan-College Station. The roads were all good and there were several picnic pull-offs along the way. 

FEELS LIKE HOME

I've lost count of the number of times we've camped at Huntsville State Park. That's why it feels like "home" whenever we're here. We always return to the same campground and preferably to one of two sites that have the most room for us.


Our campsite this time; we've been in it before.

We probably would have arrived earlier except for the deer hunts that shut the park down to other visitors on weekdays from early December to late January. Folks can come in on the weekends but have to leave during the week. That doesn't do us any good until the hunts are over.


One of about twenty deer stands in the park

The hunts ended at noon on Friday, January 21. We arrived before that and sat at the gate, first in line like we managed last year. Although our two-week reservation didn't start until Sunday, we knew from past experience that we could most likely get a campsite for Friday and Saturday nights if we were one of the first in line.

Plan B was to spend two nights at Walmart or the nearby national forest if we couldn't camp at HSP until Sunday afternoon.

Our MO worked again. We had the choice of either of our two favorite sites in the Prairie Branch campground and we've happily occupied it for two weeks. Last winter we stayed two different two-week** periods of time in a paved site across from the restroom.


Site next to ours that remained empty until race weekend

This time we chose a quieter paved site at the far end of the campground loop (above). Although there is one other site pretty close to us, it has been occupied for only one or two nights. A couple who were volunteering at the Rocky Raccoon start/finish camped there on race weekend.

[** The longest you can reserve a site at most or all Texas State Parks is for two weeks. As long as there are empty sites past that time, visitors can usually extend their stay. A couple years ago we were able to stay at Huntsville State Park for a month.]

SERENE LAKE VIEWS

Most of the campsites in this park are either next to peaceful Lake Raven or have a view of it from higher parts of the campgrounds. We are camped about 100 feet from the shore. No other campsites block our view or access to the water.


Our position near the lake

This is the view from my desk:

I can sit there or outside, mesmerized, and watch the waves ripple across the lake. It's very relaxing. Sunshine glints and glimmers on each little wave. Sunrises and sunsets magically bathe the water in beautiful pink hues.

Since it's such a short walk down to the lake I often go out to photograph the sunset -- unless I'm busy fixing supper and miss it! Sunsets are early this time of year.

These photos are from sunsets two different evenings:

 

 

Sunrises are even earlier.

Ha! We're usually not up that early but I did get some photos of morning fog rising off the water:

 

 

Huntsville State Park has very nice campgrounds that are usually fully booked every weekend in January and February. The weekend crowd starts coming into Prairie Branch on Thursday afternoon and peaks Friday evening. Saturdays are full of people, noise, and activities in the campgrounds, screened rooms, picnic areas, and trails.

By the 2PM check-out time on Sundays the campgrounds are nearly empty again (below). By dusk the picnic areas and trails are deserted.


View of Prairie Branch CG from the site we occupied last year; even it is empty most of the week.

We love it when we practically have the place to ourselves for several days! That's when we enjoy our long runs, walks, and bike rides the most.

Prairie Branch has generally shorter campsites than the Raven Hill campground across the lake but it is close to the race start/finish and trailheads we prefer. The sites at Prairie Branch also have bigger "yards," providing more privacy.


View of Raven Hill CG from the main park road

When we were here last winter both campgrounds were undergoing extensive utility work. Improvements at Prairie Branch included new water pipes and the addition of 50-amp electrical service in all the sites that have electrical hook-ups. The sites in Raven Hill got these improvements as well as sewers.

In a journal entry last winter I showed one or more photos of the trenches and conduit pipes in our campground. It's nice to come back and enjoy the results of all that work this year.


No sign of utility trenches any more; this is our back yard.

As cold as it's been, we've really appreciated having the option of 30 or 50 amps so we can run both electric space heaters and some appliances at the same time. We use an indoor/outdoor extension cord to plug one electric space heater into the 30-amp socket (the cord runs out the corner of the slide closest to the electrical box outside). We plug the other heater into one of the outlets in the baseboard in the kitchen. It is on the same circuit as the microwave, coffee pot, and water heater. The main electrical cord that controls these appliances goes into the 50-amp socket outside.

We can safely run the heater and all these appliances at once with 50 amps. With only 30 amps, we can use only one device at a time. Ditto for use of the air conditioners in hot weather.

The only downside to these improvements is that campground fees went up as soon as the work was completed last spring. Water and electric sites increased $4 to $20/night; the 23 W/E/S sites in Raven Hill went from $20 to $25/night. Sixty water-only sites in Coloneh campground are $15/night.


View of our campsite from another part of the campground

The good news is that the park still has off-season weekly rates (seven nights for the price of six) from December to February for the screened shelters and the campsites in Prairie Branch and Raven Hill. We paid $30 for our first two non-reserved nights ($20 each, minus $10 for one night with our last half-price camping coupon) and $120 x 2 for the two weeks we reserved.

You can see all the fees charged by the park at this link. Visitors with valid state park passes do not have to pay the $4 entry fee per adult per day that is charged in addition to the campground fees.


Tall pine trees along Prairie Branch Trail

Huntsville State Park is fairly convenient to the services we need when we are camping. The campground is three miles off I-45. It's about ten miles total from our campsite north to the city of Huntsville, which has a Super Walmart, Target, post office, laundries, source for propane, historical sites, etc. We drive about twenty miles south to Conroe for a very nice YMCA, Sam's Club, another Walmart, a bike shop, and about anything else we could ever want.

We have decent phone and internet MiFi access at HSP with two Verizon bars but our standard TV antenna on the camper gets only CBS and PBS in the campground (and a bunch of Hispanic stations we don't want). Jim found a couple places in the park where he could get a good WiFi signal when he wanted a faster connection.

SAM HOUSTON NATIONAL FOREST TRAILS & CAMPING

Huntsville State Park lies in the western part of the very large Sam Houston National Forest, which covers 163,037 acres north of Houston.

Here's a map of the forest. Click this link to see a larger version. I marked the Cagle Recreation Area with a red arrow:

Each time I've visited Huntsville I've been intrigued by mention of the 128-mile long Lone Star Trail. It is marked on the map above with a red dashed line. There is a spur from the state park that connects the Dogwood Trail to the Lone Star Trail. There are so many blow-downs on that path, however, that I've never gotten more than a quarter mile on it before giving up.

In addition, the national forest has another 85 miles of multi-use trails for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding.

One of our ultra running friends, Don Adolph, motivated us to do some further investigation this time into not only this extensive trail system, but also some nice national forest campsites. The past two weeks he has been alternating running and camping at Huntsville State Park and in the national forest as he winds down his training for the Rocky Raccoon 50-miler.


Campsite near Lake Conroe at the Cagle Recreation Area campground

Earlier this week we visited the RV campground he recommended in a section of the national forest called Cagle Recreation Area (see map above) Two fairly new campground loops are located on the shores of Lake Conroe, five miles west of I-45 at exit 102 (HSP is located a little farther north at exit 108).

There are 47 attractive, shaded, full-service RV sites  with water, electricity, and sewer hookups. In our experience, sewer connections are unusual in NFS sites. I'm guessing these have sewers because they are so close to the lake and the Forest Service doesn't want to run the risk of campers dumping their grey water at their sites.

Some sites can be reserved ahead of time and some are first come, first served. We found several that are large enough for our camper. We saw several good-sized 5th-wheels and Class As in the campground.


Many of the sites are large enough for medium to large RVs,
also somewhat unusual in a NFS campground.

The campsites at Cagle are $20/night. Our cost with Jim's national park senior pass would be only $10/night, which is very good for a site with a sewer. There are two other developed campground areas in the national forest -- Stubblefield and Double Lake NRAs.

Cagle is a good alternative for us if we can't get into Huntsville SP at some point in the future. The trails and phone/internet connectivity are both better at Huntsville, however, so the state park remains our first choice for camping in this area of Texas.

We drove back to a couple of the trailheads for multi-use trails in the national forest but didn't go out either of them because of the inclement weather and lack of time on the day we visited. These trails and the Lone Star Trail appear to be much more primitive than those at Huntsville SP. Maybe we'll be more motivated next time we're here to explore them if they aren't so muddy.

Next entry:  enjoying Huntsville State Park's great trail system

Happy trails,

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

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2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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