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"Explore two completely different habitats as you walk this short loop.
One half of the trail's length is along the shore of Lake Raven,
and the other half is through the mixed pine and hardwood forest ."
~ Huntsville State Park trail map description of Prairie Branch Trail

Prairie Branch is one of the trails used by runners in the Rocky Raccoon 50- and 100-mile races this weekend, and my favorite trail to hike each day because it is located closest to our campsite. It is very relaxing to walk close to the water on the half of the trail next to Lake Raven.

Despite plenty of sub-freezing and/or wet winter weather Jim and I have spent a fair amount of time out on the trails the past two weeks. Fortunately enough days were sunny that I could get some blue-sky photos to show you! They make the park look so much more appealing than dull, gray-sky pictures do.

Here's a small map of the park. You can find a full-size map on the park website.

We love Huntsville's extensive system of single-track trails and jeep roads. Both of us have done several two- to four-hour runs/walks on the trails the past two weeks, as well as bike rides on the roads and trails.

I'm surprised there weren't more runners here the two weekends prior to the Rocky Raccoon races. I know a lot of Houston-area runners participate in the event. I saw more cyclists on the trails on weekends than runners or hikers.

Bridge over a dry creek on the Chinquapin loop trail

The trails were in excellent condition until a big storm hit earlier this week. I'll talk more about that in a little bit and show pictures of some of the storm damage in the next entry.

Over the years volunteers and rangers have built enough bog bridging at Huntsville SP that muddy trails aren't as much of a problem as they were a decade ago when we first ran here. There is also quite a bit of sand in the soil so it drains pretty quickly.

Chinquapin Trail

Prairie Branch Trail

The lake level is one or two feet lower than we've seen it previously. That's not as apparent from the shore line as it is from the dam outlet. This is the first time in all of our winter visits that I've ever been able to walk across the top of the outlet and not had to detour around it on trails for half a mile (the race courses still follow the trails this weekend):

View of lake from the dam spillway, which is dry.

Another view of the outlet a few days later

Lower lake levels haven't kept any fishermen and women away, however. We often saw folks fishing in the lake, even on cold, cloudy days.

View of two fishermen from the campsite next to ours

Almost every day I took a walk along the lake on Prairie Branch Trail. The official trailhead is near our campsite and an old path leads to it behind our camper.

One scene along this trail has intrigued me for two weeks now. Notice anything unusual in this photo?

See that birdhouse in the center front? There are several birdhouses in or near the lake along this trail but apparently this one has slipped down its post and is almost touching the water -- which is lower than normal right now!

I have visions of alligators lurking nearby this summer, hoping to catch some hapless birds as they use this box for a nest!

Here are a few more shots from Prairie Branch Trail and the lake inlet:





Most of the trail photos in this and the previous entry are on the Rocky Raccoon 50- and/or 100-mile courses.


The main reason we keep coming back to this park is the most excellent trail system. The second main reason is that it's theoretically a decent place to hang out during the winter. I mean, it's in southern Texas, not very far from Houston.

Houston is comparatively warm in the winter, right?

Well, that kind of logic hasn't worked out very well for us so far this trip. Southern Texas has had far more sub-freezing temperatures this winter than normal.

Palmetto palms on a warm, sunny day (above)
and with snow/sleet on them this morning (below)

In the past two weeks at Huntsville we've run the weather gamut from the upper teens to 78F., from depressing gray skies to total sun, from wet to dry, and from no wind to 60-70 MPH gusts.

I can guarantee you that we didn't get much sleep the night the wind blew so hard the camper was shaking and we could hear pine cones and branches hitting the camper! That was early on Tuesday morning of this week.

The last four days have been the most miserable after warm, moist Gulf air from the south collided over Texas with an Arctic cold front blasting out of the north. That's what caused the high winds Tuesday that blew some trees down on the power lines, cutting off electricity in our campground for 32 hours. Temperatures in the teens and 20s at night, remaining below the freezing point during the day, have kept the water spigots frozen since Tuesday.

Even some of the water in the wetlands and lake edges froze. I took this photo at the lake inlet yesterday:

Contrast that with this sunny picture of another part of the inlet a few days earlier:

We are luckier than some other people, however.

We knew this was coming for several days, even as we sweated in humid, 78-degree weather on Monday. Before the bottom dropped out on Tuesday, we filled our water tank with 90 gallons of fresh water so we weren't at the mercy of a frozen hose or water spigot. We made sure both propane tanks were full so we could run our furnace and propane space heater in case the power went off. We had enough food to last a week or more.

The few RVers that were in the park mid-week mostly disappeared in search of more comfortable accommodations . . .

Above: trail across the dam, with a view of the  lodge across the the lake
Below: same trail, in other direction; photo taken this week after the storm

We were also much luckier than most of the folks anywhere north or east of us. Even Houston got some sleet and/or snow. A couple inches of frozen precip were predicted for the Huntsville area but we got less than that -- not enough to cover the ground.

A little farther north in Texas it was a different story. Dallas got an inch of ice, then several inches of snow on top.

The nasty storm spread throughout the entire Plains, Midwest, and East. Chicago got what some reporters have written is the worst blizzard in their memory. Traffic was snarled. Many airports closed. Some runners on the internet ultra list who were planning to come to Huntsville for the race tomorrow posted that they are stuck at home, unable to get a flight to Houston. Even Houston's two airports were affected for a few days as runways and planes iced up and there were fewer cities safe to go from here.

I'll talk more about how this is affecting the Rocky Raccoon races in the next entry.

This Frazz cartoon by Jeff Mallett about running in cold weather is appropriate. It is dated January 16, 2011:

If that's too small to read on your screen, click this link at comics.com. I read my two favorite cartoons, Frazz and Pickles, at that site each day if we have a good internet connection.

Next entry: the Rocky Raccoon 50- and 100-mile races

Happy trails,

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

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2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil