The Hill Country State Natural area rests just outside of San Antonio, but it’s far away from anything you’d expect being so close to the city. It has rolling hills, amazing plant life, and some of the best hiking I’ve experienced so far in Texas.
Continue reading and explore the Hill Country State Natural Area.
Here are some key notes:
- Beautiful and Scenic
- Not much in terms of camping
- Cell service was super spotty
- Trekking Poles and Plenty of Water
I left the house pretty early in the morning to HCSNA because time was a factor to get back in time to pick my daughter up from school. So I knew when I arrived I’d need to choose where I wanted to hike.
I did a super non-scientific poll on my Facebook Page to see where I should focus my energy for the day, and most people agreed that the peaks here are spectacular, but Ice Cream Hill was a must-see.
There are over 10 trails on the map that equate to about 40 miles of hiking. This is also a very popular equestrian park, so make sure you have your Coggins test up to date to take your horse.
Here’s the difficulty breakdown of the trails:
- Ice Cream Hill
- West Peak Overlook
- Medina Loop (Also the longest trail)
- Pasture Loop
- Bandera Creek Trail
- Hermits Trail
- Madrone Trail
- Wilderness Trail
- Heritage Loop
- Meriick Mile
When I visited my itinerary also consisted of the Spring Branch Trail that isn’t actually on the trail list. That trail is 6.4 miles, so include that with the wilderness trail, the West Peak Overlook, which I then looped at the Ice Cream Hill trail; that’s a pretty beefy day. And I had to do it all in about four hours.
Gail was the lady at the headquarters who recommended this route. She was super friendly, but one thing I noticed off the bat was the lack of features here. The headquarters was very simple. Not a lot of gifts here, which was indeed a bummer as I collect pins and stickers. But all good, I knew I was going to have a fantastic hiking experience.
Gail informed me that there are two main parking areas here, so to opt for the one down the road from HQ. Just up the road and not paved the parking area consisted of multiple trailheads and the equestrian camp area.
Read more from The Texas Trailhead
Color coding is very important at HCSNA, so when you arrive at this parking area veer towards the right if you’re looking into the campsite. Here’s where you’ll find the trailhead for the path I ventured on. It’s a bit of olive green, and I guess ends up being the Spring Branch Trail. on the map.
Right off of the bat, I was welcomed to a new-ish landscape. Plenty of trees and limestone abound, and a pretty immediate elevation gain. The rocky terrain was a welcome sight as I was testing out new trail runners, and was looking forward to breaking them in. Little did I know that later in the day they would come in clutch, along with my trekking poles, in keeping me from getting hurt.
The first point of interest I wanted to visit was the West Peak Overlook. It was at this point where the trails started to become a little questionable to me as far as paying attention to my direction.
The thing is that there are a lot of overlapping trails here, so it’s really important to be mindful of which direction you’re going. Because in some places you think you’re going down the right way, but there may be multiple blazes for the same trail close to each other, so…. yeah.
When I got to the base of the West Peak Overlook I was a bit confused. The aquamarine trail marker does go in two different directions once you arrive, so just look for the one that seems like it’s going up.
To be honest, if I was just here for an hour this would’ve been a fun place to visit. I could’ve taken my time on the way up and just enjoyed the landscape. It’s the steepest part of the route I visited, but the payoff is an amazing view of a proper Texas hill country landscape. It does have an elevation marker that states 1800 feet, but just when you think you’re at the peak you realize you need to keep hiking.
You’ll arrive at a clearing with a bench about mid-way through, but that’s not it. Keep following the well-marked pathway and eventually, you’ll get to the loop. The elevation marker is on the outside of the loop with other places to sit and admire.
Wilderness Trail to Dessert
The descent was when I decided to bust out my trekking poles. I always take my trekking poles if I’m going somewhere I’ve never been, so I had them ready to go.
There were a few other hikers out that day. The sky was overcast, but there was a nice breeze. For this trip, I took my full hydration pouch (2.5 L), and I had some extra sports drink and protein shake in the car for after.
I was told to stay on the northern portion of the Spring Branch Trail and then connect with the Wilderness trail to get to Ice Cream Hill. That was all fine and dandy. Here’s where the sky opens up and the hills become glorious. The plants were very lush. Mountain Laurels were blooming and everything looked so green.
On the Wilderness Trail, you’ll eventually come to the primitive campsite that’s a nice wide open space with a covered picnic table. There is a map here to plan where you’d like to head from there.
Just beyond the campsite, the trails make a bit of an ‘H’. Since I was looking for a hill I just looked up and the trail to my left went up. So without really thinking about where I was going I just went in that direction.
Don’t. Do. That.
Follow the trail the way it says on the map. Otherwise, you’ll end up doing what I did and that’s going back the way I came. It wasn’t until I was up and down two sizable, rocky hills that I realized I may be going in the wrong direction. The Old Goat Shed is a great landmark to get your bearings back, but thankfully I was looking at the topography on the trail map and realized I was in the wrong spot. After taking a minute to catch my breath I went back down and headed back to the table at the campsite for lunch.
Quick Note on my Trekking Poles
While this was all going on my trekking poles were giving me issues. I use the Black Diamond flick-lock poles, and up to this point, I have been in love with them.
Turns out though that the screws that hold the lock in place will eventually get loose and cause the poles to fail. What was happening is as I was using them to set myself while going downhill they were sliding into themselves. So I’d drop down and then so would my entire body. I had slipped a few times at this point and this made it all the more frustrating. I also fell backward on the slippery rocks and hurt my hand. Nothing the poles could’ve done about my carelessness.
One of the drawbacks of hiking at the speed I do.
Running out of Time
After eating lunch and finding my correct pathway to the Ice Cream Hill I had a decision to make. I had given myself a loose timeframe for when I needed to be back at my car and felt that at the time I was going to be ok. I could’ve left at this point and been more than fine, but I wanted to hike the section that was recommended to me.
I decided to keep going and just pick up the pace a bit. I put my phone away that I was using to capture video, and just started hiking. Honestly, the rush started to ruin the scenery enjoyment for me, but I felt like I was pushing myself to accomplish a weird goal. I knew I had plenty of water, and still have food left, so I didn’t think anything of it.
The hill was just ok. It offered some nice views of the park, but the West Peak Overlook seemed more, I don’t know, magnificent? It was a fun challenge, but I don’t know if it was worth all the trouble.
Once I got back down I realized my time frame calculations in my head didn’t allow for the time it would take to get back to my car. I began to get upset and panicked with myself for not considering that. Seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes my mind skips a few steps.
I was on the complete opposite side of the pack from where my vehicle was and needed to figure out which way would be my way back. Gail and I didn’t discuss what to do if I took too long hiking and needed a quick way back. At this point, I was relying on my phone a little bit more for directions. Thankfully GAIA GPS was working just fine to get some sort of idea of how close I was to everything.
I decided to go down the Spring Branch Trail to where it meets up with the Bandera Creek Trail. I remembered that Gail mentioned this trail was pretty easy, but when I got there I stopped again. The trail on paper seemed like an easier way, but it was father away.
I decided to hike the shorter trail because to me a shorter distance is a shorter distance no matter what. Even though I knew it may be a trickier terrain (it totally was), but I was not motivated by the fear of my wife being upset I didn’t pick up our daughter from choir practice in time.
I took the Spring Branch Trail up to the Wilderness Trail back to my car. I was starting to get a headache, but I had my water straw in my mouth and still had enough left.
Seeing the last trail marker to the parking lot was a lovely sight indeed. I got to my car, changed my shirt, and said farewell to the Hill Country State Natural Area.
‘Till Next Time
There’s a whole third of the trail map that I didn’t even touch, so I definitely want to go back. This place is so pretty, and the trail system offers something for everyone. As I mentioned, good shoes and trekking poles are a must-have. My new Salomon XA Pro 3D V8’s came in clutch with lugs that offered the grip I needed on the rocky terrain. And despite my poles giving me fits, which was my fault for not maintaining them, they were essential to keep me from hurting myself even more.