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A little more than 25 miles from where my feet tramped, a line of cars waited to enter Lost Maples State Natural Area, whose namesake trees blazed with red, yellow, and orange glory. But I had Hill Country State Natural Area pretty much to myself, and while no maples grow here, this rugged retreat offers a respectable display of fall color.

Hill Country State Natural Area is at 10600 Bandera Creek Road, about 11 miles southwest of Bandera and 60 miles northwest of San Antonio.
Call 830/796-4413.

Louise Lindsey Merrick donated most of the 5,369-acre natural area, the former Bar-O Ranch, to the state in 1976 on the condition that it remain “untouched by modern civilization, where everything is preserved intact, yet put to a useful purpose.” While the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department added a few amenities before opening the natural area to the public in 1984, “untouched” describes this place pretty well. You’ll find trails, primitive and equestrian campgrounds, picnic areas, a headquarters building, and restrooms, but no potable water supply or park store. The rangers here have a motto: If you need it, bring it, because we don’t have it!

The park’s 50-plus miles of trails, which are open to hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, offer the best way to enjoy the scenery, especially come autumn, when the Hill Country’s scorching summer fades to more comfortable temperatures (the average high for mid-November is 71 degrees). The scenic landscape contains a mix of rocky hills reaching 2,000 feet in elevation, flowing springs, oak groves, grasslands, and flat creek bottoms.

The park’s trees respond to the arrival of fall with a colorful palette. The Texas red oaks’ large-fingered, pointy leaves turn bright red to orange in mid- to late-November. The narrow leaves of flameleaf sumac take on a deep reddish purple, each like the flame of a large match, while maroon tinges the leaves of evergreen sumac after a frost. And escarpment black cherry trees, found only in the calcareous soils of a few south-central Texas counties, sport vivid yellow fall foliage, brightening the wooded canyons and slopes.

Among Hill Country State Natural Area’s network of trails, two routes highlight the park’s fall colors: A loop that starts at the Trailhead Equestrian Camp Area parking lot and traverses Trails 6, 5a, 5b, and 1; and Trail 7 along Bandera Creek.

For the first route, I followed Trail 6 up a hillside and along a ridge with sweeping views of the terrain, where in decades past ranchers raised sheep and goats. The narrow, rocky trail crosses a sea of spiky sotol plants and then rounds a bend to meet Trail 5b, which ascends 450 feet to the top of one of the Twin Peaks. Ranger Leanne Beauxbeannes calls this climb the “stairway to heaven,” and once I conquered it and rested on a bench at the top, I deemed the name appropriate. In front of me stretched miles and miles of Hill Country interrupted by nothing more than dirt roads, the occasional ranch house, and brilliant splashes of yellow and red autumn foliage among the green hillsides. The trail encircles the top of the hill, which has a series of open areas that offer wide views in each direction. I scrambled down, back to Trail 5a, which crosses several areas of tall grass waving in the breeze and then follows a thick line of trees, passing under one magnificent red oak. The hike is slightly less than two miles and takes about 90 minutes.

For the second hike, I parked at the headquarters and caught a ride to the intersection of Trail 7 with Bandera Creek Road (County Road 131) on the western edge of the park. You could make this hike a four-mile round trip, starting at the headquarters and turning around at the head of Trail 7, but I opted to make it a one-way, two-mile trek.

Trail 7 crosses the usually dry, rocky bed of Bandera Creek several times, following along its edge where the bed cuts deeper into the limestone. The route is mostly wooded, but in open areas, I glimpsed color on the otherwise juniper-green hillsides. Along the trail, shades of autumn reveal themselves in rust-colored poison ivy leaves, bright red possumhaw and agarita berries, and yellow- and red-tinged prairie grasses. After crossing the county road, the trail passes through several thick stands of vegetation with plenty of sumacs and oaks providing color, then traverses grassy fields before reaching the day-use parking area.

In addition to rich plant life, Hill Country State Natural Area harbors a wealth of birds. Although not present in late fall, golden-cheeked warblers live in canyons where Ashe juniper and hardwoods grow. Species you’re more likely to spot on a fall hike include Carolina chickadees, black-crested titmice, blue-gray gnatcatchers, white-eyed vireos, and summer tanagers. In the grassy areas, eastern phoebes and vermillion flycatchers flit about. Red-shouldered hawks and yellow-billed cuckoos also call the park home. A bird checklist is available in the park office.

Because this park is somewhat off the beaten path, the rangers take time to go over the trail map and help visitors select the best hiking routes for their particular interests. Beauxbeannes also schedules regular guided walks and hikes, including nature walks on the first Thursdays and Saturdays of the month and discovery hikes (designed for children) the third Thursdays and Saturdays.

I easily ticked off two hikes in a day here, enjoying near solitude on a colorful autumn day in the Hill Country.

From the November 2015 issue

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