Mountain Biking the Austin Area
The last time I went out to visit the fine folks at the Rocky Hill Ranch, one of the state championship races had just been held there the month before. Many of the markers for the race loop were still in place. Plus, the map I was offered described a 13-mile loop that corresponded to what was laid out for the race. For those reasons, the description that follows mirrors this configuration. There are, however, several more miles of riding available here, most of it is double-track. If what you find marked does not satisfy, ask at the cafi what other single-tracks are open to bikes.
The ranch is located in the Lost Pines section of the state on over 1,200 acres of prime terrain. The riding here is some of the most fun you can have with such minimal exposure to poison ivy. About half of what you will ride here is sandy single-track with some stretches of loose rock. The other half is double-track with the same surface.
Nothing here is extremely hard or dangerous, but there are some invigorating climbs and some challenging twisty-turnies among the trees. I would say that all of the beginner and intermediate sections can be ridden by most riders, but some walking may be necessary for those who are beginners or not heavily conditioned. Plus, there are one or two gullies in the expert sections that I always have to walk; they are just too steep and too sudden. Each section is shown on maps available at the cafi, and each is rated according to difficulty. Their estimations are realistic; the easy parts are mostly doubletrack, and if you try the expert-level stuff and then change your mind, you can take the dirt road instead of the single-track.
The trail is a winding loop that doubles back upon itself repeatedly and crosses several roads that could be used as bailouts to speed your return to the parking area. In many places the trail snakes through a mile or so of the forest and then returns you to one of the roads only a few hundred feet from where you passed by earlier. Some of the single-track is very tight, and in a few places the trail almost disappears as it passes over a bed of seemingly undisturbed pine needles. It is fast and loose and can be a lot of fun, if you can avoid contact with trees or the ground.
As you enter the grounds, you will park near the cafi and pay the nice man to let you ride here. In 1994 the rate was $5.50, about the same price as going out to see a movie. From the cafi you begin your assault on the ranch by creeping up the first set of hills, marked on maps as"Fat Chuck's Demise." The guys who built this brought a friend out here once, telling him how much fun mountain biking is. He quit on the first set of hills-hence the name. Each section of the trail has a colorful name, and you will find them all well marked. At three spots along the way you will find water jugs to refill your bottles, and these water stations make nice spots to lounge awhile and take in the scenery. Maybe snap a few shots of your bike, like I always do.
There is allegedly a field here where Confederate troops camped and trained for the War for Southern Independence, and Harrison's Waterhole on Gravelly Creek was a longtime Indian camp and watering spot for early wagon trains traversing this part of Texas. The brochure for the ranch also says they can give you information on many road rides that loop through the area, so take your skinny tires if you have an inclination. Another interesting story says that one of the trails, Fofenique, is named for an Indian tribe that formerly inhabited this area. These folks shot a small round cactus out of slingshots to try and convince early settlers to keep moving. The cactus nearly went extinct (there were a lot of settlers) but has undergone something of a resurgence here on the ranch. Ask at the cafi if they can show you a specimen of said cactus.
When your day is done, stop by the cafi and visit with Grey and the rest of the folks who hang around here. There are some real salts among the locals, and they have some interesting junk hanging on the walls. Try one of their world-famous hamburgers and a Shiner Bock beer; you won't be disappointed. If you play darts, bring yours and pitch a few at the board. Have fun and enjoy the fine Texas hospitality and excellent Texas Hill Country single-track.
General location: The ranch is just outside of Smithville, which is about 40 miles east of Austin and around 120 miles west of Houston.
Elevation change: The highest spot on the ranch is over 500" above sea level, and the lowest is down to nearly 300", so you have quite a bit of relief here. Plus, you are up and down so much that cumulatively you are going to crank out way more than 200' of variation. There is some ascending and descending to be done here.
Season: This is another typical year-round trail. The only constraints might be that days of heavy rain will likely make much of it slippery. Since much of the single-track is sandy or gravelly, it drains well and should be usable within a day or so of heavy rain. Call and ask for trail conditions if there is any doubt. Services: Water and chemical toilets are available in the cafi area, but if you need any supplies you had best stop in Smithville before heading out to the ranch. Buescher State Park is only a couple of miles shy of the ranch (you go right by it on Farm to Market 153), and the camping there may be more inviting because they can offer showers and all the normal facilities of a state park. There are usually at least three water stops at locations shown on the maps, so there is no need to carry a whole lot in with you. Again, ask at the cafi.
Hazards: Ha ha ha. Mister Bustyerass and many of his cousins live on the Rocky Hill Ranch, and they are especially fond of city boys and girls who like speed. When he finds you, he will make you pay. All of the loose rocks and inclined surfaces conspire to add to their collections of human skin, seeking a donation from each visitor. If a section of trail looks dangerous to you, then pay attention, because you are starting to understand. If they rate a trail here as "Expert," you had better believe it will tax your skills.
Rescue index: There is a phone in the cafi, so if you have an emergency, your only hope is to make it back to the entrance area-which could be a real challenge, since getting stranded or injured at the farthest part of the course would put you about 6 or 7 miles from help. It would be very easy to bail out and ride Rocky Road back from the power line or pipeline all the way to the cafi, but it would still be several miles.
Land status: This is all private land, so respect the wishes of the owners. And enjoy coming here to ride for years.
Maps: The nice folks at the caf´ will give you a very good map for free. Just ask. See a map here.
Finding the trail: About I mile north of Smithville, FM 153 will split from TX 71 and go east. Follow FM 153 about 3 miles, and on the north side of the road you will see the main. gate for the ranch. It is notable because of a bent bicycle hanging from the center section. This is it. I have been told that there are nearly 20 miles of trail possibilities on the ranch, and I am nowhere near familiar enough with all of it to be your guide. Explore, take a side trail, look around. Each trail is marked for identification where it splits from another, and you are on private property with only one or two gates to cross, so you can only get so lost. Along the way you might find a spot or two you want to run through again and again, and this is pretty easy, since they are nearly all interconnected with a gravel road, a pipeline, or a power line. This makes it easy to double back or take a shortcut out of the trail area.
Sources of additional information:
Rocky Hill Ranch/Boomer's Bicycles
P.O. Box 655
Smithville, TX 78957
Notes on the trail: The ranch is only open Thursday through Sunday, 9 A. M. to sunset. Also, there is a fee for using the trails here, so come prepared to pay. They do not have an ATM machine or take checks. The cafi is a good place to eat and hang out, so bring a little extra cash and hang out for awhile after your ride. The people there are typical down-home Texas types, so spend some time visiting. Camping is allowed on the property, but it is all of the primitive variety, so bring your tent and plenty of mosquito repellent. If you come to spots where letting the gate down is necessary to get to the next trail, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE be sure to close it after you are through so none of the cows get out. The owner loves us and wants to improve the ranch steadily to make it more attractive to mountain bikers. There is a slalom course planned, as well as cabins and bike rentals. And the best part is, NO MOTORCYCLES OR HORSES ARE ALLOWED.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication