If you’re in Austin and want to get some trail action – whether mountain biking, trail running or taking part in a Warrior Dash – you need to get down to Rocky Hill Ranch. While not actually in Austin, the easy one-hour drive from downtown to Smithville gets you out of the city noise and onto the trails in no time. And where most other central Texas trails have their scrub-brush and limestone beauty, this is the only place near Austin that offers the mystique of sandstone and the shade of tall pine trees.
This “Lost Pines” area is truly a unique spot in central Texas. What makes it so special is that it's one of the few places spared from the notorious wildfire of 2011, which destroyed almost all of the rare central Texas pines in the area as well as many of the surrounding homes and businesses. So, in this regard, the park is a fortunate gem, and its trails offer a rare experience for anyone seeking either action or solitude (or both) away from the concrete jungle of the city.
Because of its unique trail network, Rocky Hill Ranch often hosts a number of events throughout the year, from mountain bike races to Warrior Dashes, to other foot-powered races. So be sure to check their event schedule before planning your individual outing, and chances are you’ll be able to participate in an event, or if not, have the place all to yourself.
The ranch offers a full range of trails – 25 miles of them, all singletrack – from beginner to expert, for mountain biking, trail running, and hiking. And with names like “Fat Chuck’s Demise” and “Frontal Lobotomy,” you get a sense that this place is a little different than most. The full list of trails is too long to go into all the details of each, but suffice it to say, there are relaxing strolls for casual hikers as well as plenty of hellish climbs, drops and slippery pine-needle turns for expert riders and runners.
“Riding here is one of the fastest ways to improve your skills,” said Darien, a regular mountain biker at the Ranch. “You quickly learn to pace yourself on the easy stuff, because hell might be waiting for you just around the bend.”
Trail runner Kristy agreed, adding, “It’s a super fun place for honing footwork. It’s really relaxed and peaceful in many places, and then there are just enough pine needles, roots, and rocks to remind you that you can twist your ankle if you’re not maintaining full body awareness on the trail. This place has it all, for beginners and pros.”
Camping and day use at the Hill also provides a great getaway for Austin visitors and residents alike. Both tent camping ($15/night) and RV parking ($30) are available, and day-use rates ($10) are reasonable. Again, just remember to check their calendar because camping and day-use spots get filled quickly when there are events, especially when there are 24-hour races that require camping.
For food and drink before or after your Rocky Hill visit, nearby Bastrop is a fast-growing town that provides everything you need, from big-box-store convenience to downtown dives. One of the best places possible for handcraft beer, local food and live music is Bastrop Brewhouse, which serves up a very extensive selection of dive bar goodies. They brew a variety of their own ales in-house, and while still a relatively new place (opened in 2012), they’re making a big name for themselves among brew connoisseurs, locavores, and music lovers alike. There are plenty other places to choose from in Bastrop as well, especially in historic downtown, so whatever you’re in the mood for, chances are you can find it.
Even if you just need a late-night beer run or have a craving for candied jalapenos or “beaver nuggets,” Buc-ees Convenience Store, the Texas-only, Texas-sized mega-gas-station and “world’s largest convenience store” has you covered. You owe it to yourself to step inside this big-box freak of a corner store, just to say you did. Then go back to your campsite at Rocky Hill and talk about the band at the brewhouse or the restroom at Buc-ees (voted one of the best in America).
Whether you just need a campfire to meditate your stress away or want to sweat and burn-out your muscles with an endurance run or ride, Rocky Hill Ranch is one of the best places to get away from it all, within a pretty short drive of Austin.