The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, May 18, 2001, Columns

A good mountain bike ride gets the heart pumping and is an exciting way to see the countryside. Not all rides have to be a hair-raising, white-knuckle experience. Several public and private parks around Texas offer a wilderness experience on two wheels.

The first things that an off-road bicyclist should remember is to stay on the trails, always wear a helmet, control your bike, always share the trail, and never spook the animals. It's interesting to note that the knobby mountain bike tires can displace a significant amount of dirt on a one-mile trail. This can lead to soil erosion which leads to lots of other bad things.

Of the more than 123 state parks, 42 of them have trails open to bicyclists. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has published an excellent guide to mountain biking in the state parks. For a copy or more information, call 389-8950 or go to

The easiest and closest trail rides are at McKinney Falls State Park. Too often Austinites overlook this beautiful park on the southeastern edge of town. The four miles of beginner trails wind through the riparian woodlands along Onion Creek.

The property was once owned by Thomas McKinney, one of Stephen F. Austin's original 300 colonists. McKinney retired to this ranch to raise racehorses, but the Civil War wiped out his fortune. The trails go past the remains of his two-story homestead, horse-trainer's cabin, and grist mill.

At Pedernales Falls State Park the trails are a little more difficult and scenic. Outside of Johnson City, this is a great place to swim, fish, or camp, too. The 20 miles of trails are mostly wide, caliche tracks with some fairly steep climbs. The single-track trail snaking up Wolf Mountain is a good workout for the more advanced riders.

The Hill Country State Natural Area outside of Bandera is one of the best mixtures of trails of any park in Central Texas. With more than 30 miles of trails there is something for everybody. The paths are shared with trail riders from neighboring dude ranches, so watch out for horses and their droppings.

Lake Somerville State Park is another network of trails that is shared by bikes and horses. The Nails Creek portion of the park on the west side of the lake has 17 miles of beginner and intermediate trails and is more challenging and fun. The Birch Creek unit on the eastern end of the lake has more trails, 20 miles worth, but most are wide and relatively flat. An old jeep trail connects the two parks.

Lake Mineral Wells State Park west of Fort Worth is one of the neatest parks in the state's inventory. It has a small but beautiful lake for water sports. There is a challenging rock climbing wall. The eight miles of trails inside the park are fairly easy with some following old army roads, but with some bodacious climbs. The park has also taken over an abandoned railroad right-of-way from Mineral Wells to Weatherford, about 20 miles. Generally, the trailway is fairly easy although it's rated as intermediate level, mainly because of the distance between access points.

If you really want to take a challenging ride on an old railroad bed, try the Caprock Canyons State Trailway outside of Quitaque in the Panhandle. This is probably one of the most spectacular off- road bike rides in the state. The 64 miles of trail can be taken in portions. Several segments include beautiful views, and there is even an old railroad tunnel.

If you have the chance to ride in the Panhandle, spend the day in Palo Duro Canyon. With only 10 miles of trails the park offers a wide variety of cycling experiences. Check with the ranger office to match your skill level with the trail's difficulty and conditions before setting off.

Back closer to home, Rocky Hill Ranch on FM 153 north of Smithville is where the hard-core phatheads go to party. That is not to say the beginner riders won't have a good time, too. Some of the trails are cut out of the rocky soil of the Lost Pines while other rides are old jeep roads. With more than 30 miles of riding room it is easy to ride a long time before crossing the same track twice.

After an invigorating ride, relax with a cold brew and a homemade hamburger at the cafe at the end of the trail. The Ranch has developed a statewide reputation for taking care of riders with a campground and other facilities. The management often hosts races on weekends, so before driving long distances it is best to call 512/237-3112 or check out

Up the road on FM 153 between La Grange and Warda, Bluff Creek Ranch is another bicycle park that takes good care of the trailriders. With eight miles of intermediate and difficult trails this is a fun place to ride, but be ready for a workout. They also host several races during the year so call before driving the hour from Austin, 409/242-5894.

Mountain Biking Central Texas by Rick and Becky Youman is one of the best guidebooks on trail riding in parks around Austin. In its fourth edition and available at most local bike shops, this book lists trails in Austin, San Antonio, Georgetown, Waco, and other places. If you want to find some new local places that match your skill, this is the best book on the subject.

Coming up this weekend ...

Texas Natural & Western Swing Festival in San Marcos by the river and on the square presents traditional and historical shows capped by the Western Swing Hall of Fame show, May 19. 512/393-8430.

Riverfest in Bandera features an "Anything That Floats" regatta on the Medina River at 1pm plus other fun, food, and activities, May 19. 800/364-3833 or

Americana Music Jam at Gruene Hall includes many top local acts in a festival for area charities, May 20. 830/625-7311.

Coming up ...

Kerrville Folk Festival is a sure sign that summer is right around the corner. This year's event features the usual suspects plus some surprise guest musicians, May 24-June 10. 800/435-8429 or

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