Huntsville State Park
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Sprinkled between my solo camping adventures with Luna, my husband and I try to go "camping" each month in our 34 foot Class A Winnebago Itasca Sunova motorhome for a long weekend in the Texas Hill Country. Now before you go thinking we're one of those hoity-toity rich folks that show up in a high-dollar Taj Mahal motorhome, let me set you straight. First, the RV is over ten years old, meaning we have to prove it's "worthy" to stay in some RV parks due to its advanced age (perhaps that'll apply to us at some point - LOL). As is the case with most things with some age on them, it can be temperamental, especially when we're putting the slides in or out. Secondly, we're campers with an RV. I don't begrudge those folks who drive up in their high-dollar RVs, set up their sewer connections and satellites, and never come out of their home-away-from-home arrangements to view what's happening around them. Whenever we win the lottery, we will surely give that a try. However, at this point in time, that's just not us. Our RV affords us some creature comforts, but we make it a point to spend a majority of our time outdoors. We once had a camping neighbor say to us, "Gee, you guys sure do spend a lot of time outdoors to have a Class A." We were delighted with that observation and wear it like a badge of honor.
When time allows, which isn't often, we try to schedule at least one longer adventure farther away. We chose Huntsville State Park near Huntsville, Texas this time out for a seven-day adventure. The park is about 4.5 hours or 260 miles from our home base near San Antonio, Texas. That's if you're in an automobile and going the posted speed limit. But, in an RV, especially an older large Class A (bus like), you must factor in extra time for reduced speed limits, difficult roads, high winds, and driver fatigue. So, when we planned our extended trip to Huntsville SP, we planned on stopping overnight about half way along the journey on both ends of the trip at an RV park called Whispering Oaks RV Park in Weimar, Texas. Even if we plan to drive straight through to a destination, we like to have a backup stopover plan. The last thing you want is to be driving a twenty thousand pound vehicle when you're fatigued.
On our first day of travel, we left the storage barn around 9:30 a.m. and slowly made our way east along IH-10 stopping for lunch, fuel, and wonderful road trip snacks at the infamous Buc-ee's in Luling, Texas. It was very crowded inside, so I didn't take the time like I normally do to look through all the tchotchke offerings that usually demand my attention. We had a leisurely BBQ sandwich lunch in our RV while watching the other travelers jockeying for positions at the fuel pumps and returning to their cars loaded up with an assortment of goodies to fuel their bodies during their travels.
Once back on the road, it was only a short jaunt to the Whispering Oaks RV Park. Despite it being Easter Sunday, one of the owners came to greet us and offer a hearty welcome. It was our first time at the park, and we were pleasantly surprised. The park is small at six acres, but it's filled with character with beautiful murals painted on shed walls and colorful garden art sprinkled throughout. It's evident that the owners have worked hard to provide a safe, clean stop for both traveling and full-time RVers. There are 51 full hookup sites, with 41 of them accommodating anyone with large, pull-through needs. Based on our location, it appears that the overnighters are situated closer to the front of the park, making for an easy entry and departure. There's nice laundry room, a fenced dog-park (with no stickers!), a well-equipped mini playground, and a tiny chicken area with chickens that are eager to be fed with the supplied chicken feed. We'll definitely keep this on our list of go-to parks when traveling in that direction.
The fair head wind and the overwhelming energy we experienced during our fuel stop made us glad that we made the decision to break up the journey into two parts. We made quick work of setting up and then settled in to enjoy a nice afternoon of sitting under the trees in the breeze. Shortly before settling in for the night to enjoy dinner and a couple of Downton Abbey episodes, I took Maddie on her evening walk around the park. Unfortunately, she is plagued with terrible oak allergies. So although the many oak trees were beautiful to us, for Maddie...not so much. Despite being medicated and a getting a thorough wipe down each time she returned from outside, she still broke out in hives from the overwhelming oak pollen. Poor baby.
The next morning, we got an early start on the second part of our journey. Instead of sticking to the Interstate, we chose a more scenic route and traveled through smaller towns like Bellville, Prairie View, and Navasota, as we headed north. This strategy provided us with many postcard views of green rolling hills sprinkled with clapboard farmhouses and blankets of multicolored wildflowers. The giant windshield of the bus framed each scene perfectly and made the ride seem like a mobile art gallery. Spring in Texas is heaven.
Upon reaching the town of Huntsville, we decided to stop in parking lot for a quick lunch before making our way to the State Park. It's always advisable to have no excuses to be "hangry" when faced with setting up a campsite. Unfortunately and unbeknownst to us, the exits off IH-45 to State Park Road 40 were closed due to construction. So, we had to drive down to New Waverly and backtrack via 75 to enter the park. Had we checked the park's website, we would've learned that necessary fact. Note to self: Check and recheck destination web pages! Another important fact we would've learned was that the park was implementing a prescribed burn for the first two days of our trip. So, we were greeted with a smoke-filled campground and subsequent closed trails. Good thing we stopped to eat.
Huntsville State Park is located about six miles south of Huntsville, Texas and about 69 miles north of Houston. The park's construction project began in 1937. And the next nineteen years would see it suffer many trials and setbacks including the draining of Lake Raven due to a flood in 1940 and the beginning of WWII before its official opening as Huntsville State Park on May 18, 1956. Almost all of the construction work was accomplished by several groups of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers, and their beautiful and highly skilled craftsmanship is evident throughout the park in the buildings' architecture and various stone culverts, etc. Texas currently manages 29 CCC-built parks. They are jewels in our State Park system's crown as their historic architecture is unmatched.
The park is a magical place located inside the Sam Houston National Forest. Its 2083 acres are located in the East Texas Pineywoods ecoregion, making for an amazing array of numerous plants and animal species ranging from towering Loblolly Pines to delicate Winecup flowers and from majestic Great Blue Herons to striking Ebony Jewelwing damselflies and, of course, an occasional alligator. Around 250 bird species have been spotted within the park's boundaries. Its 213 acre Lake Raven is a dominate feature of the park which supports a majority of the park's wildlife as well as provides year-round sport for anglers and at least three seasons of watersport fun for campers and day visitors. It has almost 20 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to challenging. Each trail offers a unique view into the complicated and diverse ecosystems that the park sustains. With all that said, it's important to keep in mind the park's geographical location when planning a visit. Summer starts early and stays late. Days and nights are hot and balmy, and there are many buzzing and biting critters on hand to entertain you. Proper preparation is key to a positive experience. And, even then, as we discovered on this trip, you can be caught off guard.
We reserved site #22 in hopes that its location would be reasonably level. We learned in a previous trip several years ago that the full-hookup sites in the Raven Hill Camping Area are woefully unlevel with some being rather extreme. You must have a good supply of leveling blocks on hand. Fortunately, we had extras this time. It took several tries and almost an hour to get the RV level. Normally, it takes us about 15 minutes to setup inside and out. So, after a difficult drive due to high winds and encountering unexpected road closures and unexpected burn and trail closures, you can be pretty safe in assuming that we weren't happy campers after a difficult set up. There's a cute little saying that you can find printed on t-shirts that reads, "Honey, I'm sorry for what I said while we were trying to park the camper." Well, let's just say we both needed one of those t-shirts.
Although site #22 isn't level, it's better than most. It doesn't face the lake, but, instead faces the interior of the camping loop. There's enough foliage between that site and the sightline to the unit across from it to afford some level of privacy. However, the parking loops are rather close together and some are small. So privacy in front of and behind units can be somewhat of an issue. And, the combined length of units and tow vehicles can mean some vehicles jut slightly into the main road or, worse, into a neighbor's loop. The campfire ring and picnic table were well placed in our site and didn't require navigating steps to access them as the sites facing the water did. Overall, however, the full-hookup camping area is very nice and quite beautiful. On subsequent mornings and evenings, our site was filled with visiting birds, squirrels, and bunnies which quickly made up for any campground deficits.
The prescribed burn was happening across Lake Raven to the southwest of our campsite. So, although we had a fair amount of smoke, the folks in the Prairie Branch Camping Area and nearer the lake got the brunt of it. We visited that side of the park only briefly the next day and captured some amazing photos of the burning forest and a smoke-enhanced sunset. Across the water and deep in the forest, we could hear the trees snapping and falling. In the haze, it was eerie. Unfortunately, due to the poor air quality, we couldn't stay long. There were some really hard-core tent and car campers on that side as they were staying put during the event! Fortunately, however, the weather forecast caused any further burn plans to be cancelled. So, the air cleared significantly and was great for the rest of our trip. I say fortunately for the campers. However, prescribed burns are a very necessary and beneficial part of good forest management. According to one of the park hosts, the delay will mean a whole year before the next burn for that area. So, the delay was truly unfortunate for the park management.
Our days were mostly spent either lounging around the campsite, visiting the bird blind located in our campground, and hiking the trails not closed due to the burn. The weather was good with only a few balmy periods. There was one night when the weather did become a concern. We got a little wind and rain. However, the really severe storm dissipated before it reached us. Although it didn't miss the folks in the College Station area, causing some terrible and costly hail damage. We are super vigilant about weather when we're in the RV. If you've ever been in one during a major storm, you won't soon forget it. Although cell phone reception was spotty, making periodic radar checks difficult, our weather band radio filled in the gaps.
Besides walking Maddie along the park road and around the campground, I took a couple of short solo walks down near a creek that passes under the park road, hoping to see a snake or two, some frogs, or turtles. Although any snakes stayed well outside my view, I'm sure I passed a few on the trails. I did, however, catch sight of a large snapping turtle, some really cute frogs that emitted a loud high-pitched squeak before jumping into the water, a beautiful Little Brown Skink, many Ebony Jewelwing damselflies during their courtship, and lots of unidentified bugs and insects along the way. If you're camping in a swampy area during spring or summer, you'd better be ready for bugs. We thought we were prepared for them and had plenty of Ranger Ready Insect Repellant (love that stuff) and Thermacell units on hand. However, as we sat enjoying our campfire on our second night, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a June Bug and assorted beetle/bug kamikaze event! As they swarmed into our campsite, at least one hundred of them (I'm not exaggerating) pelted us along the way to their sacrificial demise. It was a sight to see...and to smell...as they flung themselves one after another into the fire. Needless to say, that was our only campfire for the entire time there. We were too traumatized to try again. We later learned that prescribed burns can "stir up" the flying critters and make them behave that way. Who knew?
My longest hike both in duration and distance was along the Chinquapin Trail to the far northwest corner of the park's boundary. Where the Chinquapin Trail intersects with the Prairie Branch Loop there's a junction with a trail leading out into the Sam Houston National Park. The Chinquapin Trail proceeds around the west side of the park, crossing a part of Lake Raven. But that part of the trail was closed due to the burn. Along the trail, I met only four other souls. One was a retired Army fellow who ran this trail every day without fail for the past eleven years! During our brief chat, he recounted times spent on the trail during lightening storms and warned me about the swarms of biting flies during the months of May, June and July. Two souls were another solo female hiker and her beautiful rescue dog. I forget their names. I met up and passed them a couple of times on the backside of the trail, but had initially encountered them at the start while she was doing yoga stretches all while trying to keep her dog entertained by occasionally tossing out a ball for her to fetch. The last soul I met just in passing as he crossed into the park from the National park trail on his bike and offered only a cursory nod. The rest of time I spent, as usual, pausing to listen to the sounds of the forest, staring up through the trees to catch sight of a flittering bird, or crawling around on the ground looking for critters and flowers to photograph. Needless to say, by the time I made it back to Terry and Maddie waiting for me at camp, I was exhausted, sweaty, and happy.
For the most part, our time at the park was serene and enjoyable. We spent a lot of time just sitting outside watching the birds and squirrels, forest bathing, and enjoying each other's company. Although the campground was quite full, the majority of the campers, who ranged from family groups to elderly couples, were respectful and quiet. During the day, the campground was filled with children's laughter while they rode their bicycles round and round the loop. As night came, the sound of the frogs would over take the campground and an occasional firefly would drift by. It was really peaceful. As always, we encountered the person who decided it was appropriate to cut through our campsite as a shortcut to their destination, the campers that allowed their dog to yap incessantly, the campers that left their super bright LED light strips on all night, and the campers that left their campfires unattended while they went hiking or smoldering after they departed altogether. It's obvious that more and more people are flocking to the outdoors to soothe their COVID weary lockdown blues. Just as obvious is that not everyone is well versed in camper's etiquette or the Leave No Trace principles. We're quickly (and reluctantly) learning that we just have to work a little harder to be more tolerant of those with no concern for others or for their surroundings. It's certainly easier to do that when you've attained a nice level of peace which we'd managed to do early on. So, despite those negatives, we still found the time too short and didn't want to return home. We had many conversations during this trip about what it would be like to be full-time RVers and where we'd go if we had the freedom to travel. If only...
For our return trip, we chose a slightly different route thinking it would save us time. From the park, we headed South on I-45 towards Houston. At Conroe, we turned East on Loop 336 to Highway 105 with the thought of picking up familiar Highway 6 at Navasota. I wouldn't recommend that course. Both Loop 336 and Highway 105 are filled with stoplights and a lot of traffic. It was pretty stressful. As we did at the beginning of the trip, we decided to stop over on our way home. Once again, we were warmly welcomed at the Whispering Oaks RV Park. This time, we were located next to another couple in a Class A who had stopped for a respite from the winds on their trip from New Mexico to Florida. It was a good thing we took advantage of the stop to rest as the winds were even more blustery during the last day of our trip. Imagine driving a 34 foot billboard down the highway and 25-30 mph wind gusts hitting you broadside and unrelenting for several hours! Needless to say, when we pulled up in front of the house to unload, we were quite ready for the trip to be over!
All in all, the Huntsville State Park trip was a success. I think it'll be awhile before we venture that way again though. Currently, we don't have another long trip planned. Normally, we have our trips planned out a year in advance. However, with the COVID event's impact on travel and on our business, we've been more cautious about planning longer trips so far in advance. Campsite reservations are getting more difficult to secure with the increased camper traffic. So, our hesitation may cost us an opportunity or two. We'd still like to head down to Lajitas or Terlingua and even, perhaps, down to the Gulf Coast. Arkansas and a return trip to New Mexico are on our list as well. At this point, however, it looks like our excursions will remain in the Texas Hill Country.
I hope you've felt like you were riding along side us on this recent journey! I also hope you have some travels of your own planned. I'd love to hear about them.