Trail Guide – Barton Creek Greenbelt, Part 4

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Part 4: Gaines Creek/Twin Falls Trailhead to Sculpture Falls, Miles 4.25-6

This section of the Guide to the Greenbelt is a little different in that instead of picking up where we left off, we’ll start from a new trailhead. Specifically, the Gaines Creek/Twin Falls trailhead at 3918 S Mopac Expressway, Austin 78746. To reach this one, you’ll want to head southbound on Mopac and take the 360 West exit. Instead of turning onto 360, however, keep going straight. This will take you to a tiny loop of access road that will undoubtedly be lined with cars. This trailhead is very popular due to the proximity to Twin Falls, so it’s recommended to get there early or go on a weekday.

When you first step onto the trail, the reasons for its popularity become clear: it’s almost entirely shaded, a luxury in the Texas heat. The first portion of the trail will be somewhat rocky, but then lead into a steep downhill drop. At the bottom of the downhill, continue right to keep on the path to Sculpture Falls. If you go left, you’ll follow the Greenbelt until you hit a huge wooden bridge underneath the highway. You can keep on this path to get back to the split-off for the Violet Crown Trail if you know where you’re going, but it can be kind of tricky to find your way, and it’s extremely dry and rocky during the summer months.

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Twin Falls on a quiet winter day

Twin Falls is unmistakable and perpetually crowded. You’ll have to do some careful maneuvering around large fallen tree trunks, piles of rocks, and families. Keep following the path to the west and you’ll pass Twin Falls, after which the crowds usually start to thin out around Mile 5. The trail then abuts Barton Creek for about a quarter mile. If there’s been a lot of rain, this area of the trail tends to get pretty flooded, so watch your footing.

Beyond this stretch, the trail meanders back into the woods. There’s plenty of shade and soft dirt – it’s a pretty gentle ride for the next mile or so. Keep a lookout for the abandoned mailbox on the right side of the trail. One thing to note is that the path will seem to fork at several points. It doesn’t necessarily matter which path you take, since all the forks will lead to Sculpture Falls. However, on the final fork, around Mile Marker 5.75, the path will go up a little bit and, if you’re not paying attention, you could pass right by the falls. If you do take the upper right path, be sure to keep watching to your left.

You should hit Sculpture Falls at around Mile Marker 6, but if memory serves, you’ve gone just a tad too far if you actually hit the marker. This is a pretty famous spot and can get crowded if the weather is nice, but it’s spread out enough that you shouldn’t have any issues finding somewhere to post up if this is your stopping point. When the water is high, the limestone pools fill up and the falls gush. It makes for some pretty good swimming or even a quick stop to cool off. The upper portion of the creek usually isn’t too deep, so it can be a nice spot to sit for a while and relax, assuming you aren’t freaked out by all the fish (ahem).

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A pretty typical sight at Sculpture Falls when you pop off the trail (source)

If you hit Sculpture Falls from the Gaines Creek trailhead, it makes for a nice little 5k out and back. I did this route several times when I was training for my first 25k, and it always provokes a little nostalgia, since I hiked it with my husband when we got engaged. If you park at the Spec’s that serves as a trailhead for the Violet Crown Trail, you could make a nice, shady 5 miler out of the hike, assuming you can pick your way across the creek to the large wooden bridge.

Next time, we’ll finally finish up the Greenbelt with the famous Hill of Life! To learn more about the Greenbelt, check out Parts 1, 2, and 3.

Pilot Hill 25k Race Report

Well, it happened. Six and a half months after starting to run again, I made it through my first long distance event.

When setting my race schedule for the year, I had two major principles to keep in mind: 1) not to overdo it and 2) not to care about my times. This year would be the year of “just finish.” I will admit that mentally, that has been hard for me. It’s tough to see times 5-10 minutes slower than I’m used to. But it’s also important to remember that I basically started from square one again back in November. This post from Amelia Boone has also been very helpful. It’s definitely required reading for anyone coming back from long-term injury.

So, the race itself was the Pilot Hill 25k Classic. This is the longest standing footrace in the state of Wyoming, which is reason enough to run it – it’s fun to say you participated in a little piece of history. It’s also, without a doubt, the toughest race I’ve ever run. You climb to the top of Pilot Hill then descend back into Laramie, which figures out to a net 3200 or so elevation change. However, a lot of my training focused on uphill-downhill out and backs, so I hoped I would be relatively okay. Plus, call me a masochist, but I absolutely love climbing.

The race could not have been held on a more perfect day. Sunny with starting temps in the mid 50s. As soon as the gun went off, it was clear to me that I was settling into the back of the pack, and I was totally fine with it. I’m not going to try and chase down professional and semi-professional athletes from Colorado. I was just there to have a good time. For the first hour or so, however, I did not feel like I was having a good time. The course had a ton of sandy dirt on it, my least favorite surface to run on, and it felt like I was trying to push through mud. I was mentally cursing myself – I must not have tapered enough, I must not have trained enough, etc. Then I remembered that I was essentially running straight uphill, no matter how gradual it might seem. And I was still going! For the first hour or so, it was just running.

However, running in direct sunlight with no wind is bound to take a toll, even if it isn’t terribly hot. By the time I started the last three miles of the climb, i.e. the Real Climb, my stomach was beginning to have issues. This isn’t unusual for me – I’ve had stomach trouble totally wreck races before – but I troubleshot better than I ever had before. I mentally gave myself permission to let go a little bit, to slow down my climbing until I felt like I had things under control and there was no risk of vomiting. And it worked! Plus, I can’t be too sad when there’s that much climbing involved.

I allowed myself one time goal for the day – to make it up the hill in under two hours. And I smashed that by twelve minutes. I was absolutely thrilled. I said hello to the costumed folks up top, grabbed a handful of pretzels, and began making my way back down the hill.

The flip side to my love of ascending is my hatred of descending. Before my knee injury, I was a fantastic descender. I still didn’t enjoy it, but I could scream down hills like it was a cakewalk. However, when you have to rehab an atrophied quad, it turns out that your ability to descend becomes pretty much shot. So even though I was going much faster overall, by the time I hit the last aid station with 3k to go, my legs were done. I had two major stumbles on the way down (one of which resulted in me losing my glasses for a bit), and between that, the stomach jostling, and the hamstring exhaustion, I was reduced to hiking a lot more than I would have hoped. But still, hiking the course is being out on the course. If I do this race again, I’ll be doing some downhill specific training for sure.

Even though I’ve committed myself to not focusing on my times, I can’t help but be thrilled with my finish, which was only 12 minutes off my 25k PR. And on a harder course to boot! The time only matters in that it shows how far my fitness has come. A year ago, even going down stairs was impossible. To go from nothing to 25k in a little over six months is truly awesome. I’m excited to see where things go from here.

I’ve got two more goal races coming up this year – the Ultra Santa Fe Half and the Blue Sky Trail Marathon. Ultra Santa Fe is run at 10,000+ feet, so it’s time to get out in the Snowies and start working! Happy running, friends.