How This Texas Landowner Keeps City Families Coming Back for More

In 1981, Hollis moved from Austin to a nine-acre hay field out in the country. She left city life to find a quiet place to make art and keep horses, and since 2001, she’s welcomed visitors to Happy Horse Hotel to share the land’s peace and natural beauty. As this Star Host enters her third year on Hipcamp, Hollis reflects on her land, the joys of hosting, and why she thinks she’s “living the dream.”

Hollis (right) and her partner, Beaux

Hipcamp: How has your land changed over time?

Hollis: The nine acres that Happy Horse Hotel is located on now was originally a flat, nearly treeless hay field when I moved to the adjoining acres of pasture/house/barn 38 years ago in 1981.  I left city life in Austin to find a quiet place to produce my art and have a horse or two again — my main passion in life — and the view from all my vantage points was nothing but fields, crops and cattle at the end of my dead-end paved country road. There were no neighbors anywhere in sight, just large pastures filled with crops and cows.

My kitchen window looked into this small, nine-acre field where the hawks hunted. The Austin family who owned the hay field quit cutting it and gradually brush and trees started to grow. By the time I wheedled it away from another owner in 1996 who intended to build nine houses on one-acre lots, it had grown thick and nearly impenetrable with 10-foot tall bushy cedar trees and plenty of thorny mesquite and nasty Poison Ivy. I’d never set foot on it, but I knew I had to have it.

Once I owned it, we immediately bought a riding mower and started mowing trails through the trees, taking the paths of least resistance between the wide-bottom cedars, around the sprawling mesquites. Soon we had to buy a chainsaw, to make the trails actually work. Pretty soon there were some dandy dirt horse trails carved through the trees, and I called it my “Horsie Gymnasium,” since I often took breaks from painting to do a quick hour of vigorous riding through the trees. By 2000, my husband and I decided to build a camping facility for other competitive endurance riders on the new acres.

We opened in 2001 with one cabin, 6 large, safe individual horse pens, a groovy outhouse and outdoor shower, and several gravel parking places with water and electricity for the big living quarters rigs and trailers that horses are hauled in and their riders sleep in.  During the next 16 years, our on-site trails got better, the trees grew taller and shadier, and we added another cabin, shower, and outhouse.

By 2015, we had two cabins that slept six or seven people.  Most horse people have rigs to sleep in. The cabins were vital for the few folks who only had a bumper pull trailer, but they were only used occasionally.  A friend suggested we become an overnight destination place for people looking for a place to sleep that was out of the ordinary. So, we set up our two cabins, and much to our surprise, it worked quite well for us, mostly because the weather is less of an issue. My on-site horse trails also got more use when these horseless folks went walking in my increasingly lovely woods, looking for birds and picking dewberries in season.

Hipcamp: Why did you decide to join Hipcamp and to allow campers on your land?

Hollis: One day, one of our guests from California, who had just taken a walk in our woods, suggested that I contact a new camping site called Hipcamp, since my woods would make some dandy tent sites and she thought people from Austin would be interested in a cool camping spot so close to the city.  She told me that it’s really difficult to get a spot at a state park these days, and an alternative was needed. So we did that, and within a month or so we’d carved out a couple of campsites deep in the trees and outfitted them with grills and picnic tables and firewood, and once we posted pictures of Happy Horse Camp, people started signing up.

Hipcamp: How would you describe your experience hosting so far?

Hollis: We have been very pleased with the response to our listing on Hipcamp, especially now that we’re going into our third Spring and people are starting to find out about Happy Horse. The people who came once already are starting to come back for another adventure.

Hipcamp: How would you describe your land in three words?

Hollis: A happy place.

Hipcamp: What do you tell campers about your land?

Hollis: I tell them that this is a “lemonade out of lemons story,” because we lost the original look of Happy Horse when the magnificent, 30-year-old cedars — under which all the buildings and pens were located for shade and privacy — died and we had to remove them one by one, turning them into logs for campfires.

Hipcamp: What do you show campers on land?

Hollis: I take them for rides through the now-shady trails in my golf cart so they know how the looped trails work and feel more confident about walking around and exploring after they set up their tent. I show them the dewberry patches and the edible goat briar tips in the spring. I show them the Graveyard of Trees (four-foot cedar tree trunks left standing) and tell them about how all the cedars died in the 2011 drought and it took us six years to cut them all down, and that opening up that space is what has made room for camping spots carved into the new woods of cedar, elm, hackberry, and oak that are growing up to replace the cedars because there was more light and water.

Hipcamp: What kind of activities do campers participate in at your Hipcamp or near your Hipcamp?

Hollis: There is the fabulous McKinney Roughs Nature Park, a mere four minutes up the road, so a lot of campers go there to hike or bike the 20 miles of trails. The park also offers zip-lining, and guided canoeing, rafting, and kayaking trips on the Colorado River. There’s also a catch-and-release fishing pond five miles away called Moby Dick’s Pond that many folks like to visit. Sometimes my Happy Horse Band performs acoustic music on Saturday night at the Pony Pavilion, and that is getting increasingly popular as the final event of the night. We love singing along to old favorites as well as the songs I write about living the adventurous life.

Mostly, people come to set up a tent and stay here and relax, do some camp cooking, woods walking, and stargazing. They let the children run free in a safe space. Lots of them don’t leave until it’s time to go home, happy to just be away from town and experience a quiet place in the country with the sounds of nature around them.

Hipcamp: Why is sharing your land important to you?

Hollis: My grandfather took me camping and fishing with him in Wisconsin starting when I was four or five years old. It changed my life and turned me into an outdoors person. Now, we have young families with small children coming to Happy Horse and these kids are getting their first experiences with being unplugged, sleeping in tents, cooking over a fire, using an outhouse, and hearing the sounds of nature up close and personal.

I love that we are able to offer this opportunity to the city children and families. They don’t have to go far from their homes to feel like they’re in a whole other world. It’s like starter camping, since we have so many amenities. But once you’re set up in the woods and can’t see or hear anything except nature, it’s real enough to make a very lasting impression.

an outhouse at the Happy Horse Hotel

Hipcamp: What is your favorite part about listing your land on Hipcamp?

Hollis: Meeting other people who love being outdoors amidst the bugs and dirt.

Hipcamp: What is your least favorite part?

Hollis: Suggesting people shouldn’t come because it’s just rained a lot and camping in the rain and/or mud and bad weather isn’t really gonna make them happy.

Hipcamp: When is the best time to camp at your property and why?

Hollis: When the weather is good, meaning dry. So during Fall, Winter and Spring. It’s seldom too cold for camping at Happy Horse, but it’s often too wet and muddy. Or too hot to sleep in a tent with no fan. We don’t get a lot of campers in the summer, but we encourage the ones who want to tent camp in the summer to use our horse trailer sites where there is electricity for a fan.

Hipcamp: What is your most memorable experience with Hipcampers?

Hollis: We had a large group of young bicyclists come out one Saturday evening, and we did a show for them.  Me and my band played and sang riding songs til the wee hours while they danced and sang along. They were the best audience ever.

Hipcamp: Are you planning to make any improvements or additions to your Hipcamp?

Hollis: We’ve added a third outhouse and a hot-water sink recently, along with a fourth deep-woods campsite. Right now we’re on a holding pattern til we see what else might be needed.  We are not into being big.

Hipcamp: Do you engage in land stewardship or restoration efforts? If so, how?

Hollis: Probably, though we don’t actually think of it that way.  We have made a woods that is constantly changing, and we work on it all the time, making it better for the animals and better for the people.

Hipcamp: What’s one thing you want visitors to take away from your property?

Hollis: Happiness.

Hipcamp: What are your dreams for your property?

Hollis: Seeing people enjoy what we have made because we love to work outside. We’re living the dream now.

Hipcamp: Anything else you’d like to add about your land that you feel people should know?

Hollis: My life as an artist has reached some kind of peak expression through this piece of land and the low-key experiences it offers so close to a city with over a million people. It is now a combination of music and artful recreation that happens outside, on a stage of acres, under the moon and stars and sunshine of Texas.

Inspired by what Hollis has created? Open your land to campers who care about your land:

Shane Downing

Shane is an award-winning journalist based in Oakland. As a freelance writer, he’s passionate about covering the LGBTQ+ community, at-risk youth and local news. He's a former Hoodline editor, and his work regularly appears in Oakland Magazine and The San Francisco Business Times. When he's not writing, Shane is an avid baker, gardener and tennis player.

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