Day Trip: Balcones Canyonlands Wildlife Refuge
After visiting mountains and hills in California, Colorado, New England and Europe, I sometimes scoff at the views, hills and “mounts” of the Texas Hill Country. It’s not that they’re not beautiful, they’re just not really that impressive. The views from trails in the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge changed my mind.
Balcones Canyonlands is about an hour’s drive northwest of Central Austin (US 183 to 1431). The refuge, previously ranch land (shocking, I know), was formed in 1992 to protect two endangered species of birds – the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. The preserve is also home to a variety of beautiful trees and ground coverings native to Central Texas.
Millions of years of erosion have exposed the limestone base of the area, which itself has been eroded by rain over years. The swiss-cheese consistency of the limestone now features plants, cacti and trees growing right out of the rock, something I never tire of seeing in Texas.
Another amazing – and a little creepy – fact about the geology of this area is that just under the limestone surface of the land are miles of caves and tunnels that house spiders, ring-tailed cats, raccoons, salamanders and all kinds of other animals and insects ready to give you the heebie jeebies. Go further underground, and you’ll eventually fall right into the Edwards Aquifer. It’s a pretty mind-blowing thing to ponder while you’re traipsing around the preserve.
The trails aren’t terribly extensive, but that makes sense, considering the purpose of this park is to preserve habitat. So they don’t want, as The Bearded One put it, “people trouncing around all over the wildlife.” Last year, we did the portion of trails called the Doeskin Ranch Trails. On our recent trip, we did the Warbler Vista Trails, which I much preferred.
This set of trails consists of the appropriately named Cactus Rocks Trail, the Vista Knoll Trail and the Ridgeline Trail. The Cactus Rocks Trail begins just across from the parking area and is a self-guided tour with a little pamphlet. I normally find these things boring and bossy (“Look at this! Read me!”), but this one was pretty good.
I’ve been getting into trees lately, trying to name them and pick out distinguishing characteristics, and the pamphlet was helpful in that regard. Speaking of trees, one of the cool parts of this trail is that you actually feel like you’re in a forest. The trees grow tall, so there is ample shade, making the temperature drop a few degrees as soon as you start hiking. Especially in the summer, it’s a welcome change from the scrubby brush that provides no sun protection. We saw old ashe junipers (also known in Texas as cedars, just to confuse you), as well as Spanish oaks, live oak and shin oak. Shin oak was a new one to me and is also known as “scaly-bark oak” because of its snake-like bark.
The Cactus Rocks Trail connects with the Vista Knoll Trail after 1.25 miles. The Cactus Rocks Trail loops back and connects with the Ridgeline Trail, then back to the Cactus Rocks Trail. The entire hike is 3.5 miles.
The Vista Knoll Trail was really the highlight for me. There are several points where you can see the sprawling Hill Country, Lake Travis and the quickly approaching civilization. The sky was beautiful when we visited, and it was especially magical to watch the shadows created by the clouds working their way across the canopy.