Pros: Undeveloped open green space, no admission fees
Cons: Limited facilities, no real "unique" spectacles
He's only five years old, so Karl can be forgiven for his voluble excesses in enthusiasm. He's blessed with a limitless sense of curiosity, and this is the first time Dad has taken him out hiking and nature watching in the Balcones Canyonland National Wildlife Refuge. In the car on the short drive over to the park, we'd talked about the need for quiet, non-disruptive observation. Only by being quiet and watching were we going to have any chance of spotting the endangered song birds that make their home in the preserve (let alone deer, raccoons, or any other wildlife that make their home here). Karl definitely wanted to see some wildlife, and he promised to keep the noise down. His agreement turned out to be more theoretical than practical...but then, he is just 5 years old.
I don't think there's an animal within 50 miles of Balcones Canyonlands that didn't know Karl was coming. The promise to stay quiet went right out the window faster than Karl went right out the door before I barely had time to set the parking brakes.
Balcones Canyonlands is a beautiful chunk of undeveloped Texas Hill Country backwoods. As far as park facilities go, there's really not much more than parking lots (newly paved!), a couple of clean but rustic toilet facilities, two excellent observation platforms, and of course, miles and miles of nature trails through the woods. You'll probably see a lot more wildlife than Karl did if you can be quieter than he is....though I doubt you'll enjoy being outdoords more than he does.
There are several excellent hiking trails in the refuge, though much of the refuge's 80,000 acres of wilderness is closed off to the public. Trail maps and guides to plant and animal life are available near the various parking lots. The terrain is rocky and hilly, but the trails aren't overly challenging and they're well marked. The plant life is mostly low lying juniper and similarly scrubby looking smaller trees that can thrive in the dry, rocky climate, but there's the occasional huge majestic oak to keep things interesting. Karl and I walked the entire 1.8 mile Warbler Trail near the park's Sunset Deck (great vistas of the serpentine Colorado River too!). Karl spotted quite a few animal tracks along the trail, then we hiked back to the car, drove over to the Shin Oak Observation Deck where we walked parts of a couple more trails.
The refuge provides habitat to many kinds of animals, including 270 species of birds. Two endangered species nest in the park: the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. Bird watchers flock to the park in late spring for a chance to spot these small birds, and the park closes off its observation deck for a couple weeks each spring coinciding with the birds' arrival so as to not disturb their nesting. After that, it's binoculars for everyone!
The birds you see the most of in the park are sparrows, but there's also some herons and waterfowl, plus some hawks and a whole lot of vultures!
Like everywhere in Central Texas hill country, you find a lot of rattlesnakes --- mostly western diamondbacks here --- plus the non-venomous Texas rat snakes. There's also lots of lizards, like the common ground skink, and if you look around the creeks, you'll find some smooth-shelled green turtles called "Texas cooters".
There's caves all throughout the Hill Country, including a few inside the park boundaries. Though bats are found in these caves (usually the Mexican free-tailed bats that are extremely common throughout Texas), none of them have the enormous colonies that draw crowds and media attention (sorry kids, you still need to head downtown to the Congress Street Bridge for the best bat-watching opportunities).
There's whitetail deer in the woods, though they're often too busy trying to get run over out on FM 1431 to be bothered with hanging out in the woods for natural photo opps. Ditto with the armadillos and the skunks. It's said that a few mountain lions and bobcats have been spotted in the woods as well, though I'd rest very happily seeing those kinds of critters only in the zoo.
Here's a few links to web sites that provide info and pictures of some of the animals who make their home in this park:
* Black-capped Vireo: http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/bcv/
* Golden-cheeked Warbler: http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/gcw/
* Texas Cooter (turtles): http://www.austinsturtlepage.com/world_of_turtles/Texas_Cooter_-_Pseudemys_texana/index.html
* Western Diamondback Rattlesnake: http://angels-view.blogspot.com/2009/01/western-diamondback-rattlesnake.html
* Mexican Free Tail Bat: http://www.desertmuseum.org/kids/bats/mexican_free_tailed_bat.php
* White-tailed Deer: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/white-tailed-deer.html
* Turkey Vultures: http://www.passporttotexas.com/birds/oct00.html
Balcones Canyonlands is located about 25 miles from Austin Texas, along the north side of the Colorado River --- roughly mid way between Austin and Marble Falls. To get there from Austin, take US 183 north, then exit west at either FM 1431 (towards Marble Falls) or SH 29 (towards Burnet). There's a park entrance on 1431 a couple miles past Lago Vista, or from SH29, you'll turn south onto 1174 and there'll be another entrance at the park HQ.
Admission prices are a budget-loving F-R-E-E (I just love the sound of those 4 letters put together!)
There is no camping in the wildlife refuge, but the Lower Colorado River Authority (www.lcra.org) has several parks along the Colorado River and Lake Travis and some of these have low-cost (or no-cost) tent camp sites. Close to Balcones Canyonlands, the best LCRA camping spots are in the Turkey Bend Recreational Area, though the Arkansas Bend Park near Lago Vista also has some excellent waterfront sites.
Official information about Balcones Canyonlands is at: http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/balcones/
Balcones Canyonlands is a beautiful chunk of undeveloped open space that's great for a casual nature walk. There's quite a range of wildlife living within the park boundaries. There's few amenities and little to do in the park other than observe nature and admire the views, but that's really its star attraction --- after all, this is a wildlife refuge --- not a park whose mission is entertainment.
Until next time, see you on the trails! (And so will Karl...so be afraid....)
More Parks Near Austin Texas...
* McKinney Falls State Park
* Longhorn Cavern State Park
* LBJ Ranch
* Inks Lake State Park
* Bastrop State Park