Travel Tuesday: Modest canyon northwest of Austin beckons birds, hikers

Sometimes, the best sightseeing is right in your back yard.

If not literally, practically in the back yard.

My Beloved and I discovered a hidden gem only six miles away from our Texas condo. It took us more than a year to spend some time there, and really, it is too bad, especially considering it’s an outdoor venue that is particularly alluring in a pandemic.

The gem is the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes northwest of Austin and Lake Travis. Imagine the Grand Canyon on a much smaller scale. The comparison is apt because at one time, some version of the Colorado River probably ran through it. In practice, it means you can enjoy the place without all the crowds. And admission is free.

The promotional literature brags up this place for birders. The rugged terrain has spared old Ashe juniper and oak woodlands from logging and shelters some of the best golden-cheeked warbler habitat. Elsewhere in the 27,500-acre park, the open country supports another songbird, the black-capped vireo. Both songbirds are endangered, and the refuge is critical in preserving and restoring their homes. Because of its importance to the birds, this refuge has been officially designated a Globally Important Bird Area.

But I didn’t even notice the birds—it’s a great place to take a quiet walk. Mostly flat, it’s fairly easy to traverse, but there is enough elevation changes to make things interesting. At high points, one can see all the way to Lake Travis and beyond.

Layers of limestone, up to 1,000 feet thick in some places, underlie the refuge. In Spanish, “balcones” mean balconies and is a reference to the limestone terraces clearly visible in many part of the refuge. In some places, huge boulders litter the terrain.

Indian paintbrush flowers, also known as prairie fire, lend drama to the scene.

We hiked through the refuge in spring. As elsewhere this time of year, wildflowers can be found here, too.

There are three trailheads in the park: Doeskin Ranch, Warbler Vista and Headquarters. My Beloved and I traipsed around Warbler Vista, intending to walk a trail for 45 minutes or so. We took a few wrong turns (more our fault than poor signage) and finished our walk two hours after beginning. Oh, well. The detour was pleasant, through mostly shaded forest. The most dramatic part of our hike was through Quarry Canyon. This was like walking around a Grand Canyon in miniature. It’s not shaded though; prepare accordingly if you’re taking on this hike during a Texas summer. The refuge recommends you wear comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots, bring water and carry along protection from the heat or cold (the refuge is open 365 days a year sunrise to sunset). Birders should bring binoculars, and dogs are not permitted.

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