Monday, October 5, 2009

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

There is a Spanish word, “Balcones,” which means "balconies" in English. This is what the first Spanish explorers named the hill country just west of what is now Cedar Park, because the hills looked a like a series of balconies.

Today, the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge encompasses many thousands of acres of rugged hills and canyons. Located a little north of the Colorado River and Lake Travis, and just beyond the western edge of the city of Lago Vista, the refuge is an important habitat to many types of wildlife and native plants.

Balcones Canyonlands provides a sanctuary for several endangered species. Neotropical birds like the Black-capped Vireo and the Golden-cheeked Warbler are at the top of the list. Other birds too, over 250 species, have been spotted around the refuge.

In addition to birds, the Canyonlands is home to many other species, including but certainly not limited to butterflies, dragon flies, spiders, snakes, turtles, frogs, lizards, skinks, bats, armadillos, squirrels, rats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, deer, feral pigs, and Tooth Cave Pseudoscorpions.

A few of the plants found in the refuge include Ashe junipers (referred to as “Cedars” here in the hill country), Live oaks, Shin oaks, Spanish oaks, Cactus, Mexican-buckeye, Texas persimmon, Texas mountain-laurel, and the Mountain grape, which is only native to Texas.

The refuge is open to the public and offers the visitor a number of entry points, hiking trails and observation decks. The entrance road into just one of the areas, the Warbler Vista area, on RM 1431, just west of Lago Vista, is an unpaved road with an uphill grade as you head in. Restrooms are available (along with a newly paved parking lot), but no water is provided. Please leave the dog at home, as pets are not allowed in the refuge.

There are three walking trails at Warbler Vista; Cactus Rocks Trail (0.6 miles), Ridgeline Trail (.75 miles), and Vista Knoll Trail (1.2 miles). The trailheads are well marked, and the hill country and lake views from the Sunset observation deck are outstanding. Interpretive literature is available in a box near the restrooms.

What you may see or hear during your visit to Canyonlands depends on the time of year you visit. Spring and summer are the peak seasons for Neotropical bird watching, while fall is the time of year when migrating Monarch butterflies, on their way to winter in Mexico, pass through the refuge. I was lucky enough to see one on my visit today.

One side benefit of the sanctuary's protection of endangered species and other wildlife, is the fact that the protected area is a huge tract of hill country land which will never be developed. This ensures future generations the ability to see this remarkable part of Texas, unfettered by residential and commercial development.

The refuge is open during daylight hours, and there is no admission fee.

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