Between sunrise and sunset, there’s no better place to hike in the Highland Lakes than Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was originally set aside to preserve essential habitat for migratory birds, namely the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, but it has since become an awesome addition to the Texas Hill Country outdoor experience.
The land itself is kept in pristine condition and relatively untouched aside from the simple trails, signage, and a few benches. Two trails were added in September 2020: Quarry Canyon Trail and Boulder Trail. Friends of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge spent two years working on them.
Along with a new parking lot, the trails add a mile of hiking to the Warbler Vista system at the southern end of the refuge, bringing the total distance to roughly 4 miles.
I had only hiked the beautiful Doeskin Ranch trail system, which lies at the north end of the refuge, so I decided to trek all of the Warbler Vista trails to get the full experience. The freshly minted Quarry Canyon Trail is the new access point to Warbler Vista.
At the outset, the roar of the nearby highway, power lines, and the hewn limestone from recent trail work make for an unnatural start to what becomes an immersive and captivating hike. The hike along Quarry Canyon Trail is brief at 0.6 miles, but it serves its purpose in getting you into the heart of the refuge, where you can access the Ridgeline, Vista Gnoll, and Cactus Rocks trails.
I continued to the greater trail system, but optionally, you can turn around and go back the way you came or make a loop to the parking lot by hopping onto short stretches of a few more trails that add up to about 1 mile. If you decide to take Boulder Trail at any point, be prepared. While short at 0.4 miles, it is the steepest and most unapologetic trail in the system.
Open spaces give way to tunnels through thick, shadowed stands of Ashe juniper and leggy shin oak. The gradual elevation gain was periodically interrupted by refreshing and sweat-breaking switchbacks. The sounds of the highway quickly faded into the background, and I found myself focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and appreciating the quiet.
The trees in the refuge are some of the oldest in the area, spared from logging because of the rugged terrain. These old-growth stands are the only nesting habitat in the world for the golden-cheeked warbler, which migrates from Central America just to sing and build nests made from juniper bark. Unfortunately, I might have been too early in the season to see a warbler, but they arrive sometime between March and April. Birders and naturalists come from across the country to get a look at them.
There are two exceptional views in the Warbler Vista trail system: Vista Gnoll and Sunset Deck. Vista Gnoll can be quickly accessed by way of Quarry Canyon and Cactus Rocks Trail, or you can take the long way on Ridgeline Trail. Vista Gnoll offers a breathtaking perspective of Lago Vista and Lake Travis.
The other view, Sunset Deck, is the essential spot if you decide to make the trip to the refuge. I was told by every hiker I came across that this was a worthwhile view, and it did not disappoint. I watched the sun set over the slow curves of the Colorado River and limestone hills that stretch to the west. An observation deck protrudes from the ridgeline and can be accessed by vehicle if you’re not up for a long hike.There were families, friends, and couples crowding the observation deck to watch the sun go down. I spoke with one of the watchers, a Cedar Park resident, who had just finished hiking with her family and friends.
“This gives you peace,” Ewa Grzywacs said. “Just one hour outside can change your whole mindset.”
THINGS TO KNOW
- There is only one restroom in the Warbler Vista trail system. It is at the Cactus Rocks Trailhead and can be accessed by car if need be.
- Make sure to bring water, especially if you plan to hike the full length of the trail system. This becomes doubly important if you plan to hike in the summer.
- The refuge is home to hundreds of different species of plants and animals that rely on a balanced ecosystem. Make sure to stay on the trails as to not disturb precious habitats. And leave pets at home. Dogs are prohibited in the refuge due to potential conflict with the wildlife.
- Contact Friends of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge for information on volunteering, educational opportunities, or public outreach.
- Access to the trails is free from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Maps and brochures are available at the refuge headquarters, which is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, excluding federal holidays.
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is located at 24518 RR 1431 east of Marble Falls. It includes parts of three counties: Burnet, Travis, and Williamson. Call 512-339-9432 for more information. You can also email the refuge at firstname.lastname@example.org.