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August 2010 cover image Franklin Mountains

Santa Ana’s Canopy Walk Offers Elevated View of Nature

Visitors can get an elevated view of nature on Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge’s canopy walk.

By Eileen Mattei

Surrounded by the deep green of Texas ebonies, the canopy walk at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge puts visitors at eye level with streamers of Spanish moss and bloom-laden anacua branches. Here, 25 feet above the Rio Grande Valley, you stroll through a complex aerial environment from a vantage point unequaled in Texas.

Less than a mile from the Rio Grande, the 100-foot-long canopy walk hovers above the river’s one-time floodplain. Not very far above it, to be sure. The shorter trees of Texas’ southernmost delta thorn forest and riparian woodland mean the tree canopy is not at a dizzying height, so neither is the recently opened walk, the first of its kind in the state and in the national refuge system.

Anchored by 25-foot-high structural steel towers, the suspended walkway consists of thick, woven nylon rope netting with recycled-plastic floor boards.

At the center of the walkway, the decking is only 18.5 feet above the ground, since the bridge dips down in the middle like every vine bridge in every jungle movie ever filmed. The walkway bounces as people cross it, yet the bridge is sturdy, load-tested at 5,000 pounds, and secure, with the top hand rope about chest-high. Excited by the adventure, most children cross it without fear.

“When you get up here early in the morning fog, you can imagine yourself anywhere in the neo-subtropical forest,” says Joe D’Arrigo, maintenance supervisor at Santa Ana. In 2005, he and Santa Ana project manager Ken Merritt began talking about the popularity of canopy walks in Central America, and soon their ideas for the Santa Ana canopy walk were sketched out on a napkin. After consultations with engineers, the design evolved into a freestanding walkway built with minimal disturbance of existing trees.

“Ken had a vision of kids being able to look into tree snags and see lizards, bugs and things that never go down to the ground,” D’Arrigo says.

Firsthand experiences with nature — spying on spider webs, exploring an ecosystem while swaying in the air — create a connection with the environment and an appreciation of what is not easily observed. From the canopy walk, D’Arrigo points out crevices in nearby ebonies that could become homes for the eastern screech owls and elf owls that nest on the refuge. The unconventional viewing angle makes it easier to spot birds such as chachalacas, which are camouflaged by their surroundings.

“I’m impressed they were able to build this without destroying the trees and brush around it,” said Mike Dvorak of Saskatchewan, after he and his wife, Cathy, climbed the 31-step, spiral staircase to the canopy walk. “You’d think this has been here for years instead of a few months. It blends in so well. It’s nice to have this perspective of the trees.”

Santa Ana’s canopy walk swings in the middle of a biological junction: the 2,088-acre refuge embraces subtropical sabal palms, semiarid scrub brush, marshes and cactus. The Central and Mississippi migratory flyways converge overhead, accounting for some of the 400 bird species observed here, including black-bellied whistling ducks, hook-billed kites, groove-billed anis and green jays. Nearby, mostly obscured by intervening trees, a 40-foot-tall observation tower rises above the canopy, giving great views of Altamira orioles. Under the trees are resacas, Rio Grande distributaries, now known as Pintail and Willow lakes.

Less than a mile from the visitors center, the canopy walk is accessible by trail or park tram. Given this unusual window into arboreal nature, the last child in the woods may refuse to come down from the canopy walk.

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