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February 2011 cover image A Wish for a Fish

Suburban Paradise

Destination: Southwest Travis County

Travel time from:
Austin – 0.75 hours
Brownsville – 6.25 hours
Dallas – 4 hours
Houston – 3.5 hours
San Antonio – 1.75 hours
Lubbock – 6.5 hours
El Paso – 9.25 hours

A short drive from the Capitol can lead to a botanical adventure.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Sometimes, it’s those cool places close to home that we don’t make time to see. I confess that I’ve lived in Central Texas for nearly three decades and have never seen the grotto at Westcave Preserve. Since a visit’s long overdue, I’m turning the short drive to southwestern Travis County into a weekend getaway.

My husband, James Hearn (who’s never been to the area), is joining me. Our trip begins at Los Madrones Ranch, where we’ll stay overnight. In 2000, owners Mike and Julie Murphy converted the 400-acre cattle ranch from agricultural use into wildlife conservation. As members of the Texas Hill Country Nature Photography Alliance, they’re improving habitat with the goal of drawing nature photographers and eco-tourists.

First, we unload our stuff at the Casita, a stone cabin built in the 1940s. No one’s home yet at the Murphy house, so we amble down a sloping caliche road and admire fall wildflowers — blackfoot daisy, wedelia and prairie false foxglove. Distant hills dotted with live oaks and junipers stretch to the horizon. Heading back, I point out the ranch’s namesake: a stout Texas madrone, an evergreen with peeling, papery bark.

For the afternoon, Mike Murphy — former photo editor with Texas Highways magazine — tours us around Los Madrones.

“I use this old Suburban as my ranch truck,” he explains as we bump along. “The roads here are too rough for most vehicles. So I rent this for $20 a day if anyone wants to drive around the ranch.”

Primarily, Murphy shows us four photo sites that he’s outfitted with feeders, blinds and water features drip-fed by the ranch’s rainwater collection system. Two sites are within walking distance of the Casita.

“I usually take photographers on this orientation tour, then I give them a map, and they’re on their own,” he explains.

Several pro nature photographers helped Murphy scout the ranch for locations with superb morning and/or evening light. Assorted feeders — both hanging and platform with adjustable perch holders — attract some of the area’s 70 bird species, depending on the season. Portable blinds seat two to four people and can be easily moved.

Hamilton Pool 

“Some photographers just want to sit in a blind and shoot,” says Murphy while he refills a feeder with sunflower seeds. “Others go out and find their own perches, then toss them out so no one else will use them.”

After our tour, we’re hungry, so we drive to Springhill Restaurant, eight miles east in the Austin suburb of Bee Cave. I’m in the mood for fried fish. Not James. He orders chicken-fried steak with gravy, mashed potatoes and Texas toast. For dessert, we share a slice of Chocolate Lover’s pie. Back at the Casita, James and I stroll some ranch roads and relish the quiet evening.

For the rest of the trip, we picnic or dine at our cabin. We’ve stocked the Casita’s small refrigerator with supplies. Plus, the kitchen has a microwave oven, toaster oven and coffee maker. A double bed, futon and dining table furnish the living/sleeping room. No TV or phone, but Wi-Fi’s available.

The next morning, we drive five miles west to our first destination: Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve. The 232-acre site is part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, a large system of protected habitats in Travis County. The gate attendant advises us to hike to the Pedernales River after we’ve seen the pool. It’s been years since I’ve visited here, so the river trail is new to me.

From the parking area, we follow a dirt path, which steepens into stone steps as we descend into a canyon lush with oaks, junipers and other greenery. At the bottom, we turn onto the quarter-mile Pool Trail, a narrow footpath that parallels Hamilton Creek.

Nature photography 

James, who loves cheesy photos, “lifts up” a huge boulder while I snap a picture. But photos can’t replicate the beauty we see around us: towering bald cypresses backlit by morning sunrays, their gnarled roots like fingers digging into the moist creek bed; clusters of American beautyberries, their leafy branches splotched with bright purple fruit; delicate maidenhair ferns, spilling from limestone covered with frilly lichens.

When we reach Hamilton Pool, James stares. “Awesome!” he exclaims. No one’s around as we circle the emerald green water. Climbing up log steps and down an iron staircase, we venture beneath the huge collapsed grotto, fringed with maidenhair ferns and dark moss. Overhead, Hamilton Creek cascades over the curved ledge into the pool, forming a curtain of waterfalls that’s 50 feet high.

We didn’t come to get wet, like the tube-laden family we pass back on the Pool Trail. Swimming’s allowed when water conditions meet safe standards (call ahead). Regulations prohibit pets, glass containers, fishing and campfires.

The 0.8-mile River Trail also parallels Hamilton Creek. As we poke along, James spots a muddy turtle, sliding into the creek. We see more beautyberry, plus turk’s cap, blue mistflower and cedar sage, natives that we grow in our Texas wildscape. Along the trail, an occasional black ground beetle stands oddly poised with its butt in the air. I manage to avoid all but one …. crunch! I feel awful.

Our 50-minute hike ends at the Pedernales River. The return trip takes only 30 minutes. Back in the car, we drive a half-mile east to the entrance of Milton Reimers Ranch Park, owned and maintained by Travis County. Sheer limestone walls and 18 miles of bike trails attract rock climbers and mountain bikers to the 1,160-acre getaway. Pimiento cheese sandwiches fortify us for our first hike along the rim of a narrow canyon. Through thick vegetation, we peer down at a creek. Beneath the rock rim, we hear voices but can’t see anyone. We stop at an overlook above the Pedernales River, then hike back to where we started.

Our hand-drawn map doesn’t clearly indicate trails. Should we step down into the canyon? We follow the voices we heard earlier and discover that they’re mostly rock climbers, scaling the limestone walls. One jungly trail leads us across the little creek; another trail meanders along a sunny riverbank.

After an hour, we head to our final destination: Westcave Preserve, just two miles west. Access to the 70-acre preserve is by guided tour only (Saturdays and Sundays, weather permitting, 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.; no reservations; limited to first 30 people). Since we’re early, we browse exhibits at the preserve’s environmental learning center.

Early settlers named the site “West Caves” because of its location west of the Pedernales. Until the late 1970s, trespassers heavily damaged fragile vegetation and cave formations at the collapsed limestone grotto. Since 1976, careful management and limited visitation have allowed the habitat to heal.

No one else arrives by 2 p.m., so we get a private tour with David Bennett, who’s worked at Westcave for 18 years. Along our half-mile trek into the canyon, he shares the cave’s history and points out plant species — dwarf palmetto, velvet-leaf mallow, chinkapin oak and Mexican plum, to name a few.

A leggy shrub with glossy red fruit catches my eye. “That’s spicewood bush, a host plant for the spicewood swallowtail,” Bennett says. Cool — I want one for our wildscape!

The dirt path ends at a tropical paradise, where shield ferns, beautyberries, sycamores and dark green moss nearly conceal a limestone cavern. Above, a spring-fed waterfall trickles 40 feet into a jade green pool.

“That’s travertine,” Bennett says, pointing to the grotto’s odd-shaped columns formed by mineral deposits. “We’re trying to keep this area as natural as possible so it can recondition itself. And it is.” Then Bennett leads us into the dimly lit cavern, where we stand in the middle of a long, narrow room. With his flashlight, he points to ceiling formations that resemble dripping soda straws and one stalagmite that we’re allowed to touch. We also see old graffiti carved into the stone floor in 1883.

On our last morning, we explore Little Bee Creek at Los Madrones. Along the path, we pass a stone dam, covered with ferns and grass. Farther downstream, we admire a small waterfall that tumbles into a pool so clear that we can see aquatic plants waving around underwater. In the spring, golden-cheeked warblers — an endangered species targeted by many nature photographers — nest near the creek.

Our last outing is the Austin Zoo, a rescue sanctuary located west of Austin. Many of the zoo’s 300 domestic and exotic animals were once circus performers, research experiments or someone’s pets. What started as a goat ranch in 1990 now includes prairie dogs, black bears, tarantulas, marmosets, lions, macaws and potbellied pigs.

We meet Bulldog, a western leopard tortoise once used by a university in nutritional studies, and Cody, a white-nosed coatimundi that bit his owner. We visit Gonzo and Magnolia, a pair of shy colobus monkeys soaking up some sunshine, watch a Bengal tiger splash in his swimming pool and feed pellets to some eager pygmy goats.

On our way home, we visit Solstice, a plant nursery in Dripping Springs. We pick out a coralberry, a fall fruit producer. Bummer. What I’d really wanted was a spicewood bush … you know, that cool native plant I saw in the cool place that I’m glad we finally made time to see.

DETAILS
•   Los Madrones Ranch, 512-264-1741, www.losmadrones.com
•   Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve, 512-264-2740, www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/hamilton_pool.asp.
•   Milton Reimers Ranch Park, 512-854-7275, www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/reimers_ranch.asp.
•   Westcave Preserve, 830-825-3442, www.westcave.org, 830-990-8004
•   Austin Zoo, 512-288-1490,www.austinzoo.org

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