The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is a quick trip from downtown Austin, but the natural space it provides feels like you’re far away from the skyscrapers and bustling city life.
The refuge itself is maintained by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department, and if you’re familiar with the site, you know about the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge from a previous post. There are 21 wildlife refuges across Texas, and they are all designed for one main purpose: helping to preserve the lands for the wildlife.
Balcones Canyonlands NWR is no different. 27,500 acres of land serves as home to endangered species including some amazing birds like the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. Various other mammals and insects can be found here, so make sure to bring some binoculars if you’re into watching the wildlife.
The refuge itself is made up of three main parts: The Headquarters (still closed at the time of this posting), The Warbler Vista, and the Doeskin Ranch.
Know before you go:
It’s important to remember that as a wildlife refuge some of your familiar accommodations from state parks are not applicable here.
First and foremost, the trails here are for hiking only. Bikes and motorized vehicles are not allowed.
Dogs are also not allowed on any of the trails at the refuge. This is for the safety of the dogs and the wildlife you may encounter.
The natural spaces also mean very limited restroom facilities, trashcans. Refer to the map if you need a restroom break (vault toilets, no sinks), and please remember to pack out what you pack in. And finally, this is for daily use only, there is no camping at the refuge.
Please visit the site for more information on hunting permits.
Just off of FM 1431 you’ll see the first sign for the wildlife refuge if you’re coming from the southeast. The winding road leads you into the trees and eventually, you’ll come to the first of three parking spaces that allow you to hop on a trail or overlook.
Warbler Vista Trails
- Ridgeline Trail (1.2 miles, Moderate)
- Cactus Rocks Trail (1.25 miles, Moderate)
- Vista Knoll Trail (.5 miles, Moderate)
- Boulder Trail (.4 miles, Difficult)
- Quarry Canyon Trail (.6 miles, Difficult)
The first trailhead you’ll drive by is for the Quarry Canyon trail but continue to the Cactus Rocks Trail where the toilet is located. Take the rocky road to visit one more trailhead, and just after that, you’ll reach the end which is where the sunset deck is located. More on that in a sec.
If you’re looking to extend some mileage on your hike these trails are really well-linked. The only markers that were seen are on the Cactus Rocks section. Look for the painted rocks featuring the endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers. The brochure explains that the trails are more narrow here because it is the main section for the bird’s habitats, but this also means it’s also really nicely shaded.
If you want a quicker trip to a lovely overlook, make your way to the Vista Knoll Trail. This hike will take you to the overlook that reminds you why these natural spaces are so important. Similar to the experience at Government Canyon SNA, the sprawling growth of this area is reaching just about as close to this refuge as possible. View the growing neighborhood just beyond the boundaries.
There are multiple benches along this trail where you can take a break either under the trees or in some sun. Besides benches, there are wooden desks that are near the overlook. Not quite the Sul Ross desk experience, but still a nice place to catch your breath.
Make your way back down through the trees and head towards the Ridgeline Trail. This loop is a great hike in either direction that offers what you’d expect from a hill country hike. Plenty of cedar trees and limestone rocks sticking out from every direction.
The apex of this loop takes you to the Sunset Deck that offers an amazing view of the ‘pace’ of the Colorado River just below. According to the informative kiosk at the overlook, this view is the “bend of the Colorado River where Lake Travis forms behind Mansfield Dam. At the top of this bend, Cow Creek joins the Colorado”.
Remember the parking lots? If you really just wanted to visit for an amazing sunset view you can just drive right up to this location without having to do any hiking. But that’s no fun.
The Warbler Vista is located 21646 1/2 E. Fm 1431 Lago Vista, TX 78654
Leave the Warbler Vista and turn right for another adventure about 20 minutes up the road.
The Doeskin Ranch is still part of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, but the scenery definitely has a bit of a change.
For one thing, there’s only one parking lot here, and this is where the restroom is, so get in your potty break.
The history of the ranch is fairly typical of this area of Texas. Immigrants that were settling here started up ranches or farms, but not much is known of the original habitants of this ranch except for the homestead that remains on the property.
Doeskin Ranch Trails
- Pond & Prairie Trail (.5 miles, Easy)
- Creek Trail (.6 miles, Easy like Sunday morning)
- Rimrock Trail (1.6 miles, Difficult)
- Shin Oak Trail (.5 miles, Easy)
- Indiangrass Trail (1.5 miles, Moderate)
There’s an additional ‘Other Trails’ listed on the map, but these are small pathways that are from the parking lot or smaller offshoot trails around the Creek Trail.
The great thing about the refuge is the amount of information provided about the various areas throughout this place. Plenty of helpful kiosks are located at either the trailhead or along the trails, so be on the lookout for the signs to provide additional insight into the area.
There is a bit of a hub before the trails get started to ensure you have your proper water levels and gear. From here you have access to all of the trails, but the Creek Trail is a great place to start.
This trail starts really shaded, and there is a fun amphitheater to visit. Right after is the Doeskin Ranch family homestead, and after that it’s pretty wide-open, so wear plenty of sun protection. If you want to read more about hiking in the heat check out this post.
The Creek Trail and the Pond & Prairie Trail are going to give you the best chance at some water views. At the time of this post recent rains in the area put plenty of water in the creek, so it’s a great way to fill up a filtration device, but don’t count on it normally.
The Rimrock trail was the most difficult trail of all of them at the refuge. The unexpected elevation was quicker than anticipated, so get ready for a bit of a climb, but don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the views of the landscape and admire the switchbacks from which you came.
Once at the higher portion of the ridge the trees reappear, so it makes a great place to grab some shade, but continue to the Shin Oak Trail and you’re back on the open.
The Shin Oak trail is a half loop, so if you want to extend your miles, like the rest of the park, hop onto the Indiangrass Trail to admire some of the natural grasses of this area and extend the hike. This trail is also a loop that will swing you back around to explore the other half of the Rimrock Trail.
At the bottom, you can loop back onto the Creek trail if you didn’t do the full loop. It was amazing to see the water flowing from a different direction, but also see the bat house! It was during the day, so the bats may have been sleeping, but the sign here reminds the visitors of the importance that the bats have on the insect population.
Doeskin Ranch is located at 10645 FM 1174 Bertram, TX 78605
Shin Oak Observation Deck
The observation deck listed on the map of the Balcones Canyonlands Refuge is accessible from the parking lot and is just a wildlife viewing area. According to the kiosk, this is a great viewing area for the Vireo, so get here bright and early for some amazing views.