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Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge…and Pie!

Monday of last week was a good day. I got to spend time with my nieces and sister in law at one of the 19 National Wildlife Refuges in Texas and then follow our hike with a big plate of breakfast food and a piece of pie at Blue Bonnet cafe in Marble Falls.



The Balcones Canyonlands refuge is an enormous expanse of green rolling hills northwest of Austin, on the northern side of Lake Travis. Most people don’t even know it’s there. In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful parks near Austin. There’s running water, wide open spaces, and incredible views…and in the Spring, miles of wildflowers.



I had heard of this park because, being the nerd that I am, I wrote my senior thesis paper in college about two little endangered birds that inhabit Central Texas and this refuge. They require the old ashe juniper and shin oak trees in Central Texas. (Many endangered species are Earth’s pickiest animals.) These two birds, the Black capped vireo and the Golden cheeked warbler, caused a stir because a large portion of their critical habitat happened, inconveniently, to be located on Fort Hood army base. Fort Hood was in high gear at the time testing artillery and preparing troops for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, a system was created where ranchers nearby protected the habitat on their land in exchange for Fort Hood continuing to operate, and the little birds are doing better today. ANYHOW, not to bore you with wildlife facts!

Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia), Friedrich Wilderness State Park, San Antonio, Texas

Photo credit: Flickr Commons user Vince Smith

But that is why the refuge is here.

Unlike the south side of Lake Travis, which is booming, this side of the lake is peaceful, quiet, and as untouched as you can possibly find so close to Austin. (Probably because no one knows about it.) Green hills give way to more green hills, and a little two-laned paved road winds through the 25,000 acre refuge. For perspective, Zilker park is 350 acres, the Domain is 303 acres, and UT’s main campus is 431, so 25,000 is quite a lot!


(PS. The green space on the left side of that bend in the lake is Pace Bend park. Kind of cool to see where we had just camped from this vantage point!)

First, we popped in at the Visitor Center for some maps and a restroom break. Good news: this refuge has very clean restrooms. You never know what you’ll get at a park’s restroom, so I was pleased to walk in and smell a combination of bleach and lemon fragrance, which just screams Clean! to me, and see that everything was spotless. (Maybe I am as picky as the warbler about where I put my golden cheeks.)




At the Visitor Center, you can see a Golden cheeked warbler and Black capped vireo up close, along with other taxidermied animals. Some were a little creepy, like a possum hanging upside-down from a branch by his tail, but some were beautiful and a good representation of what was on the refuge.

There’s also a game, which appealed to my niece and talked about bird life.


PS. My niece got glasses recently and I can’t get over how cute they are on her. Kids in glasses, how cute are they? Cute cute cute. Cute.

There are two hiking areas of the refuge: Warbler Vista and Doeskin Ranch. Warbler Vista has three trails and an awesome lookout, where you can see for miles. That’s Lake Travis in the distance.


On the map, this lookout is called “Sunset Deck.”


warbler vista trails 2

You can hike or drive. If driving, follow the road past the restrooms and after about a half mile, there will be a parking area on the left.

On the other end of the refuge is Doeskin Ranch. It had a good selection of trails–some went straight up the side of hills, while others stayed on flat ground and followed the creek through the valley.  We chose the Pond & Prairie and Creek Trails, which ended up being about two miles.



doeskin ranch trials

We found a good wading spot in the creek and rested our weary bones. The sun had come out to remind us we were still in Texas, and as sweat slid down our backs, it was nice to put our feet in the cold water.



Grace had told Stephanie that morning, “I want to wear this dress because Whitney loves animal print!”

That girl may only be four years old, but she is observant and knows the way to my heart–through leopard! 🙂



I loved these views!


Pond & Prairie and Creek Trail were easy, flat, or mostly flat, for the entire way. Although I do want to come back and hike some of the more challenging hillside trails in this area.


We didn’t have any luck finding a warbler, having likely scared them off with our camp songs and chatter.


This waterfall and the pool were awesome finds towards the end of our hike on Pond & Prairie, and I was wishing for a swimsuit. There weren’t other people for miles, so perfect conditions for wearing a swimsuit! Ha.


The water seemed to be 3-4 feet deep here and would have been perfect for a post-hike dip.

But we couldn’t waste time, we had business to attend to at Blue Bonnet cafe.


Stephanie and I ordered big plates of eggs and bacon and biscuits, Ann ordered a BLT, and we all ordered pie.


My choice was banana cream.


It was delicious, and along with the big glass of iced tea, totally hit the spot after a hot day of hiking.

A funny thing did happen at the cafe. I ordered Brandon a chocolate cream pie slice to go, and when the waitress came by I emphasized it was “for my husband.” However, when she brought the to-go box of pie to me, it had a fork sticking out of it. As if the waitress was saying, Sure, you say this is “for your husband,” but just in case you can’t wait until you get home to eat it, here’s a fork.


I didn’t know whether to be offended or grateful! The truth I had to acknowledge was, that woman knew me and my tendencies whether I liked it or not!

By the grace of God, the pie made it home, to Brandon, without a bite missing.

Small miracle.

They say kids don’t remember their favorite day of television, and while that may only partially be true for Grace who quasi-enjoyed hiking in the heat, I think she enjoyed our day together. I had fun and loved Balcones. I will definitely come back with Brandon. Texas doesn’t have very many national refuges compared to other states, and it’s neat to have one in Austin’s backdoor. But unfortunately they don’t allow dogs, so Trooper will have to stay home, on his throne, barking at squirrels.



Not bad for a Monday!

Plan Your Visit:

  • Blue Bonnet Cafe website: here
  • Note: Blue Bonnet Cafe only accepts cash or check
  • Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge Site: here
  • Warbler Vista Map
  • Doeskin Ranch Map
  • Pro tip: Use the restroom at the visitor center because the other ones aren’t as nice.
  • Side note: You can hunt on the refuge during hunting season. Click here for more information.